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:

RIP Robert Nola

October 25, 2022 • 8:30 am

I am sad to report the death on Sunday of Robert Nola (born 1940), a retired philosophy professor from the University of Auckland and one of the “Satanic Seven” involved in the kerfuffle about the Listener Letter—a letter he signed with six others arguing that while Mātauranga Māori, or Māori “ways of knowing”, should be taught in sociology or anthropology classes, it was not the equivalent of “science”(see the original letter here) and should not be so taught in science classes. This plunged Robert into a deep controversy, culminating in an investigation of him and another Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Though they were cleared of what was in effect a charge of “disrespecting indigenous knowledge”, Robert and his colleague Garth Cooper (a Māori) publicly resigned as fellows. (The kerfuffle and his resignation are detailed in this series of posts). Here are the final two paragraphs of the letter:

Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy. However, in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.

To accept it as the equivalent of science is to patronise and fail indigenous populations; better to ensure that everyone participates in the world’s scientific enterprises. Indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways, but it is not science.

Signing the Letter, and resigning from the RSNZ, was an act of bravery, and showed the Royal Society for what it was, a bunch of invertebrates unable to distinguish true science from superstition.

But I met Robert well before these culture wars occurred. When I went to New Zealand and asked readers if they wanted to get together. Robert wrote me and invited me to stay with him and his wife Jan at their house in Auckand. And so I did—for the last few days before I left the country. It was a delightful visit in a spiffy house with a gorgeous garden that even had a bit of rainforest and a a lava tube. As a philosopher of science, Robert took the trouble to fill in some gaps in my knowledge, and I fondly remember long talks over breakfast about Kuhn, Popper, and the lot. You can see Robert’s list of books and publications on his Wikipedia page.

We continued to correspond after I left New Zealand and the “Listener wars” began, exchanging news and publications (including my posts about Mātauranga Māori).  Then the correspondence stopped; I was told that Robert had gone to the hospital and then, on top of that, caught covid in the hospital. My last email from him explained that he had finally returned home after several months, and was recuperating slowly. Then this morning the news came from Jan that Robert died two days ago, peacefully and at home.

I was much looking forward to seeing him again on my next trip to New Zealand, which I hope will take place before too long. Alas, that is not to be. He was a good man, gentle and wise, but with a will of iron.  I and all his friends will miss him.  My condolences to Jan.

Here’s a photo of Robert and Jan I took during my visit in April five years ago.

In memoriam: Dick Lewontin and Ed Wilson

October 20, 2022 • 11:45 am

The American Naturalist has just published short “in memoriam” pieces for two Harvard professors I knew: Dick Lewontin, population geneticist, evolutionary biologist, and my Ph.D. advisor, and Ed Wilson, naturalist, ant expert, and double Pulitzer winner. I knew and liked both of them, but in the end they thoroughly disliked each other. Curiously, Ed was instrumental in bringing both Dick and me to Harvard, but after the sociobiology battles began, Ed and Dick’s friendship was replaced by animosity. But I’ve written about all this before.

The obituaries are good ones, especially that of Lewontin (it’s the best one for him that I’ve read):

Click on the screenshots to read them; access is free.  I’ll give a brief excerpt from each piece.

Many academics, and perhaps scientists in particular, consider teaching a burden—a diversion from their “real” work. Lewontin loved it. Indeed, he taught more courses than required (the old-fashioned way, with blackboards, chalk, and transparencies), and after retiring he confessed to one of the authors that he regretted the decision because he so missed the experience of teaching. (At the request of a group of graduate students, he did continue to teach gratis a seminar in biostatistics.) He was proud of the many people he had mentored. Historian Michael Dietrich (2021) records how Lewontin deflected enquiries about his own career and contributions, focusing on his mentees: “When, in 1997, I asked him how I should write about his life, he pulled out of his desk a list of every graduate student, postdoc and visitor at his laboratory—more than 100 people—and said I should write about all of them.” Lewontin’s commitment to teaching extended beyond traditional academia; he wrote frequently (and wittily) for magazines of general intellectual interest, such as the New York Review of Books, and he published a number of popular science books (e.g., Lewontin 1982, 1991b, 2000; Rose et al. 1984).

