The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

You thought I’d forgotten Gordon Lightfoot, didn’t you? Well, there are a few good songs left from his superb Lightfoot! album, and this is one. If you’re a bit younger than I, you may remember the 1972 version of this song that became a huge hit for Roberta Flack. But I like Lightfoot’s version better.

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is one of three songs on Lightfoot! not written by Gordon. The songwriter was in fact Ewan MacColl (1915-1989, real name James Henry Miller), who, according to Wikipedia, wrote it for Peggy Seeger, Pete Seeger’s half-sister, also a folk singer. There have been many covers, including ones by Celine Dion and the Smothers Brothers. Wikipedia notes others:

The song entered the pop mainstream when it was released by The Kingston Trio on its 1962 hit album New Frontier and in subsequent years by other pop folk groups such as Peter, Paul and Mary, The Brothers Four, The Chad Mitchell Trio, Gordon Lightfoot and others.

Ewan MacColl himself made no secret of the fact that he disliked all of the cover versions of the song. His daughter-in-law wrote: “He hated all of them. He had a special section in his record collection for them, entitled ‘The Chamber of Horrors.’ He said that the Elvis version was like Romeo at the bottom of the Post Office Tower singing up to Juliet. And the other versions, he thought, were travesties: bludgeoning, histrionic, and lacking in grace.”

Well, maybe this one, from Lightfoot!, is an exception. If it’s too lachrymose, weigh in below:

Here’s the version sung by Peggy Seeger, with Ewan MacColl on guitar. And indeed, it’s much folkier than all the covers I’ve heard—presumably the way MacColl intended it to be sung. Which do you prefer?


Friday: Hili dialogue

It’s Friday! What seat can you take? And I’m excited that we have a very special Readers’ wildlife photograph feature later this morning.

Otherwise  I must put in an 11-hour day, but I get to relax a bit this weekend. Sadly, Saturday (Relaxing Day) is predicted to be rainy in Chicago. But I can’t grouse, for it was determined by the laws of physics. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili speaks ex CAThedra, for her dialogue has a religious-themed title (check the link):

Hili: I have a message to the world.
A: What’s that?
Hili: Meow.
In Polish:
Hili: Mam przesłanie dla świata.
Ja: Jakie?
Hili: Miau.

A finicky cat

We started this day with a finicky cat, and we’ll finish it with another. Reader Lori Way sent a photo of her fussy cat Peanut and an explanation:

This photo goes with my comment on the fussy cat.  I mentioned how Peanut here sometimes will only eat his wet noms off a spoon, so we oblige. Here, my hubby Cameron tends to his needs. (I’m sorry it isn’t more in focus but the room was dark.)


Even Hili isn’t that spoiled!

Canadian reader files lawsuit against prayers at city council meeting

Here’s an activist reader: Veronica Abbass of Ontario filed suit against the Peterborough City Council for opening its meetings with prayers. This was back in 2012, but, as I reported recently, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled last week that, in Quebec, the Saguenay City Council couldn’t say prayers at its meetings, for that violated the Quebec Charter of Human Rights.

That ruling, however, is likely to hold throughout Canada. And so, on Monday, the Peterborough Council didn’t say its customary prayer:

Monday evening (April 20) marked the first time in years (and possibly decades) that Peterborough city councillors didn’t open a municipal meeting with the Lord’s Prayer.

The prayer was listed on the agenda for the Committee of the Whole, but councillors aren’t reciting it until the City’s legal staff can determine whether it’s against the law, according to Councillor Andrew Beamer, who chairs the Committee of the Whole.

The Supreme Court ruled on a specific case out of Saguenay, Quebec on April 15 — a decision that’s likely to set a precedent for all Canadian municipalities. Coun. Beamer can’t say yet whether the City will stop using the prayer altogether.

Veronica Abbass has taken issue with the City over the practice for years, and even filed a lawsuit against the City in 2012. That legal battle was put on hold to wait for the Supreme Court ruling.

Ms Abbass says city council will be breaking the law if they refuse to obey the Supreme Court ruling. She says she’ll continue with the lawsuit she’s filed unless the City hands over a written decision that states it’ll stop reciting the Lord’s Prayer for good.

Who’s a good reader? Here’s Ms. Abbass:


Photo: Sarah Frank/This Week

It’s Openly Secular Day

I forgot about today being Openly Secular Day, a day to “come out” as a nonbeliever and opponent of religious incursions into government. There’s a website on which you’re asked to tell one person that you’re openly secular (I presume this applies in the U.S., not Pakistan!).

