Two books I just finished

January 16, 2021 • 11:00 am

I’m back to reading a lot during the pandemic, as I’m simply tired of looking at the Internet as a distraction. And so I finished two books this week: one excellent and one so-so. Let’s start with the good one, which I read so long ago that it seemed new to me. Reading The Plague is especially apposite at the moment as it can be read the contest of the pandemic. Can it illuminate our current experience? The answer is yes and no.

And it was this old edition that I read (click to go to the Amazon site):

At about 280 small pages, those who shy away from big books will find this one doable. It’s one of the novels that won Camus the Nobel Prize in Literature, and deservedly so.  The Plague (La Peste in the original French) is considered an “existentialist” novel, and I suppose that’s because one could construe it as the fictional story of men laboring to fight a meaningless but fatal pestilence: a bubonic plague that struck the city of Oran in Algeria in the 1940s. The protagonist, Dr. Rieux, is an atheist, and realizes the senselessness of what is happening—despite the local priest’s attempt to find meaning in the epidemic—but still labors to exhaustion, seven days a week, to help the stricken. Rieux doesn’t do this because he sees it as the “moral” thing to do, but believes that relieving suffering is an aspect of human love, the only worthwhile thing he sees in our existence.

I won’t give away the plot or the spoiler (i.e., who the narrator is), but it’s worth rereading in light of the coronavirus pandemic. There are parallels (quarantines, lots of death), but also differences (no mask wearing, even though some of the plague is pneumonic, no lockdowns of businesses, and none of the peevishness that limns our behavior). But the big parallel is humanity being at the mercy of an invisible microbe, which takes lives randomly and senselessly. If that’s existentialism, so be it.

The novel rises to a climax with the narrator’s “analysis” at the end after the plague has lifted, which contains some of the book’s best writing. My favorite bit, which I’ve mentioned before, is the ending, which is wonderful even in translation. And it’s also about the futility of fighting the plague, which, though it can be temporarily conquered, will always return:

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled.

He knew what those jubilant crowds did no know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

Lots of nice alliteration there, and the last bit, “when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city,” is sheer genius. Bane and enlightening indeed!



I read this one on—as I recall—the recommendation of a reader here. But perhaps not. At any rate, I was drawn by the topic: Daum’s disillusionment with wokeness and her discovery of “IDW” members like John McWhorter, Glenn Loury, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Bret Weinstein. This is journey that many of us have taken, and I wanted to see what Daum had to say about it.

I didn’t find the book absorbing, but perhaps that’s because I already share Daum’s intellectual criticism of wokeness and had undergone the political changes that describes at length, embroidering them with details about her crumbling marriage and her disillusionment with feminism. In my view, Daum provided too little meat and tried way too hard to be clever, throwing in personal information that didn’t enhance her thesis—if she has a thesis. Daum is a big fan of Joan Didion’s writing, but doesn’t have the chops to emulate her, nor Didion’s ability to make the personal sufficiently impersonal to be interesting to the reader.

It’s a solipsistic book that I don’t think would enlighten many of us. Read it at your own peril.

What next? Below a book that came highly recommended from an expert: literary critic James Wood of the New Yorker. Having met James in Cambridge MA (he teaches at Harvard) and discussed with him the idea of whether literature was a “way of knowing” (I won’t divulge his take), I wrote him asking if I should read a copy of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch that I found in a free book box.

The Goldfinsh won the Pulitzer prize in 2014, and I was about to start it when Wood replied and said that he much preferred a wonderful 2006 novel, translated from the German by Anthea Bell in 2015, that he had extolled several years ago in The New YorkerAll for Nothing is clearly one of Wood’s favorite modern novels. He warned me not to read his review before I read the book, as he gave spoilers. So I haven’t, but will start this book today:

So that is my latest reading. Your turn: what books have you liked lately?

Caturday felid trifecta: Portraits of Maine Coon Cats; why cats knead; blissed-out lynxes (and lagniappe)

January 16, 2021 • 9:30 am

From My Modern Met, we have some awesome pictures of Maine Coon Cats, which are not only large, but have heads and faces that are more wolflike than catlike. Click on screen shot to see them all; I’ll show half a dozen:

They’re all photographed by one man on a mission from Ceiling Cat:

Photographer Robert Sijka took note of this majestic breed and decided to capture their big cat vibes in striking portraiture that showcases their budding beauty, from kittens to full-grown felines.

It comes as no surprise, but Sijka has two passions in life: photography and Maine Coon cats. The two, luckily, go hand in hand and are the result of a move to China he and his family made 14 years ago. “After a while,” he explains, “we started to miss the company of animals, they have always been in our lives. We fell in love with Maine Coons and my wife Izabella started a breeding program 8 years ago.”

After the first litter of kittens was born, Sijka knew they had to share the adorable creatures with the world. “I think my journey with photography started at this moment,” he recalled.“I decided that my pictures must be something special, just like Maine Coons are special. After several thousands of photos, I ended up with my current style and great pleasure from working with these amazing animals.”

It’s a challenge to photograph any animal, and cats provide an extra hurdle; they won’t sit still! Sijka has no magic formula, but rather he has two tried-and-true methods for capturing endearing images—lots of practice and much patience. There are plenty of opportunities for him to do so, especially since he and wife now have a cattery called OtiCami that houses 20 Maine Coon cats and kittens.

Sijka sells his work as prints, phone cases, blankets, and more in his online shop, the Felis Gallery.


If you own cats, you probably already know why they “knead”, working their paws in a motion also called “making biscuits”. But Pocket has the answer according to SCIENCE (click on screenshot):

The upshot:

“This kneading, also known as ‘making bread’ or ‘making biscuits,’ is an instinctive feline behavior kittens display shortly after they’re born,” Dr. Karen Becker, a veterinarian and creator of the Healthy Pets blog, writes on her site. “The reason for the movement in kittenhood is to stimulate the flow of milk from the mother’s mammary glands.” Cats who knead in adulthood could be “showing contentment,” according to Becker, or simply marking their territory since cat’s paws contain sweat glands.

