The Albatross is here (in my office)!

I have two real hardbound copies right here! It’s always a thrill to see the final product in the flesh (actually, in the paper). It goes on sale a little less than a month from today—May 19. And for the last time I’ll ask those readers who want to buy the hardback to do it as a pre-order (venues are here), as those count as first week’s sales.

As always, those who want to mail books to me for autographing are welcome to do so as long as they enclose a stamped and self-addressed return envelope. You might even get a cat drawn in it if you ask nicely. . .



Readers’ wildlife photographs

We’ll start today with a birth announcement: the bald eagles Desi and Lucy have produced at least one chick, and maybe more. We have proof from the photographer and chick’s godparent, Stephen Barnard from Idaho. Here is the bouncing ball of fluff:

This morning [JAC: yesterday] I took the first clear photo of a chick this season. They’re so ugly they’re cute. I can’t tell whether there are more than one.

Eagle chick

Alex MacMillan sent a whole variety of pictures from a whole variety of taxa, all taken in southwest Ontario:

Blue-Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma laterale. This salamander is common at Rondeau Provincial Park. The ambystomatid salamanders are known to have a unique breeding strategy. Many populations are all female and engage in what some biologists refer to as kleptogenesis in which the females mate with males from other species but only express the female genes, that is they ‘steal’ the males sperm. This complex consists of five different ambystomatid species and the individuals are all degrees of polyploid.


 Coyote, Canis latrans. A coyote watches me from the middle of a farm field in early winter.


Eastern Fox Snake, Pantherophis gloydi. This is a large snake that is found near marshes along the great lakes. This particular snake I found at Hillman Marsh and was close to a meter long. I was alerted to its presence by the sound of angry Red-Winged Blackbirds mobbing it. This species does prey on birds, particularly nestlings. It also has a display in which it mimics a rattlesnake by rearing up and vibrating its tail.

fox snake hillman marsh

Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes. A Red Fox at the side of the road as we drove through the country. A moment later it ducked under the fence and was gone.


Eastern Hog-Nosed Snake, Heterodon platirhinos. Picture taken at Komoka Park. Hog-Nosed Snakes have an upturned nose which they use to dig out their favourite prey, toads. They are known for their impressive displays. This one is flattening its head and neck as well as hissing and curling its tail. If that doesn’t work it will play dead. There are several different scale patterns in this species. It is also a rear-fanged venomous species; however, no human deaths have been recorded to my knowledge.

Hog Nose

Eastern Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis. This is a melanistic garter snake at Long Point Provincial Park. These melanistic garter snakes are common around Lake Erie.

melanistic  garter lp

Queen Snake, Regina septemvittata. Queen snakes are very specialized and feed almost exclusively on newly molted crayfish. This individual was found at the Ausable River. I had been reading a book in which a biologist described finding Queen Snakes in abundance at a particular spot on the Ausable in the 1960’s. I went to check it out and sure enough around 50 years later I found several Queen Snakes in the exact same place.


Red-Headed Woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus. I am a big fan of Picids so I was very pleased to get a good shot of this Red-Headed Woodpecker at Rondeau.

rh woodpecker rondeau

Ring-Necked Snake, Diadophis punctatus. This small snake is a rear fanged venomous species, however I have never heard of one envenomating a human. This picture was taken at Inverhuron Provincial Park on Lake Huron.

ring neck snake inverhuron

Spiny Softshell Turtle, Apalone spinifera. Usually I only see the adult softshell turtles so when I saw this young turtle in the Thames River I scooped it up for a quick picture before letting it go. As soon as I put it back in the water it buried itself in the sand with just a bit of its head showing.


Google Doodle celebrates (?) Nessie

Today’s Google Doodle, which contains this amusing animation, commemorates the 81st anniversary of a photograph (see below) that was long taken to be “proof” of the Loch Ness Monster. First the animation:


As the Torygraph notes:

The release of the images coincides with the anniversary of the publication of the renowed “Surgeon’s Photograph” of the Loch Ness Monster, in the Daily Mail, on April 21 1934 – a photo that was revealed to be a fake by The Sunday Telegraph in 1975.

