Angel Falls

I doubt that I’ll ever make it to Venzuela to see Angel Falls, the highest uninterrupted waterfall in the world—3212 feet, or 979 meters: 6 times the height of the Washington Monument. But this video, from the BBC’s Planet Earth, is a decent substitute:

And here’s a longer video, well worth watching. It also shows the plane from which Jimmie Angel first saw the spectacle in 1933. Trying to land on the plateau in 1937, he crashed the plane, but it was recovered by helicopter in 1970 and now sits by the airport in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela.


Chipmunk caught red-pawed purloining seeds

In line with the end-of-the-day-feel-good policy, here’s a chipmunk caught at the bird feeder, dumping his ballast to make a hasty exit. Look how many seeds it can pack in those pouches!

Poor thing. . .

More perfidy from the Catholic Church: Lobbying against laws to prevent child abuse

Before you dismiss this as dubious because it came from the New York Daily News, remember that unsubstantiated accusations against the Catholic Church are dangerous, as they have fancy lawyers, and the story has also been reported by other sources (e.g., Gawker). And this time the Church’s naked venality exposes it for the horrid and insensitive institution it is.

According to both articles, the Church has spent over $2 million dollars hiring lobbyists to fight the passage of the Child Victims Act, which would make it easier for victims of sexual child abuse to get justice from their predators. Among other things, that Act would open a one-year window for people older than 23 to file charges against sexual abusers—something that they can’t do now.

Why on Earth would the Church lobby against an act that protects the victims for which it now shows contrition? Yep, you guessed it:



State records show that the [New York Catholic conference], a group representing the bishops of the state’s eight dioceses, retained lobbyists to work on a number of issues associated with “statute of limitations” and “timelines for commencing certain civil actions related to sex offenses.”

“We believe this bill is designed to bankrupt the Catholic Church,” Catholic Conference spokesman Dennis Poust told the New York Times in 2009.
That conference is led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, who himself has been accused of delaying discussion of on Church reform.  I really don’t know why anyone still belongs to the Church. Were I part of an institution that had an organized coverup of endemic child rape, and also fought against birth control on scriptural grounds, I’d be deeply ashamed of myself, and get the hell out as soon as possible. This latest act shows that it cares far more about its coffers, which are well full, than about the rape of children.

h/t: Barry

The Cutting Tradition: Heather Hastie on FGM

Reader Heather Hastie continues her investigations into female genital mutilation (FGM) with a 47-minute movie on the practice, narrated by Meryl Streep, posted on her website. I urge you to watch it, though bits are not pleasant to watch, like the slicing off of a clitoris with a non-sterile razor blade.  This is often done by old ladies whose vision isn’t so great! The video should be required watching for anyone who condones FGM as a “cultural practice.” Most of it is solid information, not graphic gore, but do be aware. .

As Heather notes:

I found one particularly good video I want to share with you now. It was commissioned back in 2012 by the International Federation of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (FIGO) and produced by a group called Safe Hands for Mothers. Their vision is one where no women die in pregnancy or childbirth. As FGM markedly increases the risks for women during childbirth, their work includes campaigning against it.

The Cutting Tradition is narrated by Meryl Streep and, as stated on the YouTube page, was “Filmed in Ethiopia, Egypt, Djibouti, Burkina Faso and the UK, [and] … looks at the reasons for female genital mutilation in Africa today.” Note: This video includes graphic content of FGM being performed and FGM being surgically corrected.

The Cincinnati gorilla incident: what would you do?

As many of you know, a 4-year-old boy, with his mother’s attention distracted, went through the fence separating the gorilla enclosure from the visitors at the Cincinnati Zoo last Saturday. The child then made his way through the vegetation, falling into a deep moat around the gorilla space. Hearing the splash, a male silverback gorilla named Harambe jumped into the moat, grabbed the child, and dragged it around. Some of the dragging was violent, and zoo workers decided that the only recourse was to shoot the gorilla. (Tranquilizer darts would have taken effect too slowly, and might have enraged the animal.) Here’s a video of part of the incident:

There have been a lot of protests, with animal-rights advocates second-guessing the zoo (why didn’t they tranquilize the animal?) or urging that the mother be charged with negligence. While I am deeply upset at the whole episode, I don’t see a viable alternative to the zoo’s decision. A male silverback—and this one could crush a coconut with his bare hands—is immensely strong, and could have killed the child in an instant. Would it have been judicious to wait and see what happened to the child? Perhaps it could have been rescued, as was a child who fell into a gorilla cage at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago (this was in 1996) and was actually handed to the keepers by a gorilla who cradled the unconscious child solicitously. But that gorilla behaved very differently from Harambe.

