Kottke’s “Eight Miles High”

Most of us older folks know the Byrds’ 1966 version of “Eight Miles High,” an archetypal and superb psychedelic song written by Gene Clark, Mim McGuinn, and David Crosby. But here’s Leo Kottke’s great cover, played on a twelve-string guitar. He’s clearly quite young in this video (he was born in 1945), but already a stunning musician. Although some people say his voice sounds like “geese farts on a muggy day,” I really like it. And I love this version:

Kottke is the rightful heir of my musical hero John Fahey, but Kottke was able to achieve the commercial success that always eluded Fahey—due partly to his fondness for drink. In terms of musical genius, I’d put Fahey above Kottke, but it’s largely apples and oranges.

For another treat, listen to Kottke’s version of Duane Allman’s “Little Martha.”

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?

Matthew and I were discussing food this morning, and he wrote me that he’d eaten all kinds of weird stuff:

Never eaten squirrel, but have eaten rabbit (obviously [JAC: he lived in France]), boar, deer, brains, hedgehog (in Africa), frogs, snails – probably much like you (except the hedgehog maybe). Oh, and “Casu mazu”: cheese containing live maggots.

He then said this: “There’s a post for you – ask readers what’s the weirdest thing they’ve ever eaten.”

Well, I have also had rabbit, boar, deer, frogs, snails, and grasshoppers, but never hedgehogs or brains, much less cheese with maggots. But the weirdest thing I’ve ever eaten was fruit flies.

I’m not talking about the occasional fly that I ingested while working with them (they fly into your mouth, and it’s not rare), but a MESS OF FLIES. In graduate school I lost a bet—I can’t remember what it was about—and as a result I had to eat a bunch of flies. I decided to sauté them in butter to help get them down. I took a bottle of flies, anesthetized them, and then dumped them into a small frying pan into which I’d melted a bunch of butter. I then sauteed them over the lab fly-food burner (there were enough to fill about half the pan), and ate several spoonfuls of them. As I recall, when someone asked me how they tasted, I said “Like shrimp, only crunchier.”

That’s my story. What’s yours–what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?

Doubts cast on recent survey of college students’ attitudes toward free speech

Four days ago I wrote about the results of a poll of American college students’ attitudes towards free speech. That poll was conducted by UCLA professor and Brookings senior fellow John Villasenor, and was supported by the Charles Koch Foundation. The results were scary, with 44% of all students thinking that hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment, 51% of students finding it acceptable to shout over a speaker to squelch their presentation, and 19% of students saying that it was okay to use violence to disrupt a speaker whose words were “offensive and hurtful.”

I now feel obliged to report that, according to a piece in Friday’s Guardian, the results of this poll have been heavily questioned by some experts. Since the poll’s methods hadn’t been published at the time (the author felt it important to release the data before they were peer reviewed), there may be some serious problems. As the Guardian notes,

The way the survey results have been presented are “malpractice” and “junk science” and “it should never have appeared in the press”, according to Cliff Zukin, a former president of the American Association of Public Opinion Polling, which sets ethical and transparency standards for polling.

John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California Los Angeles, defended his survey as an important window into what he had called a troubling atmosphere on American campuses in which “freedom of expression is deeply imperiled”. Villasenor, a cybersecurity expert, said this was the first public opinion survey he had conducted.

However, his survey was not administered to a randomly selected group of college students nationwide, what statisticians call a “probability sample”. Instead, it was given to an opt-in online panel of people who identified as current college students.

“If it’s not a probability sample, it’s not a sample of anyone, it’s just 1,500 college students who happen to respond,” Zukin said, calling it “junk science”.

“It’s an interesting piece of data,” Michael Traugott, a polling expert at the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies, said. “Whether it represents the proportion of all college students who believe this is unknown.”

. . . [Villasenor] secured funding from the conservative Charles Koch Foundation to survey students this August about their views on free speech. Rather than write an academic paper, he posted some of his results online this week, arguing that given “the timeliness of the topic, I believe it is important to get some of the key results out into the public sphere immediately”.

. . . Villasenor’s results had gone through no peer review process. The methodology section of his online post was vague, prompting several polling experts to question how reliable the survey’s conclusions might be.

Villasenor wrote in an email that he was reluctant to give a yes or no “sound bite” answer to the question of whether the students he surveyed were nationally representative of college students or not.

