Honey may be gone

Except for a day or so a while back, my duck Honey has been at the pond every day for her 7 a.m. breakfast and 3 p.m. dinner, and comes swimming to me rapidly when she hears my whistle.

This morning, looking forward to a quiet communion with the girl, I found she had disappeared.  I’m hoping this is just a temporary absence, but she may have flown away, as did Daisy the other day. I noticed yesterday that, after her usual postprandial preening, Honey flapped her wings vigorously, and they were large, full-sized wings. That means, of course, that she’s flight-ready, and that means she may head off soon. I’ve noticed she’s been increasingly skittish and constantly looking around—even if there’s nothing to see—and I wonder if that’s pre-migration jitters.

Anyway, if she is gone for good, here’s the last photo I took of her, swimming by the lily pads yesterday afternoon. (They’re convenient places to put corn as she can gobble up a lot at once without having to dabble, though one needs good aim to throw the corn onto the vegetation.) You can see a few grains of corn on the pads.

With apologies to Thomas Wolfe:

A duck, a leaf, an unfound door; of a duck, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten feathers. Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth. Which of us has known a duck? Which of us has looked into a mallard’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever pond-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone? O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among rippling waters on this most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a duck, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When? O lost, and by the wind grieved, duck, come back again.

Readers’ wildlife photos

Thanks to the many readers who sent me photos, and remember that I can always use good ones. Today we have a panoply from several readers.

Reader “DiscoveredJoys” sent some photos of gulls, whose beauty—like that of starlings—is often ignored because they’re common. His comments (and those of all photographers) are indented.

A couple of pictures of ordinary herring gulls (I think). [JAC: probably Larus argentatus]. The one resting is actually on the uncompleted battlements of Beaumaris Castle in Anglesey, Wales. (Welsh: Biwmares French: beaux marais ‘beautiful marsh’). Beaumaris Castle (actually a fortified palace) was built to the latest technological standards of the time, but was not completed as Edward I  needed the money for other purposes.

The other herring gull is just taking off from the top of a pontoon at the  end of Beaumaris  pier.

James Lindsay sent a “spot the” photo, but it’s dead easy, so I’ll put the reveal below the first photo. There’s no identification, so weigh in below if you know what these beasts are:

I have no idea what these little critters are, but they’re excellent lichen mimics. These were spotted in the bonsai exhibit at the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville, North Carolina.
Walter Carson sent these photos of a tropical caterpillar; perhaps Lou Jost, who works in Ecuador, can give us an ID. The caterpillar is clearly aposematically colored, so may be toxic.
 I recently documented an outbreak of this caterpillar on Inga edulis in the Napo Province of Ecuador.  The caterpillar did not have urticating spines (I grabbed many of them) and I ate several after roasting them.  I think it is a Saturniidae.  I was not able to rear any.  Do you have any idea what this is?
And from reader Greg:
This may not meet your quality standards, but here’s a photo of Tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) taken last week at Point Reyes, California.  A bull and part of his harem were browsing the weeds by the side of the road near the lighthouse. I’m not an expert photographer, and did not have a proper camera with me, so this was snapped on my phone from the car window as we drove past.  Seconds later, the bull turned and displayed his full rack face-on, but I missed that shot.

Saturday: Hili dialogue (and Leon monologue)

The weekend is here: it’s Saturday, August 19, 2017, and National Soft Serve Ice Cream Day. Fun fact: “An average dairy cow can produce enough milk in her lifetime to make a little over 9,000 gallons of ice cream.” That’s more ice cream than I can eat in my lifetime: even if you ate a half gallon a day, it would take you nearly fifty years. It’s National Aviation Day in the U.S., and here in Chicago we have the annual Air and Water show, a highly touted spectacle that I’ve never seen. The weather in Chicago is predicted to be lovely today, but also partly cloudy on both Sunday and Eclipse Monday, so I’m hoping that I can see the Sun on Monday at about 1:18—the darkest it will get here. Don’t forget to get your ISO-approved eclipse glasses. On the local news yesterday I saw people standing in line for hours to get them, and some pairs were going for nearly a thousand dollars each on eBay (they’re worth about $1). Such is the law of supply and demand.

