Philomena Cunk on Winston Churchill

After the “Evolution” segment, this is my favorite episode of “Moments of Wonder.” Here Philomena investigates the legend that was Winston Churchill. There are several great bits, including the opening question as well as her statement, “If he were alive today, imagine how good his tweets would have been.”

Notice, too, how she pronounces Churchill’s first name and completely flummoxes Churchill Man.

There are two episodes to go: one on money and another on food (the latter, which aired yesterday, hasn’t yet been posted). But even when those are up, we won’t have seen the end of Cunk.

Here’s a tw**t from Diane Morgan, Philomena’s real name, sent by Matthew Cobb, who’s feeding my obsession:

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And I found this one:

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Mr. Spock is dead

When Greg just emailed me the news that Leonard Nimoy had died, I thought, “Not possible: he was too young.” But then I read his obituary in the New York Times and found that he was 83.

Both the NYT and Time Magazine notes that he was fatally ill with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as emphysema) and apparently knew he was going to die. He had stopped smoking three decades earlier, but it was already too late.

The magazine reproduces his final tw**t, issued only on Monday. It’s poignant:

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Time adds:

Nimoy signed all his tweets “LLAP” or “Live Long and Prosper,” his character’s catchphrase from the Star Trek series and films.

Nimoy had announced via Twitter last year that he had been diagnosed with COPD, a chronic respiratory disease caused by smoking that has no cure. He encouraged his followers to stop smoking.

I never watched Star Trek, but I know that he’s often used as an exemplar or metaphor on this site, and that many of the readers know a lot about Nimoy, and loved his character. Feel free to share your memories below.

He did indeed live long, and prospered.


Member of U.S. House Science and Technology committee chooses not to vaccinate his kids

U.S. Representative Barry Loudermilk is a Republican, of course, and represents Georgia. And he’s on a House of Representatives science and technology subcommittee, apparently because (according to Wikipedia) “he holds an Associate degree in Telecommunications Technology and a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Education and Information Systems Technology.”

Whatever science Loudermilk absorbed in school doesn’t seem to have become embedded in his brain, or was effaced by his Republican colleagues. For, as Mother Jones reports, he didn’t vaccinate “most” of his kids, whatever that means:

Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a Georgia Republican who recently became the chair of a key congressional subcommittee on science and technology, didn’t vaccinate most of his children, he told a crowd at his first town hall meeting last week.

Loudermilk was responding to a woman who asked whether he’d be looking into (discredited) allegations that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had covered up information linking vaccines to autism. He responded with a rather unscientific personal anecdote: “I believe it’s the parents’ decision whether to immunize or not…Most of our children, we didn’t immunize. They’re healthy.”

This isn’t really a surprise, since by my count, 72% of the House’s member of the full Science, Space, and Technology Committee (mostly Republicans) are outright  climate-change denialists or have voted against bills to alleviate global warming.  Some committee: we have foxes infesting the Henhouse of Science!

Here’s the incriminating video; the stuff on vaccination begins at 1:26:00. He also says that he thinks it’s the “parent’s decision whether to immunize their children.”

How embarrassing is this? I want to move to, say New Zealand—or any place where there are no Republicans.

h/t: Gregory

More on the Makayla Sault affair: mother tries to exculpate herself by pinning her child’s death on her child’s wishes

I’ve posted several times on the Makayla Sault affair, in which an 11-year-old Canadian First Nations child, stricken with leukemia, was allowed by the government and child protective services to stop her chemotherapy treatment (which in all likelihood would have cured her) in favor of “traditional” medicine—said medicine including a visit to the quackish Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida for a useless dietary regime and “cold laser” treatments.

Makayla, of course, died. And now another 11-year-old Canadian First Nations girl with leukemia, identified only as “J. J.”, has also been allowed to forego treatment, and was also taken for woo-treatment to the Hippocrates Institute. (The head doctor there, Brian Clement, has since been ordered to stop practicing medicine without a license.)

