Spot the sparrows!

Robert S. sent a picture of a tree in which there are three sparrows (there may be more). Can you find them all? Reveal at noon Chicago time.

Readers’ wildlife photos

Today we have a series of photos by reader Keira McKenzie that might be called “Eight Ways of Looking at a Raven (and Two Ways of Looking at a Cat)”.  The photos are from Oz, featuring the Australian raven (Corvus coronoides) and Felis catus.

The ravens of Matilda Bay (a reserve on the Swan River, adjacent to the university of Western Australia) are unafraid of the humans who visit the small restaurant there, and are always on the lookout for munchies.  Such stunning birds. And they are ravens.  Crows are found in the more rural areas.

The ravens are all taken at Matilda Bay Reserve on the Swan River, Perth, Western Australia.  Perth is the most isolated capital city in the world, deserts to the east and north, what remains of forested wilderness to the south, and sea all the way to Madagascar to the west.
I asked Keira about where she lived and where the ravens were photographed; her response:

It’s small, loves razing history to the ground, gives bugger all for its environment and all the treasure like the wildflowers you so loved last year, and its mighty forests are constantly being woodchipped. Now they want to cull the great white sharks because they bite a few people a year. How many sharks are killed by humans? Thousands.  That is the Western Australian ethic.

Keira always supplements her photos with pictures of her beloved long-haired black cat, Plushie:

. . . and Plushie snoozing in the courtyard on her favourite chair (or one of them.  They’re all her favourite, especially if you are sitting in one.

Spot the cat!

Plushie, merging with the night permabulating the halls of my little house (she is currently sitting in the dark on my unicorn rug – rug based on the famous medieval tapestry before you get ideas of rainbows etc):

Tuesday: Hili dialogue

Good morning to all; it’s Tuesday, April 25, 2017, and it’s both National Crotilla Day (think “croissant + tortilla” and National Zucchini Bread Day. I’ve never had a crotilla, and I don’t like zucchini bread (I despise the ubiquitous and easily-grown vegetable), though for some reason I love carrot cake, especially with cream cheese icing. Here are crotillas, devised by Wal-Mart (has anybody had one?):

What was this invented?

It’s also ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand; I know, having just returned from NZ, that they have deep reverence for their lads who died in the wars, and will be honoring them in every town, large or small.

On April 25, 1792, there were two events of note:  Nicolas J. Pelletier, a robber,  became the first person executed by guillotine, and the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise” was composed by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle. On this day in 1859, the French and British began digging the Suez Canal, and in 1915 the disastrous Gallipoli invasion began, which is why it’s ANZAC Day. This is also a big day for biologists, for on this date in 1953 Francis Crick and James Dewey Watson published their famous Nature paper “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid,” describing the proposed double-helix of DNA. As you see, it’s a very short paper:

And two years ago today, the death of Freddie Gray, 25, in police custody led to violent riots in Baltimore. Gray died of spinal cord injuries after detention for what was alleged to be an illegal switchblade knife. Some cops were charged, but none were convicted.

Notables born on this day include Oliver Cromewll (1599). Wolfgang Pauli (1900), Edward R. Murrow (1908), Ella Fitzgerald (1917), Meadowlark Lemon (1932), Al Pacino (1940), and Renée Zellweger (1969). Those who died on this day include William Cowper (1800), Dexter Gordon (1990), Ginger Rogers (1995), and Bea Arthur (2009). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili judges a portrait of Andrzej (I like it):

Hili: Well, I don’t know…
A: What don’t you know?
Hili: I have a feeling I could paint your portrait better.
In Polish:
Hili: No, nie wiem…
Ja: Czego nie wiesz?
Hili: Mam wrażenie, że ja bym lepiej namalowała twój portret.

Jonathan Wells’s new book attacking evolution

Sixteen years ago, Jonathan Wells, now a senior fellow at the creationist Discovery Institute, published an intelligent-design creationist book Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Of course they were a myth to him, but the book was dreadful and a totally misguided attack on evolution. I reviewed it for Nature (free link here), and said this:

Wells’s book rests entirely on a flawed syllogism: textbooks illustrate evolution with examples; these examples are sometimes presented in incorrect or misleading ways; therefore evolution is a fiction. The second premise is not generally true, and even if it were, the conclusion would not follow. To compound the absurdity, Wells concludes that a cabal of evil scientists, “the Darwinian establishment”, uses fraud and distortion to buttress the crumbling edifice of evolution. Wells’s final chapter urges his readers to lobby the US government to eliminate research funding for evolutionary biology.

