Dianne Feinstein is dead

September 29, 2023 • 8:36 am

After hanging on as a sitting Senator while being very ill, California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein just passed away, and her death was confirmed this morning.  From the WaPo:

Mrs. Feinstein’s death was confirmed Friday by the Associated Press, which cited three people “familiar with the situation.” She was the oldest sitting member of the Senate and the subject of increasing scrutiny over her fitness to serve. Mrs. Feinstein was hospitalized in February with shingles, an illness later reported to have been complicated by encephalitis.

She returned to the Senate in May after a nearly three-month absence. Her inability during that time to vote on Biden administration judicial nominees, along with gathering evidence of her cognitive decline, led even some admirers to urge the senator to resign to avoid tarnishing what was by all accounts a remarkable legacy as a stateswoman. In August she was briefly hospitalized after a fall at her home in San Francisco.

At 90, she was the oldest member of the Senate and the longest-serving Senator from California (she had served six terms since 1992). She had also been mayor of San Francisco for a decade before going to Congress. Feinstein was a reliable Democratic centrist, and although criticized for not paying enough attention to women’s issues, and lately for not resigning in view of her age, she’s still an icon to Democrats.  Her most well known achievement was getting the Federal Assault Weapons Ban passed in 1994. Sadly, it expired in 2004, and it’s not clear that it was efficacious.

Feinstein was in the last year of her current term, and had announced she would not run for re-election in the fall of 2024. What will happen now is that Californa governor Gavin Newsom, with the assent of the California legislature, will appoint a one-year replacement. He’s a Democrat, so we don’t have to worry.

RIP, Senator.

Sinéad O’Connor dies at 56

July 26, 2023 • 1:57 pm

According to the BBC, Sinéad O’Connor has left this vale of tears at 56. This is incredibly young (her 17 year old son died, an apparent suicide, last year), and the cause of death was not given.

Irish singer and activist Sinéad O’Connor has died at the age of 56.

In a statement, the singer’s family said: “It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our beloved Sinéad.

“Her family and friends are devastated and have requested privacy at this very difficult time.”

She was best known for her single Nothing Compares 2 U, released in 1990, which went on to hit number one around the world.

Taoiseach (Irish PM) Leo Varadkar paid tribute to her, saying her music “was loved around the world and her talent was unmatched and beyond compare”.

I wasn’t a big fan, but I do remember seeing this live:

In 1992, one of the most notable events of her career took place when she ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II on the US TV show Saturday Night Live, where she was the invited performer.

Following an acapella performance of Bob Marley’s War, she looked at the camera and said “fight the real enemy”, a protest against the Catholic Church.

The incident resulted in her being banned for life by broadcaster NBC and protests against her in the US.

“I’m not sorry I did it. It was brilliant,” she said in an interview with the New York Times in 2021.

Tony Bennett died

July 21, 2023 • 12:45 pm

Well, the great singer lived a long, full life, making duets with Lady Gaga into his nineties. He died today at 96. I’ll say a bit more in tomorrow’s Nooz, but here’s a pair of songs that are among my favorites. What a rich voice the man had!

I’ll put up first my favorite Bennett solo, though not many people know of it and it never appears on Bennett “best of” lists. It’s “Love Look Away” from the musical “Flower Drum Song.” This song, with its gorgeous melody and Bennett’s belting, always gives me tingles. It was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein and first performed in 1958, the year of this recording.

I found one site that said this: “While the score is quite beautiful, Flower Drum Song is seldom performed today due to concerns regarding Asian-American stereotypes.” Perhaps that’s true (I’ve never seen the play or movie), but I can’t say that this song evinces any stereotypes.

This is the best of quite a few covers of this song (you can hear the original cast recording here and see the movie version here).

This is my favorite duet: Bennett and Lady Gaga singing “The Lady is a Tramp“, again written by Rodgers (but this time with Lorenz Hart) for the 1937 musical “Babes in Arms.” What fun these two are having!

Bob Zimmer died

May 24, 2023 • 9:30 am

Bob Zimmer, former President of the University of Chicago, died yesterday of brain cancer at the young age of 75.  He was stricken several years ago, but lived longer than anyone expected, and for that I’m glad. I’m writing this not to ape all the encomiums that will be printed in the next few days, but to show a side of the man that only I knew—until Mary Schmich wrote about it in the Chicago Tribune.

