Oggsford: Thursday

Today’s a quiet day in North Hinksey (Oxford), as I stay at home, work on my talk, rest, and do a few posts. For lunch my host took me to the Fishes, a local “gastropub”, which is what happens when rich locals take over the pub. The prices go up and the traditional accoutrements of the pub disappear. But they still have well-kept real ale, and the food is good.

On the way, a self portrait:

Self portrait

The Fishes:


Inside: only two real ales on tap. I went for Morland’s Old Speckled Hen, a local brew and a creditable pint, although a wee bit too cold:


A good pint is a lovely thing, with a small, creamy head, and golden as the afternoon light shines through it:

Pint 2


Lunch: I went for sausages again, this time venison sausages with mash, watercress (again), and, to satisfy the captious reader of yesterday, two fried onion rings.


Genteel British ladies in the gastropub. Not a pint among them—they went for wine.


Cartoonist Dave Brown of the Independent (papers are in the pub) gives a Brit’s-eye-view of Trump, and it ain’t pretty. They wouldn’t put a scatological cartoon like this in an American paper:


And there was a closet whose legend will be familiar to many:


North Hinksey is an old and lovely village, founded in the 10th century, with many attractive houses, like this one:

The local church dates back to at least the 12th century:


Can you spot the robin below? It’s not the American robin but, as my host said, a “proper robin.” The species is the European robin, (Erithacus rubecula). Its call was beautiful.


This gorgeous bird, easy to spot, is of course the blue titCyanistes caeruleus. Among other things, the species is famous for having learned to open milk bottles on people’s doorsteps and drink the cream, a trait that was culturally inherited. Now the behavior is of no adaptive significance since I don’t think milk is delivered to doors any longer.


And I was very excited to see my first cat in Britain, a hefty tabby in someone’s allotment. It walked like a tiger, and would not approach me. Still, the cats have been almost completely absent since I arrived here. For a while my hypothesis was that there were no cats in Britain.


Update: Darwin Day event tomorrow in London

My Darwin Day lecture for the British Humanists, set tomorrow for 7:30 at the Institute of Education in London, is now sold out, which pleases me greatly as it seats 1000 people. The announcement is here, but I wanted to add a last-minute note. I will have to depart for a “do” soon after the talk and Q&A, so since there will be books on sale (both FvF and WEIT), I’ve asked for the venue to be opened earlier so I can sign books if people want that. They’ve decided to open the doors of the Institute at 5 p.m., and I’ll try to show up about then to chat with people and sign books. The door to the main hall, however, will still open at 7 p.m., half an hour before the talk.

See you there!

Cliven Bundy arrested at last, remaining Malheur thugs will surrender

Cliven Bundy, father of Ammon Bundy, the head of the gang of thugs who occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, has just been arrested in Oregon, while the four remaining occupants of Malheur say they’ll surrender today (Thursday).

You may remember that Cliven has been involved in a 23-year-long fight with the U.S. government about his refusal to pay fees for grazing his cattle on federal land. His sons Ammon and Ryan and other members of the gang remain in jail, all facing charges of conspiracy to obstruct a federal officer, a felony. One member of the gang, LaVoy Finicum, was killed in a shootout with police.

About two years ago, the government began the process of rounding up Cliven Bundy’s cattle as the payment he refused to make for grazing. Bundy then gathered a bunch of armed libertarian thugs to oppose the government, which then caved, stopped rounding up his cattle, and left. It was a victory for Bundy and all the right-wing ranchers and farmers who say they’re entitled to use government land—our land—without fee. It’s been a sore point with me that the U.S. government can’t force a few rebellious cranks to follow the law (the confiscation of cattle was ordered by the court).

That has now ended: the Washington Post (and other venues) report that Cliven was arrested while trying to visit the remaining four protestors at Malheur, and those four have said they’ll leave the refuge today. They’ll surely be arrested as well. From the Post:

The FBI in Portland would not confirm the circumstances of elder Bundy’s arrest. But the Oregonian reported that he was apprehended at Portland International Airport after disembarking from his flight from Las Vegas late Wednesday night. The newspaper said that Bundy, 74, faces the same charge as his son in relation to his standoff with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 2014. He also faces weapons charges, it said.

Cliven Bundy’s arrest came just hours after the FBI moved to surround the spot where the lingering occupiers were camped Wednesday evening.

