White Sox change the name of their stadium again, and it’s even worse

Few major league baseball parks retain the names they had when I was a kid, for teams have learned that they can make big bucks by selling the naming rights to corporations. Only 11 major-league teams haven’t done that, and thank Ceiling Cat that Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and Yankee Stadium remain.

Comiskey Park was the original name of the Chicago White Sox stadium, but it was demolished, rebuilt next door in the nineties, and then renamed US Cellular Field in 2003, with US Cellular paying $68 million. Now, as I’ve heard on the news, the naming rights have been sold again, and get the new name:

Guaranteed Rate Field

Yes, that’s right: it’s named after a lending company, and the rights hold through at least 2029. And I can’t imagine a worse name; this is even worse than Petco Park, the home of the San Diego Padres.

They interviewed some Chicago White Sox fans about this name change on the evening news, and, as you can imagine, they were not happy.

Everything’s for sale these days. The local buses have started being festooned with garish ads, websites abound with them (I pay to keep them off this site), and even park benches have ads on them.

What’s next? “Hey kids, let’s go out to Guaranteed Rate Field and catch the double header!”



Terry Townshend, who just saw a Pallas’s cat, now sees two snow leopards!

Ten days ago I pointed you to a post on Birding Beijing in which Terry Townshend and his partner Marie Ng were lucky enough to see and take videos of the rare Pallas’s cat—on Terry’s birthday, too!

Well, the guy is having a run of good luck, because his latest post describes an encounter in China’s Qinghai Province with not one, but two snow leopards (Panthera uncia, also known as the “ounce”)—and only six days after the Pallas Encounter.

Terry has a two-minute video distilled from the two hours he watched these beautiful cats, and also some swell photos. To see the post, click on the link above or on the screenshot below. The video is midway through the post.

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 2.28.40 PM

If I were religious, I’d say this guy is blessed. But being a naturalist, all I can say is that the laws of physics favored him over me.

h/t: Ben

What if Wilkins and Franklin had been able to work together?

by Matthew Cobb

Today I was interviewed by the French radio station, France-Culture (colloquially known as France-Cul), for a programme about Rosalind Franklin, the King’s College, London, researcher whose data were used by Watson and Crick as the basis of their double helix model of the structure of DNA.

Much of the discussion, inevitably, revolved around the point raised by Jim Watson at the recent Francis Crick Centenary event in Cold Spring Harbor – but for chance events, we would speak of the ‘Franklin-Wilkins’ structure of DNA rather than the ‘Watson-Crick’ structure. During the interview I found myself coming up with an alternative version of history, in which we could have got to the Franklin-Wilkins structure of DNA, with rather interesting consequences.

I have been thinking about ‘what if’ versions of history for an article on another part of the history of DNA that I am writing – if it’s accepted, I’ll let you know; if it’s rejected, I’ll publish it here. [JAC: What are we? A garbage bin for rejected pieces?😦 ]

As the British historian Richard Evans points out in his excellent book Altered Pasts, which is all about ‘counterfactual history’, there are many problems with this approach to history, and most examples of it are weak attempts at wishful thinking and many have a clear political agenda; few cast any light on history or how it happened. Nevertheless – here’s my ‘jeu d’esprit’: What would have happened if Wilkins and Franklin had got on?

What happened

The main reason why Watson and Crick were able to come up with the double helix structure of DNA in early 1953 is that their competitors at King’s – Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins – could not work together. Franklin and Wilkins had strikingly different personalities, but above all they were misled about how their work was to be coordinated, thanks to the behaviour of the lab head at King’s, John Randall.

Rosalind Franklin

Wilkins was Randall’s deputy and had been working on the structure of DNA for some time, using X-ray crystallography. Randall decided to recruit a new researcher with greater expertise in this technique, Rosalind Franklin. As far as Wilkins understood it, Franklin was to work with him, or even be his assistant; the appointment letter to Franklin from Randall made clear that she alone would be working on the structure of DNA.

Wilkins was on holiday when Franklin arrived; when he returned, he found a highly-skilled, assertive young woman not only apparently in charge of ‘his’ project, but supervising his PhD student, Ray Gosling. A simple conversation between Franklin, Wilkins and Randall could have sorted things out, but it never happened (Wilkins didn’t see the Franklin appointment letter for decades, and was shocked when he did – he had no idea, the poor sap).

John Randall

Whether Randall wanted to kick Wilkins up the backside, or to get the two researchers to compete is not clear; whatever the case, the result was catastrophic – as well as the structural misunderstanding of who did what and who was in charge, there was a major clash of personality. The introverted Wilkins became even more withdrawn, and the outgoing and argumentative Franklin became frustrated.

