I read a lot of articles about persistent gender bias in corporate leadership, in academic science, in elementary school classrooms. But I’m also reading more and more stories about the tables truly turning, in some cases not from imploding stereotypes but from persistent ones that backfire.
For instance, the New York Times Magazine preview for this weekend contains a fascinating feature, “Who Wears the Pants in This Economy?” about how the recession is combining with gender stereotypes about acceptable jobs for men and women and pressing disproportionately more men into unemployment.
Reuben has a college degree and doesn’t seem especially preoccupied with machismo, so I asked him why, given how many different kinds of jobs he has held, he couldn’t train for one of the jobs that he knew was available: something related to schools, nursing or retail, for example. One reason was obvious — those jobs don’t pay as much as he was accustomed to making — but he said there was another. “We’re in the South,” he told me. “A man needs a strong, macho job. He’s not going to be a schoolteacher or a legal secretary or some beauty-shop queen. He’s got to be a man.” I asked several businesswomen in Alexander City if they would hire a man to be a secretary or a receptionist or a nurse, and many of them just laughed. It’s not hard to imagine a time when the prevailing dynamic in town might be female bosses shutting men out of the only open jobs.
The author, Hanna Rosin, points out a terrible irony. In Alexander City, Alabama, manly men are providers, but manly-man-jobs are now in short supply. Some of these men have begun to reconfigure their notion of masculinity and identity to reconcile it with the fact that they’ve become house husbands or nurses to make ends meet. Some have not. What happens to these men, who refuse to contribute to society on its new terms?
(Full disclosure: Rosin wrote a book called The End of Men. She’s naturally inclined to weave a story that supports the central idea of the book that she’s currently hanging her career off of. But the demographic evidence to support the idea of a “mancession” and the longer-term trend toward women dominating higher education is independent of her perspective and quite sound.)
I’m thinking these men who refuse to work because there is no manly work available might dwindle in their usefulness to human society until they become the equivalents of bee drones – utter mooches who exist solely to eat, have sex once and die immediately afterward. Keeping these freeloaders around is expensive, and bee colonies produce males only when the hive has the resources to support them and only because they need the genetic material.
But humans don’t actually need drones to deliver the genetic material. A few days before Rosin’s mag feature went live, Greg Hampikian, and biologist and criminal justice professor at the University of Idaho, made just that point in an op-ed called “Men, Who Needs Them?“:
I don’t dismiss the years I put in as a doting father, or my year at home as a house husband with two young kids. And I credit my own father as the more influential parent in my life. Fathers are of great benefit. But that is a far cry from “necessary and sufficient” for reproduction.
If a woman wants to have a baby without a man, she just needs to secure sperm (fresh or frozen) from a donor (living or dead). The only technology the self-impregnating woman needs is a straw or turkey baster, and the basic technique hasn’t changed much since Talmudic scholars debated the religious implications of insemination without sex in the fifth century. If all the men on earth died tonight, the species could continue on frozen sperm. If the women disappear, it’s extinction.
Ultimately the question is, does “mankind” really need men? With human cloning technology just around the corner and enough frozen sperm in the world to already populate many generations, perhaps we should perform a cost-benefit analysis.
Persistently macho men are driving themselves to irrelevance, maybe even extinction. Many other men have shucked gender stereotypes and are adapting beautifully to blurring gender roles. That’s not just progressive; that’s a good survival strategy. If men didn’t adapt by making themselves really really helpful and useful to women, technological advances might soon put us at a point where we can no longer justify the very existence of men.
I promised the attendees of my ESA 2012 Portland workshop that I’d address social media management on behalf of institutions/organizations. Here it is. This is version 1.0, so please comment if you have anything to add or if you think I’ve goofed!
A bit of background: I currently manage the social media accounts at NEON Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit that is overseeing the design and construction of a large, long-term ecological monitoring project. NEON Inc. is relatively new and also new to social media, so I’ve had a large role in developing the organization’s social media strategy and feeds from the ground up. I started doing social media in earnest as an intern at a large national lab, which had a well-established Facebook Page but not much in the way of a Twitter following.
Some things you must know if you are handling social media for a private or public organization:
1. Your organization’s social media policy
Find out if your institution has an existing social media or nondisclosure policy. Read it very carefully. You may need to change it. If it doesn’t exist, get started on developing one. To get started, check this database of social media policies for several examples from organizations that are similar to yours and/or have documented successful social media campaigns.