That’s absolutely true. Lewontin was the least self-aggrandizing scientist of high reputation that I ever knew. I wrote my own “in memoriam” piece on this website.

Here’s a photo (taken by Andrew Berry) of Lewontin receiving homage from moi. Cambridge, MA, 2017

Many scientists have marveled that a single person could have managed to find the time to write at least 30 books on such a diversity of subjects in addition to hundreds of research articles, even aside from his other activities. The feat becomes more astounding when one realizes that Wilson never used a word processor; he did all his writing in longhand. The accomplishment remains astounding, but a good part of the explanation is that, beginning in 1965, he had a research assistant, Kathleen Horton, who worked with him until his death and promptly typed all of his writings. She quickly assumed much responsibility for his various projects, including handling virtually all of his correspondence, scheduling, and many of the chores associated with his research activities. Several remembrances noted her importance in Wilson’s work, and Rhodes (2021) provides some details of her life and contributions. Wilson was very aware and appreciative of her lifetime of support, and this account of his scientific contributions would be incomplete without recognizing her.

Indeed, it was Kathy who, guarding Ed’s office, got me in to see him when I showed up at Harvard with my dossier, begging to be admitted. (I was supposed to go to grad school at the University of Chicago, but found out when I returned from my Wanderjahr that Lewontin, formerly at Chicago, was moving to Harvard, and didn’t remember to ask for me to be admitted as his prospective student.) I thus had to get into Harvard on my own, and Ed was instrumental in setting up appointments for me with various faculty, who then voted to admit me after I filled out an application. I could never dislike Ed after that, plus he was always very gracious to me. (I was a t.a. for him twice in Introductory Biology.)

Here’s a photo I took of Ed in 2007 at a lunch during a symposium at Harvard:

RIP: Richard Cook

September 22, 2022 • 9:15 am

Team Duck and I are deeply saddened by the recent death of one of our members, Dr. Richard Cook, who passed away from pancreatic cancer on August 31. He was only 69.  An anesthesiologist by training, he was also a polymath, something I discovered only after he died. Richard’s many talents are highlighted in one of the articles below; I did not know of these, for we Team members rarely talk about their work while on duty at Botany Pond. Usually we feed the ducks and then gather on the bridge or at a nearby table for a while, soaking in the beauty of the pond, chatting about this and that, and, of course, discussing the ducks and the vagaries of their behavior.

Richard and his wife Karen were on the team for two years, faithfully appearing every day two summers ago at 6:30 a.m. to do the morning feeding of Honey and Dorothy’s ducklings, and coming regularly after that.  Beyond the quotidian tasks of tending ducks, which require diligence and commitment, Richard had two special talents. One was to design various contrivances to assure the safe arrival of ducklings at the pond (cushions, covered holes, padding on spikes, and so on). He and Karen spent a long time preparing for the arrival of one brood of ducks this year (as well as Dorothy’s last year). Unfortunately, this year’s nest, under my air conditioner, never produced offspring, as the mother abandoned her nest after all the preparations. I am leaving up these preparations as Richard’s legacy to Team Duck.

Richard was also superb at calming me down during the many moments of anxiety I had as Duckmeister over the last couple of seasons. Perhaps it was his “bedside manner” acquired during his years as an M.D., but whatever it was, he helped me immensely to put things in perspective—to accept the things that I could not change, and to suggest how to proceed with the things I could change. He was a soft-spoken and gentle man, and though he was surely suffering from the disease during much of the time I knew him, we didn’t learn how ill he was until just a few months ago. Pancreatic cancer is a cruel ailment, and I could never have borne it with the fortitude he did.

Karen sent us the sad news, but added a summary of Richard’s life, work, and persona that I reproduce below; it was put together by his friends:

I have asked Richard’s closest professional friends to capture the arc of his career and highlight a few of his major accomplishments in the next couple of paragraphs. But because his career was both long, storied and highly influential, they have also put together a longer summary of his professional impact on many fields available at the following link:

What stands out, professionally, about Richard is how he dedicated himself to the health and safety of others in the many ‘acts’ of his career.

It is rare for people to have second, third or even fourth acts in their careers (some concurrently). He was foremost a caring physician and anesthesiologist dedicated to his patients well being (for 25 years at the Ohio State University (OSU) and University of Chicago Medical Centers). For example, after the massive Haiti earthquake of 2010, Richard helped lead a University of Chicago-sponsored medical mission to set up a field hospital caring for the injured and destitute.