I met Bob in person only once (we were both inducted into the AAAS at the same time, and he introduced himself to me at the associated lunch in Cambridge, MA.). At that one meeting, I found him affable, easy to talk to, and not the least arrogant. As President and then as Chancellor, Bob distinguished himself not only in the REAL job of a President—raising money, which he was very good at—but, more important, in defending the Chicago Principles, including free speech and our policy of institutional neutrality embodied in the Kalven Report. That’s why, back in 2017, Bret Stephens (an alum who got his undergrad degree here in philosophy) wrote a NYT column calling Bob “America’s Best University President.” (A NYT obituary hasn’t yet appeared, but I’ll link to it here when it does.)

Small-fish professors like me have almost no contact with University presidents; when they do the prof is either in trouble or wants something. My second contact with Bob involved the latter: I wanted to feed the ducks.  As the covid pandemic started to grip America, we were told that the campus would be closed except for “essential research workers”, but I wasn’t one since I’d retired a while before that. Since I was busy feeding up Honey for her nesting season, I was upset that they might prevent me from going to Botany Pond. After fretting over it one evening, I sat in front of my laptop and banged out an email to Bob and Provost Ka Lee (March 19, 2020):

Dear President Zimmer and Provost Lee,

I am terribly sorry to bother you with a trivial request when I know that both of you have huge issues on your minds, trying to balance the mission of our University with the need to protect our community and its environs from contagion.  But in light of the possibility that the University may close almost completely, with non-essential people barred from campus, I wanted to request a small favor should that happen. I will be brief.

For the past three years I’ve taken it upon myself  to feed the breeding mallards at Botany Pond during spring and summer, and have been inordinately successful at bringing the young to fledging (in the last few years my associates and I have fledged 39 ducklings with only one loss, a mortality rate of <3% compared to over 50% before I took over). I attribute this to constant care and good food (duck chow, corn, and mealworms), and have worked with Facilities to ensure that pond remains “duck worthy” (they have constructed  a duckling ramp and raise and lower the water level for me so the young can be safe).

The presence of healthy ducks and ducklings has been a big draw for the community, with frequent visits from schoolchildren and others who come to watch them. Some of the females who migrate south return every year (I recognize them), and they have just returned and will soon begin building nests on the ledges of Erman.

What I would like to ask is whether, if the campus closes and I am not considered an essential research worker, I would still be allowed to visit the pond at least twice a day to feed the ducks. This is a solitary activity and nobody helps me, nor would I stand near anybody else. I would not work inside my building (I have an office in Zoology), but merely tend the ducks outside for a brief period. As far as I know from the CDC, there is no danger in spreading the coronavirus if you’re alone outside. (I am healthy and have experienced no symptoms.) I would simply feed the animals, which takes about ten minutes, and then leave campus.

I am asking your permission because our department is not the appropriate chain of command given that my request is not connected with research. But it is connected with animals—animals that have chosen to live and breed on our campus. There is an old Jewish saying that goes “If you have saved one life it is as if you saved the world.” Some of my colleagues say, “Well, they’re just ducks,” but their lives are important to themselves, to me, and, I think, to our University community.

I hope you’ll find yourself able to grant me this small favor if the campus is shuttered. I enclose two photos of our successes from the last year.

Thank you for your attention during these distressing times.

Jerry Coyne
Professor Emeritus
Department of Ecology and Evolution

This could be considered presumptuous, and also a burden on the President at a difficult time, so I didn’t expect an answer. But early the next morning I got this response:


Ka Yee and I are in full agreement that you should be able to do this.  And I fully sympathize with the view that they are not “just ducks”.  Please take care of them, “our ducks”, as you have been.  We are appreciative of this.

Stay well, and with best wishes,


Now I ask you: who but an empathic and humane man would even deal with an issue like this?  Bob even wrote the campus police telling them not to remove me were they to find me taking care of the ducks.

Ten days later, Mary Schmich, the Pulitzer-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune, found out about Honey and me from her former colleague who had moved to the University. Schmich then wrote the first of three columns about a professor and his duck, “The pandemic, a professor, and a duck named Honey: a story of life in a time of death.” (Her other two are here and here.) They were all written as feel-good stories: tales about how duck life goes on even as people fall ill. As always, Mary wrote a fantastic piece (inquire if you can’t see it) and followed it up with two columns that were equally good.

The first one appealed to the University administration, for it told people about the pond and the ducks, and the solace they gave everyone, and it was good publicity for the school. They put up a webcam at Botany Pond, and Facilities gave me lots of help making the pond duck-friendly, adding fences, duck ramps, and so on. They even built a trampoline to cushion Honey’s jumping ducklings when she’d nested right over a cement porch! When I needed help, Bob was always there for me.  Here are a few of the notes from his side (I would send him photos to keep him up to date.)

