“I kissed her, and it tasted like chocolate”

This is just adorable. On my afternoon peregrination around Hyde Park, I came across this new historical marker, which sits in front of the former location of Baskin-Robbins. Although my photo cut it off a bit, you can read what it’s about:


This is the kind of historical marker I like.


“On our first date, I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin-Robbins had to offer, our dinner table doubling as the curb. I kissed her, and it tasted like chocolate.”

President Barack Obama. From an interview in OThe Oprah Magazine, Image courtesy of Blackpast.org

On this site, President Barack Obama first kissed Michelle Obama.

Google revealed that this marker is apparently well known. The Chicago Tribune describes it, along with a comment by a cynical member of Generation Z:

But things are a lot different today than they were back in 1989.

Fifteen-year-old Justen Jackson, a ninth-grader at Hyde Park Academy, said it would be hard to find a girl who would be impressed with a first date at an ice cream shop.

“It’s nice, but I wouldn’t bring anyone here on a first date,” Justen said. “They’re going to want to go somewhere better than Subway or Baskin-Robbins.”

Since when did love become more about fancy repasts than togetherness?


OMG: $6100!

Bidding on the autographed and Houle-illustrated copy of WEIT has gone up another thousand simoleons, and there’s still a bit more than a day left:

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 10.01.11 AM

I take no credit for that high price, which I attribute to all the nice autographs that festoon the book and the spiffy artwork, but I’m still pleased that it will provide unexpected help for Doctors Without Borders (the recipient of all the proceeds), who say that donations can do stuff like this:

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 10.04.57 AM

So we now have 6000 treatments for children with malaria, and 200 months of therapeutic food for a malnourished child. I hope the well-heeled remember that when they’re putting in their bids.

Note as well that at Kelly’s Books Illuminated auction site, 100% of the money for her beautiful cover painting (a full-sized version of the final cover of The Illuminated Origin, with bids now at $970) goes to DwB, as well as $36 out of the $120 for the Darwin’s orchid + pollinator print, of which there are 4 left.  Here’s one of the latter with her description of how it’s done:

I’ve been illuminating orchid and moth prints, a limited edition of 30. I’m painting directly on the surface of the print with mica-based pearlescent paint (made by Fine-Tec in Germany) and shell gold to represent sunlight reflecting off the leaves, flower, and insect wings. It’s not easy to capture the effect in a photo, but this one comes close.


Kelly says she’ll continue to add items with charitable donations to the site, so keep checking back.

And, if you want a nice gift that isn’t as pricey, there are lovely greeting cards featuring Darwin’s first phylogenetic tree in gold letters, 10% of the price also going to DwB (I have a box of those, which I send out only on special occasions). I can’t imagine better presents for the evolution-friendly, especially since you’re helping a good cause at the same time.

Finally, let me leave a link to Kelly’s Facebook page, where she explains the various techniques she uses to create her paintings, prints, and illuminations.


The first U.S. penny touts science, not God

Reader Will called my attention to a new piece in CNN News describing the auction of the first U.S. one cent coin for a cool 1.2 million dollars. Now that’s a pretty penny! It’s the famous “Birch Cent,” made in 1792, and apparently only ten of them are in existence.

But what’s nice about it is what Will imparted in his email:

The interesting part is the motto on the coin: “Liberty Parent of Science & Industry”. Now we all know that the “In God We Trust” motto is a relatively recent innovation, but I was surprised to find (although I shouldn’t have been) that the founders rated science as one of the boons of liberty. And nary a mention of the creator. Just another little nail in the coffin of “America founded as a Christian nation.” I’ve attached the image.

Sure enough, on the face it clearly says “Liberty Parent of Science & Industry”. If Republicans had their way, it would have said, “Liberty, Offspring of God.”

First Penny 1

My review of “Evolving Ourselves” in WaPo

A while back I wrote a review of a new book by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans: Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation Are Changing Life on Earth. That review has just appeared in the Washington Post (free online at the link). For reasons that escape me, it’s in the “opinion” section, though perhaps the Post doesn’t have a book-review section.  As you’ll see, my “opinion” wasn’t very high.

