Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Some time ago, deep in the understorey of the internet, I argued that somebody was advancing an intellectually inconsistent position, and was rewarded with the witty reply "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds".

I was then puzzled about two things. First, how one could be so cavalier about not contradicting oneself; I had rather assumed that that was a necessary precondition for making sense. Second, where that quotation came from, for I assumed that it had not originated with the blogger who was hurling it at me.

Thanks to Ana Mardoll I have now found out where it came from. Wikiquote (accessed 31 Dec 2013) has a large collection of quotes on the topic of intellectual consistency, and they must have been assembled by someboy who is very much of one mind with the guy mentioned above because they pretty much all ridicule the concept:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood. --- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Well, so it appears at first sight. Of course it would not matter anyway what a bunch of famous people thought on a topic because it is quite possible that they were all idiots honestly mistaken. But if we look closer, we notice that there are actually two sets of quotes here. There are those that proudly declare that you do not have to make any sense if you are just awesome enough (apparently without wondering how we are supposed to recognize awesome people as awesome if they contradict themselves all the time). In addition to the hobgoblin one, for example:
Consistency is a virtue for trains: what we want from a philosopher is insights, whether he comes by them consistently or not. --- Stephen Vizinczey

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative. --- Oscar Wilde

Consistency is the enemy of enterprise, just as symmetry is the enemy of art. --- George Bernard Shaw

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. --- F. Scott Fitzgerald
No idea who Vizinczey is, by the way. And then there are a few that have a completely different thrust:
If a person never contradicts himself, it must be that he says nothing. --- Miguel de Unamuno

Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago. --- Bernard Berenson

A silly ass ... wrote a paper to prove me inconsistent. ... Inconsistency is the bugbear of fools! I wouldn't give a damn for a fellow who couldn't change his mind with a change of conditions. --- John Arbuthnot "Jacky" Fisher

The facts changed. Since the facts changed, I changed my position. What do you do, sir? --- John Maynard Keynes
These are quotes in which people defend themselves for having been inconstent not in the same argument, but inconsistent over time. In other words, they argue that being able to change one's mind is a virtue. And it is; it is the opposite of being unreasonable and dogmatic. I do hope that whoever organized that Wikiquote entry is aware that there are two completely unrelated issues.

But even given that being able to change one's mind in the face of new evidence or better arguments is good, I have to stay by my original position in this case. Intellectual consistency in one and the same discussion is not a goblinoid of whatever species (whether hobgoblin or bugbear). It is not an unworthy obsession of those who have run out of arguments. It is the first, lowest hurdle you have to clear for your position to make any sense whatsoever. Only after it is clear that you aren't obviously contradicting yourself is it even worth the effort to check whether your position is also supported by evidence.

For example, those who use 'faith' and 'religion' as insults when discussing other people's beliefs and criticize them for not having an evidence based worldview but then turn around and promote their own religious faith should be laughed out of the conversation. And somebody who manages to write in two consecutive sentences that (1) there is no clear line between the birds and the non-avian dinosaurs that were their ancestors and (2) there is such a strong divergence between birds and non-avian dinosaurs that we should accept the latter as a paraphyletic taxon without realizing what they have just done does not deserve to be taken seriously.

People who contradict themselves within the same line of argumentation may be confused, they may be dishonest, or they may be insane, and at least in the first case pointing the problem out to them may be helpful. But those who are downright proud of making incoherent arguments simply do not have anything to offer to rational discourse. They aren't misunderstood geniuses surrounded by nagging little minds, they are charlatans.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Botany picture #129: The Victorian Christmas Bush

Prostanthera lasianthos (Lamiaceae), the beautiful 'Victorian Christmas Bush', Victoria, 2012. Several states of Australia have their so-called Christmas bushes, perennial plants that flower impressively around the time of Christmas. I hear the New South Walesian one is a Cunoniaceae, and the Western Australian one is hemiparasitic Nuytsia floribunda. The others I don't know yet. Being a great fan of the mint family Lamiaceae, this one will probably always be my favorite. The flowers surely do not have to hide behind even pretty orchids.

Happy holidays and a great new year!

Monday, December 23, 2013

In the case of collections, the humanities seem to have the edge

From colleagues in plant taxonomy I have repeatedly heard anecdotes and rumors indicating that some managers and politicians appear to have a remarkably myopic attitude towards natural history collections such as herbaria or insect collections and towards the research being done within them. Indeed at the conference in Sydney three weeks ago somebody who would know it mentioned that at least one unnamed Australian State Herbarium (!) was in real danger of being shut down.

Apparently there are actually people in governments or science administrations who think that once most of the specimen data from a herbarium are placed into a searchable database the herbarium can be closed down, and that once a flora of a given region has been published all taxonomists studying the local plants have become redundant. Those ideas leave me very puzzled.

Don't get me wrong. I am not at all puzzled by the prospect that people would cut or close down valuable institutions in general. That happens all the time and is, no matter how shortsighted, entirely unsurprising.

No, what puzzles me is why some people come up with these ideas for closing down taxonomic research and natural history collections when they would never in their wildest dreams suggest the same for other, comparable research and institutions outside of biology. Or would you consider it plausible to see the following suggestion from a politician?
Did you hear? All the works of art in our National Gallery have been entered into a searchable image database. That means we can save a lot of money by closing it down. Maybe some other museum elsewhere will take those superfluous paintings and statues?
Or perhaps this out of the mouth of a science manager?
Hey, I only just realized that a book exists that discusses the history of the Roman empire. Great! Now we can fire all historians and archaeologists dealing with that period of history because obviously they will never be needed again.
Of course not. When applied to any other type of museum or research, these suggestions would immediately be recognized as bizarre. Yet from what I hear, they are made in all seriousness for natural history collections, our priceless repositories of preserved specimens from which information can be extracted on biodiversity, evolutionary relationships, morphology, anatomy, DNA, and historical changes in phenology, species distributions, land use, vegetation cover, and weather patterns. Why would somebody consider this type of museum redundant who would laugh at the same suggestion were it made about, say, the National Coin and Stamp Collection? That is what I don't understand.

It is a common assumption that the natural sciences get all the money and that the humanities are not taken seriously. But in the case of collections and collections based research, the humanities actually appear to have more support. Weird.

Friday, December 20, 2013

How not to decrease the confusion about monophyly

Today this year's last issue of Australian Systematic Botany has come out, and the first paper in it is 'Defining and redefining monophyly: Haeckel, Hennig, Ashlock, Nelson and the proliferation of definitions' by Vanderlaan, Ebach, Williams and Wilkins.

It provides a historical overview of the various ways in which the term 'monophyletic' has been used over the years. A perhaps overly simplistic take is this:
  1. Haeckel introduced the term to describe a group with a common ancestor.
  2. Hennig found it important to distinguish two types of groups that have a common ancestor. Monopyletic ones include all descendants of that ancestor, paraphyletic ones only some of the descendants.
  3. Ashlock was unhappy with the redefinition of monophyletic and wanted to return to what he saw as the original definition by Haeckel. He thus used monophyletic to refer to both Hennig's monophyletic and paraphyletic and created the new term holophyletic for Hennig's monophyletic only. Because they have a vested interest in blurring the line between mono- and paraphyly, so-called Evolutionary Systematists prefer Ashlock's definitions.
Confused yet? In reality, as the authors of the present paper point out, it is even more complicated because there is some disagreement about whether a monophyletic group includes the descendants and everything back in time to the ancestor or only the descendants existing in one time-slice.