I regard this—and all government exemptions allowing parents to refuse proper medical care for their children on grounds of religion, faith, or “ethnic tradition”—as unconscionable, a privileging of religion over science, and faith over reason. But it’s far more reprehensible than other such clashes, like that between evolution and creationism, because medical-care exemptions, like vaccination exemptions, actually kill children.

There is no reason for any such “philosophical exemptions” in a modern world; the only justifiable ones are when the treatment would be more likely to hurt the child than the faith-based alternative of prayer or cold-laser treatment—a very unlikely situation!—or when conventional medical care would injure the child on genuine medical grounds, as when vaccination could hurt an immunocompromised child. It’s time to end, for once and for all, all religious, faith-based, culture-based, and “philosophical” exemptions from scientific medical care. There is no good justification for such exemptions. They are murderous and, in the case of vaccination, harmful to others who don’t opt out.

I received a link to a Globe and Mail piece about Makayla and her family from reader “lancelotgobbo,” a physician who has developed leukemia and has been public about it on this site. Lancelot sent the link to the article, “Aboriginal girl begged parents to stop chemo treatments, mother says,” with this note:

I’m afraid the family are beginning to cover up their poor decision.

And that’s what the article suggests. Makaya’s mother, Sonya Sault, is now giving public lectures, which I interpret as her trying to justify her decision to stop her child’s chemotherapy in the face of severe public criticism.  The article notes:

Doctors gave [Makayla] at most a 72-per-cent chance of survival even with an aggressive chemotherapy treatment, her mother, Sonya Sault, told an audience at McMaster University.

“She became so weak so she couldn’t even stand or sit at times,” she said.

Mr. Sault said the treatment took a heavy physical and emotional toll on the little girl.

“Are you sure I’m getting better? Are you sure we’re doing the right thing? I feel I am getting worse,” she recalled her daughter asking.

Makayla said things like “the chemo is going to kill me,” the mother said, adding that finally she begged the parents to put an end to it.

“Mom, if you have the power to get me out of here, then you have to get me out of here.”

. . . “We know that chemotherapy is not easy for anyone, but for Makayla it was devastating,” she said.

Makayla, she said, understood the “harsh reality of stopping chemotherapy,” but she wanted to try traditional medicine.

“I don’t care if I’m going to die, I don’t want to die weak and sick in a hospital,” Ms. Sault remembered her daughter telling her.

Only a 72% chance? Well, with no treatment Makayla’s chance of surviving acute lymphoblastic leukemia is 0%. What decent parent would accede to their daughter’s request to stop chemo (even if the child did make the request), if the chance of surviving was as high as 72%?

The Saults’ public breast-beating serves no purpose except to exculpate the mother and defuse public criticism.  Such talks are in fact harmful, for they may persuade other parents to do the same stupid thing to their kids. Ms. Sault’s talk is unseemly and offensive, although, of course, she has the right to say what she wants.  The Globe and Mail piece continues:

Ms. Sault spoke at an event organized by McMaster University’s Indigenous Studies Program in an effort to understand the problems between First Nation peoples and the health-care system.

“Our hearts are broken by the passing of our daughter,” an emotional Ms. Sault said before composing herself – her husband by her side.

Good going, McMaster University! Did you, by the way, counter Ms. Sault’s talk with one by a doctor, laying out the alternatives, their probabilities, and the uselessness of “alternative medicine” for curing leukemia? After all, it was your hospital that tried to insist on continuing the child’s chemotherapy.

I have little sympathy for the Saults’ grief when they had a substantial chance of avoiding their daughter’s death by allowing her chemotherapy to proceed. What they did in fact guaranteed that their daughter would die.

And this strikes me as simply disingenuous:

The mother also said she wanted to clarify “misinformation in the media” about her daughter’s treatment.

The medical staff at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton threatened to get the authorities to apprehend the girl and her two brothers and force chemotherapy treatment upon her, Ms. Sault said.

Makayla started to feel better once the chemotherapy stopped, Ms. Sault said, but she didn’t stop treatment altogether. She continued to receive treatment from her family physician, Dr. Jason Zacks, as well as an oncologist at McMaster hospital. She also received traditional medicine from a healer near her home on the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation.