Not much happened in the world on August 19 compared to other days. In 1692, during the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, five people—one woman and four men, including a pastor—were hanged after being convicted of witchcraft. During the year of the witch mania in Salem, 20 people (14 of them women) were executed, while five others, including two infants, died in jail. Another black mark for faith.  In 1909, the first race at the Indianapolis motor speedway (race track) took place. Back then it was 250 miles, now, of course, it’s the “Indy 500”. Even at the first race, a driver and his mechanic were killed. On August 19, 1934, a referendum in Germany merged the offices of Chancellor and President since President Hindenburg had died a short time before. The people’s nod went to Adolf Hitler, who became head of state—der Führer. Finally, and I remember this well, though it seems not so long ago, in 2003 a car-bomb attack on United Nations headquarters in Iraq killed, among the 22 dead, the agency’s local head, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, by all accounts a wonderful man and a dedicated worker.

Notables born on this day include John Dryden (1631), Orville Wright (1871), Coco Chanel (1883), Ogden Nash (1902), Malcolm Forbes (1919), Gene Roddenberry (1921), Ginger Baker (1939), and Bill “Bubba” Clinton (1946). Those who died on this day include Blaise Pascal (1662), George Gamow (1968), Groucho Marx (1977), Linus Pauling (1994).

I’m amazed that Baker, rated by many as the world’s best rock drummer, is still alive, just as I’m amazed that Keith Richards is still alive. Here’s Baker, along with his Cream bandmates Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton, doing what is perhaps their most famous song, though my personal favorite, by far, is “Badge“:

Oh, hell, I want to put up “Badge, too”: here it is from the band’s 2005 reunion at Royal Albert Hall. What a great song: I love the driving bass intro, though here the guitar break is different from (and perhaps not as compelling as) the one on the original release, but Clapton still shows his chops. The song was written by Clapton and George Harrison. A note from Wikipedia: as Harrison recounts, “when the song was being written, Ringo [Starr] walked in drunk and gave us that line about the swans living in the park.”

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili show some rare (but superficial) concern for her staff:
Hili: There is a horrible amount of mosquitos here.
Cyrus: But they are not biting you.
Hili: That’s true but it’s a pity about humans.
In Polish:
Hili: Strasznie dużo komarów.
Cyrus: Przecież ciebie nie gryzą.
Hili: To prawda, ale ludzi żal.

And Leon, still on a hiking vacation in Southern Poland, is kvetching, as all cats constantly do.

Leon: Swings are cool but I would prefer a hammock.

Here’s relaxed red squirrel photographed by reader Taskin, half of Gus’s staff. 

A tw**t sent by reader Barry. What is the disturbed moggie trying to say?

And one found by Grania:

The cat tweets after the Barcelona tragedy

It may seem churlish to tweet pictures of cats after the horrific terrorist attack in Barcelona, but that was the response after the Spanish Police issued this notice when they saw horrific pictures of the dead and injured posted on Twitter:

Translation: “Out of respect for the victims and their families, please do not share images of the wounded in the collision on the # Ramblas of Barcelona.”  But of course in a moment like this people want to come together, share their outrage and their sorrow, and comfort one another.

So, according to the BBC (h/t: Greg Mayer), they tweeted pictures of cats. After all, what’s more consoling than a cat, especially one with a message? Here are a few of the tweets collected by the Beeb and me:

And two with videos:

And some animal joy as lagniappe: baby hippo Fiona and her mother Bibi playing at the Cincinnati Zoo:

New movie about atheist pastors: “Losing Our Religion”

Reader Keith called my attention to a new movie coming out in September, “Losing Our Religion”, a documentary about the Clergy Project started by Linda LaScola and Dan Dennett to provide a haven and discussion group for preachers who had lost their faith. The movie’s website is here, and here’s a summary:

Losing Our Religion is a feature length documentary about preachers who are not believers, and what atheists do when they miss church. Allowed access to the 600 members of The Clergy Project – a safe haven for preachers from all faiths who no longer believe – the documentary follows ex-members and clergy who are still undercover.

They are not just losing their religion, for many they are losing their friends, community and even family. As well as their job.

As events unfold that change lives forever, their stories also connect with secular communities that are growing in surprising places. New groups are experimenting in ways to have church without god, and asking the same question as unbelieving clergy – “what’s next?”

