Oxford University bans free speech magazine as “offensive”

The Torygraph and The Independent report further restriction of free speech (not a “constitutional” guarantee in the UK)—this time at Oxford. And once again, it involves a student union, the OUSU, which has banned a magazine called “No Offence” from the Freshers’ Fair. The grounds? Because the magazine is offensive. From The Independent:

The magazine aims to promote a discussion surrounding ideas people are afraid to discuss, according to the Versa News student website.

The magazine was founded by third-year Philosophy Politics and Economics student Jacob Williams and Oxford local Lulie Tanett and the aim of the magazine is to promote free speech and provoke debate.

They say that ‘No Offence’ was set up to ‘promote debate and publicise ideas people are afraid to express’.

Here’s the email from the Oxford Student Union explaining why they banned the magazine:


Further clarifying why the Stallholder Regulations were violated,  the OUSU explained to the Torygraph:

”We at OUSU do not wish to have an event which is intended to welcome new students to Oxford associated with a publication making light of racism, sexual violence, and homophobia in an attempt at satire.

“The Freshers’ Fair is one of OUSU’s most widely attended events and while Open Oxford are entitled to book a stall and distribute their publication elsewhere, we chose to withdraw their permission to distribute the publication.

“OUSU exists to represent and enhance the lives of all Oxford students and given that Freshers’ Fair is for new students, we do not wish to subject them to the offensive views of a minority which are present in this publication. Such views are in no way representative of Oxford students as whole.”

The Independent gives more information about the content that led to the banning:

OUSU told The Independent it did not allow the magazine because it “included a graphic description of an abortion, the use of an ableist slur, a celebration of colonialism, and a transphobic article. In an attempt at satire, another article suggested organising a ‘rape swagger’ – in the style of a ‘slut walk’ – in order to make rape ‘socially acceptable.’

“OUSU do not want to be associated with the views in this magazine, therefore do not want it to be distributed at our event. The offensive views exhibited in this magazine do not in any way represent the majority of Oxford students, or OUSU. We therefore are very comfortable with our decision not to allow the publication at our event, and would like to emphasise that the editors of No Offence are, of course, completely free to publish the document online, in the exact form in which it was sent to us, to enable students who wish to read it to do so.”

. . . UEA students’ union (SU) campaigns and democracy officer Chris Jarvis said that the body wants all members to feel safe and accepted by ensuring there is no behaviour, language, or imagery which could be considered racist at all events.

Once again we see the repression of speech that makes students “unsafe” or “unaccepted”.  Now it’s possible that the stuff in the magazine really is odious and offensive (the “rape walk” thing sounds disturbing), but it’s also possible that what we have here is a Charlie Hebo situation, in which the views of the magazine editors are misinterpreted as approving of the “wrong” sides of sensitive issues—issues that do warrant discussion. Regardless, why can’t the OUSU allow a magazine to be distributed that allows “freshers” to make up their own minds?

I remember that when I was younger, a callow and fearless lad of about thirteen, a friend and I visited the American Nazi Party headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, very close to where I lived. We wanted to see what it was all about and meet the infamous Lincoln Rockwell, head of that organization (he was later assassinated). We were given a tour of the facilities by people wearing uniforms and swastika armbands (a huge picture of Hitler adorned the wall), and then presented with a bag of souvenir literature; I remember in particular a pair of “Coon-Ard Boat Tickets to Africa,” expressing the Party’s desire to ship all black people back to that continent (“coon” is an American slur for “black”). I was at once disgusted and fascinated that people could really believe this stuff.

Nowadays I don’t think I’d have the courage to walk into that house (the place no longer exists, as far as I know), but, disgusted as I was, I didn’t and don’t think that this kind of stuff should be banned. After all, it is the speech of Holocaust deniers that have led people like me to learn exactly what evidence there is for the Holocaust, just as it is the speech of creationists (which I find offensive!) that spurred me to write Why Evolution is True laying out the counterevidence. Discussion with those you oppose, so long as you can keep your cool and remain fixed on evidence, can be a valuable learning experience.

The operative quote is from Salman Rushdie:

“Nobody has the right to not be offended. That right doesn’t exist in any declaration I have ever read.

If you are offended it is your problem, and frankly lots of things offend lots of people.