While there’s always the chance that a kitty kneading is your cat’s attempt to claim you as their own — which, of course, you are — experts say kneading is probably as tender and adorable as it looks.

“If you do have a cat who kneads their bedding, or better yet you, it’s because they’re feeling very loved and comfortable,” Katie Armour, project coordinator at MSPCA Boston Adoption Centertells The Dodo. “You should absolutely take this as a compliment!”

From the Dodo, videos of cats making biscuits. There’s enough catpower here to feed a dozen Southerners!

So says SCIENCE! But wait—there’s more!

“It is interesting to note that cats can produce a chemical for marking between their toes (interdigital semiochemical) that they can release when they flex their toes, so your cat could also be labeling you as a safe part of their territory,” Dr. Kathryn Primm, a veterinarian at Applebrook Animal Hospital in Ooltewah, Tennessee, writes in a blog for iHeartCats.

Well, SCIENCE is just speculating here. . . .


Finally, we have two tame lynxes that were presumably rescued and unable to return to the wild. They’re too wild to make good house cats, but they’re tame enough to pet and even rub their bellies! Notes are from YouTube:

Max Canada Lynx, the educational animal ambassador takes a moment to get some good scratchin’ before he sits down for his meal. He was born at a zoo in May 2011. Max is not domesticated but has been humanized. He still has wild tendencies. He educates the public locally on the endangered/threatened (in lower 48 states) Canada Lynx in hopes that people will be driven to conserve our environment and protect our wildlife. Technically, they are listed as “threatened” but in my state of NY they are considered “extirpated.” However, it’s legal to trap these beautiful animals in Canada and Alaska.

He is NOT declawed. During the winter he weighs 40 pounds and summer about 34. He has about 4 inches of fur in this video which makes him look fat….I mean fluffy!

This video is NOT taken in my home but where he has an indoor enclosure. This is Max’s rug with his fur, straw and other scents that he loves. He doesn’t like the vacuum. Max also has outdoor housing where he spends most of his time.

Wouldn’t you like to pet this guy? Listen to that purr!

Meet Yoki the Canadian Lynx at Big Run Wolf Ranch!


Lagniappe: Today’s New York Times has this lovely article about a woman who relieves her pandemic-induced loneliness by fostering kitten (click on screenshot).  But then they have to ruin it by dragging in social justice, for crying out loud:

It takes a certain level of privilege to foster animals at a time when many New Yorkers are struggling to take care of themselves and their families. The pandemic has underscored the vast disparities among New York’s human residents, which then trickle down to the city’s cats.

They can’t keep that stuff out of even human-interest articles on fostering cats. Well, ignore it and read the piece by clicking on the screenshot:

h/t: Jean, Divy, Peter

Readers’ wildlife photos

January 16, 2021 • 8:00 am

Reader Dave, whose photo gallery is here, sent some photos from various places, including semi-abstracts. His captions are indented, and you can click the photos to make them bigger.

Utahn Pines:


West Fjords, Iceland:

Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica):

Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea):

Monochrome Canopy:

Prismatic Dawn:

Saturday: Hili dialogue

January 16, 2021 • 6:30 am

It’s Caturday, January 16, 2021: National Hot and Spicy Food Day. I’m had some of these last night as a preprandial snack with leftover bubbly, which was just just the right libation. I discovered Trader Joe’s Jerk Style Plantain Chips while investigating what else I should look for up when i went to TJ’s to get my coffee beans (the cheapest source for good espresso beans in bulk). This site rated the plantain chips highly, and they were right. They are quite spicy, not too unhealthy, and only about two bucks per bag. You don’t need to eat many to get satisfied.

It’s also National Fig Newton Day, Prohibition Remembrance Day, celebrating (?) the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, Book Publishers Day, and National Religious Freedom Day. Remember that Fig Newtons were invented as a digestive aid and were named not after Isaac Newton, but after the town of Newton, Massachusetts, where they were once made. I love them (the UK equivalent is the “fig roll”). But I just learned that they are now called simply “Newtons”—not because they eliminate the fig paste, which remains in one version—but because there are other kinds of Newtons now, like strawberry. At least this isn’t duplicitious, like changing “Vanilla Wafers” to “Nilla Wafers” when they removed the vanilla:

Not duplicitous
Invidious name change due to decline in quality

News of the Day:

I think everyone’s heart skipped a beat when we hard that QShaman, aka Jacob Anthony Chansley, had provide the feds with information that led them to conclude that some of the Capitol rioters were bent on immobilizing and then assassinating people in Congress. But I wondered, given the clear insanity of QShaman, how anything he said, with his marination in conspiracy theories, could be credible. It turns out that it was not. According to CNN:

Justice Department prosecutors have formally walked back their assertion in a court filing that said Capitol rioters sought to “capture and assassinate elected officials.”

A federal prosecutor in Arizona asked a magistrate judge in a hearing on Friday to strike the line in a recent court filing about defendant Jacob Anthony Chansley, a man who is alleged to have led some in the crowd in the first wave into the Capitol with a bullhorn while carrying a spear and wearing a fur headdress.

The entire line the prosecutors want to omit from their court filing is: “Strong evidence, including Chansley’s own words and actions at the Capitol, supports that the intent of the Capitol rioters was to capture and assassinate elected officials in the United States Government.”

The New York Times reported that some chucklehead had written “Trump” on a manatee (an endangered species); at first it looked as if the word had been carved into the skin, but now it seems “Trump” was written in algae (or rather, by scraping off algae). Still, it’s illegal to touch one of these wonderful creatures. Trumpies, keep your hands off the damn manatees!

Some relevant tweets (h/t Matthew):

I can’t help but think, cynical as I am, that if the word written was “Biden,” people wouldn’t be so incensed. Amirite?

