Monday, September 30, 2013

Random thoughts and links: fine tuning, global warming, insurance

Massimo Pigliucci writes about an audiobook he listened to and suggests a thought experiment about the fine-tuning argument. This has lead me to realize that I am sometimes using two arguments that might appear inconsistent. On the one hand I hold that arguments from fine tuning or other such intelligent design are non-starters because the entity they invoke as an explanation for some presumed design (the intelligent designer) would need even more explaining than the appearance of design itself. In other words, where does god come from?

On the other hand, I have repeatedly argued in other discussions that I actually do not believe that intelligent design is, as such, a non-scientific idea. My favored thought experiment would be a human spaceship encountering an alien planet with life but no fossils older than, say, a few hundred thousand years; no phylogenetic structure to the life; no "bad design" comparable to the laryngeal nerve etc; genetics that indicate that no species may have had any genetic disorders a few hundred thousand years ago. And so on. Of course in such a case the hypothesis that life on that planet was created by some currently unknown alien intelligence would be a reasonable one. So in my eyes it is not the case that intelligent design is not a scientific explanation but that for our own planet the theory of evolution is a much better explanation given fossil, geological and genetic evidence.

But is it not inconsistent then of me to argue in one case that design is a possible explanation but to reject it for fine tuning of physical constants because it merely raises a bigger question? Is that not the same situation?

Friday, September 27, 2013

Manuscript writing: what to avoid

Previously I wrote a post about peer reviewers from hell. But of course I am not only an author of papers but also a peer reviewer myself, so perhaps I should write something from that perspective. What are the things that annoy me about manuscripts? What mistakes or faults do I appear to encounter particularly often in my field?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Botany picture #108: Eremophila longifolia

Spent all day yesterday in an internal workshop so there was no decent post to be expected.

A colleague told me that this plant we encountered during my recent field trip was Eremophila longifolia (Scrophulariaceae). Well, it is obvious that this is an Eremophila, or Emu Bush, but the species I would not know myself. The genus is very large and an important part of the flora of the arid zone here in Australia. And many of them are very pretty.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Botany picture #107: Chthonocephalus pseudevax

Another botany picture from the recent field trip, and another oddball. Just like the Isoetopsis, this one is a tiny ephemeral herb of the daisy family (Asteraceae), and its name is even more bizarre: Chthonocephalus pseudevax. I have yet to meet an Australian botanist who is sure how it should be pronounced in English. What it means is "heads on the ground that look kind of like the genus Evax but aren't". The genus Chthonocephalus has several more species but sadly I have seen only one of them so far, and that one looked very different.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The odd interpretation of election results in the media

I really have little interest to discuss party politics here but one thing that I found odd in the last few days is how election results are interpreted in the media, entirely regardless of the merits of each individual party. First we had the Australian election which was interpreted as a resounding victory for the Coalition (liberals and allies). But the funny thing is, they only got 1.9% more of the vote than the last time. So if I were to discuss this, I'd say that what mostly happened was that Labour and the Greens lost votes, and they mostly lost them to small parties instead of to the Coalition. It does not change the outcome but it gives us a better understanding of what is really going on.

But okay, due to the peculiarities of the voting system the country inherited from Britain the Coalition obviously won a vast majority of the seats, and many more than in the previous election, so it is easy to understand why the Australian media would look at those changes in the composition of the parliament and speak of them in they way they do. The same explanation is not available when discussing the very different German system.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Botany picture #106: Isoetopsis graminifolia

Time to use a few photographs from my recent field trip. Today's botany picture is already one of the oddest plants we encountered. Isoetopsis graminifolia is named after the quill-wort genus Isoetes, which is a spore plant, and after grasses. In essence, the name means something like "the grass-leaved quill-wort like thingy". But believe it or not, it is a daisy (Asteraceae), and even more bizarrely it is a member of the same tribe as very typical daisies like Olearia and Brachyscome. The species is endemic to Australia but occurs over a huge area. It is an ephemeral herb that never gets more than 5 cm tall, and usually much less.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Consciousness raiser: Things versus processes

Some time ago I wrote about my feeling that many people could use a consciousness-raiser on the topic of trade-offs, partly to put a damper on rampant techno-optimism. One of the points was that biologists are more likely to be aware of the problem of having to make trade-offs because they constantly encounter them in living organisms, ecological adaptations and reproductive strategies. Today I want to talk about another issue that many people appear to have very odd intuitions about and thus could use a consciousness-raiser for, and in this case it might be physicists, chemists and engineers who naturally have the edge.

