Double X: Replacing Pesticides with Fear

May 26, 2009

The latest salvo in The Oyster’s Garter’s takeover of Double X:

It’s tough to be a fuzzy little mammal. Death can come from the sky or beneath the earth or behind the next tree, so their lives are governed by constant, quivering fear. Prey species live in a dangerous neighborhood, and they must always be alert to their surroundings. That’s why a Middle Eastern plan to control pest populations with predatory birds is brilliant. Instead of pouring toxins on their crops to kill rodents, they are installing nest boxes for day-hunting kestrels and night-hunting barn owls to provide around-the-clock mouse munching.

Read the rest!

“Missing link” or media stink?

May 21, 2009

A newly discovered fossil is more of a case of media malfeasance than an actual missing link. Hyped as the “missing link in human evolution,” the monkey-like Darwinias received a blizzard of media coverage. It was even the Google logo the other day. However, when Carl Zimmer could not find commentary on the fossil from experts not involved in the research*, he made some old-fashioned phone calls and discovered that experts considered most of the evidence in the paper to be “old news.” Today, Zimmer posted a timeline of terribly bungled science hype.

So, to recap: it appears that both PLOS and Atlantic Productions did not give journalists any time to consult with outside experts before launching a major press conference with a huge blitz of media attention. In other words, science writers who were trying to do their job well and responsibly were actively hindered. Those who declared ridiculous things, such as claiming that human origins were now solved once and for all, were not.

I have a hard time even imagining how this behavior could be justified. I’ve sent emails to the contacts listed in the PLOS press release on Darwinius both at PLOS and Atlantic Productions to ask why they took this course of action.

It’s disappointing that such big science news has turned out to be mostly hot air. We don’t get the limelight all that often, and it’s a pity that PLoS squandered it.

Of course, Piled Higher and Deeper said it best.

* Corrected re: Carl’s comment below. Original sentance said that Carl was “unable to get a copy of the peer-reviewed research.”

What do eco-labels really mean?

May 20, 2009

Consumer Reports has an interactive eco-label website. You can search by topic, such as “organic” or “sustainable fishing” or by product area, such as “meat” or “bath products.” Or you can click on random things in their very silly flash-animated virtual kitchen.

I was pleased to learn that my Fair Trade coffee really is fair trade, but not pleased to learn that “free range” has even less meaning than I thought. So much for those Trader Joe’s eggs.

Via Sociological Images

My Double X debut: dolphin smackdown!

May 13, 2009

My very first blog post at the new Slate spinoff Double X is up. As Double X’s resident marine biologist, I figured that I needed to get the dolphin issue out of the way post haste.

It never fails. Every single cocktail party, as soon as someone finds out that I’m a graduate student studying marine biology, they ask, “So, do you get to play with dolphins?” Since my heart is as black and cold as the oceanic abyss, I usually take this opportunity to disillusion yet another poor soul of their childhood fantasy of Mystical Dolphin Love.

Dolphins are not gentle or psychic. If they could talk they would not impart eco-wisdom or deep spiritual truth. Dolphins are violent predators with a predilection for baby killing and rape. I feel it’s my duty to warn you, despite the risk of insulting creatures made of hundreds of pounds of muscle and rows of sharp teeth. Throw out your rainbow dolphin painting, and check out dolphins’ low-down dirty secrets:

Head over to the shiny pretty Double X site for the rest.

Don’t believe my tales of dolphin deeds done dirt cheap? The original peer-reviewed research is listed below. Or check out the lads of Southern Fried Scientist on dolphin worship and the evils of dolphin-safe tuna.

Oh, and you know that whole thing about Double X syndicating the Oyster’s Garter? Well, somehow I got it totally wrong. Most weeks, I’ll be posting at the Double X outpost on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The rest of the time I’ll be comfortably ensconced right here.