At last India has started inoculating its population, which is a formidable task since that involves jabs for 1.3 billion people. The first people to get their shots, on Saturday, were healthcare workers. Unfortunately, they are using two Indian-manufactured vaccines, Covishield and Covaxin, that lack any clinical evidence that they work. I hope they do!  (“Puja” below is a Hindu act of worship. The doctor has had henna designs put on her hands and arms.)

Finally, today’s reported Covid-19 death toll in the U.S. is 392,529, a big increase of about 4,000 deaths from yesterday’s figure, or about 2.8 deaths per minute. In about two days we’ll pass 400,000 deaths: double what the most pessimistic pundits thought we’d have. The world death toll is 2,019,857, a big increase of about 15,400 deaths over yesterday’s total.

Stuff that happened on January 16 includes:

Here’s the cover of the first edition:

  • 1707 – The Scottish Parliament ratifies the Act of Union, paving the way for the creation of Great Britain.
  • 1786 – Virginia enacts the Statute for Religious Freedom authored by Thomas Jefferson.
  • 1909 – Ernest Shackleton‘s expedition finds the magnetic South Pole.

Here are three members of the team, Douglas Mawson, Alistair MacKay and Edgeworth David, at what they thought was the South Magnetic Pole, but they didn’t really find the spot (read about it here). At any rate, the spot does change its position over time.

  • 1920 – The League of Nations holds its first council meeting in Paris, France.
  • 1945 – Adolf Hitler moves into his underground bunker, the so-called Führerbunker.

Here’s the bunker (foreground) in 1947 before it was razed by the Soviets. I’ve visited the site, now a grassy plot:

  • 1979 – The last Iranian Shah flees Iran with his family for good and relocates to Egypt.
  • 2003 – The Space Shuttle Columbia takes off for mission STS-107 which would be its final one. Columbia disintegrated 16 days later on re-entry.

And, one year ago today. Let’s hope the next impeachment results in a convication, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Notables born on this day include:

  • 1900 – Edith Frank, German-Dutch mother of Anne Frank (d. 1945)
  • 1902 – Eric Liddell, Scottish runner, rugby player, and missionary (d. 1945)

You’ll remember Liddell as the “muscular Christian” depicted in the film Chariots of Fire. Here’s the real Liddell winning at the British Empire versus United States of America (Relays) meet held at Stamford Bridge, London on Sat 19 July 1924:

  • 1910 – Dizzy Dean, American baseball player and sportscaster (d. 1974)
  • 1933 – Susan Sontag, American novelist, essayist, and critic (d. 2004)
  • 1948 – Ruth Reichl, American journalist and critic
  • 1974 – Kate Moss, English model and fashion designer
  • 1980 – Lin-Manuel Miranda, American actor, playwright, and composer

Those who hopped the twig on January 16 include:

  • 1794 – Edward Gibbon, English historian and politician (b. 1737)
  • 1901 – Arnold Böcklin, Swiss painter and academic (b. 1827)

Here’s Böcklin’s “Isle of the Dead” (Die Toteninsel), one of many of his paintings drawn from mythology:

  • 1936 – Albert Fish, American serial killer, rapist and cannibal (b. 1870)
  • 1942 – Carole Lombard, American actress and comedian (b. 1908).

Lombard was married to Clark Gable, and when she died in a plane crash in 1942 at only 33, Gable was inconsolable. He soon joined the Air Force, something that Lombard had repeatedly asked him to do. .

(From Wikipedia): Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and Mrs. Elizabeth Peters, mother of Carole Lombard (1939)

You remember Wyeth’s famous painting “Christina’s World,” right? Well, here’s “Christina’s Bedroom” (1947), painted a year earlier, and it has a cat in it:

  • 2017 – Eugene Cernan, American captain, pilot, and astronaut (b. 1934)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili still dislikes Szaron (the only animals she’s ever gotten along with are d*gs):

A: What are you doing here?
Hili: I’m waiting for Szaron so I can jump on him.
In Polish:
Ja: Co tu robisz?
Hili: Czekam na Szarona, żeby na niego skoczyć.

And we have a picture of adorable Kulka in the snow:

Caption: “And a picture of Kulka (of course, taken by Paulina).”

In Polish: I jeszcze zdjęcie Kulki (oczywiście zrobione przez Paulinę)

From Facebook:

From Su:

From Jesus of the Day. How many of us get our dreams fulfilled so easily?

Titania’s busy erasing Trump:

From Barry: a puppy seeks a down comforter:

Tweets from Matthew. It’s a long video (6.5 minutes), and the cats are a handful, but they’ve given meaning to the staff’s life.

Loons are EVERYWHERE. Listen to this one!

Cat: “I approve of this post.”

I asked my friend Andrew, who spends a lot of time in Turkey, what this crazy housing development was about. Here’s his response:

I think it was an attempt by a Turkish developer to bring in Arab money.  Someone had presumably come to conclusion that the route to the Arab soul (well, wallet) is via fake mini Disney castles.  Seems a good idea to me.  But I seem to recall that the whole thing has been a bit of a disaster economically; either the market research on Arab preferences wasn’t entirely sound or other economic factors intervened.

A great correction!

Oy! The digger on the Mars rover is having trouble getting soil samples. They’ll miss all that life! (not)


The culture wars and the news: a high-toned discussion

January 15, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Here’s a discussion organized by, well, I’m not sure, but you can see the announcement here. It features several people you’ve heard of, and I listened to about half of it yesterday before tasks called me away. The whole thing is 1.5 hours long, and if you click on the screenshot below, it will take you to the video on YouTube.  The question at issue:

Are we watching freedom of speech slip away in service of political correctness, collective guilt and a fear of being bullied and canceled for expressing an opposing or different view?

And the YouTube notes:

The video of our first event is available for your viewing: “Are Culture Wars Co-opting the Mainstream Narrative?”

Should journalists live in fear of being canceled or bullied for expressing an opposing or different view from their colleagues? Are our media institutions being taken over by a deeply ideological “woke” cohort?