Wells also got a Ph.D. in biology from Berkeley, but to judge his objectivity about the evidence for evolution, I also added one of his publicly available statements in my review, and put it right at the beginning:

Opposition to evolution is found in many corners of the American religious landscape, including the Unification Church. Church founder Sun Myung Moon has frequently condemned darwinism for giving God no role in the history of life. In 1976, Jonathan Wells, a student in Moon’s seminary, answered his leader’s call. He writes, “Father’s [Moon’s] words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism. When Father chose me (along with about a dozen other seminary graduates) to enter a PhD program in 1978, I welcomed the opportunity to prepare myself for battle.” The University of California supplied Wells with his weapon, a PhD in biology and, with Icons of Evolution, Wells has fired the latest salvo in the eternal religious assault on Charles Darwin.

Wells has also questioned the connections between HIV and AIDS.

In 2006 Wells, continuing his battle against truth, published his second book. It was no better than the first, and on the same topic: The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, issued, like the first, by conservative outlet Regnery Publishing.

In 2011 came his The Myth of Junk DNA, and by this time Wells had to go to the Discovery Institute Press, the equivalent of a vanity press for creationists. Sadly, the ID argument that nearly all junk DNA really does stuff—thus supporting an Intelligent Designer who put it in the genome for Reasons—has been largely quashed: there really is useless DNA, and its presence, nature, and location attest to evolution.

And now, ten years later, we have a new book, Zombie Science, also issued by the Discovery Institute Press.

The Amazon link (you can find it yourself) says this about it:

In 2000, biologist Jonathan Wells took the science world by storm with Icons of Evolution, a book showing how biology textbooks routinely promote Darwinism using bogus evidence—icons of evolution like Ernst Haeckel’s faked embryo drawings and peppered moths glued to tree trunks. Critics of the book complained that Wells had merely gathered up a handful of innocent textbook errors and blown them out of proportion. Now, in Zombie Science, Wells asks a simple question: If the icons of evolution were just innocent textbook errors, why do so many of them still persist? Science has enriched our lives and led to countless discoveries. But now, Wells argues, it’s being corrupted. Empirical science is devolving into zombie science, shuffling along unfazed by opposing evidence. Discredited icons of evolution rise from the dead while more icons—equally bogus—join their ranks. Like a B horror movie, they just keep coming! Zombies are make believe, but zombie science is real—and it threatens not just science, but our whole culture. Is there a solution? Wells is sure of it, and points the way.

Who writes these blurbs? Does anybody check them for accuracy?

And my point in the Nature review, which was that even if some textbook examples were out of date or incorrect, evolution is still true, remains. After all, ID books are wrong about every claim they make supporting Intelligent Design (ID). Further, the evidence for ID that its advocates promised was “right around the corner”, simply hasn’t emerged over a decade later. Established science has rejected Intelligent Design because there’s simply no evidence supporting it. Period.

I will be accused of having “reviewed” Wells’s book here without having read it, but this isn’t a review: it’s a notice that a scientifically rejected charlatan has published another book, and has even issued a “teaser trailer” for it. Here it is below. There’s no intellectual content there, but of course the buyers of the book aren’t looking for truth and reason; they’re looking to confirm their own religiously-based biases.

Will I read it? I don’t know, but I’m not going to pay for it. ID books are like theology books: if you haven’t read every single one, their proponents will claim that you haven’t addressed their best arguments. But I’ve read a much higher proportion of all ID books than IDers have for evolution books.  I’m sure they’re missing the best arguments! 🙂

It’s kind of pathetic that these people, whose efforts are motivated solely by religion, waste their brainpower attacking a paradigm that’s so well supported by evidence. I wonder if on some level they’ve realized they’re wasting their lives and will have no effect on science; and that that realization simply makes them redouble their efforts.

h/t: Michael

This is science, Bill Nye?

It’s no secret that I am not a big fan of Bill Nye, regarding him as a buffoon who will engage in any shenanigans that keep him in the public eye and help him retain the fame he desires—fame accrued as “The Science Guy”. I never saw the old show, and realize that many people liked it and it seemed to promote good science to kids; but his activities since I became aware of him have largely caused me embarrassment since he’s supposed to represent and burnish my own profession of science.

Well, Nye has a new show humbly called “Bill Nye Saves the World“, which apparently still has the goal of promoting science.