By some measures, Villasenor wrote, the 1,500 respondents to his survey had seemed to reflect the rough demographic makeup of American college students. By others, they might not.

Villasenor had calculated a margin of error for his survey results and included it in the public writeup of his report, even though the sample of students he had surveyed was not random. Public polling experts said this was inappropriate and a basic error. Zukin called it “very misleading” and “malpractice”.

By including a margin of error, the author appears to be “trying to overstate the quality of his survey”, said Chris Jackson, the vice-president of Ipsos Public Affairs, a public opinion firm.

Timothy Johnson, the current president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, called it “really not appropriate”.

Jackson also notes that asking this question right after the Charlottesville marches and killing might have conditioned students to be more disapproving of offensive speech than normal.

The lack of a random sample is indeed disturbing (I may be guilty of not catching that), and we’ll see if this thing gets published. My guess is still that students will still be shown to be remarkably ignorant of the First Amendment, and likely to take a more punitive attitude toward “hate speech” than mandated by U.S. courts, but we’ll see.


Maajid Nawaz takes apart a hijabi who claims she’s a feminist

Have a listen to Maajid Nawaz, on his radio show, dismembering a woman who calls in saying that she’s a feminist and wears a hijab. He bores in on her with a bunch of questions involving what God wants, what’s the punishment if you disobey God, is wearing the hijab a “choice,” and whether an imam’s words are the same as God’s words. Having not thought at all about this stuff, the woman can answer only, “That’s the way the religion is.”

Nawaz claims he’s a Muslim, but I wonder whether he goes to mosque, and what parts of Islamic doctrine does he accept. Does he go to the mosque? Does he think that Allah dictated the Qur’an to Muhammad through the archangel Gabriel? Does he believe that Muhammad made his “night flight” on the winged horse Buraq? I’d love to ask him these questions.  Sometimes I think he’s at best an agnostic, but can’t say he’s an apostate because of what would happen to him if he did. Regardless, this is one smart guy who is surely a force for the necessary modernization of Islam. And it’s a damn crime that the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled him an “anti-Muslim extremist.”

Results of our Title IX poll: take accusations of sexual assault to the courts

A few days ago I wrote a piece about the Title IX mess: the confusion and lawsuits that resulted when the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) wrote to colleges “asking” them to adjudicate accusations of sexual assault or harassment according to the lowest possible standard: “preponderance of the evidence”—the accused more likely than not to have done it. (That is, probability of guilt greater than 50%.) While the letter was touted as advisory, nearly every college adopted those standards (though some, like Harvard, beefed), for fear that they’d lose federal money or be inspected by the OCR.

This is way below the standards by which these crimes would be adjudicated in the courts, who rely on a “beyond reasonable doubt” criterion. Since then, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has scrapped the “Dear Colleague” letter of the Obama years, giving several months for people to weigh in before new standards of justice, which she sees as having more “fairness”, will be promulgated. Those will presumably raise the bar of guilt for those accused in college.

I doubt DeVos will force colleges to adopt higher standards of evidence, but she might, using threats of withholding federal monies or of inspection by the OCR if they don’t give the accused more rights. But something needs to be fixed: a point that Emily Yoffe made eloquently in her three-part series on the Title IX mess in The Atlantic (links here).

Most of us pretty much despise the Trump Administration, as do I, but we can’t simply reject everything they do simply because it devolves to Trump. That’s the same kind of mistake Republicans made when rejecting anything that was suggested by Obama. In this case, I do think those accused of sexual assault in college need more rights and a clearer system of how accusations are dealt with and punished. Or maybe colleges shouldn’t be in this business at all, but should hand over such accusations, which involve criminal behavior, to the courts—for that system is set up to adjudicate crimes like these.

I asked readers to choose between the following alternatives:

And here’s the outcome as of this morning:

While I was disappointed that only 355 people voted (after all, we have over 50,600 subscribers, and you can go back and vote here), the overwhelming response was “take it to the courts”. And when colleges do adjudicate the issues, most people voted for using the toughest standard, equivalent to “beyond reasonable doubt.” I’m coming around to the view that colleges have no right to punish students for sexual assault unless those students have been found guilty by the courts. But colleges do have a right to impose sanctions beyond those leveled by courts, like expelling a student found guilty. I don’t think a student should be suspended before they go to trial unless the bail conditions prohibit entry to campus.

