May 15, 2021 • 1:45 pm

As I’ve said several times, I’m reading a biography of Duke Ellington, which is a superb book. I’ve heard many of his songs during the last 2 decades or so, and this one, “Ko-Ko”, is my favorite of them all. I can’t take credit here for my discerning taste, as “Ko-Ko” is almost universally regarded as one of Ellington’s best. It was recorded on March 6, 1940, an epochal day in jazz.

It’s amazing that this is even considered jazz. It’s dissonant, lacks melody, has no “swing”, and in fact conjures up a menacing mood. But it’s a masterpiece of instrumentation and imagination..

This is the best of all Ellington’s versions, and it was done by the “Blanton/Webster” version of the Ellington Band, with Jimmy Blanton on bass (he died of TB at only 23) and the great Ben Webster on sax. This is the version that Ken Burns had the sense to include on his CD of his excellent “Jazz” television series.

The composition of the band can hardly be any better: many of these musicians stayed with Ellington for decades, and were fantastic players and contributors to the music (Ellington was rarely the “composer” in the traditional sense, with band members contributing substantially to “head arrangements”). If you know jazz, you’ll appreciate this lineup below:

Composer, Lyricist: Duke Ellington Guitar: Fred Guy Producer: Michael Brooks Mastering Engineer: Darcy Proper Drums: Sonny Greer Bass: Wellman Braud Bass: Jimmy Blanton Alto Saxophone: Johnny Hodges Alto Saxophone: Otto Hardwick Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone: Barney Bigard Tenor Saxophone: Ben Webster Baritone Saxophone: Harry Carney Trumpet: Cootie Williams Trombone: Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton Trombone: Lawrence Brown Trombone: Juan Tizol Trombone: Wallace Jones Cornet: Rex Stewart

I’m stunned that although Wikipedia has an article on Charlie Parker’s song “Ko-Ko”, another great jazz classic (with no relation to Ellington’s song), there is no standalone entry for this song, though there’s an entry on what appears to be a foreign Wikipedia page. Somebody needs to rectify this!

Scottish law student persecuted for asserting that women have vaginas and are weaker than men

May 15, 2021 • 10:45 am

Yes, one can argue that transwomen don’t have vaginas, though the strength argument can be backed up with data. Both claims may offend some people, but in the present case they apparently weren’t intended to offend anyone, and, at any rate, nearly all arguments offend someone.

But the assertion given in the title of the Times article below is surely not one that warrants persecution of the speaker. Although the UK doesn’t have a first amendment, the student’s claims do constitute free speech. This being the UK, however, offending someone is illegal.  Click on the screenshot to read:

An excerpt:

Disciplinary action is being taken against Lisa Keogh, 29, over “offensive” and “discriminatory” comments that she made during lectures at Abertay University, Dundee.

The mature student was reported by younger classmates after she said women were born with female genitals and that “the difference in physical strength of men versus women is a fact”. The complaints have prompted a formal investigation into her conduct.

Keogh, a final-year student, fears that any sanction could end her dream of becoming a human rights lawyer. Her case is being backed by Joanna Cherry QC, the SNP MP for Edinburgh South West and deputy chairwoman of the Lords and Commons joint committee on human rights, who described the situation as farcical.

Keogh was astonished to receive an email accusing her of transphobic and offensive comments during seminars on gender feminism and the law. “I thought it was a joke,” she said. “I thought there was no way that the university would pursue me for utilising my legal right to freedom of speech.”

But she also said this in response to some pushback she got:

She was accused of saying women were the “weaker sex” and classmates were “man-hating feminists” when one student suggested that all men were rapists and posed a danger to women.

“I didn’t deny saying these things and told the university exactly why I did so,” she said. “I didn’t intend to be offensive but I did take part in a debate and outlined my sincerely held views. I was abused and called names by the other students, who told me I was a ‘typical white, cis girl’. You have got to be able to freely exchange differing opinions otherwise it’s not a debate.”

Keogh claims that she was muted by her lecturer in a video seminar when she raised concerns about a trans woman taking part in mixed martial arts bouts. “I made the point that this woman had testosterone in her body for 32 years and, as such, would be genetically stronger than your average woman,” she said.

“I wasn’t being mean, transphobic or offensive. I was stating a basic biological fact. I previously worked as a mechanic and when I was in the workshop there were some heavy things that I just couldn’t lift but male colleagues could.”

Even so, when a classmate says that “all men are rapists” and “pose a danger to women”, that is surely at least as offensive as what Keogh is accused of saying. But that classmate isn’t being persecuted, despite that claim also violating University speech codes (see below). And Keogh’s response about “man-hating feminists” can be justified as a response to that statement.

“The weaker sex” argument, though often applied to more than just physical strength, in which case it’s misogynistic, was clearly meant in this case to refer to physical strength and nothing more.

This is exactly the kind of academic issue that can and should be debated in searching for the truth, and certainly not silenced. Yet Keogh (though not the person who said “all men were rapists”) is liable to be prosecuted by the University’s speech code.