Three of our speakers, Bari WeissKatie Herzog and Suzanne Moore, shared deeply personal stories about this topic during our first event. They have been employed in newsrooms ranging from local newspapers to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. What they have in common is what they describe as increasing illiberal climate in newsrooms.

Our fourth speaker, Jonathan Haidt, is one of the world’s leading experts in moral psychology and he helped put all of this into a wider context.

Our Reflection Panel spoke to how their newsrooms address these challenges. In particular, they addressed the realities of managing newsrooms: e.g., trying to serve the wider audience, and the desire for more social activism in their newsrooms, especially among younger journalists. We had with us Phil Chetwynd (AFP), Mapi Mhlangu (previously eNCA) and Francesca Unsworth (BBC)

The topic will surely be of interest to many readers, so have a listen. Bari Weiss, the first panelist to speak, will get you hooked on the rest of the discussion. There is not much chaff here.

A woke Hippocratic Oath

January 15, 2021 • 11:30 am

It’s often assumed that medical students take the Hippocratic Oath when they graduate or during the “white coat ceremony“—when they get their Official Doctor Coats at orientation. In fact, there’s a report from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) that most medical students never take that famous oath, and many classes write their own. Although there are still some “standard” oaths, the AAMC notes this:

. . . it was only around 20 years ago that schools began to allow students to craft their own promises.

Nancy Angoff, MD, remembers the decision to discard Yale’s long-standing oath back in 2000. “Some students and I didn’t care for the language,” says Angoff, associate dean for student affairs. “It seemed very impersonal, cold, and too pat.” At first, they considered reverting to the Hippocratic Oath.

“We debated it,” recalls Angoff. “The students didn’t want to promise things they couldn’t deliver on” that the ancient oath included, so they opted to write their own pledge.

Now Yale is among the 17% of surveyed schools that have an annual process for writing, revising, or selecting an oath. At Yale, the oath is written during a pregraduation course, explains Angoff. Each year, she says, “the students end up with a really personal and beautiful oath.”

You can see why they’ve ditched the original Hippocratic Oath if you read it here. There are parts that are really outmoded, such as this bit, which rules out assisted suicide and abortion:

I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.

Now I’m not sure why the students write oaths rather than the faculty, for the faculty surely have a better idea of what good physicianship is all about. And of course the students, who are quite young, can go hog wild, as they apparently did at Pitt. And you know already what they did—and what’s probably happening all over the U.S. They pledged themselves as doctors to engage in social-justice activism.

From PittWire, a publication of the University of Pittsburgh, we have a report of one new oath  (click on screenshot to read):

There was a committee to write an oath (always a bad idea), and they produced an oath that was sent to me by reader Ginger K., who commented, “Some of this is quite reasonable, such as the commitment to research and mentoring, collegiality, and personal health. But the woke vocabulary dilutes the good stuff.” Indeed.  The titer of real physicianship is quite low here.

Read the oath for yourself. Right off the bat I was distressed by the ubiquitous ritual invocation of George Floyd, who has nothing to do with medical school or prospective doctors (The Floyd Invocation also initiates “antiracism” statements on some of the University of Chicago’s departmental websites that violate our University principles):

One gets the impression from this statement that medicine is more a social justice mission—fixing racial inequities, fostering allyship and so on—than a mission to bring health and save lives. There’s more about social justice here, including the au courant “self care”, than there is about caring for patients per se, or practicing ethical behavior towards all patients. (And where is the confidentiality clause that was in the Hippocratic oath?)

I’m not going to make too much of this, as students probably enjoy producing their own oaths. But in the end this seems to be an act of virtue signaling, for most of the physicians will be engaged in the quotidian duties of simply helping the afflicted rather than fixing racial inequality.

I do admire those who sacrifice a comfortable existence to help the oppressed and poor, but this is an individual choice, not something to be decreed with a pledge recited by everyone.  For surely not all students agree with this oath—just like not all professors at the University of Chicago agree with their departments’ “anti-racism” statements.

Take this as a sign of the times, and of the racialization of everything. For some students it may be a genuine pledge, but for many of the others it’s performative wokeness, something to be forgotten as soon as they pass their boards.


h/t Ginger K

Another scam paper published in a “scientific” journal

January 15, 2021 • 9:45 am

I’ve written before about predatory scientific journals: those fly-by-night venues that will publish nearly any submitted paper, however dreadful. Their motive is to get the thousands of dollars in “publication fees” that authors are forced to pay. In return, the authors get to cite their paper on their c.v.s, even though most papers in these journals are worthless. (Those who evaluate c.v.s, however, often don’t know which journals are bogus.)

In April of last year I wrote about a hilarious and deliberately insane paper written by Daniel Baldassare, “What’s the deal with birds?”, published in the predatory Scientific Journal of Research and Reviews (it’s not there any longer).  Its thesis, such as it was, was that birds tending to look like fish (i.e., penguins) occurred in areas most susceptible to climate change, while birds with weird beaks (i.e;, parrots), didn’t live in those areas. But it was a farrago of madness and humor, done on purpose to show that these journals will publish anything. Here are the “data” from Baldassare’s paper:

I guess after Baldassare exposed both the paper and the journal in his Twitter thread, they decided to remove the paper. Baldassare, by the way, managed to bargain the “author’s fee” down from $1700 to zero. Audubon Magazine even wrote a piece about the hoax.

Now we have another of these hoax papers, also dealing with “fishy” birds. This one, published by Martin Stervander and Danny Haelewaters, appears in in Oceanography & Fisheries. It’s still up (click on the screenshot), but won’t be for long (I have a pdf for you if it’s taken down).

The premise and thesis is also bull-goose loony, again on purpose. This time their complex hypothesis took into account no fewer than four biological factors. Here’s how the authors describe the genesis of the hypothesis:

At the time we developed the original idea about fishiness of birds potentially being correlated to absence of poisonous mushrooms, one of the authors (D.H.) was eating pizza with four cheeses, chicken, anchovies, and mushrooms. It was really a good one, and this prompted us to—just like the pizza—integrate all four parameters in this study: fishiness, birdiness, lack of fungal toxicity, and effects of prolonged heating. We note that integrative taxonomy approaches [8], and by extension approaches to integrate everything in research, are being increasingly employed, thus supporting the rationale for the work presented in this paper.

