Friday, December 29, 2017

No, the blockchain does not actually appear to be useful for anything much

Merry belated Christmas and a happy new year! For the following note that this is my personal opinion, which I present not as a professional statement and as not necessarily representative of the views of my employer, colleagues, friends and family. I am not a specialist in investment, nor in blockchain technology.

So it is fairly clear that the blockchain based crypto-"currency" Bitcoin is in a speculative bubble. Owning a Bitcoin is not like owning a useful commodity or the share of a company. The price of Bitcoin is entirely based on the assumption that others are willing to pay at least that price at some point in the future, which sounds like a good definition of speculative bubble thinking. (The same may well apply to some degree to the Australian housing market, but at least there you still have a house even if it is currently overvalued; with Bitcoin you will only have a bunch of electrons when the price is corrected to $0).

It is also fairly clear that the ICO (Initial Coin Offering) market is in a speculative bubble. I have been reading the finance section of Charles Mackay's Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and his descriptions of the various stock offerings during the English South Sea Bubble of 1720...
In the mean time, innumerable joint-stock companies started up every where. [...] Some of them lasted for a week or a fortnight, and were no more heard of, while others could not even live out that short span of existence. Every evening produced new schemes, and every morning new projects.
Some of these schemes were plausible enough, and, had they been undertaken at a time when the public mind was unexcited, might have been pursued with advantage to all concerned. But they were established merely with the view of raising the shares in the market. The projectors took the first opportunity of a rise to sell out, and next morning the scheme was at an end. Maitland, in his History of London, gravely informs us, that one of the projects which received great encouragement, was for the establishment of a company "to make deal boards out of saw-dust." This is no doubt intended as a joke; but there is abundance of evidence to shew that dozens of schemes, hardly a whit more reasonable, lived their little day, ruining hundreds ere they fell. One of them was for a wheel for perpetual motion--capital one million; another was "for encouraging the breed of horses in England, and improving of glebe and church lands, and repairing and rebuilding parsonage and vicarage houses." [...] But the most absurd and preposterous of all, and which shewed, more completely than any other, the utter madness of the people, was one started by an unknown adventurer, entitled "A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is." Were not the fact stated by scores of credible witnesses, it would be impossible to believe that any person could have been duped by such a project.
 ... read eerily similar to the current craze in ICOs. Check out this excerpt from David Gerard's book Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, which I can recommend, by the way. I am not an investment expert, but even I can tell that "whatever these people do, I'm going all in" is not so much a sophisticated investment strategy as mania.

Blockchain technology

It is amazing how often one will read from otherwise sensible people something to the effect of "clearly Bitcoin is worthless, and ICOs are a bubble, but the blockchain is an amazing technology". In fact I was shocked some weeks ago to be sitting in a meeting of taxonomists and hearing somebody say words to the effect of, "it would be great if we could somehow use blockchain in taxonomy", apparently just to be in on something newfangled.

Even without going into any details this seems kind of odd. Surely the rational way to go about one's business is to say, hey, here is a problem, does anybody know a solution?, as opposed to, hey, here is a supposed solution, can we all pretend that we have a problem that it solves?

But let's take a closer look nonetheless. What is a blockchain? And what could it be useful for, perhaps even in taxonomy?

I am going to simplify here, obviously, but to the best of my understanding a good mental model of a blockchain is as follows. Imagine you have a database or, even simpler, an Excel style table. In the realm of taxonomy, let's assume it is a big sheet showing, for each published species name in your country, what its type specimen is, where the name was published, and what the currently accepted name is. This latter piece of information may be a reference to a different line on your sheet if the name has been synonymised, and if the field is empty then the name is accepted. (Again, simplified assumptions.)

One way of managing this taxonomic database is to have one authoritative version of your sheet sitting on the computer of a trusted, central authority, where everybody can look it up and download it, for example like this one. When changes need to be made the central authority implements them on their master copy, done.

As I understand it, the blockchain way would be to have no central authority. Instead, the sheet is distributed in numerous identical copies across lots of different networked computers. The network needs some kind of process for deciding who gets to make a change to the sheet ever so often. Bitcoin uses a tremendously wasteful procedure, but it seems as if there are less wasteful ones that could be used instead. The point is still that instead of one central authority we have lots of copies that constantly need to be harmonised against each other.

