Best of lists, 2011

Presented in no order of precedence, quality, or importance:

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Science online, auld lang syne edition

I think it’s safe to assume this quail is totally high right now. Photo by Hiyashi Haka.

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Has Jesse Bering jumped the shark yet?

Photo via Octopus Overlords.

I have a history with Jesse Bering’s evolutionary psychology writing, and I do, in fact, have better things to do over the holidays than deal extensively with his latest offense against evidence-based reasoning. But this one is pretty egregious: Bering pretends to be an advice columnist counseling a (hopefully imaginary) “hebephile” that there is a perfectly good adaptive explanation for lusting after “very young girls,” even if our insufficiently evolution-conscious society frowns on it. Oy.

Bering cites a previous column arguing that attraction to young adolescents could be adaptive because youth correlates with fertility. Said column is conspicuously devoid of biological data. However, five minutes with Google found me an abstract that puts the age at which women’s fertility is up to full adult capacity at about six years after their first periods. Given an average age of menarche at 12.5 years, that means it should be most adaptive to lust after, um, 18- to 19-year-olds.

Of course, there are also all sorts of environmental and cultural factors to consider—that second paper I cited above is a study suggesting that increased obesity may lead to earlier onset of puberty. There’s also the question of whether there’s a genetic basis to finding a particular age cohort attractive, and whether the expected gain in reproductive output associated with attraction to women at exactly their age of peak fertility is enough to overcome genetic drift. Modern biology has data and understanding to apply to all these questions, but Bering can’t seem to be bothered to mention any of it.

That’s just my small, late-coming contribution to a great deal of variously outraged, thoughtful, and exasperated criticism of the “hebephile” column. Stephanie Zvan provided the letter-writer with a much better answer, Janet Stemwedel eviscerated Bering’s logic, and Isis the Scientist went straight for the jugular. The Journal of Are You Fucking Kidding Me pulled out its evo-psych BINGO card, and Chris Clarke went full-on Swiftian, as did Michael Eisen in a comment on Isis’s post.

If we get a response from Bering, I expect it’ll to be in line with his tweeted answer to critics and his previously demonstrated inability to do anything other than double down on whatever he’s already said. My assessment, which isn’t new, is that Bering’s writing strongly suggests he’s not interested anything so boring as what we can deduce from actual evidence. Especially if it would get in the way of a nice, juicy headline.

I certainly can’t prevent Bering doing whatever brings in the page-views, but I do wish he’d stop calling it “science.”  ◼

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Science online, you’d better not pout edition

How would you measure scientists’ performance?. Photo by MarcelGermain.

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Twelve months of Denim and Tweed, 2011

Following DrugMonkey’s lead, here’s the first sentence posted to this site every month in 2011. (I’ve cheated a bit by skipping over boring introductory material in one or two cases.)

  • January: Happy New Year, everyone!
  • February: My dear Hooker, I was grateful for your very kind wishes; and for the book about the Anoles of the West Indes, which I expect I shall read with much enjoyment.
  • March: Plants’ ancient relationship with animal pollinators is pretty crazy, when you think about it.
  • April: In which a new technology loses its shine.
  • May: What has two thumbs and forgot to submit to the Carnival of Evolution this month? This guy.
  • June: Greg Laden hosts this month’s Carnival of Evolution, the monthly compendium of online writing about descent with modification and all its consequences, complications, and controversies.
  • July: So counterintuitive, it’s counterfactual.
  • August: The latest edition of the Carnival of Evolution, a monthly collection of online writing about evolution and all its ramifications, is online at Sandwalk.
  • September: The September issue of the Carnival of Evolution is online now at The End of the Pier Show.
  • October: It’s been ages since I posted a recipe, but I’m still doing lots of cooking.
  • November: This week at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, the big science post comes from … me.
  • December: Via Scott Chamberlain: A species of ants that lives in and around carnivorous pitcher plants isn’t entirely freeloading.