But, both at the beginning and at the end of his career, he worked on computing challenges as a software engineer (after college at Control Data Corp.; after ending clinical practice, co-founding a successful software engineering company, Adaptive Capacity Labs).

Alongside these careers, he was a researcher for 35 years – at OSU, University of Chicago, KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden), and OSU again. From the beginning he pursued new paths in Human Factors, in Human-Computer/Automation Interaction, and in Resilient Performance in complex systems, and then helped young researchers expand the new directions. His ideas and innovations arose from his commitment to learning from incidents – close observation of actual work, not work as imagined from afar. As a result, he made lasting contributions to the fields of Cognitive Systems Engineering (designing joint systems of people and computers in high performance, high risk settings) and Resilience Engineering (how people provide a unique and critical form of adaptive capacity to make complex systems work). His publications and recorded talks in these areas are a gold mine for young researchers (google “How Complex Systems Fail”).

As a patient safety advocate, he used his science and engineering expertise to contribute to the start of the patient safety movement (he was a founding board member of the National Patient Safety Foundation in 1996 and co-founded the GAPS Center in 2000 to conduct a major patient safety campaign in the VA of Ohio). He was unafraid to speak out whenever the movement veered off-course from the science.

Through all of the varied acts of his career, he looked closer, thought harder, saw deeper, and envisioned new directions. As one colleague said, “Richard is a genius troublemaker.” Then he patiently shared his wisdom with varied emerging talents he encountered across the diverse ‘acts’ of a storied life.

Richard leaves his wife, Karen, three children, Cliff, Kristin, and Kara Schwandner and their spouses, his father, Richard G. Cook, his siblings, Sue and Paul Cook and six grandchildren. He is remembered as an extraordinary person, both funny and generous with his time, an incomparable doctor and a wonderful husband, father and grandfather. He was a lovely man in every sense.

It is only now, as I said, that I’m learning what a polymath the man was. We will miss him, as will our feathered charges at the pond.  Here are Richard and Karen photographed on the bridge on November 10 of last year, at the tail end of duck season:

And here’s the memoriam to Richard assembled by three of his colleagues; click on the screenshot to read it.

Like our ducks in the fall, he left us suddenly and unexpectedly, and we won’t see his like again. We join his friends and family in remembering him and being grateful for the time we had in his company.

“The Queue” in real time

September 17, 2022 • 8:00 am

There will be no wildlife photos today as I have only a few sets that I must conserve until more come in (hint, hint).

The Queue, as it’s called, has now achieved iconic status in England. Queuing, of course, is the British national hobby, and woe be to the American who doesn’t Respect the Queue!  But the line to see Queen Elizabeth’s coffin is the Mother of All Queues, now about five miles long.  Below is a live Queue Tracker that shows you how long you have to wait (14 hours right now). And it’s not going to get shorter, either, as the line is expected to grow until before the lying-in-state ends in two days. As I wrote a couple of days ago,

The lying-in-state ends “at 06.30 BST on Monday, 19 September, and the queue will close early to ensure as many people as possible can get in.” If the crowds continue, it have to close a day early!

Elizabeth is lying in the Palace of Westminster, first built in the 11th century and reconstructed in 1834 after a fire. You all know this building; it’s where the Houses of Parliament are and is flanked by the tower of Big Ben:

Palace of Westminster, Big Ben, and Westminster Bridge as seen from the south bank of the River Thames.

So get your tuchas in line if you’re in London want to see it all. Here’s a live tracker of the waiting time and a map, but you’ll want to watch the live feed of the lying-in-state at the bottom of this post.

Here’s The Queue at present At least you can see many of London’s sights as you shuffle along for a day or so. It’s now about 5.5 miles long, which means it would take you two hours to walk past it all at normal speed.

Satellite images! Enlarge the photos.

I have to say that although I wasn’t a big fan of Queen Elizabeth, and an even smaller fan of the Royal Family, it is touching to see the Brits come out in such huge numbers, enduring long waits for a few seconds of meditation before the coffin of their late Queen. They are a stalwart folk, able to endure a lot to show their love of country. Even Matthew, who is like me (thought Elizabeth was okay, doesn’t like the Royal Family), wavered a bit, sending me an email this morning:

Almost makes me want to go. Almost.