Notice something? Of course you do. The whole affair can be made considerably more efficient by simply centralising it, by creating a central trusted authority that manages the one accepted copy, and by dispensing with all the equivalent copies that constantly have to be harmonised against each other. The blockchain approach is just a waste of storage space and computing power.

Really the only reason anybody ever seems to have thought that the decentralisation inherent in blockchain is a good idea is a pathologic distrust of central authority, and concerning crypto-currencies like Bitcoin specifically a pathological distrust of government.

(I am wondering a bit whether there is some kind of psychological projection at work. As an illustrative example take conservative, fundamentalist Christians. Why do they constantly fear that secularists are going to outlaw Christianity, including harmless things like saying "Merry Christmas"? Is it perhaps because outlawing every belief system except their own is what they would do the second they had the power to do so, and they cannot fathom that there are other people out there who are very different, people who genuinely believe that everybody else should be allowed to practice their religion as they see fit, even if they personally don't believe in it? Similarly here I wonder if the proprietarian-libertarian anarcho-capitalists who are constantly afraid that Evil Government Thugs will print so much money that inflation will be at 10,000% are so afraid because abusing government power to enrich themselves is what they would do the second they had such power. Maybe they simply cannot fathom that there are many other people out there who are very different; people who do not constantly obsess about Getting Rich Quick and gloating at the less fortunate but who are happy to live on a modest salary; craftspeople who are simply proud of making high-quality products; academics who simply enjoy figuring out how the world around us works; public servants who genuinely find satisfaction working for the common good; and central bankers who take serious their mandate of keeping inflation near 2%. Not a psychiatrist myself, but wondering.)

So again, nearly every system using a blockchain could immediately be improved by removing the blockchain. But there is another problem. One of the main selling points of the blockchain is that it is "tamper-proof" or in other words "immutable". Again this is an expression of pathological distrust, here the fear that others would tamper with a list of transactions or some other kind of valuable information. For Bitcoin, for example, one of the selling points is that all transactions are irreversible, the idea being that a merchant has the confidence that the customer cannot reverse a payment.

The problem should be immediately obvious: What if a mistake has happened? What if fraud has happened, and the result has already been written into the blockchain? In reality, there is simply close to no market for immutability and irreversibility. All human relationships and interactions have an element of trust, and trying to replace that with the blockchain is doomed to failure.

In financial transactions the merchant benefits more from customers having the confidence that they can reverse transactions with fraudsters than they would from customers becoming very hesitant to make any transactions at all. In other systems the same principle applies: If I were running a taxonomic database, for example, I would want the ability to reverse vandalism or mistakes. As far as I can tell blockchain technology is superfluous and wasteful, and most of its supposed selling points actually appear to be drawbacks.

For a more thorough examination of the issue I can recommend Kai Stinchcombe's essay Ten years in, nobody has come up with a use for blockchain, but of course he does not consider taxonomy :-).

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Philosophy of mind: consider the children

'Thanks' to a post on Crooked Timber I had the misfortune of finding David Bentley Hart's review of Daniel Dennett's new book From Bacteria to Bach and Back.

Hart's 'review' is not so much a review as a meandering, bile-filled rant wrapped up in obscurantist terminology. I find it very hard to extract an actual argument from it, mostly because of the lack of a clear line of thought. But to the degree that there is a core to what he seems to be trying to say, he claims that (a) language and (b) our mind or consciousness are irreducibly complex. To quote only the perhaps most immediately relevant parts:
There is simply no causal narrative -- and probably never can be one -- capable of uniting the phenomenologically discontinuous regions of "third-person" electrochemical brain events and "first-person" experiences, nor any imaginable science logically capable of crossing that absolute qualitative chasm.

Then there is the irreducible unity of apprehension, without which there could be no coherent perception of anything at all, not even disjunctions within experience. As Kant among others realized, this probably poses an insuperable difficulty for materialism. It is a unity that certainly cannot be reduced to some executive material faculty of the brain, as this would itself be a composite reality in need of unification by some still-more-original faculty, and so on forever, and whatever lay at the "end" of that infinite regress would already have to possess an inexplicable prior understanding of the diversity of experience that it organizes. For, even if we accept that the mind merely represents the world to itself under an assortment of convenient fictions, this would involve a translation of sense data into specific perceptions and meanings; and translation requires a competence transcending the difference between the original "text" and its rendition.