2. How to mind intellectual property, fair use law, and Creative Commons and GNU licenses
Many people think nothing of republishing a photo, video, sound file or graphic they find on the Internet without asking permission or crediting the source. Lots of individuals get away with violating copyright law everyday, but large organizations are more likely to get sued for it, particularly if they are for-profit. It is also just plain bad karma to use someone else’s work without their permission. You absolutely need to know about intellectual property and how to respect it.
Stanford University Libraries has a great site that explains copyright law both clearly and in detail, with example cases from the Internet and the music industry. At the bare minimum, please make sure you understand and remember everything in these two short sections: Copyright Basics FAQ Websites: Five Ways to Stay Out of Trouble
Disclaimer: I am not legally trained or an intellectual property expert. This is far from a comprehensive set of guidelines, just some starter information to make you aware of the basics of this very important issue.
I recommend that you be able to tell how a creative work is licensed, know how to hunt down originals and how to properly attribute any creative content to its original source. At minimum, state the author’s name and the source. Because we’re on the Internet, you should also link to the author’s website or web profile and to the original source where space allows.
3. Your goals
As an institutional social media manager it is extra important to establish clear goals for your organization’s social media account(s). Develop these with input from supervisors and managerial staff and make sure you all agree to them on paper. Clear goals will help you focus in curating and composing content for your feed. They will help you develop metrics to measure your progress (below). And if you later publish something that someone objects to, you can point out how it addresses the goals you all agreed upon and had engraved on the back of your iPad.
4. How you’re doing
Data are especially important if you’re trying to convince others of the value of social media outreach. Some tools and ways to track how you’re doing:
If you are server savvy, consider installing the open source Thinkup platform, which archives tweets and Facebook posts and visualizes basic metrics like followers, retweets, mentions, as well as tweet locations.
I hear Twitonomy does a lot of useful stats tracking, but I haven’t tried it yet.
Maintain Twitter lists of your target audience groups.
Use link shorteners like bit.ly that help you track clicks on your links.
Use Google Analytics (or Jetpack Stats if you have a WordPress blog) to sort out website hits that come from tweets.
Visualizations are always a hit when it’s time for a review. In addition to the visualizations automatically generated by some of the apps above, my favorite visualization tools are:
As a science communicator and ex-science teacher, the most common criticism I hear from academic scientists about my work is that it’s “dumbed down.” I just read the same phrase in this fascinating but infuriating account in PLoS ONE of the results of a survey of biologists and physicists about science outreach. I had such a knee-jerk rage reaction that I needed to stop and consider why I hate it so much. It strikes me as condescending and elitist. Scientists who consider communication to non-science audiences “dumbed down” imply that non-scientists don’t understand science jargon because they are stupid. This is kind of the same feeling I get watching Americans yell baby talk to anyone who looks foreign or speaks with an accent. They’re not stupid or deaf. They just don’t speak your language. And that goes for other scientists who aren’t specialists in your exact field of study. How many physicists understand what I’m talking about when I’m saying this new protein is a toll-like receptor?
Fellow science communicators, how do you respond when a scientist comments that a popular science piece is “dumbed down”? Do you have a handy phrase or two to substitute?
Science helps me to appreciate the role of plants in feeding us and maintaining our health and environment. Paying attention in high school biology class helped me begin to appreciate how plants and people are all part of the processes that cycle nutrients throughout the living and nonliving parts of the Earth.
So I have absolutely no qualms about making my plants eat other plants.
If you think about it, plants should be great food for each other. They’re built from the exact same nutrients other plants need, minus what they expend or excrete to create themselves. So you can raise plants ‘organically’ by turning them into plant cannibals! Well, not directly; they’re actually relying on decomposers to break down the dead plant matter and release the nutrients in a form that live plants can use. Call that a transformation step – like digestion or cooking – if you will.
If you think about it, people eat other people, too; there are just (in most cases) a few more transformation steps between dead people and people food.
Oh yeah. Plants eat animals, too. ‘Organic’ gardening is not a vegan activity. Plenty of ‘organic’ farming operations use animal products such as fish emulsion (famous for its recent use at CU-Boulder to repel pot smokers on 4/20) and bonemeal, as well as animal by-products like manure. There are some fascinating essays in the New York Times right now about whether it’s ethical to eat meat, and at least one of those essays points out the essential role of farm animals in the production of vegetables.