The research behind the Scientific Dolphin Smackdown:

Connor, R., Richards, A., Smolker, R., & Mann, J. (1996). Patterns of Female Attractiveness in Indian Ocean Bottlenose Dolphins Behaviour, 133 (1), 37-69 DOI: 10.1163/156853996X00026

LYAMIN, O., MANGER, P., RIDGWAY, S., MUKHAMETOV, L., & SIEGEL, J. (2008). Cetacean sleep: An unusual form of mammalian sleep Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 32 (8), 1451-1484 DOI: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2008.05.023

Patterson, Reid, & Wilson (1998). Evidence for Infanticide in Bottlenose Dolphins: An Explanation for Violent Interactions with Harbour Porpoises? Proc Biol Sci., 265 (1402)

Yet more vampire ecology

May 10, 2009

The Twilight and Buffy vampire ecology models were not the first to plumb the mysteries of vampire population dynamics – mathematicians and economists got there first. Mark Strauss has a nice writeup of the wrangling in the vampire literature:

But, this gauntlet had been barely thrown down before it invited a rebuttal from mathematician Dino Sejdinovic. In his article, “Mathematics of the Human Vampire Conflict” (Math Horizons, November 2008) Sejdinovic faults Efthimiou and Gandhi’s logic, since they have not “accounted for the birth-rate of non-vampires and death-rate of vampires (actually the death-death-rate since they are already dead, but when they die again they should stay dead but stop being living) due to close encounters with stakes, garlic and holy water.” Moreover, “vampires are presented exclusively as greedy consumers: a rational strategy of managing their human resources is not considered…”

Their research provoked an outraged response from economist Dennis Snower, who in his article “Macroeconomic Policy and the Optimal Destruction of Vampires” (The Journal of Political Economy, June 1982)…Snower argues that the mortal world can manage its resources in a manner that keeps the undead population in check, while simultaneously promoting long-term economic growth.

Strauss points out that all of these models assume that vampires are the top predator. While the Buffyverse model accounts for Slayer predation, clearly the time is ripe an elucidation of the entire supernatural ecosystem. Zombies and werewolves and demons, oh my.

Earth Day: Thinking Big

April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day! For my Earth Day, I’m attending a seminar on Google Earth (totally hot interactive kmz documents await you, lovely readers) and thinking about the environmental effects of racism, socioeconomic interest, and partisan politics here on the US-Mexican border.

The new ever-so-impermeable border fence will definitely stop endangered bighorn sheep and desert frogs in their tracks, though it probably won’t do much about people desperate to feed their families. Though it’s good to recycle and cut down on plastic bags, the really big problems are going to need really big cooperative solutions.

Check out National Geographic’s photos of life along the border fence. Here’s my favorite – a juvenile mountain lion in southern Arizona.

Vampire Ecology: Twilight vs. Buffy

April 20, 2009

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a hungry vampire must be in want of blood. It is also universally acknowledged that the sucking of said blood makes more little vamplings, whether by direct infection or by a Buffy-esque “whole sucking thing.” Vampires are top predators, and like lions and wolves, their population can’t outstrip their prey supply.

But since there are so many people, why aren’t we awash in vampires? That’s why Laura McLay at Punk Rock Operations Research is skeptical of vampires. Based on a mathematical model of their population dynamics, she calculates that:

The vampire population would either explode or die out, depending on the expected number of offspring per vampire. But if you take into account the fact that vampires live many, many generations (they’re virtually immortal) and may create thousands of offspring, the population explodes (if you assume that each vampire creates at least one vampire, on average, before it dies). With those numbers, vampires would not be living under the radar–they would be everywhere!

But basing her calculation off icky goopy Twilight, McLay makes a critical mistake. She left out human predation on vampires, fetchingly epitomized in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Brian Thomas, a theoretical ecologist, calculated the vampire ecology and population dynamics of the Buffyverse and found:

This [Thomas' assumptions] results in an equilibrium population of 36,346 humans and 18 vampires. Thomas then notes that interestingly enough the established population of Sunnydale on the show is 38,500 humans, pretty damn close to the equation result. Maybe Buffy needs to cut back on the slaying in order to let the vampires weed out that extra 2100 people, we wouldn’t want human overpopulation to lead to starvation.

But is this equilibrium stable? Will natural fluctuations in the vampire population prevent the equilibrium state from ever existing? Thomas then ran the model using several different initial population sizes and seeing whether they eventually moved to equilibrium, or spiraled off into an abyss where everybody died. Turns out the model is stable and the vampires and humans can co-exist forever! Hooray!