Should the zoo have killed the animal? Given its behavior, yes. Should the mother be charged with negligence? I don’t think so: she was tending three other children, including a babe in arms. Kids get away sometimes.

I always hate it when animals are punished for behaving according to their genes and environments, and in so doing harm humans. Killing tigers and lions that have eaten a person always disturbs me greatly, and I’m not sure what to think about that. Nor do I know what steps should be taken here; the Zoo is reviewing the enclosure layout. What I do think, however, is that we need to stop keeping great apes in captivity unless they’re kept to breed and release into the wild. I know their habitat is shrinking, but remember that these are social animals evolved to roam in the wild. They are not exhibits to gawk at.

Oh, and I have one other beef. As People Magazine reports, the boy’s mother said this:

Michelle Gregg defended herself in a now-deleted Facebook post, writing: “God protected my child until the authorities were able to get to him. My son is safe and was able to walk away with a concussion and a few scrapes… no broken bones or internal injuries.”

Seriously—God protected the child? Why didn’t God keep the kid from jumping into the moat?

h/t: Su


New Atheism is dead: a case of self-plagiarism

UPDATE: I notice that The Raw Story has closed its comments after only 15 of them, and none particularly nasty. I wonder if they’ve learned their story is an old one.

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“Self-plagiarism,” or repeating your own words in different pieces, is sometimes okay so long as you make it evident, and don’t recycle too much of your stuff. In Faith versus Fact I used a couple of paragraphs from previous essays I’d published, slightly changing the wording to integrate them better into the book. In the book’s notes I also pointed out which sections had been published before. Publishers are okay with this. What they’re not okay with—and neither am I—is publishing the same piece twice without indicating that it was published before.

Here’s one example, and a rather bad one. Someone called my attention to an article in May 25’s The Raw Story, written by one Chris Hall, called “Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris are old news—a totally different Atheism is on the rise.” It’s the usual beefing about how the Four Horsepersons are old, misogynistic white men and have become obsolete as new and more diverse voices are rising. (Let me add that I certainly favor diversity in atheism, but that those “old passé guys” become well known because they wrote engrossing books, not because they’ve proclaimed themselves leaders, or have oppressed others or silenced competing voices.) Be that as it may, the article looked oddly familiar to me, and, Googling some of the phrases, I came across a virtually identical article written by the same author, but published in June, 2014 on Salon under a different title: “Forget Christopher Hitchens: Atheism in America is undergoing a radical change.” And that article, with a title identical to the new one, was taken from an Alternet piece also published in June 2014. 

Is there any indication that the new article is a retread of the old one—that it was published before? Nope. Is there any difference between the new article and the two old ones? Not that I see—except for one slight change:

Old pieces:

But in 2014, Hitchens is dead, and using Dawkins or Harris to make a case for or against atheism is about as relevant as writing about how Nirvana and Public Enemy are going to change pop music forever.

New piece:

But in 2016, Hitchens is dead, and using Dawkins or Harris to make a case for or against atheism is about as relevant as writing about how Nirvana and Public Enemy are going to change pop music forever.

This is doubly ironic, for if those Old White Guys were irrelevant in 2014, why even mention them two years later? This also shows that the author is conscious of having published the exact same piece twice, changing but a single date.  I wonder how many times he got paid for it?

At any rate, when you republish a piece after two years, it’s journalistic ethics to say, “This piece was originally published on Salon and Alternet in 2014.” And, of course, people still cite Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris to make the case for atheism. The arguments for unbelief don’t become obsolete so quickly! In fact, one can still cite Mencken or Ingersoll to make the case for atheism. Theists come up with new arguments for God, but they’re invariably tweaked versions of ones that have long been refuted.



