Monday, March 31, 2014

Botany picture #149: Cassinia quinquefaria

One of the few plants still in flower this late in the year, we saw a lot of Cassinia quinquefaria (Asteraceae) on our recent walk on Mount Ainslie. It is a weak-stemmed shrub with aromatic leaves. This is about as pretty as it gets.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The worst fallacy

It is interesting where one can end up while surfing the internet. I don't even remember how, but a few days ago I happened on two links (one leading to the other) that discussed what fallacy or fallacious argument would be the worst.

The Australian professor James Franklin discussed the suggestion by his compatriot philosopher David Stove that the idea behind cultural relativism and postmodernism is the worst ever: We cannot know things as they really are because we only have subjective knowledge. His criteria were how bad he considered the argument to be and how widespread it was.

The Less Wrong forum member "Yvain" presented as their own choice what they called the "noncentral fallacy". It means to fallaciously invoke the emotional reaction that is appropriate for a typical (central) member of a category when faced with an atypical (noncentral) member. Yvain's first example is people making the argument that Martin Luther King was a bad person because he was a criminal, implying that his having been punished for nonviolent resistance is morally comparable to having committed burglary.

I have given the issue some thought and have, for the time being, settled on a different one. From my perspective, the Just World Fallacy is perhaps the worst.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Botany picture #148: Vittadinia muelleri

There are apparently only  three species of Vittadinia (Asteraceae) on the hills around Canberra, and I am reasonably sure that this is V. muelleri. The problem is that most species of this herbaceous daisy genus are quite similar in overall appearance. The most important characters for differentiation are the surface ornamentation and hairs of the fruits.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Parsimony in phylogenetics, evolutionary biology, and biogeography

The first thing most people think of when hearing 'science' is hypothesis testing. However, many a philosopher of science will be quick to point out that there is much more to science. It would be too much to say that science has "moved beyond" falsificationism because falsifying hypotheses still plays a, and perhaps the, central role in empirical research and probably always will. But there are many others, such as modelling.

Another indispensable tool of the scientist, but one that is rarely mentioned, is the principle of parsimony, also known as Occam's Razor. It is the principle of accepting, all else being equal, the explanation that is simplest. This approach hardly needs a theoretical justification; we only have to think up a few everyday scenarios to see that it makes sense, and that everybody unconsciously uses it all the time.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Mount Ainslie and surroundings

On the weekend we went for a walk on Mount Ainslie (ca. 850 m) and in the nearby Mount Majura Nature Reserve.

This is the view from the lookout on Mount Ainslie, and actually the point from which Canberra was designed to be seen. The red street in the centre is ANZAC Parade; it points across the Lake Burley Griffin towards first the old parliament house and then, behind it, the current parliament. The fountain in the lake is the Captain Cook Memorial Fountain, and further right you can see the beginning of the central business district.

What is hiding here under the scribblygum bark? A huntsman spider. Presumably it does not want to end up as the lunch of a Currawong.

Microcosmos. A deadwood 'landscape' that reminded me of a mountain range.

And finally something more or less botanical, if algae and fungi count: an otherworldly looking lichen growing on tree bark.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Scottish journal of EVERYTHING

One of the things often pointed out by Jeffrey Beall is that questionable publishers like to give their for-profit journals very wide scope. They presumably do so in the hope of being able to earn article processing fees from as many areas of research as possible.

Yesterday I received another scientific spam e-mail that takes the cake in this regard. Behold the call for papers from the Scottish Journal of Arts, Social Sciences and Scientific Studies:

Okay, the first thing one notices is the green ink. But apart from that, the funniest aspect is the ridonculously long list of areas of research that is given as the scope of the journal. It is an alphabetic list of everything they could come up with. Botany and dance; philosophy and finance. Yup, that sounds legit, where do I sign up?

The name that they invented for the supposed managing editor is also pretty interesting, by the way. Robest Pual Ashcraft. I guess they were going for Robert Paul Ashcroft but put a typo into every word? So I may be mistaken but this could be an indication of something being off; would not be surprised to learn the journal is really run out of a garage in Pakistan or Nigeria.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Botany picture #147: Hoya kanyakumariana

Hoya kanyakumariana (Apocynaceae), Botanic Garden of Halle, Germany, 2008. Another group that I have a weakness for are the asclepiads, now treated as part of the Apocynaceae family. I guess I like them for their intricate flowers, but also for their odd pollination biology, especially in the case of the sapromyophiliac species. Hoya is a large genus (mostly?) of vines, and the botanic garden of the university where I did my first post-doc has a great collection of it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Inflation is actually good for "the producers"

It must be economics week in my head because I keep coming back to goldbugs and Bitcoin. Based on the first comments I quoted in my last post, I thought a bit more about the illogic of libertarian and goldbug preference for a currency whose value is not inflated away by the evil government.

Because what is the problem with inflation? The complaint can only be that it devalues the money you own. But why should we complain about that, in principle? Yes, I don't like my stuff loosing value either, but ultimately what matters is that I have a pleasant existence. Take cars, for example. Year to year, they loose value like whoa, but that doesn't matter so much because having a stable value store isn't what having a car is about; being able to drive around is. The same for money: hoarding a pile of money with a stable value is not what currency is about; moving money around so that the economy works and delivers us what we need is what currency is good for.

