Saturday: Hili dialogue

I am in the Greenville/Spartanburg area of South Carolina, and it’s all green and the weather is warm—no need for a jacket.  And I got to see Snowball the Cockatoo dance (it looks much like this), and dance to several songs with different beats. (I also learned that, after practice, Snowball learned to dance to Dave Brubeck’s jazz classic “Take Five” (see the song here), which is in 5/4 time. You try dancing to that!) Remember that this sulphur-crested cockatoo remains the only individual animal ever shown to move rhythmically to a beat, varying his dancing to match the song. He is said to have seventeen dance moves, and I saw a bunch of them.

It was a truly stunning display of animal behavior, and I will put up some videos I took when I get back to Chicago. I also received many presents from my affable hosts, including wonderful pastries, a Snowball book, customized buttons, a Drosophila mug, and so on, followed by a great dinner at Stella’s Southern Bistro (I had the pickled Florida rock shrimp, followed by “Beeler’s Farm Pork Ribeye & Stuffed Carolina Quail, with laurel aged rice & Sea Island red pea hoppin’ john, fava beans, fines herbs, applewood bacon jus.” That was fantastic, with the quail very juicy and gamey and the local pork ribeye cooked with a bit of pinkness in the middle. I have eaten well.

At noon I lecture on evolution at Furman University, sign copies of WEIT, and have a BBQ dinner with the local humanist group. Life is good.  But I will be occupied much of the day, and posting is likely to be light. I do my best.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is using her usual method to gain entry to the house, but his staff is outside:

Hili: I’m afraid you are not at home.
A: No, I’m not, because I’m taking pictures of you.
Hili: In that case I will stop banging on the window.


In Polish:
Hili: Obawiam się, że nie ma cię w domu.
Ja: Bo robię ci zdjęcie.
Hili: W takim razie przestaję pukać do okna.

Giant cat head!

We shall end the week with a GIANT WOOLEN CAT HEAD, links to which were sent by at least four readers. And I have to say that if “awesome” retains any meaning as a word, this GIANT CAT HEAD fills the bill. You can find it at several sites; I’ll refer you, though, to the information at Laughing Squid.

Housetu Sato and his students at the Japan School of Wool Art created a giant, creepy, realistic needle-felted wool cat head that can be worn as a mask. The head will be on exhibit from April 18-23, 2015 at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.

These photos are taken from the original Japanese site. Imagine the possibilities!






I dearly want one of these, though there is only one in existence. (The makers are thinking of either renting it or making more.) Imagine giving a talk while wearing one. (Yes, I know it would distract from the material and you probably wouldn’t be heard anyway.) Or wearing it on an airplane!


Where would you wear it? (Don’t bother responding if your answer is “I wouldn’t wear it anywhere!”)

Educate yourself about Boko Haram, courtesy of a reader

As you read this, I’ll be in the air, but I wanted to call your attention to two informative posts on the jihadist terrorist group Boko Aram that reader Heather Hastie posted at her own site, Heather’s Homilies.

April 15: “Boko Haram: The scourge of Nigeria

April 16: “The war against Boko Haram

You’ll learn, among other things, that this organization is as Islamist as is ISIS, and that its name means “Western education is forbidden” in the local language. And, like ISIS, it’s dedicated to establishing the Muslim Caliphate—in Nigeria. Now really, can this movement be pinned on Western colonialism instead of the tenets of Islam? I don’t recall the West invading Nigeria recently.

There’s a lot of good information in these two posts, and I recommend your spending a bit of time reading them.

Doctors ask for the quack-ish Dr. Oz to be fired from Columbia

I don’t know much about Dr. Mehmet Oz (b. 1960), except that he’s been the subject of much criticism for his nonscientific “remedies”, and, like “Dr. Phil,” became famous by appearing on Oprah’s show—always a bad thing on the c.v. (for credibility, not for wealth!).

A physician I know told me that he considers at least 50% of Dr. Oz’s advice either useless or worthless, and Wikipedia notes that, despite Oz having won many awards, he touts stuff like reiki, faith healing, and—get this—homeopathy. His endorsement of homeopathy alone brands him as a dangerous quack-y person, for homeopathy is not only useless, but keeps sick people from seeking genuine medical advice. If you want a summary of the Case Against Dr. Oz, you can consult the many pieces debunking his advice posted by Orac on his site Respectful Insolence (don’t miss this one!).

While maintaining his position and wealth as a quackly t.v. doctor, Oz also holds two respectable jobs: professor at the Department of Surgery at Columbia University and director of the Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Medicine Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. (Complementary Medicine? Seriously?) And now a “group of top doctors” have asked for the university to fire him. It has not complied. As the Associated Press reports,

Columbia University has not removed TV celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz from his faculty position as a group of top doctors has demanded, citing his “egregious lack of integrity” for promoting what they call “quack treatments.”