Here’s a new video from the show. Featuring comedian and actor Rachel Bloom singing “My vagina has its own voice,” it’s an arrant travesty:

Seriously, “butt stuff”? Now this may be social justice stuff, but it ain’t science—not even if you construe it as promoting a “spectrum of sexuality,” which is misleading because most people bunch at either end of the “spectrum.” In fact, I’m not sure what this is doing on a science show. It’s not even funny,

Nye, of course, was one of the honorary chairs of the March for Science, and this shows why I wasn’t keen on that choice. Defend this travesty if you want, but I’ll never admit it promotes anything but ideology. What’s next, Bill?:

“Do it before the paparazzi:
for the sake of Science, punch a Nazi!”

Once again, is female genital mutilation connected with Islam?

According to CBS in Detroit, Michelle Hoitenga, a state representative in Michigan, has introduced a bill (see it here) that in effect bans sharia law, although U.S. law already supersedes sharia law and the bill seems completely unnecessary and anti-Muslim.  The bill doesn’t specifically mention sharia law, but that’s clearly its aim:

A bill to limit the application and enforcement by a court, arbitrator, or administrative body of foreign laws that would impair constitutional rights; to provide for modification or voiding of certain contractual provisions or agreements that would result in a violation of constitutional rights; and to require a court, arbitrator, or administrative body to take certain actions to prevent violation of constitutional rights.

As used in this act “foreign law” means any law, legal  code, or system of a jurisdiction outside of any state or territory 5 of the United States, including, but not limited to, international  organizations and tribunals, and applied by that jurisdiction’s courts, administrative bodies, or other formal or informal tribunals. A court, arbitrator, administrative agency, or other  adjudicative, mediation, or enforcement authority shall not enforce  a foreign law if doing so would violate a right guaranteed by the 6 constitution of this state or of the United States.

A court, arbitrator, administrative agency, or other adjudicative, mediation, or enforcement authority shall not enforce a foreign law if doing so would violate a right guaranteed by the constitution of this state or of the United States.

According to Hoitenga, the bill was motivated by the recent case of female genital mutilation (FGM) practiced on several girls aged 6 to 8 by a Muslim doctor in Detroit. The doctor, Jumana Nagarwala, has been duly charged with a criminal offense:

The sponsor, Republican Rep. Michele Hoitenga of Manton, said in an email to House members this week that a Detroit-area doctor recently charged with performing genital mutilation on two young girls was “essentially practicing a fundamentalist version of Sharia law,” according to

Again, you can argue about whether sharia law promotes FGM, or even whether sharia law is oppressive, but there’s little doubt that many branches of Islam do promote FGM or even make it mandatory, and that sharia law is oppressive where applied though it is superseded by US law in our country.

The Huffington Post, however, argues that FGM is not an Islamic practice, and also that sharia law has been grossly misunderstood; this is part of PuffHo’s Regressive Leftist campaign to glorify Islam by hiding some of its shady practices. As always, this is because Muslims are considered People of Color and therefore oppressed.

HuffPo is right on one count: the bill is superfluous, prohibiting what is already prohibited. But it errs, deliberately, in saying that sharia law is innocuous and misunderstood:

Sharia law, a favorite bogeyman of anti-Muslim extremists, is the deeply misunderstood legal or philosophical code of Islam. It’s interpreted differently by Muslims across the world using an assortment of texts, including the Quran, the Sunnah and Hadiths.

Yes, sharia law is interpreted differently in different places, but in no place is it superior to the laws of Western democracies, and in many places sharia (which in most Muslim-majority countries has become part of state law) is oppressive, unfair, and ludicrously regressive. For instance, in many places sharia makes apostasy a capital crime, prohibits drinking, makes the testimony of a woman in court worth only half of a man’s (!), considers in judicial sentencing that a woman’s life is worth half of a man’s, and allows or even requires barbaric practices like beheading or the mutilation of hands or limbs. Yet, according to the 2013 Pew Survey of beliefs in Muslim-majority lands, support for sharia is widespread (note: countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iran weren’t surveyed), with many suggesting that it be applied to non-Muslims. Here are some data I’ve shown before from that survey:

So yes, Michigan’s anti-sharia bill is superfluous, but support for sharia among Muslims is widespread. Even in Britain, Muslim support for sharia is strong: the National Secular Society reports a Policy Exchange Survey of British Muslims that showed this:

“There are relatively large levels of support among British Muslims for the implementation of elements of Sharia law,” Policy Exchange said.

43% said they supported “the introduction of Sharia Law” and just 22% were opposed. 16% of British Muslims “strongly support” the “introduction of aspects of Sharia law into Britain”.

35% of 18-24 year olds expressed support for “aspects” of sharia and nearly half of the over-55s supported some “provisions” of sharia.

