Earth reentry!

by Grania

Here’s a jaw-dropping gif* from HighTechPanda


And to answer their question, I don’t care if I could handle it, but I certainly want the experience.


*Pronounced GIF with a hard G because of reasons and also because the acronym stands for Graphics Interchange Format, and we say graphics with a hard G and not like ssjz-raffics.

Classic American road trips

I’ve just gone on my own Big Road Trip, but it doesn’t compare to the others made famous in American literature. Over at Atlas Obscura, Richard Kreitner and Steven Melendez have collaborated to make an interactive map of many great road trips in American literature, ranging from Blue Highways to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a book I really never liked) to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (a book I loved). The journeys listed are in the lower right of the map below.

Here’s a screenshot of the map:

Screen shot 2015-07-29 at 6.09.49 AM

And what you can do with it (click on each journey, and then on the dots to see the specific reference to the place):

The above map is the result of a painstaking and admittedly quixotic effort to catalog the country as it has been described in the American road-tripping literature. It includes every place-name reference in 12 books about cross-country travel, from Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1872) to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (2012), and maps the authors’ routes on top of one another. You can track an individual writer’s descriptions of the landscape as they traveled across it, or you can zoom in to see how different authors have written about the same place at different times.

Of all these journeys, my favorite by far is Kerouac’s On the Road, which had a profound effect on me in my twenties. Supposedly typed on a single sheet of adding-machine paper, largely in one go, it’s the story of Kerouac and his best pal, Neal Cassady, as they criss-crossed America (and even went down to Mexico) in search of nothing but pure experience. I haven’t reread it lately, but the abandonment of The American Dream in favor of wild perigrinations has stayed with me my whole life, even as I pursued an academic version of the American Dream. I did do road trips in my youth, hitchhiking across the U.S., and from time to time would leave the lab behind and travel to Nepal, India, and other remote locales, all in search of the experience denied me in academia.

Kerouac’s trip was by far the most extensive. Here’s a map of his and Neal’s wanderings, followed by one dot-click, so you can see how the map is interactive:

Screen shot 2015-07-29 at 6.15.07 AM

Now THAT’S a road trip!

Screen shot 2015-07-29 at 6.16.13 AM

h/t: John S.

A night on the tiles – a Roman cat paw print

by Matthew Cobb

A piece of Roman tile, dating back 2000 years, was dug up in the English city of Gloucester in 1969. It lay unremarked in the Gloucester City Museum until an archeologist noticed that when the clay was drying a cat walked across it, leaving its trace…

According to the BBC website:

The tile, a type called tegula, was used on the roof of a building in what became the Berkeley Street area of modern Gloucester, a spokesman said.

Councillor Lise Noakes, from Gloucester City Council, said it was a “fascinating discovery”.

“Dog paw prints, people’s boot prints and even a piglet’s trotter print have all been found on tiles from Roman Gloucester, but cat prints are very rare,” she said.

Thursday: Hili Dialogue

Good morning!

Today is Emily Brontë‘s birthday


A: I was looking for you!
Hili: And you found me.



In Polish:

Ja: Szukałem cię!
Hili: I znalazłeś mnie.


 And a special lagniappe from Leon, who has learned a lesson:
Leon: I didn’t know that deers can bark.
leon deer
In Honor of Ms Brontë, here’s The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain playing “Wuthering Heights”. You haven’t truly lived until you’ve heard this. Sorry, Kate.

You had one job

No commentary is required.

tech fail

Hat-tip: Steve Kurtz

Jesus & Mo: Known

by Grania

Jesus and Mo are revisiting the subject of Blasphemy again. Although this is a subject that largely holds no terror for those of us who live in largely secular nations; its victims are inevitably members of minority religions and they pay the price for believing in the wrong god with their blood and their lives.


Ken White, legal blogger over at Popehat, has cataloged blasphemy prosecutions on a global scale. The stories are  grim and relentless. Ken notes:

These are the values that advocates of blasphemy laws would have us accept: use of state power to enforce religious orthodoxy, suppression of political and religious minorities, and the rule of law employed to channel mob violence against the powerless.