Vanderlaan et al now propose two new terms: diamonophyletic for a clade that is seen through time to include the ancestor and all, and synmonophyletic for a group of contemporaneous species that are more closely related to each other than to anything else.

Yes, definitions are important. But I still have a few issues with this paper. First, I do not have the foggiest idea why we really need to distinguish these cases. Assuming that evolution is true (and I do hope the four authors of the present paper agree), is there really any imaginable group where an extant species would be assigned to a diamonophyletic but not to a synmonophyletic group or vice versa? I cannot imagine how that would be possible.

And that means that a monophyletic group is a monophyletic group is a monophyletic group, as long as we ignore Ashlock's re-redefinition. In a phylogeny, being each others closest relatives means being descended from the same ancestor. So maybe I miss something, but I cannot imagine a situation in which I am talking about a plant group, let us say the genus Senecio, and somebody would ask back, 'do you mean including the ancestor or only the species that exist today?' That is just not a thing that happens.

The second issue here is that as recent as 2010 Podani had already suggested new terms for what (at first glance at least) appears to be precisely the same distinction: monophyly/paraphyly for phylogenies seen through time, i.e. including ancestors, and monoclady/paraclady for contemporaneous species only. The strange thing is, I vaguely remember one of the authors of today's paper (or his blog partner?) lambasting Podani over this for somewhat unclear reasons, and now he goes and does what sure looks like the same, only ignoring the previous contribution (yes, they don't even cite it).

And that is then another problem. We now have even more terms floating around than before because Vanderlaan et al have created new ones where Podani's would have been available. How that is meant to decrease the conceptual confusion instead of increasing it exponentially is not immediately clear.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Botany picture #128: Actites megalocarpa

Actites megalocarpa (Asteraceae), Tasmania, 2013. Although it looks like an introduced weed in this country more dominated by paper daisies, this unassuming plant is a native. It is found on dunes along many of the Australian coasts, not only in Tasmania. Strange then that so many invasive weeds have been introduced to stabilize dunes when Australia already had an array of species for that purpose. I have read hints that Actites might merely be an unnecessary segregate of the sow thistle genus Sonchus, and with the spiny leaves there is surely some striking affinity here.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

More editorial blindness please

Apart from phylogenetic systematics, another topic that I seem to be writing a lot about is scientific publishing, and there especially about peer review and the trade-offs between the system we have now and the potential problems of open access.

Just today I had a short conversation at work that made me think about what I would change if I were made the dictator of science publishing. Really there are two answers, one dealing with the commercial publishing versus open access issue and one dealing with the gate-keeping and peer review issue.

The first one is simple. If I could reorganize scientific publishing, I would run it all through non-profit public utilities. There would be no publication fees for authors and no access fees for the reader. Everything would be open access and financed directly from taxes. Note that scientific publishing is, with the exception of a few advertisements in the journals, also entirely financed from taxes now, only it happens indirectly, through tax-funded libraries and tax-funded scientists paying publication costs. So the only difference would be that we would stop wasting taxpayer money to provide profits for commercial publishers. (Sad, I know.) As an added bonus from the open access perspective, with no author fees there would also be no incentive to accept crappy papers.

That would still leave the second issue, which is essentially one of quality control. If everybody could get published for free, how do you know what research is sound? As mentioned before, I do not think much of post-publication review because it is not clear how an author would be motivated to correct a manuscript that has already been published. It would also make it harder for newcomers to get their work noticed. Under the current system, they can get a good manuscript into an influential journal and people will read it. In a system relying on post-publication review, anybody without a famous name is likely to get lost in the flood of useless papers using the same key words.

So I would, if I were asked to reorganize things, probably try to keep our current peer review practices pretty much in place: Have a few colleagues assess the manuscript and make an editorial decision whether it (a) is sound science and (b) has been submitted to the right journal or archive. It isn't perfect but it allows me to put more trust into a publication in a high ranking journal than, say, into what somebody wrote on their blog.

However, one thing that bugs me mightily about the procedures in my area of science is that while the authors of a manuscript generally do not know who the peer reviewers are, the peer reviewers and editors can see who the authors are. Some people even call for the abolition of anonymous peer review but that would make it harder for young researchers to critically evaluate the manuscripts of influential older colleagues, especially those having a say in funding decisions.

I would go exactly the other way: peer review should be double-blind. If the peer reviewers and the editors don't know who the authors are, many possible sources of bias disappear. They will not as easily be able to wave through a sub-par manuscript from a big name in the field. They will not be able to be negatively predisposed towards articles coming from specific countries or specific universities. They will not be able to see whether an author has got a female or foreign sounding name. And so on.

But is that not technically difficult? It should not be, anymore. Most journals these days have online submission systems for manuscripts. Of course the manuscript management software needs to know the contact details of the authors to communicate with them, but there is no reason why even the chief editor of a journal should know it before they have decided whether to accept the manuscript. The following set of rules would appear workable:
  • The manuscript management software hides the names and affiliations of the authors from the editor(s) in charge of deciding whether the manuscript ultimately gets accepted. It organizes all communication between editor(s), reviewers and authors anonymously.
  • To ensure that the manuscript is not sent out for review to the authors themselves or to their close collaborators, a different editor or editorial assistant, in other words somebody who does not decide on ultimate acceptance, chooses the peer reviewers.
  • Authors may not disclose their name on the manuscript. If they do so, it is rejected outright. They can be invited to resubmit the manuscript without their names on it, but then a different editor is assigned to it who has not yet seen their names.
None of that is all that hard to achieve; it would merely be a matter of changing journal policies.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Botany picture #127: Kunzea ambigua

Kunzea ambigua (Myrtaceae), Tasmania, 2013. Or at least so I hope; I am not exactly a Myrtaceae expert and find them much harder to determine than Proteaceae, for example.

Monday, December 16, 2013

So what's the deal with ResearchGate?

Some time ago I became a member of ResearchGate, a social network site that appears to want to be something like Facebook for scientists, but I still have very mixed feelings about it.

The site is actually quite complex. There is, obviously, your profile. You can add your list of publications ('contributions'), a link to your departmental website, information on previous and current projects and positions, and a list of sometimes rather ill-defined skills that you consider yourself to have.

Where Facebook has 'friends', ResearchGate has 'followers'. You can 'follow' other scientists, the idea presumably being that you get updates on what they are publishing or otherwise doing, but I have to say that I am notified of little of any use (see below). As could be expected, you might feel some implicit pressure to 'follow' somebody back if they 'follow' you even if what they do does not interest you. On Facebook, one can simply ignore a friend request and pretend to have been too distracted to notice it (lalala) but there appears to be no way of keeping somebody from following you here.

