Cat drums with its staff!

September 1, 2016 • 3:30 pm

I’m braining on other stuff today, including upcoming talks in Pittsburgh, Singapore, and Hong Kong (I always get my talks done way in advance), so you’ll have to be satisfied with persiflage. As Thomas Wolfe once wrote, though, “I have a thing to tell you” (one of his great set pieces., go here and advance with the arrows), and I’ll do that tomorrow. In the meantime, have a cat!

I saw this video posted on Facebook, a great source of cat videos (though a poorer source of rational thought), and asked if it was on YouTube. And Voilà: it was!

I have a hard time believing that this video is real, but it seems to be.

h/t: daveau

Guardian’s “wildlife photographer of the year” contest

September 1, 2016 • 2:30 pm

Some day one of my readers is going to win one of these contests. In this case the Guardian has posted 11 pictures taken by the finalists of the 2015 “Wildlife Photographer of the Year” contest. The winner will be announced on October 18. Go look at the 11 photos and pick the winner. Below I’ve chosen my five favorites, which include an Honorary Cat™. (There’s also a real felid among the other 6).  The notes and credits are taken from the Guardian. 

Nosy Neighbor by Sam Hobson (UK)

Sam knew exactly who to expect when he set his camera on the wall one summer’s evening in a suburban street in Bristol, the UK’s famous fox city. He wanted to capture the inquisitive nature of the urban red fox in a way that would pique the curiosity of its human neighbours about the wildlife around them.

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Photograph: Sam Hobson/2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Termite Tossing by Willem Kruger (South Africa)

Termite after termite after termite – using the tip of its massive beak-like forceps to pick them up, the hornbill would flick them in the air and then swallow them. Foraging beside a track in South Africa’s semi-arid Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, the southern yellow-billed hornbill was so deeply absorbed in termite snacking that it gradually worked its way to within 6 metres (19ft) of where Willem sat watching from his vehicle.

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Photograph: Willem Kruger/2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Swarming under the Stars by Imre Potyo (Hungary)

Imre was captivated by the chaotic swarming of mayflies on Hungary’s River Rába and dreamt of photographing the spectacle beneath a starlit sky. For a few days each year (at the end of July or beginning of August), vast numbers of the adult insects emerge from the Danube tributary, where they developed as larvae. On this occasion, the insects emerged just after sunset. At first, they stayed close to the water, but once they had mated, the females gained altitude.

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Photograph: Imre Potyó/2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Photograph: Scott Portelli/2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Photograph: Dhyey Shah/2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

h/t: Gregory

My WaPo review of Tom Wolfe’s new book: “The Kingdom of Speech”, and some background

September 1, 2016 • 11:00 am

The reason I’ve been writing about other people’s reviews of Tom Wolfe’s new book The Kingdom of Speech is because I wrote a review of it for The Washington Post a month ago, and it’s just now online as “His white suit unsullied by research, Tom Wolfe tries to take down Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.” I am told it will be in the Outlook section of the Sunday paper-paper. Do go read the review, as I’m proud of it.

When I saw some other reviews, like ones in the New York Times and USA Today, soft-pedaling the egregious and erroneous statements in Wolfe’s book, it made me mad. There were, however, some reviews that were accurate, and therefore critical, including those at the Wall Street Journal and The Spectator. One problem is that Wolfe’s thesis involves both linguistics and evolution, and there are few people who are experts in both fields. (Steve Pinker is the obvious choice, but he’s busy writing his next book.)

At any rate, I won’t reprise my review here, except to say that Wolfe’s thesis is that human speech has nothing to do with biological evolution, that in pursuit of this aim he tries to take down both Darwin and Noam Chomsky, who espoused some “hard wiring” of human linguistic ability, and that Wolfe fails miserably on both counts, grossly distorting evolutionary theory, linguistics, and what Darwin and Chomsky really said.

I want, instead, to give a few pieces of background information about the review and the process of researching and writing it.