The university’s definition of misconduct includes “using offensive language” or “discriminating against gender reassignment”. Punishment can be as harsh as expulsion.

Keogh, a mother of two, fears for her future. “I don’t come from a legal background and have worked incredibly hard to get to where I am,” she said.

“I’m worried that my chance of becoming a lawyer, and making a positive contribution, could be ended just because some people were offended.”

I am baffled why saying that biological women are physically weaker, or have vaginas, can constitute “discrimination”, though we know that there is a strict party line here, and questioning it is more or less taboo.

Keogh has a lawyer on the case:

Keogh, a final-year student, fears that any sanction could end her dream of becoming a human rights lawyer. Her case is being backed by Joanna Cherry QC, the SNP MP for Edinburgh South West and deputy chairwoman of the Lords and Commons joint committee on human rights, who described the situation as farcical.

This case would never stand in a U.S. public university, as persecution of Keogh for speech is clearly a violation of the First Amendment. Nor would any private school be prosecutorial enough to go after Keogh, as they’d find themselves on the wrong end of the stick vis-à-vis FIRE or the Academic Freedom Alliance. Under no circumstance should mere “giving of offense” be construed as “misconduct” unless it is persistent, constituting harassment.  As for “discriminating against gender reassignment”, I can’t see Keogh’s remarks falling into that class, as there was no discrimination, simply an argument.

Caturday felid trifecta: Do cats sit in imaginary boxes?; Leonardo’s “child with cat”, and lagniappe

May 15, 2021 • 9:30 am

We have three articles today on the tendency of cats to sit not just in boxes, but in squares. Click on the screenshots to read. All three popular articles come from the same scientific one:

Here’s the abstract:

A well-known phenomenon to cat owners is the tendency of their cats to sit in enclosed spaces such as boxes, laundry baskets, and even shape outlines taped on the floor. This investigative study asks whether domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus) are also susceptible to sitting in enclosures that are illusory in nature, utilizing cats’ attraction to box-like spaces to assess their perception of the Kanizsa square visual illusion. Carried out during the COVID-19 pandemic, this study randomly assigned citizen science participants Booklets of six randomized, counterbalanced daily stimuli to print out, prepare, and place on the floor in pairs. Owners observed and videorecorded their cats’ behavior with the stimuli and reported findings from home over the course of the six daily trials. This study ultimately reached over 500 pet cats and cat owners, and of those, 30 completed all of the study’s trials. Of these, nine cat subjects selected at least one stimulus by sitting within the contours (illusory or otherwise) with all limbs for at least three seconds. This study revealed that cats selected the Kanizsa illusion just as often as the square and more often than the control, indicating that domestic cats may treat the subjective Kanizsa contours as they do real contours. Given the drawbacks of citizen science projects such as participant attrition, future research would benefit from replicating this study in controlled settings. To the best of our knowledge, this investigation is the first of its kind in three regards: a citizen science study of cat cognition; a formal examination into cats’ attraction to 2D rather than 3D enclosures; and study into cats’ susceptibility to illusory contours in an ecologically relevant paradigm. This study demonstrates the potential of more ecologically valid study of pet cats, and more broadly provides an interesting new perspective into cat visual perception research.

Sadly, the full article isn’t available anywhere that I can find. So all I can say is that it shows that 9 out of 30 cats tested selected the “Kanisza illusion” just as often as a square and more often than the control, which shows that they see the illusion as equivalent to a square, and that a square on the floor is chosen more often than the control (I don’t know what that is) as a sitting spot.

From ScienceAlert; the Kanizsa illusion is presumably the one on the right, which produces an illusory square.

An excerpt:

Cognitive ethologist Gabriella Smith from the City University of New York and colleagues recruited humans to set up floor objects for their feline lordlings to choose from – a taped square, a visual illusion of a square, and the same components as the visual illusion, but not arranged to produce a square (the control).

The cat owners were required to film the cats’ response under reasonably controlled conditions to avoid influencing the animals’ choices (this involved wearing sunglasses, too). While over 500 pet cats were originally enrolled, the final data set shrunk down to 30 citizen scientists who managed to complete all the necessary trials.

“The cats in this study stood or sat in the Kanizsa and square stimuli more often than the Kanizsa control, revealing susceptibility to illusory contours and supporting our hypothesis that cats treat an illusory square as they do a real square,” they found.

Of course, not all cats want to be predictable like that:

Tentative conclusion: cats (but not all of them) perceive imaginary contours just as humans do.

From Ars Technica:

An excerpt with some history:

The paper was inspired in part by a 2017 viral Twitter hashtag, #CatSquares, in which users posted pictures of their cats sitting inside squares marked out on the floor with tape—kind of a virtual box. The following year, lead author Gabriella Smith, a graduate student at Hunter College (CUNY) in New York City, attended a lecture by co-author Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere, who heads the Thinking Dog Center at Hunter. Byosiere studies canine behavior and cognition, and she spoke about dogs’ susceptibility to visual illusions.  While playing with her roommate’s cat later that evening, Smith recalled the Twitter hashtag and wondered if she could find a visual illusion that looked like a square to test on cats.

