The Infinite Monkey Cage takes on flies

January 11, 2021 • 2:15 pm

After an audience member demanded that the BBC’s Infinite Monkey Cage took up the subject of Drosophila, the show devoted its half-hour slot not just to Drosophila, but to flies in general (dipterans). It features not only the hosts Robin Ince and Brian Cox, but our own Mathew Cobb, Erica McAlister (a curator at London’s Natural History Museum), and “fly sceptic” David Baddiel, a British comedian.

As Matthew said, “It was a lot of fun. Erica is a hoot.”  It is a good show, and you’ll learn a lot about flies, and there’s a lot of laughing. Don’t miss the part about a botfly in the head (sadly, not the one I head).

Bill Maher on Trumpism as a cult

November 21, 2020 • 2:00 pm

Reader Bryan called my attention to this nine-minute clip from Bill Maher’s last “Real Time” show of the season.  After talking about Millerism, the failed end-times faith of the nineteenth century, Maher mentions another group that was disappointed and yet won’t accept their loss either: Trumpsters. He then dilates on cults, sycophants, and the self-promotion of Trump, demonstrating that Trumpism has many parallels with cults that worship a leader.

He winds up with a call to end our gloating and name-calling of our opponents, something that Andrew Sullivan emphasizes in this week’s Weekly Dish column.

“Who are these jellyfish?”: Bill Maher attributes Democratic losses to wokeness

November 15, 2020 • 1:00 pm

We all know that the promised “blue wave” of Democratic victories didn’t occur. While Trump has been given the boot (but got nearly half the vote), the Dems lost seats in Congress, failed to flip state legislatures, and doesn’t look as if it will control the Senate, either. Why, with a President who is so palpably unfit for office that his coattails should have swept many Republicans out of office as well.

In this bit from his latest Real Time, Bill Maher has what I think is a pretty good analysis: he attributes it largely to wokeness. While the GOP may be an unpalatable alternative, so are Wokies to many Americans. And that’s what I was afraid of. While, thank Ceiling Cat, Wokeness didn’t keep Biden from being elected (but might have done so for Bernie Sanders), it didn’t, says Maher, inspire many Americans to vote for Democrats. You may disagree, but we still need an explanation for why so many Americans cling to regressive parties, and why so many members of minority groups still voted Republican.


By the way, the New York Times article that Maher mentions has been retitled, and you can access if by clicking below:


h/t: Paul, Enrico

Lip-synched Presidential debate

October 29, 2020 • 2:15 pm

This video came from reader Ken, who added, “These were popular in 2016, but this is the first debate lip-sync I’ve seen this election cycle”. It’s pretty funny, and, at any rate, it’s funny enough to bring to a close a pretty mediocre day. (I’ve started cutting way back on feeding the ducks, which makes me sad, but it’s necessary to make them move on.)

Google Easter eggs

October 24, 2020 • 1:30 pm

Reader Mark Sturtevant called my attention to something that most of us probably don’t know about: Google “Easter Eggs”: results of searches that yield a bonus.

He found one this way:

I did not know that Google had ‘Easter eggs’.
But here is one:
In Google, type in: wizard of oz
Click on the red slippers,
then click on the tornado.
Yes, it’s a little cute “find” that you have to know about to see.  When you Google, you’ll see this; click on the red slippers and then after some kerfuffle you’ll get a tornado. Click on that and you’ll get a different kerfuffle.

Then I found out (by Googling, of course), that there’s a Big List of Google Easter Eggs. Some are retired, but there are enough to amuse you for a while. I don’t know how one finds these things; presumably people hit on them by accident. But how did they know to click on the red shoes? Does that triangular symbol to the left tell you?

SNL does the Trump/Biden debate

October 6, 2020 • 2:00 pm

Several readers sent me a link to SNL’s spoof of the recent Trump/Biden debate. Chris Wallace is played by Beck Bennett Trump by Alec Baldwin, and Biden by Jim Carrey (I didn’t recognize Carrey at first!) I’m not sure who plays Kamala Harris, as I almost never watch Saturday Night Live. When I have seen it, I can only compare it to the early glory days with John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Akroyd, and the other greats.

This bit is pretty good, but not outstanding, which exemplifies the whole show to me these days. The last two minutes, however, aren’t half bad.

Comedy wildlife photos

September 13, 2020 • 2:30 pm

Mashable has a selection of a readers’ favorite: the finalists of the annual Comedy Wildlife Photo contest.  Their article can be seen by clicking on the screenshot below, and the notes just below direct you to the contest website where you can vote for your favorite.