I can walk into a bookshop and point out a number of books that I find very unattractive in what they say. But it doesn’t occur to me to burn the bookshop down. If you don’t like a book, read another book. If you start reading a book and you decide you don’t like it, nobody is telling you to finish it.

To read a 600-page novel and then say that it has deeply offended you: well, you have done a lot of work to be offended.”

We need to stop putting college students in insulated bubbles and start treating them as adults. There’s lots of potentially offensive stuff out there in the real world, and college is the place to learn how to deal with it.

h/t: Barry

Readers’ wildlife photographs (and video)

The photo tank is beginning to empty, so do send any GOOD photos that you have. Meanwhile, today we have a treat for arachnophiles: two lovely spider photos and video today from reader Al Denelsbeck. His notes:

Sending along photos of a magnolia green jumping spider, Lyssomanes viridis. This is a juvenile female, 4mm in body length. The translucent chitin allows light to shine through the cephalothorax so the internal motions of the retinas can easily be seen, and they can move independently. I provided food for this one to convince it to hold still – jumpers are such hyperactive spiders – and even got video of the wandering eyes.



Here’s the video, which clearly shows the moving eyes:

And his own writeup on the spider, which appears on Al’s website Walkabout.

You may recall that in August I put up a video showing the moving eyes of another jumping spider, as well as an explanation of how we’re able to see the eyes, which are long tubes, moving about.

Reader Mark Sturtevant, a reliable source of great insect photos, sent two pictures of bees:

This is one of my captured bees. I had to chill it down in the refrigerator to get it to hold still for pictures, but I only got maybe two minutes before they regained mobility and flew away. I later learned that they are called the European wool-carder bee (Anthidium manicatum), named after their habit of collecting hairs from furry plants to line their nests. These bees were accidentally introduced from Europe. They are very territorial, and this explains why they were so keen to chase other bees away from the lambs ears.


The final bee also had me fooled since it looked more like a wasp. From the picture you can see it has an enlarged basitarsus, and it was that character that informed me that it was a bee of some kind. It turns out to be a species of cuckoo bee (Nomada maculata). These bees are so-named because like the cuckoo birds they practice kleptoparasitism. That is, they lay their eggs in the nests of other bees! Perhaps this explains why these bees are not particularly hairy, since they are only collecting pollen to feed themselves. I have since learned that there are kleptoparasitic bees in several of the bee families.


For those of you unfamiliar with the basitarsus, here’s a diagram of an insect leg (a sandfly). You can see the enlarged basitarsus on the rear leg of the bee above.


Sunday: Hili dialogue

‘Tis Sunday in Dobrzyn, and the pious are in church (Catholic, of course). But all of us here are going about our Fathers Ceiling Cat’s work: I’m writing two talks and thinking about my speciation book. Hili is especially annoyed with not getting extra shuteye on Sunday:

A: Hili, time to get up.
Hili: Even on Sunday they don’t let a cat get enough sleep.


In Polish:
Ja: Hili, pora wstawać.
Hili: Nawet w niedzielę nie pozwalają się kotu porządnie wyspać.

A hard choice

Apropos, a new cartoon from Pliny the in Between at Pictoral Theology. Nice title, too.

GOP Kobayashi Maru

Toon Backgroundd.001-1

Time to outlaw guns

UPDATE: Reader Barry called my attention to a piece in Politico Magazine, “How the NRA rewrote the Second Amendment,” by Michael Waldman, that’s well worth reading. It discusses the origin of the Amendment, and then how legal opinion beginning in the late 19th century consistently argued that the Amendment didn’t guarantee Americans the right to own guns. Beginning in the 1950s, legal opinions changed—largely with funding from the NRA.

One snippet that shows the NRA’s duplicity:

Today at the NRA’s headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, oversized letters on the facade no longer refer to “marksmanship” and “safety.” Instead, the Second Amendment is emblazoned on a wall of the building’s lobby. Visitors might not notice that the text is incomplete. It reads:

“.. the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

The first half—the part about the well regulated militia—has been edited out.r

And Waldman’s conclusion:

Molding public opinion is the most important factor. Abraham Lincoln, debating slavery, said in 1858, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.” The triumph of gun rights reminds us today: If you want to win in the court of law, first win in the court of public opinion.


The more I reread and learn about the Second Amendment, the more I’m convinced that it is not a Constitutional justification for private gun ownership EXCEPT for the original purposes of allowing for a militia—a purpose now outmoded. Read it:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Somehow people read the second part of the statement, about the right to keep and bear arms, without paying attention to the first, which is the justification. What part of “a well regulated militia” don’t you (or the Supreme Court) understand?