Think of the food chain. Eaters of plants (people, cows, etc.) are more concentrated sources of nutrition than the plants themselves. The only comparable alternative to animal-based fertilizers is chemical fertilizer. We consider it artificial (rather than ‘organic’ or ‘natural’), but it’s made from familiar substances from nature, like rocks and air. Ammonia, for example, is made from natural gas and air using the Haber Process. It’s energy-intensive and not the greatest thing for the environment, but there isn’t enough bat guano in the world to compete with it.
[Yes, ammonia production is also essential to the mass manufacture of explosives, and Fritz Haber of the Haber process also oversaw the use of poisonous gases as a weapon during World War I. In case this makes you think science and chemistry are evil, remember that the Haber process made farming possible and starvation a thing of the past in many places where the soil was too poor for ‘organic’ methods to suffice, and that Clara Haber – herself a chemist – purportedly killed herself to protest Fritz’s involvement in the gassing of soldiers. Yes, woman are more moral than men].
It’s doubtful that the U.S. could have developed and grown as a nation anywhere near as fast as we did without the Haber process or something like it. Only now, after we’ve built loads of new infrastructure and technology that make productive farming possible in other ways, are we considering alternative means of food production. But as it did then, it will cost us quite a lot more time and manpower than industrial food production does. Searching every leaf of my indoor plants for aphids is lot more time intensive than spraying them with pesticide, but I have the luxury of time and energy to hunt for aphids because other technological developments made possible by cheap food production make much of the rest of my life more efficient.
I live in a developed country. I don’t need to produce food on an industrial scale; but I can see how other countries would like to have the ability to do so in order to grow and develop like the U.S. did and enjoy many of the same comforts we do. I am merely trying to grow a little produce to supplement my diet, to reap the spiritual and intellectual rewards of growing my own food, and to avoid paying through the nose for organic produce at the schwaggity schwag Boulder farmer’s market.
In addition to making frugal use of my own vegetarian leftovers to feed my plant cannibals (and my somewhat neglected vermicompost), I plan on using exactly two animal products – eggshells and bonemeal – because they are much richer sources of phosphate and calcium than my produce scraps and coffee grounds. I’ll also add a splash of Epsom salts right around flowering time to make sure I get lots of juicy fruit.
I don’t think ceasing my use of bonemeal will help bring down the feedlot industry. Eating lots more vegetables and much less meat very well might, though. And figuring out and sharing ways to make it cheap, easy, tasty and fun could help as well. So please, read up. I hope you’ll be encouraged to find ways you can transform your own food waste into fresh food instead of throwing it out.
I am neither vegan nor vegetarian. But I’m impressed and enchanted with the ingenuity and creativity of chefs who make truly wonderful meatless creations that aren’t pretending to be meat. I owe a deep debt to many of my friends who introduced me to various wonderful recipes over the years.
Most of those items are links to recipes, because very few restaurants serve food like this, and you usually have to make it yourself to enjoy it. Recipes that are vegan or easily made so by minor omission or substitution are bold. I’m sure you could find ways to make all of them vegan …
I’m a big advocate of foodventurousness, so I can’t resist commenting on this little food list game that’s making its rounds on Facebook.
Some people think of foodventurousness as a competition for bragging rights about which exotic dishes you have eaten, but I like to think that trying new ingredients is simply one of several ways to expand your experience, appreciation and enjoyment of food.
Below is the original list of 100 foods, of which I have eaten 70 something. I’m not particularly proud of that score. The list is biased toward fatty foods and exotic meats, a natural blend with my background. I’m pretty sure being the child of Asian immigrants helps me have a somewhat broader definition of edible protein than the average white American (My mom told me stories of eating earthworms [that was actually my Grandma who ate the worms] and ants as a child in postwar Korea, and I’ve had my fair share of grubs and ants as a curious eater). Living in the Southeast for much of my life means I appreciate the art and beauty of good biscuits and fried food.
I can see that a list like this might be intended to encourage more foodventurousness. But being open to novel foods is only one part of foodventurousness. And meats and fatty food are probably not the first genres in which Westerners need to focus on expanding their tastes.