According to a statement issued by the FBI in Oregon, authorities made their move after one of the occupiers rode an ATV at 4:30 p.m. local time outside the enclosure where the handful of occupiers have been barricaded.

“FBI Agents attempted to approach the driver and he returned to the encampment at a high rate of speed,” the statement said.

The FBI moved to “contain” the remaining four occupiers by posting agents at the barricades in front of and behind the spot where the occupiers are camping, the statement continued.

Michele Fiore, the gun-toting member of the Nevada state legislature (remember her? see here and here) has been an advocate for the Malheur thugs, and wants to travel to the refuge to ensure their safety. But the occupiers seem to be losing it, doing pranks like making “doughnuts” in a Federal vehicle and acting erratically, and it’s doubtful that the feds will let Fiore onto the property.

“I think I want to take it on a little joy ride. You know?” [occupier David] Fry said. “Let’s start this baby up. Now you’ve got another charge on me, FBI. I am driving your vehicle.”

But in the phone conversation broadcast over YouTube, Fiore — speaking to the occupiers from Portland International Airport — repeatedly had to call for calm, as Fry yelled incoherently and other occupiers broke into shouts or tears.

“People are watching,” she assured them, asking them to recite prayers.

But the occupiers insisted that they could not trust the FBI’s promise of a peaceful resolution, and seemed certain that the standoff would end in violence.

If they really wanted it to end peacefully, they’d simply drop their weapons and exit the refuge with their hands in the air, or, better yet, come out with their hands in the air and then lie down flat with their arms forward. Remember that LaVoy Finicum was killed by Federal agents while reaching for the belt that held his gun. I’m convinced that the government doesn’t want any violence in this issue, if for no other reason than it would make martyrs of the thugs, inspiring other right-wingers to follow their actions. But the thugs don’t help matters by the way they’re talking:

“They killed LaVoy,” one man yelled. LaVoy Finicum, a spokesperson for the occupation, was fatally shot by Oregon state troopers during a highway confrontation in January when Bundy and four others were arrested.

“We’re not giving them any reason [to fire],” another person said. “But my weapon is within reach.”

The people still at the refuge have said they will not leave as long as they face charges and a possible prison term.

“I can’t even describe to you how wrong it is i feel to be giving myself into the hands of the enemy,” Sandy Anderson said. “We’re going to lose our rights.”

. . . “You’re going to hell. Kill me. Get it over with,” yelled David Fry, sounding overwrought. “We’re innocent people camping at a public facility, and you’re going to murder us.”

Well if they’re not giving them any reason to fire, then surrender is dead easy. It doesn’t help to add that “my weapon is within reach.” That guarantees that the authorities will be wary and on edge.

My prediction is that the surrender will ultimately be peaceful, for these men don’t want to die—unless, like Finicum, they prefer death to incarceration. That fate would be easy, too: all they have to do is come out with guns drawn, like Butch and Sundance. But one thing is for sure: they’re not going to get off scot-free, as Cliven Bundy did for so long. I’m glad the government has decided not to tolerate arrant lawbreaking, and is trying to resolve this situation peacefully.


Cliven Bundy, 100% American (except when it comes to obeying its laws)

h/t: gravelinspector

Einstein right again: Gravitational waves discovered at last!

There were rumors afoot yesterday that this would be announced today. And my CNN news feed just directed me to their article, which I reproduce in its entirety; the headline calls gravitational waves “the holy grail of modern physics.”

Gravitational waves are a reality, according to scientists from an institution that has been hoping to observe them.

“We have detected gravitational waves. We did it,” said David Reitze, executive director of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

The discovery, based on ripples in space-time detected by LIGO, supports a prediction made by Albert Einstein that’s essential to his general theory of relativity. The ripples LIGO detected are based on the merging of two black holes, Reitze said.

“What’s really exciting is what comes next,” he said. “I think we’re opening a window on the universe — a window of gravitational wave astronomy.”

LIGO is described in a statement as “two identical detectors carefully constructed to detect incredibly tiny vibrations from passing gravitational waves,” one located in Louisiana, the other in Washington State. The project was created by scientists from Caltech and MIT and funded by the National Science Foundation.