Losing Our Religion is a documentary about community, acceptance, and a view inside the complicated lives of clergy who are stranded in the rising tide of non-believers.

Here’s the trailer; see how many people you recognize (and not just Dawkins and Dennett). I’ve met two of these brave pastors.

Pastor No Faith‘s site adds this:

Check out the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/LosingOurReligionMovie/

If you’re in Canada you can watch the movie on the Documentary Channel Oct. 15 at 9pm ET/10 PT, Oct. 18 at 7pm ET, Dec. 10 9pm ET/10 PT on documentary Channel http://www.cbc.ca/documentarychannel/docs/losing-our-religion

(The Documentary Channel’s version I believe is shorter than the theatrical version)

If you or someone you know would like to host a screening then go here: http://www.losingourreligion.ca/screenings

Aeon tries to revive Lamarck, calling for a “paradigm” shift in evolution

UPDATE:  As reader Michael found out and reveals in a comment below, Skinner is well funded by Templeton. It crossed my mind, but I thought, “naaaah. . .” and couldn’t be arsed to look it up. But yes, Skinner is eating well from the Templeton trough. It’s pretty clear that Templeton is deeply invested in showing that the “conventional” view of evolution and genetics is wrong, for they’ve also put millions into other researchers to that end. I’m not quite sure why they’re doing this, but the money would be more widely invested in other research not explictly designed to bust a paradigm.


I’m not sure what’s with the website Aeon, as it seems to publish some good stuff, but their science sometimes seems wonky.  Such is the case with an article published by Michael Skinner last November but just called to my attention by reader Rodney, “Unified theory of epigenetics“, which bears the subtitle “Darwin’s theory that natural selection drives evolution is incomplete without input from evolution’s anti-hero: Lamarck.” Lamarck, of course, was the French biologist and polymath who proposed that animals could stably inherit modifications of their body, behavior, and physiology that were imposed by the environment. The classic example is the giraffe’s long neck “evolving” over generations by giraffes stretching their necks ever further to reach leaves higher on the trees. Each stretch would somehow feed back into the DNA, so straining giraffes would have offspring with longer necks.

The problem with this idea, and why Lamarck hasn’t become any kind of evolutionary hero, is that it doesn’t work. While the environment can play a role in sorting out those genes that their carriers leave more offspring, there’s no good way for environmental information to somehow become directly encoded in the genome. For that would require a kind of reversal of the “central dogma” of biology, stated by Francis Crick like this:

The central dogma of molecular biology deals with the detailed residue-by-residue transfer of sequential information. It states that such information cannot be transferred back from protein to either protein or nucleic acid.

Now there are some exceptions to this, and we’ll mention one of them here, but by and large this is correct, especially in its implication that information from the environment cannot change the sequence of DNA or the proteins that DNA produces through RNA intermediates. If this were possible, and you lifted weights before your kid was born, that kid would either be born with bigger muscles or would be more prone to develop them than the children of non-lifters.

Of course the environment can act to turn genes on and off. The classic example is the presence of lactose in the environment, which activates genes in E. coli that can metabolize that sugar: that was the classic Nobel-winning work of Jacob and Monod on gene regulation. But lactose does not change the structure of DNA or protein, but rather acts, in an evolved system, to turn on genes helping the bacterium use a sugar not normally present in the environment.

One exception to the central dogma is “epigenetic” modification of DNA and the histone proteins used in packaging DNA. Some environmental factors can act to modify the DNA, usually by attaching methyl groups to its bases, and these modifications can not only change gene action, but can be inherited—but only for a couple of generations. The fact that these epigenetic markers are usually erased from the DNA during sperm and egg formation, and none have been found to be permanent, mean that environmentally-induced epigenetic change cannot be an important part of evolutionary change, which requires permanent alterations of genes (invariably by mutations).  Some epigenetic modifications, however, can play a role in evolution: these are markers coded by the genes themselves, like gene X coding for instructions to “put a methyl group at position Y on gene Z”. These changes, however, are coded in the DNA, arose by mutation, and were not induced by the environment.

On this site I’ve repeatedly discussed the problem with seeing environmentally-induced epigenetic changes in DNA as a neglected and important aspect of evolutionary biology, and what I’ve written above is somewhat of a refresher. You can search on this site here for the many pieces I’ve written about it, including critiques of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s misleading article touting epigenetics in The New Yorker.