I don’t know anybody who doesn’t already know this about me, but I’ll try to find one. In the meantime, if any readers want to offer testimony in the comments that they’ve “come out” about their nonbelief, please feel free to do so. Or if you’ve discovered people who you didn’t know were nonbelievers (John Davidson is a big one on the internet now), put their names below, too.

Here’s the video from that site:

After it’s finished, the video will continue on to other people’s recorded testimonies.


Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the death penalty

There are many reasons to oppose the death penalty, some more convincing than others.  It involves the state in an act of killing (an argument that, by itself, I don’t find all that convincing); it does not act as a deterrent to others (more convincing); it actually costs more, because of the appeal process, than a sentence of life in prison without parole; it’s disproportionately given to blacks in the U.S. and so is racist; it sometimes it doesn’t work well and prisoners die under horrible circumstances; sometimes innocent people are executed, and there’s no way to right that wrong; and if your aim is simply to use execution to improve society, there might be better ways.

But one argument is rarely used, and it’s the one I want to discuss briefly today. It is this: determinists like me agree that no criminal had any choice about what he/she did, and therefore excusing people from death because they were “cognitively impaired,” “didn’t know right from wrong,” or had other extenuating circumstances, is no more valid than excusing people “because they have a brain that obeys the laws of physics.” In other words, if you exculpate one person from execution on any grounds of cognitive impairment, then you must exculpate all of them, for nobody has a choice to kill. In some sense all criminals are cognitively impaired, for, like the rest of us, their actions were determined completely by their genes and environment, and at no point, were the tape of life rewound, could they have behaved otherwise.  (This, of course, does not mean that such people should be let off scot-free—far from it!)

But there is no good reason to execute people for retribution, or on the grounds that they made a free choice to kill in sound mind. Those motives imply that we have real libertarian choices. But if you have no such choices, while you might be responsible for a crime, you are not morally responsible. Under any reasonable scheme, moral responsibility implies the ability to have done otherwise.

While compatibilists—who argue that actions are determined but we nevertheless still have free will on other grounds—sometimes still retain the notion of moral responsibility, I don’t see how those people can favor the death penalty, either. They may be compatibilists, but their determinism is incompatible with execution. And I don’t know if any of them do favor execution.

Yet “moral responsibility,” and the implication that killers could have chosen to do otherwise, is one of the most important reasons given for putting people to death in the U.S. Here’s an example.

At this moment, a jury in Boston is weighing imposing a federal death penalty on 21-year-old Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after he was convicted on all 30 criminal counts. The federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, and since then three people have been executed (including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh), while 44 have been given the penalty and are languishing on death row. But, as the Boston Globe notes, Tsarnaev’s circumstances are special since the bombing is seen as a terrorist act, a public one, and a gory one. He may well be sentenced to death, and actually executed. Attorney General Eric Holder made the decision to request the death penalty, and he’s supported by several of the maimed victims or relatives of those who died. If the jury rules unanimously for death, it’s curtains for Tsarnaev; otherwise he goes to jail for life, without the possibility of parole.

Defense attorneys are arguing that Tsarnaev did not act independently, but was under the sway of his older brother Tamerlan. This is what they must argue to avoid execution, and I’m firmly on their side. But their argument could go further: Tsarnaev was acting under the influence of his genes and his environment, of which Tamerlan was a part, and he had no choice other than to plant the bombs. Most readers here are determinists and agree, but such an argument is highly unlikely to fly with a jury. (That’s one reason why philosophers should spend more time talking about the implications of determinism and less time playing a semantic game by confecting definitions of free will.) All criminals have the same extenuating circumstance: they had no choice. In what sense, then, are murderers “morally” responsible for what they did?

To see how the notion of pure libertarian free will is used by prosecutors asking for execution, here’s an excerpt from yesterday’s New York Times article on the Tsarnaev case. I’ve highlighted the parts that suggest Tsarnaev did have a choice about what he did:

Millions of people come from dysfunctional families, Ms. Pellegrini said, but they do not blow past normal boundary lines to become murderers, as Mr. Tsarnaev did. “The lines he was willing to cross make him fundamentally different,” she told the jury.

And he should not be able to shirk responsibility for heinous crimes that he committed by blaming someone else, she said. She quoted Shakespeare (“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”) to convey that people choose the lives they lead.