  • I’m not an expert in linguistics, though I know something about it. To be able to review Wolfe’s claims about Chomsky, Daniel Everett, “universal grammar,” and so on, I spent dozens of hours reading papers and books by these people. It didn’t take long before I discovered that Wolfe did a very superficial job of reporting, and what he said about the history of linguistics was erroneous. It was a grueling effort, as many of these papers are technical, but I learned a lot.
  • I am an expert on Darwin and evolution, and Wolfe just screwed that bit up completely. I didn’t mention in my review that Wolfe claimed that Darwin was literally obsessed with the origin of language. While Darwin did discuss the issue, it isn’t true that it was his obsession. More important, Wolfe’s attempt to paint Darwin as someone who plagiarized A. R. Wallace’s ideas, and tried to suppress the fact that Wallace had hit on natural selection at the same time as Darwin, is, to put it mildly, bullshit. Darwin had written two précis of his theories, one in 1842 and an 189-page one in 1844, with instructions to his wife Emma that the latter should be published posthumously if he died before writing his Big Book (The Origin in 1859, which was itself an abstract for a larger book that never got published). He was well in advance of Wallace, who hit on the idea of natural selection only much later in a fit of malarial fever. Wolfe doesn’t even deal with Darwin’s earlier sketches of his theory, which clearly gives him precedence. He had no need to plagiarize from anyone.
  • As you’ll see from my piece, Wolfe is basically an evolution denialist, claiming that there is no evidence for gradual transitions or evolution “in action”, that evolution makes no predictions, and doesn’t solve any puzzles about biology. Only someone who hasn’t followed evolutionary biology or read On the Origin of Species could say such things, particularly about the puzzles. Darwin, for instance, devotes a huge section of his book to showing how evolution solves puzzles about biogeography, vestigial organs, and embryology. The ignorance evinced in Wolfe’s statements about evolution is stunning. He’s also, as I noted, someone who makes fun of the idea that the Big Bang occurred, despite the copious evidence for it. Apparently evidence means very little to Mr. Wolfe.
  • You’ll see from the review that the third and fourth paragraphs from the end are written in Wolfe’s own “New Journalism” style. That was just a lark on my part (I hope the readers note the stylistic change there), and I didn’t think the Post would go for it. But they did, and I was happy.
  • The many hours I spent on this means that my per-hour wage for the piece works out to be about $5. You don’t write these things to make money! Rather, I wrote it because the book sounded interesting, because it was Wolfe, whose previous books (especially The Right Stuff) I’d much admired, and, after I read it, I decided that Wolfe’s misconceptions about both linguistics and evolutionary biology had to be corrected. Wolfe is famous and hence gets a big platform (and probably several million dollars as an advance on this book), so I wanted a platform to push back. I especially didn’t want the public to be misled about evolution. The Intelligent Design creationists have touted his book, as they know Wolfe doesn’t accept evolution.
  • Wolfe has a notoriously thin skin, and is famous for going after his critics. (One example is his famous “My Three Stooges” essay ripping apart his critics John Updike, Norman Mailer, and John Irving.) I’m curious to see if he’ll go after me. I’m not worried, though, as he was just wrong about many of his claims. He may write better than I, but I have the data on my side!
  • Finally, have a look at the readers’ comments under my Post piece (I’ve made one in response to an evolution denialist). There are still people out there—people who read the liberal Post—who don’t accept evolution. It’s America, Jake!

Kudos to the Post‘s nonfiction editor Steve Levingston, who was a pleasure to work with—and also allowed me to put in some Wolfe-ian prose.

Tom Wolfe author photo_(c) Mark Seliger
Click on the photo of Wolfe to see my two-thumbs-down take.

UPDATE: Here’s a funny comment on the piece. It’s not about Wolfe or my review, but about religion, and it’s sad, funny, and true!

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NPR touts Mother Teresa’s “miracles”

September 1, 2016 • 9:45 am

I’m not sure if National Public (NPR) radio has always been this soft on religion, but I’m sure noticing it now.  Yesterday the network broadcast a particularly egregious episode dealing with the two “verified miracles” required to canonize a saint (now including Mother Teresa). The good news is that the piece was only five minutes long, but it was still long enough to compel three readers to email me complaints about it.