They were unable to cooperate, and as a result the work in King’s did not get off the ground properly. Wilkins and Franklin were separated, each working on a different form of the DNA molecule – Franklin worked on the drier A form, which gave misleadingly precise X-ray images, while Wilkins worked on the biologically more significant B form, which gave blurrier images. They spent much of 1952 this way, not talking to each other, not collaborating, not exchanging ideas.

Franklin became dismayed and fed up of the atmosphere at King’s, and decided to leave for nearby Birkbeck College and to move from the study of DNA to virus structure.

Meanwhile, at the end of the year, the Cambridge lab, where Watson and Crick were based, heard that the US chemist Linus Pauling was turning to the study of DNA. The head of the Cambridge lab, Bragg, had previously forbidden Watson and Crick from pursuing their unofficial interest in DNA structure, as the problem was the ‘property’ of King’s.

With the threat of being scooped by Pauling, Bragg changed his mind and told Watson and Crick to start working on the problem; they were also given a semi-public report from King’s, containing summaries of the research they were doing on DNA, which included some decisive data from Rosalind Franklin.

(This is the source of the oft-repeated charge that they ‘stole’ her data; Watson’s later claim that Wilkins showed him an X-ray photo of the B form taken by Gosling (*not* Franklin!) and that this was the decisive insight, can be dismissed; the key step for building the model was found in the numbers. Ironically, this information was very similar to data presented in November 1951 by Franklin in a talk at which Watson was present; by his own admission, he didn’t take notes and didn’t listen closely, musing instead about her hair and her dress sense… More on all that here; that is not the point of this post, however!)

These data were what Watson and Crick used to build their double helix structure. They – or rather. Crick – could see the implications of those data where Franklin had not because Crick had recently developed a mathematical procedure for turning the 2-dimensional data produced by a molecular helix into a 3-dimensional model; he had published this in Nature in October 1952. This was pretty complex stuff, and Crick was one of the few people in the world to know how to do this.

By the beginning of March 1953, they had finished their model; at the same time, Franklin, working on her own, had realised that DNA was made of two strands, going in opposite directions, with the bases that connect the two strands organised in an infinite number of ways, providing the variability that could encode genetic information. She never got any further, because the Cambridge duo beat her to it, using her own data.

The double helix structure appeared in Nature in April 1953, together with two empirical articles, one by Franklin, the other by Wilkins. The Watson and Crick article included the acknowledgement “We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr M. H. F. Wilkins, Dr. R. E. Franklin and their co-workers”.

Franklin went on to make major contributions to virus structure, but died of ovarian cancer in April 1958. In October 1962, following the cracking of the genetic code that summer, Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for determining the double helix structure of DNA.

What if?

Now, what if Franklin and Wilkins had been able to work together? What if Randall had been straightforward and explained how he wanted them to work – as partners, or even with Wilkins in charge (he was the more ‘senior’ in academic terms)? What would have happened?

Things would have turned out rather differently. Wilkins and Franklin would still have rubbed each other the wrong way, there would still have been rows, but it seems virtually certain that Watson and Crick, as a duo who shaped subsequent events, would not have got a look-in. By mid-1952, Wilkins and Franklin would have obtained data from both A- and B-forms of DNA, and would be trying to understand how they were structured.

Other people in the King’s lab were suggesting that the molecule might be a helix (this is what happened); Wilkins and Franklin, however, did not have the mathematical tools to work through the calculations and turn their 2-D data into a 3-D model.

And then something lucky happened – in summer 1952, Wilkins’ friend, Crick, showed him a manuscript he was writing, based on work for his PhD on horse haemoglobin, showing how to analyse data from helical molecules, using the specific example of the keratin molecule. Crick hoped to submit the article to Nature, and asked Wilkins to give him his opinion.

Wilkins read through it and realised its significance for his work with Franklin on DNA; after a brief hesitation, he showed the unpublished paper to Franklin. She, too, saw how they could use it, and over the coming weeks the pair worked through the maths, and then turned to building a structural model of the B-form of DNA.

By October 1952, they had finished the model, which was a beautiful double helix. They submitted an article to Nature, which appeared in December 1952, including an Acknowledgement that their work had been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished results and ideas of Francis Crick. In 1962, the Nobel Prize was awarded to Maurice Wilkins and, posthumously (this was still allowed at the time), to Rosalind Franklin, who died in 1958.