In fact, I would not recommend the exotic-game checklist approach to foodventurousness. My most disappointing foodventures are almost all expensive land meats. I haven’t found much flavor or texture variety at all between goat, yak, bear, venison, elk, goose, wild boar, gator, Kobe beef, and supermarket beef, chicken and pork. Most red meats and white meats are nearly indistinguishable from each other when fried, curried, or sausage’d, and many are quite bland or downright disgusting as simple steaks.
Most cultures don’t have this relentless emphasis on slabs of land meat that we do here in the overfed States. I’ve found a much larger cornucopia of flavor and texture in seafood, grain and vegetable dishes. But there are few interesting vegetables or vegetable dishes and no grains on this list, and the seafood and fish on the list don’t go much beyond sashimi. No quinoa, wheat berries, pickled fiddlehead ferns or roasted beets and parsnips? No bouillebaise, kimchi or soon doo boo chigae (okay, I admit, I’m biased toward Korean food. But seriously, Hostess Fruit Pies and Moon Pies but no Korean or vegetarian food?)
A true foodventure is an actual departure from your food comfort zone. If you’re already a chicken and beef eater, a slab of alligator is not much of a stretch. Like many ‘exotic’ meats, it’s a familiar flavor paired with an equally familiar texture. “Tastes like chicken” is funny because it’s true.
A real foodventure for a meat-and-potatoes Westerner would be something like a new vegetable, a raw vegan restaurant, or insects. I want to try more insects. I’ve read that for shellfish fans, insects are not that big of a reach taste and texturewise. What remains is the psychological barrier. But I like to make a point of getting over those. I had an easier time eating pickled pig’s feet than insects. But the pig’s feet were not very good. I’d be open to trying them again, just in case the batch I snagged was a poor example.
Ah, yes. Poor examples are important. Whether it’s a simple tomato or a slab of whale meat, if it’s not fresh or well-prepared you will not get much out of eating it. Sure, caprese with a $4 heirloom tomato (#50) is great, but 90% of the heirloom tomato’s greatness comes from the fact that it is fresh. It has to be – you have to eat heirloom tomatoes within 48 hours or they’ll liquefy on you, unlike the pink mealy things you buy at the supermarket that can reasonably double as paperweights for a week or three. Now don’t get me wrong; I love me one of those yellow-and-red heirlooms, sliced and lightly salted and plated like a rare steak. But I regularly get my socks knocked off by plain old regular red tomatoes, good and ripe and straight off the plant.
The most magical dish I’ve had as of late is a simple raw zucchini salad with lemon and salt. I’d never had raw zucchini before my first taste of that salad. It costs next to nothing to make with super-fresh zucchini during our ridiculously prolific local zucchini season, and eating it makes me feel wonderful. That’s a food experience I’m glad I got to have in this lifetime.
The original list of 100 foods to eat before you die, with the ones I’ve eaten highlighted in bold and a few comments on the less common dishes:
1. Abalone – Like a huge oyster/clam. At its best, the meat is tender with a pleasantly smooth texture and savory seafood flavor. It’s usually improperly cooked and chewy. Great in sauces and soups. 2. Absinthe – is quite a show. You get it with an elaborate setup (basically an ice water jar) that slowly drips ice water through a sugar cube into the glass of clear green absinthe, which turns white and clouds up. Lovely licorice aroma and flavor and sadly, no psychotropic compounds in the U.S. 3. Alligator – batter-dipped and fried, it’s like chewy chicken fingers. 4. Baba Ghanoush 5. Bagel and lox 6. Baklava 7. Barbecue ribs
8. Bellini – never heard of it, but from what I read it’s a popular Italian cocktail of peach puree and sparkling wine. Sounds lovely.
9. Bird’s Nest Soup – have seen it but not eaten it. it looked goopy. 10. Biscuits and gravy 11. Black Pudding – this and all other dark, bloody dishes I have tried have been unappealing in texture and liver-y in taste. I like liverwurst, but not much more concentrated liver flavor than that.