Smith found it in the work of the late Italian psychologist and artist Gaetano Kanizsa, who was interested in illusory (subjective) contours that visually evoke the sense of an edge in the brain even if there isn’t really a line or edge there. The Kanizsa square consists of four objects shaped like Pac-Man, oriented with the “mouth” facing inward to form the four corners of a square. Even better, there was a 1988 study that used the Kanizsa square to investigate the susceptibility of two young female cats to illusory contours. The study concluded that, yes, cats are susceptible to the Kanizsa square illusion, suggesting that they perceive subjective contours much like humans.

. . .cats to sit inside, rather than the presence of shapes on the floor,” Smith told Ars. “Brains are very sensitive to contours that differ in luminance. Vision has evolved to answer questions having to do with boundaries and contours.”

The study comes with the usual caveats, notably the final small sample size (the result of participant attrition, a common challenge with citizen science projects). Smith and her co-authors also suggest replicating the study in a more controlled setting, despite the advantages gained from conducting the trials in the comfort of the cats’ own homes. “For the sake of cats, the home was really ideal, but otherwise, for the sake of science, it is best to do things in controlled settings [like a lab],” said Smith.

And from VICE:

No quotes supplied, as all the relevant information is above.


I have seen many of the world’s Leonardos, but didn’t know he ever drew cats. But behold: “Study of a child with a cat” by the great man himself:



Lagniappe: Kittens rescued from a power line. How the deuce did they get up there?

Here are the YouTube notes:

Occurred on May 7, 2021 / Matat, Israel

“Suddenly, we came across a bunch of 4 cats stuck in a power pole and howling for help. Immediately, the whole company rallied to help save the cats. We brought mattresses and pillows from the whole company and we interpreted Elbad in the air by chance and fell. We made a bucket with a stick found and we began to lure them in his direction.”

h/t: Ginger K., Fred, Rick

Readers’ wildlife photos

May 15, 2021 • 8:00 am

Today’s bird photos were sent in by Vanderbilt Law Professor Suzanna Sherry, but were taken by her husband, Paul Edelman. She adds this note:

Because it’s migration time, we’re getting a lot of birds we don’t often see in Tennessee. I especially like the Chestnut-sided warblers (Setophaga pensylvanica). These were all taken in Radnor State Park, which is a lovely oasis in the middle of Nashville. All were taken with a Nikon D-500 camera and a Nikkor 500 mm f5.6 lens.

Captions are indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.

Acadian flycatcher (Empidonax virescens):

American redstart (female – the males have bright orange wings) (Setophaga ruticilla):

Black-throated green warbler (Setophaga virens):

Chestnut-sided warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica):

Eastern wood-peewee (Contopus virens):

Magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia):

Summer tanager (Piranga rubra):

Saturday: Hili dialogue

May 15, 2021 • 6:30 am

Welcome to Cat Sabbath: Saturday, May 15, 2021: National Chocolate Chip Day. It’s also World Whisky Day, International Day of Families, Peace Officers Memorial Day, Astronomy Day, Bring Flowers to Someone Day, Straw Hat Day, Plant a Lemon Tree Day, and, best of all, International Conscientious Objectors Day. Remember, the Sabbath was made for cats, not cats for the Sabbath.

News of the Day:

The trouble in Israel continues, and has been strongly exacerbated by the internecine violence between Israeli Jews and Arabs, as well as threats from Jordan and Lebanon:

By Friday evening, Israel faced furious demonstrations in at least 60 places across the West Bank and new protests just across the borders with Jordan and Lebanon, all atop the vigilante violence between Arabs and Jews within Israel, and the continuing battle with Gaza militants.

From Salon via reader Charles. The indictment they’re preparing from would come from Manhattan. but how many of you think Trump will really be indicted? (One can hope.)

BUT, there’s this:

But the report also noted an “obscure clause” in Florida law regarding interstate extradition that gives Gov. Ron DeSantis, a close Republican ally of the former president who is reportedly considering his own 2024 presidential bid, to intervene or investigate “the situation and circumstances of the person” in question “and whether the person ought to be surrendered” to law enforcement in a different state.

No thank you article of the day. (This is connected with religion, of course.) The best way to deal with death, for me at least, is to know you’re gonna die but then don’t dwell on it. Don’t do what  Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble tells you to do—ponder it constantly, keeping skull mementos around!

Finally, today’s reported Covid-19 death toll in the U.S. is 584,725, an increase of 610 deaths over yesterday’s figure. The reported world death toll is now 3,372,845, an increase of about 13,000 over yesterday’s total.

Stuff that happened on May 15 include:

  • 1536 – Anne Boleyn, Queen of England, stands trial in London on charges of treason, adultery and incest; she is condemned to death by a specially-selected jury.

Boleyn was executed by beheading four days later.