The last major aspect of ResearchGate is the Q&A section where people can ask questions, hoping to get helpful advice on some scientific problem or methodological challenge.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Botany picture #126: Bedfordia salicina

Bedordia salicina (Asteraceae), Tasmania, 2013. The few species of Australian Bedfordia are shrubs and treelets and can be of a rather impressive size for members of the daisy family. This species and its mainland relative B. arborescens are known as blanket leaves because of the nicely soft and dense cover of hairs on the lower leaf sides. The genus is probably not really distinct from mostly New Zealand Brachyglottis; at the least from my experience they look pretty much like hairier Brachyglottis brunonis.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Botany picture #125: Rubus gunnianus

Rubus gunnianus (Rosaceae), Tasmania, 2013. If you saw this plant for the first time, would you guess that it is a member of the raspberry or blackberry genus Rubus? Probably not. Its congeners are generally large, prickly shrubs, and this is a herb, and a really tiny one at that. See it in fruit on this page if you are interested.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Is punctuated equilibrium an argument against phylogenetic systematics?

I have mentioned before on this blog that one of my interests is the continuing opposition of a minority of systematists against the requirement that formally accepted supraspecific taxa have to be monophyletic.

I was originally trained under the paradigm of phylogenetic systematics and considered the issue to be settled. Sometime around 2010/2011 I grew sufficiently puzzled about the flood of opposing articles being published especially in the botanical journal Taxon to wonder whether I had overlooked something. Maybe the opposition was right? Maybe I had overlooked something, and cladism was really incoherent or at least undesirable as a scientific practice?

So I systematically read through a large number of publications promoting the acceptance of paraphyletic taxa to examine their arguments - only to find very nearly all of them severely wanting, and the one that at least made some sense to be based on a number of assumptions that can certainly be questioned, such as that we can ever positively know that a fossil species is ancestral to extant species instead of a side branch of the tree of life close to the real ancestor.

What is more, except for that last one, which was advanced somewhat more convincingly by the late Richard Brummitt, the papers advocating the acceptance of paraphyletic taxa can mostly be assigned to one of three styles of argumentation:
  1. The Gish Gallop, i.e. the attempt to throw as many PRATTs out there as possible, clearly in the hope that the reader is too overwhelmed by their number to ask if any of them make sense and that a cladist will find it impossible to address all of them in the limited space of a rebuttal. Many of the aforementioned publications in Taxon fall into this category.
  2. Mere assertion, in other words short opinion pieces or letters that simply proclaim organisms should be grouped by overall similarity instead of relatedness and/or that nomenclatural stability is more important than scientific accuracy. They generally do not present any arguments whatsoever with the possible exception of an argumentum ad populum, presumably because the author considers their position to be too self-evident to stoop to actual reasoning.
  3. Utterly incoherent gibberish.
If you find that a position is consistently promoted as badly as this, the likelihood is great that there are no good arguments to be found because if there were they would probably have been used in the first twenty papers you read. This observation has, of course, sometimes been made in the context of the creationism manufacturoversy but it applies equally to the proponents of paraphyly.

Nonetheless, or perhaps precisely because of the wry amusement that can be derived from seeing catastrophic errors of reasoning presented either as deep insights or as common sense, I remain interested in papers that promote paraphyletic taxa. (And who knows, maybe I am wrong, maybe one of them will finally present a new argument that will sway me?)

Google Scholar appears to understand me better than I expected because it recently suggested I might want to read an opinion piece published in the journal Zootaxa: Why Drosophila is not Drosophila any more, why it will be worse and what can be done about it?, by one Jaroslav Flegr. And indeed this paper does not disappoint because it presents a line of argumentation that I have not come across before.

Sadly, that does not mean that it is any more convincing than the others. If you are here for the plant pictures, you may want to look away now because this is not going to be pretty. Also, it is going to be long. I apologize in advance.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Botany picture #124: Amperea xiphoclada

Surely one of the oddest plants we found in Tasmania, Amperea xiphoclada (Euphorbiaceae) has reduced its leaves and photosynthesizes with its flattened stems. We were very unsure what it was at first - in the above picture you can see it in full bloom, what would you have guessed it is? - but once more the aforementioned fabulous online key helped us out.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Back from conference

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday at Systematics without Borders in Sydney, a joint conference of the Australasian Systematic Botany Society, Invertebrate Biodiversity & Conservation, and the Society of Australian Systematic Biologists. Although I sadly had to miss the first of its three days I enjoyed the meeting immensely. It is always good to see all the science that is being done in the field and to catch up with people.

A few highlights for me:

Phil Garnock-Jones received the ASBS' Nancy Burbidge medal for his work in plant systematics. From his prize lecture I learned many astonishing facts about plant sexuality, especially about that of mosses. When we talked a bit in one of the coffee breaks I also learned that he runs a very interesting botany blog, Theobrominated. Check it out!

Quite a few of the talks most relevant to my work were from New Zealand, actually, such as Rob Smissen presenting work on gene flow between different species of southern beeches and Ilse Breitwieser talking about the difficulties of circumscribing species in their native clade of Craspedia.

Having done my PhD on a Lamiaceae and being somewhat interested in pollination ecology, I also particularly enjoyed hearing about Trevor Wilson's work on the awesome Australian mint bushes (Prostanthera, Westringia and relatives). It turned out that quite a few generic limits will have to be redrawn because the stamen characters used for the traditional definition of groups have evolved several times in parallel. I guess I should post more botany pictures of these attractive plants in the future.

In addition there were many others, for example on biogeography and plant-insect interactions, too many to do them justice.

Just a pity they decided to have the conference in the first week of December, just when our summer students start...

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The new Red Centre Garden at the ANBG

Today we spent the afternoon in the Australian National Botanic Gardens. Among other things we also had a first chance to see the newly inaugurated Red Centre Garden.

This nicely designed section of the ANBG showcases the unique flora and landscape features of the arid centre of the Australian continent. There are several elements visible in this picture: red sand areas, a desert river (to drain the water from the slopes in the background), and rock outcrops. There is also an area of saltbush outside of the picture to the left.

Obviously the section is still young and will look much more natural in a few years when the ephemerals have had time to find their niches and the shrubs have grown a bit. But there are already some nice carpets of daisies and chenopods. In this case you can see the stunning 'Swan River daisy' Brachyscome iberidifolia in the foreground.

Beyond the Red Centre Garden, at the moment also appears to be a good time to see several impressive monocots in flower. Many of the grass trees are in full bloom, here Xanthorhoea glauca near the parking lots.

And this is the massive 'Gymea Lily' Doryanthes excelsa from the Sydney region. The budding stalk on the left shows that it will still continue to flower for some more time.

Finally, we were delighted to see a male Gang-gang Cockatoo closer than we ever have so far (the picture would have been better if there had been more light but this was in the understorey). They are very attractive and likeable birds that constitute the faunal emblem of the Australian Capital Territory, but unfortunately they are not exactly common.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Botany picture #123: Bauera rubioides

Bauera rubioides (Cunoniaceae), Tasmana, 2013. This species appears to be extremely widespread and common across Tasmania but we saw it most frequently on the more heathy margins of rainforest areas where it would form large tangles. The flowers are all hanging downwards, making me wonder who the native pollinators are. Whatever the case may be, I assume that the introduced bumble bees will not have any problem with them.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Inflation in citation metrics

On Jeffrey Beall's Scholarly Open Access blog I recently got involved in a short discussion on steadily rising citation metrics. He discussed a citation metric that he considers suspicious, and one of the reasons he mentioned was that it always seems to be going up. It is well possible that the metric in question is manipulated - or not, I would not know and have no opinion either way - but it is important to realize that some degree of inflation is unsurprising and not necessarily, on its own, an indication that something is off.

