Quicklinks: 23-29 January 2023

Let’s start off with a pretty cool cat fact.

AI tools like chatGPT are pretty cool. But they are not exactly reliable and, even worse, it’s difficult to know how reliable they are. When you hear a person you don’t know, you can look into what they do or what qualifications they have. With AI, it’s giving you answers which are a mix of all sorts of information; some true, some false. In the following Twitter thread, you can learn how it can construct that false information.

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Quicklinks: 16-22 January 2023

Let’s start off with something cute; wolves playing in the snow.

And here’s some good news for animals; New York became the 10th US state to ban the sale of cosmetics which were tested on animals!

I’ve seen this in quite a few places, it’s a piece arguing that PhD training needs to be reformed. Now I’m not saying that PhD training (or universities in general) are perfect, they’re not. There are many things that can be improved but I don’t think this article is on the right track. In my opinion, many of the sort of issues that the article talks about are neither failings of PhD nor university education but a failure of society and expectations. A degree at any level is not supposed to prepare people for jobs. It’s supposed to provide domain-specific knowledge while building general skills in critical thinking, research and learning. It’s up to employers to provide job-specific training. There is also a problem of credential inflation where even basic jobs now require a degree, no matter how unnecessary that is. Furthermore, while I fully agree that we should value PhD graduates and that they can help find solutions to various problems, I think framing that as a key role of PhD training is sorely misguided. I say that because we don’t need more solutions! Look at the biggest problem of today – global warming. We already have renewable energy options, we know how to build public transport, we know how to make food more sustainable, we know we can cut back on consumption. The problems are not scientific, they are political. There is no political will to make the necessary changes. Most other big problems, from Russia’s war in Ukraine, censorship, human rights, equality and so on, those are all political problems that we can, in principle, solve today.

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Quicklinks: 9-15 January 2023

I did not forget! I’m just slow.

This was a bit of a surprise for me! France’s longest land border is with… Brazil! This is all due to French Guiana.

This is just a cool tweet about vivipary.

I would like to see humans and animals coexisting peacefully, so I was heartened to read about this couple that decided to let a bear keep hibernating beneath their deck.

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Quicklinks: 1-8 January 2023

In the early years of my blog, I occasionally did a “quicklinks” post which just included links to items of interest and a brief description. I didn’t do too many and that sort of short interaction was later taken over by Twitter. In an attempt to boost my activity, if not full-length posts, I thought I might try doing a weekly set of quicklinks that I’ve shared on Twitter. It will not necessarily include everything I see and share there but, hopefully, the most interesting and informative links.

The Royal Society reports that Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection, was born yesterday in 1823.

I have yet to read the original article, but, apparently, ancient tools discovered in Brazil, which were previously considered to be evidence of some of the first humans in South America, were likely created by capuchin monkeys.

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Two books, many stories

My last two books for the year. A rather disappointing year when measured by how much I read. In this case, although there are only two more books to add to the list, they each contain many stories.

Symbol of a Nation (2017) edited by Fred Patten

This is a collection of stories about national animals of the past and present, edited by the late Fred Patten. Different authors have different interpretations of the topic; there are stories that are just about furry (anthropomorphic) versions of that species, some look at conservation of iconic species through genetic manipulation and others focus on the animal as an embodiment of a nation’s spirit. Two of the major themes, touched on by several stories, are conservation and national identity.

There’s a diverse mix of authors and the story quality is not entirely consistent. That said, most of them are pretty good. Mary Lowd, whose work I’ve read previously, has a story in here, but I’d say it’s weaker than I expect from her. My favourite story was Crossroads the Namib, written by Jako Malan, a fellow South African, and set in the Namib desert, which I visited in 2021. In most cases, I appreciated the stories less for their narrative than the questions that they raised.

I am opposed to the nonsense that says white people can’t write about black issues or that men can’t write about women. People can write about whatever they want to, regardless of their identity. That said, several stories here concern national animals and questions of national identity but are written by authors not from those countries, and I couldn’t help but wonder how well they know those countries and whether I was getting views that were common there or whether it was just part of a narrative device.

Vultures in the Hotel Continental (2021) by Miroslav Bobek

I have a complicated relationship with zoos. I love animals and the opportunity to see them up close, but there are many negative aspects to zoos and the way they treat animals as commodities. However, I do recognise that, in certain cases, they can be beneficial or even necessary. From what I’ve heard, Prague Zoo is one of the best zoos in the world with an emphasis on the animals’ quality of life as well as conservation efforts. So, when I had a friend visiting me in Prague who also loves animals, we visited Prague Zoo, where I picked up this book written by the director. The book is a collection of shorter articles written between spring 2018 and summer 2020 for Czech newspapers. There have been several Czech collections but, I believe, this one is the first available in English.

One of the great things about this book is that you really get to see the different conservation efforts. It tells of how Prague Zoo is helping with educational activities in Cameroon or with breeding and reintroduction efforts around the world. To name a few of the breeding programmes, many with stories of reintroductions as well, there are Lear’s macaws from Brazil, Egyptian vultures released in Bulgaria and Przewalski’s horses released in Mongolia. Near the end of the book, there are several stories about supporting Australia conservation efforts with funds raised by Prague Zoo after the 2019/2020 wildfires. But, when almost every story talks about the huge decreases in animal populations, for example the spotted fritillary butterfly in the Czech Republic and European eels, one wonders how we managed to get everything so wrong and how we can possibly fix it. To quote Bobek, when discussing the first hooded vulture chick hatched in Prague Zoo:

Yet at the same time, I cannot but feel the pangs of hopelessness. We are one of only four breeding facilities in Europe where hooded vultures managed to reproduce during the 2020 season – set against at least 1,600 dead birds in only a few months in Guinea-Bissau alone.