Watson never got to work on DNA, nor did Crick, who both had very minor places in the history of science and were forgotten. Much of the history of 20th century genetics remained basically the same, but the pace and focus of work was different, lacking the intellectual leadership of Crick and the obsessive focus of Watson.

Wilkins’ life was pretty much the same, and Franklin’s name was writ much larger in the annals of biology – her name was taught to all high school students when they learned of the Franklin-Wilkins structure of DNA. However, in the early 21st century, a campaign began on the internet, arguing that Crick had been robbed of the rewards he was due, as without his method, Wilkins and Franklin would never have been able to crack the problem.

So what?

Well, probably, not a lot. But it’s interesting, no?

Heather Hastie on Reza Aslan’s apologetics and Islamic terrorism

I call your attention to a new post on Heather’s site, one that deals partly with Reza Aslan’s pathetic apologetics for Islamic violence. In her post, “Reza Aslan is still excusing Islam,” Heather points out Aslan’s curious assertion of a disconnect between religious beliefs and behavior—something that Maarten Boudry and I have also written about (paper available on request).

I’ll avoid excerpting Heather’s post, as it deserves to be read on her site, but she deals with one comment that Aslan made when asked about regressive Islamic beliefs like killing gays and apostates. This is what he said:

I mean, we may be appalled by certain regressive beliefs, but they are just beliefs. The issue is people’s actions.

I needn’t say more; it’s a ludicrous and dangerous claim Aslan’s making here. Heather goes on to show an absorbing 40-minute video from CNN, “Why they hate us,” narrated by writer Fareed Zakaria. I watched it in its entirety, and recommend that you do, too.  It’s in that video that Aslan appears, and, mirabile dictu, Heather actually agrees with something that he says.

Even more sleaze from Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation

The double standard of today’s politics is instantiated in those people who are so willing to call out Donald Trump for his malfeasance and lies (and there are many), and even laugh at naked statues of the man, while at the same time excusing Hillary Clinton’s numerous ethical breaches. “I’m with her!”, the saying goes. Well, my stand is—especially in light of the continuing revelations about Hillary’s shady behavior—”I’ll vote for her, but that’s about it.” I’m not going to talk about the email business, though I think she dissimulated there, but want to discuss the Clinton Foundation (CF), about which there are increasing revelations of “conflict of interest” behavior. In particular, there are new reports that Clinton, while Secretary of State, gave preference, both in terms of access and favors, to CF donors. There are further reports (see my post from two days ago) that the CF broke its promise to identify donors, as well its promises to restrict foreign donations and get State Department approval for all of them.

Last week Bill Clinton announced that he’d step down from the CF board were Hillary elected as President, though we now know from NPR that Chelsea will not. In the meantime, donors can still pump money into the CF anticipating, based on the new reports (see below) that they might get favors or meetings if Hillary were elected. Further, if Hillary wins, the CF won’t accept any corporate or foreign donations.  But until she does, in November, the donors can keep swelling the $2 billion coffers of the Foundation. Bill should get off the board now, and then, if she loses (unlikely), he can get back on.

Before I summarize the latest Associated Press analysis of donations, let me add that there is absolutely no question that the CF does great things. Although their structure of charity work is unusual (they don’t take grant requests, but disperse the money on their own volition), the money is largely used for good things—education, eradication of disease, clean water, and so on—and most of the money does go to this work. The question is not about the Foundation’s work itself, but how donations to it may have bought donors access to Hillary Clinton, even when she was Secretary of State.

Now the defenses of Hillary (and Bill) on this issue run along four lines:

  • Every politician does stuff like this; it’s just business as usual. My response: no they don’t. Obama doesn’t have the long, shady history of mendacity that plagues both Hillary and Bill Clinton. Besides, are we really going to lower our standards for politicians every time there’s some shady dealing revealed by a politician we like?
  • It’s a “vast right wing conspiracy” against Hillary. She’s being singled out! I have no doubt that some of the opposition to Clinton is based on sexism, just as some of the opposition to Obama was because he’s half black. But that doesn’t explain why a) Trump is being vetted (and excoriated) even more strongly than Clinton, and b) the organs that have investigated Clinton include not only a Democratic Justice Department, but, more important, liberal news media like the New York Times, NPR, the Associated Press, and the Washington Post. If you think those are part of the “right wing conspiracy”, you’re nuts. The main focus on Clinton derives from one thing: her long history of questionable behavior, when, probably because of the Clintons’ feelings of entitlement, Hillary often skirted ethical norms. (I’ll mention only once her repeated lies about being under fire in Bosnia. Brian Williams was fired as the anchorman for NBC News for making a very similar false claim, as NBC thought the lie had permanently damaged his integrity.)
  • Clinton hasn’t done anything illegal, so it’s all okay! Seriously? The Justice Department admitted that Clinton’s behavior with respect to her email was wrong, but didn’t rise to the standards of a prosecutable offense. The pattern of donations to the CF being associated with Hillary giving face time to or doing favors for donors (see below) is deeply suspicious, though none of that is a tit-for-tat prosecutable offense, either. But again, is this the hill you want to die on for Hillary? The whole issue of “conflict of interest”, in which politicians are supposed to behave in a way that minimizes conflicts between their personal interests and their political behavior, is one of abiding to high standards, not just “not breaking the law.” In my view, every member of the Clinton Family—Hillary, Bill, and Chelsea—should have stepped off the board the minute Hillary formulated plans to run for President. That’s not the way it worked: only Hillary did that, and only because the public outcry had she not would have been a serious stain on her candidacy.
  • The Clintons don’t benefit personally from the CF, so what’s the big deal? A claim like this is based on ignorance. First of all, the Clintons get power: the ability to get people to do what they want. Second, they get people sucking up to them for political access. Third, they get public promotions, the kind of high-profile presence that brings them big private income, and travel expenses. As NBC reports, Bill Clinton earned 17.6 million dollars in only five years as “honorary chancellor” of the world’s biggest for-profit education company, Laureate Education, Inc. Apparently all he had to do was travel the world extolling the company, giving speeches. (Remember, too, that Hillary continues to criticize for-profit universities.) And the money wasn’t for the Foundation, but for the Clintons themselves. The high profile of the Clinton Foundation certain enhances that kind of moneymaking ability. I’m not suggesting, of course, that the CF was set up just as a way for the Clintons to make personal income; just that the Foundation gives them cachet that they wouldn’t otherwise have, and contributes to their high profile.

Finally, if you don’t buy any of my counterarguments, ask yourself this: Why, if everything’s copacetic, did the Foundation suddenly announce that Bill would step off the Board if Hillary is elected, and that they’d take no more foreign or corporate donations? There are two answers: the first is they realized what they should have done all along: avoid the appearance of conflict of interest. The second is that Hillary and/or Bill realized that this would hurt her candidacy if they didn’t do it, and, believe me, Hillary wants the Presidency more than a starving lion wants a zebra.

But on to the latest reports from that important organ of The Right Wing Conspiracy: The Associated Press. After investigating donors to the CF and lists of people who got to talk to her while she was Secretary of State, the AP notes a disturbing pattern of people getting access to Hillary while she was Secretary after they made big donations to the Foundation. (This puts the lie to the claim that she doesn’t know who gives money to the Foundation). The AP report says this in part:

More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money — either personally or through companies or groups — to the Clinton Foundation. It’s an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.

Donors who were granted time with Clinton included an internationally known economist who asked for her help as the Bangladesh government pressured him to resign from a nonprofit bank he ran; a Wall Street executive who sought Clinton’s help with a visa problem; and Estee Lauder executives who were listed as meeting with Clinton while her department worked with the firm’s corporate charity to counter gender-based violence in South Africa.

They are among at least 85 of 154 people with private interests who either met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton and also gave to her family’s charities, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press. Combined, the 85 donors contributed as much as $156 million. The 154 does not include U.S. federal employees or foreign government representatives.

The AP’s findings represent the first systematic effort to calculate the scope of the intersecting interests of Clinton foundation donors and people who met personally with Clinton or spoke to her by phone about their needs.

The meetings between the Democratic presidential nominee and foundation donors do not appear to violate legal agreements Clinton and former president Bill Clinton signed before she joined the State Department in 2009. But the frequency of the overlaps shows the intermingling of access and donations, and fuels perceptions that giving the foundation money was a price of admission for face time with Clinton. Her calendars and emails released as recently as this week describe scores of contacts she and her top aides had with foundation donors.

Now one person wrote on my FB page, “But half the donors didn’t get access to Hillary.” That’s fatuous, of course. First of all, a lot of donors probably didn’t ask for access to Hillary. The real question to be answered is this: Among all people seeking access to or favors from Clinton as Secretary of State, was the proportion of CF donors who were successful higher than the proportion of non-donors who were successful? My guess is that the donors got an advantage.