The most highly regarded of them all, the Impact Factors (subsequently IF) from Thompson Reuters' Journal Citation Report, show the same trend. Yes, there are some losers and a lot of stagnation especially at the lower end of the spectrum, probably because the editor of a very small journal is only willing to invest so much time into it, and if you only compare across two years or so you will get a lot of noise. But if you take a bunch of decent, mid to high level journals from my field and compare their current IFs with what they had a few years back you will see slight increases very nearly across the board.

Here a few semi-randomly chosen journals from my field and their change over five years - meaning I looked up the IF 2007 and 2012 for a few well-regarded journals whose names immediately popped into my head:

Am. J. Bot. +0.074; Aust. J. Bot. +0.217; Aust. Syst. Bot. +0.488; Bot. J. Linn. Soc. +1.514; Flora +0.559; Folia Geobot. +0.432; Syst. Bot. -0.345; Taxon +0.258; Trends Plant Sci. +2.813

The only one bucking the trend here is Systematic Botany, which does seem to have moved from publishing a lot of phylogenies to a lot of alpha taxonomy lately, and the latter unfortunately and unjustly does not bring in a lot of citations. Conversely, the Botanical Journal went up a lot since they stopped accepting purely alpha taxonomic papers and they published the last Angiosperm Phylogeny Group update, a landmark paper that was guaranteed to get a ton of citations. Trends also looks like it got a big increase but it is not that much relatively speaking; as a review journal it was always by far the highest on this short list.

So how is that possible? Why do the citation metrics appear to consistently increase over the years? Is there some manipulation going on?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Botany picture #122: Ozothamnus reflexifolius

Unsurprisingly I now have a number of plant photographs from Tasmania that I am going to use for botany picture posts in the next few weeks. We start with Ozothamnus reflexifolius (Asteraceae), a shrubby daisy that is known from only one population on a hill flank near Hobart. I has only been described as a new species a few years ago. Being so rare and vulnerable, it is good that the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens have it in cultivation, and that is where I took this picture. I was extremely happy that I was able to see this plant during my visit.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

When should we admit that somebody is perhaps a bit stupid?

Going through the newspapers that have accumulated while we were away, I came across this little piece in the Guardian on women supposedly going off contraception because it is too bothersome. The commenters on the online version have raised issues with argumentation from anecdote but that is not what immediately occurred to me.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Tasmania, part 5: back in Hobart

Vacation is over. For the last few days we came back to Hobart and explored the area around it a bit more. The following is then not about landscape but about tourist attractions.

One day we spent at Margate. The Inverawe Native Gardens pictured above are not really a botanical garden in the strictest sense but a landscape garden run by a retired couple. Because it was raining all day, they looked somewhat surprised that they had any visitors at all.

As the name indicates, the garden has a focus on Australian native plants but in addition there is much information on early explorers of the area and on the earliest botanists. There are also timber samples, poems on nature and gardening to be read, and various whimsical pottery sculputures ranging from elves across the snails depicted above to weird hands sticking out of the ground.

Something for everyone I guess. We were of course mostly interested in the plants. The above are the beautifully spotted flowers of a Prostanthera (native mintbush, Lamiaceae).

Directly next to the gardens is the Margate Train, an old decommissioned train that has been turned into a range of shops: a bookstore, a speciality food store, a barber, an antique book shop, a gift shop, and a great pancake restaurant.

On a day with much nicer weather, we visited the model village of Old Hobart Town in Richmond. This is a miniature of Hobart as it was around 1820, with lots of informative signage on history and the changes that have occurred since that time. The plan one is given and photographs on the signs allow a direct comparison of the model with Hobart as we experience it today, for example where a body of water has now been filled in etc. The small clay figures of settlers, soldiers and convicts are very amusing, with some of them shown in engaging or funny situations, for example drunk, making out on a haystack, or stepping into a paint bucket. For the plant enthusiast, all the trees in the model village are live bonsai Nothofagus (southern beeches). All in all well worth a visit.

Finally, today we explored the famous Salamanca Market in Hobart, again bracing rain. Even found a few useful things. Tomorrow it will be back to Canberra.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Tasmania, part 4: Western Wilderness

Western Tasmania is known for its vast expanses of untouched, impenetrable wet forest. We were also delighted by the nice mountain peaks all around us. The picture above, taken at a lookout between Derwent Bridge and Queenstown, can perhaps give a bit of an impression.

We were staying in Queenstown, which had the advantage of being nicely central with easy access to the national parks to its east and the coast to its west. Unfortunately from an aesthetic perspective, it has long been a centre of the Tasmanian mining industry. The above picture shows a part of the famed Western Wilderness of the island after open cut mining.

The information signs around town must have been sponsored by the mining industry because they oscillate between (a) outright pride at how the area around Queenstown looks now and (b) acknowledging the devastation but attempting to shame the reader into complicity. The one above this mine, for example, pointed out the following, and quite correctly it has to be admitted:
We mine the copper but you use it! You might not realise, looking out on this mining landscape, that this is all about you. Copper is still mined at Queenstown and it is a critical part of what keeps our cars, houses, computers and mobile phones working.
So hey, maybe we should buy less shiny new electronic gadgets and recycle more metal? Yes, we are collectively sawing off the branch on which we are sitting; nobody can escape their partial responsibility. Still, some of us cheer for waste and destruction but others at least try to slow the process.

Case in point: The Franklin River, focus of one of Tasmania's great politial battles of the 1980ies, when those who wanted to dam it for electricity generation clashed with those who wanted to keep this last natural river system of the island intact. Whatever you may think about it - and water power is clean energy, no doubt about that - the latter side won, and now the river brings in money as a tourist attraction.

This beautiful waterfall is Nelson Falls at the western end of the Franklin Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. Both here and at other nature walks in the area you will find several information signs on the flora and the geological history of the area. I just wish they would have consulted a knowledgable botanist when they wrote some of them...

Telopea truncata (Proteaceae), the Tasmanian Waratah, at Scarlet Creek. I have now seen three of the five species of the genus, hooray!

A beautiful moss at Hogarth Falls Nature Walk. These rainforests in western Tasmania must be paradise for bryologists. Unfortunately, I do not know the name of this intricately branched species.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Tasmania, part 3: the east coast

After the Tasman Peninsula, we went on to the east coast of Tasmania. We spent three nights at Swansea. Although the local Bark Mill Restaurant is as great as its fame would have it, and although we were happy with our accommodation, next time I would probably stay in neighboring Bicheno. The town is more scenic than Swansea, and at least at this time of the year the beach was much cleaner.