Skinner, a professor of biological science at Washington State University and somewhat of an epigenetic evangelist, ignores the many criticisms of epigenetics that have been made, still maintaining that it’s so important that it mandates a paradigm shift in evolution. He claims, for instance, that “regular” genetic variation in DNA caused by mutations is insufficient to fuel adaptation, and thus we need “something else”—that something else being epigenetic “mutations” caused by the environment. This claim has been refuted by, among others, Deborah Charlesworth and her coauthors in a paper I’ve highlighted before. (The pdf is here.)

In the rest of the essay, Skinner gives several examples of environmentally induced changes in the DNA that can be passed to offspring. The problem is that none of the changes are passed on for more than a few generations, and thus cannot be a meaningful scaffold for evolutionary change. (Skinner’s example of the environmentally-induced flowering trait found by Linnaeus and being transmitted for over 100 generations is wrong.) I’ll just give two of Skinner’s examples quoted from his Aeon piece:

One example that we studied in our lab involved the impact of environmental chemical exposure on trait variation and disease. In our study, we set out to investigate the ability of an environmental toxicant – vinclozolin, the most commonly used fungicide in agriculture today – to alter traits through epigenetic change. First, we briefly exposed a gestating female rat to the fungicide; then we bred her progeny for three generations, to great-grand-offspring, in the absence of any continued exposures. For nearly all males down through the lineage, we observed a decrease in the number and viability of sperm and an associated incidence of infertility with age. And we observed a variety of other disease conditions in both males and females three generations removed from the direct exposure, including abnormalities in the testis, ovaries, kidneys, prostate, mammary glands and brain. Corresponding epigenetic alterations in the sperm involve changes in DNA methylation and non-coding RNA expression.

What we see here is an epigenetic change that is not adaptive (it reduces fertility) induced by a toxin. The important thing is that it was observed to last for only three generations. This is not something that can support the possibility of adaptive evolutionary change—or any evolutionary change—and certainly doesn’t buttress the paper’s conclusion that the results “have significant implications for evolutionary biology.”

Here’s another example (there are several, but all suffer from the same problem of transitory change):

Our research showed that ancestral exposure to the toxicant vinclozolin also affected sexual selection in animals three generations down the lineage. Considered a major force in evolution since Darwin first posed his theory, sexual selection – also known as mate preference – was assessed by allowing females from other litters to choose between either descendants of exposed or unexposed males. Females overwhelmingly selected those who lacked the transgenerational epigenetic alterations and whose ancestors had not been exposed. In conclusion, exposure to the fungicide permanently altered the descendant’s sperm epigenetics; that, in turn, led to inheritance of sexual selection characteristics known to reduce the frequency with which their genes might propagate in the broader population and directly influence evolution on a micro-evolutionary scale.

Here we have exposure to another toxin, with the result that female rats preferentially chose males who hadn’t been exposed to the toxin (those males, being poisoned, may have lacked vigor). It is true that if there is genetic variation in female preference for males not exposed to the toxin, this could cause an increase in the frequency of genes for that preference—but for only three generations. There would be very short-term evolution, but it would be halted when the epigenetic markers disappeared, for then there would be no selective pressure on the females because there would no longer be epigenetic markers differentiating the males.

And so the long essay goes on, concluding, with the merest evidence, that neo-Darwinism needs a big reboot (my emphasis):

Despite the pushback [JAC: he means the arguments from people who have pointed out the weaknesses of the epigenetic model], I’m convinced that we have reached the point where a paradigm shift is due. Accepting that epigenetics plays a role in evolution does not topple the science of genetics; embracing neo-Lamarckian ideas does nothing to challenge classic neo-Darwinian theory. The accepted sciences are essential and accurate, but part of a bigger, more nuanced story that expands our understanding and integrates all our observations into a cohesive whole. The unified theory explains how the environment can both act to directly influence phenotypic variation and directly facilitate natural selection, as shown in the diagram above.

With a growing number of evolutionary biologists developing an interest in the role of epigenetics, there are now some mathematical models that integrate genetics and epigenetics into a system, and the work has paid off. Consideration of epigenetics as an additional molecular mechanism has assisted in understanding genetic driftgenetic assimilation (when a trait produced in response to the environment ultimately becomes encoded in the genes); and even the theory of neutral evolution, whereby most change happens not in response to natural selection, but by chance. By providing an expanded molecular mechanism for what biologists observe, the new models provide a deeper, more nuanced and more precise roadmap to evolution at large.