Founded by Paul Joynson-Hicks and Tom Sullam and supported by wildlife conservation nonprofit The Born Free Foundation, the competition selects a collection of finalists from a host of images snapped across the globe, all of which capture nature at its most ridiculous.

Winners will be announced on Oct. 22, and you can even vote for your favourite on the website.

Here’s a small selection of my favorites, but there are many more in both places.  Thanks to the several readers who directed me to the sites.

The credits are at the bottom of the photos.

Talk to the claw!

Oops. . . 

Man builds nut bar for squirrels

August 31, 2020 • 2:30 pm

Reader Barry called my attention to this video and the article about the Nutty Bar from station KDKA in Pittsburgh. An excerpt (my emphasis):

People are going nuts for an Ohio woodworker’s latest creation: A bar that caters to neighborhood squirrels.

Michael Dutko, a 35-year-old hobbyist, has been creating art and household items from wood for most of his life, and even chronicles it on his YouTube channel Duke Harmon Woodworking. But it’s his fun twist on a squirrel feeder that’s made him Internet famous.

“The Nutty Bar,” which is attached to his backyard fence in Hilliard, looks just like a real bar, and even has a range of nuts on tap.

Dutko said he built it to help his neighbor with her bird-watching hobby.

“The whole reason I even started to make this is because my neighbor bird watches with her daughter and told me all of the squirrels keep getting in her way,” Dutko told CNN. “I didn’t even tell her what I was going to do, I just built it and put it back there and when she saw it, she just started cracking up.”

Lucky squirrels who find their way to the bar get to choose from seven different nuts named after beers: Cashew Dunkel, Peanut Pilsner, Almond Ale, Walnut Stout, Sunflower Saison, Pecan Porter and Pistachio Pale Ale.

Dutko’s favorite part of the bar is its quirky bathroom sign: “Nuts” and “No Nuts.”

The project, which measures about 25 inches wide and 16 inches tall, took him eight hours to design and build.

After posting a video on YouTube showing the build process, Dutko said he was “overwhelmed” with comments and requests to purchase the bar. He immediately applied for a design patent and is now planning to launch a business to sell The Nutty Bar for about $175 – $200.

The video!

A satirical book review

June 1, 2020 • 1:30 pm

When I woke up this morning these words from the Beatles song went through my head:

I’ve got nothing to say but it’s okay;
Good morning, good morning.

That’s because I didn’t have anything in my head to write about, which is what I ponder when reading my emails in bed. So you get persiflage this afternoon!

Going through my files, I found an old book review that my friend Andrew Berry and I wrote some years ago. Andrew looked up our exchange, which dates to October of 2000. Berry had been commissioned by Nature to review of a number of children’s books about science. He and I felt that one was missing—the latest offering from the fabled J. K. Prowling. Even in the absence of such a book, we felt compelled to produce a review. For reasons best known to ourselves, the staff at Nature decided not to publish our review (Berry thinks that we actually submitted this—as a joke.)

I just found out, though that there really is a “Billy the Badger”: the mascot of Fulham FC in London:

The review:

Billy the Badger and his Forest Friends

By J K Prowling

ISBN 1008946
38pp, illus.
Harper-Collins Juvenile (Beginner Books No. 769)

Jerry A. Coyne

Andrew Berry

(Suggested title: “Badger Baloney”)

Billy the Badger has a problem.  Hordes of white-coated scientists, under the direction of the evil Dr. Ron Crabs, are engaged in a big experiment that will kill off not only Billy but many others of his kind. Under the delusion that badgers harbor brucellosis (which supposedly kills the farmers’ cows), the scientists try all manner of nefarious ways to kill badgers, including poisoning their favorite food, crumpets.  Knowing that the forest ecosystem will collapse without badgers, all the forest animals turn to Billy, the most sagacious beast among them, for help.  In this readable but ultimately unsatisfying and inaccurate book, Billy overcomes many obstacles to save his animal friends.  We will not reveal the extremely clever way this is done; but the denouement, in which Crabs is dragged into a badger set and ripped to pieces by his intended victims, is clearly not suitable for children under the age of sixteen.