The blow hole at Bicheno. As my wife noted, all blow holes she had seen before including one on this trip at the coast of the Tasman Peninsula "worked" only when there was exceptionally stormy weather. This one appears to shoot water up all the time, even under average weather conditions. And the rocky coast around it was great too - massive boulders covered by weirdly coloured lichens, water pools, kelp forests, definitely worth a visit.

The other full day we went down to Freycinet National Park. This picture shows Wineglass Bay seen from the eponymous lookout. Beautiful but admittedly not particularly interesting botanically, at least not for me.

Another scenic spot in Freycinet, the Tourville Lighthouse.

Remember the weird grassy sculptures in the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Garden I wrote about a few days ago? Here is the real thing: a Xanthorrhoea, or grass tree, directly north of Freycinet. They often flower after fire but this one probably just thought now would be a nice time. The botanic garden where I studied in Germany had two grass trees. When they flowered once every few years that was a newspaper-worthy event, and some people would visit the garden specificaly to admire these exotic plants. And here we are and they are just another plant on the roadside...

Another thing that struck us recently was that certain areas of Tasmania were very much dominated by some species of introduced weed, and that the weed in question varies strongly from one region to the next. When we drove through the Midlands a few days ago, everything was full of some broom (we did not undertake to figure out what species). In some parts the locals tried to unroot and burn them, in others they appeared to have given up. On the east coast, on the other hand, we saw enormous stands of Centranthus ruber (Valerianaceae, shown above). And yes, ruber, that is another thing. As indicated by that name, the species is usually red-flowered but most plants here are white, as the one in the picture.

After the east coast, we made our way west, staying one night at Bronte Park Village which I remember fondly as being our base for the Skullbone Plains Bush Blitz about 18 months ago, when I first visited Tasmania. We were proudly informed that the Village would accommodate another central plateau themed Bush Blitz in the near future. Good for them!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tasmania, part 2: Tasman Peninsula

We spent yesterday and today exploring the Tasman Peninsula. Yesterday we started by spending some time near Eaglehawk Neck, at a place called Tessellated Pavement.

It is known for the strange rock formations at the coast. As can be seen in the above photograph, they look oddly rectangular, as if they were man-made, but their shape is due to a natural though rare form of erosion.

This is a botany blog, so here is a plant: Plantago triantha (Plantaginaceae) growing on the rocks at Tessellated Pavement. By the way, when I need to identify Tasmanian plants, I use a fantastic online recource provided by staff from the University of Tasmania. It is a fairly standard usually dichotomous analytic key but it contains lots of images and buttons that can be clicked to obtain further information, making it much more versatile than a printed flora. Also, the characters used are generally very straightforward, with a focus on what can easily be ascertained even by a non-scientist. If you ever need to find out the names of Tasmanian plants, give it a try!

And this is the view from the Eaglehawk Neck Lookout at the turnoff to Tessellated Pavement. Apart from the above "pavement", this beautiful coast shows many other interesting shapes of erosion...

...such as arches. This is the Tasman Arch a bit to the south of Eaglehawk Neck. Look at the size of the Eucalyptus trees on top of the arch - this thing is massive.

Today we had less luck with the weather than yesterday, so it was perhaps good that we spent less time outside. We visited the ruins and museum of the former convict colony at Port Arthur, pictured above.

In a way, it is really quite a depressing place. Although at the time seen as a major advance because it gave criminals a chance at rehabilitation through useful labour and perhaps an education (as opposed to simply hanging them), it loses some goodwill once you read about the conditions under which the convicts had to live. With dangerous work conditions (mostly tree felling and mining), insufficient nutrition given the hard physical work, and apparently often cold and moist accommodation, one could also make the case that many of them were simply worked to death, often dying from accidents or respiratory diseases like pneuomonia. And that is before one realizes that some of the convicts were transported to the colony for ridiculously small offenses. The separate prison where all inmates were kept in solitary confinement as a matter of routine practice was basically just one massive, sadistic, psycho-torture chamber.

Port Arthur was also the site of the worst mass murder in recent Australian history, an event that prompted the country to enact stricter gun laws. It is interesting to note that the Tasmanians have also enacted a form of damnatio memoriae: as far as I can see so far, museums, travel guides and memorials all carefully avoid mentioning the name of the murderer.

Finally, at the end of the day we visited Remarkable Cave. (The Tasmanians have some of the most matter-of-fact place names in the country, although for me nothing beats Useless Loop in Western Australia.) What is so remarkable about it is that it supposedly resembles the shape of Tasmania. We could not quite figure out from what angle that is supposed to work best, so judge for yourself.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Tasmania, part 1: Hobart

In our first two days in Tasmania, we have taken a stroll through the centre and harbour of Hobart, visited the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, went up to the top of Mount Wellington, and visited the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens.

View from Mount Wellington. This is also the first time since 2010 that my daughter has seen snow, and of course then she was less than a year old so she does not remember it. The weather was not optimal today but clear enough to have a good view.

The 'conservatory' glasshouse of the Botanic Gardens.

The lily pond of the Botanic Gardens.

This was weird. In an area labelled 'eucalyptus woodland' there were several of these sculptures consisting of soil and grass. There is a limited number of possibilities what they might be supposed to be. It could be that they are supposed to fool the visitors of the garden into thinking that they are grass trees (Xanthorrhoea), perhaps because the real thing does not survive in this climate(?). It could be that while the designers are well aware that nobody would be so stupid to mistake these as real grass trees, they are supposed to symbolize grass trees in this woodland habitat. Or they could be supposed to be art... somehow. I don't claim to understand the workings of the artistic mind.

Whatever their purpose, they remind me of that zoo in Gaza that painted stripes on donkeys because they could not get real zebras.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Not much this week but watch this space

I cannot blog a lot at the moment because it is an extremely stressful week, and it is an extremely stressful week because it is the last before our family holiday in Van Diemen's Land. Stuff needs to be done before that. On the plus side, this means that I will hopefully be posting a few nice plant and landscape photos here from time to time, internet access permitting. Yay!


In science spam news, my junk mail folder currently contains a "call for research articles" from the "Global Advanced Research Journal of Food Science And Technology (GARJFST)". Yes, that is the name of the journal, no joke.

Botany picture #121: Leptorhynchos squamatus

This cute little daisy is one of my favorites here in the area. Leptorhynchos squamatus (Asteraceae), commonly known as 'scaly buttons', Australian Capital Territory, 2013.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Botany picture #120: Asperula conferta

Sometimes I am surprised that a plant that I first thought to be obviously a weed turns out to be native. This is an example: Asperula conferta (Rubiaceae), New South Wales, 2013. Looks just like the Galium and Asperula in Europe, so I wrongly assumed it had been introduced from there.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

Among the other books that I picked up at the recent book fair are both Dirk Gently novels. At the beginning of the year, I reread Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker novels and found that they were not as good as I remembered them. Compared to that, his Gently novels have two advantages: I had not previously read them, and somebody told me that they would be better. I have now read the first one, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, and am indeed pleasantly surprised.

Spoilers ahead.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Distribution modelling, or: muwahaha, vindication!