The context in which I came to think about the issue was again a discussion of futurist hopes (although it had not started out as that), specifically "brain uploading" or "mind uploading". The hope that something like that would be possible sometime in the future is based on the following claims:
  1. We are our minds.
  2. Our mind is best understood as information stored and/or a computer program running on the "wetware" of the brain.
  3. A simulation of a mind is a mind. Just as a simulation of a Windows environment on a Linux machine allows Windows programs to run, a simulation of a brain in a computer would allow our mind program to run on that computer.
  4. Consequently, if we could scan that program and the information (memories) off the brain and simulate it in a computer, we would be in that computer, and thus could achieve immortality (until humanity cannot afford to keep cyberspace running any more, that is, which might be as soon as in a few decades anyway when fossil fuels run out).
Phrased like this, most readers will presumably see immediately that something might be wrong with at least some of these claims. I would go further and argue that they are all complete bollocks, and that some of the problems stem from the human tendency to reify processes, that is to think that processes are things that can, for example, be moved around.

In the present case the specific mistake is to think of the mind as a thing that can be moved, or perhaps at least copied, from the body into a computer, which is essentially a form of Cartesian mind-body dualism. To get over this mistake, and to raise one's consciousness about the ease with which we make it, one could consider historical instances of the same error.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Botany picture #105: Justicia pilosa

Justicia pilosa (Acanthaceae), Bolivia, 2007. Pilose means hairy, and I assume the name refers to the bracts. To be honest, this species very much reminds me of the genus Prunella (Lamiaceae).

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Did I mention the German federal election earlier? It will take place the coming Sunday. So why did we get one of our two ballot papers only yesterday? That seems a bit pointless because it will never make it back to Germany in time. Could they not have sent the documents out two weeks earlier? Maybe postal voting is meant only for Germans who are too lazy to walk to the polling station on Sunday, but not for those who are silly enough to be in another country?


I always find it fascinating how long some people of faith can go on thinking about and discussing religion without getting anywhere near the question of whether any given religious idea is actually correct or wrong. Just last week, a blogger who considers himself a "druid" wrote 3,095 words on what we might call comparative religion and what he calls changing religious sensibilities, comparing nature-worship against the hope for salvation or eternal life, mentioning historical changes in perspectives and rituals, and expressing his hope that another such change was taking place now (towards his preferred sensibilities, of course).

And at no point did he ever raise the issue of whether this or that religious belief is actually, you know, true or false. He would probably consider that to be a question of no importance; perhaps he would consider it oppressive and arrogant "ethnocentrism" to even ask it. And that is, at its core, the difference. For some people it is all about picking a pleasant narrative (a term that is seriously starting to set my teeth on edge). But for some of us it is, strange as it might seem, about what is true and what is false. It is not about wanting to believe in some kind of salvation through technological progress, as he seems to think - in fact I am quite pessimistic about the future. No, what is important to me is aligning my beliefs with demonstrable fact.

If the things he prefers to believe are wrong, we should want no part of them no matter how pleasant and satisfying they are, no matter how much of a feeling of homecoming they might provide. That comes with being a mature and sane personality. On the other hand, it is clear that the transient nature of both individuals and societies as well as the desirability of living sustainably are demonstrable facts. But at that point, not although but precisely because its beliefs as represented by him (and stripped of any supernatural mambo-jumbo) align with reason and empirical evidence, a "druidic faith" becomes superfluous to requirements. Rationality and evidence-based thinking are all we need.


Australian weather is really much more chaotic than what I was used to from Europe. Here in Canberra we had several weeks with at most a soft half hour drizzle that evaporated instantly, and now it has been raining continually for two days. Yesterday was the wettest day of the year so far, and you should have seen how drenched I was when I had cycled home.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Botany picture #104: Allium rotundum

Allium rotundum (currently Amaryllidaceae?), Botanic Garden of Zürich, 2009. The onion or garlic genus Allium may be my favorite group of Monocots but I cannot be bothered to learn what family it is in now because it seems to change every two years.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Carpets of everlastings

I have just come back from a few days of field work in the western plains of New South Wales. The purpose of the trip was to collect samples of daisies, and although I did not get all I wanted it was quite successful.

The arid and semi-arid areas of Australia are characterized by highly variable rainfall. When you have a bad year, there is nothing but dust and shriveled up dead plants. When you have good summer rain, the grasses grow and you get increased risk of bushfires. But when you have good winter and spring rains, you get magnificent carpets of ephemeral wildflowers, and many of them are everlasting paper daisies (tribe Gnaphalieae). While the past few weeks were too dry in the farthest west, the weather must have been near perfect in the more central parts of the state. Check out a few samples of what we saw:

Leucochrysum molle west of Jerilderie. Sampling this species was one of my two most important objectives.

Large stands of Pycnosorus pleiocephalus north of Wentworth.