Szabolcs Marka, a physics professor at Columbia University, told CNN that “we will be able to study not just Einstein’s general relativity — we’ll be able to find objects we only imagined would exist. We should see a universe that has never been observed before.”

Marka said to think of it as a “cosmic microphone,” an incredibly precise listening device that can detect distortions in space-time, the fabric of the universe. It’s so precise it can detect changes the size of a soccer ball in the entire Milky Way galaxy.

The discovery of gravitational waves is like opening another of our senses, Marka told CNN’s Rachel Crane: hearing the universe as well as seeing it.

“And when we hear the universe, we will learn about the secret life of black holes — their birth, their death, their marriage, their feeding. We will hear when a black hole eats a neutron star,” Marka said. “Nobody has ‘seen’ that before. We will not only understand it, we will ‘see’ it. It’s the most fascinating thing I can imagine.”

Indeed, black holes are a holy grail of the gravitational wave concept. To date, we’ve been able only to see their aftereffects — black holes themselves remain a conjecture. Discovery of gravitational waves would confirm their existence.

“It’s the first time the universe has spoken to us through gravitational waves,” said Reitze. “Up to now we’ve been deaf to them.”

You can read the Wikipedia article on gravitational waves, or, better yet, the very nice piece in the Torygraph by Martin Rees explaining the significance of this detection, which he calls “one of the great discoveries of the decade”. The apparatus for detecting the waves is amazing (my emphasis):

In the LIGO detectors (the acronym stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) intense laser beams are projected along 4-kilometre long tubes, from which air has been evacuated.

By analysing the light reflected off mirrors at each end it’s possible to detect tiny changes in the distance between the mirrors. When a gravitational wave passes, the distance between LIGO’s mirrors alternately increases and decreases as “space” expands and contracts.

This is an immensely delicate experiment: the effect being sought is so tiny that it “shakes” the mirrors through a distance less than a millionth of the size of a single atom. This is why it’s been crucial to have two similar detectors separated by nearly 2,000 miles – one in Washington State, the other in Louisiana – and to seek events that show up in both detectors, thereby ruling out effects caused by local seismic events, passing trucks, and so forth.

The collision of the two black holes that produced these waves happened a billion years ago. That, combined with our ability to detect movements of a mirror a mere millionth the size of a single atom (through light interference) is truly a stunning thing. What other animal could not only predict such waves, but then wrest materials out of our Earth to make a device that finds them? And I’m not even mentioning that we also found out about black holes.

One of the two detectors:


The 4km-long arms of the LIGO Hanford Observatory in Washington state, USA. With its sister facility across the country in Louisiana, it is built to detect gravitational waves Photo: NASA

Rees is not 100% convinced that the discovery is genuine, but seems to accept it as pretty sound. And, if real, it’s a Nobel Prize for sure.

BBC has a Prayer for the Day and a religious Thought for the Day

Every morning, BBC Radio 4 broadcasts a “prayer for the day” at 5:45 a.m.; you can see the list at this site, and listen to today’s prayer here. Most of these segments begin by setting up a situation and then ending with a formal petition to the Lord. Reverend Richard Littledale of Teddington Baptist Church gives today’s invocation, which begins at the opening of the linked segment with the formal prayer starting at 1:16 and ending eleven seconds later. You’ll be vastly amused to hear Littledale supplicating God to take care of “the independent shops”!

These prayers are always religious, and I’m appalled that a state-controlled radio station promulgates religion in this way. And, as far as my host Latha Menon remembers, there has never been a secular prayer. Yet it’s as unconscionable to do this in a secular society as it is to have “faith schools,” but Britain seems to harbor a lot of what Dan Dennett calls “belief in belief.”

Now there is an opportunity for secular invocations: in the BBC Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day“, broadcast about two hours later (collection here). But these, too, are nearly always religious; the latest one archived is about Ash Wednesday, presented by Canon Angela Tilby of Christchurch Cathedral in Oxford. Like the others, it’s about three minutes long. The religion involved need not be Christianity: they’ve also had Sikhs, Jews, and Muslims. But, as the BBC notes, the purpose is to give “reflections from a faith perspective on issues and people in the news.”

One group largely missing on Thought for the Day has been nonbelievers. Radio 4 tried to accommodate them once, choosing Richard Dawkins in 2002 to give what they called “Richard Dawkins’ Alternative Thought for the Day.” [Note the weasel word “alternative.”]