Okay, but putting that aside, is FGM an Islamic practice, or does it have something to do with the faith? The accused doctor certainly thought so! As the Detroit News reported:

A Detroit emergency room physician charged with mutilating the genitalia of two 7-year-olds from Minnesota denied cutting the girls, saying she merely performed a religious procedure that involved removing and then burying skin in the ground.

Dr. Jumana Nagarwala’s lawyer offered the explanation Monday during a dramatic 90-minute court hearing in front of a standing-room-only crowd. The hearing ended with a federal magistrate judge ordering the Northville doctor jailed without bond while awaiting trial, the first of its kind in federal courts nationwide.

Dr. Nagarwala is clearly a Muslim:

Dr. Jumana Nagarwala (Photo: Henry Ford Health System)

We all know that Reza Aslan, another apologist for Islam, has also denied that FGM has anything to do with the religion, and PuffHo echoes his sentiments:

The practice [FGM] “has not been confined to a particular culture or religion,” according to the Female Genital Mutilation National Clinical Group, a United Kingdom-based charity working with women who have suffered FGM. “FGM has neither been mentioned in the Quran nor Sunnah.”

FGM existed long before Islam and it sadly persists today as a cultural tradition that traverses religious lines. Qasim Rashid, visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal School of Islamic Studies

FGM is practiced in many Muslim-majority countries as well as in some Christian-majority countries, according to Politifact, citing a UNICEF report. And some Muslim-majority countries, such as Yemen and Iraq, have low rates of FGM.

Qasim Rashid, visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal School of Islamic Studies, wrote in a HuffPost blog post in 2014 that FGM predates Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

“FGM existed long before Islam and it sadly persists today as a cultural tradition that traverses religious lines,” Rashid wrote. “For example, in Ethiopia, Muslims, Christians, and Jews have all practiced FGM — though no faith endorses the act.”

And because there is no solid theological basis for FGM in Islam, Rashid said, the only people today who believe FGM is a part of Islam are “Islamophobes and extremists [who ascribe to Islam].”

Well, I can think of no better refutation of this nonsense than Heather Hastie’s post from 2014, “Reza Aslan: Lying for Islam on FGM.” Read it if you encounter people who disavow a connection between Islam and FGM, for Heather simply demolishes that claim with data. Here’s a small excerpt:

In Sunni Islam, there are four schools of jurisprudence that express an opinion on the matter. Two of them, the Hanbali and Shafi’i schools, consider FGM obligatory, while the other two, the Hanafi and Maliki schools, recommend it. In addition, there have been several fatwas issued regarding FGM over the years, the majority of which favour it. (Fatwas are not compulsory, but devout Muslims consider them morally imperative.) For example, Fatwa 60314 includes statements that express the importance of FGM within Islam and dismiss the opinions of doctors.

The belief that FGM is an expression of faith if you are a good Muslim is widespread, insidious and promoted by religious leaders. Even in those Muslim countries where it has been banned, there is push-back by religious leaders. In Egypt for example, FGM was finally banned after several failed attempts in 2008. However, it is still being carried out outside hospitals and the Muslim Brotherhood has a campaign to get the law overturned. Mariz Tadros reported in May last year that “the Muslim Brotherhood have offered to circumcise women for a nominal fee as part of their community services”.

FGM apologists like Aslan and PuffHo could find out about this stuff if they wanted, but it goes against their pro-Muslim narrative. Talk about “alternative truths”!  These are not a monopoly of the Right.

A successful cat experiment—and a failure

Last Caturday, I put up an item about some cats having a propensity to enter and sit in squares of tape on the floor. I also urged readers to try it. What do you have to lose besides a bit of tape? Anyway, three readers tried it: one failed utterly, one succeeded, but only when the cat was enticed into the tape-square with a treat (this doesn’t count!) and then one success, from reader Rhonda. Her notes and photo:

The square experiment was successful in my household with really only one of our three cats. One stood in it for just a second, and the third was much too suspicious to get inside. This is Happy, our tiny and very trusting almost 15-year-old girl.

And we have a failure from Peter N., who also sent a photo and an account:

A few years ago a friend sent me an article that said cats would gravitate toward any defined small space, just like you said in your post of April 22. I set up a loop of digital audio cable on our bed, where Gus (1999-2017) always slept during the day. The result: it’s hard to generalize about cats!

The verdict so far: the behavior certainly isn’t ubiquitous Try this at home!

Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Tony Eales sent some lovely spider photos from Queensland, in a country where everything is poisonous! His notes are indented:

A few of my favourite spider shots. The first is a cute little orb-weaving spider Araneus rotundulus. Only a few millimetres across, it can roll up into an almost perfect ball.

