Sunday, June 29, 2014

Botany picture #160: Serapias lingua

More orchids from south-western France: Serapis lingua. It differs from its larger congener S. vomeracea in not having the conspicuous hairs on the tongue, among other things. This photo was taken at a spot where six orchid species were standing side by side.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Very miscellaneous: Frozen and ill-advised sequels

When I only caught snippets while my daughter was watching it for the first time, I found Disney's latest movie Frozen somewhat annoying, especially the snowman character. But now that I have seen it in its entirety it has grown on me. That is, while I understand the people who have decided to hate it - if something is hyped too much, I also tend to have an averse reaction - I actually think that it is a damn good movie. However, I am getting a very bad feeling when I read that a sequel is pretty much "inevitable".

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Missionary zeal

I have mentioned before that I have some issues with the most vocal proponents of Bayesian analysis. Nothing against the approach as such - I have used it myself often enough. Indeed Bayesian phylogenetics and Bayesian analysis of population structure are fairly standard in my line of work.

But the problem is that every so often you run into people who think that it is the alpha and omega of scientific methodology, that it is hugely superior to every other approach, and/or that every other approach just sucks, or who simply try to apply it to everything, even where it is very difficult to apply.

That last one is often a problem because there is a tendency to conflate an intuitive use of Bayesian logic - something that we all daily do even if unconsciously, and that is consequently so trivial that it does not need to be hyped - and an explicit use of the Bayes formula to calculate actual, numeric probabilities - which is much harder to do because the probabilities and especially the priors are often pulled out of some dark place. Chris Hallquist just did a good post mentioning that distinction.

Really I get the feeling that many dedicated Bayesians, especially phylogeneticists just a bit younger than myself, exhibit a kind of missionary zeal. They may have the feeling that they are kind of a new wave, transforming their area of science for the better, throwing out what needs to be thrown out.

And this is where it hit me: That is exactly the impression that cladists must have given colleagues using old-established approaches when they swept biological systematics in the 1980ies and 1990ies. And I can understand; there must be something really insufferable about somebody telling you that what you have done the last thirty years is bad, and that you have to adopt their shiny new technique or you aren't a good scientist.

Still, and that may only be my bias, but to me there is significant difference: The cladists were right. It really does make more sense to classify by relatedness, and it does not make sense to classify inconsistently. You need to apply the same criterion everywhere because otherwise your classification will be uninformative and non-predictive, in other words useless.

On the other hand, while Bayesians have a shiny new approach they do not have the one principle that has to be applied everywhere. Indeed their approach cannot possibly apply to every question a scientist may ask (just as cladism does not apply to, say, geology). It is a powerful tool but it is only one of several powerful tools we have. When use it for cases where it is the best tool, and we use parsimony, for example, for cases where parsimony is the best tool.

Let's just say that the claim of Bayesian analysis being superior to all other tools, or demands we apply it to everything, seem a bit extreme.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Botany picture #159: Carduncellus mitissimus

The other plant group that I obviously - for professional reasons - took a lot of picture of while in Europe are the daisies, and in particular members of the thistle tribe Cardueae. This is Carduncellus mitissimus (Asteraceae), a nearly stemless plant I found growing copiously between pasture grasses in the Corbieres. Nice colour, and it would probably look good in a rock garden.

This is one of a few small groups where I seriously wonder who ever thought it was a good idea to segregate them from the knapweed genus Centaurea. I mean, if you only know a bit about daisies, as a botanically interested layperson would, you look at this thing, see the scarious tips of the inner involucral bracts, and you immediately start at the Centaurea key where of course you will only find frustration but not this species. What is more, if even half of these silly satellite genera don't fall squarely inside of Centaurea on a phylogeny I will eat my hat.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Euphemistic threats

I am kind of wondering whether I merely increasingly notice something over the past few years or whether it is actually on the rise.

David Futrelle of We Hunted The Mammoth (nee Manboobz) dissects the 'logic' of an obnoxious commenter on his blog. Basically the guy argued that if attractive girls do not sleep with unattractive, frustrated young men then the latter will naturally go on a killing spree, so girls should sleep with men even if they don't find them attractive.

For some reason that made me think of the cases where religious fundamentalists and their supporters argue that one should not say or write or draw certain things such as, say, cartoons of Mohammed, because it is just unavoidable and natural that such blasphemy will lead to violent riots.

Speaking of religions, the logic behind Muslim or Orthodox Jewish demands for the veiling of women, or even just Western conservatives' demands that girls and women dress more modestly, and the general removal of women from public spaces often appears to be that if women show themselves then men will unavoidably and quite naturally lust after them, leading to harassment and worse.