Yesterday I pointed out historian Garry Wills’ trenchant analysis of the history of this amendment, a piece written in 1995 and concluding that the amendment’s purpose was to allow citizens to form militias (duh!) In a new piece at the online New Yorker, “The Second Amendment is a gun-control amendment,” Adam Gopnik agrees. And he makes the point, which is bloody obvious, that if mental instability is the real cause of our burgeoning gun violence, why does America harbor such a higher proportion unstable people? That makes little sense, but this does:

Everyone crazy enough to pick up a gun and kill many people is crazy enough to have an ideology to attach to the act. The point—the only point—is that, everywhere else, that person rants in isolation or on his keyboard; only in America do we cheerfully supply him with military-style weapons to express his rage. As the otherwise reliably Republican (but still Canadian-raised) David Frum wisely writes: “Every mass shooter has his own hateful motive. They all use the same tool.”

Then, like Wills, he runs through the history of the Second Amendment, bringing it up to date with the Supreme Court decision in 2008 that established the supposed Constitutional “right” to own guns for purposes like self-defense.  As a palliative, Gopnik recommends, as do I, that you read Justice Stevens’s dissent in that case. Stevens’s last paragraph, relevant to the court’s 5-4 decision to overturn a District of Columbia law banning hanguns, is this:

 “The Court properly disclaims any interest in evaluating the wisdom of the specific policy choice challenged in this case, but it fails to pay heed to a far more important policy choice—the choice made by the Framers themselves. The Court would have us believe that over 200 years ago, the Framers made a choice to limit the tools available to elected officials wishing to regulate civilian uses of weapons, and to authorize this Court to use the common-law process of case-by-case judicial lawmaking to define the contours of acceptable gun control policy. Absent compelling evidence that is nowhere to be found in the Court’s opinion, I could not possibly conclude that the Framers made such a choice.

For these reasons, I respectfully dissent.”

What Stevens is saying in the penultimate sentence is that he cannot find evidence that the authors of the Constitution saw no limits on the ability of elected officials to regulate gun ownership. Citing another of Stevens’s sentences, below, Gopnik concludes that the Second Amendment was designed to regulate gun ownership:

” . Until today, it has been understood that legislatures may regulate the civilian use and misuse of firearms so long as they do not interfere with the preservation of a well-regulated militia. The Court’s announcement of a new constitutional right to own and use firearms for private purposes upsets that settled understanding . . .”

Yet the gun madness continues, justified now by two arguments. Both of these, I was sad to find, were made in a public Facebook post by The Thinking Atheist, Seth Andrews, a man I admire and count as a friend—but also a gun owner. Seth’s post is more nuanced than many, is thoughtful, and ends with a note that he’s willing to reconsider his views. I hope he will, because I think he’s wrong. Let me first show how Seth’s post is far less strident than the views of many gun owners.

He recognizes that not all people who own guns are responsible or thoughtful (his words are indented):

It’s easy for firearms opponents to caricaturize gun owners as a Wild West circus of reckless, blood-drunk fools who finish each day with reruns of “Dukes of Hazzard.” (And, unfortunately, those people exist.)
Seth recognizes that there are problems to which he doesn’t have solutions:
If someone asked me if I’d rather be pinned down under an active shooter in a grocery store with or without a firearm at my side, my answer is…with! However, it can also be argued that more guns, even on the law-abiding, equals more opportunities for things to go horribly wrong.
Finally, Seth notes that opinions on this subject are not immutable:
There are a thousand steps leading to the ones at Oregon and elsewhere. I’d like to understand all of them. I’d like to see a world where no one, nowhere, wakes with the intent to murder another. And I’m willing to continually assess my perspective and position on legal firearms in this country.

But then he proffers the two arguments for private gun ownership—arguments I hear all too often. The first claims that the monthly carnage we see on American campuses, theaters, and other public places is not attributable to America’s lax gun laws. It is due to mentally unstable people who just happen to use guns to exercise their animus. As Seth argues:

I don’t subscribe to the idea that the weapon to do harm doesn’t matter, only the desire to harm, although I maintain that the desire to harm – often borne of a hugely troubled mind – remains at the root of this terrible problem.