This problem, moreover, points toward the far more capacious and crucial one of mental intentionality as such -- the mind's pure directedness (such that its thoughts are about things), its interpretation of sense experience under determinate aspects and meanings, its movement toward particular ends, its power to act according to rationales that would appear nowhere within any inventory of antecedent physical causes. All of these indicate an irreducibly teleological structure to thought incongruous with a closed physical order supposedly devoid of purposive causality.

Similarly, there is the problem of the semantic and syntactic structure of rational thought, whose logically determined sequences seem impossible to reconcile with any supposed sufficiency of the continuous stream of physical causes occurring in the brain.
In every case, most of his argument consists in a small set of simple logical errors. The most conspicuous is one I think of as the "pleonastic fallacy": the attempt to explain away an absolute qualitative difference -- such as that between third-person physical events and first-person consciousness -- by positing an indefinite number of minute quantitative steps, genetic or structural, supposedly sufficient to span the interval. Somewhere in the depths of phylogenic history something happened, and somewhere in the depths of our neurological machinery something happens, and both those somethings have accomplished within us an inversion of brute, mindless, physical causality into, at the very least, the appearance of unified intentional consciousness.
Everything in nature must for him be the result of a vast sequence of tiny steps. This is a fair enough position, but the burden of any narrative of emergence framed in those terms is that the stochastic logic of the tale must be guarded with untiring vigilance against any intrusion by "higher causes." But, where consciousness is concerned, this may very well be an impossible task.
So, for Dennett, language must have arisen out of social practices of communication, rooted in basic animal gestures and sounds in an initially accidental association with features of the environment. Only afterward could these elements have become words, spreading and combining and developing into complex structures of reference. There must then, he assumes, have been "proto-languages" that have since died away, liminal systems of communication filling up the interval between animal vocalizations and human semiotic and syntactic capacities.

Unfortunately, this simply cannot be. There is no trace in nature even of primitive languages, let alone proto-languages; all languages possess a full hierarchy of grammatical constraints and powers. And this is not merely an argument from absence, like the missing fossils of all those dragons or unicorns that must have once existed. It is logically impossible even to reverse-engineer anything that would qualify as a proto-language. Every attempt to do so will turn out secretly to rely on the syntactic and semiotic functions of fully developed human language. But Dennett is quite right about how immense an evolutionary saltation the sudden emergence of language would really be. Even the simple algorithm of Merge involves, for instance, a crucial disjunction between what linguists call "structural proximity" and "linear proximity" -- between, that is, a hypotactic or grammatical connection between parts of a sentence, regardless of their spatial and temporal proximity to one another, and the simple sequential ordering of signifiers in that sentence. Without such a disjunction, nothing resembling linguistic practice is possible; yet that disjunction can itself exist nowhere except in language.
And so on, believe it or not, in the same tone for a total of more than 5,400 words. I cannot for one moment image writing a book review of even half of that length.

Anyway, this is pretty much the same argument as always. A creationist would say, look, the eye is really complicated. Half an eye would not work, so how could an eye have evolved? And Hart says, look, language / consciousness is really complicated. There is no half-language or half-consciousness, so how could they have evolved?

Now unfortunately for the creationist, nature abounds in half-eyes, so to say. Extant animals show everything from single light-sensitive cells across groups of such cells arranged in a little depression of the skin across ocelli to vertebrate style camera eyes of varying degrees of sophistication. Hart has it a bit easier in that our ancestors who would have had half-languages are gone, so he finds it possible to claim that such intermediates are unthinkable.

It is less clear to me how the same claim can reasonably be made about consciousness given the obvious progression in mental capability from worms to chimpanzees, but let's assume for present purposes that there is a vast gulf between us and any other species on the planet. The problem is still that Hart's position falls apart the moment somebody vaguely gestures towards children. This idea is not original to me, indeed one of the commenters on the otherwise mostly distressingly woolly Crooked Timber thread soon made the same point.