Several readers brought up one issue though: what do we do with students (let’s assume they’re men) who are found sufficiently suspicious by the police to have their cases go to court? Do we want them roaming around on campus?

To me that’s a no-brainer. If the courts have deemed them sufficiently unlikely to flee or re-offend so that they get bail, then of course they should go back to campus. For if the courts deem them able to be free in society, why shouldn’t they be free to go back to campus? Of course they’d be demonized, and probably wouldn’t want to return to campus, but bail is bail, and if there are conditions, like not leaving your house, those could also apply to campus rules.  I wonder, though, whether “bail on condition student doesn’t return to campus” is a legal thing to do.

And, if a student isn’t found guilty, should the college, using lower standards of evidence, still sanction him? I don’t think so, for I don’t think colleges should even use those lower standards of evidence. The reason they do is, of course, because parents rightfully don’t want to send their students to a college that looks soft on sexual assault. But sexual assault is a crime, and I can think of nothing more reassuring to a parent of either a male or female student than a college saying, “All cases of sexual assault, being crimes, will be immediately reported to the police, and any college action will follow the outcome of the judiciary process.”

Weigh in below, and don’t forget to vote!


The Daily Beast distorts epigenetics with bogus claims that children can “inherit memories of the Holocaust”

I’ve written extensively on this site about recent claims that environmental modifications of DNA, through either methylation (sticking a -CH3 group onto DNA bases or by changing the histone scaffolding that supports the DNA, can constitute a basis for evolutionary change. This claim is simply wrong. To date, while we can show that environmental “shocks” given to animals or plants can sometimes be passed onto their descendants, the inheritance lasts at most three or four generations, then disappears. This cannot in principle support evolutionary change, which requires DNA changes that are permanent, so that they can spread through a population and effect a long-term genetic transformation.

Further, the changes shown are almost never “adaptive”—that is, they usually don’t produce anything that would enhance reproduction even under the environmental conditions in the lab that produce them.

Finally, extensive genetic mapping of real adaptations in nature, ranging from insecticide resistance in mosquitoes to lactose intolerance in humans and to armoring in marine stickleback fish, show that the changes invariably reside in the sequence of DNA bases themselves, not in add-on methylation or histone changes produced by the environment. I don’t know a single adaptation in nature that, when we isolate down its genetic basis, resides in some environmentally modified, epigentic change in DNA that can be transmitted for generations.

(Let me add here that epigenetic changes have promoted adaptive evolution when those changes reside in the DNA itself: that is, there are stretches of DNA that, in effect, tell the organism things like: “put a methyl group in the DNA on nucleotide X”. But these changes are themselves the product of conventional natural selection, and the epigenetic changes are produced by the DNA itself and not by the of the environment.)

Nevertheless, because the idea of evolution caused by environmental modification of our genomes is both appealing and “nonDarwinian”—violating how scientists think evolution works—it appeals to a subset of people who think that the theory of evolution is woefully incomplete. These are the “Kuhnabees” like Steve Gould, who think a brand new evolutionary paradigm is in order. (The Templeton Foundation gives out millions of bucks for people trying to reach this conclusion.)  I’ve been critical of this type of revisionist excitement, not because I want to defend the modern evolutionary synthesis at all costs, but for the reasons stated above: there’s no evidence for lasting environmentally-caused, adaptive modification of DNA, and genetic mapping experiments of real evolved adaptations invariably show that the evolutionary changes residing in the DNA’s sequence of nucleotide bases: the order of Gs, Cs, Ts, and As.

But the juggernaut rolls on, promoted by articles like this one in The Daily Beast by Elizabeth Rosner, “Can we inherit memories of the holocaust and other horrors?” (Subtitle: “In the trailblazing field of epigenetics, researchers are finding evidence that the descendants of victims of atrocities are inheriting those experiences in their DNA.”)

It’s the standard boilerplate article, showing some environmental modification of DNA that can be inherited for a few generations, but then bears a title and subtitle that are wholly misleading, and are echoed in the article’s text.