Taken together, these findings demand that we hold the old standard, genetic determinism, up to the light to find the gaps. It was Thomas Kuhn who in 1962 suggested that when a current paradigm reveals anomalies then new science needs to be considered – that is how scientific revolutions are born.

A unified theory of evolution should combine both neo-Lamarckian and neo-Darwinian aspects to expand our understanding of how environment impacts evolution. The contributions of Lamarck more than 200 years ago should not be discounted because of Darwin, but instead integrated to generate a more impactful and insightful theory. Likewise, genetics and epigenetics must not be seen as conflicting areas, but instead, integrated to provide a broader repertoire of molecular factors to explain how life is controlled.

This is a call to revolution that is way too early, for there are no good data calling for such a change, much less for even a minor evolutionary role of environmental epigenetic changes in DNA. I’m not sure why people drag in Kuhn when the current paradigm is still satisfactory (see the Charlesworth et al. paper), but of course one makes one’s name in science not by buttressing a well-established paradigm, but by overturning it. Neither Skinner nor anyone else has yet done that to the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. Those of us who continue to adhere to it do so not out of loyalty or stubborness, but because there aren’t good data showing that the theory is wrong.

Epigenetic modification remains an important discovery, and has implications for gene regulation, cell differentiation, disease, and the evolution of genetic conflict between males and females, but the evolutionarily important modifications are those  instilled into the genome by natural selection, not by abrupt intrusions from the environment.

Friday: Duckapalooza

I had several posts to write today, but my the frames of glasses just broke and, as I have no spare pair and a wedding to go to Sunday, I may have to chase around Chicago today finding a fix. Bear with me if I don’t get to the computer for a while. In the meantime, enjoy my duck!

The interloper duck Daisy hasn’t been at the pond for two days, so perhaps she’s gone for good. That leaves Honey and I alone again, and she was waiting for me in the narrow part of the pond when I came downstairs this morning to feed her with a big beaker of corn. (The mealworms haven’t yet arrived, but should within two days.) She’s still quite skittish, for reasons I don’t understand, and won’t come nearly close enough to me to eat from my palm. I toss her kernels of corn singly or by twos, and she dabbles for them. It takes a while to feed her that way! But it gives me great peace to be alone in the morning quiet with my duck.

The good news is that she’s healthy and her primary flight feathers are quite large. I’m not sure if she can fly, as I haven’t seen her take off, but she must be close. Here’s a better view of how her flight feathers are growing; they’re the big ones sticking out right in front of her tail.

New York Times op-ed urges the ACLU to stop defending odious people’s First Amendment rights

That the New York Times would consider the article below worthy of publication is astounding—and frightening. (Click on screenshot to go to piece). For author K.-Sue Park, identified as “a housing attorney and the Critical Race Studies fellow at the U.C.L.A. School of Law” (her fellowship is a clue to her views) wants nothing more than for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to stop defending the civil rights of whose speech she doesn’t like: right-wingers, white supremacists, and so on. They should, instead, concentrate on defending those she favors: African-Americans, left-wing academics, Latinos, and similar groups.

Let me first say that Park’s credentials are impressive: she has a B.A. from Cornell, a M. Phil. from the University of Cambridge, a J.D. from Harvard Law School, and a Ph.D. from Berkeley. But all this goes to show that a good education does not make you a rational supporter of Constitutional rights.

Park’s argument is a bit confused, for while she may understand the mission of the ACLU—to defend the civil liberties of all Americans, usually through legal action—she doesn’t like that because, she says, the playing field is not “level” for oppressed minorities, who are said to have less right to speak. Park urges the organization to stop defending those she sees as oppressors, like white supremacists, and concentrate on defending the rights of those minorities. Here are a few quotes (emphases are mine):

The hope is that by successfully defending hate groups, its legal victories will fortify free-speech rights across the board: A rising tide lifts all boats, as it goes.

While admirable in theory, this approach implies that the country is on a level playing field, that at some point it overcame its history of racial discrimination to achieve a real democracy, the cornerstone of which is freedom of expression.