It is important to keep in mind that research has not always been this integrative, or cross-disciplinary. For example, Charles Darwin worked alone [9] and still published a relatively well-cited contribution to the field of theology and some other disciplines. We feel it is natural for humans to dangle up and down between extremes. This is true for scientists, just like it is for politicians (consider the formation of the European Union in the 1990s and early 2000s versus the current wish of some countries to leave again [10]).

All in all, in this study we present the results of our work with fishy birds (fide Baldassarre [1]). We hypothesize that, (1) despite climate change, it is still cold in Antarctica and thus the presumed lack of poisonous fungi leads to fishy-looking birds. Further, with a clear correlation of pizza and lower latitudes [11], we hypothesize that (2) birdy-looking birds (as well as fishy-looking fish) will be more prevalent than fishy-looking birds on pizzas.

Any good reviewer would have spotted this in an instant as a Poe, but of course these journals don’t care about quality, or even seriousness. I doubt the reviewers even read the papers.

Their results, like Baldassari’s are presented in a single bizarre figure, with lots of bogus statements in the text about statistical methods and significance. But what they conclude is that birds that look like fish (i.e., penguins) tend to occur in areas without poisonous fungi (Antarctica), while birds that don’t look like fish (chickens, swifts, etc; they also threw in a flying fish that looks like a swift, an anchovy, and a “Nemo fish”) live at lower latitudes where there’s an abundance of pizza. A remarkable vindication of their thesis! The results in graphic form:

. . .  and in the text:

Our PCA revealed that most of the variation in the dataset was partitioned along the first (59.3%) and second (34.8%) principal components (PCs), with loadings corresponding to poisonous funginess and pizza toppingness, respectively (Table 1). There is a clear bimodality in both PC scores, distinguishing on the one hand penguins (PC1, low funginess) and on the other hand anchovy and chicken (PC2, high toppingness). Plotting the scores for all taxa, a quadratic model explains the two-dimensional distribution of avian species (p <<< 0.05) with low residual variation except for the outlier H. rustica (Figure 1).

They note that while fishy-looking birds occur in areas lacking poisonous fungi and pizza, that relationship doesn’t hold for birdy-looking fish (flying fish).  They also note that the swallow is an outlier.

In the discussion they take up the parlous subject of climate change, and postulate that, with global warming, poisonous fungi may invade Antarctica and “may thus exert a strong selection pressure on penguins to evolve a less fishy morphology,” so that the evolved penguins may, with their new appearance, expand into “pizza topping habitats.”

There are two more immediate clues that this was a hoax: the acknowledgements (which damn predatory journals!) and the author contributions, which cite Darwin:

First author Martin Stervander also wrote an exposé on his own website about the paper, including a positive “review” of the paper for another journal where it was submitted, Journal of Ecosystems and Ecography, published by OMICS International. It’s clear that the reviewing process of all these journals is deficient—to say the least. But if it was rigorous, they’d have no way to make money!

So we have another exposé of  predatory journals, which we all know exist because every scientist gets daily requests for submissions to these journals, even when the journals aren’t remotely connected with the scientist’s research. (I’ve had pleas for my papers from journals in obstetrics and gynecology.) But there’s no better way to expose this nonsense than to publish a loony paper in it.  Sadly, this doesn’t bring down the journals (they just remove the papers), and they continue to serve as citations for desperate scientists.

Is there anything unethical about these hoaxes? Hell, no: there’s no way anybody could be deceived by papers like these, and it’s the best way to show the journals up for what they are.

They also resemble the “hoax papers” sent by Boghossian, Pluckrose, and Lindsay to social-science journals in the famous “grievance studies affair” that now has its own Wikipedia page. As I wrote last April:

One final remark. In the “grievance studies affair“, Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay, and especially Peter Boghossian got into big trouble for “hoaxing” humanities journals with equally ludicrous papers.  Baldassarre won’t get into trouble (and shouldn’t), for his paper is in a clearly predatory journal.  But what’s the difference between a predatory scientific journal that will publish nonsense and humanities journals like Fat Studies or Gender, Place & Culture that publish nonsense but also purport to be venues for serious research? In effect, they both do the same thing: help researchers fatten their c.v.s with worthless research. Why should Boghossian et al. be excoriated for exposing the same kind of crappy journal standards that Baldassarre did?

Anything that exposes this kind of academic garbage, including clear hoax papers, is to be applauded, so long as the hoaxes are revealed (as they were with the Grievance Studies Trio) or are so palpably ridiculous (as with Baldassarre’s paper) that they couldn’t be anything other than a hoax.


h/t: Martim Melo


Readers’ wildlife photos

January 15, 2021 • 8:00 am

Please send in your wildlife photos; they are coming in very slowly and, as usual, I’m nervous.

Today we have some European and American landscape photos by James Blilie. His captions are indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.

Fountain detail, Chatsworth House. UK, 2015.  If you get the chance, don’t miss Chatsworth House! Many scenes from the 2005 film Pride and Prejudice were filmed at Chatsworth House.

Mountain reflections.  This was taken out the window of our car as we drove along next to a wide river.  No place to pull over.  Norway, 2012.

View of the Cinque Terre.  Italy, 1999.  Scanned Kodachrome 64.

Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, Chateauneuf du Pape, France, 1997.  Scanned Kodachrome 64. Some vineyards in the Rhone Valley are just heaps of (large) pebbles.  Makes good wine!

Vineyard, Gigondas, France.  1997.  One of my favorite places.  Scanned Kodachrome 64.

Climbers on the Kahiltna GlacierDenali (aka Mt. McKinley), Alaska.  1987.  Scanned Kodachrome 64.

Key West (Ft. Zachary Taylor State Park).  April 2019.