Distribution modelling is an increasingly important technique in which one tries to infer where a species occurs, or at least can occur. The principle is at the same time mathematically complex and conceptually simple:

You take a number of variables that might influence whether a species can occur in an area or not - this could be lots of different things such as average annual rainfall, average temperature, average temperature in hottest month, minimum temperature, phosphate content of the soil, pH value of the soil, etc. Then you need geocoded known occurrences of the species you are interested in, the more the better, and in some models also known absences, and a fancy piece of software can produce the distribution model for you, projecting onto a map the likelihood with which the species will be found in each of the map's grid cells.

Potential uses of distribution modelling are many. You could be interested in how far a newly arrived invasive organism is potentially going to spread in your country, so you model its potential distribution based on data showing where it can survive in its area of origin. You might be interested in where a species can live and where it cannot live in the year 2100 given this or that climate change scenario. Going back in time, you might want to know where a species was able to live during the last ice age. If you can reconstruct the probable niche of ancestral species, you might also want to know where they would have been able to live given paleoclimatic assumptions.

In a paper published last year, I and a few colleagues made another use of distribution modelling. I was interested in the distribution of species richness of daisies across the continent. The problem is, inferring the species richness of grid cells from known occurrences will often be an under-estimate of the real species numbers because some areas are vastly under-sampled. In extreme cases, you may infer a species poor area to be as rich as a hotspot of diversity if the former is very intensively sampled and the latter is rarely visited by field biologists.

So what we did was to construct distribution models of all species of my study group and then stack them on top of each other to see how many species would be in each grid cell. As mentioned above, what you get is a probability of occurrence. How do you add them up? We did it quite directly: If a cell had, hypothetically, ten species with probability of occurrence of 50% each, we would have added that up to five species.

Some reviewers did not like the idea at first and argued that we should use some cut-off: Set all species that have more than X% probability of occurrence to present, all others to absent, and then count the presences. In the end, however, we convinced the editor that our approach made more sense.

And guess what? Last week I found a paper presenting a meta-analysis on the issue because they cited our study. Calabrese et al. examined ours and numerous similar studies that used stacked distribution models to infer species numbers, and they concluded that what we did was exactly how it should be done! The cut-off approaches used in many other papers vastly over-estimate the real numbers of species.

Feels good. As a colleague said, "it is nice to get feedback in a citation!" And next time I do something like this, I will have a reference to justify why I am doing it that way.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Botany picture #119: Hibbertia riparia

Hibbertia riparia (Dilleniaceae), Australian Capital Territory, 2013. The genus Hibbertia has many species in Australia. It is one of those weird cases (another one would be Calceolaria) where a large group is extremely diverse vegetatively, to the point of including vines, shrubs and small herbs, while being extremely uniform in flower morphology. One can immediately recognize Hibbertia flowers because they basically all look the same.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sience spam number the infinity

There is so much science spam these days that I comment only on the most atrocious eMails I get. Today is one of those occasions.

My inbox recently featured a message from an organization called "RRP" with a call for articles. The text was a charming all bold ca 14-16 pt (?) font in dark red on a bright blue background. I will keep that combination in mind for future PowerPoint presentations just in case I ever have the need to deliberately cause headaches and vomiting in my audience. The text ran as follows:
Dear Colleague [ my work eMail address ],
That is an interesting start. Not only are those square brackets in the original, making abundantly clear that this is a field into which an anonymous algorithm has pasted a list entry, they do not even use a name. They don't say, dear Joe Average, they say, dear [ joe.average@workplace.au ]. Is that supposed to impress anybody?
Call for Articles:
RRP ( http://rrpjournals.org/ ) is a well-known publisher and has Journals whose scopes and policies fit with yours.
The first half of that sentence is a blatant lie, and the second half is gibberish. I am not aware of having scopes. Can I get mediation against them somewhere?
We have done some WWW searches and came across one or more of your articles.
Gosh. Do you want a cookie for that? And again, you could at least make a half-hearted attempt at concealing that this is a spam message and that you have not actually looked into my research. "One or more" indeed.
So we believe you may be interested in publishing you valuable work in one/some of our journals.
Your are sadly mistaken. Please feel free to take that R and see if you might need it somewhere.
I briefly summarize what makes RRP Journals unique and desirable in the following sentences. Why our journals are unique and desirable:
1.) "RRP Journals" offers detailed feedback on all submitted manuscript. We do not just publish good research and review papers, we help authors grow.
You could increase the desirability of your journals, albeit probably at the cost of their uniqueness, by learning a bit more about English grammar. Also: randomly placing quotation marks around names? Always a nice touch. Sorry, do continue.
2.) "RRP Journals" has online manuscript tracking system. This allows authors to keep track of the status of/progress on their manuscripts any day any time.
3.) "RRP Journals" has article tracking system through which authors can keep track of their published articles, and know who read their articles. 
Is it time to say gosh again? I think you are confusing two things here: "unique" and "standard practice of most scientific journals". Look up what those terms mean.
4.) "RRP Journals" is currently bilingual in that we publish abstract s of all articles in both English and French. We hope to add two more languages in 2014.
Admittedly that is not a bad idea from the reader's perspective; not sure why it is supposed to be a selling point to prospective authors here.
5.) "RRP Journals" offers various forms of assistances to authors. If you require any form of help at any time, you can easily contact us through the form available here ( http://rrpjournals.org/contact_us ).
How pleasantly vague. It is, unfortunately, to be assumed that they are mostly interested in helping the author if they are unsure about where to pay the article processing fee or however else RRP call their publication charges.
We hope you will:
[A] submit ( http://goo.gl/c7La3p ) your valuable manuscript to us for possible publication in any of RRP Journals, and/or
[B] join our editorial board/become a peer-reviewer ( http://goo.gl/VMbiye ) for one/some of our Journals.
Yep, that's a sure sign we are dealing with a serious and professional publisher: mass-spamming random people with requests to join whatever editorial board they fancy. Isn't that how all the good journals do it?

I think we are done here.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Botany picture #118: Scribblygum

I am really not very good at knowing eucalyptuses, which are here commonly called 'gum trees'. The various important groups are then distinguished with some terms that refer to their bark or wood qualities, their ecology or colours. Examples are ironbark, yellowbox, or river red gum. One group that even I can easily recognize are the scribblygums, such as this one. Their name derives from the tunnels that mining insect larvae eat into the bark.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Free will once more, with a growing realization

Round and round it goes, perhaps forever. One may be forgiven for wondering whether one side is so sure that it is right that it is not actually listening to what the other says.

It could be either side. Note, however, that the discussion, at least as conducted over at the linked comment threads, is quite asymmetrical: Incompatibilists say quite openly that they consider compatibilism to be merely a crutch manufactured to soften the blow of determinism, that compatibilists are deluded or even outright dishonest, and that everybody should stop using the term "free will" and, depending on their mood, sometimes also the term "choice", because they supposedly mean something supernatural. Compatibilists, on the other side, merely reply that these terms do not necessarily mean something supernatural, and would you please stop talking about us in this aggressive and demeaning way when the discussion is only about terminology anyway?

Or in other words: Incompatibilists condescend towards compatibilists but the compatibilists do not condescend back. That might explain something about the dynamics of this discussion.