“Dr. Oz has repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine,” said a letter the 10 physicians sent to a Columbia dean earlier this week. They say he’s pushing “miracle” weight-loss supplements with no scientific proof that they work.

The New York Ivy League school responded Thursday, issuing a statement to The Associated Press saying only that the school “is committed to the principle of academic freedom and to upholding faculty members’ freedom of expression for statements they make in public discussion.”

Oz first came to public attention as a frequent television guest of Oprah Winfrey. For the past five years, he’s been the host of “The Dr. Oz Show.”

Oz was not reachable Thursday night at his Columbia office number, which played a recorded message explaining how callers could get tickets to his TV show.

Led by Dr. Henry Miller of California’s Stanford University, the doctors sent the letter to Lee Goldman, dean of Columbia’s Faculties of Health Sciences and Medicine. The nine other doctors from across the country included Dr. Joel Tepper, a cancer researcher from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and Dr. Gilbert Ross of the American Council on Science and Health in New York City.

The doctors wrote that Oz, for years a world-class Columbia cardiothoracic surgeon, “has manifested an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain.” They said he has “misled and endangered” the public.

Here’s the letter, from Yahoo News:

Lee Goldman, M.D.

Dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and Medicine
Columbia University

Dear Dr. Goldman:
I am writing to you on behalf of myself and the undersigned colleagues below, all of whom are distinguished physicians.

We are surprised and dismayed that Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons would permit Dr. Mehmet Oz to occupy a faculty appointment, let alone a senior administrative position in the Department of Surgery.

As described here and here, as well as in other publications, Dr. Oz has repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine, as well as baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops.  Worst of all, he has manifested an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain.Thus, Dr. Oz is guilty of either outrageous conflicts of interest or flawed judgements about what constitutes appropriate medical treatments, or both.  Whatever the nature of his pathology, members of the public are being misled and endangered, which makes Dr. Oz’s presence on the faculty of a prestigious medical institution unacceptable.

Sincerely yours,

Henry I. Miller, M.D.
Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy
& Public Policy
Hoover Institution
Stanford University
Stanford, CA

Scott W. Atlas, M.D.
David and Joan Traitel Senior Fellow
Hoover Institution
Stanford University
Stanford, CA

Jack Fisher, M.D.
Professor of Surgery (emeritus)
University of California, San Diego
La Jolla, CA

Shelley Fleet, M.D.
Longwood, FL

Gordon N. Gill, M.D.
Dean (emeritus) of Translational Medicine
University of California, San Diego
La Jolla, CA

Michael H. Mellon, M.D.
Pediatric Allergist
San Diego, CA

GIlbert Ross, M.D.
President (Acting) and Executive Director
American Council on Science and Health
New York, NY

Samuel Schneider, M.D.
Princeton, NJ

Glenn Swogger Jr. M.D.
Director of the Will Menninger Center for Applied Behavioral Sciences (retired)
The Menninger Foundation
Topeka, KS

Joel E. Tepper, M.D.
Hector MacLean Distinguished Professor of Cancer Research
Dept of Radiation Oncology
University of North Carolina School of Medicine
Chapel Hill, NC

Well, I don’t know if all of these are “top doctors”: there’s a psychiatrist in there (yes, I know they’re “physicians” in name), and some signatories appear to be bureaucrats rather than practicing physicians. It would be far more efficacious if Oz’s Columbia colleagues expressed similar concerns.

But the main issue is whether Oz’s recommendations or public statements constitute, as Columbia maintains, an expression of “academic freedom and. . . freedom of expression for statements [faculty] make in public discussion.” Normally I’d say “yes,” but it’s problematic since Oz’s public statements are sometimes dangerous, as any endorsements of homeopathy or spiritual heaing. If he does this while flaunting his Columbia credentials, then it’s dereliction of his professional duties as a physician. However, he certainly doesn’t say this crap while he’s teaching or treating anyone at Columbia.

I’m sure Columbia would be delighted if Dr. Oz were to leave, but they claim they can’t get rid of him. What do readers think? Does this dangerous quackery constitute free speech that must be protected by a university?

h/t: The several readers who called this to my attention.