The main problem, as you’ll see in my short review, is that the authors failed to distinguish possible factors that could produce selection with selection itself, so the book was largely an exercise in speculation. One excerpt:

When the authors examine our own species, the evidence is even less convincing. Recent increases in diagnoses of autism, allergies and obesity are certainly real, but they have no obvious connection with how we’re evolving. Obesity makes that point: As hunter-gatherers we evolved to prize sweet and fatty foods, for they were uncommon but nutritious. Today these foods are ubiquitous — witness the yellow arches on every street corner — and our evolved penchant for such fare has become harmful. But the advent of McDonald’s and Big Gulps is not a genetic change; it’s an environmental one. While it’s possible that the health stresses created by obesity — diabetes among them — will produce natural selection for avoiding fats and sweets, that would be a glacially slow process, especially since selection is dampened because obesity-related health issues often arise late in life, after people have had their children. By the time selection eliminates Mom and Dad, the I-love-fats-and-sweets genes will already have been passed to their children.

The authors describe many more big changes in our society, including the heavy prescription of antidepressants and Ritalin. But what has this got to do with evolution? The authors’ point seems to be that these changes could potentially affect evolution by exerting selection on the human genome. But we don’t know that, because evolution depends on whether those cultural changes affect our reproduction and, if so, whether individuals differ genetically in their reproductive response.

At the beginning of the piece I reprise the evidence for modern-day evolution in H. sapiens—something I’m always asked about in my talks for the public.  And, although we’re surely still evolving, we don’t have much hard evidence about what traits are involved and in what direction they’re changing. (I’m not counting the genetic evidence, based on DNA analysis, for “selective sweeps” in the last ten millennia or so.)



The New Yorker bloviates on the Germanwings crash, citing the Bible, Shakespeare, and Conrad

So someone probably told New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch that he had to write a few words about the Germanwings plane crash, and about the horrific likelihood that it was a suicide combined with mass murder. There’s not much to say about it, really, because we don’t know much now, but that’s never stopped the New Yorker.

So Gourevitch cranked out 1250 words of bloated prose, “A bewildering crash,” that, in the end, said nothing. If there’s any fault of the New Yorker, it’s the tendency of some authors to say very little, but say it in lovely words. Give me articles by John McPhee any day! Here’s a sample of Gourevitch channeling Mr. Kurtz:

The horror. It’s all there in the sound of Lubitz breathing. The wind of life, the wind of death. That steady soughing tells us all that we know so far, and all that we don’t yet—and may never—know, about this atrocity, the deadliest aviation catastrophe in France in more than three decades. Just as the brevity of the flight, and the apparent spontaneity of the captain’s decision to leave the cockpit—to stretch a leg? or take a piss? or have a chat? We do not know—tells us that Lubitz could not have planned before he flew that day to crash the plane that way; and just as the locking of the door, and the pushing of the button that brought the plane down, tell us that he acted consciously and deliberately, so Lubitz’s breathing, unbroken by any attempt at speech, tells us that he chose not to explain himself. He knew that he was on the record. What did he think he was doing? What came over him? What possessed him? And why?

This, dear readers, is bad writing. We learn nothing there that wasn’t already in the news. It’s merely an excuse for an author to show off his style and his learning.

The only interesting bit in the whole turgid piece is the ending, and there, amidst another pompous and gratuitous reference to Ecclesiastes (Gourevitch had already quoted a big chunk of Shakespeare’s Richard III), we find the tiniest suggestion that this whole mess doesn’t comport with the idea of a benevolent God:

When death strikes without the rhyme or reason of coherent human agency, in the form of a tsunami or an earthquake, a flood, or lightning bolt, or falling tree, the insurance companies, godless agencies of capital though they be, describe the blow as an “act of God.” Even those who like to believe in a divinity that loves us and means us well can grasp, and take some sort of solace in, the awareness that creation is random and incomprehensible and indifferent; that—turn, turn, turn—there is a time to every purpose under heaven; that, in short, it is not personal. Still it seems to go against our grain to accept that we are part of this natural order of disorder ourselves—and that the wholesale murder of innocents by someone as apparently motiveless as Lubitz (as far as we know so far) might also best be understood as an act of God.

But of course nonbelievers have said exactly this after every hurricane, tornado, and flood. We just don’t get paid a lot to say it while larding it with allusions to Shakespeare, Conrad, and the Bible.