But it gets weirder. People complain that inflation is theft - but who is actually suffering from inflation?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Botany picture #146: Euphrasia gibbsiae

Australia has several native species of Euphrasia (Orobanchaceae), a large widely distributed genus of hemiparasitic herbs. This beautifully flowering specimen, which I photographed during our trip to Tasmania in November, was just identified from the picture as Euphrasia gibbsiae by Bill Barker, president of the Australasian Systematic Botany Society and expert on the genus. (Thanks!)

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Some blog comments that I found useful the last few days - Bitcoin edition

Although these are old they summarize well some of the problems with deflationary currency and with the attempt of maintaining two currencies in parallel. They stress some aspects that I had overlooked in my recent post on Bitcoin.


We live in a capitalistic society. Lets assume, we will replace the dollar by bitcoins. And now let us found a company to produce some goods we want to sell. First we need money. We get it from a bank or investor, let's say 100 Bitcoins. The investor gives it to us for 10%. So in a year we have to pay back 110 bitcoins. The goods we want to produce could all together be sold for let's say 130 bitcoins. So we expect to win 20 bitcoins.

While we build up our company and produce the goods, the value of the bitcoin increases. What does it mean? Our debt increases in value, the material we bought, looses its value. When we start selling our products, their value in sum is at 105 bitcoins, because our consumers expect to get more out of a bitcoin then when we started our business. Our bank/investor still expects 110 bitcoins, which is 5 bitcoins more than we made.

---- "ThomasW" commenting on a piece by Joshua Gans in Economist's View, December 2013.

Incidentally, yes, Bitcoin could conceivably become a currency if enough merchants decided to transact in Bitcoins. The problem with this is that Bitcoin would be inevitably pushed out by the dollar because two-currency zones are inherently unstable. Part of the idea of currencies as fiat is the idea that standardization provides economic benefits. An economy where the workers are paid in Bitcoins but have to buy services in USD means that exchange markets would be a complete mess, with every payday pushing Bitcoin prices skyward as employers hurriedly bought Bitcoins to pay their employees with, only to fall back down again as those Bitcoins were then hurriedly sold by their employees to buy USD again and continue the cycle anew. The only people who would make money would be the currency exchangers, adding a deadweight loss to the economy by taking their spread each payday. The economy would eventually abandon either Bitcoin or USD because doing so would be more optimal. But they would likely abandon Bitcoin. USD has the fiat of the largest military power on the planet behind it, Bitcoin has a bunch of idiots with overheating video cards.

And in fact, that's exactly what's happened to the Bitcoin economy, albeit on a smaller scale. You simply can't promote a traditional capitalist currency without being a government with guns on your side and a claim to power.

---- "Libertardian" commenting on a post on the Buttcoin blog, ca. January 2013.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Botany picture #145: Aesculus flava

Aesculus flava (Sapindaceae), Botanic Garden of Zurich, 2009. This species is a chestnut from North America. By the way, people sometimes get the specific epithets of trees wrong or, alternatively, wonder why the grammar is apparently wrong. After all, "-us" is a male ending but "flava" is female, right?

This has historical reasons. The old Romans considered all trees to be female by default. Bizarrely, even their word for tree - arbor - had a usually male form but was considered to be female. And this is how plant taxonomists treat the matter to this day. Regardless of the genus name, the specific epithet of a tree is female.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Panbiogeography: A recent example

To further illustrate my recent comments on the practice of many phylogeographers of dogmatically rejecting the possibility of long distance dispersal, I would like to discuss a (relatively) recent string of papers dealing with the example of the daisy genus Abrotanella.

Abrotanella is, to our current knowledge, phylogenetically relatively divergent and either the sister group of or on a grade with the entire large tribe Senecioneae (groundsel or fireweed and relatives), and as such probably best accommodated in its own tribe. It is a genus of 21 alpine, often mat-forming species and is found in southeast Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, New Guinea, South America, and some subantarctic islands.

So basically Australasia and South America. One can see where this is going: A certain type of person will look at a distribution like this and say, Gondwana! This must be the result of continental drift! Molecular phylogenetic data, however, indicated some time ago that the crown group of this genus is too young for its distribution to be explained in this way (Wagstaff et al., 2006), and thus some long distance dispersal must have been involved.

As fantasy author Terry Pratchett once observed, where we define the beginning and end of stories is somewhat arbitrary. For present purposes, I will say...

Monday, March 10, 2014

Canberra Day trip to Tidbinbilla

Today was a public holiday, so we went to Tidbinbilla with a colleague and her husband. We were very lucky this time, seeing a platypus closer and clearer than ever before. Still not good enough for a decent picture with my camera though.

Instead, here are a few lizards sunbathing near the entrance to the sanctuary area.

The Eucalypt forest area has several new Koalas. As long as they are kept in the enclosure at the beginning of the path to acclimatise, it is very easy to see them. Once they are released into the forest, it becomes much harder.

