I had a dream

Lately my dreams have turned from dreams of frustration—usually dreams involving being unable to find the room of a final exam in college, or having to take an exam on a subject I know nothing about—to dreams of  sheer terror. Last night’s was especially vivid. I was taken to a torture center run by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge (perhaps the infamous Security Prison 21, about which I recently read), and was placed by the door, forced to watch the prisoners dragged in, kicking and screaming. Then I was taken inside and made to watch the torture. That consisted of prisoners being tied to horizontal metal poles by their arms. Then guards would apply blowtorches to the poles, which became red hot. Seared by the metal, the prisoners would scream horribly. And then I woke up.

I have no idea what this means, but torture with red-hot instruments was used by the Khmer Rouge. Of the 17,000 prisoners put in that security prison, only 7 came out alive.

Many people have recurring dreams, with academics especially prone to the “final exam: can’t handle it” dream. Please recount below either your own recurring dream, or your latest dream. And tell me what you think my dream of last night meant (yes, I know dreams may be random phenomena, but in many there’s often a kernel of truth: the “day’s residuum,” as I think Freud called it).

Readers’ wildlife photos

This may be our first contribution from a Mexican reader, so welcome José Ramón López Rubi C, who also has a photo site called Aqua de Ojo. His notes are indented.

Let me share some “artsy” wildlife photos.

The first is a cormorant. The second and third are pictures of “aplomado” falcons [Falco femoralis]. The three were taken (by me) in the Centla Glades of Tabasco, México. The Centla Glades are part of the Centla swamps; the region is a tropical forest on the delta of the Grijalva and Usumacinta rivers. A treasure of the highly biodiverse Mexican south.

Greetings from Mexico City,

Here’s an aplomado falcon from Audubon:


Three from Stephen Barnard in Idaho:

American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)  being harassed by a Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus).

The same bird chowing down on trout fry. These pelicans are voracious fish predators. I keep a loaded handgun ready to scare them off.

Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata). Every morning Willie perches and calls across Loving Creek from my house, too far away to get a really sharp photo. Knowing that birds let you get much closer when you’re in a watercraft, I used my fishing pontoon to creep up on it.

Finally,  just yesterday Tony Eales sent a lovely batch of photos of Australian herps. But he left out one, and here it is:

I thought I had but couldn’t find a picture of a full-size coloured-up breeding-season male Eastern Water Dragon. Today by chance I found the photo. Just look at the handsome fellow.

He posted the female yesterday, and said this:

An Eastern Water Dragon, Itelagama lesuerii lesuerii. These are very common close to creeks in the city, right in to parks in the CBD. Large males can be brightly coloured and pretty large for a town lizard.



Friday: Hili dialogue (and Leon monologue)

Good morning! I’m back in Chicago, summer is on the way (we will have some rain this week), and it’s May 26, 2017: National Blueberry Cheesecake Day, probably promoted by Big Blueberry. Like all good Jews, I prefer my cheesecake plain, but if you must add something, let it be cherries or, lacking those, blueberries or strawberries. In the U.S., it’s National Paper Airplane Day, and in Australia it’s “National Sorry Day,” commemorating the abysmal treatment of the nation’s indigenous population,

On this day in 1868, the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson ended: he was acquitted by a single vote. No President so far has been convicted after impeachment (which, after all, is just the charge). On May 26, 1896, Nicolas II became Russia’s last Tsar. After terrible Russian losses in the Great War, he was forced to abdicate in 1917 and then, a year later, the Bolsheviks executed him along with his entire family and some of their servants. The family’s remains were discovered in 1976. verified by DNA testing, and now rest in St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg, where I’ve seen their tombs. Finally, on May 26, 1998, Australia held its first National Sorry Day.

Notables born on this day include Al Jolson (1886), Dorothea Lange (1895), John Wayne (1907), Peggy Lee (1920), Miles Davis (1926), Stevie Nicks (1948), Sally Ride (1951), and Helena Bonham Carter (1966).

Lange was most famous for her photos documenting the misery of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The photo below, called “Migrant Mother,” was taken in 1936 in California, and was one of a sequence of 6 photos you can see here. It was her most famous photo. Roy Stryker, photographer and head of the Farm Security Administration, for which Lange worked, said this about the photo:

When Dorothea took that picture, that was the ultimate.
She never surpassed it.  To me it was the picture of Farm Security.
She has all the suffering of mankind in her, but all the perseverance too.  
A restraint and a strange courage.

In honor of NicksDay, I’m showing once again what I think is the best live extemporaneous performance of rock on video. Nicks was getting her makeup applied for a Rolling Stone shoot, and they played the instrumental track of “Wild Heart” in the background. Nicks began singing to it, accompanied by her sister-in-law on harmony. A person with a camera happened to catch her singing. The video is mesmerizing, and I watch it all the time.