12. Black Truffle – no occasion to try this yet. 13. Borscht – mmm. Beautiful beet soup. 14. Calamari 15. Carp – one of the least pleasant fish I’ve had the displeasure of eating. My dad, brother and I caught a lot of it fishing in upstate New York. 16. Caviar 17. Cheese fondue 18. Chicken and waffles 19. Chicken Tikka Masala – Come now. Vindaloo and tandoori are the way to go. 20. Chile Relleno – yes to the roasted poblanos, no to the massive quantities of cheese that these are usually stuffed with. As I’ve come to grips with adult lactose intolerance, I’ve realized that cheese is a lazy way to make things taste good. In the States, finding inexpensive restaurant food that tastes good is very difficult if you’re not eating cheese. 21. Chitterlings/Chitlins – crispy and terrible. 22. Churros – yet another variation on fried dough with sugar. Best eaten dipped in thick hot chocolate at a Madrid chocolateria open till 2 am 23. Clam Chowder 24. Cognac 25. Crabcake
26. Crickets – on the to-do list.
27. Currywurst – pork sausage with curry ketchup? I’ve had curry slaw, mustard and ketchup on a brat. It’s hard to go wrong with pork sausage.
28. Dandelion wine – Thought this was just the title of a Ray Bradbury book. I imagine it’s quite bitter and that the main ingredient is not actually dandelions. 29. Dulce de leche – somewhere I found a brilliant method for making this in a glass bowl in the microwave, rather than the incredibly dangerous traditional method that involves boiling an unopened can of condensed milk.
30. Durian – I see this in the Asian market all the time. I will eventually try it. 31. Eel – delicious, savory fish with a delicate texture. I remember reading about eel stew in the Chronicles of Narnia. 32. Eggs benedict 33. Fish Tacos 34. Foie Gras – tasty, but not worth the price or force-feeding. 35. Fresh Spring Rolls 36. Fried Catfish – not my favorite fish, but hey, fried whitefish is fried whitefish. 37. Fried Green Tomatoes 38. Fried Plaintain – like thick, slightly sweet potato chips
39. Frito Pie – yeah, this one’s real exotic. Graduate to 7-layer dip.
40. Frog’s Legs – never had to occasion to try them, but I would like to. I hear they taste like chicken.
41. Fugu (pufferfish) – haven’t eaten it, but I have used tetrodotoxin in the lab. The food version of Russian roulette. You might as well try eating a live octopus instead; it makes for much better video. 42. Funnel Cake 43. Gazpacho – Cold tomato soup. The red stuff is not that exciting unless you have really good tomatoes. White gazpacho, made with almonds and grapes and garlic, is very nice. 44. Goat – A cross between pork and beef in texture and flavor, not very gamey at all. Extremely lean and requires careful handling not to make it incredibly tough to chew. Of course, that’s true of almost all land meat. 45. Goat’s milk – very white in color, a little less fatty and milder-tasting than whole cow’s milk. 46. Goulash – one of a million variations on livestock stew, which exists in any culture that ever herded anything. This one has lots of paprika – sweet red pepper that’s often dried and used for color and mild flavor. Not too hard to sell to anyone who likes meat. 47. Gumbo – mmm. Okra put to devastatingly good use. Okra, seafood and stew – sign me up!
49. Head Cheese 50. Heirloom Tomatoes 51. Honeycomb 52. Hostess Fruit Pie – should not be on anyone’s must-eat list. wtf. 53. Huevos Rancheros – eggs on a corn tortilla with salsa, beans, avocado. Simple and delicious. Like foie gras, the native language version of the name makes it sound a lot more exotic and interesting than it really is. 54. Jerk Chicken – a seasoned grilled chicken variation that will introduce you to the wonderful flavor of allspice, which will remind you of nutmeg and other pumpkin pie spices. Only in this case it’s paired with chicken, thyme, and hot hot hot pepper (usually jalapenos or scotch bonnet).
55. Kangaroo 56. Key Lime Pie 57. Kobe Beef 58. Lassi – Yogurt smoothie, usually with mango. Lovely after spicy food. 59. Lobster 60. Mimosa 61. MoonPie 62. Morel Mushrooms – not that special unless you’re a mushroom connoisseur
63. Nettle Tea 64. Octopus – meatier and not as stinky as squid, really wonderful grilled. Can be rubbery if not cooked well. 65. Oxtail Soup – beef soup. Oxtails are just the tails of cattle and a frugal source of stock. 66. Paella – savory rice and seafood. Mmm. 67. Paneer (a cheese) – Mild in flavor, satisfying texture. Reminds me of Mexican queso. 68. Pastrami on Rye
69. Pavlova (meringue cake)
70. Phaal (curry dish) 71. Philly Cheesesteak 72. Pho – the most wonderful beef broth you’ve ever had, with goodies like rice noodles, steak slices and aromatic herbs in the mix. 73. Pineapple and cottage cheese 74. Pistachio Ice Cream 75. Po’ boy – fried something sandwich on fluffy white bread. 76. Pocky – a less salty variation chocolate-dipped pretzels 77. Polenta – gotta love a fancy name for cornmeal mush 78. Prickly Pear – delicate flavor. Translation: bland. 79. Rabbit Stew 80. Raw Oysters – Texture is key here. All raw oysters have a creamy, liquid texture and variably briny flavor that you can obscure with cocktail sauce and lemon if you don’t like it. 81. Root Beer Float 82. S’mores 83. Sauerkraut – replace this with kimchi. kimchi is better. 84. Sea Urchin – an acquired taste that I haven’t acquired yet. Very expensive and a little stinky to me.