Rosner cites three experiments, only one of which I’ve been able to read. That one is a study of mice given an electric shock when exposed to a particular odor (reference and free access below). After a while, the mice froze in the presence of the odor (cherry blossoms), even in the absence of a shock. This is a pretty normal result. But then the authors bred subsequent generations of mice and showed that they, too, froze in the presence of that specific odor but not others. This behavior was associated with hypomethylation in sperm (reduced methylation) affecting a particular gene associated with olfaction. This genetic change was, in turn, associated with changes in brain structure. This is a correlation, not a causation, but it’s certainly intriguing.

But the inheritance of this behavior lasted only two generations: last seen in the grandchildren of the exposed mice. While author Rosner says the inheritance lasted “three subsequent generations” beyond the offspring of the tested mice—that is, a total of four generations of inheritance—I can see only two generations of inheritance. Unless I’m misreading, Rosner has misrepresented the results, and of course there is no testing a hundred generations later, which would be necessary if this freezing behavior (which is simply a neural response to shock, and not necessarily adaptive), were to be the basis of a real adaptation.

Now reacting to an odor behaviorally is not the same thing as remembering the Holocaust. Rosner gets that conclusion from a study of 32 Holocaust survivors (a small sample, with Rosner citing only a book and not the original papers). Apparently that study showed that PTSD in the offspring of PTSD-afflicted Holocaust survivors than in the population as a whole (again, I haven’t seen the data, and don’t know what the control group was, which should properly be the kids of non-PTSD Holocaust survivors). And I’m dubious when the study’s author, Rachel Yehuda, says she’s found this correlation “‘inexplicable’ by any other means than intergenerational transmission.”

Well, cultural transmission is also intergenerational (traumatized parents could treat their children in a way that these kids would themselves be traumatized), but let’s assume that the author of that study managed to show that the inheritance was truly genetic rather than cultural. (This kind of separation isn’t easy, and often uses adoption studies.)

And if the changes were genetic, were they due to methylation or to changes in histones? Nothing is said in the article. What Rosner and other summaries say is that Holocaust survivors have lower levels of cortisol, a hormone that helps people recover from trauma (clearly not an adaptive response), but also lower levels of an enzyme that breaks down cortisol, helping store metabolic energy—something that might be adaptive under starvation. Most important, the children of these survivors also had lower levels of cortisol—but (unlike their parents) also higher levels of the enzyme that breaks it down, an environmental modification of biochemistry that was inherited across one generation. Both of these modifications are palpably nonadaptive in the offspring, as reduced cortisol makes you recover more slowly from trauma, and so the offspring of Holocaust survivors would be more susceptible to trauma.

While you can make up a story why being more likely to get PTSD if your parents were traumatized might be adaptive, you have to do some tortuous argument here. I could, with a minute’s thought, make up an adaptive story were the results to be in the opposite direction. Further, you can easily argue that this is simply a biochemically induced change, heritable for just one generation, that doesn’t modify offspring in an adaptive way. Too, there’s no evidence to date that this change in behavior persists for more than one generation. I’d also like to see adoption or other studies showing that the correlation between parents and offspring is due to genetic rather than cultural inheritance. Finally, note that what we have here is “heritable” changes in mental illness, not heritable “memories of the Holocaust”, as the article’s title implies.

Finally, Rosner mentions a book that produces what I see as very slim evidence for heritable PTSD:

Psychiatrist Nirit Gradwohl Pisano published a book titled Granddaughters of the Holocaust: Never Forgetting What They Didn’t Experience. She focused on ten subjects who are survivors’ grandchildren and, following current theories in epigenetics, found evidence of what she refers to as the “hard-wired” PTSD passed down to the descendants of survivors.

“[These] ten women provided startling evidence for the embodiment of Holocaust residue in the ways they approached daily tasks of living and being … Frequently unspoken, unspeakable events are inevitably transmitted to, and imprinted upon, succeeding generations. Granddaughters continue to confront and heal the pain of a trauma they never experienced.”

Ten subjects! Yes, it’s two generations of inheritance, but did Pisano rule out, in her book, cultural transmission of propensity to PTSD? How did she know it was “hard-wired” (i.e., in the DNA)? Note, too, the bogus “unspoken, unspeakable events inevitably transmitted to. . . succeeding generations.” That is a gross distortion, and one that Rosner doesn’t even bother to examine critically. These grandchildren didn’t inherit memories of the Holocaust—at best they inherited a propensity to get PTSD. The only reason they’d even KNOW about the Holocaust is by cultural transmission from their ancestors or through reading. The events are not remembered at all, at least genetically!