He won’t go, of course, but it’s telling that the thought crossed his mind.  He also sent me a fantastic series of tweets by Jules Birkby. a 42-year-old artist who endured the long wait with her mum. I highly recommend that you read through her whole series! (Keep clicking “show more replies” when you get to the end of one part.) Birkby is full of patience and good humor, and really gives you a sense of what it’s like to walk The Queue. Click on the first tweet below to get started:

Keep clicking “show replies” until you get to the end of the thread (the tweet in which Jules mentions her greeting-card operation).

I add two tweets Jules made right after she and her Mum exited Westminster Palace. The last one is so British: Jules was pining for a cup of tea the whole night and morning, and she finally got one. Oh, and David Beckham was also in The Queue in front of them, and waited just like anyone else. NOBODY jumps The Queue!

Jules notes that some women walked the whole way in high heels. 

Now you’ll want to have at least a look at the livestream of the ceremony on YouTube. Do watch for at least 15 minutes, as that’s how often they change the guard. and that is definitely worth seeing.

As Matthew said, “Very soothing, no commentary, no music. They change the guard every 15 mins.”.  I’m touched by how all the guards look down and also by the behavior of the visitors, which is quite variable but always respectful. Some people bow, some people weep, but nobody tarries, as they know others are waiting.

There are several cameras that alternately focus on different aspects of the crowd and the venue.

h/t: Matthew

Two articles on the Queen: one lionizing her and the other attacking her

September 10, 2022 • 12:45 pm

Because Queen Elizabeth was more or less a cipher, her death has led to people projecting all manner of their own feelings onto her, seeing her ranging from a kind, diligent, and dedicated person to a  representative of an outdated and bloody colonialist regime, as well as of a monarchy past its time. This post will give you one example of each pole. I have no d*g in this fight, so I tend to see the Queen as a decent and hardworking person, but the monarchy as an institution whose time has come and gone.

Reaction to the death of Elizabeth II was at first wholly worshipful, but a backlash is beginning—largely in the U.S. I’ll talk about that in a bit, but first let’s hear the positive assessment of Elizabeth by one of her former “subjects,” Andrew Sullivan. Her legacy is the main object of his column yesterday (click to read, but subscribe if you read frequently).

As a conservative and an ex-Brit, one might expect Sullivan to admire the Queen, and indeed he does.  But he mainly admires her for hanging in there, for choosing a life that is not a human life, because she knew that her lot would be the abandonment of freedom for duty.  I have to say, Sully does say that well:

[When Biden was elected], I found myself watching the life of an entirely different head of state: a young, somewhat shy woman suddenly elevated to immense responsibilities and duties in her twenties, hemmed in by protocol, rigidified by discipline. The new president could barely get through the day without some provocation, insult, threat or lie. Elizabeth Windsor was tasked as a twenty-something with a job that required her to say or do nothing that could be misconstrued, controversial, or even interestingly human — for the rest of her life.

The immense difficulty of this is proven by the failure of almost every other member of her family — including her husband — to pull it off. We know her son King Charles III’s views on a host of different subjects, many admirable, some cringe-inducing. We know so much of the psychological struggles of Diana; the reactionary outbursts of Philip; the trauma of Harry; the depravity of Andrew; the agonies of Margaret. We still know nothing like that about the Queen. Because whatever else her life was about, it was not about her.

Part of the hard-to-explain grief I feel today is related to how staggeringly rare that level of self-restraint is today. Narcissism is everywhere. Every feeling we have is bound to be expressed. Self-revelation, transparency, authenticity — these are our values. The idea that we are firstly humans with duties to others that will require and demand the suppression of our own needs and feelings seems archaic. Elizabeth kept it alive simply by example.

Yes, she is to be admired for that self-restraint, though I don’t think it would have sullied her image to do a few more Paddington Bear skits. But, I suppose, Sullivan does come close to the reason for the outburst of grief in Britain at the Queen’s death:

Elizabeth never rode those tides of acclaim or celebrity. She never pressed the easy buttons of conventional popularity. She didn’t even become known for her caustic wit like the Queen Mother, or her compulsively social sorties like Margaret. The gays of Britain could turn both of these queens into camp divas. But not her. In private as in public, she had the kind of integrity no one can mock successfully.