The Clinton campaign has of course fought back, denying that there was any tit for tat here, but of course they would say that, wouldn’t they? They can hardly say otherwise. (The State Department has also said it’s not aware of any illegal acts performed by Hillary as Secretary of State in conjunction with the Foundation.) But of course imagine how difficult it would be to prove tit for tat! That’s why we have to avoid its appearance, pure and simple.

You can read the AP report yourself, and dismiss it if you’re One of Those, but it’s disturbing to anyone who’s not off the rails. (NPR also reports that “Released emails have shown some efforts to connect donors or associates at the foundation to personnel at the State Department.”).  The AP also gives several examples of potential tit-for-tat behavior by Hillary as Secretary of State. Here’s one:

In another case, Clinton was host at a September 2009 breakfast meeting at the New York Stock Exchange that listed Blackstone Group chairman Stephen Schwarzman as one of the attendees. Schwarzman’s firm is a major Clinton Foundation donor, but he personally donates heavily to GOP candidates and causes. The next day, according to Clinton emails, the State Department was working on a visa issue at Schwarzman’s request. In December that same year, Schwarzman and his wife, Christine, sat at Clinton’s table during the Kennedy Center Honors.

Blackstone donated between $250,000 and $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation. Eight Blackstone executives also gave between $375,000 and $800,000 to the foundation. And Blackstone’s charitable arm has pledged millions of dollars in commitments to three Clinton Global aid projects ranging from the U.S. to the Mideast. Blackstone officials did not make Schwarzman available for comment.

Do you seriously think there’s no connection here? The problem, of course, is proving that there was a direct relationship between donations and access. That would be very hard to do without a paper trail. I think the data suggest that strongly, but of course diehard Hillary fans say, “She was never proven to have done anything illegal.” That’s a pretty low bar for supporting a Presidential candidate, n’est-ce pas?

In my view, every Clinton should get off the board now, even though some damage has already been done. They should have nothing to do with the Clinton Foundation until no Clinton holds public office. I don’t think the CF should be shut down, as some have suggested, for it does good work. It should simply become a “blind charity,” having no connection with the Clintons except in name, until Bill, Chelsea, and Hillary once again become private citizens.

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ the burkini

Today’s Jesus and Mo strip is a good one, particularly timely, and speaks directly to the notion of the degree to which Muslim women “choose” to be covered. When a Western Muslimah (not one in Iran or Saudi) declares that she wears the hijab “by choice,” I never accept that claim at face value. Was she brought up wearing one? Did she go to school where other girls wore them? Are her friends mostly hijabis? This whole notion of “choice” in Islamic dress needs to be examined, yet I haven’t seen a single article on it. It’s the rhino in the room.

But I digress (well, not really, since this strip makes the same point):


Readers’ wildlife photographs

Today we’re having a special version of the RWPs—vacation shots of Leon and his staff, Elzbieta Wierzbicka and Andrzej Marciniak. (The humans took the photos.) All three are vacationing in a little-known region of Europe called Lemkivshchyna, which includes the region where Poland abuts Slovakia. A map is below, with areas identified by the dialects spoken by of their inhabitants.


Nominally, Leon and his staff went there to do the final paperwork on the wooden house they bought, which will  be dismantled, transported to near Dobrzyn, and then re-erected. But they’re also taking a hiking vacation before school starts again (Elzbieta and Andrzej are teachers). Elzbieta posted some lovely photos of the area on her Facebook page, which I reproduce with permission.

It’s a lovely area, and probably one that few tourists frequent. We’ll see the hilly landscape, the beautiful old wooden structures, the pervasive signs of Catholicism, and, of course, Leon hiking! I’ve put sections of the Wikipedia entry on the area in between the pictures; those sections are indented. Enjoy!

Lemkovina (Polish: Łemkowszczyzna; Rusyn: Лемковина/Lemkovina; Ukrainian: ЛемківщинаLemkivshina) is a region in Europe that is traditionally inhabited by the Lemko people. While the Lemko are a distinct ethnic group, they consider themselves to be part of the broader Rusyn and/or Ukrainian communities. Lemkovina mostly stretches along the border between Poland and Slovakia covering some western territories of Ukraine.

The region forms an ethnographic peninsula 140 km (87 mi) long and 25–50 km (16–31 mi) wide from the Ukrainian border within Polish and Slovak territory. The Lemko region occupies the lowest part of the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains—most of the Low Beskids, the western part of the Middle Beskyd, and the eastern fringe of the Western Beskyd. It includes the higher elevations of the Carpathians of modern-day Poland, extending to around the Poprad River to the west (see: Ruś Szlachtowska), and extending to the east as far as the region around Sanok, where it meets the Boyko region. The corresponding latitudes of the adjacent highlands of present-day Slovakia are also included by some in the description of Lemko-land.