Snake fossil supports the existence of Adam and Eve. Huh?

by Greg Mayer

A commenter on my post about the four-legged snake, Tetrapodophis,  quoted a line from Genesis about the snake in the Garden of Eden going on its belly in retribution for bamboozling Eve; I thought (and still think) it was a poe. But apparently there are real people who think this fossil demonstrates the truth of the Adam and Eve story. An alert reader sends a link to “New Fossil Discovery Provides Massive PROOF of Bible’s Story of Adam and Eve” in the “Conservative Tribune: In Defense of Western Civilization”, and there’s a link in that piece to a more extensive story at a site called ““. (The latter reminded me of a similar word, except the syllables are reversed, and the two letters “oe” need to be replaced; adding the word “crazy” is also clarifying.) I didn’t want to soil my cursor by clicking around at these sites, but some of the most horrifying sponsored content and ads I think I’ve ever seen (hint to Nissan: if you want to maintain your corporate image, you may want to exercise a bit more discretion about the company your ads are keeping), ALL CAPS FOR IMPORTANT WORDS, and clauses lacking needed parts of speech, all point to the sort of earnest incompetence that marks sincerity, so I don’t think they are poes.

It’s really amazing– how you get from a four-legged snake (that went on its belly!) to confirming the existence of Adam and Eve is incomprehensible. The one site even says this proves that Moses and Joshua knew snakes once had legs! (It reminds me a bit of claims that the Koran contains all or much of modern science, just expressed cryptically– see FvF, p. 105.) The Tribune gets a little modest at the end, admitting “This discovery may not prove the entire biblical account of Adam and Eve outright”. You can say that again.

h/t Steve Plegge

Quote of the Day: Camille Paglia

I’ve blown hot and cold over Camille Paglia, and have gone to see her speak several times, especially because the Q&A after her talks is, predictably, incendiary. I like that fact that she’s a contrarian and says exactly what she thinks.

But as she’s gotten older, she’s become extremely self-centered and arrogant, repeatedly claiming that anything interesting and innovative in modern culture derives from her. And so, in an interview in today’s Salon (part one of a three-parter, the rest of which I plan to miss), she takes on the New Atheists, trotting out the same tired old tropes, like “not enough study of theology!” Not only that, but she claims that all modern atheism derives from her.

She also goes after Jon Stewart and praises Fox News, the Drude Report, and Donald Trump’s latest activities. In other words, she’s not even wrong. But she does manage to dredge up a few encomiums for Bernie Sanders as the “true voice of populism.”

Sadly, her take on the New Atheism doesn’t burnish her image. In her answer below, I’ve put in bold everything that I think is tripe.

Salon (David Daley): You’re an atheist, and yet I don’t ever see you sneer at religion in the way that the very aggressive atheist class right now often will. What do you make of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and the religion critics who seem not to have respect for religions for faith?

Paglia: I regard them as adolescents. I say in the introduction to my last book, “Glittering Images”, that “Sneering at religion is juvenile, symptomatic of a stunted imagination.”  It exposes a state of perpetual adolescence that has something to do with their parents– they’re still sneering at dad in some way. Richard Dawkins was the only high-profile atheist out there when I began publicly saying “I am an atheist,” on my book tours in the early 1990s. I started the fad for it in the U.S, because all of a sudden people, including leftist journalists, started coming out of the closet to publicly claim their atheist identities, which they weren’t bold enough to do before. But the point is that I felt it was perfectly legitimate for me to do that because of my great respect for religion in general–from the iconography to the sacred architecture and so forth. I was arguing that religion should be put at the center of any kind of multicultural curriculum.

I’m speaking here as an atheist. I don’t believe there is a God, but I respect every religion deeply. All the great world religions contain a complex system of beliefs regarding the nature of the universe and human life that is far more profound than anything that liberalism has produced. We have a whole generation of young people who are clinging to politics and to politicized visions of sexuality for their belief system.  They see nothing but politics, but politics is tiny.  Politics applies only to society. There is a huge metaphysical realm out there that involves the eternal principles of life and death. The great tragic texts, including the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, no longer have the central status they once had in education, because we have steadily moved away from the heritage of western civilization.

The real problem is a lack of knowledge of religion as well as a lack of respect for religion. I find it completely hypocritical for people in academe or the media to demand understanding of Muslim beliefs and yet be so derisive and dismissive of the devout Christian beliefs of Southern conservatives.