Do you know Kepler’s Third Law? Neither did I—you can read about it here.

  • 1817 – Opening of the first private mental health hospital in the United States, the Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason (now Friends HospitalPhiladelphia, Pennsylvania).

Here’s the hospital, still in use as a hospital and clinic.

  • 1911 – In Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, the United States Supreme Court declares Standard Oil to be an “unreasonable” monopoly under the Sherman Antitrust Act and orders the company to be broken up.
  • 1940 – World War II: After fierce fighting, the poorly trained and equipped Dutch troops surrender to Germany, marking the beginning of five years of occupation.
  • 1940 – Richard and Maurice McDonald open the first McDonald’s restaurant.

Here’s that first McDonald’s no longer operating. But I still remember when a burger, fries, and a shake were each 15¢. Buy ’em by the bag!

This streak is still unbroken and probably will remain so. In second place is Wee Willie Keeler, who hit safely in 45 consecutive games in 1896-1897. Pete Rose, with 44, is in third place.

It’s still going on!

Cresson, still the only female PM France has ever had:

  • 2004 – Arsenal F.C. go an entire league campaign unbeaten in the English Premier League, joining Preston North End F.C with the right to claim the title “The Invincibles“.

Notables born on this day include:

Among the 14 kids of this polymath was his most famous offspring, Rabindranath Tagore.

Author of the Oz books:

  • 1859 – Pierre Curie, French physicist and academic, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1906)
  • 1891 – Mikhail Bulgakov, Russian novelist and playwright (d. 1940)

Do read his The Master and Margarita, one of the great novels of our time. A satire of Soviet society, it was published by his wife—26 years after his death. And the greatness of this novel is one thing that Adam Gopnik and I do agree on! Bulgakov:

  • 1902 – Richard J. Daley, American lawyer and politician, 48th Mayor of Chicago (d. 1976)
  • 1915 – Paul Samuelson, American economist and academic, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 2009)
  • 1923 – Richard Avedon, American sailor and photographer (d. 2004).

He was a great fashion photographer but I like his portraits like this one:

  • 1930 – Jasper Johns, American painter and sculptor
  • 1981 – Jamie-Lynn Sigler, American actress and singer
  • 1987 – Andy Murray, Scottish tennis player

Those who passed away on May 15 include

The only authenticated portrait of Dickinson, taken in 1846 or 1847, when she was but 16 or 17.  But there’s another one likely to be her as well.


“Cat Studies” by Edward Hopper:

  • 2007 – Jerry Falwell, American pastor, founded Liberty University (b. 1933)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili and Szaron enjoy the sun and engage in some persiflage:

Hili: I’m worried about the information from the stock exchange.
Szaron: Which one?
Hili: In Shanghai.
In Polish:
Hili: Niepokoją mnie informacje z giełdy.
Szaron: Z której?
Hili: W Szanghaju.

Kulka and Szaron, photos by Paulina:

From Divy:

From Nicole (NSFW?):

Two tweets from Barry. Look at this frog!

Barry says, “I just love the nod. Sound up.”  I don’t understand where Bucky is going to be brought if he doesn’t snore.  I can’t make out the words. The “beefs”?

Tweets from Matthew. For sure this woman hasn’t bathed a cat!

Is that a serious question? If it fits, he sits!

A gorgeous Flower Hat Jellyfish:

First swim for the ducklings. Given their peeping, I think they’re a bit distressed. (Sound up.)

I don’t think I like the image of the Emeritus Professor:

Has the pandemic changed you?

May 14, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Almost everyone underwent some behavior or personality changes during the pandemic. How could it be otherwise, what with the solitude, the fear, the prohibition against doing many of our favorite activities, and so on?

Some will resume their lives without missing a beat, while others may be somewhat but temporarily traumatized, and still others may have their lives changed permanently, either by a new work situation (working at home), or a permanent personality or behavior change.

I don’t know whether the changes I’ve noticed in my own behavior are permanent, for only now are we getting back to “normality”, but here’s what happened to me.

a.) I got peevish and irritable, liable to snap at others for reasons that I wouldn’t normally consider. I didn’t turn into an ogre, but neither did I put up with bull that I would normally have tolerated. I hate this in me, and have been working to improve it. This could of course be age (some older people claim to revel in their ability to be jerks, blaming it on age), but it came on too quickly to be that.

b.) I got intolerant of what I saw as mindless chatter or palaver. If someone told me a story that ran on too long, or embroidered it with baroque details, I’d often say, “What’s the point?” or “Get to the point.” That, too, is uncharacteristic of me.