Here’s that famous photo, which I’m sure you’ve all seen:


Time magazine explains the ruse:

Eighty-one years ago, Colonel Robert Wilson snapped a grainy photograph of what appeared to be a prehistoric sea creature raising its head out of the depths of Scotland’s Loch Ness — inspiring the legend of one of earth’s most infamous monsters, Nessie. On Tuesday, Google honored the anniversary of that celebrated photo with an animated Google Doodle.

Wilson said he took the shot of the Loch Ness Monster, printed in the Daily Mail in 1934, when he was driving across the northern shore and noticed something in the water. But Wilson himself never claimed the photo as proof of a monster and disassociated his name from the picture by calling it the “surgeon’s photo.”

In 1994, then 93-year-old Christian Spurling confessed that he had built the neck and attached it to a toy submarine. The toy was then photographed by a big-game hunter named Marmaduke Wetherell to spite the Daily Mail for a perceived injustice from a previous Loch Ness Monster search.

The Torygraph’s article reports that Google spent a week in the Loch Ness area, photographing it with Google Streetview, including a camera attached to a boat (you can see all the Streetview images here):


Photo: Google

And, sure enough, they turned up an image that Nessiephiles will take as evidence for the monster (photos by Google):


And an enlargement:


There’s no wake, and that’s a strange profile for bits of a plesiosaur sticking out of the water! At any rate, Wikipedia has a good article on the long and fruitless search for Nessie, and the many hoaxes and false sightings.

Resident writer Greg Mayer teaches a course on pseudoscience and cryptozoology, and I expect he might have something to add.


Tuesday: Hili dialogue

It’s Tuesday, and I must record a podcast with Brother Sam about the Albatross, a podcast that will be posted in a few weeks. I suspect it will be a daunting experience! Meanwhile in Dobrazyn, the Princess is looking for the Door Into Sunshine:

Hili: It’s raining.
A: Indeed, it is.
Hili: Tell it to stop. I don’t like getting wet.

P1020547 (1)In Polish:
Hili: Pada deszcze.
Ja: Rzeczywiście.
Hili: To powiedz mu, żeby przestał, bo ja nie lubię być mokra.

Cat o’ the day

This isn’t a regular feature, but I have a nice photo of Theo, the espresso-loving cat, sharing a moment of companionship with Gethyn, one of his staff. And since we started the day with an espresso-loving astronaut, why not finish it with an espresso-loving felid?


Is reason “larger than science”? A lame attempt to diss science

The Big Think’s “Errors we live by” site has a post called “Reason is larger than science,” which makes a number of statements intending to do down science. Some of them are fine, and others are wonky, but the ones that are fine are bloody obvious.  The piece is illustrated, though, with this figure, so you can see where it’s going:


It contains 9 claims, some not obviously connected with its thesis. Here are just four examples of a superbly stupid article that makes no clear point at all:

1. The closer we get to human patterns, the more useful the logic and lexicon of the humanities is. If well practiced, science reduces biases and errors, but it grants no immunity to nonsense.

Who said that science never was nonsensical, for, after all, some scientists are weird and crank out crazy stuff, like cold fusion. But science itself as a set of tools will drive out nonsense. The humanities won’t do that, as clearly demonstrated by the persistence of postmodernism. As for “the logic and lexicon of the humanities” being better for understanding “human patterns,” I’d like to see an example that’s not based on empirical observation and testing, i.e., science broadly conceived.

2. Scientists often seek a mathematical “totalizing” theory, however such “monotheorism” risks “theory-induced blindness.” And mathematics is a subset of logic. Plus its tools aren’t always useful.

Yeah, and some of us don’t seek a mathematic totalizing theory, which isn’t useful in biology (there’s not a single equation in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species). And even if mathematics isn’t science per se, it is useful to find out what’s real, which is in the ambit of science. And really, mathematics isn’t always useful? That’s true, but doesn’t leave a mark on science because not every bit of science rests on mathematics, much less “mathematical totalizing.”  Yes, math wasn’t useful for Darwin, but how does that show us that his theory is fallacious, or that something’s wrong with science?