Then the family went to the Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida to get away from the brewing media storm over her case, Ms. Sault said.

Florida’s Department of Health recently issued a cease-and-desist letter to the man who runs the spa, Brian Clement, for practising medicine without a licence.

Ms. Sault said Makayla didn’t go to the Florida spa for cancer treatment, only to try out a new diet that might boost her immune system. Plus, Ms. Sault said, Makayla got to relax and be a kid again, soaking up the sun and swimming in the ocean.

If the diet didn’t constitute “cancer treatment” (and she didn’t mention the cold laser treatment and vitamin injections), what is? The bit about “getting away from the brewing media storm” really incensed the reader who sent me the link, and I agree. It was a way to avoid guilt, and to pretend that they really were trying to cure their daughter. Granted, perhaps Ms. Sault didn’t understand or believe the doctors who gave her the odds that her daughter would die, but how savvy do you have to be to understand the difference between 72% survival and 0% survival? In the face of such obtuseness, the government should have stepped in and tried to save the child’s life.

 LancelotGobbo sent me these comments in an email (indented):
You might have gathered from my comments as Lancelot Gobbo (look up your Shakespeare for the character with an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other!) that I am not only a physician, but one with leukemia. It really irritates me to see people make such cowardly choices for their children, especially when primary chemotherapy isn’t so very hard to go through these days, with the availability of ondansetron. I learn this week that my chemo has only given me a partial remission, so my future is changing. Nonetheless, I would already be dead if I hadn’t done it, so I’m ahead of the game.
I replied to the [Globe and Mail] article with:
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Do, please, continue to highlight the dreadful situation that children with inadequate parents find themselves in. It’s an everyday occurrence that incapable parents provide sub-standard parenting. Teletubbies are not the same as involved and competent parents, and this seems to be an issue for an enormous number of households. But letting a child decide what treatment to accept for a life-threatening disease is an abrogation of parenthood that I can’t quite seem to swallow. That wretched couple must feel dreadful, and if they don’t they ought to!

Yes, of course I’ll continue to highlight the unnecessary deaths of children due to unwarranted respect for faith. Children should not become martyrs to their parents’ religion. But we all should pitch in here—Canadians and Americans alike—for both of our countries are afflicted with this problem. The vast majority of American states, for instance, have religious exemptions for children’s medical care. Call it out when you see it, write letters to newspapers and legislators, and just do what you can. What’s at stake here are the lives of innocent children, brainwashed by their faith-addled parents. Let us not forget that this is not an abstract philosophical issue, but involves people like this:


The late Makayla Sault


Seattle girl bonds with crows who give her gifts in return for food

There is some more bird news today, and this is at once fascinating and heartwarming. The BBC News reports that an eight-year-old girl in Seattle, Gabi Mann, is in a reciprocal trade relationship—one might call it “affection”—with a bunch of local crows. And it’s been going on for four years, since Gabi was four.  I can’t help reproducing a lot of the tale.  The BBC report starts like this:

Eight-year-old Gabi Mann sets a bead storage container on the dining room table, and clicks the lid open. This is her most precious collection.

“You may take a few close looks,” she says, “but don’t touch.” It’s a warning she’s most likely practised on her younger brother. She laughs after saying it though. She is happy for the audience.

Inside the box are rows of small objects in clear plastic bags. One label reads: “Black table by feeder. 2:30 p.m. 09 Nov 2014.” Inside is a broken light bulb. Another bag contains small pieces of brown glass worn smooth by the sea. “Beer coloured glass,” as Gabi describes it.

Each item is individually wrapped and categorised. Gabi pulls a black zip out of a labelled bag and holds it up. “We keep it in as good condition as we can,” she says, before explaining this object is one of her favourites.

There’s a miniature silver ball, a black button, a blue paper clip, a yellow bead, a faded black piece of foam, a blue Lego piece, and the list goes on. Many of them are scuffed and dirty. It is an odd assortment of objects for a little girl to treasure, but to Gabi these things are more valuable than gold.