. . . Do written laws cause madmen to say, “Wait…this is illegal?”

Fine words, but they fail to explain why countries that must surely harbor just as high a proportion of “madmen” as the U.S. have so much less gun violence. Are Americans really sevenfold crazier than our Canadian neighbors? (We have seven times the per capita rate of homicide via guns.) Or could the presence of the tools help those madmen hurt others? After all, you can’t kill 22 people in a school with a knife or a taser.

The second argument is that now that we have so many guns floating around, we’ve crossed the Rubicon: it will be impossible to get rid of them, or impose realistic legislation, so that the rest of us must have guns to protect us from those bad people who have guns. Seth:

But does the idea of an armed, law-abiding citizen have merit? Possibly, especially as firearms are ubiquitous, and it only takes one rogue among the peaceful to wreak real havoc. If someone asked me if I’d rather be pinned down under an active shooter in a grocery store with or without a firearm at my side, my answer is…with! However, it can also be argued that more guns, even on the law-abiding, equals more opportunities for things to go horribly wrong.

. . . There are over 300 million firearms in this country. The gorilla is out of its cage. So if we were to approach gun violence deaths by simply removing the guns, how would this be accomplished, what law would be a (forgive the expression) magic bullet more effective than previous gun legislation, how would you get firearms from those who ignore gun laws, and how would you address an underground that can already get any other illegal substance at the drop of hat?

This last argument echoes a pointed piece in The Onion called “‘No way to prevent this, says only nation where this regularly happens.” An excerpt:

“This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them,” said North Carolina resident Samuel Wipper, echoing sentiments expressed by tens of millions of individuals who reside in a nation where over half of the world’s deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the past 50 years and whose citizens are 20 times more likely to die of gun violence than those of other developed nations. “It’s a shame, but what can we do? There really wasn’t anything that was going to keep this guy from snapping and killing a lot of people if that’s what he really wanted.” At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past five years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”

I’m sorry, but I think there’s a way to put that gorilla back in the cage. It’s simply not possible to conceive of a democracy being unable to do so. A few suggestions:

  1.  Appoint a liberal Supreme Court to interpret the Second Amendment properly. This is a matter of a single Presidential appointment. This, perhaps, is the most important issue, for all regulatory legislation can be abolished by the court, just as they did in 2008. Republican Presidents have done more damage to American democracy via their Supreme Court appointments than through any policy decisions they’ve made.
  2. Stop saying that the problem cannot be solved, for that creates a national climate of despair.
  3. Get rid of concealed carry laws, which as far as I can know, are not prima facie Constitutional.
  4. Do not buy guns, and question those who own them. (I”m not adamantly opposed to guns for target shooting, but they should be kept at gun clubs in lockers, as in the British system.)
  5. Get rid of semiautomatic weapons; there is no right to own such things. They once were banned, but that federal ban expired in 2004 and has not been renewed (thanks, NRA!)
  6. Tax the hell out of guns and ammunition. This, too, seems constitutional.

A lot of this depends, of course, on the will of legislators and on our citizens to lobby them. Ask politicians their policy on gun control and do not vote for them if they support the existing regulations. (That, of course, may mean that you vote for nobody.)

I refuse to believe that Americans are so much more mentally unsound than citizens of other democracies that the U.S.’s big lead in gun violence must be attributed to American’s peculiar mentation.

9 members of Doctors Without Borders killed, dozens of others wounded as “collateral damage” in US airstrike in Afghanistan

The American government is culpable for every innocent civilian (euphemistically described as “collateral damage”) killed accidentally in airstrikes or dronestrikes in the Middle East. Every such person killed has others who love them, and values their life as much as any other human, and in that sense each person is intrinsically valuable. But those who devote their efforts to saving the lives of others have a special value, for the deaths of such workers implicitly entail the deaths of others—what might be called “second-order collateral damage.”

And so so, once again, the U.S. has slaughtered a bunch of innocent civilians, this time including nine members of Doctors Without Borders (or MSF, for Médecins Sans Frontières) ,an organization near and dear to my heart, as its members help the suffering in time of disaster regardless of the victims’ ethnicity, religion, or “side” in a war. (It’s our Official Website Charity™).

As reported by CNN, in an airstrike Saturday morning on a hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz, U.S. planes killed not only the nine MSF workers, but also injured 24 other members of the group along with at least 13 other people. (I’ve heard no reports yet of the deaths of patients.)