Jerry, Thanks for your report on the ducks which was certainly welcome and encouraging.  And thanks for the wonderful photos.  Thanks also for the offer to show me around.  I may wait until my granddaughter is back in town before taking you up on it.  Stay well.

With very best wishes and appreciation,


Here’s another written after I asked him to help me get fencing in one place to keep the ducklings safe from human intrusion. Since we were both Jewish, I told Bob that I gave one drake a Jewish name: Shmuley. (I also told him how a human mother tried to release two whopping flightless domestic ducks into the pond, which I prevented just in time):

Jerry,  Thanks so much for keeping me up to date.  If you need help to get fencing in place, please let me know.  And Shmuley – fantastic.  “Gotta have duck with Jewish name” – love it.  Maybe you are on your way to having a duck minyan.  That was a somewhat sad story about the domiestic ducks and the kids worried about their pets.  But it sounds as if it ended ok…..

Thanks again Jerry.  I hope you are doing well.

With best wishes and appreciation,  Bob

Every six months or so I’d send him an update, often with photos. Here’s one from July, 2021:

Hi Bob,

I’m just sending an update as the duck season at Botany Pond winds down.  It’s been a good year: we had four broods with a total of 27 ducklings that have fledged or are about to fledge, and it’s been very peaceful.  Lots of people have come to the pond to find respite by watching the birds (I met a woman the other day whose husband was having a transplant in the hospital, and she comes by every day to chill out by watching the waterfowl), and the Labbies have some of their drawing classes here.

Anyway, they plan to dredge the pond this fall, and I hope they do a good job, as they’ll have to preserve the turtles and fish who live there too.  As you transition to Chancellor, I hope you retain some of your “duck powers”!

At any rate, all is well, and I enclose some photos of this year’s crop; I hope they aren’t too large to get through.


And the response (this is only one of many exchanges), from July 20, 2021:

Jerry, thanks so much for the update and the wonderful photos (which came through very well.)  It is nice to hear that those who are under great stress, particularly medical stress, find respite at the pond.  As for dredging the pond, I am sure this needs to be done carefully, and I will make sure that they have someone who knows how to do this in a careful and protective way.  And I will still be here for the ducks (and more!)  Thanks again for the wonderful work taking care of our ducks.  It is important and I greatly value it.

I hope you are well and doing well more generally.

With best wishes and appreciation,


From the winter of that year, after I made a duck Christmas card for him:

Jerry, thanks very much for the lovely card.  And thank YOU for all you are doing for the beautiful ducks and ducklings and helping them all flourish.  I walk by Botany Pond occasionally (without our dogs) and it is great to see them all and see how they are doing.  Keep up the great work which is of value to us all.  I wish you and family all the best for a safe, healthy, happy, rewarding, productive, and gratifying new year.

With warm and best wishes, Bob

Now this isn’t a huge deal in the scheme of things or in the running of our University, but I have to say that a lot of the help I got with the ducks was because of Bob. He always answered my emails within a couple of days, and I felt secure knowing that the President considered the Botany Pond mallards as “our ducks”. I am sure that his help, and that of Facilities, saved the lives of many ducklings.

Then Bob had a seizure, and was diagnosed with brain cancer. I kept sending him emails with photos until about a year ago, but the answers stopped coming.  Of course I understood, but I was sad. I had even saved one of Honey’s molted speculum feathers to give him, but I never got the chance. And now he’s gone.

I wanted to put this on the record because it’s a side of Bob that won’t be lauded in his obituaries but shows his humanity.

I could also describe how several of us worked with him to ensure that the provisions of the Kalven Report on institutional neutrality were maintained, but that story appears on the University website and is a more conventional tale of academia. Further, Bob’s work on free speech (which continued after he resigned as President and became Chancellor) will also be described widely, so I needn’t repeat it.

We have a new President now, but I don’t know him, and thus dare not ask him about the ducks.  But rarely will you find a college president like Bob, who had all the power to effect change but remained concerned about the well-being of a few campus mallards.

RIP Bob; I will miss you, and so will the ducks.

Bob Zimmer


Honey and offspring

Rick Beato analyzes (and lauds) the music of Gordon Lightfoot

May 4, 2023 • 12:30 pm

In light of Gordon Lightfoot‘s death on May 1, musician, music analyst, and producer Rick Beato discusses Lightfoot, his music, and his musical legacy. This 28-minute video by Beato clearly shows that he worships the man and loved his music.

