Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Botany picture #182: Lissanthe strigosa

Lissanthe strigosa (Ericaceae), Australian Capital Territory, 2014. Another little heath from the area.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Taxonomy is more important to hunter-gatherers than to farmers

Over the past few days we had a big strategy meeting across the Australian national biological collections: land plants, tree seeds, algae, insects, land vertebrates, and fish. One thing that struck me was the following:

All collections do taxonomic research as part of their core business, that is describing new species, writing identification keys, publishing field guides, compiling lists of accepted names, etc. But whereas in the other five this research is mostly done for the purposes of informing conservation management, biosecurity and weed management, other scientific research, and the general public (e.g. native plant enthusiasts or bird watchers), fish taxonomy is the only one that really has deep-pocketed primary industry interest behind it.  The fishing industry is actually asking and paying for basic taxonomic research.

Why is that the case? Are ichthyologists simply better than botanists or herpetologists at engaging commercial partners? But if you think about it, there could be a much simpler answer: Fishing is the only food sector in which our civilisation is still pretty much at the hunter-gatherer stage.

Yes, there are some fish farms these days, but what mostly happens is that somebody casts their net into the ocean and catches a chaotic mixture of organisms. And then of course they have to know: which of these are edible? Which of these are worth the bother to process them? How do we have to process them? What are their names, so that we can sell them without frustrating the consumer? All that is really taxonomic knowledge.

In other food sectors the situation is much simpler: A farmer will not really be under any doubt that they harvest wheat after sowing wheat, or that the animal going bah on their paddock is a sheep.

If, however, we still obtained our vegetables and fruits the way we obtain our fish, we would have somebody come to the market with a big bag of stuff that they collected in the bush; they would tip it out, and then they would wonder: Is this berry edible or is it poisonous? What is the name of this weird bulb I have never seen before, and what can it be used for?  Are these two tubers the same species? What should I name this type of nut so that the buyer knows what they get?

If that were the case, we would also see more direct "industry" interest in plant taxonomy. Although of course a society operating like that relies on painful trial-and-error instead of formal scientific studies and on personal instruction instead of a four volume print flora, it still needs knowledge of plant and animal taxonomy to be much higher and more widespread across the population than our specialised farming culture.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Botany picture #181: Cicendia quadrangularis

Cicendia quandrangularis (Gentianaceae), Australia, 2014. This tiny little gentian is an ephemeral weed introduced to Australia from the Americas. We saw it a few weeks ago at Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve. It is easily overlooked, but I had seen the other species of the genus before, and so I noticed it.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Botany picture #180, kind of: Populus alba

Just a few days ago my wife wondered about Floriade visitors who were so afraid of poplar (Populus alba, Salicaceae) seeds floating in the wind that they covered their faces while walking through. Yesterday she then discovered an article on the ABC website reporting that the seeds were wrongly blamed for hay fever which is, of course, in reality caused by pollen:
In parts of Canberra's inner south and the Australian National University's (ANU) campus the fluff can be so thick it looks like light snow.
But the head of Canberra pollen count at ANU, Simon Haberle, said the fluff was not actually springtime pollen.
"It is the seeds which are being blown around which you see and those seeds come in the form of fluff," he said.
"In reality it isn't pollen, so it is not associated with an allergic reaction."
This is news? This has to be said?

Not-pollen, as seen on my way to work today.

Now don't get me wrong. I am not trying to be the arrogant scientist here. In fact I would not expect the average non-botanist to actually know what pollen is. But here is the thing: the people who have hay fever? That is, the people who are allergic, and let me stress that, allergic against pollen?

Yes, those should kind of know what pollen is.

Still not pollen.

I mean, think about it. Imagine one of those hay fever-sufferers who are afraid of fluffy seeds meeting somebody who is allergic against bee stings but freaks out when they see a butterfly because they never bothered to find out what a bee looks like. They would see that as rather silly, right?

Or imagine them meeting somebody who is allergic against peanuts and then rejects an offer of lettuce because they think that is what peanuts are. Surely one would think them rather foolish for not learning the rather crucial detail of what precisely to avoid and what to consider safe. It is their allergy, after all; they should show some minimal level of interest, for the purpose of self-preservation if nothing else.

So why is it apparently considered perfectly normal for a pollen allergic to be entirely ignorant of what pollen actually is?

Those tiny yellow spots on my finger, however, are pollen grains.

(Also, why do people here, at least according to ABC, call a bog-standard poplar "the kapok or cotton tree"?)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Hotels, internets, and bridal industries

I have been in a hotel for a residential workshop the last few days, and one of the things that I really wonder about is internet service.

If you think about it, every kind of service gets better as go up the price range of hotels. I have stayed in cheap hovels in Bolivia where you had to bring your own towel, and towards the pricey end of the spectrum you will find shampoo supplied, television, fridge, etc.

Just about the only thing that gets worse with the hotel price is internet access. Your chances of having free internet are actually higher in a rural Argentinian backpacker hostel than in an expensive hotel in Sydney; in the latter expect to pay $5 per hour, Visa or Mastercard accepted.