Here’s what Wikipedia says about Dawkins’s one-off (there was actually another “secular thought for the day” in 2013, but that, too, was shifted to a different time).

In 2002, 102 people put their names to a letter to the BBC Governors, drawn up by the British Humanist Association, the National Secular Society, and the Rationalist Press Association. This protested that the slot was available only to religious views. As a consequence, Professor Richard Dawkins from Oxford University was given a two-and-a-half minute slot to deliver a reflection from an atheist viewpoint, although this was not broadcast in the Thought for the Day slot itself.

The BBC was too scared to even put it in the regular slot. Here’s what Dawkins said; remember that was four years before The God Delusion was published:

When a terrible disaster happens – an air crash, a flood, or an earthquake – people thank God that it wasn’t worse. (But then why did he let the earthquake happen at all?)

Or, even more childish and self-indulgent: “Thank you God for the traffic jam that made me miss that plane.” (But what about all the unfortunate people who didn’t miss the plane?)

The same kind of infantile regression tempts us when we try to understand the natural world.

“Poems are made by fools like me . . . But only God can make a tree.”

A pretty song, but an infantile explanation. It’s too easy. Lazy. The moment we put a little effort into thinking about it, we realise that God the creator is no explanation at all. He constitutes a bigger question than he answers.

Once, we couldn’t do any better. Humanity was still an infant. But now we understand what makes earthquakes; we understand what made trees. Not just trees like oaks and redwoods, with their underground root system like a huge, upside-down tree.

The arteries that leave the heart branch and branch again like a tree. There are about 50 miles of blood vessels in a human body.

Nerve cells, too, branch like trees. They are so numerous in the teeming forest of your brain that, if you stretched them end to end they would reach right round the world 25 times.

In the face of such wonders, do you fall back, like a child, on God? “It’s so wonderful, so complicated, only God could have done it.”

It’s tempting, isn’t it. But it’s not a real explanation. Not the kind of explanation that actually explains anything. And it’s nowhere near as poetic as the true explanation.

Because the beauty is that humanity has grown up. We now know the true explanation. It’s gloriously simple once you get it, and more wonderful than our forefathers could ever have imagined. It makes use of yet another tree. The family tree of life. It began with something smaller than a bacterium, and it branched and branched to give all the species that have ever lived, whether extinct like the dinosaurs, or still hanging on like our own. Evolution really explains all of life, and it needs no supernatural intervention of any kind.

The adult response is to rejoice in the amazing privilege we enjoy. We have been born, and we are going to die. But before we die we have time to understand why we were ever born in the first place. Time to understand the universe into which we have been born. And with that understanding, we finally grow up and realise that there is no help for us outside our own efforts.

Humanity can leave the crybaby phase, and finally come of age.

Now there’s a thought for more than just a day!

This caused a furor, centered on Dawkin’s characterization of religion as “childish”, “infantile”, and as a locus of humanity’s “crybaby” phase.  And since then, there’s been only a single secular “thought for the day,” at least as far as I can discover.

Responding to a 2009 BBC proposal to present more secular thoughts for the day, Dawkins said, “This has been a long running issue. I did a spoof a few years ago as a kind of stunt but I hope that this does happen because religious people do not have the monopoly on morality and ethics.”  He’s right about religion’s non-monopoly on morality, but I don’t think his piece was a spoof!

Regardless, I think Dawkins, in his desire to promulgate nonbelief, missed a good opportunity to show the positive side of secularism. Why not tout the wonders of the natural world without dissing religion at the same time? After all, this is supposed to be a “thought for the day” that inspires people—perhaps not the best place to go after faith. Who’s ready for that before 6 a.m.! Certainly Dawkins is really good at showing the magic of reality: presenting a naturalistic “spirituality,” if you will.

It may be that the tone of Dawkins’s Thought for the Day kept the BBC from having further secular “Thoughts”. We’ll never know. But the secularists should persist, for there’s no good reason why a Thought for the Day has to be religious.

The “In God We Trust” police-car poll is now secular!

Yesterday I wrote about a sheriff in Virginia who had spent nearly $1500 of his personal money to outfit his unit’s police cars with “In God We Trust” decals. Sheriff J. D. “Danny” Diggs said this, among other things:

“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.” Diggs said.  “It honors God.  God has been good to me and this agency.”