Those who died on this day include Edsel Ford (1943), Sydney Pollack (2008), and Art Linkletter (2010; his real name was Arthur Gordon Kelly and he was born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is taking a teleological view of evolution:

Hili: Were dinosaurs roaming here once?
A: Probably yes.
Hili: And were there any mice?
A: Not yet.
Hili: So there is a progress after all.
In Polish:
Hili: Czy tu kiedyś chodziły dinozaury?
Ja: Raczej tak.
Hili: A myszy były?
Ja: Jeszcze nie.
Hili: A jednak jest postęp.
And in nearby Wloclawek, Leon is stoned. Look at that face!

Leon: This catnip is delicious!

British officials not inclined to share info with US after Manchester leaks

by Grania

Jerry asked me to post this, although no doubt some of you are already aware of the situation.

The BBC broke the story that British officials and police have stopped sharing information with the US after both The New York Times and CBS published sensitive information that were apparently sourced through government leaks which police claim could undermine their current investigation.

CNN interviewed Shashank Joshi of the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank on cross-border shared intelligence:

“A lot of the information that leaked overnight Monday was fairly mundane, about casualty figures and the method of attack, but the leaking of the suspect’s name was more disruptive because it might have tipped off other suspects.”

New Statesman also notes that the Israeli government is also reviewing intelligence sharing with Washington, no doubt in view of last fortnight’s debacle in the White House with Russian officials in the Oval Office as well as the leaked transcript of Trump’s call to Philippine President Duterte.

They conclude:

It’s all part of a clear and disturbing pattern, that even the United States’ strongest allies in Tel Aviv and London cannot rely on this president or his administration to keep their secrets.

Clueless ideologue of the week

Click on the screenshot to go to the article, if you must. It’s from Curve,  a lesbian magazine, but the same sentiments have been expressed by non-gay people.

Even if the attack aimed at killing as many girls as possible, isn’t it conceivable that such a plan would come from Islam’s misogyny and dislike of Ariana Grande as a symbol of Western decadence? I’m not saying that’s the case, since we know nothing about why this concert was targeted, but to jump to the conclusion above, completely ignoring religion, bespeaks a profound and delusional ideology.

h/t: Melissa Chen

On the way home: discussion with Dawkins

I’m cooling my heels at R*agan Airport in DC, which I’d prefer to call National Airport, its old name. I’ll be home about noon Chicago time.

You may remember the first bit of this post’s title as a Beatles song; if you also remember the album it was on, you get extra credit.

The event last night with Richard Dawkins at Lisner Auditorium (George Washington University) went well, or so I thought. There was a crowd of 900, the VIP pre-event sold out, and I think our conversation was pretty informative, though it’s always hard to tell when you’re onstage and can’t see the audience (the spotlights were fierce). I tried to concentrate on evolution, though I did pin Richard down to saying something about free will (in the dualistic sense), as in his upcoming book of essays, Science in the Soul (recommended), he’d written this:

“After my public speeches I have come to dread the inevitable ‘do you believe in free will’ question and sometimes resort to quoting Christopher Hitchens’s characteristically witty answer, “I have no choice”.

Well, that’s glib, but also a non-answer, so I wanted to ask him if he accepted that all our actions are predetermined except for possible quantum events in the brain. And he did admit that, but added that he doesn’t really understand compatibilism and other attempts to give us free will. I didn’t get into those issues, and we briefly discussed the implications of pure determinism for society and the justice system.

Here are a few other questions I asked Richard (from my notes):

  • How did your life as a scientist and immersion in science affect your personality and attitudes (towards truth, religion, etc.), and are such effects a general phenomenon among scientists?
  •  Let’s begin with Darwin: if he hadn’t existed, how would things be different? Would progress have slowed, and would we be where we are now? Would there be things that people wouldn’t have studied? (A: Wallace would have filled the gap, perhaps delaying a big book by 20 years.)
  • If you could get Darwin back and ask him one question, what would it be? (A: Why did you wait so long to publish The Origin?
  • If you could tell him one thing, what would it be?  (A: About genetics. I then asked Richard what he would say if he were limited to one sentence.)
  • If you had a device that let you peek back in time, but only for one day during a specified period, and could observe what you wanted, bringing a notebook but not a camera, what would you peek at? Origin of life? Beginning of multicellularity? Dinosaurs? Origin of our own species? Beginnings of civilization? Would you want to answer a question or just see something? (He answered that he would like to hear the beginnings of hominin speech.)
  • What one misunderstanding about evolution you would like to correct? (A: It’s all accidental)
  • *Do you think studying or using philosophy is of value to a scientist? How? (A: Yes, as philosophers often teach us to think more clearly about questions, even scientific ones.)