So, in answer to Rossner’s title question, “Can we inherit memories of the Holocaust and other horrors?”, the answer is “we have no evidence for that”. And the subtitle’s claim that we “inherit experiences in our DNA” is just wrong. Rossner and The Daily Beast, unfortunately, have been hit by the epigenetics juggernaut, and in a way that makes them pass on completely misleading implications about inheritance. This is science reporting at pretty much its worst: a sundae of misconceptions topped with a clickbait cherry of a title.

h/t: Saul


Dias B. G., and K. J. Ressler. 2014. Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generationsNature Neuroscience. 17(1):89-96. doi:10.1038/nn.3594.



Readers’ wildlife photos

Today we have a lovely selection of photos today from reader Colin Franks (photo page here, Facebook page here, and Instagram page here).

Common Loon (Gavia immer):

Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula):

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius):

Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus):

Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus):

Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius):

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos):

Black Turnstone (Arenaria melanocephala):

Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus):

Baby Canada Goose (Branta Canadensis):


Sunday: Hili dialogue

Good morning: it’s Sunday, September 24, 2017, we all survived the predicted Apocalypse, and it’s going to be another scorcher here in Chicago. And, God help us, it be Cherries Jubilee Day, promulgated by Big Cherry (here’s a recipe if you’re intrigued). In the U.S., it’s National Punctuation Day, so don’t go writing “its” for the contraction!

On September 24, 1780, Benedict Arnold, his spying uncovered, fled from the American Army to the British Army, in which he eventually became a brigadier general and led attacks on the Continental Army. On this day in 1890, the Mormon Church, pressured by the U.S. government, officially renounced polygamy. The operant word, of course, is “officially,” as some sects still practice it. In 1948, the Honda Motor Company was founded, and in 1957, President Eisenhower sent the military into Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce desegregation. Although the Norman Rockwell painting below, “The problem we all live with,” was painted in 1964 in response to a similar crisis in New Orleans (it was on the cover of Look Magazine, and President Obama later had it hung outside the Oval Office), it’s appropriate. Note the “n word” scrawled on the wall (along with “KKK”)—something that wouldn’t be acceptable for a magazine cover today:


On this day in 1968, my favorite news show, “60 Minutes”, had its first broadcast on CBS. On September 24, 1978, Dougal Haston and Doug Scott reached the summit of Mount Everest by climbing its southwest face: the first Everest summit achieved by climbing a face. Finally, I’ll just quote Wikipedia on another event on this day, as I’m on shaky ground with computer firsts: “1979 – CompuServe launches the first consumer internet service, which features the first public electronic mail service.”

Notables born on this day include Horace Walpole (1717), Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893), F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896), Howard Florey (1898), Severo Ochoa (1905), and Fats Navarro (1923). Fitzgerald is one of my favorite modern American writers, and recordings of his voice are rare. Here he is reading Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (Fitz was a huge Keats fan):

Those who died on this day include Paracelsus (1541), Hans Geiger (1945), Dr. Seuss (1991), Françoise Sagan (2004) and Buckwheat Zydeco (2016). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili, on her wicker shelf, is puzzled:

Hili: I don’t understand people…
A: I don’t always understand them myself.
In Polish:
Hili: Nie rozumiem ludzi…
Ja: Ja też nie zawsze.

Out in remote Winnipeg, Gus’s staff writes this along with a new video:

This is a new game Gus invented the other day. A bit of a dangerous game for me…

Matthew Cobb sent us three animal tw**ts; the first is a splendid example of spider/ant mimicry:

Here’s a murmuration of starling shaped like a whale. Does this mean the apocalypse did happen yesterday?

And this is not injustice, but social justice. Cats, after all, are small and oppressed:

How are Jews like Muslims?

If this article is true, and I suspect it is, then the answer is “Among the orthodox of both faiths: extreme prudishness combined with irrationality”.

Read for yourself (click on the screenshot to go to the link) and tell me if you think this is real. The article describes all kinds of machinations that hyper-orthodox Jews go to to avoid contacting the opposite sex (I’ve written about Airplane Musical Seats before), but this takes the cake:

Lagniappe: Cat fail

Some cats seem to recognize that a two-dimensional image of a bird on a t.v. or computer screen is not a real prey item, but others, like this cat, cannot.