This cannot end well: Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter sign onto EU “hate speech” code

According to the Guardian, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have agreed to comply with the European Union’s new “code of conduct” for the Internet.  You can see the code of conduct here, and the EU’s announcement of it, issued today, here. The Guardian notes this:

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft have all been involved in the creation of the code, which is particularly aimed at fighting racism and xenophobia across Europe. Such efforts are hampered by varying enforcement in different countries, something the code is tackling.

It also encourages the social media companies to take quick action as soon as a valid notification is received. [JAC: They say 24 hours, which means that if your Facebook page is taken down, it will take weeks to restore it, if you even can.]

A slim document, the code of conduct isn’t legally binding for the internet companies, even though many of its policies are already covered by other EU legislation such as the e-commerce directive. Instead, it establishes “public commitments” for the companies, including the requirement to review the “majority of valid notifications for removal of illegal hate speech” in less than 24 hours, and to make it easier for law enforcement to notify the firms directly.

While the motivation behind the code seems well-intentioned, the way that it’s defined seems deeply problematic. Here’s what the creator of the code, Vĕra Jourová, the EU commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, said about it, referring to the terrorism in Paris and Brussels:

“The recent terror attacks have reminded us of the urgent need to address illegal online hate speech,” she said. “Social media is unfortunately one of the tools that terrorist groups use to radicalise young people and racist use to spread violence and hatred.

This agreement is an important step forward to ensure that the internet remains a place of free and democratic expression, where European values and laws are respected.”

This is the problematic part, with some of the background:

Following the EU Colloquium on Fundamental Rights in October 2015 on ‘Tolerance and respect: preventing and combating Antisemitic and anti-Muslim hatred in Europe’, the Commission initiated a dialogue with IT companies, in cooperation with Member States and civil society, to see how best to tackle illegal online hate speech which spreads violence and hate.

The Framework Decision on Combatting Racism and Xenophobia criminalises the public incitement to violence or hatred directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin. This is the legal basis for defining illegal online content.

Freedom of expression is a core European value which must be preserved. The European Court of Human Rights set out the important distinction between content that “offends, shocks or disturbs the State or any sector of the population” and content that contains genuine and serious incitement to violence and hatred. The Court has made clear that States may sanction or prevent the latter.

Unfortunately, the line between hate speech and “freedom of expression” is not a clear one; as well all know, one person’s free speech is another person’s hate speech. Drawing a cartoon of the Pope is okay; drawing a cartoon of Muhammad is hate speech, and can get you killed.  Do we trust the EU, or Facebook, to judge wisely?

And freedom of expression in Europe, which is apparently what the EU is codifying as a guide for the social media platforms, differs from free speech in the U.S.  While it’s not clear from the EU “Justice” guidelines what constitutes incitement to hatred, some European countries have banned mockery of religion, denial of the Holocaust, and incitement of hatred against races, nationalities, ethnic groups, or religions (see here and here). In the U.S. such expressions are legal so long as they don’t incite imminent violence against groups.

What I expect is that there will now be a rash of complaints by various groups who feel that mockery of their religion, ethnicity, or ideology is ‘hate speech’. Will anti-Zionist speech be banned? What about mockery of Islam, or cartoons about Muhammad? Both should be allowed.

My own personal Facebook page has been taken down twice for “violating community standards”, all because a different page on which I’m a moderator, the Global Secular Humanist Movement—which criticizes religion but doesn’t by any rational standard incite hatred—published something taken as offensive. I suspect that it was cartoons depicted Muhammad or criticizing Islam, but I’m not sure.

The new EU/social media policy necessarily involves a lot of arbitrary decisions. It would be much easier to implement if those organizations adhered to the American standard: let everything be expressed except for repeated harassment of individuals (itself a bit hard to adjucicate), slander and libel, or posts meant to create immediate violence or recruit individuals to terrorist organizations. While most of these criteria are also somewhat subjective, they are much less subjective than the new standards.

Welcome to Big Brother on the Internet.