I won’t recount all the other questions and answers; there were many. I also moderated the audience questions at the end, and, as I ended them, I saw a little girl in line with her mother. I couldn’t resist calling on her, too, for, as the Bible says, “a little child will lead them” (she was about five, I think). She said that other children at her school call kids like her, who are interested in science, “nerds.” How, she asked, would Richard respond to that? His sweet and touching answer began with this: “I rather like nerds.”

Here’s a photo of the discussion courtesy of Brian Engler.  Notice that Richard has mismatched socks, and one of the audience asked him, “What’s with the socks?” If a reader doesn’t know (put your answer below), I’ll tell you later.

I’m wearing my stingray cowboy boots.

Many thanks to Robyn Blumner and Stephanie Guttormson for their hospitality and organization.

Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Tony Eales, from Queensland, sent a passel of reptile photos; his notes are indented.

A set of Squamates.

First a particularly pretty little skink called the Shaded-litter Rainbow-skinkCarlia munda:

A close up of the common striped wall skinkCryptoblepharus virgatus:

One of the small common dragons (Agamids) with the charming name of Tommy RoundheadDiporiphera australis:

Another Agamid the Borneo Angle-Headed Agamid or Borneo Forest DragonGonocephalus borneensis:

An extreme close-up of the eye of an Asian House GeckoHemidactylus frenatus. These have become very invasive in my home city during my lifetime. I recall as a kid the excitement at seeing any gecko and now every house has them crawling around outdoor lights and making their chuk-chuk-chuk calls.

An Eastern Water Dragon, Itelagama lesuerii lesuerii. These are very common close to creeks in the city, right in to parks in the CBD. Large males can be brightly coloured and pretty large for a town lizard.

My favourite photo of an Eastern Brown SnakePseudonaja textilis. I was walking through some grass in a dry creek bed and saw the snake not three feet away at the same time it saw me. It raised its head, not in a threatening way, more of an “Oh! What are you?” way and I froze too. We both sized each other up and I slowly got out my camera, took the snap, put my camera away and backed away slowly and it headed off in another direction. One of my favourite encounters just respectful with enough adrenalin to make it memorable.

A Blue-Tongue Lizard, Tilqua scincoides, in an environment I would never have imagined seeing one. It was out in the middle of tidal flats at low time swimming  through the shallow pools. He was a good 50cm long, a sizable specimen. These lizards are relatively common in urban areas, often seen stealing dog or cat food from outside bowls.

Gibber Earless DragonTympanocryptis intima. They aren’t a large dragon, around 5cm snout to vent but this one was the smallest dragon I’d ever seen, maybe 1.5cm snout to vent.

I finally got a photograph of a Sand GoannaVaranus gouldii, last year. The larger Lace Monitor is far more common in my area. The Sand Goanna is the one which my indigenous informants tell me is the one to eat because they’re clean, they say Lace Monitors are dirty and will crawl up the arse of a dead pig to eat its innards.

Thursday: Hili dialogue

by Grania

Welcome to another glorious Towel Day! You can keep up with the other hoopy froods here or by following the hashtag #TowelDay on Twitter.

496 years ago on the history front, the Diet of Worms was still dragging on (Jerry was still in New Zealand when we last visited that era), and today in 1521 the Edict of Worms (yep, still cracking up about the name) was issued declaring Martin Luther an outlaw.

1842 Christian Doppler presented a lecture on his work (On the coloured light of the binary stars and some other stars of the heavens), now known as the Doppler Effect, to the Royal Bohemian Society in Prague.

In 1925 John T. Scopes was indicted for teaching evolution in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. In 2012 SpaceX Dragon rendezvoused with the ISS, becoming the first commercial spacecraft to do so.

Oh, and in 1977 Star Wars was released in cinemas, which is as good an excuse as any for linking to this tweet.

On the same day in 1977 in China, William Shakespeare was un-banned, bringing the long and brutal Cultural Revolution to a close. This is a good opportunity for me to push the Kenneth Branagh film version of his play Much Ado About Nothing. It has an outstanding cast: Emma Thompson, Robert Sean Leonard, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves, and Kate Beckinsale. It’s hilarious, visually gorgeous and is guaranteed to put a grin on your face for the rest of the day. Branagh’s particular talent with Shakespeare is that he genuinely understands every single word on the page, and coaxes performances out of his actors that transform the centuries-old words on a page into witty, fast-paced banter.