The piece is “How the Catholic Church documented Mother Teresa’s 2 miracles,” narrated and presumably written by Tom Gjelten for NPR’s “Morning Edition.” You can hear it at the link or by clicking on the screenshot below and then on the arrow at the upper left of the destination:

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There’s also text at the link, which is similar but not identical to the broadcast. I’ve already written in Faith Versus Fact about the first miracle that got Mother Teresa beatified, the first step in sainthood:

The Vatican itself, which requires a miracle to beatify someone, and two miracles to make them a saint, is none too scrupulous about the medical evidence needed to elevate someone to the pantheon. The beatification of Mother Teresa, for instance, was the supposed disappearance of ovarian cancer in Monica Besra, an Indian woman who reported she was cured after looking at a picture of the nun. It turns out, though, that her tumor wasn’t cancerous but tubercular, and, more important, she’d received conventional medical treatment in a hospital, with her doctor (who wasn’t interviewed by the Vatican) taking credit for the cure.

NPR just alludes to the Besra case, but just said that “her stomach tumor disappeared”. (For more on Besra’s real medical treatment, see here, with a photo at bottom of this post.)

The main journalistic failure of this piece is its credulous acceptance of these “cures” as true miracles and not of natural origin (it notes only that “rationalists wouldn’t be likely to call these things miracles”, but they don’t say why). Do they know about spontaneous remissions and cures, even of cancer—remissions that don’t involve any prayer or extreme religiosity? If so, NPR doesn’t mention them.

To document that these really are “miracles”, NPR drags out a compliant atheist (quotes from the text):

A group advocating sainthood for Marguerite d’Youville, a nun who lived in 18th century Canada, for example, sought an alternative explanation for the sudden recovery of a woman with incurable leukemia who had prayed to the nun 200 years after the nun’s death. The assignment went to Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, a hematologist at Queen’s University in Ontario.

Duffin agreed to do the investigation, but only after warning the group that she was not herself a believer.

“I revealed my atheism to them,” Duffin says. “I told them my husband was a Jew, and I wasn’t sure if they’d still want me. And they were delighted!”

The group reasoned that if Duffin, as an atheist, found there was no scientific reason the woman should have recovered, who could doubt it was a miracle? In fact, after her investigation of the woman’s recovery, Duffin agreed that the woman’s healing was — for lack of a better word — miraculous.

Intrigued by the experience, Duffin investigated hundreds of other miracle stories chronicled in the Vatican archives in Rome. She came away convinced that “miracles” do indeed happen.

“To admit that as a nonbeliever, you don’t have to claim that it was a supernatural entity that did it,” Duffin says. “You have to admit some humility and accept that there are things that science cannot explain.”

I feel sorry for Dr. Duffin, who, though disdaining the idea of God, implies in her last sentence that because science can’t understand something now, it never will. We surely have cases of spontaneous remission without prayer; could she not have mentioned these? (The “miracle” of Monica Besra, in fact, was almost certainly a regular medical cure.) And yes, we surely won’t know the reasons for remissions and cures in the distant past, but we might be able to understand them in the future. It seems to me that it was Duffin’s responsibility here to push back harder against the claims that God did it, and not agree that the Canadian woman’s healing was “miraculous.” That word, like “spirituality,” plays directly in to the hands of the faithful. Far better if she had said “enigmatic”!

And couldn’t NPR have asked for a comment by somebody like Orac or Steve Novella, who could proffer a little more pushback against religion here? Could they not have mentioned the “intercessory prayer study” that showed no evidence that remote prayer had any effect on the healing of heart patients?

Finally, Gejelton calls on the religionists to explain why sainthood is so important:

“A saint is someone who has lived a life of great virtue, whom we look to and admire,” says Bishop Barron, a frequent commentator on Catholicism and spirituality. “But if that’s all we emphasize, we flatten out sanctity. The saint is also someone who’s now in heaven, living in this fullness of life with God. And the miracle, to put it bluntly, is the proof of it.”

No other Christian denomination posits this notion of an individual in heaven mediating between God and humanity.

“It’s not a little supernatural, it’s completely supernatural,” says the Rev. James Martin, S.J., whose book, My Life with the Saints, recounts his own spiritual journey. “But that’s the difficulty a lot of people have with religion. The invitation is to say, ‘There’s something more than the rational mind can believe, and are you OK with that?’ “

No, I’m not OK with that, for over and over again we find that things that science hasn’t understood, and were imputed to God (lightning, epilepsy, magnetism, evolution—the list is endless) have later been found to have naturalistic rather than divine explanations. That should make one very wary of crying “God” about these “miracles.”