You can make all sorts of solid arguments against a constitutional monarchy — but the point of monarchy is precisely that it is not the fruit of an argument. It is emphatically not an Enlightenment institution. It’s a primordial institution smuggled into a democratic system. It has nothing to do with merit and logic and everything to do with authority and mystery — two deeply human needs our modern world has trouble satisfying without danger.

The Crown satisfies those needs, which keeps other more malign alternatives at bay.

Well, one could disagree that countries need royalty to keep them stable. Although I’ve heard it argued that America could use a “head of state” for ceremonial purposes, alongside the President for governance, I think we’ve done pretty well (excepting for one four-year period); and many countries thrive without royalty.  I, for one, don’t crave authority and mystery.  Could Sullivan’s emphasis on those qualities have something to do with his Catholicism, which teems with both?

But in contrast to the article below, Sullivan does explain the Elizabeth-worship that so puzzles Americans:

 But it matters that divisive figures such as Boris Johnson or Margaret Thatcher were never required or expected to represent the entire nation. It matters that in times of profound acrimony, something unites. It matters that in a pandemic when the country was shut down, the Queen too followed the rules, even at her husband’s funeral, and was able to refer to a phrase — “we’ll meet again” — that instantly reconjured the days of the Blitz, when she and the royal family stayed in London even as Hitler’s bombs fell from the sky.

Every Brit has a memory like this. She was part of every family’s consciousness, woven into the stories of our lives, representing a continuity and stability over decades of massive change and dislocation. No American will ever experience that kind of comfort, that very human form of patriotism across the decades in one’s own life and then the centuries before. When I grew up studying the Normans and the Plantagenets and the Tudors, they were not just artifacts of the distant past, but deeply linked to the present by the monarchy’s persistence and the nation’s thousand-year survival as a sovereign state — something no other European country can claim.

She was there, she didn’t screw up, she was one fixed point in a changing world, and she was the latest instantiation of a hereditary monarchy.  The first three points I can understand, the last I can’t. I’d prefer a country that didn’t have a lineage set apart (and considered superior to) all others. The United State is only about 250 years old, but would having a king ensure our persistence? Would a king have prevented Trump from nearly subverting the Republic? I don’t think so.


I was told that the NYT article below was “pretty good,” but when I read it I discovered a hit job on Queen Elizabeth from a woke-ish perspective.  In other words, though I wasn’t a huge fan of the Queen or the monarchy, I see this article as fundamentally unfair. For it pins on Queen Elizabeth all the horrible crimes and tragedies that went with the creation of the British Empire, even though she had nothing to do with those things. She may have embodied that history as a ruler, but she was a virtually powerless figurehead who had nothing to do with the stuff. Nevertheless, Jasanoff finds a way to pin it on her: colonialism, racism, paternalism—the whole schmear.  Click to read:


Jasanoff begins with the obligatory bow to Elizabeth’s fortitude and commitment, but quickly begins tarring her with the crimes of Empire formation:

Tell me if this is not an undeserved slur:

The queen embodied a profound, sincere commitment to her duties — her final public act was to appoint her 15th prime minister — and for her unflagging performance of them, she will be rightly mourned. She has been a fixture of stability, and her death in already turbulent times will send ripples of sadness around the world. But we should not romanticize her era. For the queen was also an image: the face of a nation that, during the course of her reign, witnessed the dissolution of nearly the entire British Empire into some 50 independent states and significantly reduced global influence. By design as much as by the accident of her long life, her presence as head of state and head of the Commonwealth, an association of Britain and its former colonies, put a stolid traditionalist front over decades of violent upheaval. As such, the queen helped obscure a bloody history of decolonization whose proportions and legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged.

Seriously? The queen obscured a bloody history? Was it her job to stand up and pronounce about that? Did she deliberately obscure the bad aspects of British colonial history. No, because that’s not her brief. She did not favor or perpetuate or obscure any bloody history; all she did (which Jasanoff emphasizes) is make occasional visits to the “colonies” and have her picture taken with “mostly nonwhite” people in those places.