Hili is also in an ambitious literary mode today. We wish her all the best of luck with her new endeavour. She’s gonna need it!
Hili: Hurry, we don’t have a moment to lose.
A: What happened?
Hili: I haven’t read “Ulysses” yet.
Hili: Szybko, nie mam chwili do stracenia.
Ja: Co się stało?
Hili: Nie czytałam jeszcze “Ulisesa”!

Lagniappe found by several folks, including Matthew: interspecies love between a felid and a wild deer.

First Lady and First Daughter refuse to cover their heads in Saudi Arabia, but do so before the Pope

I got an email from reader DrBrydon that said the following; I’ll quote it rather than just paraphrase his words:

Looking at the new first thing this morning, I saw photos of Donald, Melania, and Ivanka with the Pope [JAC: see below], and was immediately struck by the fact that both women were wearing head coverings. I was pleased that the Trump delegation did not kowtow to Saudi dress codes for women, but to turn around and abide by Vatican ones strikes me as being incredibly disrespectful to the Saudis, and to Muslims in general.

Only a few news outlets seem to have noticed, including The Telegraph. And I hadn’t realized that Michelle Obama did the same thing.

Melania and Ivanka in Saudi Arabia:

In contrast, with His Popeness:

This of course is a form of hypocrisy: kowtowing to Christianity—seen by many as the Official United States Religion—while slapping Islam in the face. If I had my way, no leader of a secular state would wear religious garb on any official state visit—UNLESS they’re visiting a religious site, in which case I have no big objection.  But if you’re going to osculate the rump of one faith, you’ll have to osculate the rumps of all of them.


UPDATE by Grania

Donning some sort of veil in Vatican City when officially meeting the Pope appears to be a choice. Some women don’t, thank goodness. That’s the former president of the Republic of Ireland, Mary McAleese in case you don’t recognise her.

It seems to be favored by the wives of Republican presidents, but even Michelle Obama wore one when she met her first Pope, but as you can see below, she decided against one second time around.

Is creationism on the wane in America?

Every year or two since 1982, the Gallup Poll has surveyed Americans for their attitudes toward human evolution. (Note: it’s not evolution in general that’s surveyed by the question below, but human evolution. It’s entirely possible that more Americans would accept evolution in general if it’s construed as applying to all species except humans—in fact, that’s exactly the position of the Catholic Church.)

For 35 years the results have held pretty constant, as the graph shows below, 40-50% of all Americans have over time been young-Earth creationists when it comes to human evolution, 30-40% are “theistic evolutionists” who accept some form of teleological, god-guided change, and the “natural evolutionists”—those who accept human evolution as a purely natural and unguided process, as scientists think it is—have hovered around an abysmal 10%.

The latest survey, however, gives us some hope, as the graph below shows

Young-Earth “human creationsts” have dropped to their lowest level yet—38%—a figure identical to “theistic human evolutionists”, which is pretty much in line with the past. The big news to me is the steady rise of those accepting naturalistic evolution as an explanation of humans: it’s gone from 9% in 1982 to 19% in 2014 and 2016: more than a doubling. One in five Americans now thinks we got here in the way science tells us! Yes, compared to Europe that’s dreadful, but it’s still an increase. . .

Do remember, though, that of all those people who do accept a role for evolution in human origins, only 33% (19/[19 + 38]) think it’s natural evolution. 67% of evolution-accepters still see a hand of god on our origins, which makes them quasi-creationists. We have a long way to go.

Although the data aren’t decisive, I will predict that this is part of a longer-term trend of Americans beginning to accept the truth of evolution.  Why do I think that? Because America, like Europe before us, is becoming more secular, and with increasing secularity comes an acceptance of evolution. As I’ve always said, I know of only one evolution-denier who isn’t motivated by religion. (That’s David Berlinski, and I have my doubts about him.) But why is America becoming less religious? Well, read my Evolution paper to see my hypothesis.

Gallup also shows. as it has before, that acceptance of evolution rises with level of education, is lower among those who are believers than those who have no religious preference, and is negatively correlated with church attendance:

As Gallup notes in a sort of wishy-washy summary:

Most Americans believe that God had a role in creating human beings, whether in their present form or as part of an evolutionary process over millions of years. But fewer Americans today hold strict creationist views of the origins of humans than at any point in Gallup’s trend on the question, and it is no longer the single most popular of the three explanations. Creationism still ties for the leading view, along with the view that evolution was guided by a divine hand. Fewer than one in five Americans hold a secular view of evolution, but that proportion has doubled since the start of this millennium.

. . .There has been an increase in the percentage of those holding the secularist viewpoint in recent years, which aligns with the scientific belief that has been prevalent in public school teaching since the Scopes Monkey Trial. This push and pull with creationism will undoubtedly continue, as this debate about where humans came from rages on.