Why is that so? When I raised the issue, people opined that the kind of person who stays at expensive hotels will surely not worry about $25 in internet usage. However, the same logic could be applied to everything else: the kind of person who stays at expensive hotels will surely not worry about paying $20 extra for a towel, yet no distinguished hotel would seriously consider failing to supply towels.

And before anyone argues that towels are a necessity but internet isn't, well, who can do without internet these days, especially businessmen or suchlike? I am still puzzled about the logic here.


The hotel has, by the way, won numerous awards from the Australian Bridal Industry Association (ABIA). This raises several other questions. What is a bridal industry? Why would anybody need a bridal industry? And if there is one, why is it a bridal as opposed to a wedding industry? Because that term carries with it the implication that the bride is expected to care about the wedding while the groom goes 'meh'. What century is this supposed to be again?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Limits to growth

Economics is not usually the topic of this blog, but this week I read something that I found quite remarkable.

Nobel Prize winning macro-economist Paul Krugman is usually a source of common sense, for example when he points out that an economic crisis in which businesses and consumers are unwilling to spend is probably not the ideal time for the government to also stop spending because then nobody moves money around and the whole economy just goes into tailspin.

However, he does appear to share the conviction of most economists that (a) growth is always desirable and (b) can go on forever. So earlier this week he reacted, with a piece entitled Slow Steaming and the Supposed Limits to Growth, to Mark Buchanan's admittedly provocative-sounding article Economists are Blind to the Limits of Growth by making the following argument:
After 2008, when oil prices rose sharply, shipping companies -- which send massive container ships on regular "pendulum routes", taking stuff (say) from Rotterdam to China and back again -- responded by reducing the speed of their ships. It turns out that steaming more slowly reduces fuel consumption more than proportionately to the reduction in speed: [...]

So what happens when you switch to slow steaming? Any one ship will carry less freight over the course of a year, because it can do fewer swings of the pendulum (although the number of trips won't fall as much as the reduction in speed, because the time spent loading and unloading doesn't change.) But you can still carry as much freight as before, simply by using more ships -- that is, by supplying more labor and capital. If you do that, output -- the number of tons shipped -- hasn't changed; but fuel consumption has fallen.

And of course by using still more ships, you can combine higher output with less fuel consumption. There is, despite what some people who think they're being sophisticated somehow believe, no reason at all that you can't produce more while using less energy. It's not a free lunch -- it requires more of other inputs -- but that's just ordinary economics. Energy is just an input like other inputs.
Or, to summarise his rebuttal: We can save some energy, and therefore there are no limits to growth.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Lunar eclipse today

Right now a total lunar eclipse can be observed in eastern Australia, and indeed perfectly from our front balcony. The moon has turned red, a phenomenon sometimes called a blood moon. The picture above was taken with my silly little digital camera, with about one second of exposure but at a high ISO setting.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Australia, land of dangerous animals

One thing that I noticed, and also discussed with another German couple yesterday, is that many Australians have an odd set of priorities when dealing with what one might call dangerous animals.

This is the continent of brown snakes, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis ticks, bull ants, redbacks, funnel-webs, box jellyfish, Irukandji jellyfish, stonefish, sharks and salties, and the Australians take it all in stride. Nobody seems to see a big problem with swimming in tropical waters or walking through the bush.

On the other hand, quite a few Australians seem to freak out when presented with the following - whoo! - daaaangerous animals: the honeybee and the European wasp. There are warning signs all over the place (see picture above), and yesterday I was told that the Australian National University has an actual "caution - bees in lavender" sign in front of one of the campus flowerbeds. The same person also told me of Australian friends who obsessively fumigate their patio whenever they see a single honeybee flying around.

Okay, so you can be allergic against their stings, but then again a brown snake bite can kill even non-allergic people. And many people become seriously allergic against bull ant stings, and those insects are everywhere, but nobody seems to mind.

Bees and wasps are really not that dangerous or aggressive; if we treated them like that in Europe we would have to have a warning sign every five meters and in everybody's garden. What is going on here? Is it just that they have been introduced relatively recently? But they would still have been introduced generations ago, right?

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Botany picture #179: Drosera peltata

Another one from our little walk last weekend: Drosera peltata. My five year old daughter finds carnivorous plants really interesting (who doesn't?). When she heard that there was a sun-dew, she rushed over and started explaining the way these plants capture their prey to our slightly surprised friends and colleagues, all three of them of course biologists themselves... but one of which had actually never seen a carnivorous plant in the wild before!

My daughter has her knowledge mostly from looking at and asking me to explain Adrian Slack's eponymous book which we have in an older German edition. Highly recommended, by the way.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Real and difficult problems

One argument that I have come across surprisingly often in recent times is this: Many smart people have thought hard about topic X and found it difficult, therefore X is a real and difficult problem. Examples would include the hard problem of consciousness and Gettier problems.

A closely related and likewise frequently heard claim is that some person Y's work and opinion must be taken seriously because they know a lot about a topic, have given serious thought to it, and published many books on it; in this case I remember the claim being made with reference to some theologian who Richard Dawkins had interviewed and whom he had supposedly treated very dismissively and arrogantly, but I have not seen the interview myself, so I cannot judge.

The problem is that while it may well be true that topic X is a real and difficult problem, or that person Y should be taken seriously, neither conclusion follows from this kind of argument.