“His destiny was determined by his actions, and he was destined and determined to be America’s worst nightmare,” she said. He “twisted the marathon into something cruel and ugly for his own purposes.”

All of this implies that Tsarnaev could have chosen otherwise, and deserves death because he didn’t. And that is why we need to make the case for determinism loudly and frequently, especially if we’re opposed to executions.

As I said, there are of course good reasons to punish people like Tsarnaev, even if one is a determinist. Punishment keeps someone who is liable to do further damage away from society (sequestration); it serves as a deterrent to others (even though execution isn’t a deterrent, being caught and imprisoned is, as we can see from what happened during the famous Montreal Police strike of 1969); and in some cases (but probably not Tsarnaev’s), it’s possible to rehabilitate offenders when they’re confined, so that they pose no danger to society when they’re released. The effects of each of these rationales can in principle be judged by science, though the “experiments” will be hard and expensive. But a good society must surely try.

What I don’t see as a valid reason for execution is vengeance or retribution, for both of those involve the notion of moral culpability—the idea that the guilty party had a choice and made the wrong one. Pandering to a mob or posse mentality demanding “an eye for an eye” tacitly accepts an emotion no longer tenable in an enlightened society. Yes, some may feel the need for vengeance, but it’s wrong to act on it. In the end, retribution always comes down to the notion that the criminal could have done otherwise.

The fault, dear Brutus, is indeed in our stars—or rather in our genes and our circumstances. Tsarnaev was simply unlucky in what his parents and his life vouchsafed him, and he wound up an odious and murderous person. For that he should be put away for life, as the possibility of rehabilitation seems slim. But let’s not pretend that he could have done anything other than place those bombs.

Guest post: Why is it okay to discriminate against women for religious reasons?

JAC:  Reader Diane G. and I have had some email exchanges about the bad treatment of women by hyper-Orthodox Jews, including the several incidents I’ve reported when they wouldn’t sit next to women on a plane. These men also have religious strictures against touching or shaking hands with women. I asked Diane if she would mind writing a post about it for this site, and she kindly complied. Her mini-essay is below:


Why is it okay to discriminate against women for religious reasons?

by Diane G.

Here at WEIT Jerry’s written more than once about the Hasids-on-a-Plane culture clash (e.g., here and here).  For anyone who’s been out in the field for the past several months, in brief this involves Orthodox Jewish men taking commercial flights and refusing to sit near women because their religion prohibits it.

What’s been interesting to me in the resultant conversations is the occasional male commenter (and perhaps there have been females as well) who doesn’t view this as discrimination or misogyny.  People who I would have expected to say, “your religious beliefs stop at my right to sit where I am” argue instead that this is simply a matter of courtesy and respect, that changing seats is the polite thing to do.

The Washington Post‘s Amanda Bennett noticed the same pushback, and wrote a column that appeared in the April 19th edition, Why is it okay to discriminate against women for religious reasons?   In addition to the plane incidents, she begins her article with an anecdote about running into an Orthodox man at a social function:

Not very long ago I met a young man at a business function. “Hello, I’m Amanda,” I said, sticking out my hand in greeting. He kept his arms glued to his side. “I don’t touch women,” he said.

That exchange–which I thought was a particularly pointed description of these slap-in-the-face moments–received as much or more attention in the WaPo comment section as did the plane behavior.  Those who disagreed with Bennett sensibly stressed (and stressed and stressed and stressed) that no one should ever feel required to shake hands, raising all the legitimate reasons one might not want to: germ-avoidance, arthritis, mere dislike of shaking, etc.

Unable to shake (heh) my conviction that Bennett had been rudely dissed, I reread her short description until I decided it was the brusque delivery of the message that made it discriminatory. New worry: does this make me a Tone Troll?  Surely, if you know your customs clash with Western 21st century standards, you could at least use humor, self-deprecation, or any of the other ways society’s developed to disarm verbal conflicts. Perhaps, say, a smile accompanied by an “I’m sorry, my religion forbids me from shaking your hand.”  Hmmm; that still doesn’t sit well.  But I do think that’s the way to avoid shaking for all the other reasons; just bringing out the charming, contrite smile, and a simple, “Sorry, I don’t shake hands,” would do.

Nevertheless, the theme of WaPo comments such as the following disturbed me, although the last thing I want to appear as is a pomo-feminist SJW:

Mutual respect, “live and let live”, isn’t good enough for the politically correct crowd, they demand not just tolerance but endorsement. This is tyranny and not conducive to a peaceful society.