We wondered whether this area between Menindee and Ivanhoe could still be called 'grassland' because it consists nearly entirely of Rhodanthe floribunda.

Mostly Hyalosperma semisterile (and several other species of daisies) near Narrandera.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Reflections on current elections

Last Saturday was the national election in Australia. The country has a system in which all the members of the more powerful house - the parliament - come from electoral districts. It includes a mechanism of transferring the vote for a preferred but losing candidate onto a second, third, etc preference until only two are left, so that every winning candidate will have the support of at least 51% or so of the voters even if they weren't their first preference.

Still, it does lead to the kind of distortions one would expect from a district-based voting system that was inherited from Britain. Look at the estimates made by ABC which, as of my writing of this post, look like this:

The Coalition (Liberals and their immediate allies) gets 45.3% of the primary votes and are predicted to win 59.3% of the seats (89/150).

Labour gets 33.8% of the primary votes and are predicted to win 38.0% of the seats (57/150).

The Greens get 8.4% of the primary votes and have won 0.7% of the seats (1/150).

Palmer United Party gets 5.6% of the primary votes and may have won 0.7% of the seats (1/150) although that still appears to be narrow.

From a German perspective, that all seems terribly unfair. In an extreme case, if 51% of all voters preferred party A and 49% preferred party B, the supporters of the latter party could end up with no representation in parliament provided that the supporters of both parties are distributed perfectly equally across the map. The Bs would be completely unrepresented, just as the Green and Palmer supporters are nearly unrepresented at the moment. (Yes, there is the senate, but that is not the house with the real power and it has its own problems.)

More realistically, people are somewhat clumped: this area here slightly prefers A, that area over there leans towards B. Then we get the problem of Gerrymandering. Even if the As had 55% support across the nation, you could draw the electoral districts so that they would only get comparatively few seats. The trick is to lump as many of their supporters as possible together. You would have to draw some districts to include 80% of As and 20% of Bs and many others to include 47% of As and 53% of Bs. Voila, the Bs win more districts although the As have more votes. Apparently, Gerrymandering is not a bad problem in Australia but it is in some countries.

Germany also has an election in about two weeks. The German system cleverly combines districts with proportional representation, and the latter (the fact that parties get the same proportion of seats as they got votes as long as they clear the 5% hurdle) means that Gerrymandering would be useless. And, of course, with the same results as above under the German system the Greens and Palmers would get a decent number of seats in parliament (looking at party programs I assume the result would be the Coalition and the Palmers governing together).

But of course both have their advantages. Although I much prefer the German electoral system, there are at least two things that I would import from Australia if I could. The first is mandatory voting, the second are the preferences. There have been quite a few cases where a German party got 4.7% or so of the vote and thus no seats in parliament. The votes were thus as wasted as those to a losing candidate under a first past the post system. It would be nice if the voters of a German party missing the 5% hurdle, or perhaps even only the party itself, could decide what other party should get those votes then, as under the Australian system.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Botany picture #103: Castanea sativa

Castanea sativa (Fagaceae), Botanic Garden of Halle, Germany, 2008. The edible chestnut is, of course, well known from its fruit, and perhaps even as a tree, but how many of us give it any attention when it is in flower? As can be seen from its affiliation with the Fagaceae family, the genus Castanea is closely related to oaks and beeches.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Grading schemes at Australian universities

Currently I have to rank a large number of students by their grades (or marks, as Australians would traditionally put it). My efforts are not helped by the fact that I did not study here myself, but what is worse is the inconsistency between the various universities. Where other countries have a simple, nationally consistent system, the universities here use several different systems.

I think I am getting the hang of it, more or less. Things seem to be approximately like this:

High distinction (HD or H)    = H1    = 7    = A
Distinction (DI, DN or D)      = H2    = 6    = B
Credit (CR or C)                     = H3    = 5    = C
Pass (PS or P)                         = P      = 4    = D
Failed (N)                               = N      = <4  = ?

That sounds like a good guide until you realize that the category bounds differ from university to university. UNE for example awards a high distinction if you achieve 85% of a test score while ANU already awards the same grade at 80%. So if you merely count how many HDs and Ds somebody has, you are going to treat UNE students unfairly.

(Of course, there is always the question whether 82% are as equally easily achieved in both places but that is unavoidable under any system. Even if you standardize tests, the students will still have had different teachers.)

So to get an impression, let us consider the scheme currently adopted by the majority of universities, as far as I can tell. A pass or equivalent is achieved with 50%, credit with 60%, distinction with 70% and high distinction with 80%. Now perhaps you can call me a cranky old man who would not write like that if he still had to go through exams himself, but this looks very much to me as if Australia had some grade inflation going on.