Short depth-of-field view of a lavender (Lavandula sp.) field.  Vaucluse, France, 2010.

View of Mount Adams Washington (12,280 feet), at sunset, from the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. 1990.  Scanned Kodachrome 64.

View of a Plane Tree (Platanus sp.) tunnel in rural Provence, France, 2018.  I love the Plane Trees in Provence.

Window, Seguret, Vaucluse, France, 2010.  One of the most beautiful villages in France.

Wahclella Falls.  Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon.  Summer 2006.

Friday: Hili dialogue

January 15, 2021 • 6:30 am

Good day on Friday, January 15, 2021: National Bagel Day.  There are few places in North America where you can get a good (i.e., authentic) bagel: two are in Montreal and one is in New York City. I will let you do your own investigation, but do not be gulled into thinking that those inflated pillows of dough sold as “bagels” everywhere in America are real bagels. They are simply toruses made from Wonder Bread. Some even have what purports to be blueberries in them.   Here’s a real bagel with a schmear from Montreal, boiled with honey, cooked over a real wood fire, and properly dense and chewy.

It’s also National Fresh Squeezed Juice Day, National Strawberry Ice Cream Day, and Wikipedia Day (see below).

Today there’s a Google Doodle celebrating the life of James Naismith (1861-1939), the inventor of basketball (click on screenshot). As C|Net reports, it was on this day in 1862 that Naismith “[unveiled] the rules of the sport, which he’d invented just weeks earlier, in a Springfield College school newspaper.”

Wine of the Day:  If you want a good, dry bubbly but don’t want to pay Champagne prices, the American Roederer Estate Brut, which you can get for not much more than $20, is your ticket. It’s made from wine of different vintages, as they mix oak-aged wines from their collection to the blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that are the body of this sparkler.  It’s toasty, with prominent fruit notes: apple and pear (probably due to the malic acid). And it’s a terrific bargain if you want a sparkler. Very dry, too, which is good as I don’t like sweet bubbly.


News of the Day:

The news is scary: according to the FBI, via ABC News, there are now credible threats to attack every state capital on Inauguration Day. Will this really happen? Are there that many armed loons in America? Maybe I’m naive, but I’m hoping nobody gets killed on January 20.

And Mitch “666” McConnell now declares that an impeachment trial can’t begin until Inauguration day, January 20. Will we see Senators first watch Biden and Harris get sworn in, then quickly repair to their chamber to debate the article of impeachment? If not on that day, the trial will surely begin that week, for there are no plans to delay it.

Lisa Murkowski, a Republican Senator from Alaska, has intimated that she may vote to impeach Trump. That means we’d still need 16 Republican Senators joining her to secure a conviction. . That simply won’t happen, barring a miracle, and we need to accept it.

At the Washington Post, a Yale Law professor explains why it’s unlikely that Trump would be able to pardon himself.  It’s not dead certain, but there are several legal and societal reasons why Trump couldn’t do it. Of course he could always resign and get Pence to do it, but based on their now soured relations, I think that unlikely.

Reuters reports, based on information from insiders, how Trump is spending his final days in the White House. It’s not a pretty picture, and reminds me of Nixon’s last days. The report adds that Trump wanted to march with the protestors down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, but was dissuaded by the Secret Service, who couldn’t guarantee his safety. An excerpt:

Trump’s last days in the White House have been marked by rage and turmoil, multiple sources said. He watched some of the impeachment debate on TV and grew angry at the Republican defections, a source familiar with the situation said.

Trump has suffered a sudden rupture with his vice president, the departure of disgusted senior advisers, his abandonment by a small but growing number of Republican lawmakers, the loss of his cherished Twitter megaphone, and a rush by corporations and others to distance themselves from him and his businesses.

Reuters spoke to more than a dozen Trump administration officials with a window into the closing act of his presidency. They described a shrinking circle of loyal aides who are struggling to contain an increasingly fretful, angry and isolated president – one seemingly still clinging to unfounded claims of election fraud – and to keep the White House functioning until Biden assumes power.

“Everybody feels like they’re doing the best job they can to hold it all together until Biden takes over,” one Trump adviser told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Finally, today’s reported Covid-19 death toll in the U.S. is 388,785, a big increase of about 4,000 deaths from yesterday’s figure, or about 2.8 deaths per minute. In a few days we’ll pass 400,000 deaths: double what the most pessimistic pundits thought we’d have. The world death toll is 2,004,466, a big increase of about 15,500 deaths over yesterday’s total. As predicted, we passed two million deaths yesterday.

Stuff that happened on January 15 includes:

Here’s the cartoon (Wikipedia gives this explanation: “Andrew Jackson’s enemies twisted his name to “jackass” as a term of ridicule regarding a stupid and stubborn animal. However, the Democrats liked the common-man implications and picked it up too, therefore the image persisted and evolved.”)

  • 1889 – The Coca-Cola Company, then known as the Pemberton Medicine Company, is incorporated in Atlanta.
  • 1919 – Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, two of the most prominent socialists in Germany, are tortured and murdered by the Freikorps at the end of the Spartacist uprising.
  • 1919 – Great Molasses Flood: A wave of molasses released from an exploding storage tank sweeps through Boston, Massachusetts, killing 21 and injuring 150.

Yes, it’s that time of year when I must report that nearly two dozen people were drowned in molasses. A sad end, but also a sweet one. Here’s a photograph of the damage; caption from the Boston Globe. 

That reminds me of a joke about the guy who died from drinking furniture polish: he had a horrible end, but a beautiful finish.

Boston, MA – 1/16/1919: Looking across North End Park on Jan. 16, 1919, the day after a giant tank at the Purity Distilling Co. on Commercial Street collapsed, sending a wave of an estimated 2.3 million gallons of molasses through the streets of Boston. The great molasses tank was located in the center of this picture. Sections of the metal may be seen at the extreme left and right in the picture. Twenty-one people perished, including two 10-year-olds, Pasquale Iantosca and Maria Distasio, who were collecting firewood near the molasses tank while home from school for lunch. (Boston Globe Archive/) — BGPA Reference: 150115_MJ_001

Here’s a crappy photo, but it’s the only one I could find:

  • 1947 – The Black Dahlia murder: the dismembered corpse of Elizabeth Short was found in Los Angeles.