Now you might say, “Well, NPR is just explaining Catholicism.” Yes, that’s true, though I think they should have offered a more balanced view. But that aside, think about how it would sound if NPR did a piece on Scientology’s “theology,” reporting it with just the gravitas of this one.

Or, what if they did a bit on Christian Science and its claim of “spiritual healing,” trotting out someone like Dr. Duffin to say that yes, there are lots of prayer cures in Scientology, and we don’t understand them, so we have to have a bit of humility. (“Humility”, like “nuance,” is one of what I call “run words”: when you hear them, run for the hills, because you’re dealing with a bull-goose believer.)

If the Catholic church believes that saints are pipelines to God who can provide special cures, how come prayer to saints hasn’t restored lost eyes or amputated limbs? Why is it only diseases known to spontaneously regress that the incipient (or established) saints can “cure”? Isn’t that a remarkable coincidence?

It’s a blot on humanity that apparently rational adults can believe in such childish and fantastical stuff.

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Monica Besra claims to have been healed by the Mother in 1998. She was suffering from tuberculosis and a tumour was detected in her stomach. (Photo: Sudipta Chanda/The Quint). Source.

h/t: James Blilie

Two morning tw**ts

September 1, 2016 • 8:30 am

Although I don’t follow anyone on Twi**er, as I’d never get anything done if I did, I do count on the kindness of stranger (and readers) to call interesting tw**ts to my attention. Here’s one that Grania sent me.

I watched the video that these tweets ultimately link to, and put it below.

Sam is, of course, referring to the famous trolley problem first outlined by philosopher Philippa Foot. As you probably know, modern versions involve making a decision that involves you taking an action that will lead to someone’s death, while inaction will lead to more people’s deaths. Five people are on one track, with a runaway train about to smash into them, surely killing all five. But, by pulling a switch, you can divert the train onto a track so it will hit only one person. Do you take that action? (I’d say “yes”.)

An alternative is that you’re standing on a footbridge over the tracks with a fat guy beside you whom you don’t know. If you throw him onto the tracks, you can stop the train and save five lives, though the chubby man dies. (You’re assumed to be too thin to stop the train.) Do you heave that person onto the tracks? The consequences are exactly the same, but most people, including me, would say “no” to that question. It’s interesting to ponder why we see a difference between these two innate feelings, and why we somehow feel that hurling the fat guy is wrong.

There are lots of variants of this problem, all designed to explore our moral intuitions. It’s a good Gedankenexperiment to explore why we have different knee-jerk reactions to “moral” situations that are fundamentally similar.

Below is a funny video in which a father who knows about the trolley problem poses it to his son. His solution is unique, but I have to say that if I were a kid, I would probably have done the same thing!


Finally, Matthew Cobb, who reads the Times Literary Supplement, found a review of a book called Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (but why the asterisk given that there’s already a well know book called On Bullshit?). He shared some of the review’s contents on Twi**er, and it was shared widely. Trigger warning: scatology, profanity, and sexuality!

Looking up “Gropecuntelane,” I found there’s a long Wikipedia entry for it, and that many streets in England were given that name, all because they were where prostitutes plied their trade. (British street names often derived from the activities taking place there.) There were in fact several streets in London alone with this name, but all disappeared by the end of the 16th century.

Readers’ wildlife photographs

September 1, 2016 • 7:30 am

Reader Don McCrady sent a bunch of gorgeous astronomy photos. His notes are indented, and further technical and astronomical notes are at the links. Click to enlarge.

Now that the weather in Seattle has turned back to being typical Seattle weather, I’ve finally had a chance to process some of the images I took during August.  There’s 6 of them, so I thought I’d just drop them all into one big post.  After this batch, you might not hear from me for a while given the crappy weather I can look forward to for the next 7 months.