To recap: When discussing free will vis a vis determinism, it is generally assumed that there are three different positions, or groups of people:
  1. Those who hold that we have a form of free will that allows us to make decisions independently from the laws of physics, our genetic makeup, the environmental influences that shaped us, our current state of brain chemistry, whatever, either because our body is steered by a supernatural soul (contra-causal/dualist free will) or without any attempt at explanation because it is a necessary premise for libertarian ideology (libertarian free will).
  2. Those who hold that everything is determined by cause-and-effect, with perhaps a bit of (quantum) randomness thrown in, and thus our decisions are also predetermined with a bit of random, and thus it does not make sense to speak of free will and choice because those terms are commonly understood in the sense that the first group is advocating* (incompatibilism).
  3. Those who hold that everything is determined by cause-and-effect, with perhaps a bit of (quantum) randomness thrown in, and thus our decisions are also predetermined with a bit of random, but it still makes sense to speak of free will and choice because those words do not necessarily imply anything contra-causal and supernatural*, and even given determinism we still need some terms to describe the difference between somebody acting out of their own free will and being forced to do something, or between a kleptomaniac and somebody stealing for profit (compatibilism).
For me, at least one thing came out of the discussions linked to above: I am increasingly coming to the realization that the first two positions are not actually, really, in practice, held by any significant number of people, or at least not by anybody who is sound of mind. And yes, I realize that this can be seen as at least as condescending as the idea that compatibilism is nothing but motivated reasoning because it may be taken to mean that the incompatibilists are either deluded or dishonest; but I would prefer to stress that the difference between the second and third position boils down to semantics anyway.

So why would I think that the first two positions do not really exist? Aren't there a lot of people advancing them?

Sunday, October 27, 2013


I had long decided to read more classics when I came upon Mary Shelley's Frankenstein at the last Book Fair. I have recently finished it and must sadly admit to some disappointment, although it is probably mostly an issue of wrong prior expectations.

Obviously: Spoilers ahead.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Botany picture #117: Leucopogon microphyllus

Leucopogon microphyllus (Ericaceae), Australian Capital Territory, 2013. Does this heath not simply have awesome flowers? They are tiny, yes, but how cute when you look at them more closely...

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What makes reviewing a paper enjoyable?

One more about peer review. To get our papers published, we all have to go through it, and the pleasantness of that experience can vary depending on the reviewers you run into.

But the same goes for the other side. In my role as peer reviewer, I find myself sometimes enjoying it very much and sometimes hating it. Apart from the obvious fact that it is no fun to do it if you have too much work already, what makes the process enjoyable?

Well, papers that are fun to review are the ones that inspire, that present new methods or insights, that make one think "I wish I had come up with that", while bad papers are often formulaic and uninspiring. As for quality, it is a pleasure to review a well written, concise and coherent, high quality paper because it is just a good read and you do not have a lot to criticize.

But interestingly, at least to me there is another peak on the fun/quality graph at the bad end of the spectrum. In a perverse way, reviewing becomes enjoyable again when the manuscript is sufficiently atrocious.

So really the papers that I enjoy reviewing least are somewhere around the middle. The ones that contain reasonably competent but completely uninteresting research, the ones that could actually be good if the authors knew how to write a coherent sentence and develop a clear line of thought, and, crucially, the ones containing overall sound science but a suffocating number of individually minor mistakes. In other words, those that have potential merit but force you to write pages and pages of suggestions on how to make them publishable.

The really hopeless manuscripts make for short reviewer's reports, just like the really good ones. If the science is completely bonkers, it is easy to decide what to recommend. If the entire text is beyond repair, you don't need to bother with making suggestions for individual sentences any more. But most importantly, if a paper is sufficiently bad, reading it can be a very invigorating experience. You may laugh, you may pull your hair, but at least you emote instead of getting bogged down in drudgery.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Botany picture #116: Rhytidosporum procumbens

Rhytidosporum procumbens (Pittosporaceae), Australian Capital Territory, 2013. I really have no prior connection to the family Pittosporaceae because they do not appear to occur in Germany. All the more important to learn more about them now that I am here. Many of them are shrubs but this is a rather weak, scraggly one.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Cycling in Canberra (cont.), oil

If you want any proof that a good number of car drivers here in Canberra simply despises cyclists, you do not have to look any further than their reaction to cyclists riding across zebra crossings.

A few days ago (I waited with writing this to get some distance, so it is less of a rant), I rolled down a hill towards a zebra crossing. There was one car that had already driven over it and several that were lined up in front of it, and none of them moved because this was a T-crossing and dense traffic was flowing along the bar of the T. So I rolled down the hill, across the crossing, and then stopped right behind it to wait for the lights to get green so that I could get across the bar of the T myself, if you get the picture.

Now the guy standing with his car right in front of the zebra crossing grew visibly upset when he saw me approaching. At first he made a half-hearted attempt to roll forward to block the zebra crossing so that I could not pass, but then he probably realized that that would be too irresponsible or prickish a thing to do and resigned himself to merely shouting at me.

Is that really necessary? Consider the situation.
  • I did not slow him down by riding across because he was stuck in a traffic jam anyway.
  • I did not endanger him, anybody else, and not even myself, which is generally the reason why cyclists are supposed to dismount before crossing, by riding across because he was stuck in a traffic jam anyway.
  • I did not inconvenience him in any way whatsoever because he was stuck in a traffic jam anyway.
Although, perhaps the last one is not entirely correct. Let me try again: I would not have inconvenienced him in any way whatsoever if he had not been an unpleasant character who is viscerally offended by the sight of cyclists riding their bikes. Yes, that looks better. (If you are a kind person, you might submit that he is perhaps just a stickler for traffic rules. But sorry, no he can't be, because then he would not have tried to block the zebra crossing first.)

In this case his behavior was particularly stupid because he could not move anyway. The problem is a more general one though. What do you do when you come towards a zebra crossing when there is no traffic jam, when the cars stopping to let you cross could in principle be moving? Do you always dismount?

From my perspective, it is like this. I come towards the crossing, slow down and prepare to stop, and some car driver sees me. Because they know that somebody crossing the zebra crossing has right of way, they also slow down and stop (unless they are real pricks). Now I have two options: I can (1) stop entirely, laboriously dismount from my bike, and push it across, or (2) wave a thank you to the car driver and quickly ride across. The thing is, which option makes the car driver angry will depend on their personality.

Somebody like Mr I-Hate-Cyclists from above will want me to dismount, so if I don't do so, he will shout abuse at me. If I do so, experience shows he will most likely use the time I need to dismount to run the crossing and deny me my right of way.

Nice and sensible car drivers, on the other hand, will not mind me riding across because that allows them to continue their own journey as quickly as possible. If instead I dismount, they will most likely think to themselves, "what an idiot, why doesn't he just ride across instead of walking across, taking five times as long? There is no danger, I already stopped for him!"

In other words, I could facilitate the flow of traffic while antagonizing unreasonable people, or I could slow myself and everybody else down while antagonizing reasonable people. That is not really a conundrum, is it?


Also a few days ago, I had a chat with two reps of a producer of lab consumables. It turns out that oil is so expensive now that companies (not them of course, that was their pitch) are producing shoddier plastic consumables, trying to use less high quality oil and to replace it with cheap substitutes. And some of these substitutes leach into the tube and interfere with scientific measurements and molecular reactions.