Here’s more:

In photographs from Commonwealth leaders’ conferences, the white queen sits front and center among dozens of mostly nonwhite premiers, like a matriarch flanked by her offspring. She took her role very seriously, sometimes even clashing with her ministers to support Commonwealth interests over narrower political imperatives, as when she advocated multifaith Commonwealth Day services in the 1960s and encouraged a tougher line on apartheid South Africa.

Note that the queen was against apartheid. But. . . but. . .

What you would never know from the pictures — which is partly their point — is the violence that lies behind them.

. . . for which the Queen bears no blame. Jasanoff brings up British violence in Malaya, Ireland (not that the IRA had anything to do with that), and especially in Kenya, where the British engaged in mass slaughter to subdue the populace (read this piece: “The colonization of Kenya” to hear about British malfeasance in all its horror.)  I could add India to Elizabeth’s crimes. Was the Queen to blame for the Jallianwalah Bagh Massacre, or the deaths of millions following the partition in 1947?  She wasn’t even Queen during these times.

Perhaps Elizabeth knew all the bloody details, but knowing is not perpetrating or approving. Yet look at this sly dig: she might have known!

We may never learn what the queen did or didn’t know about the crimes committed in her name. (What transpires in the sovereign’s weekly meetings with the prime minister remains a black box at the center of the British state.) Her subjects haven’t necessarily gotten the full story, either. Colonial officials destroyed many records that, according to a dispatch from the secretary of state for the colonies, “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government” and deliberately concealed others in a secret archive whose existence was revealed only in 2011.

This is perilously close to the “have you stopped beating your wife?” accusation.  Jasanoff keeps mixing up Elizabeth with the bad actions of others, like the previous Prime Minister, tarring her with the sins not just of her contemporaries, but also of the sins of the past. She is even faulted for “her white face”! Jasanoff just can’t stop mixing up the sins of the Empire with the character of the Queen:

Yet xenophobia and racism have been rising, fueled by the toxic politics of Brexit. Picking up on a longstanding investment in the Commonwealth among Euroskeptics (both left and right) as a British-led alternative to European integration, Mr. Johnson’s government (with Liz Truss, now the prime minister, as its foreign secretary) leaned into a vision of “Global Britain” steeped in half-truths and imperial nostalgia.

The queen’s very longevity made it easier for outdated fantasies of a second Elizabethan age to persist. She represented a living link to World War II and a patriotic myth that Britain alone saved the world from fascism. She had a personal relationship with Winston Churchill, the first of her 15 prime ministers, whom Mr. Johnson pugnaciously defended against well-founded criticism of his retrograde imperialism. And she was, of course, a white face on all the coins, notes and stamps circulated in a rapidly diversifying nation: From perhaps one person of color in 200 Britons at her accession, the 2011 census counted one in seven.

The second paragraph faults her for having a “personal relationship” with Churchill, for being somehow associated with Boris Johnson’s defense of Churchill, and of course for having a “white face” that’s on all the currency and stamps. I suppose that visage on money and postage harms people. At long last, Dr. Jasanoff, have you no sense of decency?

At the end, Jasanoff calls for an end to the imperial monarchy. I agree. I oppose any hereditary aristocracy, and it’s time to at least ratchet back on the pomp and circumstance. But for Jasanoff, Elizabeth is a screen on which the sweating Harvard Professor projects all her hatred of colonialism and the bad things the British did to secure their empire. And I agree with that assessment of colonialism as well. But I do not agree that Elizabeth, by merely existing, somehow legitimizes the racism and xenophobia of British history.

Matthew tells me that this kind of criticism of Elizabeth is far stronger in America than in Britain. That, of course, is because she was the British Queen, but also because Americans are more Pecksniffian and woke than Brits.  Perhaps it is time for a reckoning of the “British Empire’s violent atrocities,” as the Guardian piece below reports. In that way the Queen is like George Floyd, as the deaths of both of them have unleashed huge amounts of resentment and calls to reassess the past.

When Matthew sent me these tweets about what was going on in the UK, and I read some of the vicious criticism of Jasanoff’s piece by readers commenting on her article, I thought, “Wait, this is surely an overreaction.” Now I’m not so sure. Here are some tweets:

Eizabeth’s death unleashes anger at both her and British history:

h/t: Matthew