First, a batch of emission nebulae.  My astro-imaging system [JAC: have a look!] is optimized for these targets because I shoot from my highly light-polluted backyard, under the glare of 3 street lights.  Emission nebulae such as these respond well to narrow-band filters because they block out all light, including light pollution, except for a 3 nanometer wide strip of the spectrum corresponding to the emissions of ionized hydrogen (Hydrogen-α) and oxygen (Oxygen-III).  Since Hα sits in the red portion of the spectrum, I map it to “red” in the image; and since Oxygen-III lies very close to the blue-green boundary of the spectrum, I use it for both blue and green, thus making a 3-colour final image from only 2 source colours.  (I do add about 10% of the Hα to the blue channel since that element does shine weakly in that part of the spectrum.)  The result is a sort-of-close-to-true-colour image.
Here are 5 such emission nebulae.

M27 – the Dumbbell Nebula:  This planetary nebula offers a vision of what our own sun might look like when it has run its course and puffed off its shell of heavy elements formed in its furnace the preceding 10 billion years.  It lies about 1300 light years distant in the constellation of Vulpecula (the Fox), and is an easy visual target for amateur astronomers.

M27 is a planetary nebula, which like all planetary nebulae, offers a vison of what our own sun might look like when it has run its course and has puffed off its shell of heavy elements formed in its furnace for the preceding 10 billion years. It lies about 1300 light years distant in the constellation of Vulpecula (the Fox), and is an easy visual target for amateur astronomers. This was taken using a Stellarvue SVS130 and a SBIG STL-4020M camera using 3nm Astrodon Hydrogen-alpha and Oxygen-III filters. The red areas represent Hydrogen-alpha, while the blue/green areas are Oxygen-III. The image was processed in MaximDL and Photoshop, and then upsampled 2x.

The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula:  This is a portion of a much larger nebula known non-poetically as IC1396, which lies 3000 light years distant in the constellation Cepheus.  The bright blue star near the left edge of the image is HD 206267, and is responsible for the energizing the dust and glass in the area.  The stellar winds compress the molecular cloud into thin edges, and the intense radiation ionizes it forming bright filaments and fascinating structures.

This is the Elephant Trunk region of a much larger nebula known non-poetically as IC1396, which lies 3000 light years distant in the constellation Cepheus. The bright blue star near the left edge of the image is HD 206267 is responsible for the energizing the dust and glass in the area. The stellar winds compress the molecular cloud into thin edges, and the intense radiation ionizes it forming bright filaments and fascinating structures. This image was taken with a Stellarvue SVS130 telescope and an SBIG STL-4020M CCD camera. Hydrogen-alpha was used as the red channel, while the blue and green channels are Oxygen-III. The image was processed in MaximDL and Photoshop, and was upsampled 1.5x

The Pacman Nebula:  A whimsical name for a nebula more formally known as NGC281, which lies approximately 9500 light years away, toward the constellation Cassiopeia.

This bright nebula, which lies approximately 9500 light years distant toward the constellation Cassiopeia, is often whimsically referred to as the Pacman Nebula. Taken with a Stellarvue SVS130 telescope and an SBIG STL-4020M CCD camera. Hydrogen-alpha was used as the red channel, while the blue and green channels are Oxygen-III. The image was processed in MaximDL and Photoshop, and was upsampled 1.5x

Sharpless 2-188:  Sorry, but as far as I know there is no well-known whimsical name for this nebula, which is the 188th entry in the 2nd edition of Steward Sharpless’s catalog of emission nebulae.  It is a planetary nebula — the remains of a dying star — in the constellation Cassiopeia. It is unusual because of its asymmetry, and is thought to be much brighter in one segment because the central star is moving rapidly in that direction.

Sh2-188 is a planetary nebula -- the remains of a dying star -- in the constellation Cassiopeia. It is unusual because of its asymetry, and is thought to be much brighter in one segment because the central star is moving rapidly in that direction. Taken with a Stellarvue SVS130 and STL-4020M CCD camera. Hydrogen-alpha was used as red, and Oxygen-III was used as blue and green. Processed in MaximDL and Photoshop, and upsampled 2x.

The Eastern Veil and the Western Veil nebulae:  These two images are the eastern and western portions (respectively) of the Veil Nebula, a complex remnant of a powerful supernova explosion which occurred thousands of years ago.  The bright star in the Western Veil (also called the Witch’s Broom Nebula) is 52 Cygni.