8. Not all non-science is nonsense. Far from it, much of non-science is logical; its reasoning is locally reliable. Many reliable skills and arts are unscienced (deploying qualitative facts without underlying unified theory). And all that’s subjective remains unscience-able.

Another straw man. Logic may not be science, but it still is a useful tool in helping us weed out nonsense. I wouldn’t say that the Pythagorean theorem is a piece of science, because it is absolutely true in all the right reference frames, and, unlike claims of science, can be “proven”. No sane scientist, though, would deny that the theorem is extremely useful. So is Plato’s Euthyphro argument, which I consider one of the most useful bits of philosophy around, for it proves logically that morality cannot come from God.

And of course neither music nor art as practiced are “scientific,” but who would dismiss them as “nonsense”?  They’re palliatives, consciousness-expanders, and emotional stimulants.

Nevertheless, science is the only game in town if you want to ascertain what’s real in our universe. It is the only reliable “way of knowing”, if by that we mean “finding out stuff that everybody agrees is true.”

9. Many tend now to defer to “the science” mindset. It would be wiser to use diverse thinking tools, to reason humbly, and artfully fit the tool to the task. Much is logically true without “the numbers.”

Logical truths or mathematical truths are not “scientific” truths, which depend on empirical observation. But logic and mathematics are part of the scientific toolkit that helps us find out what is true in our universe. They are not separate from “the science mindset”, but part of them.

I’m not sure who Jag Bhalla is, but if he was paid more than one cent to crank this stuff out, he was overpaid. If you want, try your hand at the other five propositions.

h/t: Steve

Jeffrey Tayler rides again, assessing the religiosity of the Presidential candidatews

I’ve learned that Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Tayler is writing an anti-theist piece every Sunday in Salon. Perhaps this is their way of making amends for all the rump-osculation that they’ve done towards faith, and all the animus they’ve shown towards New Atheists. (His pieces are a great substitute for that church sermon.) For Tayler is, if anything, firmly in the New Atheist camp: evidence-oriented, “strident,” and as full of mockery as was H. L. Mencken.

In this week’s installment, Tayler’s invective increases: you can tell that from the title: “Marco Rubio’s deranged religion, Ted Cruz’s faith: Our would-be Presidents are God-fearing clowns.” (Subtitle: “Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, and Hillary Clinton all spout pious religious lies. We must grill them on what they really mean.”) And someone is paying attention: as of a few minutes ago, the piece, only a day old, had 2011 comments.

It’s a long piece, assessing (and excoriating) the religiosity of Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Mark Everson (the least noxious in Tayler’s view), Mike Huckagee, Jeb Bush, and Hillary Clinton, but I’ll summarize Tayler’s three key points:

1. Religion is a character flaw.  Tayler mentiones this explicitly several times, and implies it a lot more. He even equates extreme religiosity with “derangement”. Do you agree? I tend to agree with at least the “character flaw” bit, for I see it as a deficit of the intellect to profess belief in a being and code of conduct based on neither rational consideration nor evidence. Here’s two quotes from Tayler (my emphasis):

Professing belief in a fictitious celestial deity says a lot about the content of a person’s character, and what sort of policies he or she would likely favor. So, we should take a look at those who have announced so far, and what sort of religious views they hold. Let’s start with the Republicans. Rand Paul, the eye-surgeon senator from Kentucky, is officially a “devout” Christian, but he has subtly hinted that he really does not believe. He finds it tough to see “God’s hand” in the suffering he encounters as a doctor, citing an example any New Atheist could have chosen to dispel the notion that a benevolent deity watches over humanity: “small children dying from brain tumors.” This gives Paul to wonder if one needs to be “saved more than once,” which implies his faith has failed him at times.

and this:

With the dapper Florida Sen. Marco Rubio we move into the more disturbing category of Republicans we might charitably diagnose as “faith-deranged” – in other words, as likely to do fine among the unwashed “crazies” in the red-state primaries, but whose religious beliefs would (or should) render them unfit for civilized company anywhere else.