But yes, the sneering is ridiculous!  Exactly what are these people offering in place of religion? In my system, I offer art–and the whole history of spiritual commentary on the universe. There’s a tremendous body of nondenominational insight into human life that used to be called cosmic consciousness.  It has to be remembered that my generation in college during the 1960s was suffused with Buddhism, which came from the 1950s beatniks. Hinduism was in the air from every direction–you had the Beatles and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Ravi Shankar at Monterey, and there were sitars everywhere in rock music. So I really thought we were entering this great period of religious syncretism, where the religions of the world were going to merge. But all of a sudden, it disappeared!  The Asian religions vanished–and I really feel sorry for young people growing up in this very shallow environment where they’re peppered with images from mass media at a particularly debased stage.

There are no truly major stars left, and I don’t think there’s much profound work being done in pop culture right now.  Young people have nothing to enlighten them, which is why they’re clinging so much to politicized concepts, which give them a sense of meaning and direction.

But this sneering thing!  I despise snark.  Snark is a disease that started with David Letterman and jumped to Jon Stewart and has proliferated since. I think it’s horrible for young people!   And this kind of snark atheism–let’s just invent that term right now–is stupid, and people who act like that are stupid. Christopher Hitchens’ book “God is Not Great” was a travesty. He sold that book on the basis of the brilliant chapter titles. If he had actually done the research and the work, where each chapter had the substance of those wonderful chapter titles, then that would have been a permanent book. Instead, he sold the book and then didn’t write one–he talked it. It was an appalling performance, demonstrating that that man was an absolute fraud to be talking about religion.  He appears to have done very little scholarly study.  Hitchens didn’t even know Judeo-Christianity well, much less the other world religions.  He had that glib Oxbridge debater style in person, but you’re remembered by your written work, and Hitchens’ written work was weak and won’t last.

Dawkins also seems to be an obsessive on some sort of personal vendetta, and again, he’s someone who has never taken the time to do the necessary research into religion. Now my entire career has been based on the pre-Christian religions.  My first book, “Sexual Personae,” was about the pagan cults that still influence us, and it began with the earliest religious artifacts, like the Venus of Willendorf in 35,000 B.C. In the last few years, I’ve been studying Native American culture, in particular the Paleo-Indian period at the close of the Ice Age.  In the early 1990s, when I first arrived on the scene, I got several letters from Native Americans saying my view of religion, women, and sexuality resembled the traditional Native American view. I’m not surprised, because my orientation is so fixed in the pre-Christian era.

With Paglia it’s all “Me, me, me, me, and MINE!”, like the seagulls in “Finding Nemo.” She’s appalling, and, I think, irrelevant.

h/t: Berry

Rabbi doubts evolution, “but not because of religion”

The title of the article at issue is a masterpiece of dissimulation, because if you read the piece you’ll find that its author, a rabbi, is skeptical completely because of religion. In fact, I’ve known of only one evolution-denier who didn’t form that opinion on religious grounds (it’s David Berlinski, and I suspect he’s a secret believer), although I suppose there’s a smattering of others.

Anyway, the title of the piece, published at the Jewish website Tablet, is “Skeptical about evolution—and not because of religion“, and it’s by Avi Shafran, a New York rabbi with his own website.

Why the skepticism? Well, Shafran first cites a new study in Current Biology showing that the rate of “radiation” (formation of new species) in mammals, along with the pace of morphological change during that radiation, was much higher in the middle to late Jurassic than previously suspected. Here’s part of that paper’s abstract:

We assess rates of morphological evolution and temporal patterns of disparity using large datasets of discrete characters. Rates of morphological evolution were significantly elevated prior to the Late Jurassic, with a pronounced peak occurring during the Early to Middle Jurassic. This intense burst of phenotypic innovation coincided with a stepwise increase in apparent long-term standing diversity [ 4 ] and the attainment of maximum disparity, supporting a “short-fuse” model of early mammalian diversification [ 2, 3 ]. Rates then declined sharply, and remained significantly low until the end of the Mesozoic, even among therians. This supports the “long-fuse” model of diversification in Mesozoic therians.

This is no big deal: we have plenty of examples of the pace of evolutionary change varying greatly over time, for the strength of natural selection, which promotes much of that change, surely changes over time, as when the climate suddenly varies or new ecological niches become open. This is not news. It’s not as if a whole group of mammals suddenly appeared, as if God created them ex nihilo. It’s simply variation in rates!