Eastern Veil:

The eastern Veil Nebula (NGC 6992/6995) is just one part of a beautiful complex that is the remnant of a supernova that occurred thousands of years ago. It is a spectacular sight through a telescope eyepiece that has been fitted with an OIII or narrowband filter. Taken with a Stellarvue SVS130 and SBIG STL-4020M, with Hydrogen-alpha as red, and Oxygen-III as green and blue. Processed in MaximDL and Photoshop, and upsampled 1.5x.

Western Veil:

The Witch's Broom Nebula is also part of the famous Veil Nebula complex, this being the western portion. The entire complex is the remnant of a powerful supernova explosion which occurred thousands of years ago, sending elements forged in the destroyed stars core into space. The bright star is 52 Cygni. Hydrogen-alpha was used as the red channel, while Oxygen-III was used as the blue and green channels. Taken with a Stellarvue SVS130 and STL-4020M. Processed in MaximDL and Photoshop, and upsampled 1.5x.

The Triangulum Galaxy:  Finally, something that is not a nebula, although I worked hard to bring out the nebulae within this nearby galaxy, Messier 33.  This image was taken through wide-band red, green, and blue filters and thus is rendered here in “true colour”.  However, I did also take separate Hydrogen-α, which augments and highlights the active emission nebulae that are scattered throughout the galaxy.  Some of these nebulae have their own NGC designations such as the very bright NGC604 on the left edge of the galaxy.  Both the galaxy and some of its bright nebulae are easily seen through amateur telescopes, and although it has a low surface brightness, M33 can be seen with the naked eye from a dark location.

The Pinwheel galaxy, also known as M33, is one of the closest large galaxies to our own, and also one of the brightest. Although it has a low surface brightness, it can be seen with the unaided eye from a very dark rural site. The brightest HII region has its own NGC designation, NGC 604, and can also be easily seen in an amateur telescope at moderate power. The image is a combination of Red, Green, and Blue, augmented with a layer of Hydrogen-alpha to bring out the HII regions. It was taken using a Stellarvue SVS130 and an SBIG STL-4020M, and processed in MaximDL, PixInsight, and Photoshop. The final image was upsampled 1.5x.

Thursday: Hili dialogue

September 1, 2016 • 6:30 am

Is August gone already? If that’s the case, then fall is on us, and if fall is on us, can winter be far behind? Yes, it’s September 1, 2016, 77 years to the day from when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, beginning World War II.  It’s also Random Acts of Kindness Day everywhere as well as Wattle Day in Australia, celebrated on the first day of Spring in the Southern hemisphere. Are any Aussies wearing wattle sprigs today? If you are, send a photo and I’ll put it up.  Here’s a woman buying Wattles for Wattle Day in Sydney in 1935.  (If you know the “wattle poem” from Monty Python’s famous “Philosophers at the University of Wallabaloo” sketch, please put it in the comments.


On this day in history, besides the invasion of Poland by Hitler, Louis XIV died in 1715 after reigning more than 72 years. On September 1, 1914, the last known passenger pigeon, Martha, died in the Cinncinnati Zoo, bringing a once-numerous species to extinction. Here’s Martha, stuffed and mounted:


Those born on this day include Art Pepper (1925; listen here for Saxaphone Paradise), Alan Dershowitz (1938), and Padma Lakshmi (1970 ♥). Those who died on this day include Sigfried Sassoon (1967), Albert Speer (1981), and, exactly one year ago, my friend Will Provine, a contrarian population geneticist who didn’t believe in genetic drift. But he was a nice guy.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, we have an explanation from Malgorzata for the Hili Dialogue. Many is the time I hurt my feet on those stones when, barefoot, I went outside to either call Hili or fetch her from the windowsill!

Explanation first: There was a punishment in Poland, often meted out to disobedient children: they were forced to kneel for a long time on hard, dry peas scattered on a hard floor.

Hili: Did you ever kneel on peas?
A: No.
Hili: See? And I have to lie on stones.


In Polish:

Hili: Klęczałeś kiedyś na grochu?
Ja: Nie.
Hili: No widzisz, a ja muszę leżeć na kamieniach.