Note what I am not saying. I am not saying that Dennett is right about everything he wrote in his book. I have not read it, nor do I have any intention of doing so anytime soon. More to the present point, I am not saying that human ontogeny recapitulates evolutionary history. I am not saying that a six month old human's mind is a very accurate model of a rodent mind or suchlike.

But it is nonetheless obviously and demonstrably the case that every human starts as one cell, clearly without a consciousness, and (if healthy and unharmed) develops gradually into an extremely complex being with what Hart calls consciousness*. Yes, somewhere during ontogeny "something happens", and as far as I can tell most of us would accept that it is gradual. This indicates that gradual evolution can well be assumed to have produced this outcome, no magic involved.

Likewise it is obviously and demonstrably the case that young humans do not suddenly acquire "a full hierarchy of grammatical constraints and powers" in one go. Has Hart actually ever communicated with a toddler? We acquire our language competence gradually, and again this indicates that humans can well be assumed to have acquired language competence gradually over the course of their evolution.

For language in particular it is indeed trivial to visualise how even very rudimentary language immediately confers an advantage. Forget grammar; merely being able to grunt a few words meaning "danger", "food", and "shelter" while pointing into the distance would have served our ancestors quite well at some point. Next they may have come up with a few verbs. Even without tenses and suchlike "you wait; me go" will convey useful information, and of course lots of tourists successfully communicate at this level in a local language.

Again, I do not know how good Dennett's book is. Nor do I claim to have all the answers. But sometimes it is quite easy to tell that a given answer must be wrong even if you don't know what the right answer is. And it is really fascinating to read with what a tone of condescension Hart argues that there cannot be a gradualist explanation for capabilities that are demonstrably acquired gradually during human ontogenetic development.


*) Another point potentially to be made here is that certain philosophers of mind frustratingly take terms that have been invented to give a name to an observed phenomenon and then mystify them to the point where they cannot imagine a non-magic explanation for the phenomenon.

Consciousness is a perfect example. When our ancestors came up with that word they would have done so to describe the difference between a sleeping, knocked-out, drugged or dead person on one side and an awake and aware person on the other. They would then at some point have observed that while for example a beetle may be kind of awake and aware it does not appear to have the same awareness of itself (~consciousness) as a human. Finally a certain type of philosopher of mind comes in, picks up the term consciousness, reinterprets this label slapped on an observed distinction into a mysterious substance sitting in human heads, and claims that such a mysterious substance cannot be explained scientifically.

I would take one step back and say, no, actually this is straightforward in principle (if not necessarily easy in practice): that person over there is sleeping, just study how the brain processes differ from when they are awake and you have your explanation. Of course this is not what the philosopher means, but it is what consciousness means! The same goes for qualia, experience, apprehension, intentionality, and a whole host of other buzzwords used by Hart. They all have been created to describe observed distinctions, and being observable they can be studied using empirical science.

Luckily most scientists and philosophers understand the difference between things and processes, the concept of emergent processes, and the fallacies of composition, division and reification. (The last of these seems particularly relevant to how Hart discusses the terms mentioned in the previous paragraph.)

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Fieldwork in Kosciusko National Park, part two

Today was the final day of field work. Because I was in the mountains earlier than in past years I saw a number of plants flowering for the first time.

Chief among them is probably Psychrophila introloba (formerly Caltha introloba, Ranunculaceae). It famously sometimes starts flowering while still covered by snow, and indeed I had not noticed them until a student asked me rather poetically, "do you know what those white stars under the snow are?"

Another Ranunculaceae I saw for the first time is Ranunculus millanii, the smallest buttercup in the area.

Even smaller: Plantago glacialis (Plantaginaceae) in all its glory.

A spore plant for a change, Huperzia australiana. This is a lycopod that carries the sporangia in the axils of normal vegetative leaves. The other species in the area, Lycopodium fastigiatum, has spikes of differentiated sporophylls.

This species, Pimelea ligustrina (Thymelaeaceae) is apparently called the Kosciusko Rose, although it does not, of course, have anything to do with roses. But it is very attractive nonetheless.

I believe I had a picture of this species on the blog before, but now somebody told me what they are called: tortoise beetles.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Field work in Kosciusko National Park

This week I am doing field work in Kosciusko National Park. Not sure if I have ever seen that much snow this late in the season up at Charlotte Pass, but the weather the past few days was nice and warm.