She didn’t gather this collection. Each item was a gift – given to her by crows.

She holds up a pearl coloured heart. It is her most-prized present. “It’s showing me how much they love me.”

Here are the crow gifts sorted and arranged. The heart is at upper right:



How it began:

Gabi’s relationship with the neighbourhood crows began accidentally in 2011. She was four years old, and prone to dropping food. She’d get out of the car, and a chicken nugget would tumble off her lap. A crow would rush in to recover it. Soon, the crows were watching for her, hoping for another bite.

As she got older, she rewarded their attention, by sharing her packed lunch on the way to the bus stop. Her brother joined in. Soon, crows were lining up in the afternoon to greet Gabi’s bus, hoping for another feeding session.

. . . In 2013, Gabi and [her mother] Lisa started offering food as a daily ritual, rather than dropping scraps from time to time.

Gabi and her mom:


And then the relationship became reciprocal:

Each morning, they fill the backyard birdbath with fresh water and cover bird-feeder platforms with peanuts. Gabi throws handfuls of dog food into the grass. As they work, crows assemble on the telephone lines, calling loudly to them.

It was after they adopted this routine that the gifts started appearing.

The crows would clear the feeder of peanuts, and leave shiny trinkets on the empty tray; an earring, a hinge, a polished rock. There wasn’t a pattern. Gifts showed up sporadically – anything shiny and small enough to fit in a crow’s mouth.

One time it was a tiny piece of metal with the word “best” printed on it. “I don’t know if they still have the part that says ‘friend’,” Gabi laughs, amused by the thought of a crow wearing a matching necklace.

When you see Gabi’s collection, it’s hard not to wish for gift-giving crows of your own.

“If you want to form a bond with a crow, be consistent in rewarding them,” advises John Marzluff, professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington. [JAC: That goes for human relationships, too!] He specialises in birds, particularly crows and ravens.

The Science Men also recommend feeding peanuts to crows if you want to bond with them: it’s a high-energy food and makes noise when you throw it, so the crows know it’s there.


Gabi with some of her birds


So what is going on here? My first thought was this is co-opting a normal behavior of crows—perhaps giving nuptial gifts to mates. I haven’t been able to find any reference, though, to crows doing that. Still, the Science Men who were consulted suggest it’s a cooption of nuptial feeding behavior:

Marzluff, and his colleague Mark Miller, did a study of crows and the people who feed them. They found that crows and people form a very personal relationship. “There’s definitely a two-way communication going on there,” Marzluff says. “They understand each other’s signals.”

The birds communicate by how they fly, how close they walk, and where they sit. The human learns their language and the crows learn their feeder’s patterns and posture. They start to know and trust each other. Sometimes a crow leaves a gift.

But crow gifts are not guaranteed. “I can’t say they always will (give presents),” Marzluff admits, having never received any gifts personally, “but I have seen an awful lot of things crows have brought people.”

Not all crows deliver shiny objects either. Sometimes they give the kind of presents “they would give to their mate”, says Marzluff. “Courtship feeding, for example. So some people, their presents are dead baby birds that the crow brings in.”

Well, I prefer to think of it as reciprocal affection, as does Gabi. You can see a video of her feeding her crows at the BBC site.

Gabi points out a heavily rusted screw she prefers not to touch. It’s labelled “Third Favorite.” Asking her why an untouchable object is in the favourites, she answers, “You don’t see a crow carrying around a screw that much. Unless it’s trying to build its house.”

Lisa, Gabi’s mom, regularly photographs the crows and charts their behaviour and interactions. Her most amazing gift came just a few weeks ago, when she lost a lens cap in a nearby alley while photographing a bald eagle as it circled over the neighbourhood.

She didn’t even have to look for it. It was sitting on the edge of the birdbath.

Had the crows returned it? Lisa logged on to her computer and pulled up their bird-cam. There was the crow she suspected. “You can see it bringing it into the yard. Walks it to the birdbath and actually spends time rinsing this lens cap.”