The liberal Outrage Lobby strikes again. So now, sincere religious belief is trumped by Amanda Bennett’s desire to shake hands. Amanda, the next time someone refuses to shake your hand, you might consider it’s actually because you are an anti-religious bigot.


The really important question is why the woman writer feels humiliated because another person does not shake her hand for religious reasons? The lefties love creating social turmoil and this is a favored strategy, being “offended” by the practices of others that the lefties can pretend are motivated by an intent to cause them “anguish.”


This whole discussion amazes me. A shomer negiаh sees his or her practice as respectful and chaste. This is a cultural divide which Ms. Bennett disrespects perhaps because she feels every thing is about her.

Does this mean I’m a narcissist and a traitor to my politics? Someone even saw Bennett’s reactions as anti-Semitic:

This article may be about discriminating women [sic] but it only shows the discrimination that Religious Jews face. How anti-Semitic is it to not take into consideration that Orthodox men feel uncomfortable with any physical contact with woman.

There were the expected (and in this case, unintentionally self-refuting) remarks from those who’ve drunk the Kool-Aid:

No, the Bible actually has no contradictions in it (apart from typos and translation errors). The creation story is given as an overview in Genesis One, then the particulars of the creation of man is given in Genesis Two.

Moreover, “rib” is a poor translation of  “Neged” (whence “negative” is derived). Adam was the compilation of both male and female (I am not speaking physically) until the female attributes were removed into a separate individual.

The woman has never, biblically, been considered inferior to the man; just at a different rank. It is the same as saying that a colonel is no more or less valuable as a person than a major; he simply has greater authority.

And from a woman for whom I feel very sad:

My husband and I have had myriad social experiences professionally with rich, powerful, educated persons etc. My skirt is below my knees, my dress has sleeves or a jacket, no plunging neckline, shoes without cutouts, no bare legs, and I walk just behind my husband so if someone throws something-it hits him first. Provacative [sic] attire/behavior is for entertainers or people who don’t mind being attacked.

For those of you who think this subject has already been talked into the ground here–I’m not helping!  But I know someone else has also sent Bennett’s article to Jerry, so perhaps I’m not the only one interested in continuing this discussion.  Finally, I heartily recommend a book, written before the Great Online-Atheist Schism, which is a cogent, exceptionally readable, egregious-example-filled treatment of the overarching topic here:  Does God Hate Women?, by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom. Please consider reading this volume no matter what you think of one of the authors in light of subsequent events.

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Reader Richard Bond sent some photos of ungulates from Kenya:

These are some more photographs of animals in Tsavo East that I took during the same visit as those of elephants that I recently sent you.

The first two are female (no horns) waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus), from the defassa group of sub-species). They need ready access to drinking water, hence the name, and I saw these near to the Voi river, one of the few reliable water sources at the end of the dry season.



The next two photographs are male (with horns) impalas (Aepyceros melampus). Those horns are extremely sharp. I used to wonder if their name came from the Latin impalare, but it is merely a happy coincidence. I find it interesting that the flight alarm pattern on their buttocks is similar to that of the waterbuck, although black instead of white.



Next is a Grant’s gazelle (Nanger granti, not sure of the sub-species), almost certainly male, judging by the length of the horns. Horn shape in this species is quite variable, but these are particularly elegant and look pretty efficient. Like those of the impala, they are extremely sharp. One guide told me that gazelles occasionally kill careless cheetahs. The males fight to control small harems. One feature that I only noticed later is the folding of the skin on the neck. I thought it odd that such animals would carry any fat, but it turns out to be very thick skin, presumably selected for success in fighting other males. Impalas show something of the same thing.


Rather surprisingly, since they are generally so common, I only saw one small herd of plains zebras (Equus quagga boehmi). If I had been quicker I would have caught warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus massaicus) in the same shot, but they are so nervous that I have never managed to get a decent photograph of them.


Next are some of the smallest of the African antelopes: Kirk’s dik-dik (Madoqua kirkii). The one in front without horns is a female, with a male behind. They are about the size of a domestic cat, with longer legs, and with females larger than males. Like warthogs, they are extremely shy. I have seen them quite frequently as monogamous pairs, but they usually vanish into the bush before you can get your camera ready. I asked the guide why these were in a group and not as shy as usual, and he said that it was the breeding season. I do not know why monogamous animals would lose their shyness and form herds to breed.