“Having ‘In God We Trust’ on our vehicles does not injure or threaten anyone. It is not an attempt to urge anyone to support or convert to any one religion. God has blessed me and the Sheriff’s Office. This is one way of honoring God by acknowledging Him for His blessings upon us and it shows our patriotism by displaying our national motto.”

. . . Diggs also stated Monday, “The legislatures and courts approve, and God is most certainly approving of this.”

But this gesture is clearly a violation of the First Amendment’s mandate for a separation between church and state.

WAVY.com also had a poll about whether readers supported the sheriff; the question was this:

“Do you support the Sheriff’s Office’s decision to place ‘In God We Truist’ on its patrol cars?” When I made the post at about 8 pm last night (UK time), these were the results:
Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 7.51.29 PM

I added that I’d be disappointed if I woke up and found the “yes” votes still leading. Well, it’s now 11 a.m. in England, and here’s the latest tally:

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 11.02.09 AM

The tide has turned! I wonder why? Well, there’s still an opportunity to vote your conscience. Simply click on the link above, or on either screenshot, and scroll down to the poll. (You can vote only once).

I have about 38,300 subscribers, and surely all of them would want to vote one way or the other, if for no other reason than it’s a small gesture and because I don’t ask anyone for money or expose them to ads! All I ask is for you to vote your conscience. And I’m hoping that we’ll give a ringing endorsement to secularism. The faithful continue to vote, and we should too.


A murmuration of starlings near Oxford

The BBC tw**ed this yesterday, and you can see a longer video at this site. They estimate the flock contained 70,000 birds.

This appears to have happened two days ago. I hope it’s not a portent for my visit.


Readers’ wildlife photographs

Regular Mark Sturtevant has contributed photos of four insect species:

Here are various pictures from my collection.

A nymph of the Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis). I picked this big girl up while visiting my in-laws in New Jersey, and raised it to the adult stage. She turned out magnificent! I will be sending pictures of her later.

1 mantis1

A cute couple consisting of a Skipper (I think Poanes zabulon) and a Small carpenter bee (Ceratina sp.).

2 skipper2

A Syrphid fly (I think Eumerus sp). This one is a male, with its extra expansive compound eyes. He was diligently searching back and forth on this spot of the forest floor, perhaps sensing that a female was about to emerge from her pupa down there.

3 Syrphid2

I picked up this Dobson fly at the porch light of our rental lakeside cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It is one of the larger species, known as the  ‘Summer fishfly’ (Chauliodes pectinicornis) It was (activate Donald Trump voice) Huge.

4 dobson

And three cold homeotherms come from Stephen Barnard, with his email called “The usual subjects”:

American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus), and Desert Cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii) warming up in the morning sun.




Thursday: Hili dialogue

It’s Thursday, and I give a big talk tomorrow, so I’m taking it easy. But that means that I’ll get to post Hili today instead of asking Grania to do it (many thanks to her for largely running the site while I’m busy). I have many serious things to write about: free will, accommodationism, big scary spiders, a domestication of cats in China, a new paper on why religion makes us behave properly, and so on, but I want to wait till I get back to the States and have the time to write these posts thoughtfully. In the meantime, I do my best.

Since I’m in England, I’ll post only British-related events that happened on November 11. On this day in 1534, Henry VIII was named as the Head of the Church of England. Wikipedia notes that on November 11, 1938, “BBC Television produce[d] the world’s first ever science fiction television program, an adaptation of a section of the Karel Čapek play R.U.R., that coined the term ‘robot’.” On November 11, 1915, Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of my favorite travel writers, was born (died 2011). On this day in 1923, Anthony Flew was born, as was designer Mary Quant in 1934. Few notable Brits died on this day. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili riffs on Sherlock Holmes’s fateful words in His Last Bow*:

A: Where are you going?
Hili: To the west, the sun is running away from me.


In Polish:
Ja: Gdzie idziesz?
Hili: Na zachód, bo mi słońce ucieka.

*(From Wikipedia): In reference to the impending War, Holmes says, “There’s an east wind coming, Watson.” Watson misinterprets the meaning of the words and says, “I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.”

“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.”

Holmes was, for once, wrong.

This fox encounters a bedsheet, and you won’t believe what happened next!

The biological context:


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