A recipe for disaster

h/t: Grania

Readers’ wildlife photographs

After seeing his lovely photos on Facebook, I importund photographer Pete Moulton to send me some nice photos of shorebirds. He kindly complied:
Here are some bitterns and grebes. The Pied-billed Grebes (Podilymbus podiceps) in Papago Park have more cattails to provide cover, and apparently kept their brood under wraps until they were fairly well grown. First report I heard was on Saturday, 14 May. I started photographing them the next day. Crayfish still constitute the majority of their diet. The youngsters are making short dives now, but still depend on the adults to bring them food:
PBGR_5-15-16_Papago Pk_9857
This diet has advantages for would-be grebe photographers, because the adults do much of their foraging among the rocks that line the shore.
PBGR_5-21-16_Papago Pk_0253
The youngsters emulate as many behaviors of their parents as they can. They preen a lot, despite the lack of effect this has on their downy coats. This one is executing a swimming shake, which helps settle the contour feathers when preening is done. Of course, it hasn’t grown many contour feathers yet, but the behavior will become a useful part of its repertoire once it does.
PBGR_5-15-16_Papago Pk_9973
A week later, 22 May to be exact, the babies have grown some contour feathers on their bodies, but still have their characteristic head markings, and lack flight feathers in their wings. They’ve become less wary and more adventurous. This one swam all the way across the pond to observe us as we observed it, and then stayed to preen for a few minutes until one of its parents called it back to the group.
PBGR_5-22-16_PApago Pk_0703
Pied-billeds aren’t the only grebes in the vicinity. All seven species of North American grebes have occurred in the Phoenix metro area. This one is an adult Western Grebe, Aechmophorus occidentalis, which has been in the southeast part of the Phoenix metro area for about three weeks now. This one, unlike most Western Grebes, often comes close enough for photography.
A pair of Least BitternsIxobrychus exilis, seems to have taken up residence near the best viewpoint for the Western Grebe, and they’ve become local rockstars. My pictures of them haven’t been too good yet, so here’s a male Least Bittern from Papago Park last year.
LEBI_7-19-15_Papago Pk_5912
 Professor Ceiling Cat requested bitterns without specifying Least Bitterns, and when I asked for clarification, he naturally wanted both. American Bitterns, Botaurus lentiginosus, do occur in the Phoenix area as winter visitors. They seem to be very rare here, but that may partly be a function of the density of their habitat and their native secretiveness. This is one from a few years ago in the same general location as the Western Grebe and its attendant pair of Least Bitterns.

Cartoons and cars

There are a few miscellaneous items that I didn’t know where to put.  First, readers George, jsp, and many others (first one below) sent cartoons:

Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller:


From Facebook (I’m wondering whether this will satisfy Diana MacPherson, or whether she’d go into the bathroom on the right and reverse the toilet roll):


From reader Barry:

Atheism copy 7

From Off the Mark by Mark Parisi—a wonderful idea!


Finally a car I saw on a walk yesterday: a gorgeous 1941 Buick Super 8 coupe: 75 years old! Why don’t they make cars that look like this any more? There’s a YouTube scan of a very similar model (missing the amber front lights) here.

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Tuesday: Hili dialogue (and Leon lagniappe)

A busy week ahead: a trip to Boston and Cambridge (MA) for six days, which means posting will be lighter than usual. We’ll leave out the history today except to say that on this day in 1929, the first talking Mickey Mouse cartoon, “The Karnival Kid,” was released. Click on the screenshot at bottom to see it. On May 31, 1930, Clint Eastwood was born, and on this day in 1976, Jacques Monod died. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is trying to be helpful. The weather is lovely now, and she spends nights out on the tiles.

Hili: Look, starlings are devouring neighbour’s sweet cherries.
A: I’m glad they are not mine.
Hili: They have already devoured yours.
In Polish:
Hili: Patrz, szpaki zżerają sąsiadom czereśnie.
Ja: Dobrze, że nie moje.
Hili: Twoje już zjadły.

In nearby Wroclawek, Leon is kvetching:

Leon: This Japanese willow is rather puny. Impossible to sit on it!


And in Winnipeg, Gus found a nice place to sleep:


Finally, Mickey Mouse makes his first vocal appearance: The Karnival Kid; click the screenshot to see it. There’s Minnie the Love Interest, singing cats, talking hot dogs—what more do you want?

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