I volunteered with the A.C.L.U. as a law student in 2011, and I respect much of its work. But it should rethink how it understands free speech. By insisting on a narrow reading of the First Amendment, the organization provides free legal support to hate-based causes. More troubling, the legal gains on which the A.C.L.U. rests its colorblind logic have never secured real freedom or even safety for all.

The weakness of this argument is palpable and obvious: the “narrow” reading of the First Amendment, in which all Americans, regardless of views, have Constitutional protections, is the reading the Founders intended, and the only one that will really protect everyone’s civil rights. But we go on, let’s look at a few things the ACLU has done or tried to do; this is taken from the Wikipedia page:

The ACLU was founded in 1920 by Helen Keller, Roger Baldwin, Crystal Eastman, Walter Nelles, Morris Ernst, Albert DeSilver, Arthur Garfield Hays, Jane Addams, Felix Frankfurter, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and its focus was on freedom of speech, primarily for anti-war protesters. During the 1920s, the ACLU expanded its scope to include protecting the free speech rights of artists and striking workers, and working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to decrease racism and discrimination. During the 1930s, the ACLU started to engage in work combating police misconduct and supporting Native American rights. Many of the ACLU’s cases involved the defense of Communist party members and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 1940, the ACLU leadership voted to exclude Communists from its leadership positions, a decision rescinded in 1968. During World War II, the ACLU defended Japanese-American citizens, unsuccessfully trying to prevent their forcible relocation to internment camps. During the Cold War, the ACLU headquarters was dominated by anti-Communists, but many local affiliates defended members of the Communist Party.

By 1964, membership had risen to 80,000, and the ACLU participated in efforts to expand civil liberties. In the 1960s, the ACLU continued its decades-long effort to enforce separation of church and state. It defended several anti-war activists during the Vietnam War. The ACLU was involved in the Miranda case, which addressed conduct by police during interrogations, and in the New York Times case, which established new protections for newspapers reporting on government activities. In the 1970s and 1980s, the ACLU ventured into new legal areas, involving the rights of homosexuals, students, prisoners, and the poor. In the twenty-first century, the ACLU has fought the teaching of creationism in public schools and challenged some provisions of anti-terrorism legislation as infringing on privacy and civil liberties. Fundraising and membership spiked after the 2016 election; the ACLU’s current membership is more than 1.2 million.

This doesn’t comport with Park’s assertion that the ACLU hasn’t helped secure, or tried to secure, “real freedom or even safety for all.” Yes, they’ve had what many of us see as missteps, like their erstwhile anti-Communism and their present stance of “standing with Linda [Sarsour]”, but it is a good organization and a nonpartisan one, with a long and admirable history of defending civil rights for everyone.  And what kind of organization devoted to defending the Constitution would defend the civil rights of only a politically favored group? If you did that, you’d send the implicit message that some groups aren’t worth having civil rights. And, without a defense, those groups might lose them. Yet the Constitution defends civil rights for all. As the First Amendment notes, and this is the linchpin of the ACLU’s mission:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Note that this doesn’t single out any groups for special treatment or grant any exceptions—it mentions “the people”. And that, of course, is for a reason well understood by the authors: the American democracy is not secure if only some people have their Constitutional rights.

In fact Park, though her intentions are good—to protect the oppressed—seems to want the ACLU to engage in social engineering, not only concentrating its efforts on those groups she favors, but going beyond their legal mission. As she says:

For marginalized communities, the power of expression is impoverished for reasons that have little to do with the First Amendment. Numerous other factors in the public sphere chill their voices but amplify others.

Most obviously, the power of speech remains proportional to wealth in this country, despite the growth of social media.

Well, yes, if you are rich and powerful, own a newspaper or have a radio show like Rush Limbaugh, you have a bigger megaphone. There’s little we can do about that, but what we can do is ensure that nobody is prevented from saying what they want in the public sphere. Every day, on the news and on social media (which has many venues “amplifying” the voices of minorities), I hear the voices of blacks, gays, Hispanics, women, and similar groups. They have not been silenced: not by the government and not by the mainstream media (who are, by and large, liberal). But Park goes even further with her desire to have the ACLU change society to the way she wants:

Other forms of structural discrimination and violence also restrict the exercise of speech, such as police intimidation of African-Americans and Latinos. These communities know that most of the systematic harassment and threats that stifle their ability to speak have always occurred privately and diffusely, and in ways that will never end in a lawsuit.