Hey, I really kept on top of the Carnival of Evolution, eh? I did this last year, too. More quantitative navel-gazing coming in the new year. ◼

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Take the D&T reader survey!

Surveying. Photo by danakin.

Inspired by previous efforts at other blogs, and spurred by Kevin Zenio’s recent post on the importance of reader feedback, I’ve decided it’s well past time to find out more about who’s reading Denim and Tweed. I get some sense of the size and diversity of my readership from Google Analytics, and from who decides comment on or tweet about or “like” individual posts. However, it’s pretty clear that some number of you read without responding in any medium I can see, and those are the folks about whom I’m most curious.

So if you would please take a minute or two to fill in this handy online form, I would be exceedingly grateful. None of the questions are required, but answers to all of them would be informative. This is your chance to let me know who’s out there, and what you think of what I’m doing here at D&T. ◼

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Science online, the pain of defying gravity edition

Hummingbird in flight. Photo by Jason Paluk.

Video this week: tool use by an orange-dotted tuskfish. Specifically, the fish breaks open a clam by hitting it against a rock. Who needs opposable thumbs?


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#OccupyAmazon round 2: Cheap books are great, but someone’s paying the difference

Brick-and-mortar. Photo by ImaginaryGirl.

Bouncing off the same NY Times op-ed that I did yesterday, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo says, screw indy booksellers. They’re not cheap or efficient enough. Here’s the core of his price argument:

A few times a year, my wife—an unreformed local-bookstore cultist—drags me into one of our supposedly sacrosanct neighborhood booksellers, and I’m always astonished by how much they want me to pay for books. At many local stores, most titles—even new releases—usually go for list price, which means $35 for hardcovers and $9 to $15 for paperbacks. That’s not slightly more than Amazon charges—at Amazon, you can usually save a staggering 30 to 50 percent. In other words, for the price you’d pay for one book at your indie, you could buy two.

And here’s efficiency:

Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store—whether it’s your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall—offers a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine. Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like. If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends, why would you choose your books that way?

Manjoo also makes the point that indie bookstores aren’t really selling local products—their bread and butter is sales of the same nationally distributed books that fill up Amazon’s top sellers list. And since Amazon offers those books at a better price point, they’re available to more people who want them, and that’s all you need to sustain a literary culture, right?

Well, maybe. If you don’t mind that some portion of that discount comes at a cost to actual human beings. Cue Vanessa Veselka’s account of trying to unionize an Amazon “distribution center” over at The Atlantic.

He was the one who told me Bezos was going to close the Seattle warehouse. It was too expensive to run. Huge fulfillment centers were springing up around the country. In Nevada, they were getting $5.15 an hour and people had to work 12-hour shifts, five days a week. Mandated overtime pay didn’t start until after 40 hours of a workweek. So when production lulled people were sent home or told not to come in the following day to shave costs. These were the new models. This was the future.

Shaving overtime by sending people home mid-shift, or giving them “the next few days off,” was the practice in Seattle too, but in Nevada there was no velvet glove, no nod to personal identity. Workers there were herded through long security lines and body searched on their way in and out before they could clock in. The ventilation was terrible and they got fired for the slightest complaint-at least these were the reports.

That was years ago. Much more recently, Amazon management made the news for working its warehouse staff to heat exhaustion rather than open some doors to let in a breeze.

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.

An emergency room doctor in June called federal regulators to report an “unsafe environment” after he treated several Amazon warehouse workers for heat-related problems. The doctor’s report was echoed by warehouse workers who also complained to regulators, including a security guard who reported seeing pregnant employees suffering in the heat.

Cheap books are great, but someone has to pay for the difference. Manjoo’s taking the side of the robots on this one: sure, you could pay a couple extra bucks so a bookstore clerk with interesting suggestions for your next purchase can feed her family, or you could let an algorithm find you more like what you’ve already read, and let that clerk break her back in a warehouse for a barely-living wage. ◼

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