The worst part is that MSF gave the U.S. the GPS coordinates of the hospital as early as Thursday to prevent something like this, for the Taliban was fighting in the area. But there’s more: CNN reports (see the video at the link) that the strikes appear to have been deliberately aimed at the hospital.

Now that must have been a mistake, for there’s no reason why the U.S. would target an MSF hospital, especially because of the public-relations disaster that would ensue. It’s also a violation of the Geneva Convention, and serves no military purpose. But you can’t undo the deaths caused by that mistake.

Here’s the statement from MSF:

MSF condemns in the strongest possible terms the horrific bombing of its hospital in Kunduz full of staff and patients. MSF wishes to clarify that all parties to the conflict, including in Kabul and Washington, were clearly informed of the precise location (GPS Coordinates) of the MSF facilities – hospital, guest-house, office and an outreach stabilization unit in Chardara (to the north-west of Kunduz). As MSF does in all conflict contexts, these precise locations were communicated to all parties on multiple occasions over the past months, including most recently on 29 September.

The bombing continued for more than 30 minutes after American and Afghan military officials in Kabul and Washington were first informed. MSF urgently seeks clarity on exactly what took place and how this terrible event could have happened.

From the International Committee of the Red Cross:

Update, Saturday 3 October 2015: We condemn the shocking bombing of Médecins Sans Frontières’ hospital in ‪‎Kunduz. Under international humanitarian law, medical facilities must be respected and protected.

We call on all parties to the conflict to ensure the safety of the civilian population and to facilitate the work of those trying to provide humanitarian support to the people of Kunduz.

And the boilerplate U.S. statement of contrition, on of all places the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan’s Facebook page:

The U.S. Embassy mourns for the individuals and families affected by the tragic incident at the Doctors without Borders hospital, and for all those suffering from the violence in Kunduz. Doctors without Borders performs heroic work throughout the world, including in Afghanistan, and our thoughts and prayers are with their team at this difficult moment. We remain deeply concerned about the ongoing violence in Kunduz and the difficult humanitarian situation faced by its residents.

Why are we still in Afghanistan, and why are we still killing innocent Afghanis and aid workers? Is the “collateral damage” justified by the “primary damage?”  I don’t think so. Perhaps our incursion into Afghanistan was justified right after 9/11, but what have we accomplished since then? Virtually nothing: the Taliban is still strong, we’ve poured endless resources into a useless war that’s now been going on for fourteen years, it is the longest war in U.S. history, and innocent people continue to die, while we prop up a corrupt government. It’s becoming the Vietnam War of our era: a conflict we cannot win and will not win.

The report by MSF is what brought this to my attention, but I don’t for a minute see their deaths as any more tragic than those of Afghanis themselves, except that MSF was saving the lives of the locals. It’s time for President Obama to stop bombing Afghanistan, get out troops out of the Middle East, and render whatever humanitarian aid we are capable of giving. Yes, we and other countries should continue to absorb genuine refugees from war and terrorism, but it’s time that we leave the region to settle its own accounts. The “collateral damage”—better called, “unavoidable killing of innocent people”—is not outweighed by any benefits that I can see.

Fun in Dobrzyn and Toruń

Yesterday I was off to Toruń to give the beginning-of-the-school year lecture to the entering biology students at Nicolaus Copernicus University. The school was founded only in 1945, but has antecedents dating centuries earlier to the University of Vilnius (founded 1579), many of whose students and faculty migrated to Toruń after World War II.

But before I left, Malgorzata began making quince jam from the harvest of fruit from a bush right outside the front door.


When I returned in the evening, the fruits had been turned into jam. But the cooking was a mess: “Never again!”, said Malgorzata:

Quince Paste

Toruń (population about 200,000), situated on the river Vistula, is a medieval city founded in the 1100s and once the site of a castle housing the Teutonic Knights (Russia began on the other side of the river). The old part of the town, which is lovely (see below) is now a UNESCO Heritage site. Here’s the location:

Screen Shot 2015-10-03 at 8.51.10 AM

Toruń is famous for two things: Copernicus (who was born there) and gingerbread, which was supposedly invented there. We’ll get to Copernicus later, but gingerbread is everywhere. The story that it was invented in Torun is probably wrong, but the city was certainly famous for gingerbread beginning ages ago, and I was told it was used as currency there. Wikipedia reports this:

In Poland, gingerbreads are known as pierniki (singular, piernik). The most famous are called Toruń gingerbread (piernik toruński), a traditional Polish gingerbread that has been produced since the Middle Ages in the city of Toruń. It was a favorite delicacy of Chopin’s when he visited his godfather, Fryderyk Florian Skarbek, in Toruń during one of his school vacations.

