Photos: New plants in the burned field

This is a short follow up to my previous post on the role of fire in the environment. I went back to the field about a month after the previous visit and after some good rainfall. While there had previously been only grasses where the field was burned, during this latest visit I saw a large variety of different plants had emerged.

This is how the unburned parts of the field looked during the latest visit. While there were a few sections of green growth, the majority was still yellow, dry and dead.

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Ecology, fire and the phoenix

A recent newsletter from the Endangered Wildlife Trust mentioned a planned burn to help save the habitat of the rough moss frog. What I found interesting about the story, is that it is using fire to help preserve a part of the environment. I think that when many people think about fire, they think it’s negative or destructive, like the recent fire that damaged the Jagger Reading Room at UCT, among other places, or the fire which destroyed the roof and spires of Notre Dame cathedral. Happily, repair work is about to start. However, fire can actually be a good thing and is necessary for the healthy functioning of many environments.

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2021 Book List

This has been sitting around for so long. It has not been a good year for reading books and everything on here was actually read months ago. Due to the long time between reading and writing, I’m afraid I can’t give as good of a review as I usually would as my memory of the books is not as clear.

2020 Book List
2019 Book List
2018 Book List
2017 Book List

Zoo City (2010) by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City is a fantasy, crime thriller set in South Africa. Some people (known as zoos), who have done something bad, get a magical animal companion and a special ability. The animal companion marks zoos as criminals, which does result in a certain degree of discrimination, but they are also sometimes valued for their magical skills. The protagonist of Zoo City, Zinzi, has a sloth companion and has the ability to locate missing items.

My impression of South African writing in general is that it’s pretty dry; mostly dealing with realistic social issues, poverty, crime and so on. South African fantasies and fantasy authors seem to be pretty rare or at least not very well-known to me. Zoo City makes a nice change of pace. It has all the good aspects of magic and fantasy but in a familiar South African setting. It’s a refreshing combination.

I found the whole book very enjoyable for the reasons described above. In addition, I like the idea of animal companions, although it’s a pity one has to do something bad to get them. I’ll also note that the ending of the book is a bit darker than one would normally expect but it does also fit the themes. It was a great first read for the year.

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Field trip to the Namib Desert – April 2021

The Namib Sand Sea

The Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics, where I currently work, has an annual trip to the Namib Desert for sampling purposes and, while it didn’t happen last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was part of this year’s team. It was my first visit to both Namibia and the Namib Desert as well as my first field work since my SANBI internship many years ago.

Gobabeb and the Namib Desert

After flying in and spending one night in Walvis Bay, we were based at Gobabeb-Namib Research Station. It’s small research institution which has been running for several decades and hosts visitors from all over the world who wish to study the desert and its organisms. I found the accommodation there to be comfortable, the food tasty (and plentiful) and the staff very friendly. The only negative was the lack of a decent internet connection, meaning that I essentially spent my time there off the grid.

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A poorly-designed graph confuses Business Insider South Africa

It seems like I’m not done criticising poor reporting from South African news sites yet. We had City Press irresponsibly promoting psychics, News24 writing a headline that got almost everything wrong and, now, Business Insider fails to understand numbers and get mislead by a poorly-designed graph. I would’ve thought a business-focussed publication would understand numbers and graphs but, not for the first time, I have been disappointed.

The graph below was produced by Stats SA and reproduced in a Business Insider article about the Rand turning 60. It shows how the price of various goods have increased since 1961. However, the graph is confusing and could easily mislead people. Take a look now and see if you can spot the problem. [Edit (16/02/2021): The BI article has been updated and both the graph and statement have been removed.]

The absolute increase in price of various items. (Source: Stats SA)
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Poorly-written headline on News24 gets almost everything wrong

According to the headline of a recent article on News24, “Regular cannabis use puts young people at higher risk for self-harm and death, a new study finds.

No! That headline is extremely misleading. The article includes a link to the study (which is very good practice) but, unfortunately, I only have access to the abstract (a short summary of the research). However, even with just that we can see several problems immediately.

“Regular cannabis use…”

It was not just regular cannabis use, the study was looking at cannabis use disorder. Cannabis use disorder is diagnosed by a person presenting two or more of a whole list of symptoms. These includes things such as “There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control cannabis use,” “Important social, occupational or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of cannabis use” and “Recurrent cannabis use in situations in which it is physically hazardous.” In fact, “regular use” itself is not a diagnostic criterion at all.

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Irresponsible City Press article credulously promotes psychics

I was rather dismayed, though not entirely surprised, to see a South African publication uncritically promoting the views of psychics to describe the coming year. This was particularly frustrating as it came just after hearing about how the UK’s The Guardian has recently been promoting the pseudoscience of astrology (see accounts here and here). At least in the case of The Guardian they published a letter from John Zarnecki, former president of the Royal Astronomical Society, which is clear that astrology should not be taken seriously. Just as with astrology, there is little to no scientific evidence to support the existence of psychic powers nor any supernatural ability to predict the future.

Claims of psychic powers are often debunked, particularly by magicians who are well aware of how to fool people, but more keep popping up all the time. The video below is of the late James Randi showing that James Hydrick‘s alleged telekinesis is not a psychic power but merely a simple trick.

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Final books of 2020

I actually finished Darwin’s Ghosts two or three months ago but I didn’t want to write about it alone. Unfortunately my reading took a dip in the latter months of the year and it’s only in the last week or so that I finished the other two books. Now I am happy to make the last additions to my 2020 Book List.

Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search Of The First Evolutionists (2012) by Rebecca Stott

Darwin had been worried about being accused of plagiarism and, to try and appease his critics, began listing previous scientists who had had even remotely similar ideas. In some ways this is a continuation of his work. Stott follows up on some of the key people involved in the development of evolutionary thought and describes their lives and work.

I found myself torn over her writing. It’s easy enough to read but I felt that it became so narrative that parts must have been made up, e.g. describing how, when someone went into a bookshop over a century ago, the books were arranged and the glances between the people. I know it’s just flavour but there’s a lot of it and it felt forced to me. One thing that came out in both the flavour and the facts is how scientific progress has been repeatedly suppressed by religion. One can’t help but wonder how much more we could’ve progressed were it not for the various churches and supernatural beliefs in the world.

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