Diplaspis nivis (Apiaceae) is a very small herb growing in wet places. It does not have a photo in my copy of the Kosciusko Alpine Flora, perhaps because most visitors will overlook it anyway.

Growing right next to it was Drosera arcturi (Droseraceae). This sundew is widespread and not exactly rare, and I had pictures of it on this blog before. But this is still a very nice photo.

Finally, one of a number of alpine heath species that we have seen, Epacris paludosa (Ericaceae). A few years ago they all kind of seemed to look the same to me, but they are actually easily distinguishable by their leaf shapes, even when sterile. The red lines are part of the grid we are using for vegetation surveys.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Andrew Sullivan on baking cakes

As always the following is my personal opinion and not necessarily that of my employer, friends, family or potted plants.

To follow news from the USA I regularly read the New York Magazine Daily Intelligencer. Once a week or so they have a column by Andrew Sullivan, who is the very peculiar combination of (a) Catholic, (b) homosexual, and (c) conservative. His average column follows a fairly predictable formula: first complaining about Donald Trump or the state of the Republican party, then a section break, then bashing left-wing activists over something or other. So as to maintain one's conservative reputation despite criticising conservatives, I presume?

Anyway, the most recent column takes a different approach. Titled "Let him have his cake", it takes the side of a religious baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple and now finds himself in front of the US supreme court. Then there is a section break, and then he complains about Donald Trump. It is the other way around, you see?

Anyway, his gay wedding cake argument proceeds as follows:

1. If there are alternative solutions, like finding another baker, why force the point? Why take up arms to coerce someone when you can easily let him be -- and still celebrate your wedding?

That is probably what I would do in such a situation, as I am relatively conflict-shy. But this is a legal issue, one of principles, and as always in such situations it has to be asked what would happen if everybody made use of the 'right' to refuse service.

It is my understanding that the USA had a time when a black person could find themselves in a town where every single bar served only whites. Surely given the rampant religiosity in some parts of that country it is at least not immediately absurd to think that a gay couple might find themselves traveling through a town where every single hotel would turn them away by citing religious objections to gay marriage?

2. The baker's religious convictions are not trivial or obviously in bad faith [...] those religious convictions cannot be dismissed as arbitrary (even if you find them absurd). Opposition to same-sex marriage has been an uncontested pillar of every major world religion for aeons.

This is a really interesting argument. My first response is that yes, religious convictions are all entirely arbitrary by definition. That's just the thing about religion, it is based on faith instead of logic or empirical evidence. The founders of one religion just made up some random beliefs, and the founders of another religion just made up some different random beliefs, and that is why there is not just one religion on the planet, as would be expected if there existed an actual god who communicated with people. Conversely, ideas that are not arbitrary are shared across different belief systems and accordingly not religious per se.

(Just as an aside, I don't really see where in the Bible or the Koran it actually says "Thou shalt not marry somebody of the same sex." Does it actually say so somewhere? I know that the Bible considers gay sex to be an abomination, at least between men, but funnily enough that particular "conviction" is not really insisted on very much at this time, or at least not to the degree that any significant number of religious politicians tries to outlaw gay sex. Because such convictions are indeed arbitrary.)

So yes, the conviction that gays should not marry is arbitrary. And that raises the problem that if there is a right to discriminate based on religious conviction, people can simply make up additional convictions to refuse service to other groups and in other cases. It is hard to argue that some taxi driver's newfound religious conviction that they do not want to drive around an interracial couple is 'arbitrary' if something as obviously arbitrary as not being able to use a light switch on the Sabbath is considered not arbitrary.

Interestingly, Sullivan seems to understand the problem - I worry that a decision that endorses religious freedom could effectively nullify a large swathe of antidiscrimination legislation - but ultimately this worry does not carry the day with him. Is he perhaps a bit naive about the intentions of the other side?

As a mirror image of the above we then get the following:

3. Equally, I worry that a ruling that backs the right of the state to coerce someone into doing something that violates their religious conscience will also have terrible consequences. A law that controls an individual's conscience violates a core liberal idea.