Cornell Dean welcomes ISIS to his campus

This is what seems like a sting operation conducted on a hapless academic administrator, Cornell’s assistant dean for students, Joseph Scaffido. As originally reported by the New York Post, an investigator working for the conservative group Project Veritas posed as a prospective Moroccan student and visited Scaffido, asking if the university would be amenable to having a guest speaker from ISIS, to funding the “freedom fighters”, and, in the end, even running a training camp for students conducted by an ISIS fighter. This was all secretly videotaped. And to all of these suggestions Scaffido said, “No problem,” as you see in the undercover video below.

At first I thought Scaffido was just clueless, not knowing which “freedom fighters” the fake student was mentioning, but later the student mentions the “Islamic state,” so it should have been clear.

This video has raised a considerable ruckus, especially about Scaffido’s comparison of a proposed Cornell terrorist training camp to a sports camp. That’s just crazy. But of course such a request would never have passed the vetting of Cornell’s higher administration.

Have a look:

Yes, this dean is surely hapless and ignorant but, to give him some credit, he’s probably trying to help a “Moroccan student” feel at home on campus, and may not fully understand the nature of the “freedom fighters” discussed by the interviewer. But Scaffido really shouldn’t have expressed such enthusiasm. Do recall, though, that Project Veritas is run by James O’Keefe, who did the same kind of undercover reporting for the ACORN “scandal,” and, after doing enormous damage to that organization, was later found to have been guilty of dishonest reporting.

When the interview above became public, the president of Cornell was forced to issue a statement, as reported in the Cornell Daily Sun:

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, President David Skorton said the idea that Cornell would welcome terrorist groups such as ISIS and Hamas on campus is “ludicrous and absolutely offensive.”

Skorton described the video — which has been widely circulated online by various media outlets — as a “shameful” product of Project Veritas, which he said “has been repeatedly vilified for dishonest, deceitful activity.”

“It is shameful that any individual would pose as a student facing racial discrimination at another university, ask leading questions on hidden camera about Cornell’s tolerance for differing viewpoints and backgrounds, and then conveniently splice together the resulting footage to smear our assistant dean and our University,” Skorton said.

Skorton added that while many forms of free expression are welcome at the University, violence is not tolerated on Cornell’s campus.

“Cornell has an unwavering commitment to the free and responsible exchange of ideas,” he said. “However, we remain vigilant in maintaining an appropriate balance of freedom of expression within accepted boundaries. Of course, incitement to violence is not protected and would never be tolerated on our campus.”

It’s a pretty appropriate response, though he may have been too quick to shoot the messenger. Of course you’d want to use a Muslim-appearing student to broach the question, as those would be the students most likely to want ISIS on campus. And the president’s statement about “racial discrimination” is just a red herring designed to make Cornell look empathic. Finally, without seeing the full video, the University should not imply that its footage was dishonestly spliced.

But Skorton’s statement about free expression is good, and I, for one, would not be opposed to an ISIS speaker on campus, so long as he or she didn’t try to incite terrorism or violence (given how ISIS behaves, that would be hard to avoid). I am a bit concerned, though, about  what Skortin means by “an appropriate balance of freedom of expression within accepted boundaries.” What are those boundaries? But training camps—hell, no!

The Cornell Daily Sun published its own editorial excoriating the video down the line on grounds of “questionable journalistic practice”. I don’t think this is all that questionable, since undercover videos are a staple of modern journalism. The only thing that I see as unethical about this is whether the video was edited to put the dean in an unfair light—and perhaps how the investigator misrepresented himself. But of course lots of federal investigators misrepresent themselves in sting operations, and the interviewer reportedly represented himself as only a “prospective” student.

h/t: Steve

Caturday felid trifecta: Cat armor, camo cats, and Pusheen makes a muffin

Once again, with the help of readers I have scoured the Internet, which is replete with cats, to find just the right ones for today’s selection.

From Kotaku we get some truly stunning cat armor, guaranteed to protect your moggie from other cats, harassing crows, and other sources of annoyance and bites. Wouldn’t your cat look fearsome in this garb?

Etsy shop Schnabuble, maker of many fine human costume pieces, decided our feline friends had gone unarmored long enough. This is their answer to that problem, modeled by the lovely Selani.


There was only one such suit of armor, for $500 and, sadly, it appears to be gone now.