Moss-scape on Hanging Rock. For some reason this place is always the favourite of my daughter, it was hard to get her to leave.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Some fresh science spam

Admittedly I currently seem to get overwhelmingly sexually oriented spam, but there is also still a steady trickle of science spam. Some of it is simply ridiculous.

Garish colours. Unprofessional layout. Weird grammar. Grandiose claims. They have the whole package.

Again: I can kind of understand how professionally run vanity presses work, but why do these "publishers" expect anybody who is capable of writing a manuscript without trying to eat the keyboard to be stupid enough to submit their paper to them? Does that really work? These e-mails just don't look at all convincing.

Thursday, March 6, 2014


Recently I got into a discussion with somebody who dismisses philosophy as useless. What particularly fascinated me was his touching faith in the capability of science (as opposed to philosophy) to "weed out" nonsense. This got me thinking about the apparently never-disappearing nonsense in my area of science.

Looking at the bar on the right, one might suspect that I am referring to "evolutionary systematics", to those colleagues who are still promoting the acceptance of paraphyletic taxa. Yes, of course I think their arguments are wrong, but that is not what I mean now, because whether to classify by descent or by superficial similarity is ultimately dependent on what we want a classification to do, not on evidence. Instead, I am thinking of schools of science in my area that are, at least in my eyes, based on an ideologically motivated rejection of empirically demonstrable facts.

Today I want to introduce one of those that come to mind: panbiogeography.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Some posts and articles that I enjoyed the last few days

The real reason theism isn’t taken seriously is because it’s completely ill-defined. If we would presume to contemplate theism from an intellectually honest perspective, we would try to decide what kind of universe we would expect to live in if theism were true; then we would do the same for naturalism; and finally we would compare those expectations to the real world. But when we do that we find theistic expectations failing to match reality over and over again.

Now, I know perfectly well (from experience as well as from cogitation) that you can never make headway with theists by claiming “If God existed, He would do X, and He doesn’t” (where X is “prevent needless suffering,” “make His existence obvious,” “reveal useful non-trivial information to us,” “spread religious messages uniformly over the world,” etc.) Because they have always thought through these, and can come up with an explanation why God would never have done that. (According to Alvin Plantinga, our world — you know, the one with the Black Death, the Holocaust, AIDS, Hurricane Katrina, and so on — is “so good that no world could be appreciably better.”)

But these apologetic moves come at a price: they imply a notion of theism so flexible that it becomes completely ill-defined. That’s the real problem. Craig’s way of putting it is to suggest that God is “like the cosmic artist who wants to splash his canvas with extravagance of design.” That’s precisely why naturalism has pulled so far ahead of theism in the intellectual race to best model our world: because it plays by rules and provides real explanations for why the world is this way rather than that way.

---- Sean Carroll

I use the word "proof" to refer to scientific proof rather than deductive logical or mathematical proof. Scientific proof does not provide absolute certainty, but is more like the proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" that is applied in criminal courts in the United States. I dispute the common assertion that you cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. You can, if you mean scientific proof. [...] the hypothesis I am testing is not what Pigliucci seems to think Dawkins and I are doing, namely asking for some kind of physical evidence for the nature of a supernatural being. Rather we are asking for tangible evidence - scientific evidence - that a God who plays an important role in the universe exists. If such a God exists, then his actions should leave some observable effects in the real world, effects that should be at least as obvious as the footprints in the snow of passing wildlife that I see in the field behind my house. I rarely actually see those animals, but I know they exist. God has left no footprints on the snows of time.

---- Victor Stenger in Science Religion & Culture

What's striking about the modern world is indeed that atheists and believers have a lot in common, but the main thing that they share is a belief in reason and science. To go back to physics, which Gopnik mentions: do you know of any believers who don't believe in the laws of physics? In gravity? In the roundness of the earth? That the sun will rise in the morning? Do you know any believers for whom the majority of their beliefs don't spring from material reality? Probably not.

Even believers, then, live their lives according to science and reason 99% of the time. It’s only regarding that other 1% of things–which concerns issues like the creation of the universe, or faith in a supernatural power–that many believers depart from the scientific consensus. I imagine most religious people are as rigid about a belief in gravity as the average atheist, so why is the atheist scolded for rigid scientism when he or she also believes in the areas of science that conflict with religion?

I yearn to read a piece that, rather than scolding atheists for being scientifically minded, actually noted that we are all scientifically minded. And hooray for us.

---- Isaac Chotiner in the New Republic

If you're interested in passing moral judgment on everyone who walks through the door, maybe the restaurant industry isn't for you.

---- Ed of Gin and Tacos on US-American conservatives who argue that "religious freedom" means being allowed to refuse service to people on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Botany picture #144: Penstemon ovatus

Penstemon ovatus (Plantaginaceae), Botanic Garden of Zurich, 2009. The attractive genus Penstemon has undergone an impressive radiation in North America and provides an interesting study group for evolutionary shifts between bird and bee pollination. The Botanic Garden of Zurich had a great collection of species from this genus when I was working there as a postdoc.