Saturday, November 29, 2014

Something to be proud of?

Among the popular 'New Atheists' Sam Harris has always one been of the most controversial, probably because he defies easy categorisation.

He promotes equality and human rights and then turns around and advocates the kind of profiling that would target people of certain religions and age groups. He exhorts people to use their capacity for reason and then argues in favour of extremely liberal gun laws using arguments that I at least would call paranoid. He is a neuro-scientist, he believes that science can answer ethical questions, and he rejects compatibilist conceptions of Free Will, but at the same time he promotes spirituality, which is surely a concept heavily contaminated with religious baggage if there ever was one.

The latter is what his newest book is about: Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality without Religion. I have not read it, nor do I plan to; I need spirituality about as much as a tattoo of a mermaid on my arm. Each to their own I guess.

However, when idly browsing a book store at Wellington Airport yesterday, I was bemused to note that with writing Waking Up Harris has achieved a new placement in book stores: instead of being sorted with popular science as before, he can now be found between the esoterica and self-help books written by people like Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey.

I am not sure he is proud of that association...

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Botany picture #185: Pachystegia insignis

These past three days I have been at the annual conference of the Australasian Systematic Botany Society at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand. Unfortunately, I will not participate in the field trip to the volcanic plateau tomorrow and instead return home. However, at least I have seen a nice native daisy here: Pachystegia insignis (Asteraceae), planted in a flowerbed directly in front of the hall where the conference took place. The name was kindly provided by Ilse Breitwieser.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Yay! A special issue all about paraphyly!

(The following is the first part of a series of posts on an Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden special issue on "Evolutionary Systematics and Paraphyly". All posts in this series are tagged with "that special issue".)

In 2011, the International Botanic Congress, the largest meeting of plant scientists on the planet, and indeed so large a meeting that it is only held every six years or so, took place in Melbourne. Among the symposia organised at the IBC in that year there was one with the title “Evolutionary Systematics and Paraphyly”, chaired by some of the few botanists who still insist that paraphyletic supraspecific taxa should be accepted.

Sadly, I missed that symposium because I went to a more important parallel session. Recently, however, a special issue based on the symposium appeared in the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Time to blog about phylogenetic systematics again, it seems. My plan is to go through the articles one by one (with the exception of the last one, which for some unfathomable reason appears to be about Pandas and has nothing to do with classification; indeed one wonders whether they mixed up the journal in which that paper was supposed to appear). But before I start, I want to clear my throat, so to say.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The new daisy section of the Australian National Botanic Gardens

Tomorrow, the new daisy section of the Australian National Botanic Gardens will be opened formally. Sadly, I will miss that ceremony because I will be sitting in an airplane to New Zealand.

I regret this particularly because I have been involved in the planning of this new section right from the start. For the past few years I was a member of the Daisy Working Group meeting regularly to brainstorm, discuss and plan the selection of species and where to source them, the design of the garden and the information signs that should be put up.

My role was of course a rather minor one. I have not the slightest lick of knowledge in horticulture or landscaping and was thus unable to contribute much to the real design part of it. Instead, I was one of several who provided ideas on what plants one could include and what stories one could tell, and in the last stages I checked signs and other information material for its scientific accuracy. I am very proud, however, that the garden is growing two very rare and endemic species from seeds that I contributed.

Knowing that I would miss the opening, I took my family to see the garden this weekend. From the outside, of course, as it is still closed to the public. The landscaping is impressive, with slopes, channels and depressions cleverly designed to provide for very different habitats ranging from dry to boggy, and at the same time to enable a more economical use of rainwater.

While the plants are obviously still young, and the garden has a distinctly "recently planted" feel to it that will surely disappear within a year as plants spread out a bit, it is already admirable in its diversity of form and colour. There are mass displays as well as smaller, raised containers showcasing individual plants; and in due course, there will be shrubs and treelets around the edges.

Worth a visit if you happen to be in Canberra one day - as are the entire Botanic Gardens, of course.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Dark Side of the Sun

I have also just recently re-read one of Terry Pratchett's Science Fiction novels, The Dark Side of the Sun. Its message is one that I have always struggled with when it was presented as a more explicit claim: there is no objective view of reality, instead we cannot avoid having a subjective perspective depending on our identity. The scientifically most advanced alien species in the book have realised that they have hit the limits of what they can figure out, and so they try to gather insights from other intelligent species. The Creapii go as far as to recreate the natural environment of other life forms to immerse themselves in it, to try to feel what it is like, for example, to be a human.

This idea that all knowledge is subjective is a very po-mo concept, and I somehow suspect that Pratchett cannot mean it quite to the strictest interpretation. Indeed I can hardly believe that postmodernist scholars can really mean it like that. A water molecule consists of two atoms hydrogen and one atom oxygen. If a Creap, a Phnobe or a Drosk - three types of alien from the novel - examine water, would they find it to consist of three hydrogen atoms instead, or perhaps to contain plutonium? Surely not. Instead of “it has two atoms of hydrogen” they might say “sldjlkjs lksjf l slkfdj lsj fs”, but once we clarify all the definitions and translations we would expect to arrive at the same number of atoms of each kind, because that is just what is observable out there in nature.

By extension the same goes for everything that can be tested or examined empirically. There should be no female or male astronomy, no Jewish or Aryan physics, because the stars are the stars and the Theory of Relativity is either a good description of reality or it isn't.

What there is, if anything, is the good old “what it is like to be a bat” question. In an important sense, we humans will never know what it is like to be a bat, and I will never know what it is like to be a woman. All we can do is contemplate things at a purely intellectual level, such as that bats use echolocation and that women can (usually) become pregnant, but how any of that feels I at least will never be able to truly appreciate.

But there are two things to be considered here. The first is that this is perhaps somewhat regrettable but not really crucial. It is much more important to know the stuff that we can indeed figure out as objective knowledge, the kind of stuff that allows us to heal diseases, build working machines and improve our agriculture, than to know how if feels to be somebody or something that we just plainly aren't.

The second is that it cannot be helped anyway. Even the super-advanced aliens of Pratchett's story must ultimately make do with asking other species about their views. The book ends with everybody talking, listening, exchanging perspectives. And that seems to be all that is really needed.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Botany picture #184: Ranunculus lappaceus

There are some genera that appear to be all over the globe, and the buttercup genus Ranunculus is one of them. So even here in Australia one can see a few spring flowers that aren't introduced but still remind one of Central Europe. This is Ranunculus lappaceus (Ranunculaceae), Australian Capital Territory, 2014.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Foundation's Edge

Having now also read Asimov's Foundation's Edge, I must once more wonder about the way this author described, and thus presumably must have seen, women. It is really striking how they are introduced:
The clothes they had given her fit surprisingly well and there was no question that she did not look at all ridiculous. Had they pinched in her waist? Lifted her breasts? Or had that just been not particularly noticable in her farmwoman clothing?
Her buttocks were prominent, but not displeasingly so. Her face, of course, remained plain, but when the tan of outdoor life faded and she learned how to care for her complexion, it would not look downright ugly.
Feel dirty already? And this is from one of his late novels, not the 1950ies, and the person whose thoughts we are sharing here is a high ranking scholar of a supposedly equal opportunity organisation whose most capable members specialise in reading each others minds! Another woman is introduced later as follows:
She was small-breasted and narrow-waisted, with hips rounded and full. Her thighs, which were seen in shadow, were generous, but her legs narrowed to graceful ankles. Her hair was dark and shoulder-length, her eyes brown and large, her lips full and slightly asymmetric.
Later she puts herself down a bit with the observation that her buttocks are too fat. Of course, male characters are also described and their level of attractiveness is judged, but the language is considerably less voyeuristic, less focused on details, and thus much less creepy.

The other issue is the philosophy behind the story, and here I should now say:


The whole book is about a decision that has to be made about the future of humanity. There are three options:
  1. The (First) Foundation Federation rules over a third of the galaxy and continues to expand. It is supreme in the natural sciences and engineering and it is democratically governed, but it brings with it the age-old human foibles of expansionism, militarism, corruption and envy, so that there is reason to suspect that it will ultimately repeat the same mistakes that destroyed the galactic empire that ruled before it.
  2. The Second Foundation is a secret society of powerful telepaths and their supporters who have made it their task to clandestinely manipulate the thoughts and emotions of political and military leaders across the galaxy to steer it towards a more stable, more peaceful future than the Federation would normally achieve. True to this paternalistic approach, they are anything but democratic: because nobody knows they exist, one can only become a member by being recruited by one of their agents, and the overlord of the whole organisation selects their (usually his) successor by fiat.
  3. Finally, there is a planet that has developed a hive mind. They are basically the Borg without metal parts and with a healthier complexion. Yes, they claim that they also maintain their individuality in addition to living in total harmony with each other and with nature, but how does that individuality work in practice if you cannot do anything that the rest of the planet doesn't want you to do, down to career choice or food intake? Anyway, their idea is to spread the hive mind across the entire galaxy.
So here we have the three possible futures: either the Federation blasts the other two and builds a new technological civilisation of free but irrational and short-sighted humans, or the telepaths secretly rule and manipulate humanity for the greater good, or all of humanity gets assimilated by the Borg.

And the thing is: we are very clearly supposed to root for the Borg.

That seems like a rather big pill to swallow, and somehow I suspect that I would be on the side of the Federation, even if their current ruler is quite obviously modelled after Margaret Thatcher. At least humans are still allowed to be humans and to make their own choices!

It is also quite interesting how Asimov has the various factions summarise their offers. “Free will”, says the leader of the Federation. “Guidance and peace”, says one of the top telepaths. “Life”, says the hive mind. Now semantic hair splitting about various definitions of Free Will aside, the Federation has, in my eyes, said just the right thing, because self-determination is what it is about. The telepath was probably supposed to stress that they only guide, not rule, but really this comes across as if he was the only one to also mention the downside of choosing them; he should just have said “peace”. Finally, the hive mind is really disingenuous. How are the other two not also life? What is more life about submitting to a hive than about being an individual?

Sorry, but Asimov did not convince me that this book had a happy end.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Your mileage may vary on certain internet discussion memes

I do consider myself to be an advocate of equality for all, of feminism, and of inclusiveness. However, when reading controversies around these issues on the internet I have to admit to finding myself somewhat alienated by the behaviour and culture of some of the people who aim to promote those very same goals.

The problem is that at least some activists for Social Justice, as apparently for some strange reason equality is called these days in some parts of the internet, appear to have embraced a set of, for want of a better word, memes that carry the risk of inoculating against even legitimate criticism and argument, or which at a minimum can be very two-edged swords.

Again, I am mostly on board with the actual aims: slurs should not be used; under-represented groups should be made to feel welcome, and their representation should be increased; there should be no unearned privileges; everybody should be able to feel safe, everywhere. Really all that stuff should, of course, be obvious. It is what is generally known as "being a civilised person" and "not being evil".

But all of us make mistakes, all the time, and if we are not careful we may find it hard to admit them and instead dig ourselves in. It is thus important that we avoid deliberately equipping ourselves with a set of mental tools that make it even easier for us to deflect criticism without even listening to it.

In addition, any group of like-minded people runs the risk of developing its own memes, or other forms of coded language, that are opaque to outsiders. This allows for easy identification of ingroup members but can be counter-productive in that it makes it harder to convince those who have not already adopted those memes and language.

In particular, I am feeling somewhat uncomfortable when I run into the following:

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Botany picture #183: Catananche caerulea

Catananche caerulea (Asteraceae), France, 2014. This daisy is a member of the dandelion tribe Lactuceae, most of which pretty much looks like, well, dandelion. It is thus refreshing to see a representative that is not yellow and actually very pretty. Another characteristic of this plant is that the fruiting heads have dry bracts that make a somewhat rustling noise when the head is shaken, thus inspiring the German name Rasselblume.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Foundation and Empire

After his later work (but earlier in the story time line) Prelude to Foundation, I have now just finished Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Empire (as the original Foundation continues to elude me at the local book fair).

Foundation and Empire is a Science Fiction book that was written in 1952, and boy does it show. Nothing feels as old as old Science Fiction, but in this case it is really the everyday things that I find off-putting.

A psychologist, a renegade trader, a historian and a clown travel through the galaxy in the same space ship. Guess: who has to make the sammiches all the time? Here is a hint: the historian is the only woman on board. I guess you get the picture.

But of course, to complete this picture Asimov also had to include a scene that scarily demonstrates how the true misogynist will never respect a woman no matter what she does. You know the drill. Woman doesn't want to have sex? She's a prude. Okay, now woman wants to have sex? She's a slut. Woman is assertive and outspoken at work? She's a harpy. Okay, now woman is polite and accommodating at work? Well, that just shows that women can't be leaders, and all higher level positions should be reserved for men. Can't win except by not being a woman.

In the present novel, woman is supposed to make sammiches. But when she makes the sammiches, like a good woman ought to do? This is the thanks she gets from her husband and another main character: "Where's Bayta?" - "Setting the table in the diner and picking out a menu - or some such frippery."

And again, that female protagonist is an academic, but here are a few excerpts from her husband introducing her to his father:
His eyes were on Bayta now, and didn't leave. He spoke to her more softly, 'I have the [picture] of you right here - and it's good, but I can see the fellow who took it was an amateur.' [...]

She sat down, crossing her knees, and returned the appreciative stare of this large, ruddy man.

'I know what you are trying to estimate, and I'll help you; Age, twenty-four, height, five-four, weight, one-ten, educational speciality, history.' She noted that he always crooked his stand so as to hide the missing arm.

But now Fran leaned close and said, 'Since you mention it - weight, one-twenty.'

He laughed loudly at her flush. The he said to the company in general, 'You can always tell a woman's weight by her upper arm - with due experience, of course.'
Charming. It is like a new car being discussed by the friends of the buyer, only the car wouldn't be embarrassed by what one says about it.

Also, this is the year tenthousandsomething (or was it twenty?), and everybody smokes. All the time.

Finally, Asimov wants to fill his universe thousands of years in the future with some super-futuristic technology? Easy. He just treats space ships flying across half the galaxy like caravans driving across the USA and calls everything "atomic", be it an engine, a weapon, a shield or a small gadget fitting into the palm of the hand.

Well, he got better. As indicated, Prelude to Foundation was written much later, and it does not come across as quite that dusty. Also, it is better at taking women seriously.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Molonglo Gorge

Today I was for the first time at Molonglo Gorge, a narrow valley near Queanbeyan. A few impressions:

It was a perfect day for walking - dry and not too hot.

Woody vegetation is dominated by Callitris conifers such as the one sticking out in the above picture, Eucalyptus (obviously) and a few miscellaneous shrubs, often Myrtaceae or Fabaceae. There do not appear to be many Proteaceae in this part of the country, and although the sign at the beginning of the path talked of Casuarina stands we did not really see those either. Maybe we didn't get that far, because...

We haven't seen the end of the path yet because we were too slow and decided to turn back before we got there. We spent too much time looking at plants and taking in the view and, in the case of our daughter, playing at the river's edge. Also, it has to be said that the path is not easy for a five year old.

The native Clematis (Ranunculaceae) this fruit is from grew at the beginning of the path. Clematis fruits are technically achenes because they are one-seeded, dry and indehiscent, but they have a long feathery tail for wind dispersal.