I heard from a psychologist that many people have these symptoms, so I don’t think I’m alone here.

c.) Loss of attention span. At the beginning of the pandemic I was able to spend four hours nightly reading a book. Now I have to work on two or three books simultaneously, and have trouble concentrating for more than 45 minutes on any one, especially on a book that requires thought, like Anthony Grayling’s History of Philosophy.

d.) This is the ancillary issue to c): it’s all too easy to turn to the Internet and waste hours of time. For example, I’m now reading a biography of Duke Ellington. Sometimes they describe one of Duke’s songs in a way that makes me determined to hear it. So I go to YouTube.  You know the rest: they suggest other songs, and then other stuff, and before you know it, an hour is gone and with it your reading time. Again, I hope the loss of attention span isn’t due to age, but its rapid onset and coincidence with the pandemic makes me think it’s all the stuff that happened in the last year.

e.) Extreme impatience. Example: I catch my sleeve or backpack on a door, and get angry about it. That’s just crazy!

These are just the first four things that have come to mind, and I’m writing this to share, to see if others have experienced the same feelings, or what other symptoms have manifested themselves.

And of course—though I’ve written about this incessantly—I am absolutely stir crazy and keen to travel. Poland, Antarctica, New Zealand, and Israel beckoned me, but the last is a no go now, and the rest haven’t yet opened up, though I have huge hopes of lecturing again on an expedition cruise to Antarctica.

Well, maybe next year. . .


Life without parole: man receives “third strike” sentence for possessing more than an ounce of pot

May 14, 2021 • 12:00 pm

Reader Ken sent me this article from the Associated Press (click on screenshot) which shows how brutally insensitive the prison system is in America—at least in Mississippi and other “three strikes” states. Those are states in which, if you’re convicted of three successive felonies (one of which in Mississippi must be a “violent offense”), they lock you up for life and throw away the key. You’ll leave prison only in a box. You cannot get probation, and the governor cannot parole you.

It recounts the story of Allen Russell, aged 38, who received his third felony conviction for possessing between 44 and 80 grams of marijuana—more than 30 grams, an ounce—is a felony). Before that, Russell served 8 years for two home burglaries and was released from prison in 2014. This was not a violent offense, though now all burglaries are considered “violent offenses.”.  Then felony #2: Russell was found in possession of a weapon as a convicted felon. For that he served two years.

Finally, on November 29, 2017, Russell was arrested for carrying somewhere between 44 and 80 grams of marijuana, which is a felony since the amount exceeded 30 grams.

Under state law, Russell was then sentenced, after the third “strike”, to life in prison without possibility of parole.  He appealed the sentence, saying that it was “cruel and unusual punishment and is grossly disproportionate” to possessing a smallish amount of marijuana.

But in their opinion, which you can find here, the court appears to have been split 4-3), they majority said that he wasn’t being sentenced for the marijuana alone, but because he was a “habitutal offender,” and thus subject to Mississippi law, which remains in force.

Here’s a bit of the majority opinion (my emphasis):

The jury convicted Russell of possession of marijuana in an amount greater than 30 grams but less than 250 grams. During the sentencing hearing, the State presented evidence of Russell’s prior felony convictions. In April 2004, Russell pled guilty to two separate charges of burglary of a dwelling and received two concurrent fifteen-year sentences in MDOC’s custody. The State presented evidence that Russell served eight years, seven months, and three days on each charge for burglary of a dwelling before being released from prison in February 2014. In October 2015, Russell then pled guilty to possession of a weapon by a convicted felon and received a ten-year sentence in MDOC’s custody, with two years to serve, eight years suspended, and five years of post-release supervision. Based on the State’s proof of Russell’s two prior felony convictions, the circuit court found Russell to be a violent habitual offender and sentenced him to life imprisonment without eligibility for probation or parole. Russell unsuccessfully moved for a new trial or, alternatively, a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Aggrieved, Russell appeals.

Now in what world should a 38 year old man be locked up for life for two burglaries committed at the same time, possession of an illegal firearm, and a smallish amount of marijuana? Is there no possibility of rehabilitation? It’s not like Russell committed three murders, rapes, or armed robberies. He burgled two houses without violence, had possession of an illegal firearm that he didn’t use in another instance, and then was found with a few bags of marijuana. For that he deserves to rot in jail forever?

From the minority opinion:

The purpose of the criminal justice system is to punish those who break the law, deter them from making similar mistakes, and give them the opportunity to become productive members of society. The fact that judges are not routinely given the ability to exercise discretion in sentencing all habitual offenders is completely at odds with this goal. Additionally, “[t]he discharge of judicial duties requires consideration, deliberation[,] and thoughtful use of the broad discretion given judges under the laws of this State.” White v. State, 742 So. 2d 1126, 1137 (¶44) (Miss. 1999). In instances such as these, the duty of the judiciary, as an independent branch of government, is frustrated because courts are not allowed to take the facts and circumstances surrounding a habitual offender’s prior offenses into account at sentencing. In cases like Russell’s any discretion really lies with the prosecution rather than the judiciary. Once an offender is charged and convicted as a habitual offender, courts have no option but to “rubber stamp” the decision by sentencing an 20 offender under section 99-19-83 instead ofsection 99-19-81.10 In fact, situations like the one currently before us are a prime example of why many people have called for criminal justice reform with regard to sentencing.

I’m not sure how many states have a “three-strikes-you’re-out” policy, but even one is too many.