Rabbi Shafran, however, seems to think that this casts serious doubt on evolution:

A relatively minor discovery but it wasn’t expected. In fact, larger surprises, leading to substantive revisions in the study of evolution are the rule rather than the exception. From Lamarckism to classical natural selection to Darwinism to the Modern Synthesis, evolution theory, well, evolves. But whatever mechanisms are believed to serve as the engine of evolution, the theory’s fundamental idea remains that life sprang from inanimate matter and came to yield all the organisms in the biosphere we occupy. As such, the news was, for me, another opportunity to come face-to-face with a personal reality.

Seriously, a variation in evolutionary rates creates a “substantive revision in the study of evolution”? Not in my view, for even Darwin, in The Origin, points out the likelihood of rate variation. It would in fact be surprising if such variation didn’t occur; it’s precisely what’s expected under natural selection. When selection is very strong, as in artificial selection practiced by human to create dog breeds, we can get tremendous morphological variation in only 10,000 years: dog breeds would be recognized as different species, if not different genera, if they were found only as fossilized skeletons.

It turns out, though, that Shafran’s Big Beef isn’t this rate variation, it’s the fact that he doesn’t think that evolution has been sufficient to explain a.) the proliferation of species over the history of life, and b.) the origin of life itself.

. . . Instead, I refer to a real heresy: my reluctance to accept an orthodoxy so deeply entrenched in contemporary society that its rejection summons a heavy hail of derision and ridicule, and results in effective excommunication from polite society. What I can’t bring myself to maintain belief in is… evolution.

I don’t reject science, only speculations and assumptions made in its name. . .

. . . What I cannot bring myself to accept, though, is speciation, the notion that the approximately 10 million distinct species on earth (along with another estimated 20 million marine microbial organisms) all developed from a common ancestor.

So he doubts common ancestry, the result of the branching process of speciation.

Has life proliferated too fast to be explained by natural processes? No.  Let’s assume that we start with one species 3.5 billion years ago (the “universal common ancestor”, or UCA), and it simply bifurcates into two lineages. How long would it take to get to a billion species? (The rabbi estimates ten million today, but let’s assume, as is reasonable that 99% of the species formed since the UCA went extinct without leaving descendants. So we have to account for the evolution of a billion species) That’s an easy calculation (watch; I’ll screw it up!):

2^x = 1,000,000,000, where x is the number of splitting events required to produce a billion species.

x log 2 = log 1,000,000,000 = 9

x = 9/0.301 ≈ 30

In other words, only 30 splitting events would yield that billion species.  Over 3.5 billon years, that’s one speciation event every 116 million years. As Allen Orr and I calculated in our book Speciation, on average a new species forms by splitting of a given lineage at a rate between one every 100,000 years and one every million years. (This is a rough estimate, of course, and varies by taxa.)  The upshot: the data we have on species formation shows that there’s been plenty of time time for evolution to have created a billion or even 100 billon species.

But the data is stronger than that, for we have tons of evidence showing the common ancestry of those species. For some reason—and I hope it’s not willful ignorance—Rabbi Shafran neglects that evidence.

These data include the presence of predicted transitional forms between extant groups (e.g., fish and amphibians, like Tiktaalik, amphibians and reptiles, reptiles and mammals, reptiles and birds, early apes to our own species, and so on). The data include the hierarchical distribution of genes and traits, as predicted by a branching process. The data include the distribution of species on the surface of the planet— biogeography—showing species forming from other species. And the data include the location of specific junk DNA, like transposable elements, residing in the exact same position in the DNA of species descended from common ancestors, like humans and chimps.  We also have seen speciation in action in many organisms, especially in the formation of polyploid plants (see Speciation), which constitute a sizeable percentage of existing plant species that have formed naturally.

So Rabbi Shafran seems to be ignorant of the massive data supporting speciation. He prefers instead to rely on rabbis rather than scientists. Here’s where his claim that his motivation is not religious become a clear lie:

I claim no official scientific credentials, but have had an abiding interest in science since I was a boy (which, as noted, was a good while back). As a young man, I devoured the layman-friendly but well-informed works of Asimov, Gould, Dawkins, Thomas and others, never doubting the assumption that speciation was fact.  Until I decided to apply my own critical thinking to the theory’s assumptions. My faculties, I know, are puny compared to those scientists’.  But I can’t help but feel that while brilliant people may always be brilliant, they can also sometimes be wrong.