This murder is still unsolved, and it was a bad one. If you want the gory details, Google “Black Dahlia crime scene”.

  • 1962 – The Derveni papyrus, Europe’s oldest surviving manuscript dating to 340 BC, is found in northern Greece.

The fragments of the papyrus comprise a commentary on a poem by Orpheus. Here’s a photo of some of them.

  • 1967 – The first Super Bowl is played in Los Angeles. The Green Bay Packers defeat the Kansas City Chiefs 35–10.
  • 1976 – Gerald Ford’s would-be assassin, Sara Jane Moore, is sentenced to life in prison.

Moore was released in 2007 and then put back in jail in 2019 for violating her parole (she left the country without getting permission). She’s still in jail:

  • 2001 – Wikipedia, a free wiki content encyclopedia, goes online.

It’s Wikipedia’s 20th birthday! Reader Enrico noticed that there’s an article in The Economist (paywalled) celebrating the occasion. For years Greg Mayer has been promising to write an article about the errors in Wikipedia, an article to be called “What’s the Matter with Wikipedia?” But, as I tell him, it’s like Casaubon’s “Key to all Mythologies”: it will never appear.

  • 2019 – Theresa May’s UK government suffers the biggest government defeat in modern times, when 432 MPs voting against the proposed European Union withdrawal agreement, giving her opponents a majority of 230.

Notables born on this day include:

  • 1622 – Molière, French actor and playwright (d. 1673)
  • 1850 – Leonard Darwin, English soldier, eugenicist, and politician (d. 1943)

Leonard (below) was the son of Charles Darwin. He doesn’t look much like his dad:

  • 1891 – Osip Mandelstam, Russian poet and translator (d. 1938)
  • 1908 – Edward Teller, Hungarian-American physicist and academic (d. 2003)
  • 1909 – Gene Krupa, American drummer, composer, and actor (d. 1973)
  • 1919 – Maurice Herzog, French mountaineer and politician, French Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports (d. 2012)

Herzog and Louis Lachenal were the first mountaineers to climb an 8000-meter peak, Annapurna I. They didn’t have the right boots, though, and Herzog lost all of his toes and most of his fingers on a difficult descent.  He wrote a best-selling book, Annapurna, about the ascent, which remains the best-selling book about mountaineering. Here he is before they snipped off his digits:

Photo: E. P. Dutton
  • 1929 – Martin Luther King Jr., American minister and activist, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1968)

Those who breathed their last on January 15 include:

  • 1896 – Mathew Brady, American photographer and journalist (b. 1822)

Here’s Brady’s photo of Abraham Lincoln:

  • 1919 – Rosa Luxemburg, German economist, theorist, and philosopher (b. 1871)
  • 1955 – Yves Tanguy, French-American painter (b. 1900)
  • 1964 – Jack Teagarden, American singer-songwriter and trombonist (b. 1905)
  • 1987 – Ray Bolger, American actor, singer, and dancer (b. 1904)
  • 1994 – Harry Nilsson, American singer-songwriter (b. 1941)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili proposes Meow-Based Reforms:

Hili: We have to change the world.
A: OK, but how to do it?
Hili: By meowing loudly.
In Polish:
Hili: Musimy zmienić świat.
Ja: Dobrze, ale jak to zrobić?
Hili: Trzeba miauczeć donośnie.

Also in Dobrzyn, Kulka, always jumping and running, disports herself in the snow. Here are four pictures, with the caption, “Paulina’s hijinks with Kulka”. (In Polish: Szaleństwa Pauliny z Kulką).


From Woody:

From Jesus of the Day. Would Velveeta work?

A groaner from Bruce:

Titania isn’t at all distressed at her loss of followers. But Twitter must have really cleaned out its “deplorables”:

From Simon, who says this is “A thought on punishing Trump”. Does this mean Trump has to serve a very long time?

Tweets from Matthew. These oldsters still got it!

Another Trump-related tweet (and a response). Soon, I hope, we can dispense with this issue:

One of Matthew’s beloved optical illusions:

This weevil looks like it was just entombed yesterday, but has been preserved in amber for 35 million years. The second tweet links to the paper with the description:

I’m not squeamish, but I have to say that this is disgusting:

It’s where they keep their spare silk:


Another blow at the meritocracy: California to eliminate all standardized tests for college admissions

January 14, 2021 • 1:15 pm

Part of the Woke Program is dispelling meritocracy, as demonstrations of “merit” are often seen as byproducts of “privilege”, while lower assessments of merit, especially when instantiated by minority groups, are seen as instantiations of bigotry. It’s well known, for example, that the standard ACT and SAT tests show dramatically different average scores among racial groups. Below is a table of 2018 scores from the National Center for Education Statistics, with data drawn from the U.S. Department of Education. The standard deviations in the U.S. overall are about 200; this figure would be lower for separate groups because that estimate comes from combined data of groups having different means.

As is well known, there are big differences between groups—on the order of half to a full standard deviation, with Asians at the top followed by whites, mixed-race students, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders and then Native Americans and blacks nearly tied on the lowest rung.

The ordering is seen as reflecting racism, and that may well be true if you take “racism” as meaning “the historical oppression of minority groups which had created at present an impoverished cultural environment with bad schools.” And that would be my own explanation for the differences. A culture of pushing for achievement and high grades would then account for Asians getting the highest scores on average.

Some people, however, attribute racism more directly, arguing that the questions themselves are racially biased, favoring white and Asian “knowledge” over the knowledge held by other groups.  I don’t think such an explanation holds much water, especially for math; and the SAT company has made efforts to examine the possibility of bias and eliminate those questions that smack of it.