Check out Thomas’ original paper here (PDF).

So, because we are not neck-deep in starving vampires, clearly we are living in the Buffyverse. Down with mooshy sparkly vampires & limp, passive heroines! Up with snarly-faced evil vamps and ass-kicking Slayers! Now where’s my activated Slayer powers?

Punk Rock Operations link via Boing Boing, Buffyverse Ecology via JEByrnes a long time ago

On hotness and blogging while female

March 25, 2009

I confess I’ve been alienated by a lot of the “Female scientists ARE SO totally hot!” action. I’ve never cared much for performing femininity, as the humanities kids say. And being more…shall we say…Bette Midler than Bette Davis makes for a  very different experience, both on the internet and in real life. But the foolishness that’s been going around science blog land lately is ridiculous.

Lisa from Sociological Images (one of my very favorite blogs ever) has insight from an unusual source. A while back, she posted this cover from Vogue Magazine in which Judd Apatow’s chubby actors lounge about in body suits. It’s funny because it’s a parody of another Vogue cover with naked ladies, only the guys get to wear clothes. As Lisa says:

I think we would be unlikely to see a similar cover featuring women, even women comedians, because women are allowed to be rich, nice, or funny but they must ALSO be good-looking and fit.  A cover featuring chubby women would JUST be gross.  It wouldn’t be gross and funny.

Being good-looking and fit is ONE way for men to be admire in our society.  Being good-looking and fit is a REQUIREMENT for women to be admired, no matter what else she brings to the table.

So women MUST be attractive – no matter what else they bring to the table. And if a woman is attractive, that is just as important as whatever she’s actually doing or saying. (Hi, Sarah Palin.) Consider the backlash against Gail Trimble, who dominated UK quiz show University Challenge. Nobody could figure out how to talk about a smart woman, so everyone just argued about whether she was sexy or not, or bitchy or not.

But this could not possibly be true in science, right? Except that a brief examination of scientists on TV bears this out. Are there any women on TV with the slightly pudgy, schlubby looks of the Mythbusters guys? I flipped through Discovery Channel’s shows and couldn’t find any, though to be frank it was a tiny sample size since there were barely any women at all. Anyone have a counter example?

This dialogue over sexiness in science makes me think of female choices in Halloween costumes. Little girls can be a cowgirl or a detective or a “Kimono Kutie” (ewwww) but all of the choices are pink.  Women can be a police officer, a referee, or a detective but all of the choices are sexy. The message for women is “You can be anything (even smart!) as long as you’re feminine and cute! Looking good is THE most important thing for a girl or woman.” Frankly, that is also the message that I get from Danica McKellar’s math book and Dora’s makeover.

I think too much emphasis on “smart is sexy” overlooks the ubiquitous societal message that “sexy is everything if you’re female.” That’s why commenters feel they have the right to ogle female bloggers – why should they pay attention to what she is actually saying when everything that society says is important is right there in her picture? When women in the public eye are free to be funny or butch or dorky or even (shock! horror! omg the world is ending!) fat, then Totally Hot will just be another way for female scientists to be.

This is not the gyre you are looking for

March 24, 2009

This photo is all over the internets as a photo of the North Pacific Trash Gyre:

But a clever person on Flickr found the original image, and this is neither trash nor the central Pacific nor a gyre. The land is Japan and the swirl is a large eddy with a plankton bloom in it. The bloom is probably a single-celled algae called “coccolithophores” which are known to form large blooms that turn the water pale blue.

Eddies commonly break off of the Kuroshio Current near Japan (it’s the Gulf Stream of the Pacific) and go swirling about on their own for weeks or months, trapping plankton inside. Since plastic is transparent and does not reflect much light, the tiny bits of trash in the North Pacific Gyre cannot currently be seen by satellite.


What the Earth of 150,000 years ago was really like

March 23, 2009

SPOILER WARNING: This entire post is a giant spoiler for the Battlestar Galactica Season 5 4.5 finale, so I’ve tucked it behind the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »


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