Quite apart from the question of how we will manage food production for several billion people, transport, electricity, and heating when the fossil fuels are gone, just consider this small issue, materials science. Look around your living room, around a supermarket, around a scientific lab. What the heck will we do once we cannot produce plastic anymore? Can you even imagine that?

Please remind me again why the use of petrol-powered private cars has not been outlawed worldwide ca in the early 1980ies, because sorry, somehow I don't get it. We are all sawing off the branch on which we are sitting, and we cannot even pretend we don't know.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Botany picture #115: Triptilodiscus pygmaeus

Triptilodiscus pygmaeus (Asteraceae), Australian Capital Territory, 2013. As one can see from my finger tip, this daisy species well deserves its specific epithet.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

New South Walesian geography

The following may be considered quite impolite but some time I just have to say it: The Australians here in this area are just weird with their approach to geography. We are in Canberra and thus, although the city has its own territory, essentially embedded in New South Wales (NSW). And talking about localities in NSW with Australian colleagues is a constant struggle.

You see, when they tell you that a species of plants occurs at the "south coast", they do not, in contrast to what anybody outside of Australia would reasonably surmise, mean a coast that does anything so base as actually being situated on the southern edge of any land mass you might be thinking of. You would thus waste your time if you were attempting to locate this plant species on the coasts of Victoria or South Australia.

No, here in NSW, Sydney is the navel, the pole, the hub of the world, the focus of all thought. So obviously (?) to a local, the "south coast" is the coast of NSW south of Sydney, and the "north coast" is the coast of NSW north of Sydney. The fact that both are really the east coast relative to land and ocean is apparently a minor detail, and people can get quite exasperated if you are unkind enough to point it out. Of course this makes it much harder to communicate when you really do need to say that something occurs on the southern coast (for reals) of the continent, but I have by now gotten used to dealing with this particular weirdness.

Recently I had an even more bizarre exchange. A colleague came back to work and told me that she had spent the extended weekend visiting relatives in a town in "western NSW". After she mentioned the nice wildflowers there I asked her to show me the town on the map because the interior of the state has many interesting species of the group I am working on. So when we stood in front of the map, my finger and eyes quickly focused on the western half of NSW but I could not find the town.

The joke was on me! As it turns out, the town is literally in the easternmost fifth of the state. But of course, as I learned from the aforementioned colleague, that is still western NSW. Presumably because it is just slightly west of the ridge of the Great Dividing Range or something. Again, the fact that this place is nearly as far east as you can get in NSW without falling into the Tasman Sea is a minor detail, and she was quite surprised at the misunderstanding.

Admittedly, when I was a child everything south of the Elbe river felt to me as if it weren't really northern Germany any more. But well, when I thought like that I was what, 10 years? And even then I would not actually have called Lower Saxony "southern Germany"...

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Botany picture #114: Diuris

Diuris (Orchidaceae), Australian Capital Territory, 2013. This genus is known as donkey orchids although individual species may also be tiger, leopard or whatever other animal orchids. Sadly they look too similar for me to determine them to species just from this picture.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

In practice, people are determinists anyway

Jerry Coyne once more raises the issue of free will, about which I have also written before, so I do not want to repeat myself. Instead, let us look at some of the premises of the discussion. It appears as if the motivation of incompatibilists is founded on the following assumptions:
  1. If left to their own devices, people are naturally leaning towards a black/white dichotomy of dualism versus incompatibilism, i.e. they believe that the only possible meaning of "free will" is some kind of supernatural or libertarian free will that allows people to do whatever they want independent of their genes, upbringing, personality, current state of brain chemistry, and whatever other influence of the natural environment you may want to add. In other words, when you say "free will" everybody will assume you believe in supernatural stuff.
  2. If one could only convince people of the truth of determinism and incompatibilism, if they could only be convinced that there is no free will, they would become better people. For example, revenge would not make sense any more if it were understood that a criminal is the sum of their genes and experiences and thus never had any really free choice in committing their crime.
  3. If one could only convince people of the truth of determinism and incompatibilism, that would be a mighty blow to religion, at least partly because religious apologists use free will as a standard defense for the so-called problem of evil.
The thing is, there seems to be some good evidence that all three of these assumptions might be wrong.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Botany picture #113: Glossodia major

Glossodia major (Orchidaceae), Australian Capital Territory, 2013. One of the most spectacular orchids here but also one of the most frequent. The entire plant above ground consists of only one leaf and one flower.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Job, career, calling

My short blogging break this week was due to my participation in a work-related workshop (forum?). It was in many ways very useful and inspiring, although one aspect that I have mixed feelings about is the coaching aspect. The coaches at these kinds of events really LOVE personality tests, the kind where you answer a few dozen questions and then end up in one of four or more rarely three overly simplistic boxes. It does not help that this is at least the third workshop at which I was subjected to this kind of test, making my experience a bit repetitive.

On the other hand, one thing mentioned by the coach we had on Friday was very interesting because I had not previously considered it from that angle. He pointed out that there are different stances people can take towards their work:

Job - they do it because they need to bring money home.
Career - they do it because they want to rise through a hierarchy.
Calling - they do it because they are really passionate about this kind of work.

It is clear that sadly most people will be unable to do professionally what they see as their calling and thus a great part of the workforce will see their work merely as a job. That does not mean, however, that they will be under-performing, quite the opposite. What the coach wanted to drive home is that a supervisor who sees their work as a calling or a career and who happily works many hours of unpaid overtime cannot expect everybody else to do the same. They can only expect them to do the work that they are paid for, and to do it well, and expecting everybody to be like yourself is atrocious leadership.

The funny thing is, I consider the aspect he stressed to be a no-brainer. I know that many people perform superbly and, if you give them the right environment, identify very much with their workplace even if they see their work only as a job. What I would be more concerned about are overly career-oriented people!

You may ask reasonably why that would be so. Should they not be very productive due to their great ambition?

Well yes, but productive in what sense, and to whose benefit? A job oriented person will aim to satisfactorily complete the task at hand because that is their job. A person who feels a calling will aim to complete the task well because they are enthusiastic about that type of task. But career oriented people may only see the task at hand as a minor stepping-stone on the way to where they really want to be, and it may forever be so because there is nearly always an even higher management level above them. Can I be focused enough on what I am currently working on to do it well if my real interest is not having to do something like that any more? Will I really work to the benefit of my current organization if my eyes are already on a more prestigious job elsewhere?

Perhaps that is a nasty way of thinking about it. Nor do I begrudge anybody their aspirations. What I mean to show is that, from my personal perspective, it might be a much harder to learn leadership skill to understand the personal needs and motivations of very career oriented people around oneself, and to balance the fulfillment of their ambitions and the needs of the organization as a whole, than it is to understand and deal with job-oriented people, although the latter seemed to be the major concern of the coach.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Botany picture #112: Trifolium subterraneum

Trifolium subterraneum (Fabaceae), Australian Capital Territory, 2013. It is an introduced weed here in Australia but mostly, as far as I can tell, in urban areas (?). Forming quite pretty carpets at the moment.