Among the faith-deranged, Rubio stands out. He briefly dumped one magic book for another, converting from Roman Catholicism to Mormonism and then back again. (Reporters take note: This is faith-fueled flip-flopping, which surely indicates a damning character flaw to be investigated.

2. Hillary Clinton is as bad as some of these Republicans. Tayler argues this:

Yet Hillary does believe. Not only that, she claims to have grown up in a family elbow-to-elbow with none other than the Almighty: “We talked with God, ate, studied, and argued with God.”

Reporters, to verify her truthfulness, might ask her to be more specific: what type of cuisine did God prefer? Did God use Cliff Notes while hitting the books with you? How was God in a debate? Did he, being God, simply smite with thunderbolts those he disagreed with? If she replies that she didn’t mean to be taken so literally, then what exactly constituted evidence of the Almighty’s presence in her home? Did she actually hear a voice respond as she prayed? Did she have visions? If so, did she consult a psychiatrist? Which was more likely – that she was rooming with God or that she was suffering some sort of protracted, especially vivid mental disturbance? There are meds for that.

The virtual corollary to Hillary’s belief: her “Faith Voters for Hillary” website, which axiomatically tells us her “faith is deeply personal and real.” Sadly, we have no evidence to the contrary.

While what Tayler quotes is true, and she does indeed have a “Faith Voter” website, I think this is a bit over the top. Yes, she’s consistently mentioned her faith, but for some reason—maybe my own Democratic biases—I tend to think that it’s more a ploy to get elected than a genuine immersion in goddiness. And Tayler’s snarky questions seem beside the point. After all, it’s impossible to be elected U.S. President without pandering to faith, and of course Hillary wants to be President really, really badly. That would still indicate a character flaw—dissimulation and pandering for ambition—but at least her religiosity wouldn’t be as much an impediment to her Presidency than it would for most of the Republicans.

3. Religious professions are beliefs about what’s true, and it’s fair game to ask the candidates about them. I agree absolutely, although we’re not going to see that kind of grilling during the Presidential campaign. When it comes to elections, the behavior of the press resembles that at a polite dinner party: religion is simply off the table. Tayler:

Reporters should do their job and not allow any of these potential commanders-in-chief to get away with God talk without making them answer for it, as impolite as that might be. Religious convictions deserve the same scrutiny any other convictions get, or more. After all, they are essentially wide-ranging assertions about the nature of reality and supernatural phenomena. As always, the burden of proof lies on the one making extraordinary claims. And if the man or woman carrying the nuclear briefcase happens to be eagerly desiring the End of Days, we need to know.

Here are some questions journalists might ask the candidates. . . . So, if you accept the Bible in its totality, do you think sex workers should be burned alive (Leviticus 21:9) or that gays should be put to death (Leviticus 20:13)? Should women submit to their husbands, per Colossians 3:18? Should women also, as commands 1 Timothy 2:11, study “in silence with full submission?” Would you adhere to Deuteronomy 20:10-14 and ask Congress to pass a law punishing rapists by fining them 50 shekels and making them marry their victims and forbidding them to divorce forever?

It goes on like that, but you get the idea.

I would dearly love to see a reporter ask those questions. The problem is that the public would be outraged—not at the candidate, but at the reporter and her network. Anyone grilling candidates along these lines, which I consider perfectly fair, would herself be branded a nonbeliever and possibly lose her job. The network would get thousands of angry letters. But imagine someone actually asking a candidate this stuff. Those candidates wouldn’t be prepared for it, as they all know that questioning faith is a no-no, and so they’d waffle and stammer in response, giving all of us heathens a grand time.

I do wonder, though, how effective Tayler’s snark has been.  I myself see it as one prong of a multi-pronged attack on faith, but some of the comments are like the one below:

SMontgomery42 minutes ago

It’s frustrating to be a progressive Christian, lumped in by not-so-well-meaning-or-well-informed press with the conservative Christians who not only believe every word of the Bible but believe they can read it with no cultural lenses.