“I’m sure that it was intentional,” she smiles. “They watch us all the time. I’m sure they knew I dropped it. I’m sure they decided they wanted to return it.”

Well, who’s to say they’re wrong? Perhaps the crows do regard Gabi and Lisa as members of their murder, who will give them more noms if they bring her presents.  I won’t go so far as to say that the crows feel a form of “affection” for Gabi, but is reciprocal present-giving to specific individuals not close to affection?

And wouldn’t it be awesome if Gabi grew up to be an ornithologist, or someone like Bernd Heinrich who studies corvids?

I’ve posted on crows and ravens before; they’re highly intelligent, curious, and mischievous. That’s shown by this video (from the Daily Mail) showing a crow going after one of those odious sausage d*gs, who deserves it by virtue of being a sausage dog:

h/t: Larry

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Reader Colin Franks has a complete sequence of Bald Eagles  (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) mating. I now issue a challenge to Stephen Barnard to match or better this series with his own eagle porn. Colin’s notes:

I recently caught something very special with my camera – the entire mating sequence of two adult Bald Eagles! Attached is just a few images (of the 45 total).  Sorry for the grid watermark, but image theft is rampant on the ‘net, and these are special.

You can see the rest on the Colin Franks Photography Facebook page.

These of course cry out for anthropomorphizing. I’ve added numbers in case Diana MacPherson (or anyone else) wants to caption these:













Making eaglets!














Friday: Hili dialogue (and bonus Theo dialogue)

It was not supposed to snow this week, but we got eight inches last night and more is predicted to come. The CeilingCatMobile may be buried, which would be annoying indeed!

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili takes a stab at cosmology and philosophy, broaching the Cathropic Principle:

Hili: Do cats belong to those constants without which life would be impossible?
A: Cats appeared quite late in the evolution.
Hili: Well, but Ceiling Cat was even before the Big Bang.
(Photo by: Sarah Lawson)

In Polish:
Hili: Czy koty należą do tych stałych, bez których życie byłoby niemożliwe?
Ja: Koty pojawiły się dość późno na ewolucyjnym drzewie.
Hili: No tak, ale Ceiling Cat był jeszcze przed wielkim wybuchem.
(Zdjęcie: Sarah Lawson)
And readers Laurie and Gethyn, the staff of Theo, the Cat Who Drinks Espresso, were inspired to send in a Theo Dialogue:
Gethyn: Theo, you have to move now.
Theo: Go to work naked.  And leave the coffee in my water bowl.

Leon’s mountain adventure: La fin

Leon and his staff are on the way home now, tired but happy after their adventure. But Leon was still a bit randy on the way down, as he’s torn between the two queens he met:

Leon: Kicia up on the mountain, Balbina down in the valley, what do you suggest?



And maybe he’s had enough snow after all:

Leon: I will just check if I can see spring from here


And, finally, I am very pleased to say that I am featured in today’s Leon monologue!:

Leon: Please, check if Jerry wrote something about me.



Philomena Cunk on crime

Good news!! There are not two but three episodes of the incomparable Philomena Cunk’s series “Moment of Wonder” left, for I found another one. Here’s the latest, her segment on crime. And even better news: she’s producing one more—the last one—tonight, which, I hope, will soon be on YouTube. In the meantime, have a gander at this, which includes an interview with Crime Man:

Her first sentence is a classic: “One in twenty people has been a victim of crime, which means that nineteen out of twenty people are criminals.”

Eugenie Clark dies, NYT gets one fact wrong

Eugenie Clark, a famous marine biologist who was a prolific scholar and popular writer, and my one-time colleague at the University of Maryland, has died of lung cancer at the age of 92. She was a very nice person, though I didn’t know her well as she was frequently absent from campus, giving lectures around the world and making dives. She was diagnosed with lung cancer eleven years ago, but fortunately survived far longer than expected.

The New York Times obituary on Clark is a good account of her life and work, but there’s one small error at the end. Can you spot it?

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