Should the work of an aspiring academic be considered acceptable if they get half of it right? It depends on the type of test, but under certain circumstances you can achieve much of that score by guessing. Taking the commonly accepted meaning of that term into consideration, does somebody deserve a distinction when they get a mere 70% right? And should the highest grade available already go to those who manage to answer four of five questions? If you ask me (and perhaps you shouldn't), I would lift all categories by 10%; and yes, that includes the pass.

The idea with the grade inflation was confirmed by a few colleagues, by the way. A more senior scientist told me that there was no high distinction when she studied, and a colleague of my generation experienced a system with high distinctions, but you needed a higher score to achieve them.

One wonders when somebody will come up with the idea to introduce an new category for 90% and above, perhaps called "excellent". And a few decades of grade inflation later the categories will be fail (<50%), excellent (EX, 50%), superb (SU, 60%), stunning (ST, 70%), and mindbogglingly-awesome (MA+++, 80%).

Sorry, I do appear to be a bit of a cynic.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Botany picture #102: Fossombronia

Another liverwort from the pleasantly untidy lawn in front of our building: Fossombronia (Fossomboniaceae), Australian Capital Territory, 2013. This was shown to me by the bryologist colleague together with the Riccias but merely as an aside. Still nice to see. Although it looks leafy at first sight, it is a simple thalloid liverwort; it merely has a very strongly lobed thallus.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Unfortunate implications

My daughter has been watching Disney's Lion King recently, and that made me think of the old insight that no matter how hard a writer tries, they cannot avoid sending a message, and usually they cannot even avoid sending a political message, no matter how much they protest that they haven't.

Which is why it is probably best to be aware of where you stand and how what you write will likely be taken. As the economist Paul Krugman once wrote, everybody has values and everybody has beliefs about how the world works, and that means everybody has an ideology. Or in my own words, everybody who thinks they are non-ideological is kidding themselves. (To belabor the point further, this is one of those things which Ophelia Benson would call "irregular verbs": You have an ideology, I have convictions...)

So let's see what messages Lion King is sending. What they intended to send was presumably either that those born to greatness have to take responsibility (it is Simba's moral duty to go back home and put the pride lands in order because he is the only one who can) or something about dealing with ghosts from the past (Simba has to get over his guilt about his father's death). Unfortunately, both these messages, if they are indeed what was intended, are undermined by the movie itself.

The one about responsibility suffers from the fact that going into exile and fooling around with Timon and Pumbaa was exactly the right thing to do; if Simba had stayed at home, he would clearly not have survived to adulthood. It could also be remarked that Timon and Pumbaa are portrayed in much too positive a light to consider their Hakuna Matata message to be refuted.

The one about facing ghosts from the past is blown out of the water by the fact that Simba never had any fault in the first place. All that needed to happen for him to get over his guilt was for somebody to say, "no, you got that wrong, it was really Scar who killed your father", and that is what ultimately happens. The story would be much more interesting (although perhaps less family friendly) if it were different, but there is no actual facing of ghosts from the past involved because ultimately there are no ghosts.

Which leaves us with messages that may not have been intended, or at least that one hopes weren't intended. Unfortunate implications, as they say.

First, did you notice that the pride's country goes downhill after and because Scar let the hyenas in, and that everything gets back to the normal state of harmony once they are driven out of the country again? Letting more people, especially of another species, into your country is a bad idea. That is already, in and of itself, an interesting observation. What I did not realize when I first saw this movie in German is that the voice actors for the hyenas are Latinos and African-Americans. That makes it even more interesting.

(Admittedly, basically any work of traditional fantasy literature is much worse in this regard, starting with Tolkien himself, because good and evil behavior are portrayed as fixed characteristics of humanoid races, and the solution to the fantasy world's problems is often enough to commit genocide against the orcs or whatever. I really appreciate authors who are better than that.)

And then there is the problem that you get with all "family friendly" stories including princes and princesses, kings and queens. It is very hard not to come away from Disney movies like Lion King with the feeling that one of the core messages is "absolute monarchy is awesome" or, at the very least, "absolute monarchy is the natural state of things". This particular movie shows that all went downhill when the proper monarchic order of succession was broken by Scar usurping the crown. Simba should have become king.

Of course, in reality the proper successor is often enough an incompetent or madman, as history will readily demonstrate, because a hereditary monarch is kind of by definition not chosen based on merit. And indeed the problems in Lion King could have easily been avoided if the rest of the pride had not accepted Scar's rule simply because he was the last remaining male relative of the previous king. If, in other words, there had been no absolute monarchy. But if that is the message intended by Disney then they did not communicate it very clearly.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Botany picture #101: Lathyrus latifolius

Lathyrus latifolius (Fabaceae), Germany, 2007. This beautiful climber was growing in the garden of my parents at the time.