Previously a frontier area under the nominal control of Great Moravia, Lemkivshchyna became part of Poland in medieval Piast times. It was made part of the Austrian province of Galicia due to the First Partition of Poland in 1772.[1]Parts were briefly independent under the Lemko-Rusyn Republic, and later annexed to Poland.



After the deportation of Lemkos from the northern part of this area in 1946, only the southern section, southwest of the Carpathian Mountains, known as the Prešov region in Slovakia, has remained inhabited by Lemkos.


Leon (and Andrzej) on the trail!










The landscape is typical of medium-height-mountain terrain, with ridges reaching 1,000 m (3,300 ft) and sometimes 1,300 m (4,300 ft). Only small parts of southern Low Beskids and the northern San river region have a low-mountain landscape. A series of mountain passes along the Torysa River and Poprad River—Tylych Pass (688 m (2,257 ft)), Dukla Pass (502 m (1,647 ft)), and Łupków Pass (657 m (2,156 ft))—facilitate communications between Galician and Transcarpathian Lemkos.


Leon on the trail, leading Elzbieta:




That is not Polish language!


A lovely old wooden church:


And our hero, resting his paws. Sometimes he’s carried in the backpack, which has a mesh Cat Compartment:


Wednesday: Hili dialogue

It’s August 24, 2016, at least in Chicago, and the cool weather continues here, a welcome relief from the scorchers of yore. But now the sun doesn’t rise until an hour after I walk to work—a harbinger of BACK TO SCHOOL time.

It’s National Waffle Day in the U.S., celebrating Cornelius Swarthout’s patent on the waffle iron that was granted on this date in 1869.  Have a waffle—they’re great! Now there’s also an International Waffle Day, which takes place on March 25. That one started in Sweden and is called  Våffeldagen. I’d be pleased if a Swedish reader would inform us if people really do eat waffles on that day, and what they look like. Here’s a specimen of we eat in America—the so-called Belgian Waffle, though I have no idea if they actually serve these in Belgium. I prefer mine with pecans and real maple syrup (the lowest grade, and hence the tastiest):


If you don’t like it, keep your opinion to yourself.

On this day in 1456, the printing of the Gutenberg Bible—the first mass-produced book printed using movable type—was completed. 49 copies survive today. And, on this day in 1875, Captain Matthew Webb became the first person to swim the English Channel.

Notables born on this day include Ronee Blakely (1945; remember her in Nashville?) and paleontologist Tim White (1950). Those who died on August 24 include Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (2004), who completed all her stages, and Julie Harris (2013♥). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili keeps getting involved in quite intellectual dialogues (for a cat):

A: What is genius?
Hili: It’s a creative ability to avoid plagiarism.
P1040710 (1)
In Polish:
Ja: Na czym polega geniusz?
Hili: Na twórczej umiejętności unikania popełniania plagiatów.
And for lagniappe, reader Taskin forwarded this very short video of a cat in a pirate suit:

Headline of the year

I can’t imagine a more intriguing headline than this one from yesterday’s Omaha Herald (click on screenshot to go to article). And it’s REAL!

Screen shot 2016-08-22 at 7.31.14 PM

If they gave Pulitzer Prizes for headlines, that should get one!

The story: a 53 year old father in Omaha found brownies in the back of his car, a car his kids had used earlier in the day. He ate four of them, and, sure enough, the brownies were pot brownies. The expected effect occurred: the man got stoned, but had no idea what was happening. He began getting terrible anxiety, and the cops and paramedics were called. This was the scene when they arrived:

Paramedics called to the scene who checked the man found his vital signs to be normal. But they noted that he was displaying odd behavior — crawling around on the floor, randomly using profanities and calling the family cat a “bitch.”

The man was put to bed, one of the kids confessed that the brownies belonged to one of the other kids (LOL), and no arrests were made.

But what about the cat? Was it really a “bitch”?

A later story in the same paper fleshed out the details, interviewing the dad:

But The Pot Father was not so sure, so it was then that he tried to go upstairs to his bedroom, where later (as he got even higher) he would see the demons and the flying circles and squares.

Except that as he walked across the living room somehow his walk turned into a crawl. And then somehow his crawl turned into a military crawl like he learned at Marine Corps basic training back in 1981. (“Michael was displaying odd behavior,” the police report reads. “Crawling around on the floor …”)

And then somehow he was sprawled on the stairs, and the family cat, Kipper, was standing at the top of the stairs staring down at him, unblinking. Maybe a tad judgey.