Daily Kos removes anti-vax cartoon

I guess the liberal website The Daily Kos got a lot of heat for publishing Keith Knight’s anti-vax cartoon, which I highlighted yesterday. Readers here, like those at the site, were rightly appalled.  Well, now the cartoon is gone. It rests in peace and sings with the choir invisible: it is an ex-cartoon. If you go to the former website, you’ll see this message:

Screen shot 2015-04-17 at 9.48.01 AM

A small victory for rationality, and a sign that the anti-vax tide is turning.

h/t: Pyers

A bizarre deep-sea siphonophore

I originally made a typo in the title, calling this a “deep-see” creature, but in fact that’s what it is! The video and info comes from IFL Science!and shows a bizarre deep-sea species of siphonophore.

Siphonophores are in fact one form of what we normally called “jellyfish,” a group that actually comprises diverse creatures in the phylum Cnidaria.  This form falls into the class Hydrozoa along with hydroids and colonial “jellyfish” like the Portuguese “Man O’ War” (Physalia physalis). Like the Man O’ War, this beast, spotted by a remote vehicle operating in the depths, is not really what we usually consider a “jellyfish,” as it’s colonial: the “individual” is really a colony of diverse and specialized individual cells (“zooids“) that have become integrated into a miniature cooperating society. Creatures like this stretch the notion of what biologists consider an “individual.”

At any rate, this siphonophore (if that’s what it is; I doubt they captured it), is certainly a species new to science. And, as I always say, the deep sea is so remote, and individuals so sparsely distributed, that there are certainly tons of bizarre species down there that we don’t know a thing about.

Look at this thing!:

And the facts from IFLS!:

Recently, a team from the Nautilus Live expedition piloting a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) happened upon one of the most fascinating-looking lifeforms in the world: a rare, purple siphonophore roving through the ocean’s depths. Even the experienced deep sea explorers, well-acquainted with the marine animals, had a hard time accepting that what they were seeing was really real.

Amazingly, although this appears to be a single jellyfish-like animal, it is in fact a roving colony made up of thousands of individual organisms, called zooids, each contributing to the whole. However, more than just its otherworldly shape, this specimen’s purple coloring is said to be rather unusual as well.

Deep Sea News writer R.R. Helm calls it a “shocking shade”, remarking that this footage truly stands out.

h/t: Ant

Canada bans prayers at all city council meetings

Several readers, most of them proud Canadians, sent me links to articles about the new ruling of Canada’s Supreme Court: there will be no prayers uttered in city council meetings—anywhere in that big and diverse country. Although I’m sure that practice is nowhere near as pervasive there as it is in the U.S., it’s still a good sign, one that shows how serious Canada is about enforcing the separation of church and state. Now if they’d only stop kowtowing to First Nations practices to treat sick children with “traditional” medicine!

As the CBC reports,

Thou shalt not pray in council chambers.

At least not in the form of a public recitation to open meetings, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Wednesday, ending an eight-year legal case involving the right of city councillors in Saguenay, Que., to cross themselves and recite a 20-second Catholic prayer before official municipal business.

. . . Just as the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, which formed the basis for the Supreme Court ruling, has a duty to ensure that no particular belief should be favoured or hindered, the court ruled that “the same holds true for non-belief.”

In effect, Mendes explained, the ruling means freedom of conscience and religion includes the freedom not to observe any faith.

Although the ruling is based on Quebec law, and concerned the city of Sangueney, it apparently applies throughout the country:

Although Wednesday’s decision was based on the Quebec charter, Mendes said it’s implicit that the ruling applies nationwide.

University of Windsor law professor Richard Moon, whose work on freedom of religion was cited as part of the Supreme Court decision, said the same provisions under the Quebec charter would be reflected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms anyway.

“When the Supreme Court of Canada makes a determination, even when it relates only to a particular circumstance of the Quebec charter, the fact is it represents the legal perspective across the country,” Moon said.

This case has been going since 2007, when an atheist filed suit with the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal against the Sagueney City Council, whose members crossed themselves and recited a Catholic prayer before starting each session. They were ordered to stop the practice, but then appealed, and the appeal was upheld. The case then went to Canada’s Supreme Court, which overruled the appeal decision on Wednesday.  A very enlightened ruling (if you’re legally inclined, you can see the Court’s full judgment here).

In its decision on Wednesday, the court ruled that the recitation of the prayer infringed on freedom of religion rights by “profess[ing] one religion to the exclusion of all others.”

A “neutral public space,” the ruling said, must be “free from coercion…and is intended to protect every person’s freedom and dignity.”

But there are still a few problems:

1. The ruling doesn’t deal with the presence of religious symbols that still stand in public spaces. In the Sagueney City Council chambers, for instance, there remain a crucifix and a “sacred heart” statue!  Those will have to be subject to separate litigation, though I don’t see why they couldn’t have been included in the original complaint. Also, as the CBC notes, “A crucifix still overlooks the speaker’s throne in the Quebec National Assembly, though politicians including former Quebec Premier Pauline Marois have argued it is a cultural symbol, not a religious article.”  This “cultural symbol” stuff is simply ludicrous, as any religious icon could be construed that way. It’s simply a sleazy way to retain religious symbols.