I happen to know that Hillary Clinton is a Methodist and about as far from a fundamentalist as one can get.  I don’t know her personal faith journey, but perhaps she views the Bible as I do: the history of a people trying to understand their place in the world and their relationship to the divine.

Atheists and agnostics, it’s fine that you don’t want to respect my belief in God.  I’m not asking you to come to my garage and see my invisible pink elephant.  As William James said, my experience is completely authoritative for me and 0 percent authoritative for anyone else.

But you’re alienating an ally.  Like you, I don’t want to live in a theocracy.  Like you, I believe large portions of the Bible are abhorrent.  Like you, I find a lot of conservative positions to be pandering to bigotry and ignorance.

From my perspective, you’ve tossed out baby with bathwater.  From your perspective, I’m still chained in ignorance to worship of a non-existent Deity.  We can still be political allies *if* we don’t mock each other and denigrate each others’ beliefs and experiences.

Tayler could’ve counted me as an ally, but instead he opted to mock me, lump me in with fundamentalists, and so he lost me.

I’m not sure how Taylor could “lose” this commenter, as he’s not trying to do anything but criticize the hegemony of religion in American politics. The woman is not going to change her voting affiliation simply because Tayler criticizes everyone!

And I do see “SMontgomery” as flawed, admitting that his/her experience is “completely authoritative for me and 0 percent authoritative for anyone else,” a point of view shared by those who have been abducted by UFOs or have seen Bigfoot.  What I would be concerned about were I Tayler is this: “Am I convincing people to not be religious”? I myself am not that worried, as SMontgomery is in the faith camp no matter what, but I wonder what readers think.

h/t: dano1843

Barn owl versus kestrel

by Matthew Cobb

This tremendous video from a nestcam set up by Robert E Fuller shows a barn owl and a kestrel fighting over who will occupy the nest site. Hard to know who I want to win – they are both gorgeous birds. Fuller is a wildlife artist based in Yorkshire – you can see some of his art at his website,

My only complaint is that there’s no sound on the cam, but it’s clear that both animals were making a tremendous racket. Now the $64,000 question – who do you think will win and, having viewed the video, who did win?

h/t @rowhoop on Tw*tter

CBS goes soft on homeopathy, but gives atheism a fair shake

Reader Howie Neufeld sent me a note about two CBS television segments I missed (readers can assume I miss every show except for “60 Minutes” and the NBC Evening News):

This morning CBS News had Dr. Holly Phillips (internist) discuss homeopathy.  When the anchor asked her if it was pseudoscience, she sidestepped the question, referring mainly to the lack of FDA  regulation of such remedies. Having taught about homeopathy (I consider it junk, not pseudoscience) for years, I was extremely disappointed in her lackluster and inadequate responses. She should have debunked it totally, as she had a national audience.  Instead, she caved in to the herbal drug industry.

Howie was right; CBS abnegated its responsibility here in refusing to say that homeopathy is not only ineffective, but dangerous in drawing sick people away from science-based treatment. You can see the 2.5-minute segment by clicking on the screenshot below (be sure to disable AdBlocker on the site, and the one below, so you’ll probably have to see a 30-second ad).

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 10.06.40 AM

Howie added:

Yesterday, on a better note, Mo Rocca, of all people, on the Sunday Morning show, did a very nice survey of atheism in the U.S., and interviewed a diverse group of people who have become atheists (including African-Americans, where some 9o% profess a belief in God [JAC: the show says that this proportion believe with certainty]). It focused more on the psychological and sociological aspects of “coming out” so to speak, and the distress many of these people have experienced once they let their families and friends know, but I thought he did a good job of it, without prejudice or bias as far as I could detect.

And he’s right again; it’s a fair and good segment. The piece was called “Atheists: In Godlessness We trust,” and you can see the piece (and read the three-page transcript) by clicking on the screenshot below. You really should watch it; it’s only ten minutes long.