For the record, The Pot Father claims he was actually attempting to tell the paramedics helping him off the stairs that the cat is sometimes a bitch. As in, don’t touch her tail, guys, that cat will claw-shank you. But it maybe came out kind of weird, owing to the fact that he had just accidentally ingested an enormous amount of pot brownies. Maybe, just maybe, it came out sounding like he was “calling their cat a ‘bitch’ ” as the police report so eloquently states.

Which he wasn’t, The Pot Father swears. Although: “She can be a b…,” he tells me Thursday night.

And here’s Kipper, the bitch cat. LOL: it’s a tortie!

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 2.02.48 PM

Photo: Matthew Hansen for the World Herald

I have a similar story! When I was in grad school, my officemate was a postdoc from India, and had never in his life tried pot. It turned out that, one Saturday, there was going to be a lab party, and another grad student had made a pan of pot brownies for it, using an entire ounce of the stuff. He put the brownies in the cold room, and we knew they were there.

When I got to my office on Saturday afternoon, my officemate was lying on the cot we kept in our office for naps, writhing around and giggling uncontrollably. I was baffled, as he was a pretty straight guy. After a bit of interrogation, I discovered that he had gone into the cold room to get some electrophoretic buffer, and came upon the pan of brownies. He was also a guy who liked his noms, so he helped himself amply to what he thought was cake.

It took him hours to come down, and, as far as I know, he never tried pot again after that!

h/t: Ginger K.

The difficult problem of intersexuality and athletics

I could be wading into murky waters here, and in fact I am, but I have no opinion on the issue of intersexuality and sports, and am just writing this post to solicit opinions—partly to help formulate mine. And forgive me for any errors I make below (but do correct me), as there’s a ton of literature to wade through, and I’ve only skimmed the surface. The issue is one that involves our conceptions of gender, of humans rights, of fairness, and of athletic competitions.

The issue is, of course, the competition of athletes who are transgender or have conditions that increase the levels of testosterone in their bodies, which adds strength so long as the body is not testosterone-insensitive. Over the years, a number of people who have competed as women have been, or have been accused of being, hermaphrodites, intersexes, or of having other medical conditions that increase the level of effective testosterone. (The reverse situation is not a problem, since in most strength sports males score higher than females.) It’s not a problem of duplicity, as I’ve never found a case of a “normal” male masquerading as a female to gain an advantage.

Rather, we have cases like that of South Africa’s Caster Semenya, who won the 800-meter race in this year’s Olympics. Semenya is what we call an “intersexual” individual. While she identifies as female, she has a rare condition of having the “male” XY chromosome constitution, external female genitalia, no ovaries, and internal testes that produce testosterone. There’s little doubt that that added testosterone has given her an added advantage, since after rules stipulating an upper limit of testosterone in female athletes were put in place (and presumably Semenya had to reduce her testosterone through drug therapy), her performances dropped sharply.

In 2015, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), under a ruling from the Court for Arbitration for Sport (CAS), dropped the testosterone-threshhold limit, so there was no longer a limit to the amount of testosterone an athlete self-identifying as female could have. Semenya has almost certainly taken advantage of this rule, and is now virtually untouchable in middle-distances races.  Some women athletes without this “hyperandrogenism” condition feel this is unfair. Others claim that testosterone is simply one of many biologically varying factors that could affect performance (see below), and shouldn’t even be considered.

In November, the International Olympic Committee produced a consensus document on hyperandrogenism and transgenderism, recommending that for both situations, to compete as a woman, “the athlete must demonstrate that her total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nmol/L [nanomoles per liter] for at least 12 months prior to her first competition (with the requirement for any longer period to be based on a confidential case-by-case evaluation, considering whether or not 12 months is a sufficient length of time to minimize any advantage in women’s competition).”

This upper limit was based on average testosterone levels of some women competing in the 2011 and 2013 World Championships. The testosterone levels were measured in women athletes who already had elevated testosterone from having Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, and then the upper cutoff was set 5 standard deviations above that level. There are medical ways to reduce the testosterone of those above the limit who want to compete as women.

These guidelines, as far as I know, have not been officially adopted by the Olympics, and were not in place in Rio.

As expected giving the current controversies and confusions about gender, reactions to female-identifying hyperandrogenic athletes being allowed to compete as women has been mixed and acrimonious. Here’s a small sampling of opinion from both sides:


And we can get into a whole debate about male-vs-female athleticism, but as it stands, Semenya is, for all intents and purposes, a female. That’s how she was raised. That’s how she identifies. And that’s how she competes.