2. The ruling doesn’t ban other forms of “reflection,” like nonsectarian invocations or the “moments of silence” that have been used in the U.S. to stand for prayers.  What I don’t get is why they need any of these things before starting public business. Let people reflect or pray on their own time!

3. The “neutral public spaces” required by the Supreme Court apparently don’t apply on the national level, where there are still public prayers. The CBC adds this: “While the city of Saguenay argued that even the House of Commons holds a prayer before its sessions, the court reasoned that such proceedings are likely subject to parliamentary privilege.”

Parliamentary privilege? What the hell is that? Apparently it’s the notion that the national legislature is exempt from the strictures that apply everywhere else.  That may be legally permitted, but it’s a hell of a bad example to set for the rest of the country.

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Reader Ed Kroc from British Columbia sent some diverse photos:

Here are some wildlife photos for your perusal. From early this week, a shot of the very first baby birds of the season! Five baby Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and their mother on Lost Lagoon.

Mallard ducklings and mom
Next up, a pair of juveniles Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) resting in the shade on the lagoon. These guys, along with all the other mergansers, just left the lagoon this week. I think they spend summers on lakes and ponds in more densely forested areas.

Hooded Merganser juveniles
A fuzzy Raccoon (Procyon lotor) just off the water, stuffing his/her face with some scraps an unidentified human left along the path. I love his/her little fingers.


Autumn is the best time of year for sunrises in Vancouver, but spring is the best time for sunsets. Here’s a shot of a sunset over Lost Lagoon and some of the Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) that have returned home to it for the spring and summer.

Sunset on Lost Lagoon
A trio of pictures of some resident Glaucous-winged Gulls (Larus glaucescens). First, a couple portraits of a mated adult pair. The female is looking up. She has a well defined pink eye ring and typical hazel iris. Notice how the bill does not extend uniformly beneath the mandible.

GWGull female
Next, a portrait of her strikingly attractive partner. His eye ring is not as pronounced, and his irises are a gorgeous soft grey. Similar to humans, glaucous-winged gulls usually have brownish eye colours, but a noticeable minority possess various shades of grey to blue-grey irises. I wonder how common this type of eye colour distribution is among other animal species?

GWGull male
The last gull picture shows a few first-year GWGulls resting on the rocky cliffs of Whyte Islet in West Vancouver. Notice how their juvenile plumage allows them to blend in with the rocks. Perhaps suggestive of a useful adaptation – they could utilize this camouflage long enough to learn how to look after themselves?

GW Gull juveniles
Finally, as lagniappe, a shot of some tulips (no idea of the species) in full bloom at the First Nations community on Seabird Island just outside Agassiz, BC (pronounced A’-guh-see). I believe the mountain in the background is called Mt. Mercer.

Tulips in Agassiz

And reader Jonathan from the UK sends two backlit photos:

I thought I’d send a couple of pictures shot against the light to you for your bank of reader’s pictures. The mallards were shot at sunset with an iPhone so not 100% sharp but I find the result quite pleasing –  I hope you do too!  The damselfly was shot on a bright summer’s day several years ago and the light was glistening off the water behind giving a very bright back light.


I spot only two mallards here; can you see more?


Friday: Hili Dialogue

It’s Friday!  What seat can you take? Mine will be on a Southwest Airlines flight to Greenville/Spartanburg (South Carolina) for a weekend of talks, noms, and schmoozing. Before the day is over I will have seen Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo, and had some nice Southern food.

I’ll be back Sunday afternoon, and until then posting will be light. But I’ll do my best, and maybe Matthew and Greg can kick in. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is preening again. She’s such a diva! But she’s also acquired an extra set of stripes:

Hili: Look, I have stripes like a zebra.
A: And you are putting on airs like a peacock.

In Polish:
Hili: Patrz, mam prążki jak zebra.
Ja: A puszysz się jak paw.


The Daily Kos publishes an anti-vax cartoon

Here it is, by Keith Knight, who has the chutzpah to title this cartoon “The New McCarthyism”.


He also adds below it these words: “I am NOT anti-vax.  I am PRO-choice.”

What a mushhead! When it comes to public health (or children’s welfare), there is no choice. Should Typhoid Mary have had a “choice” about whether she was quarantined? What about people with Ebola?

The saddest part is that The Daily Kos has a reputation as a liberal site. Not any more, at least for me.  The only heartening bit is how most of the commenters contribute to giving Knight a new sphincter.

h/t: jsp


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