My day began with a visit to a local theater where Justyna and her boyfriend Michal (who kindly drove me from Dobrzyn to Torun) were acting in a play performed for (and also starring) handicapped people. Entering the theater, one sees a mural of Copernicus—made out of gingerbread!


See? The mural has both regular gingerbread (always frosted) and the chocolate-covered variety:

Copernicus poster closeup

The play—actually a series of different scenes—is not only put on for handicapped people, but involves them as participants. Justyna and Michael were in a dance scene without words, with the male dancers in black (not shown) representing the difficulties and prejudices faced by the handicapped, and the female dancers those who are compassionate. Justyna (to the right) was one of these; you can see the two people in wheelchairs performing in the scene, one of whom has tipped her wheelchair over and is covered with a shroud:

Justyna play 3

It was a moving presentation, literally and figuratively. Justyna is studying for her Ph.D. in biology at Torun, and Michal is a DJ in local clubs, who also performs with symphony orchestras, producing a hybrid form of music.

Justyna Play 2

It was then time to go to the University and meet the dean. Dean Kozak, better known as Prof. dr hab. Wiesław Kozak, turned out to be a terrific guy, friendly and garrulous. He had studied immunology in the US for fifteen years, at the University of Michigan, the University of New Mexico, and in Augusta, Georgia.  Finishing up his second and last term as Dean, he sits in perhaps the most magnificent academic office I’ve ever seen, full of draperies, old carpets and antique furniture:

Dean in office

The Dean told me that one piece of furniture dated to the sixteenth century, contained no nails, and was designed to be converted into a coffin!:

Dean's cabinet

The office also held an Art Nouveau clock, which I photographed since I love items from that era:

Dean's clock

The biology “convocation” was very formal: first the deans and deanlets entered to a recording of a trumpet fanfare, in full academic regalia, with the dean sporting a gold necklace. There was a welcome speech in Polish, new doctoral candidates were welcomed on stage, and then I gave a 30-minute talk on the wonders of evolution (I have no photos of that one). We finished with a singing of the traditional “Gaudeamus Igitur.


I mentioned religion only briefly, explaining that in America, and probably in Poland, resistance to accepting the truth of evolution comes largely from religion. But even that brief statement angered one faculty member, who trotted onstage afterwards and chastised me for even mentioning religion. He claimed that Catholics had no problem with evolution (I contradicted him, mentioned the Church’s view on the literal ancestry of all humans from Adam and Eve) and asserted that there was no conflict between science and religion since everyone reads the Bible as metaphor. I corrected him further, citing the statistics in the US and UK that most people take things like Heaven, Hell, Satan, Jesus’s divinity, and of course God’s existence as literal truths. No doubt they do in Poland, too.

It still amazes me that people object to the plain fact that virtually all opposition to teaching evolution comes from religion. Such is the special treatment that faith is given not just in the US and UK, but almost everywhere. This religious source of creationism of course greatly discomfits accommodationists, who claim that there’s no conflict between science and religion, and it’s almost amusing to see them twist, turn, and dissimulate to avoid the obvious. It’s religion, stupid!

But then, thankfully, the Dean dragged me off to lunch, a multicourse Polish feed in his fancy office. I had requested local fare, and they complied in spades. The first course was a very traditional Polish soup,either żur (sour rye soup) or biały barszcz (a soup made of bread, and meat stock, loaded with sausage, pork, and hard-boiled eggs). This would have been enough for lunch on its own, as each of us got a substantial tureen:

Lunch 1, bigos

We were then served one of my favorites, a selection of pierogi: Polish dumplings, these ones filled with either meat, spinach or kasha (buckwhat), and topped with nuts and raisins. On the side were pickled beets and cabbage.