Ross at The Science of Sport:

I do not believe that women with hyperandrogenism should be competing unregulated.  I believe that the divide between men and women exists precisely to ensure fairness in competition (as far as this is ever possible), and I think that if you respect that division, then a policy that addresses hyperandrogenism must exist.  I think CAS made a ludicrous decision, and I think it is damaging to women’s sport.  Saying that men and women are different is a biological reality, and in sport, the difference has obvious performance implications.  It does not mean “inferior”, but different, so spare me any “patriarchy” nonsense on this (I’ve heard it said, for instance, that women’s performances are slower because of the “fucking patriarchy”.  If you think that, let me save you time and tell you to stop reading now, and save us both the aggravation).

Joanna Harper (a transgender woman athlete) interviewed by Ross (same article):

While human rights advocates are deliriously happy over the CAS ruling, those who love women’s sport are mortified.  Those Intersex athletes who previously used medications to reduce their T [testosterone] are now off of those medications, and are running faster. Allowing these athletes to compete in women’s sport with their serious testosterone-based advantage threatens the very fabric of women’s sport.

. . . If one believes that women’s sports are vitally important, and one has little regard for the rights of a small segment of humanity, then suggesting that women’s sport should only be for those who are 100% female is not unreasonable.

On the other hand, if one is passionate about the rights of marginalized minorities such as intersex or transgender women, and one is not as invested in the benefits of sport to all women, then it is not unreasonable to suggest that anyone who considers herself female should be allowed to compete as nature made her.

Since I believe in both the vital importance of women’s sport and the rights of intersex and transgender women, then I am forced to consider a compromise position, one virtually identical to that espoused by the IAAF and the IOC. [JAC: the new IOC guidelines stated above.]

. . . While there is some validity to the argument that the rights of the many outweigh the rights of the few, I would counter that we can still maintain the integrity of women’s sport if we allow only those intersex and transgender women who compete with typical female T levels into women’s sport. Any advantages that intersex or transgender women might still maintain after lowering their T, are small enough that they will not create an overly unbalanced playing field.

Silvia Comporesti at The Conversation:

But even if testosterone did confer an athletic advantage, this advantage would not be unfair. This is because setting a limit on hyperandrogenism and singling it out from other biological variations that may confer an advantage is – at best – an inconsistent policy. There are plenty of other variations – biological and genetic alike – that are not regulated by the IAAF and, even though advantageous for athletic performance, are not considered unfair for competition.

More than 200 genetic variations have been identified that provide an advantage in elite sport. They affect a variety of functions including blood flow to muscles, muscle structure, oxygen transport, lactate turnover, and energy production. Endurance athletes in particular have been shown to have mitochondrial variations that increase aerobic capacity and endurance. An increasing number of performance-enhancing polymorphisms (genetic variations found at an increased frequency only in elite athletes and that make them who they are) are identified by sports geneticists.

So then why is hyperandrogenism singled out as a biological variation that makes competition unfair? It is singled out because it challenges our deeply entrenched social beliefs about women in sport in a way that other variations do not.

I don’t know enough about this issue to have strong opinions, as it involves negotiating a complex welter of issues, including scientific ones (how strong is the evidence that testosterone gives one an advantage?), philosophical and social ones (should we allow some to self-identify as one gender or another without testing? Is external female genitalia, as in Semenya’s case, sufficient to allow her to be identified as a women?), and moral ones (Should everybody be allowed to compete, and, if so, how many classes of competition should we have?). The only question I’m pretty firm on is that everyone should be allowed to compete, even if there are hormone thresholds. It would be horrible if someone who wanted to be an athlete couldn’t compete simply because of biological accidents of birth affecting their primary and secondary sexual characteristics.

So here are the questions at hand:

  • Should there be any testing of athletes, or should they simply be allowed to compete based on self-identification of gender? (This would, of course, mostly affect women’s sports; some say it would destroy women’s sports.)
  • If not, how many categories of competition do we want? The traditional men’s and women’s sports, or an intermediate category? (The latter would, of course, cause huge problems.)
  • If we don’t accept self-identification and want to retain traditional “men’s” and “women’s” sports, how do we determine the category in which an athlete belongs?
  • If the identification is based on hormones, can we set limits, as the IOC has done, to demarcate the classes? If we don’t use hormones, how do we classify?

And with that I open the discussion to readers.


Caster Semenya


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