I do not understand what terrible consequences he expects. The consequences would be that people are treated equally, hardly something I would call terrible. And I think he confuses "controlling an individual's conscience" and "making them behave professionally". Those are not the same thing. An individual is allowed to believe that gays shouldn't be allowed to marry, but they should not be allowed to discriminate against gays. It is really as simple as that, even knowing that Sullivan will call me a "fanatic" for seeing it like this.

4. Much of the argument for marriage equality was that it would not force anyone outside that marriage to approve or disapprove of it. One reason we won that debate is because many straight people simply said to themselves, "How does someone else's marriage affect me?" and decided on those grounds to support or acquiesce to such a deep social change. It seems grotesquely disingenuous now for the marriage-equality movement to bait and switch on that core "live and let live" argument.

Well, I can only say that I find this argument rather disingenuous. The discussion went to the effect of, "if Bob and Jim are allowed to marry, your own heterosexual marriage does not lose any of its status, so what is it to you?" If the discussion was to the effect of "hey, we just want you to let Bob and Jim marry, but you can still treat them like second class humans and discriminate against them", then I have missed that.

5. A commenter on Rod Dreher's blog proffers a series of important questions in this respect: "If the cake shop loses, does that mean that if I'm, say, a freelance designer or an artist or a writer or a photographer, I can no longer pick and choose my clients? If the Westboro Baptist Church comes to me, I can't reject them on the grounds that they're deeply un-Christian scumbags? If I'm Jewish, do I have to design a Hitler's Birthday cake with swastikas on it? Would a Muslim cake-shop owner be forced to design a cake that shows an Islamic terrorist with crosshairs over his face, a common target design in most gun shops in America? Can a gay, atheist web designer choose not to do work for the Catholic Church, or would we have the government compel him to take on a client he loathes?"

This is perhaps the superficially most convincing argument presented by Sullivan. (Partly it may be that I find this style of argument particularly useful.) However, I feel that it mixes up a few different scenarios.

Yes, it seems to me that somebody who opens a shop or provides a service should not be able to refuse service to a church merely for being a church. That would be exactly the same kind of discrimination as refusing service to homosexuals, and it would be unacceptable to me. On the other hand, I think that a Hitler's birthday cake or a face in cross-hairs is a different kind of message to write in glazing than "Bob & Jim".

Yes, I get the idea that the latter supports gay marriage and is thus as objectionable to a certain kind of deeply religious person as mass murder is to other kinds of persons, but I believe that one would have to be quite nihilistic to not see the difference between those two points of view. One message seems objectionable because of an arbitrary, made-up religious dogma, the others are objectionable because they are demonstrably hateful and evil. Still, I understand how this is a difficult difference to see for some who hold a certain view of the first amendment of the US constitutions, for the kind of person who, for example, sees European countries outlawing Holocaust denial as engaging in a terrible restriction of free speech and taking the first step towards totalitarianism.


6. It always worries me when gays advocate taking freedom away from other people. It worries me as a matter of principle. But it also unsettles me because some gay activists do not seem to realize that the position they're taking is particularly dangerous for a tiny and historically despised minority.

Again, these are two very different types of freedom we are talking about. Historically, the freedom taken away from gays was the freedom to exist. The freedom Sullivan considers to be taken away from the baker is the freedom to discriminate against others. I find it puzzling how the latter can possibly be held to be a freedom worth defending, let alone be equated with the former.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Some thoughts on oral presentations

The Systematics 2017 conference in Adelaide was great, and as always I learned a great deal and enjoyed interacting with colleagues. Also this was simply the first time since I came to Australia that I saw South Australia, and it was the last state that I had not seen so far.

Looking back over the talks (oral presentations) I heard over those three days I wonder, however, about the different aspects that people decide to focus on in those talks. There are five types of talks that I find particularly odd.

The overly introduction focused talk

The average conference talk in science is structured like the average scientific paper: (1) introduction providing background information and leading into the aims of the study, (2) methods, (3) results, and (4) a discussion putting the results into context and explaining what they mean. What I call the introduction focused talk is when the speaker spends so much time telling us how cool their study group is and what had already been known about it decades ago or perhaps what they are trying to achieve that by the ten minute mark I wonder if we will ever get to hear what they have actually found out.

Now this is of course perfectly fine if the speaker is a first year graduate student who has only just started their project, but it is somewhat less understandable if a more senior researcher actually has lots of interesting data but, due to their misplaced sense of priorities, only manages to flash one tantalising results slide for twenty seconds before their talk is cut off by the session chair. In such cases something is off about the balance of the talk, just saying.