Lunch 2 Pierogi etc

I thought the pierogi was the main course, but it was only an appetizer. The main course was a form of schabowy, pork cutlets rolled up, wrapped in bacon and filled with cooked plums. It was served with boiled potatoes. The Dean then asked, with a twinkle in his eye, whether I would like some wine. Of course I said, “yes,” and he disappeared into the adjacent room, returning with a bottle of 2008 grenache/shiraz from Australia, which was terrific. (The Dean said he has a collection of over 1,000 bottles.) As neither Justyna nor the assistant dean were drinking, the Dean and I made substantial inroads into the bottle.

And oy!, was I full after lunch:

Lunch Schabowy Ham roll

Before we left to see the town, the Dean gave me largesse (European universities tend to give you nice presents when you give a big lecture). First, a heavy bronze medal celebrating the 60th anniversary of biology at the University (1952):

Largesse medal 1

Largesse medal 2

I also got a gift basket containing varieties of gingerbread–all wrapped in cellophane with a red bow! There were four types, including chocolate-covered, chocolate-filled, and traditional plain gingerbread. I also got a pen and pencil set and a silver University of Torun keychain with Copernicus symbols on it.

Largesse, gingerbread

After lunch I briefly met my friends Kaja Bryx and Jacek Tabisz, officers of the Polish Rationalist Association, which awarded me Polish Rationalist of the Year two years ago. They travelled three hours to finally deliver my award, a glass trophy to which Kaja had added a special symbol. Can you spot it?

Largesse Polish rationalist award

On to the Old Town, with the first stop being the home of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), famous of course for his heliocentric model of the solar system. This is the house where he was born, and you can see that the family was prosperous (his father was a copper merchant). Copernicus didn’t live here his whole life: he traveled widely, including to Italy, and ultimately settled in other towns in northern Poland.

Sadly, the house was closed for the day, but I was promised a return visit next year so that I could go inside:

Copernicus house

A famous statue of Copernicus stands near the town hall:

Statue Copernicus

Nearby is part of the two-building Gingerbread Museum (the other part is several blocks away). We didn’t go in, but I am puzzled how one can have two buildings devoted wholly to the history of gingerbread.
Gingerbread Museum

Gingerbread shops stud the city, and there are dozens of varieties of the stuff. Here’s one of the bigger shops where you can buy chocolate covered gingerbread, plain gingerbread, gingerbread in fancy boxes (one looking like Copernicus’s house), gingerbread filled with rose jam, prunes, and so on. The treat, which I enjoy very much, is popular with locals as well as tourists:
Gingerbread shop

Some of the varieties on offer (Polish-speaking readers are invited to translate):

Gingerbread 2

The historic Old Town contains lovely old buildings:

Torun buildings

And there’s the Leaning Tower of Toruń, built as a fortification in the thirteenth century and now leaning, though not as drastically inclined as the tower in Pisa. Here’s a photo from Wikipedia:


Justyna told me that if you can stand with your back against the part of the tower that leans outwards, and not fall over, you are a good person; but bad people cannot do it. The angle is such that it is barely achievable—by some. Justyna and Michal could do it:

Torun leaning wall

. . . but I could not!:

Torun leaning wall JAC

More scenes from the Old Town:
Torun center


There were several nice bronze statues in the town. One of the most famous is the Torun Donkey Statue. As one website notes, it depicts a grim history:

The city pillory, a wooden donkey with a sharpened tin ridge along its spine, appeared in the corner of the Old City Square presumably in 1629. It was mostly used to discipline Toruń soldiers who, seated on its back, frequently had lead weights tied to their legs to intensify the pain. The convicts suffered double punishment: in addition to the protruding back sinking into their bottom, they were exposed to public humiliation.

Statue donkey

There’s a newer statue depicting a woman holding a basket of gingerbread, accompanied by a small terrier (presumably wanting a treat) nipping at her heels:
Statue Woman with gingerbread

On a park bench in the town square is a statue of the lady with the goose that laid the golden egg. The precious egg appears to be falling from her basket:

Statue, goose with golden egg

A famous and unprepossessing shop in the Old Town sells pączki, delicious polish donuts filled with jam or cream. They are made all day, and you can buy them hot. (I much regret not having tried one). I was told that there is often a line of people down the block waiting to buy these hot pastries. Pączki resemble Krispy Kreme donuts, but are filled, and are much tastier and more substantial (you can see Justyna’s reflection in the window):

torun Paschky

I end my photographic tour of the city with two pieces of cat graffiti I found:

Graffiti cat torun 2

Graffiti cat torun

Caturday felid trifecta: cat controls yappy dog, cats sleeping weirdly, free cat rap album

Once again we start your Saturday with three cat-related items. In the first, a cat, by virtue of its power and magnificence, controls a yappy d*g:


And here’s a nice video of cats sleeping in weird positions. (Sometimes I wish I were a cat, for never have I seen a cat have trouble sleeping!) My favorites are at 0:35, 0:55, 2:44,  Note also the two cats sleeping on Fussball games.