The chapters are varied and, if you don’t like one, you’re soon onto the next. Given all the different topics that are covered, Bobek must be a very interesting person. I learned about animals, what zoos do, conservation efforts around the world and Prague’s history. While not all the animals are of particular interest to me, there are beautiful photographs to accompany every chapter. I really enjoyed the book and can definitely recommend it.

Finally another two books!

After not doing much book reading for most of this year, I can finally extend my 2022 Book List.

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures (2020) by Merlin Sheldrake

Written by an author with one of the most amazing names I’ve seen, Entangled Life is all about fungi. There are discussions on how fungi evolved, how they influence plant life, the truffles we eat and how we can use fungi for our own benefits, including one chapter that covers the technologies in The Moralbiont. Sheldrake is so obsessed with fungi that some of the illustrations in the book are even drawn with ink made from a fungus!

Although my interests and the book’s topic overlap quite well, I wasn’t crazy about all aspects of the book; several chapters are written in their own style and not all of them sat well with me. The chapter on truffles takes on the sort of narrative style which can drive a story along but which tends to irritate me as I find it all too convenient. I made a similar criticism about Darwin’s Ghosts a couple of years back. And there are other sections which are so effusive that it feels like he’s trying to make every other paragraph a pale, blue dot moment.

That said, I would still highly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in microbiology. Stylistic quibbles aside, there is a lot of very good and very interesting information in the pages. Most of it I knew of already but there were also plenty of titbits which I had not yet encountered.

Pup Sloots (2020) by Phoenix Xander Artemis

Jumping from fungi to a gay, BDSM, petplay romance might seem like quite a leap but there is actually a microbiology connection between the two; Pup Sloots takes place during the time of coronavirus. More specifically, back in 2020 when things were crazy, no vaccines were available and hard lock-downs were enacted across the world. Despite what I expected, the majority of the, very short, book actually takes place after the lock-down restrictions are lifted.

The story is told through the first-person perspective of an alpha pup who meets someone the night before lock-down restrictions are enacted and who must then wait until they can continue building their romance in person. The entire relationship is built around BDSM dynamics, in particular puppy play, which is a form of role play where the participants act as human dogs. The book describes it all as well as the main character’s thought processes and motivations.

It’s an interesting book. I really enjoyed the dynamics of the relationship and how everything is described (although I think some of the language which is claimed as being specific to puppy play is really just Lolspeak and common to many internet communities, e.g. using “gib” for “give.”) but it will not be for everyone as it does all build up to explicit sex. That said, my only real hesitation with recommending it would be the length; it is not even 100 pages. However, the psychological aspects of the story are good and it is even educational. If one has any curiosity in that area then one could assuage that curiosity while also helping support a small-scale writer.

Structuring society to counteract science denialism

The essay below is my entry to the OeAW’s (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften/ Austrian Academy of Sciences) 2022 Preisfrage. The topic was “Fact or fiction: How to deal with scientific scepticism?”

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The problem of scientific scepticism, or, more accurately, science denialism, is a major one that has serious implications, particularly in modern society where so much is driven by scientific advances, and it is heartening that the Austrian Academy of Sciences has chosen it as a topic for this year’s Preisfrage. Before addressing the topic, I think it is necessary to clarify exactly what I do and don’t mean by certain terms to ensure that we all enter this discussion from the same starting point.

First, I will say that scepticism—questioning established knowledge—is good. Indeed, scepticism is a core principle of science itself. In science, all our knowledge is provisional, should be treated with scepticism and is accepted only to the extent that the current evidence supports it. However, the scientific scepticism that is of interest to the academy goes beyond this, to the extent that people, who lack the deep knowledge and training required to assess the evidence, doubt the scientific consensus in a manner that is disproportionate to the actual uncertainty of the conclusion. For this reason, I will not use the term scientific scepticism, which is a virtue that all scientists should share, and instead use science denialism which better captures that the problem is not scepticism itself but an unjustified denial of the scientific consensus.

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Commentary: The Moralbiont

Product concepts made with fungal leather (Image: Mylo)

This is the companion piece to my short story, The Moralbiont. It will discuss some of the references and science from the story. If you have not read the story yet, I would highly advise reading it first.

The conversation between Olivia and her grandfather about his thesis supposedly being covered in cow skin is a reference to a question from the Voight-Kampff test. In the Blade Runner franchise, the Voight-Kampff test is administered to those suspected of being a replicant, a human-like android lacking empathy. By monitoring the physiological responses to questions about shocking or repellent situations, you are able to tell if the subject is a real human or a replicant. I have neither seen Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner film nor read the original novel by Philip K. Dick but I did play the 1997 video-game which is where I became aware of the question.

Like my briefcase? Department issue, baby hide. 100% genuine human baby hide.

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