A black kid who gets thrown in jail for possessing a small amount of marijuana will face consequences that will directly affect his ability to have a voice in public life. How does the A.C.L.U.’s conception of free speech address that?

Well, it doesn’t. This is a matter of bigotry by the police, differential crime rates, and so on, and believe me, you can see police departments getting investigated all the time for disproportionately bad treatment of blacks. That is one reason, for instance, that the Supreme Court banned the death penalty in 1973. It rescinded that ban in 1976, but the ACLU has consistently fought against the death penalty. It can’t do everything!

Parks’s article goes on, lurching from issue to issue about social justice, including the threats that people get for “challenging hateful speech”, the suppression of speech by “left-wing academics” (aren’t right-wing academics suppressed even more?), and the fact that “police arrive with tanks and full weaponry at anti-racist protests but not at white supremacist rallies.” (Is that even true? Were there police with tanks and full weaponry at the Berkeley anti-Milo protests?)

At the end, Park uses a bunch of words to say just this: “The ACLU has to stop defending right wingers and concentrate on the Left and on marginalized minorities”. Or, in her more obscurantist prose:

The danger that communities face because of their speech isn’t equal. The A.C.L.U.’s decision to offer legal support to a right-wing cause, then a left-wing cause, won’t make it so. Rather, it perpetuates a misguided theory that all radical views are equal. And it fuels right-wing free-speech hypocrisy. Perhaps most painful, it also redistributes some of the substantial funds the organization has received to fight white supremacy toward defending that cause. 

Here Park mistakes the view that “all radical views are equally valid” with the view that “all radical views are equally protected by the Constitution”—the ACLU’s view. She goes on:

The A.C.L.U. needs a more contextual, creative advocacy when it comes to how it defends the freedom of speech. The group should imagine a holistic picture of how speech rights are under attack right now, not focus on only First Amendment case law. It must research how new threats to speech are connected to one another and to right-wing power. Acknowledging how criminal laws, voting laws, immigration laws, education laws and laws governing corporations can also curb expression would help it develop better policy positions.

Sometimes standing on the wrong side of history in defense of a cause you think is right is still just standing on the wrong side of history.

But the ACLU has a broader view, I think, than does Park. They are defending the civil rights of everyone in this democracy, and in so doing they are keeping the Constitution strong and enforced. That is being on the right side of history, even if it means sometimes defending those we disagree with.


Parks’s article has now garnered 2189 comments at the Times, and it seems that most of them aren’t on her side.

Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Taskin, half of the staff of Gus the Cat, was visited for a few days in Winnipeg by a lovely bird:

I was surprised on Monday morning to see a Common Nighthawk [Chordeiles minor] sitting on my garden gate. I was even more surprised to find it still there when I returned home later in the evening. I have seen a nighthawk only a couple of times and always at night, in flight, so it was quite a thrill to see this one so close and still. I was a bit worried that there might be something wrong with her (females lack the white throat of the male) but once the sun set, she had flown off. She came back for two more days and I was lucky enough to see her take off both of those evenings. After sitting so still all day, she would spend several minutes rocking back and forth from one foot to another, stretching her wings a bit and generally waking up. I missed her takeoff in the video, but did manage to capture her ‘parting shot’. She flew off a minute or so later.

What beautiful feathers! These birds are, of course, cryptic, camouflaged in both appearance and behavior to look like parts of trees.

This species is listed as “threatened” in Canada. The video is below; note that, at 32 seconds in, the bird carefully poops away from its roost, perhaps intending to come back.

Tim Anderson in Australia sends another bird, perhaps not quite as beautiful but just as interesting: the Australian brushturkey (Alectura lathami), sometimes called the “scrub turkey”. His notes:

This is a scrub turkey (Alectura lathami), a robust bird that is endemic to tropical and subtropical coastal areas of eastern Australia.
It is the bane of gardeners, owing to its habit of deciding to use your veggie patch as a suitable site for its nest. The bird’s nest is a mound about five metres across and a metre tall, comprising every available morsel of ground litter from here to the horizon, and in which it proceeds to tend its eggs by scratching out or adding more material to regulate the nest temperature.
Despite being famously gormless creatures (and also famously inedible), they are protected by law, which means you get five years in the pokey if you strangle the bird that has done your cabbages to death. More to the point, the authorities will do you over if you throw sticks at them, but no law says you can’t throw sticks **near** them.
I was once employed by the Forestry Department to use a shotgun to discourage scrub turkeys from uprooting newly established Araucaria plantations. I employed the principle of “nearness”, with some success (no scrub turkeys were killed or injured in this process, though it was rather dark at the time).