While I believe in the divine origin of the Torah and its account of creation [JAC: if he is going by evidence, as he claims, he’d completely reject the divine origin of the Torah], my refusal to accept speciation as fact is based on reason, not religion. In fact, contrary to popular perception of religious thought, not believing in evolution is hardly dogma: no less an Orthodox luminary than the illustrious 19th century thinker Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch allowed for the possibility that all life might come from a single simple organism.

. . . But, to my lights, that “vague hypothesis,” as Rabbi Hirsch characterized it, remains just that, more than a century later. When scientists in a lab manage to create a living organism (let alone a reproducing one) from inanimate matter, or to irradiate a simple organism and turn it into a clearly different one, I will happily concede the possibility, at least, that such happened in the past.  That it happened millions of times? Well, we’ll talk.

I fully appreciate the fossil record and the similarities among some different species. And I realize that organisms have been bred or mutated in ways that, using arbitrary definitions, are called “new” species. But a fruit fly has never been coaxed into becoming a housefly. [JAC: Ah, here we see the creationist canard that “if you can’t see a new species form, it didn’t happen.” The good Rabbi doesn’t appreciate the value of historical reconstruction as an accepted part of science.]

. . . In the meanwhile, lead me to the stocks, if you must. And as I’m pilloried, I will proclaim the words of a famous man who once wrote that “it is always advisable,” when dealing with things beyond our immediate experience, “to perceive clearly our ignorance.”

His name was Charles Darwin.

Yes, but the Rabbi neglects to add Darwin adduced evidence for his ideas, and much of that evidence was either indirect (as in biogeography), or historical, but in the end the inferences were TESTABLE.  Darwin had no fossil record to support his ideas, nor did he have any evidence of speciation or evolution occurring in real time—except under artificial selection. Despite that, the evidence that has mounted since 1859 shows that Darwin’s theory, including splitting of lineages, has become fact. It is accepted by all rational people and the huge majority of scientist (engineers and dentists don’t count.) Those who reject it are either ignorant of the evidence or, in the case of Shafran, blinded to the evidence by their adherence to Yahweh.

I don’t have to lead Rabbi Shafran to the stocks: he’s voluntarily put himself there! There’s no need to pelt him with rotten tomatoes and eggs, either, as he’s put the egg on his face all by himself.

h/t: Michael

Readers’ Wildlife Photos: fledgling harriers

WEIT regular Bruce Lyon sent Jerry fantastic photographs of some young harriers that we have visited before here and here in June when the parents were nesting.


As always, click through on a photograph twice to see it in its original size.


Bruce writes:

Jerry kindly posted two previous batches of photos of nesting harriers I have been following north of Santa Cruz, California. This batch focuses on the fledgling harriers—with the the theme of ‘prey’ and “play’. The fledglings were fed by both the adult male and female harriers and they got the food in aerial prey transfers from the parents. Here is a photo of the female arriving with what I think is a small rosy boa (Lichanura trivirgata)—someone can correct me if this is wrong.  The chick successful got the snake from its mom but the klutz then dropped it into the vegetation.
A couple of times when a parent brought in food it was chased by both fledglings. In one case, the prey transfer did not end the commotion and a dogfight ensued between the fledglings over who got to keep the mouse:
The winner:
One evening I was confused because I looked up and saw three birds chasing each other and I knew that none of these birds were the adults. It turned out that the third bird was a fledgling peregrine falcon from a nearby nest. It seemed to me as if the peregrine was having fun chasing the harriers—perhaps a form of play that helps it learn to chase birds, the main type of prey consumed by peregrines. Below a couple of photos of the peregrine and harriers interacting:
Same encounter:
Here the peregrine threads the needle and flies between the two harrier chicks. This whole encounter was really fun to watch:
Later that same week I watched a peregrine fledgling from the same family chasing gulls and cormorants the same way it had been interacting with the harriers. I suspect it was probably the same chick that had the raptor playdate with the harrier fledglings. The falcon chick seemed really feisty and over the course of a couple days it chased a lot of birds. None of these chases seemed like serious hunts—they seemed to me more like play My best guess (‘hypothesis’) is that this play behavior helps the young raptor learn how to effectively chase things. Eventually these chases will be associated with dinner. Below, a couple of photos of the young falcon terrorizing western gulls. What sport!
Finally, just a couple of photos of the gorgeous young harriers:
Thank you Bruce!

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