Finally, we have a cat rap album, described by Slate:

Late last year, hip-hop duo Run the Jewels joked that for $40,000 they’d remix their latest record, Run the Jewels 2, using only cat sounds. Naturally, the idea was swiftly taken to Kickstarter, where a fan raised over $60,000 to ensure the creation of the world’s first cat-rap album. Now, almost a year after the release of its human-centric forebear, Meow the Jewels is available for free download.

For a lark, the album’s extremely well-executed, thanks mostly to a production team that includes Just Blaze, Boots, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, and Massive Attack’s 3D. They and others lend a feline sheen to the best rap record of 2014: Arpeggiated mewls underline “Lie, Cheat, Meow,” and “Paw Due Respect” sees an array of yowls punctuate Killer Mike’s verses. Track by track, it’s a delight that’ll tickle ailurophiles and hip-hop fans alike, and true devotees can purchase a vinyl edition whose proceeds will be donated to victims of police brutality.

Click on the screenshot below to hear a sample, or here to download the whole album (note: FOUL language!):

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 10.45.23 AM

Here’s the list of songs:

01 Meowpurrdy [ft. Lil Bub, Maceo, Delonte and Snoop Dogg] (remixed by El-P)
02 Oh My Darling Don’t Meow (remixed by Just Blaze)
03 Pawfluffer Night (remixed by Zola Jesus)
04 Close Your Eyes and Meow to Fluff [ft. Zack de la Rocha] (remixed by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow)
05 All Meow Life (remixed by Nick Hook)
06 Lie, Cheat, Meow (remixed by Prince Paul)
07 Meowrly (remixed by Boots)
08 Paw Due Respect (remixed by Blood Diamonds)
09 Snug Again [ft. Gangsta Boo] (remixed by Little Shalimar)
10 Creown (remixed by the Alchemist)
11 Angelsnuggler (remixed by Dan the Automator)
12 Creown (bonus) (remixed by Massive Attack’s 3D)


Finally, a bit of lagniappe:


h/t: Su, Phil, Taskin, Merilee

Saturday: Hili dialogue (and Leon lagniappe)

Time flies when you’re having pies: it’s only a week before I head back to Warsaw and then, the next morning, to Uppsala (to give a talk) via Stockholm. My cold (or whatever it is) lingers, but fortunately has not dulled my sense of taste (see next post). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili continues to insist that the world respect her needs. But, after all, she’s a cat.

A: Hili…
Hili: Do not disturb. I’m sorting my priorities.

In Polish:
Ja: Hili…
Hili: Nie przeszkadzaj, sortuję priorytety.

And here’s Mr. Leon, in a photo taken a week ago when I got to take him out for walkies:

Leon: I haven’t seen any fish but I have a supply of tuna at home.


Atheist Alliance of America meeting in two weeks

I’m just back from speaking in Torun, which was great fun, including a slap-up traditional Polish lunch in the dean’s office, which is the fanciest office I’ve ever seen (some of the furniture dates from the sixteenth century). I also saw Copernicus’s house, but I’m getting ahead of myself; there will photos of all this tomorrow. In the meantime, I’m announcing a secular meeting whose organizers seem to have been rather dilatory about publicizing it. Here goes:

The Atheist Alliance of America (AAA) has finally put up the program for its annual meeting, held this year in Atlanta, Georgia between October 15 and 18. I’ll speak briefly (less than 10 minutes) as recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award, but there is a big slate of other speakers—including Jeff Tayler (his strident secular Sunday sermons summarized here), and Inna Shevchenko, head of FEMEN—who will be giving full-length talks.  I’m also scheduled to talk to the kids of Camp Quest about the wonders of evolution—another a longish talk.

I’ll look forward to meeting any readers there, and although I don’t think the conference will be selling my books, I’ll be glad to sign any that you bring (if you want a cat drawn in, you must say the magic phrase, which in this case is the Latin binomial for the tiger).



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