Relentless wet lab wonkery

One of the frustrations of the last few years, clearly driven by the rise in high-throughput sequencing, is the increasing amount of lab method wonkery in conference talks. People who could otherwise be great and engaging speakers go through slide after slide with little lines that are meant to be DNA fragments, explaining at length how those fragments are produced, barcoded, amplified, size selected, pooled, and sequenced, often for approaches that have been around for several years.

Maybe I am wrong, but I think most people do no want to hear, at least primarily, what somebody did on the bench, they want to hear for example how the study plants or animals evolved and what that means biologically. The lab wonk talk is like going shopping for a used car and finding that every salesman first walks you through the way a combustion engine works.

Relentless bioinformatics wonkery

This is the same as the previous, only with a focus on how the sequence reads are quality controlled, contigs are built, alignments are made, etc. Except in the context of a methods workshop it is perhaps even less helpful than lab wonkery. Most biologists in the field can at least easily visualise what happens to the DNA fragments the lab wonk is talking about (even if they don't really care and want to see the biologically meaningful results), but the bioinformatics realm is so full of impenetrable jargon that ironically only those who don't need to hear the talk will be able to understand it anyway.

Selling well known facts as great new insights

Another frustration that I have are those speakers who present as their awesome new insight something that every marginally competent audience member has been aware of for years.

High-throughput sequencing gives us more data than Sanger sequencing did? Who knew? So, museum specimens have degraded DNA? You don't say. GBIF exists, and the public can download specimen location data from it? Wow. We should be taking photos of herbarium specimens and putting them into online databases? Quick, somebody invent JSTOR Plants!

I am not saying that these are not points that can be made as part of the introduction to one's topic, to show how far we have come in a very short time. But if the entire point of the talk is something to the effect of "future directions in our field" or "where we need to be in 2028" one does expect something that did not already happen a decade or so ago.

The self-promoting and frustratingly off-topic keynote

Finally, I am starting to notice a certain type of keynote or plenary talk, where a hotshot scientist is invited to provide a broad overview of developments in their field, usually to frame the more focused and detailed talks that will follow after it in the program.

Keynotes and plenaries are always more like review articles than research articles, and I just have to admit that I do not go to conferences primarily to hear them. Nonetheless I have heard great and engaging plenaries, including at this recent conference, and can enjoy some of them even when they are largely about historical developments. It just depends on the choices made by the speaker.

What I really find frustrating are speakers who see these talks largely as opportunities for self-promotion. Their talks show at least several of the following features:
  • Nearly everything that is mentioned is the speaker's own work and that of their students, virtually ignoring contributions from others in the field.
  • Accordingly, many of the images in the slides appear to be photos of their numerous students and postdocs, usually goofing around in the field or looking awkward in front of a computer screen.
  • A good part of the remaining images are scans of the tops of the speaker's own articles, with the journal name showing prominently ("look, I have a Nature paper!").
  • The content of the talk is at best tangential to the title that it was advertised under, presumably because the speaker is re-using the same slides as for the last four such talks they gave under different titles and on different occasions.
Of course I would not expect everybody to agree with me, but my favourite type of talk is still a standard contributed presentation that is well-balanced between background and results, with methodology largely limited to a few informative bullet points.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Is not making sense a prerequisite for being published in a newspaper?

Apparently there is a scientist who thinks that, to quote the headline of his article, "We don't need to save endangered species" because "extinction is part of evolution".

As with the people who argue that one should be allowed to discriminate against gay couples even after gay marriage is allowed but fail to make the connection with how horrified everybody would be if the same argument were made about, say, interracial couples, so in this case I am deeply puzzled how this guy can make his argument without realising that "one day you are going to die anyway, so I can brutally murder you now" follows the exact same logic. If his argument makes sense, then so does this one*.

I am somewhat less puzzled why his contribution was published. It is so controversial as to raise an outcry, and as we know all publicity is good publicity for the newspaper, especially if they do not even claim that he represents the editor's opinion.

*) I hope it is clear that I draw the opposite conclusion, i.e. that the murder argument is the reductio ad absurdum for the extinction one.