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 8.26.02 AM

You’ll recognize some of the more well known nonbelievers, like Julia Sweeney. But what struck me was one statistic: 7.4% of Americans don’t believe in God, but only a third of those will call themselves “atheists,” for the word has such bad connotations. I think it’s time for us to stand up and say what we are: we are atheists, and we see no evidence for a God, just as we see no evidence for UFOs or Bigfoot. “Atheist” is a word that should be redolent of reason, not of Satan, and the more often we use it to describe ourselves, the less demonic the word will seem.

Espresso in space: Italian astronaut on the ISS must have proper coffee

What better way to greet the day than this tw**t from astronaut Samantha Christoforetti, who, being Italian, was elated on Wednesday to take delivery of a special space espresso machine ferried to the International Space Station via the Dragon vehicle. “Sam”, as she calls herself, is, as Wikpedia notes, the first Italian woman in space, is festooned with multiple degrees, and is also a polyglot, “fluent in Italian, English, German, French and Russian.

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 6.18.42 AM

I didn’t know this, but as Star Trek fan Grania points out in the first comment below (and gives a video), Christoforetti’s comment is a direct quote from Captain Janeway.

Note that Christoforetti even donned a special Star Trek uniform for the occasion! Much as I’d like to, I can’t designate her the Official Website Sweetheart™ as that position is already filled by Philomena, but she’s just become The Official Website Astronaut™.

According to Forbes, the astronauts previously had to make do with powdered coffee mixed with hot water. No self-respecting Italian could tolerate such swill.

The Dragon is a private SpaceX supply vehicle that carries supplies and equipment to the ISS. This time, besides the espresso machine, it also carried less important stuff like imaging satellites and paraphernalia for scientific experiments (including mice). It looks like this:


The Guardian has a long article on the Space Espresso Machine, which is surprisingly cumbersome. Here’s a photo, labeled “The ISSpresso machine weighs about 20kg – the same as all the science instruments on the Philae comet lander put together. Photograph: Lavazza”. And it apparently produces coffee of a quality indistinguishable from that of real Italian espresso. I have to say that this is a LOT of effort to get decent coffee to the astronauts!

The ISSpresso machine

A description:

The device was made by two Turin-based companies, Lavazza Coffee and engineering firm Argotec. It is called the ISSpresso and was delivered by Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti in the early hours of Monday morning, when her Soyuz space capsule docked at the orbiting habitat.

Making coffee in space is difficult, especially espresso, which relies on 94°C water being passed through ground coffee under high pressure.

On Earth this is achieved with the help of gravity. The ground coffee is placed in a perforated container, the water is heated and shot on to the coffee to drip into the cup. In space there is no up and down, so things don’t naturally fall.

Water – and the scalding coffee – would simply form droplets and float away, presenting a hazard both to the astronauts and to the sensitive electronics on board. So the ISSpresso takes water from a pouch and pumps it round the machine.

The water is heated and placed under pressure then fired through a capsule of ground coffee. According to the Italian national espresso institute, the water must reach the coffee at 9 bar of pressure to be called a certified Italian espresso.

To guard against accidents, the piping in the ISSpresso can withstand pressures of up to 400 bar. The machine itself weighs 20kg, which is the same as all the science instruments on the Philae comet lander put together.

The resulting drink is pumped into another plastic pouch and the astronaut drinks it through a straw.

Lavazza has a video on PuffHo that you can see by clicking on the screenshot below (it’s at the bottom of the article). The ISS justifies the machine because it’s an important psychological booster. I agree fully!

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 8.48.01 AM

Sadly, Astronaut Sam won’t be able to have a morning cappuccino:

Those hoping for cappuccino on the ISS however still have some time to wait. The process relies on frothing milk using steam, then separating the resulting foam from the milk. On Earth, gravity does the separation for you. In zero-G, the milk and the foam would be almost inseparable unless you placed the device in a centrifuge. But then, how do you get the milk foam to float on the coffee?

Here’s our hero again; you can follow her at @AstroSamantha (her Flickr Photostream is here):

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 6.52.49 AM

h/t: Jon


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