More description:

Completely hand-made from durable veg-tan leather, this is no mere costume piece. Your cat will become an unstoppable force for slaughter in this fully articulated suit, shielding him/her from foes while allowing unimpeded movement across the battlefield or living room floor. The imposing torso section features several riveted, articulated plates and a terrifying rack of dorsal spines. Your cat’s hindquarters are sheathed beneath exquisitely arrayed overlapping scales stitched to a soft leather backing, adorned with nickel silver dome rivets. Midnight black scales and plates are finished with a glossy protective coat and seamlessly join together like the petals of a deadly flower. Adjustable at the collar with elastic and two nickel silver buckles, and at the belly with grommeted corset-style lacing for a secure, comfortable fit.



Bored Panda presents fifteen camouflaged cats, but I’ll show just eight (go over to see the rest; sources given when known):

This is the best one, and I’m sure I’ve posted it before:


From imgur:


From imgurninja-cats-2-18__605


This could be Matthew’s cat Harry!:


From :


From :


My second-prize winner:



 Finally, from Pusheen the Cat, which has some truly bizarre gifs:


h/t: Merilee, Su, Tom

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Send in your photos, folks! Although I have a fairly comfortable backlog, we Jews (cultural or religious) always worry. . . .

Today we have two wildlife photos and then some travel photos, since H. sapiens is also wildlife.

First, from Stephen Barnard in Idaho:

The Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) is incubating eggs in a nest box along my driveway, doing its best to be invisible and failing badly.


Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera) are back. I also saw the first Yellow-headed Blackbirds (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) of the season, and I think a Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius) from quite a distance. I’ve located a pair of elusive, secretive Virginia Rails (Rallus limicola). I’m sure they’re nesting in some tall, dense reeds. They respond to “grunt duets” played on my iPhone, but refuse to show themselves. Persistence is called for.


Here are photos that reader Ken Phelps took in Cuba, a place I still hope to visit before it becomes like Bermuda. His notes are indented:

Just a random street in Havana, letting the different scenes unfold as sun comes up.




Too bad I missed the eyes on the golden incisored gal:


The old guy dragged me a couple blocks to his home so that he could show his wife (who was doing the wash by hand in an old style laundry bucket) the photo in the camera.


Was out walking in Havana just at daybreak and poked into this garage type space. I was just trying to figure out a shot of the light and shadow with Fidel gazing over it all when the kid just popped around the corner with his bicycle cart loaded with bananas. Surprised us both.


Saturday: Hili dialogue

It’s too damn early! Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is complaining about the surfeit of mice (which she eats)? Srsly???

Hili: Sisyphean labor, this catching mice in the garden.
A: Why?
Hili: They are like rabbits.
A: So big?
Hili: No, so pious – no contraception.


In Polish:
Hili: Syzyfowa praca z tym łapaniem myszy w ogrodzie.
Ja; Dlaczego?
Hili: One są jak króliki.
Ja: Takie duże?
Hili: Nie, takie pobożne, żadnej antykoncepcji.


Clouded leopard cub overwhelms the internet

One of the world’s most beautiful cats (my favorite is still Pallas’s Cat) is the clouded leopard Neofelis nebulosa, a denizen of southeast Asian forests—and highly endangered.  Habitat loss and poaching have reduced the cat’s population to around 10,000, and that’s not many.

That’s why people are excited about the birth of a clouded leopard cub in Tampa, Florida’s Lowry Park Zoo—that and the fact that the cub is adorable, what with its little squeaks and all. Here is the two-week-old cub, which is simply overwhelming the Internet, especially Facebook (even I’ve posted it):

And here is video from 2011 of a one-month-old cub in the Nashv9lle zoo:

But although some places, like the Tampa Bay Times, aver that this birth is a good sign for the species’ survival, what does that survival mean if the animals are kept in zoos—jails for endangered species? Even the zoo is overly optimistic; as the Times notes:

“This birth signifies a milestone accomplishment in our conservation programs at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo,” said Dr. Larry Killmar, vice president of animal science and conservation. “Species survival programs for animals like clouded leopards take years of planning, development and staff commitment. This kitten will contribute to the long term viability of our conservation efforts within the managed population, as well as range countries.”

I’m not sure what that last sentence means, but I translate it roughly like this, “Since we can now breed this cat in captivity, it gives us hope that we can have them to see behind bars for years to come, and of course we can always hope that they can be reintroduced.”

Yeah, right—not with poachers around and habitat loss rampant in their range. We simply have too many damn people. 

Here is what we’ll lose, except for those in animal jails:



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