Like a great deal of children’s literature on animal behaviour, this  book paints an inaccurate picture of the natural world.  We learn, for example,  that Billy lives in an oak-panelled set with Louis XV furnishing and a 16th century grandfather clock.  He speaks English, wears spectacles, drinks tea and eats crumpets dripping with melted butter. We are not badger experts, but a brief survey of the technical work on Meles meles reveals this portrait to be utterly misleading.  In fact, badgers, presumably with Billy among them, prefer a gritty Bauhaus look, and invariably speak Danish.  Spectacles are impractical because of their small ears; this results in the popularity of contact lenses throughout the species.  And badgers, as research has shown unequivocally, prefer Heineken when given a choice of beverages.  The crumpet issue remains controversial, and the author would have been well advised to steer clear of it.  Badgers are well known for liking bratwurst.  It’s a matter of great disappointment to us that books written for impressionable youngsters should be replete with errors and half truths.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this book from a biologist’s point of view is the complete absence of information about badger reproduction.  Billy has three young friends, Bertie, Benno and Bovril, but they appear magically, as if no interesting biology were involved in their genesis.  Yet painstaking observation by generations of dedicated scientists has given us an impressively complete picture of just what goes on in badger sets after the lights have been dimmed and the curtains drawn – after the sun has set on the set.  Why is this scenario not depicted in the book?  Billy is portrayed as a bachelor inhabiting an entirely male world. The dearth of badger females in Prowling’s worldview suggests a naïve view of badger biology – that it’s all about crumpets, armchairs, pipe tobacco, and dog-eared copies of The Pickwick Papers.  In fact, research has shown that the badger singles scene is vibrant and modern – more brushed aluminum than flock wall paper.  Prowling should have taken his readers into this exciting world of badger encounter and casual sex; for example, he could have set part of the story in a  hopping badger bar like “Jet Set” (turn right at the third oak after the big sycamore tree).  In missing these opportunities, Prowling wants us to assume that the numerous young badgers that populate the story appear from nowhere.  In these days of RU-480 and condom distribution in schools, surely our young people have a right to know how baby badgers are made.

Finally, the depiction of scientists as monsters bent on destroying anything furry is an unwarranted slur on our profession.  Neither of us has ever hurt a badger, and we know at least four other scientists who are humane and agreeable.  Mr. Prowling misleads an impressionable segment of the general public on every topic he addresses.  His portrayal of science and scientists is as error-strewn as his frankly whimsical and often fictional account of badger biology.  This is NOT a book  that should be on every graduate student’s shelf.  In fact, should you find a copy of it on a student’s shelf, you might want to think about pointing that student towards career alternative, like interior design.

This e-mail is confidential and should not be used by anyone who is either the original intended recipient or a large striped carnivore.  If you have received this e-mail in error, please inform Billy the Badger and delete it from your mailbox or any other storage mechanism.  Coyne and Berry cannot accept liability for any statements made which are clearly the sender’s own and not expressly made on behalf of John Brockmann, Norton Publishing, or one of their agents.


Ricky Gervais chats with Richard Dawkins

May 18, 2020 • 2:00 pm

This video was posted a week ago, but shows a conversation that took place last fall. On 3 September 2019, Ricky Gervais was given the 2019 Richard Dawkins Award. The award recognizes individuals who proclaim “the values of secularism and rationalism, upholding scientific truths wherever it may lead.” Gervais received the award during a Center for Inquiry-sponsored ceremony at London’s Troxy Theatre. Dawkins praised Gervais for being a “witty hero of atheism and reason.” And I have to add, in a mixture of both solipsism and humility, that I received that award in 2015, and now, what with other awardees like Gervais, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Stephen Pinker, and Stephen Fry, I feel like I don’t deserve to be in this club. But I’m not giving my cat back (see below)!

Here are the YouTube notes:

Multi-award-winning stand-up comedian, screenwriter, and actor Ricky Gervais was presented with this year’s Richard Dawkins Award, from the Center for Inquiry. CFI campaigns to remove the influence of religion in science education and public policy, and to eliminate the stigma that surrounds atheism and non-belief.

The Richard Dawkins Award has been presented annually since 2003. Past winners have included philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, activist and feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and actor and writer Stephen Fry.

This event was an unscripted conversation between Gervais and Dawkins, in which everything is on the table and nothing is sacred. They were joined by host, best-selling author and professor of psychology, Richard Wiseman.

It’s worth listening to the conversation, but the best part is the last half. (Wiseman’s presence seems to detract a bit from the flow of conversation.) Robyn Blumner, CEO of CFI, introduces the event and Richard until 7:45, and then at 8:38 in Richard speaks, laying out the reasons why Gervais got the award. The award this year seems to be a glass double helix; mine was a small replica of a skull of a saber-tooth tiger (honoring my love of cats).

At 18:50 Gervais comes onstage for the conversation, and in fact has a gulp of beer as he begins.

I found the most enlightening part of the conversation to be Gervais’s defense of his in-your-face “offensive” comedy style, which starts at 48:00. Richard names his favorite book (you might be surprised), they discuss why comedians tend to be atheists rather than believers, and then Gervais talks about his new Netflix show After Life, which I am still very keen to see.

h/t: BJ