The end of my conversation with Adam Gopnik about “ways of knowing”

May 14, 2021 • 9:15 am

Adam Gopnik and I have now finished our written “conversation” at the link below (click on the screenshot). He has produced letter #8 in partial response to my letter #7, so we’ve each had four chances to say our piece.  Since the conversation is now finished, I’ll make a few brief remarks, particularly with respect to our last two letters (#7 and #8).

This is a recurrent debate, one intensified by the rise of postmodernism which claims (along with religion) that there are “other ways of knowing” beyond the methods used by science (empirical exploration, testing, falsification/verification, etc.) Adam adheres to neither religion or po-mo, so he’s not on those sides. Rather, he sees art (literature, music, and painting, including abstract painting) as a “way of knowing.” I defined “knowledge” at the outset as “justified true belief.”

I’ve discussed individual letters before, so will just mention what’s in the last two letters.

I’ll take up three issues. The first is Adam’s insistence that I admit that Darwin’s theory of heredity was wrong (I gladly admitted that), but yet the whole theory wasn’t discarded, as a Popperian might have done. I noted that Darwin’s theory, which has several parts, doesn’t depend on the accuracy of a particular theory of heredity: only that there is genetic variation for traits and some variants leave more copies of their genes than others. In truth, I’m not sure what this was all about unless it’s to make me admit that scientists don’t conform strictly to Popperian falsification. But we’ve known that for decades.

Adam also leveled several “challenges” to me that he accused me of not answering.

Meanwhile, we have evolutionary psychology and epigenesis: I know from reading that you take a soft view on one, and a hard view on the other, but there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud, and others who think   epigenesis is significant in ways you strongly don’t.

(I also note that you evade my challenge on the status of  epigenetics and evolutionary psychology, which experts like yourself, with ‘voting rights’ , find equally vapid or vital, underlining my point that the settled truths of science you cite are the very tip of the iceberg of argument.)

I didn’t really have time to deal with both epigenetics and evolutionary psychology, as those weren’t part of our argument; but I took time to answer the evolutionary psychology “challenge”. My words:

The other challenges I’m accused of evading involve two current debates in biology, the value of epigenetics and of evolutionary psychology. Yet this was not evasion, but rather my realization that full answers would require long essays on issues largely irrelevant to our exchange. But I’ll make room to deal with evolutionary psychology.

You note that “there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud”. Well yes, there are biologists who think that, but I don’t know any good ones who do. No thoughtful biologist would argue that while our bodies are products of a long evolutionary history, and still show traces of that history, our brains (which after all are also made of cells) show none. While it’s not easy to study the evolutionary roots of human behavior and mentation, evolutionary psychology has shed substantial light on human sexual behavior (why do the two sexes look for different traits in a potential mate?), parental behavior (why do we favor kin over non-kin?) and differences in behavior between men and women (why is it males who typically engage in competitive risk-taking?). These are scientific hypotheses that have been supported by observations and experiments. To dismiss this whole endeavor as “fraud” is to be both incurious and ignorant. Certainly a lot of work in the field has been overly speculative. But opposition to evolutionary psychology as a whole comes not from some shoddy work in that field, but from a “blank slate” ideology that objects to any claim that human behavior could reflect our genetic and evolutionary past.

I still maintain that biologists who dismiss the entire field of evolutionary psychology as worthless are not doing so for good biological reasons, but for ideological ones. Adam then hit me with what he thought was a zinger:

So, in discussing evolutionary psychology, it seems to me that you are offering an excellent instance of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, when you say that no good biologist can doubt the relevance of evolutionary psychology. If Richard Leowontin [sic] and Stephen Jay Gould were not good biologists, then none exists – but they both were largely hostile to evolutionary psychology.  I don’t endorse their view—though obviously evolutionary psychology becomes perilously silly perilously soon, in the unskilled hands of someone like Robert Wright – but there’s no gainsaying the debate is taking place among equally ‘good’ scientists.

Well, it’s not exactly a “No True Scotsman” fallacy, though I’d rephrase my assertion this way: “I think anyone who dismisses the entire field of evolutionary psychology (of humans), a field that has progressed substantially since Lewontin and Gould (read Pinker’s The Blank Slate), is doing so for ideological rather than biological reasons, and in that sense is not acting as a good scientist.”

I still believe this of Gould and Lewontin, though of course both made considerable contributions in other areas of biology. But in the battle over the simple validity of evo-psych as a field of endeavor, I think Lewontin and Gould lost the war to Wilson, Trivers, Buss, and their colleagues.

I note, though, that Adam completely ignored my challenges to him! To wit:

But maybe I’m wrong. So here are my challenges to you: please give me the “knowledge” conveyed by abstract paintings like “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)” by Pollock, “Cossacks” by Kandinsky, or Malevich’s monochrome “Black Square.”  And what is the knowledge we gain from non-programatic or “absolute” music like Beethoven’s first piano trio and his first string quartet?  If, like science, art is a “way of knowing”, these questions shouldn’t be hard to answer.