The underlying idea is always the same. People don't come right out and say, hey, the crazies are threatening violence if you don't do what they want; that's blackmail! Instead, it is, hey, you should do what they want or you will cause bad things to happen. Things that just logically happen, as opposed to things that the prospective killers, rioters and rapists could decide not to do if they were nicer.

So, did I simply not notice that ten, fifteen years ago or is it on the rise?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Botany picture #158: Serapias vomeracea

Still a bit jetlagged and having immediately jumped back into work I find it hard to write something longer at the moment. But of course I have taken dozens of plant photographs on our trip to Europe, and so here is the next botany picture. Serapias vomeracea (Orchidaceae), France, 2014. Not much I can tell you about this plant as such, but we saw many, many orchids in south-western France and I will surely post more of them. This one I like very much because of its rather unusual shape and colour scheme; not everything has to be pink and fragile-looking!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Botany picture #157: Graphis

Today we are flying back to Australia, meaning I will be out of action for two days. Time for the first botany picture in weeks, a member of the lichen genus Graphis from the bark of a walnut tree in southern France. I don't know how to distinguish any species but the genus is easy to recognise here, and the best known species is Graphis scripta. Its name captures what the black fruiting bodies on the white thallus are reminiscent of: some kind of strange script. Because the connection between lichens and writing was too good to pass on, there is of course a lichenological scientific journal with that very name.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

New names for pseudo-scientific racism

Over the past three months or so, I have become aware of a whole strange world of people and blogs who can be summarised under names such as the Human Biodiversity (HBD) movement or the Dark Elightenment (no relation to actual enlightenments). The occasion was the publication of A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History by some guy called Nicholas Wade. I have not read it myself, but reading summaries and reviews of the book does not make it look as if it would be worth the investment. In particular the fact that it is being applauded by known racists but panned by many knowledgable scientists should give us an idea what is going on here.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Europe: Hagenbecks Tierpark

Although we are staying for a few more days, this may be my last post on our Europe trip because we are not doing so many tours any more. Mostly we are now seeing relatives.

However, yesterday we visited the Hamburg Zoo, Hagenbecks Tierpark. It is famous for having introduced a new type of Zoo when it was built about a hundred years ago, with the animals in open areas separated from the visitors only by trenches instead of cage bars.

Above the historical entrance gate. It is now inside the park but under monument conservation. A sign indicates that the two 'exotic' human statues - a native American and an African - refer to ethnological exhibitions that regularly took place in the park until the 1930ies.

For some unexplained reason there are a lot of East Asian design elements across the park, such as Chinese style bridges or this Thai sala. The large grass areas are not surrounded by fences, and provide rest areas for some animals that freely roam across the park landscape, in particular Maras.

The zoo is also famous for its (at the time) novel artificial rock landscapes. They were originally constructed with a pine wood framework covered in concrete. Over the decades, they started to decay, and had to be replaced with steel in an exercise that cost millions of Deutsche Mark. The animal in the centre is a North African mountain goat.

Anyway, the park was great. Of course it costs a bundle, but the same is true for any zoological garden, and this is one of the best I have seen.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Smug internet commenter flow chart

Inspired by a recent experience:

Of course, the easiest thing to do is never to leave one's echo chamber in the first place.

Europe: Lüneburg and its amusing fountain

Lüneburg is the town my father was born in, and my parents have set up for retirement nearby. An old Hanseatic trading town that made its wealth with salt mining, it has a rich heritage in architecture. The old city houses show the prosperity of the people who had them built centuries ago. These days Lüneburg is a slightly quieter place but also a very young town; it has a university, and it shows.

Some of the old houses. Many of them have doors and cranes in the upper levels because they were originally used for trading and storage.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Goodbye France, hello Germany

The first part of our trip is over, tomorrow we will travel to northern Germany. Time to have a last look at pictoresque south-western French towns.

Towns in which you can buy pain at a corner store...

...and towns in which there are terror houses on the town square.

(Okay, in that case I cunningly hid an "i" behind the lamp-post. Still, terror is the first thing my brain makes of these signs even when that letter is visible.)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

How ... odd

Recently I googled around to see if any new papers had come out on the genus Minthostachys, which was the main topic of my disseration. I actually had a website dedicated to this interesting plant group for a few years after my doctorate project, and only shut it down after starting this blog. A few of the more relevant pieces of information can now be found here under the tag Minthostachys (obviously).

Searching around now I found something very interesting. Google provided me with two PDFs, one of a student's thesis and one of what appears to be a manuscript based on the same thesis. The first paragraph of the manuscript is as follows.