Here’s a picture I (JAC) found on Internet of an Australian brush turkey on her mound:

And for you reptile lovers, Rick Longworth has a snake photo and video, and a titled story (his notes are indented):

Snakes under the steps

In late May I noticed a Common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), about two and a half feet long, sunning herself next to my back steps.  I could see that she was using the concrete “den” as a home which it accessed through a small crack.  Several days later I tossed her an earthworm to see the reaction and it promptly swallowed it.  Thus, I decided to make a short film to characterize the snake’s feeding behavior.

I noticed that when hunting, the snake would weave its head back and forth. Either it was disguising itself as wind-blown vegetation, or, I thought, using parallax for a better 3D view of its environment.

I could see that it sometimes used scent to locate a worm I had misthrown behind a rock(the worms wouldn’t cooperate when used as a projectile). When she spotted the worm, the snake would close in, tongue flicking fast, and strike, grasp, and then, swiveling its jaw from side to side, it worked its meal down the long gullet. The last thing to do was to wipe its mouth against a rock: snakes, I learned, are tidy eaters.

As I filmed the snake from about 10 feet away with a telephoto lens, I saw another one emerge from the crack in the concrete, and soon another joined them. There was a family!  I ran back behind the shed to dig up more earthworms.  As I watched them, yet another one, only about a foot long, came charging out of the steps and sped into the bushes—too shy, it seems, to have his picture taken.

Gear:  Panasonic GH3, 100-300 Lumix G Vario lens.

The video of garter snake hunting behavior (be sure to enlarge by clicking on the “vimeo” icon):

True fact about garter snakes:

— A boy snakes can turn himself into a girl snake and lure other males down the garden path  where she converts back into a boy snake and doubles back to the where his girlfriend is waiting patiently for some attention.

Check out other true facts here.


Friday: Hili dialogue (and Leon monologue)

Good morning, if you call it that; I’m dispirited as the sun rises this Friday, August 18, 2017 (I’m typing this from bed). Thirteen people are dead and eighty injured in Barcelona, and police foiled yet another car attack in Spain. In this one, 70 miles south of Barcelona, five perpetrators were shot to death in an attempted attack with a vehicle. No pedestrians were killed, thank goodness.

It’s National Ice-Cream Pie Day in the U.S, and National Science Day in Thailand.

On this day in 1587, Virginia Dare, who was the granddaughter of the Governor of the Colony of Roanoke, became the first English child born in the Americas. But, as I mentioned yesterday, everyone in the colony had disappeared, including Virginia Dare, when the British returned in 1590, and its fate is a mystery. On this day in 1868, the French astronomy Pierre Jansen discovered helium (the English scientist Joseph Norman Lockyer is also given credit). On August 18, 1920, the states ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing women the right to vote. On August 18, 1958, Vladamir Nabokov’s novel Lolita was published in America. And on this day in 1977, anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko was arrested at a police roadblock in South Africa. Beaten and tortured in police custody, he died on September 12.

Notables born on this day include, besides Virginia Dare, Meriwether Lewis (1774), Luc Montagnier (1932), and Roberto Clemente (1934). Those who died on this day include Genghis Khan (1227), Honoré de Balzac (1850), Subhas Chandra “Netaji” Bose (1945), Anito Loos (1981), and Don Pardo (2014).  Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is making a pun (and no, the picture isn’t sharp but her claws are):

A: I’m afraid this picture will not be sharp enough.
Hili: The main thing is that my claws will be sharp.
In Polish:
Ja: Obawiam się, że to zdjęcie nie będzie dość ostre.
Hili: Najważniejsze, żeby pazurki były ostre.

In the south of Poland, Leon, who was jilted yesterday by the black female cat Mawrula, has not given up hope.

Leon: I’m on the track of Mawrula.