Not a peep from Adam!

Finally, Adam, in defending Mozart against Bach, not only conflated “knowledge” with “understanding,” but, more important, conflated “knowledge” with “values”. Values are subjective, while knowledge, in principle always tentative, is not a matter of opinion refractory to being settled by observing nature. Here’s Gopnik’s discussion of Mozart vs. Bach:

So let me move back to the other, though related, issue I raised, that about the ‘content ‘of the arts: the point is that all arguments about aesthetics end up being arguments not about ‘sense impressions or ‘taste’ in the shrugging sense of whether or not I like it. They are arguments about values, judged by the evidence marshalled.   There’s a terrific video that everyone ought to watch that helps refine this point. In it, Glen Gould assaults Mozart – or at least the later Mozart – as a mediocre composer.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pR74rorRxsThis  – to me, shocking—claim is not one that Gould simply offers as ‘my feeling’ or ‘how it seems to me.” No, on the contrary he argues from evidence: he shows as a master musician what we mere listeners might now ‘hear’ – how mechanical and predictable Mozart’s sequence of development is in his piano concerti, running predictably round the ‘circle of fifths’.  Unlike a master, Bach, Mozart’s architecture is shoddy even if his ornamentation is flashy.

Now, as a Mozartean I was shocked and amused by this – but also arrested by it. I couldn’t dismiss it.  It forced me to argue back, not by saying “Well, I don’t care. I like it’ but by reference to other values that Mozart’s music possess. Melody, after all, is not ornament but substance of another kind– if Mozart is less intellectually architectural than Bach, it is in part because the beautiful flow of melody in his work would be defaced by too clever a development.  When we hear a great melody – say the theme from the slow movement in the 27th piano concerto in the heartbreak key of B flat – we want to …hear it again.

Note that “other values”, like a beautiful melody, are dragged in to save the thesis that Mozart is at least as good as Bach! But Gopnik seems to think that everyone will agree what constitutes a “beautiful melody”, or that everyone will rank melodies in the same order.

Gopnik continues:

Now, every listener might have their own place on this spectrum; but it is not a spectrum of’ opinion’ or ‘impression’ in the sense that all views about the issue are equally valid.  Someone who just shrugs and says, “Well, I prefer Black Sabbath” may have a right to existence – I doubt it; but okay [JAC: LOL! Here we agree!] – but no right to a place at this table.  We marshal arguments on behalf of Mozart, and the arguments, though they may start as arguments about formal structure, always end as arguments about values. Bach, we may say, may be a greater musical architect, but architecture is not the whole of art. Rococo ornament has a place in our system of values. And such arguments have within them other, still deeper arguments about human existence: As I pointed out at length in a recent essay about Helen Frankenthaler, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/04/12/helen-frankenthaler-and-the-messy-art-of-life deprecating ornament is a familiar way of deprecating the merely feminine’ aspects of life; standing up for mere decorative is a way of affirming aspects of life wrongly relegated to the rear.

Now, these aesthetic arguments are not as neatly resolved, and they are, in their nature, looser and less obviously progressive than the arguments of science.  But they are not without standards of progress too: no one with a feeling or understanding of art, for instance, would any longer argue for a neat hierarchy of values in which, say, illusionistic Greek art   stands unquestioned at the top and ‘primitive’ or African sculpture stands dismissed at the bottom.  We have learned too much, from modern art and anthropology alike, to subscribe to so facile a grouping: the artists of Benin will always hold a place now alongside the masters of Athens. (Those who wish to exploit the masters of Benin to deprecate those of Athens have no sympathy from me.)   You may not want to call this ‘knowledge’ in the sense that understanding the structure of DNA is knowledge, but it is certainly an advance in understanding, one as important and significant as the advances in understanding that science provides.

And yet, after hearing, and after having been convinced that Mozart’s music is more mechanical than that of Bach, Gopnik still insists that Mozart has a “beautiful flow of melody”. So who is the better musician: Mozart or Bach? Gopnik doesn’t tell us, but somehow seems to construe this discussion on the same plane as one about whether DNA is a double or a triple helix. Saying that the artists of Benin are not inferior to those of Greece is not an objective view that can be justified by empirical reference (unless you define “artistic quality” in advance and everyone agrees on those tenets), but a subjective view that some will agree with, and others not.

Given that aesthetic standards inevitably differ among people, this is not in any sense a question equivalent to a dispute about how nature works. You may say that whether Benin vs. Greek art is a dispute “as important and significant as the advances in understanding that science provides”. (But although I’m a big art fan, I’d take issue with that, for presumably Gopnik gets his kids vaccinated, and would consider the debate between antibiotics and shamanism as more important than the debate about whether Benin art is better than Greek).

I’d say that the entire dispute between Adam and me is encapsulated in his paragraphs quoted above. He regards a subjective assessment of relative value as “knowledge”, and I don’t.  This is why he says that art confers knowledge. What he means is that it confers value, and some art confers more value (to him!) than others. I’d add that yes, that’s true, but that value depends on the observer.