JAC: Here it is in a ball; photo from Brisbane Insects: (link above):

The next, Argiope ocyaloides, is another orb weaver. These specialise in weaving webs in the deep furrows in the bark of eucalyptus trees like the Ironbark.

Next are a couple of the bizarre Argyrodes species with their weird humped and reflective-skinned abdomens.

Russian Tent Spiders, Crytophora hirta, in the morning dew. These small orb-weavers can fill parts of coastal scrub and in the morning light it just looks magical.

One of the classic Huntsmans. The ones that come inside are well known for freaking out tourists and some squeamish locals. They are a large and extremely fast spider prone to sitting stock still them taking off at half an eye-blink speed. I’ve never heard of one biting. They’re very peaceful but terrifying. This large species, Holconia immanis, is only ever found under peeling bark of large Eucalyptus trees, not indoors. When you’re peeling back a piece of bark to see what’s worth photographing and something impossibly fast but about the size of a mouse shoots up your sleeve…it’ll be this guy:

This cute little jumping spider, Omoedus orbiculatus, lives on tree trunks eating ants.

A muppet headed Variable Lynx SpiderOxyopes variabilis. As the name suggests, they come in all shapes and patterns, but I’ve never seen one with such a comically swollen head before.

Last, a member of a really interesting family: the Thomisids (Crab and Flower Spiders). There are species from a few genera which are social to semi-social forming collective snare webs. This is the first and only social spider I’ve seen in the wild but I’ll be keeping my eye out for more. Xysticus bimaculatus, the Sub-social Crab Spider:

Monday: Hili dialogue

I am late this morning because–mirabile dictu–I have overslept! Till 6:15! Oy! Anyway, I’m told that it’s Monday, April 24, 2017, and it’s National Pigs-in-a-Blanket Day. Do other lands like Britain have these things? If not, here are les porcs dans des couvertures:

I haven’t had one of these dough-encased hot dogs in decades. It’s also World Day for Laboratory Animals, and I’m glad that all my lab animals were fruit flies, which I always killed humanely, etherizing them to death–instant unconsciousness.

On this day in 1800, the U.S. Library of Congress was established by President John Adams,  and 16 years later the Easter Rising began in Dublin. On this day in 1953, Winston Churchill was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II (do read Winnie’s biography by William Manchester), and in 1990 the Hubble Space was launched from the space shuttle Discovery.  It’s still working, and could work for 20 more years! What a piece of work is Homo sapiens!

Notables born on this day include Anthony Trollope (1815), Shirley MacLaine (1934; she and her brother Warren Beatty attended my high school in Arlington, Virginia), and Barbra Streisand (1942; she’s 75 today). Those who died on this day include Willa Cather (1947), Bud Abbott (1974), and Estée Lauder (2004). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is strutting her stuff, not at all humble, but it is a lovely photo:

Hili: Sometimes it amazes me.
A: What amazes you?
Hili: How perfect I am.
In Polish:
Hili: Czasem mnie zdumiewa.
Ja: Co cię zdumiewa?
Hili: Jaka jestem doskonała.
Lagniappe: Look at this caracal kitten (courtesy of Grania):



A great last-second goal by Messi

Barcelona vs. Real Madrid—Ronaldo vs Messi—fighting for the La Liga title. It looked like a tie (which would give Madrid the title) until the last ten seconds of injury time. Then Messi, battered in the game and possibly having lost teeth to an elbow, came through, scoring a seemingly effortless left-footed goal to give Barca a 3-2 victory and keeping his team in the running.

The commentary from the Independent:

Barring a complete collapse Real Madrid had won La Liga. Only a miracle could stop them.

That miracle was Lionel Messi, surviving 95 minutes’ worth of battering and beasting to curl home a left-footed strike in the dying seconds. It was a goal to settle any title race, but whether it proves to be such a strike will only become clear down the line – right after those bruises heal and the teeth are replaced.

And a video link (I’ve found a better one) and commentary from reader Michael:

Here is a video of Messi’s vital [literally] 2nd goal.  Messi is left unmarked & has lots of space to strike with his left.
I watched this game down the pub – the place went mental when Messi scored his 2nd goal with 10 SECONDS LEFT of injury time to keep Barca in the title. Messi is one tough hombre – I think some of his teeth were loosened [or lost] at one point, but he isn’t slowed.
The video may not show on this post, but will on YouTube here. (These videos tend to be taken down because capitalism.) Note that despite what the announcer says, this does NOT “defy the laws of physics.” And I wish they’d stop calling Messi a “little man”!

As soccer commentator Seamus Malone told me, Messi appears to be the greatest soccer player of all time. This was also Messi’s 500th goal for Barca.