Because of the racial disparities, people have argued successfully to eliminate SATs and ACTs (another standardized test) as requirements for college admission. I can’t see a good reason for that. SATs, in particular, are just as correlated with success in college as are high-school grade point averages, but the latter are specific to schools. Why would you not want to put all students on the same scale, evaluated by the same test, when you’re judging students? The best thing to do, as I’ve argued, is use a multivariate index, combining grades and standardized-test scores.

The reason schools are eliminating tests, of course, is largely because racial disparities in scores don’t look good on their face (I’d argue that they highlight a problem of inequality), and, if used as one criterion for college admission, would reduce the chances of minorities like blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans getting into selective colleges, exacerbating inequities (inequality of representation). But there’s a solution: colleges wanting more racial balance can use various legal affirmative-action strategies, strategies that, in general, I approve of. Also, there’s a benefit for minorities taking standardized tests: it enables colleges to pick out those students who are likely to do well (remember the correlation between SAT scores and college success) but didn’t have high grade-point averages, perhaps because they were bored or not turned on by the curriculum.

But you can only push affirmative action so far before unequal admissions treatment starts getting people upset. That’s why a group of Asian students sued Harvard (and lost, at least for the time being), claiming that Harvard deliberately downgraded their assessments to avoid having too many Asians on campus. If you have standardized-test numbers to attach to different groups, the disparities are glaring and not only can incite resentment, but can lead to lawsuits arguing that schools are using a “quota system,” a strategy ruled out in the Bakke case.

Recently, the University of California decided to eliminate tests like SATs as requirements for in-state applicants, making them optional for the next two years. Then, in 2023, students will not be allowed to even submit those scores. This happened despite the recommendation of both its own Chancellor and a panel convened by the University system itself, both of which recommended that SAT-like tests be retained as mandatory for applicants. The only reason that the University could possibly have for overriding its own panel’s recommendation is that test scores highlight racial disparities and could exacerbate at the U of C if considered in a largely meritocratic admissions system.

For reasons I can’t fathom, the University of California, after ditching the SATs and ACTs, recommended that the system devise its own standardized test, to be implemented in 2025. But according to this article from the Los Angeles Times (click on screenshot, and inquire for a copy if paywalled), they’ve decided they can’t do that in a timely fashion, and so the U of C is likely to ditch all standardized tests—for good.  This has already happened in over 1,000 other colleges and universities (roughly a quarter of higher-education institutions in the U.S.), a wholesale dismantling of the meritocracy. (n.b.: I don’t think that test-scores or grades should be the sole criterion for college admissions, as there are other criteria of achievement that aren’t measured by these statistics.)

See if you can open this, and ask if you can’t:

Because the proposed UC-specific test isn’t practicable, they’ve explored another alternative:

The UC Board of Regents unanimously voted last year to eliminate the SAT and ACT — as more than 1,000 other colleges and universities have done — amid decades of research showing test performance is heavily influenced by race, income and parent education levels.

But the regents accepted a faculty recommendation to explore whether a new UC test without those biases could be developed, saying it would have to be ready in time for fall 2025 applicants.

The UC panels, in their reports released Monday, said it was not feasible for UC to develop its own test because it would take too long and recommended that the university instead explore using a modified version of the state’s high school assessment — but only as an optional “data point” in comprehensive applicant reviews.

The new replacement:

The group of UC faculty, admissions directors, testing experts and other educational and community representatives focused on whether Smarter Balanced, the California assessment given annually to 11th graders, could be retooled for UC use. Any use of a modified state test, however, should be optional and limited so as not to create the inequities and high-stakes pressures associated with the SAT and ACT, according to the recommendation to UC President Michael V. Drake from a second panel.

This is just replacing one standardized test with another, and one that can’t be used to compare in-state applicants with out-of-state applicants who don’t take “Smarter Balanced.” Note the concern with “inequities and high-stakes pressures”.  Well, you’re still going to get those, because Smarter Balanced testing produces the same disparities as does the SAT:

But members from both groups also expressed concerns about racial and ethnic disparities in state test results. For instance, about 70% of students classified as Asian meet or exceed the 11th-grade standard for math compared with 45% of whites and 20% of Black and Latino students, the work group said.

So you’ve still got those substantial inequities in exactly the same direction. Proponents of the California-specific test, however, argue that it has a few advantages over SATs. For one thing, it’s free, while I believe it costs a lot to take the standardized SAT and ACT tests. Also, proponents argue that a California-specific test will somehow “better align [the University of California] with the K-12 system, leading to better educational preparation for university work.”

But do you really want California-wide uniformity of educational desiderata, especially when assessed with a test not available to those outside California? It all sounds too cumbersome to me. 

And, in the end, the committees assessing this issue decided that, for the time being, the University system should not use Smarter Balanced as an admission criterion, instead using the test scores “for related purposes, such as validating GPA [JAC: that is a criterion by the way], providing context about the school’s educational environment or helping determine placement in freshman courses and summer preparation programs.”

In the end, I think that a mandatory standardized test for all applicants, including those from outside the state, is useful, and I can’t see any good arguments against it save the cost, which can be obviated. As I wrote last year, concurring with Scott Aaronson that standardized tests have real value in singling out smart kids who didn’t get good grades (Aaronson was one of those):

If you want greater racial equity, though, it seems to me best not to eliminate test scores, but to calculate a multivariate index of “academic achievement,” and then use other criteria, like “diversity points” to increase racial balance. This is, in effect, what is being done now by schools like Harvard. The reason, as I’ve said before, is as a form of reparations for those held back by their sociopolitical history in America.

You can have greater equity and some meritocratic criteria at the same time. What you cannot have is greater equity and purely meritocratic admissions, assuming that you base the merit on grades, test scores, and criteria like achievements not measured by grades and scores. (I don’t recommend using Harvard’s “personality index”!) Eventually, when equality of opportunity is achieved for all groups—and that is the real goal, but one that will take decades to achieve—there will be no good arguments against using standardized tests as criteria for college admission.

h/t: Luana