A prescient friend of mind, reading this exchange, wrote me this:

One word that Gopnik uses in passing—“understanding”—might have led to some terrain of agreement. Gopnik wants to assimilate “understanding” to “knowledge.” Perhaps you could have gotten him to see that these are different things. Understanding is a mental state that’s plausibly attuned to some facts; those facts are knowledge. Obviously, we’re all in favor of both. But if someone doesn’t realize the difference, he’s apt to fantasize that works of art yield immediate “truth.”

Anyway, the discussion is over, and I’m not convinced that art, music, or literature conveys knowledge, especially in light of Adam’s having avoided my very clear challenges above. Or perhaps he thinks that Pollock and Kandinsky confer “value”, which they do, but also believes that value is identical to scientific knowledge.

Clearly no agreement is possible here, but, as Adam notes in his ending,

Art is not optional.  It is mandatory for anyone claiming to want to understand the way the world wags and how we wag it.  On that thought, and with the promise of a good dinner someday in Paris, I send my final brotherly salutations.

I will agree with all of that, and particularly of the value of a good dinner in Paris!

Dinner last night

May 14, 2021 • 8:45 am

Last night my colleague Manyuan, who originally hails from Szechuan, invited me to a new Chinese restaurant in Chicago: a “hot pot” restaurant, featuring a dish whose home happens to be the town where Manyuan was born.  A “hot pot” is a boiling cauldron of various broths, into which you dip things like raw meat, shrimp, tofu, vegetables, and mushrooms, and then dip the cooked substances into a variety of sauces. According to Manyuan, and also my own experience in Szechuan, this was the real thing.

Here’s the menu. We ordered the tripartite cauldron “triple flavor” with three different broths (upper left). The hot one was spicy!

Manyuan likes to eat, which makes him an ideal dinner companion, and so after he ordered (I let him do all the ordering, eschewing only the ordering of organs and offal), we had a ton of food. First shrimp chips and tea, along with a plate of pork belly. The big lump in the lower “spicy” section of the cauldron, which was soon boiling away, is a piece of beef fat that melted.

The whole schmear, with mushrooms, tofu, tree ear (fungus), long fugus, bean sprouts, and veggies to the rear. The golden bull was said to contain wagyu beef.

It was absolutely terrific, and we ate for over two hours. Hot pot is good because you can have conversation while your food cooks, and can cook it at your leisure. It’s a great dining & social experience.

The restaurant is Quao Lin Hotpot, a bit west of Chicago’s Chinatown, and you see the uniformly positive Yelp reviews here. I recommend it highly if you are keen on the hotpot experience.

Readers’ wildlife photos and videos

May 14, 2021 • 8:00 am

I am running worryingly low on readers’ photos, so PLEASE send in your good ones. I don’t want to have to cancel this feature or put it up sporadically. Thanks!

We have a potpourri of photos and movies today. Readers’ captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

The first two photos are by Andrea Kenner.

Here’s a photo of my first sighting of a Brood X cicada. The baby is sitting on the sidewalk in Hyattsville, Maryland. I’m not sure which species he is (there are three). Here’s a link to the Wikipedia page.

I took this photo in my front yard in Prince George’s County, MD, and posted it on Facebook. The tree is an Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis). An entomologist in my neighborhood identified the bee as a Hairy Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora villosula), a recently introduced species in the Mid-Atlantic region.

From Linda Mercer:

It is hard to see the tiny fawn hiding behind my air conditioner.

A duck video from Brian Tarr:

I’ve been an avid lurker on your excellent website for several years, and have finally plucked up the courage to share a bit of wildlife with you. This is a sord of mallards which I filmed this last winter in Łuków, Poland, by the Southern Krzna River in the central park. I thought it a bit unusual to see so many, because I figured they would have flown south by then. As you can see, they are quite accustomed to humans, as people often come with their children to toss them bread (not the ideal diet, as I learned from you).

Please feel free to share this with your readers, if you so choose. I would love to get some feedback about migratory patterns. (Possible aberration due to climate change?)


And a parasitized grasshopper from Jonathan Storm:

I found this dead grasshopper on an eastern hemlock in the Blue Ridge Mountains of South Carolina. It was killed by an entomopathogenic fungus last summer or fall. These fungi are parasites that infect and eventually kill their insect host. Last summer, a fungal spore landed on this grasshopper and worked its way into the body cavity. The fungus then grew and spread until it killed the grasshopper. Several fruiting bodies of the fungus later grew out of the grasshopper and released their spores into the breeze. Some of these spores will then infect a new insect host and the cycle continues.

And a video from Jonathan:

This female Ruby-throated Hummingbird [Archilochus colubris] was collecting spider silk from a window on my house in South Carolina. The sticky and stretchy nature of the silk help hold the nest together and anchor it on top of a tree branch. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds often construct their nest from dandelion seeds, moss, and lichens and place it high up in a hardwood tree.