In contrast, the next is one of the largest of the African bovids: a cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer). My Field Guide to African Mammals says that they rarely exceed 800 kg, but I think that this grand old bull must have been one of the few. He had probably been chucked out of the herd by younger rivals. Judging by the state of his horns he must have had plenty of fights; since losers tend not to come back for more, he probably won most of them and sired many offspring. The birds on his back are two species of oxpeckers: red-billed (Buphagus erythrorhynchus) and the commoner yellow-billed (Buphagus africanus).


Two cats for Thursday morning

Every day I must receive at least fifteen items about cats from readers: photos, articles, websites, and so on (the most recent was a spate of emails about baby bobcats, who are über-cute). But were I to post all of them, this would turn into a cat website and I would be inundated with people telling me to knock it off. (By the way, don’t be one of those people.)

But today there were two cat-related items in the mail that I want to post anyway.

The first is a link, sent by reader Macro Phyte, to the tale of a finicky Irish cat named Jerry. The true story by Frank McNally, “What’s new, fussy cat? An Irishman’s Diary on Jerry, the fussy feline,” was published yesterday in the Irish Times. It’s a short but lovely account of an old cat who refuses to drink tap water, preferring rainwater or, better yet, bottled mineral water. First, here’s the curmudgeonly old moggie:


“The old fusspot absolutely refuses to drink tap-water”

And here’s the beginning of McNally’s story:

One of the side-effects of the current dry spell is that I’ve had to start buying mineral water for our ancient cat, Jerry. Being a reluctant cat owner, I consider this just the latest in a series of new lows to which he has reduced me over the years. But the problem is this – the old fusspot absolutely refuses to drink tap-water.


He instead depends on the sky to supply his needs. And this is normally a reliable source in Ireland, where the leftovers of the last shower have rarely evaporated before the next one arrives.

But over the past 10 days or so, Jerry has exhausted all his reserves – starting with the puddles; then the various containers in the back garden; then the crevices in half-full refuse sacks, and so on; until there was nothing left.

Time was I could trick him on occasion by topping some of these up from the kitchen sink when he wasn’t looking.

Or if that didn’t work, my attitude to his subsequent bouts of self-imposed dehydration was that, sooner or later, one of two things would happen – either it would rain again, or the cat would lower his standards.


But I came home of an evening recently to find that he had sought asylum with a new neighbour – a kindly Portuguese lady who had poured Volvic (non-sparkling) into a bowl. Did I know who owned him, she asked, as he lapped it up like a camel that had crossed the Sahara since his last drink: “He looked a bit . . . unhappy”.

. . . And so it has come to pass. Next time it rains, I’ll have buckets under the drainpipes. In the interim, I’m buying him mineral water: Supervalu own-brand, until he decides that’s not good enough either.

There’s a familiar pattern here vis-a-vis the cat’s ever-increasing needs – first puzzlement on my part, then resistance, then capitulation. After years of trial and error, for example, a while ago I finally discovered a brand of food he will almost always eat. It’s some sort of taste-enhanced stuff, made in France for “chats difficiles”.

So now every couple of months I have to cycle to a pet shop in Crumlin and haul back a 12-kilo bag over the handlebars.

“See this?” I told Jerry the first time, pointing at the “chats difficiles” and translating. “It means you’re a fussy c**t”, I said, “if you’ll pardon my French”.

It continues, and is worth a read, especially if you have a chat difficile. Macro Phyte adds, “Give the comments section a miss, some of them are just pointlessly anti-cat.”


And reader Grania sent a short tw**t with a great picture from the great Twi**er website Why my cat is sad:

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 6.37.33 AM

(Go here if you want to learn Irish words relating to cats.)

Thursday: Hili dialogue

Is it Thursday already? Just yesterday it was Hump Day, and tomorrow is Friday, when we must choose our seats. I have a day of hard work ahead, with the only thing to look forward to being a big latte with two shots of espresso (made in my office). Well, I’m better off than most, I guess—my hard work doesn’t involve mining gold at 18,000 feet (see the latest New Yorker).

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, the Princess (and Editor) continues to have a better life than all of us:

A: Could you go and conspire somewhere else?
Hili: Don’t listen to him. This is my desk.


In Polish:
Ja: Czy możecie spiskować gdzie indziej?
Hili: Nie słuchaj go, to jest moje biurko.

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