My only beef is that Beato doesn’t spend a lot of time on Lightfoot’s early songs, particularly those on his first album, “Lightfoot!”  To my mind, those represented his best work: simple (a bass and two guitars) but beautiful in their simplicity and honesty.  In fact, Beato gives no time at all to that work, which surely deserves as much time as the later music Beato favors.

Here’s a video Beato mentions: Bob Dylan inducting Lightfoot into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986:

Memoriam for Francisco Ayala by John Avise

March 6, 2023 • 8:15 am

Evolutionary geneticist Francisco José Ayala died yesterday, and although obituaries are beginning to appear, they’re all in Spanish (e.g., here and here). I expect the American press will catch up shortly. In the meantime, I asked his student and colleague John Avise (who posts bird photos here each Sunday) to write a personal account of his memories of Ayala. Here’s what John sent, posted with permission:

I was deeply saddened to learn of the recent passing of Francisco J. Ayala, a gentleman scientist with very European tastes and manners.

I knew Francisco for nearly five decades, first as his PhD student at University of California at Davis in the early 1970’s and much later as his friend and colleague at U.C. Irvine beginning in 2005.  Francisco’s early training as a Dominican priest in his native home of Spain, and soon thereafter as an evolutionary geneticist advised by Theodosius Dobzhansky at Columbia University in New York, combined to give Francisco a uniquely international and interdisciplinary perspective on life that led to his reputation as a brilliant intellectual, a true Renaissance Man.  His oversized impacts on the field of evolutionary genetics and the intersection of science and religion are well documented, so here I will limit my comments to a few more personal experiences.

I will most remember Francisco as a generous, honest, honorable, and openly warm-hearted mentor who loved people and genuinely cared about the wellbeing of his students and colleagues.  Francisco slept little and wrote extensively, always in longhand.  He traveled and lectured widely, especially in Europe where he is perhaps even better known than in the U.S.  During his long career, Francisco received an extraordinary number of honors and accolades, for which he always expressed surprise and great gratitude.  In what became almost a ritual between us, each year I would beg him to write his autobiography, to which he would jokingly reply that he didn’t want to subject himself to that much introspection.

He took special pleasure in his ‘hobby’, owning and operating a vineyard from which emerged delicious wines that= he frequently shared with his friends, keeping us well supplied.  Although our scientific foci differed considerably, in many respects I personally regarded Francisco almost as a second father figure.  Indeed, to a considerable degree, his overarching concern with human affairs inspired me to write two of my own books on human genetics.  I will miss Francisco sorely, as will the fields of biology and philosophy writ large.

A photo of Ayala from the NYT:

Photo: Chas Metivier

The Jews who loved Christmas

December 22, 2022 • 11:15 am

People who wish me a “Happy Hanukkah” don’t realize that I never celebrated the Jewish holidays, the one exception being my mother lighting one candle per night on a menorah.  Otherwise, we celebrated Christmas like the goys: we had a Christmas tree, which my father called “The Hanukkah bush”, exchanged presents on Christmas morning, and had a big Christmas lunch, often featuring ham.

I don’t remember going to synagogue at all, though I did go to Hebrew school to learn the language for a bar mitzvah I never had. I flunked out of Hebrew school, and as a result was put into the all-girl class, whose instruction was less rigorous because you don’t need much Hebrew for a bat mitzvah. I was, at 12, ashamed to be in a class with all the girls, and simply left Hebrew school. That was my last connection with the faith, which I lost completely in 1967 (see here for the story, or go below the fold).

This is all a prelude to showing you two photos that my sister sent me yesterday. Apparently she and her family visited my parents’ graves (they’re in Arlington National Cemetery since my dad was a veteran), and found them decorated them for the holidays.

Her caption: “The Jews who loved Christmas!!” (She is also a heathen.):

:As they say in Yiddish
לעבעדיק ניטל

Click “read more” for my deconversion story

Continue reading “The Jews who loved Christmas”

Christine McVie died

November 30, 2022 • 2:37 pm

As we Boomers age, we’re going to suffer the loss of many musical idols of our youth. The latest was Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac fame, who passed away on Wednesday. She was 79, which is close to a reasonable life expectancy, but still. . .

From the NYT:

Her family announced her death on Facebook. The statement said that she died at a hospital but did not specify its location. The statement also did not give the cause of her death. In June, Ms. McVie told Rolling Stone that she was in “quite bad health” and that she had endured debilitating problems with her back.

From the band:

Here’s the group performing a song she wrote (my favorite of hers), and she sings lead: