Friday, September 30, 2016

Germany trip 2016, part 3: Burg Hanstein

The trip today was to a castle ruin called Burg Hanstein and the nearby forest.

Burg Hanstein from the distance. The nice Fachwerk houses and a church complete the Medieval atmosphere of the village.

In the courtyard of the castle. Two cellars are accessible, as is the tallest tower which offers a very nice view in all directions. The great hall has been restored and can apparently be booked for events.

The botany angle here is this little busily sporulating fern, Asplenium ruta-muraria (Aspleniaceae). Again, nothing rare or special, indeed probably the most common wall-inhabiting fern in Germany, but isn't it cute?

We then walked through the forest following this track that was used by GDR troops to patrol the former border between East and West.

The village of Lindewerra, here seen from the Teufelskanzel lookout that was the turning point of our walk, was on the GDR side, and the river was the border.

A picturesque pine tree on the escarpment near the Teufelskanzel. Mostly, however, the forest consisted of beech (Fagus sylvatica) and oak trees that were raining their leaves and acorns down on us, as it was very windy.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Germany trip 2016, part 2: Kassel

Today we visited the city of Kassel, specifically the Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, a large park to the west of the city. It features magnificent trees, the palace Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, a statue called Herkules (?), and a series of ornamental lakes, creeks and waterfalls between the latter two.

The Schloss, built for the rulers of Hessen-Kassel and today a museum.

View from the hill below the Herkules statue back down across the Schloss and over the city of Kassel. Unfortunately Kassel is one of those cities that were industrially relevant and large enough to be bombed out during WW2, leaving very few of its original buildings standing.

One of the main attractions of the park are the Wasserspiele, or "water features" as a sign translated them, which take place three times per week. When we arrived at the place where they were to start we were surprised at the masses of people who had come, given that it was the middle of the week and not holiday time. I don't want to see what it is like on a Sunday.

The Wasserspiele finish with a huge fountain on the lowest lake. When the wind turned people ran away shrieking as they suddenly found themselves in the drizzle.

Of course we cannot have a post without something botanical. Admittedly this is one of the ugliest thistles I know, but then again Cirsium oleraceum (Asteraceae) at least has an unusual flower colour. At any rate I do not care so much about aesthetics right now; I am more in a "hey, I haven't seen that species in so many years" mind-space, given how rarely I come back to Europe.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Botany picture #236: Hedera helix

Today we went for a nice long walk through the forest near Witzenhausen. There is still more in flower than I expected at this time of the year. For example, ivy (Hedera helix, Araliaceae) is blooming all over the place, and very popular with honeybees.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Germany trip 2016, part 1

We have arrived in Germany for a family holiday. A few observations, mostly on the trip getting here.

I very much liked the airport of Singapore, where we had several hours of stop-over. They are making a great effort to make it a place one enjoys spending time in. For example, every terminal has at least two gardens. We saw the 'enchanted' garden featuring many ferns and sculptures, the orchid garden, the sunflower garden on a rooftop, the Koi pond, and the butterfly garden. Our daughter was particularly enchanted by the Kois and the butterfly garden. In the latter she was also extremely happy to see for the first time a pitcher plant (Nepenthes); she has an interest in carnivorous plants and only knew it from books.

Of more general interest is perhaps that Singapore airport has numerous options of reclined seats or even rest areas with couches so that people can sleep. Many other airports I have seen appear to want to avoid that, going as far as to deliberately make seats in waiting areas as uncomfortable as possible. Maybe they think that resting passengers will make the place look shabby? I certainly prefer the way they are doing it in Singapore. Again, that airport is great.

During the flights I finished reading Robert Rankin's The Japanese Devil Fish Girl, which was rather enjoyable if you like silly. He just seems to be a bit too much in love with certain turns of phrase that he uses over and over, e.g. "[character] did [action]ings". I also started reading Arthur C. Clarke's Report on Planet Three and other speculations and am a bit disappointed about that one. But that is probably a post on its own.

Something I never noticed before are all those universal power outlets are suddenly becoming available on aeroplanes and in hotels. Very useful.

Since being back in Germany I find it odd to suddenly be surrounded by all these German speakers. Our daughter has found the first Gluten Free bread that she liked, ever; would be great if that company existed in Australia. My wife had to laugh at finding that one could fully open the window of our fifth storey hotel room at Frankfurt airport, something that we are not used to any more from Australia. During our most recent stay in a hotel there one could not even open it a slit, and the room was accordingly stuffy.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


Soon the state (really territory) election is going to take place, and consequently there are now all manner of posters around us. Given that Australia has a very nearly two party system it is no surprise that most of them are for Labor or the Liberals. On my way to work there are, however, also a few with a rather odd colour scheme asking the reader to vote Independent.

This reminds me of when I was younger, back in Germany. There were (and are) parties like the Social Democrats (~Labor), the Christian Democratic Union (conservative), the Liberals, the Greens, the Left. And then at the local level we always had groups that would call themselves something on the lines of Unabhängige Wählergemeinschaft, or in other words Independents.

What I have never understood and still find hard to grasp is what independent is supposed to mean in this context.

As far as I can tell there are only three possible meanings.

First, independent from all the other parties that have names without "independent" in them. But that would be rather silly. I am sure I am not communicating any revolutionary insight when I say that e.g. the Liberals are independent from Labor, and vice versa, and the same for most parties. We divide both sides of the equation by the same number and nothing changes. This meaning of independent is consequently empty.

Second, it could mean independent from that terrible evil, special interest groups. The idea being that all the other parties with real names are tied to selfish or ideological splitters, and only the Independents are nobly above it all, unideologically putting the interests of the common man on the street first. But again I see a little snag. The people who consider themselves the common man on the street are one of those special interest groups.

And in my eyes the idea that a party in a democracy is not supposed to work for a special interest is completely incoherent. Representing interest groups is the whole point of political parties, and finding a compromise between multiple special interests is the whole point of democratic politics. The alternative is tyranny.

In summary, the first option for the meaning of independent appears to be empty and the second appears to be nonsensical.

After some thought I only recently came up with a third idea. It would actually make sense to call one's party independent if the other parties were all puppets of some truly illegitimate outside influence, like a foreign power meddling in a weaker nation's internal politics. I think, however, that that is clearly not what the Independent parties mentioned above have in mind.

Ultimately I suspect that the name is chosen because people think it sounds nice. But it just doesn't tell me anything, especially when the information content of the poster on my way to work is limited to "vote independent", without any details on what they want to achieve.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

This season's Lifeline book fair haul

The books that I picked up at our local Lifeline book fair today are mostly SF and fantasy.

Adams D & Carwardine M, Last Chance to See. Very, very happy to have this again. I owned the book years ago, and it was one of a number that I lent to other people and did not get back. It is in my eyes quite possibly Douglas Adam's finest work.

Butcher J, White Night. I have written before about Stormfront, the first book in this long-going series, and currently I am reading the second, a birthday gift from my wife. My thoughts are still the same: I am annoyed by the constant refrain of "people don't believe in magic because they don't want to accept its existence", which is so clearly the opposite of how people function in reality that it breaks my willing suspension of disbelief. And the hero is actually rather incompetent as an investigator, again failing to pursue what appear to be obviously relevant questions. But the books are really well written, so I make a conscious decision to put the first two issues aside.

Clarke AC, Report on Planet Three and other speculations. From the back cover: "Is life possible on planet three? Martian astronomers regard the prospects as extremely poor. The atmosphere with its large quantity of gaseous oxygen is intensely poisonous. The high gravity rules out any large forms of life." Hehe. This just sounds like a cute idea.

Judson T, Fitzpatrick's War. I have read about this book, and it was described as presenting a very depressing but rather thought provoking future, so I thought I would give it a shot. It is the thickest of the novels I bought.

Nichols S, Legion of Thunder - Book 2 of Orcs First Blood. I have the greatest doubts about the wisdom of buying this one, and not just because the first part was unavailable. In this context I should also mention that the fair had volume 1 of the Flora of South-Eastern Queensland but only that volume, and I ultimately decided that there was little point in having only one of them.

Rankin R, The Japanese Devil Fish Girl. Rankin writes comedic fantasy and science fiction, and I have read some of his work with pleasure in the past. This one appears to be comedic alternate history Steampunk SF. Will see.

In addition the wife and daughter got a number of other books and puzzles.

As always I am puzzled by the classification of books used by the fair volunteers. Finding a collection of Darwin Awards under General Science presumably merely shows an individual volunteer's mistake. I am also by now used to finding the Biology section full of a distressing number of creationist propaganda items.

But why, for example, are the subsections on New Age, Alternate [sic] Medicine and Astrology under Non-Fiction? Would they not be better placed under Fiction? And why is there a separate high level Religion section, but Mythology is a sub-section of the high level Humanities section? Some of that seems a bit arbitrary.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Hollywood tactics

Sitting in an aeroplane yesterday evening I watched a bit of the original 1996 movie Independence Day. It was always cheesy, but I never before appreciated how utterly stupid the battle scenes are. This has made me think about what the three worst examples of Hollywood tactics are that I can currently remember having seen.

1. Cavalry charge at a castle wall

Snow White and the Huntsman is another movie that I watched during a flight, and I was underwhelmed on several different levels. Neither the actors nor the story nor the weird love triangle rally worked for me, with the exception of the villain, the evil queen, who I found well acted.

The two large scale battle scenes that appear in the movie are just the icing on the cake. In the first, near the beginning, Show White's father's army charges at an enemy army, and it charges, and it charges, and it charges, and by the time the horses would be so tired that they'd have to slow down the enemy army actually appears on the horizon. And that army just stands there, all infantry, with a few very very short pikes that are totally unsuitable for fighting cavalry, and let themselves be slaughtered. Okay, they were only supposed to be a pretend invasion if I remember correctly, but still, if the good guys are never in any danger where is the point?

Much worse is the final battle, depicted above. The forces of good, led into battle by that girl with the abusive vampire boyfriend, make a cavalry charge at a castle wall. Again there is an "okay, they were", in this case hoping for the seven dwarves to sneak inside and open the gates for them, but seriously, have they never heard of siege equipment? And what if the dwarves had not succeeded? Even as it was, with the plot on their side, half of the good guys were slaughtered just approaching the castle, and then they stood in front of the gate looking stupid and being showered with arrows until the dwarves finally got their act together. And let's not even mention the conspicious absence of helmets.

2. Cavalry charge at massed heavy infantry carrying 10 m pikes

The weird thing is that in the movie Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the Uruk Hai are actually equipped and trained in exactly the right way to neutralise Medieval cavalry. Nonetheless the Rohirrim are depicted as charging them down when they arrive to relieve the siege of Helm's Deep.

Just no. See that picture above? Anybody who cavalry charges those guys is toast, even if they have superior numbers, which the relief force clearly doesn't. There is a limit to how far my willing suspension of disbelief will go, and this is a few hundred kilometres too far. Sorry.

3. If we poke the hippo with enough pins, it will die

Okay, back to Independence Day. Warfare in that movie is really so unbelievably idiotic that it is near-incomprehensible.

The understanding appears to be this. The United States military, the best equipped in the world, has exactly two types of weapons at its disposal: fighter planes carrying four air-to-air guided missiles each, and nuclear weapons. They are concerned about using nuclear weapons because it might irradiate the planet, fair enough. So the only choice left is to attack an Alien spaceship as large as several cities stacked on top of each other with c. two dozen fighter jets optimised for dogfighting other small fighter jets.

The flaw in that plan should be immediately obvious to anybody except apparently the entire team involved in producing that movie. Let's assume that the Aliens did not have that likely physical impossibility so beloved by science fiction authors, a force field that all weapons just bounce off, and that all 4 x 24 air-to-air missiles had connected and done their worst. Judging from the explosions in the screenshot, how much of the alien ship would have been damaged? Maybe 5% of its outermost walls? Yeah, that'll make a difference.

I really have no idea whatsoever why the movie never shows a bomber fleet, the kind of weapon that one would realistically use to flatten a city sized object without causing nuclear fallout. Would that not have been cool enough or something?

I am sure there are worse offenders, but these are the ones that have offended me the most. Again, no problem with some playing along, but there are limits. And especially when the flaw would be so easily rectified.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Botany picture #235: Loropetalum chinense var rubrum

I will take the opportunity of this botany picture to illustrate how a professional botanist identifies an unknown species. Imagine me walking along, finding this growing as an ornamental hedge, and taking a little branchlet home to identify. The next steps were as follows:

1. Cursory examination of the flowers reveals 4-merous flowers with strap-like petals. Taking this together with it being a woody plant, my gut says Hamamelis, but they generally have yellow flowers and bloom before the leaves unfold. As the picture above shows, our unidentified species blooms with leaves present and is quite clearly purple-flowered. Better not get fooled, try an identification key.

2. Think that this would be a good moment to put to use the fifth volume of the Rothmaler flora of Central Europe. It covers cultivated plants, and there seems to be a good chance that this ornamental shrub would be in there. Closer examination of the book shows, however, that it only covers herbaceous species. Darn.

3. My wife suggests Fitschen's Gehölzflora, a flora covering all woody plants growing in Central Europe. I consult the index and home in on the identification key titled Gruppe V: Blätter einfach, wechselständig, ganzrandig (group V: leaves simple, alternate, with entire margin).

4. I get nowhere but frustrated. I realise that the key uses only leaf characters. Surely there will be alternatives? Further consultation of the index reveals the so far overlooked Schlüssel zum Bestimmen der Familien vorwiegend nach Blütenmerkmalen (key for the identification of plant families using mostly flower traits). Great!

5. The key leads me to the Hamamelidaceae. Perhaps my gut feeling wasn't so bad then. Sadly, however, it then leads me to the genus Hamamelis where I find that all the listed species have yellow flowers and bloom before the leaves unfold, as mentioned above.

6. Bugger that. I cannot be the only one who sees this plant and thinks it might be Hamamelis. Let's google "Hamamelis purple" and see what comes up. Ah, that one looks like it. Loropetalum chinense, comes in a white variant and in the purple variant rubrum. Popular ornamental shrub. Hamamelidaceae, but not a genus I had ever heard of before. Okay then.

We like to think that the usual procedure is either "botanist recognises plant, done" or "botanist consults identification key, keys out species, done". Reality is rather less straightforward. Having a broad knowledge of plant families helps, however; I should have trusted my instincts from the start.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Bayesianism and history

I have recently read with some interest the exchange between mathematician Tim Hendrix and atheist activist and historian Richard Carrier regarding the latter's use of Bayesian statistics to conclude a very low likelihood for the historicity of Jesus.

To summarise, the surface question is whether Christianity was founded by a guy called Jesus who actually walked around and had a few followers who later deified him, or whether Christianity was founded by a bunch of people who believed that Jesus was a god, then wrote a fantasy novel about that god walking around as a human, and later forgot that the novel was only a novel.

The next more fundamental question, and the one at the core of the discussion between the two, is whether Carrier used Bayesian statistics correctly. Finally, underlying all this is the even more general question whether it makes any sense at all to use Bayesian statistics in history, in particular in a quantitative way with actual numbers instead of merely intuitively as a method of organising one's reasoning.

I have written before that I tend towards historicism, then focusing on the observation that quite a few details of the gospels do not make sense to me under the assumption that the authors could freely invent the stories. Somewhat semi-formally one could say that I consider e.g. the probability of the Jesus character being from Nazareth given the hypothesis of the gospels being a novel to be rather low; I would expect a freely invented Jesus to be "Jesus of Bethlehem" because that would more conveniently fulfil a prophecy than the way the authors actually have it fulfilled. On the other hand, I consider the probability of the Jesus character being from Nazareth given the hypothesis of there having been a human who was inconveniently from Nazareth to be rather high.

Reading through Tim Hendrix' critique of Carrier's work and through Carrier's reply, I must admit that I cannot follow every detail, nor can I obviously judge how best to interpret the individual lines from Paul's writings. There are really two main issues that stood out to me, the probability of deification versus historicisation and the derivation of a prior probability from a reference class.

Deification or historicisation

Unless one were to believe that the gospels are completely accurate in their descriptions of every detail of the Jesus story, something that should be impossible even to a faithful Christian in the light of their internal contradictions, it is clear that they contain some material that was made up and some material that at least looks as if it could plausibly be based on actual happenings. For example, even an atheist like myself could assume that a real life doomsday preacher called Jesus did actually in one memorable instance ignore his mother with the justification that his followers were his true family. After his death, however, his followers invented all manner of supernatural stories about him to make him sound more awesome as they tried to convert more people, and thus over the decades he was deified, i.e. raised to god status.

Again, the mythicist idea is the inverse. He started as a god and was subsequently historicised, i.e. his cult started believing that he had really walked the earth although he never did.

The first question here is how probable we should consider either of these options to be, and the second is how probable the gospels would be under either assumption. I must say deification seems like a complete no-brainer to me. It is rather obvious that cultists would have a motive to make supernatural claims or even deify their cult founder, and in fact we have plenty of recent examples of this behaviour. In antiquity this was standard procedure for many important people, especially deceased or sometimes even living rulers.

Carrier argues that historicisation was also extremely frequent: "Hercules, Osiris, Dionysus, Moses, and so on ... were all non-historical yet came to be believed to be historical". I will grant Moses, but I must admit that I remain somewhat skeptical about the others. Surely educated Greeks and Egyptians of Antiquity would have known that Dionysus and Osiris were gods that had some fancy stories attached to themselves? Honestly the idea that anybody would seriously have believed these or Hercules to have existed was entirely new to me when I read this argumentation. And to parallel my observation of recent examples of deification, how often have people in the last few hundred years started believing that characters from novels really existed?

But be that as it may, at best one could conclude that people would have made either mistake with a similar probability. It is further my understanding that the gospels dated to be written first are the ones that depict Jesus as more human, whereas the latest one depicts him the most spiritual. This seems odd under the hypothesis of people slowly forgetting that he was supposed to be merely a spiritual being but fits the hypothesis of people slowing deifying him.

The reference class

Bayesian statistics needs prior probabilities to get off the ground, and this is often one of the strongest concerns of critics of Bayesianism, be it in phylogenetic analysis or elsewhere: how can your priors be justified? It should also be noted that the prior is extremely important, because if it is very high or very low it would require extremely strong additional evidence to push the posterior probability in a different direction. For example, if your prior belief that Columbus reached America in 1492 is very close to 100% certainty, merely showing you a book giving the year as 1489 will not immediately convince you; you may have a moment of doubt but will most likely argue that the book was written by incompetents.

In the case of Jesus, and if I understand the discussion between Hendrix and Carrier correctly, Carrier apparently assigned Jesus to a "reference class" and then used the percentage of people from that reference class who may have been historical as the prior probability of Jesus being historical (c. 6%). The reference class is that of mythical Rank-Raglan heroes. Hendrix criticises this practice for reasons that are a bit too technical for me to fully appreciate, but he also points out that the followers of a human Jesus may well have deliberately assigned him traits to deify him into that class, into the status of Greek cultural heroes and gods. I have a few more problems.

First, does Jesus even fit into that reference class? I must admit that I am highly skeptical in general of this kind of attempt to construct commonalities across different stories. A trope like "comic relief character" is one thing, but "all these stories are basically the same, at least if we ignore all inconvenient differences" is quite another claim. The Rank-Raglan type of hero has a large number of traits, and there does not appear to be a clear cut-off for how many of them a character has to have to be considered sufficiently Rank-Raglan. Subsequently the 22 traits as listed in Wikipedia, with my personal understanding of whether Jesus fits:
  1. Mother is a royal virgin - Not royal but virgin, so let's say 0.5 points.
  2. Father is a king - Nope.
  3. Father often a near relative to mother - Not sure, but I think no?
  4. Unusual conception - Yes, 1 point.
  5. Hero reputed to be son of god - Yes, at least in later view, 1 point.
  6. Attempt to kill hero as an infant, often by father or maternal grandfather - 0.5 for first half of this trait.
  7. Hero spirited away as a child - Exile in Egypt in at least one gospel, so let's give it 1 point.
  8. Reared by foster parents in a far country - Far country alone would double-count the previous trait, and no foster parents, so I'd say nope.
  9. No details of childhood - Non-canonical gospels develop it, so nope.
  10. Returns or goes to future kingdom - Bit silly, but okay, 1 point.
  11. Is victor over king, giant, dragon or wild beast - Nope, unless in the most ridiculously figurative sense when he resists the temptation by Satan.
  12. Marries a princess (often daughter of predecessor) - Nope.
  13. Becomes king - Again, not really unless interpreted super-figuratively.
  14. For a time he reigns uneventfully - Nope.
  15. He prescribes laws - Kinda? He had teachings, so let's give this 1 point.
  16. Later loses favor with gods or his subjects - Lost favour with Judas I guess, so another 1 pity point.
  17. Driven from throne and city - Nope.
  18. Meets with mysterious death - Nope.
  19. Often at the top of a hill - Yes, 1 point.
  20. His children, if any, do not succeed him - Not applicable, 0.5 pity points.
  21. His body is not buried - It is, but then disappears, so 0.5 points.
  22. Has one or more holy sepulchers or tombs - Trivially applicable to everybody who is venerated after their death, including many historical people, but well, let's say 1 point.
So summing up I get 10 points, not even half. According to Wikipedia this would be somewhere between Robin Hood - not clear if based on some historical thief - and the definitely historical Alexander the Great. This does not impress me as an argument for inclusion in the Rank-Raglan class, if such a box even makes sense in the first place.

Second, is this not simply circular reasoning? Choosing a class of mythical characters as the reference seems rather convenient. If I were to replicate the analysis, I would be mightily tempted to choose the reference class "cult founder who was deified after their death", eh voilà, 100% prior probability of historicity! And I would not even be able to say how that is any more problematic than the Rank-Raglan choice.

Note that I do not claim professional expertise either in Ancient history or in Bayesian mathematics, merely a long personal interest in history and some professional exposure to Bayesian analysis in a completely different context. I have not even read Carrier's book so far, so clearly what I write should be taken with a bucket of salt. But at the moment Hendrix seems a wee bit more convincing to this non-expert.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Are brains machines?

Recently I was somewhat amused to see an online discussion on the merits of philosophy as a research field turn to the question whether our brain can properly be called a machine. One of the reasons why I found this amusing was that I had not too long ago been involved in the very same discussion at a completely different venue.

What I think is going on here is less that the people arguing about the word actually disagree substantially, but rather that the word is used in two completely different ways, with different meanings.

If we think about it, it is really interesting how we use analogies to describe concepts. There are, of course, words that have pretty much only one proper meaning, where a word is a clear, unambiguous name for a concept that you have to learn directly without the help of an analogy. In my area, for example, one might think of words like phylogeny or clade. Yes, those words are derived from Ancient Greek terms that actually meant something else originally; klados is apparently a branch, and phylon a “race, tribe, kind”. But the point is, few English speakers today will hear the word clade and think branch. They will either have no idea what it means or they are biologists who have learned the technical meaning without first having learned Ancient Greek.

A phylogenetic “tree”, on the other hand, uses an analogy to capture the idea of a branching structure with no reticulations. This analogy works fairly well indeed, but there are stranger ones. Take “identification key”, for example; where does the metal object for unlocking doors come into this picture?

Anyway, back to the brain. Does it make sense to discuss the brain in terms of a machine? And if we do so, what do we mean by that? Is it a helpful analogy?

Again, the problem that I perceive is that there are two groups of people using the same word for very different analogies. There are many different definitions of “machine” that we can find in dictionaries, but the two relevant ones appear to be:

1. A technological device built by humans to achieve a purpose, and

2. A complex structure consisting of interrelated parts with separate (sub)functions.

Note that in the first definition the point is about a machine as a human artefact, really any human artefact beyond a certain level of complexity. In contrast, the second definition is considerably more general and can also apply to natural structures that can be seen as having a function, even in the context of evolutionary biology.

And this, I think, is the problem. There are those coming from a computer science background or people skeptical of supernatural claims about our minds who want to stress that the brain is purely physical and “merely” a very complicated mechanism for information processing. And they are correct (in my eyes). And then there are those who hear “the brain is just a machine”, are skeptical about hyperbolic claims around the feasibility of mind uploading or brain simulations and respond, no, there is something fundamentally different about machines and the human brain. And they are also correct. Obviously there is a massive difference between a purpose-built car or even a supercomputer on one side and the messy, squishy, improvised end product of billions of years of natural selection and drift on the other.

The picture that one side wants to draw with the analogy does not work for the other side, because they understand the word in a different manner, because to them this specific analogy doesn't work. It is possible that this confusion underlies a few other discussions in areas that are hard to talk about without using analogies.