85. Shark 86. Snail – lovely, as is anything that’s usually served dripping in garlic butter. Like a softer, meatier and less salty clam. Avoid the canned kind.
87. Snake 88. Soft Shell Crab
89. Som Tam (spicy salad made from shredded unripened papaya) 90. Spaetzle – these are fat little wheat flour noodles with a flavor quite similar to gnocchi. Boiled and served in butter. You never see them in restaurants because they’re laborious to make and really meh in texture and flavor. Maybe you have sentimental attachment to spaetzle because your grandmother made them … but mine didn’t, and I don’t. 91. Spam – salty, savory, fatty, non-perishable. It’s sausage that comes in a can. What’s not to love?
92. Squirrel 93. Steak Tartare 94. Sweet Potato Fries
95. Sweetbreads 96. Tom Yum – clear, tart, spicy lemongrass-shrimp-mushroom soup. Yum. 97. Umeboshi (pickled ume fruits common in Japan, similar to a plum) – very salty, uniquely aromatic flavor unlike anything else you’ve ever tried. 98. Venison – light beefy flavor, lean and chewy texture, usually gamey. 99. Wasabi Peas 100. Zucchini Flowers – not much flavor, but a nice tender wrapper for lightly seasoned filling
I haven’t read The Hunger Games or seen the movie yet, but I’m soaking up lots of sociological analyses and outraged reactions on teh Internets. A story about a fictional, horrendous society seems to be spurring reactions that highlight real-world heinousness.
I’ll repeat that I haven’t seen The Hunger Games. But the movie piqued my interest because I was impressed by Winter’s Bone and by Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in it. Not once did I think, oh, that apple-cheeked beauty is inappropriate; shouldn’t the daughter of a meth cook in the rural Ozarks be rail-thin with a paradoxically pregnant belly, ratty hair and missing teeth?
Should the star of a movie called The Hunger Games look hungry? Should a rail-thin, punk-rock, running-for-his-life, involuntary time traveler-librarian (as described in the book) be played by Eric Bana, aka The Incredible Hulk? Can you recall the last time someone commented on the appropriateness of a male actor’s body for a role, except to commend him for gaining a bunch of muscle (Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull) or losing a scary amount of it (Christian Bale in The Machinist)?
As L.V. Anderson points out,
If we held actors’ physical appearance to a standard of strict realism in all movies, most Hollywood actors would be uncastable in films set in present-day America. Movie critics suspend their disbelief all the time—and when they suddenly refuse to do so for a female actor whose body looks more like an average woman’s body rather than less, it’s hard to see that as anything but sexist.
I’m not clear on what people are referring to when they call ours a post-racial society. Have not the stories of Trayvon Martin and Jeremy Lin made it utterly clear that it is no such thing? We still see race and we still think in terms of it, consciously or unconsciously. Big black man = scary, dangerous. Tiny blonde white girl = innocent, pure. These stereotypes are so strong that some people’s minds actually whitewashed characters that the book clearly described as dark.
Actually, the only post-racial societies I can think of aren’t real. They’re science fiction. More on that later.
I met some friends in Flagstaff after the 2011 National Association of Science Writers meeting and we summitted Mount Humphreys. Living in Boulder gave me a certain advantage over my fit but flatlander friends, but I still had to climb from roughly 9,000 feet to 12,600 feet and scrambled over a lot of craggy rock. It took us about 3 hours to do it in perfect weather. We had a grand old time hanging out with about a dozen other folks at the windy top before descending back down into the incredible old aspen forest below.
But this one leads to a chain of interesting pieces by some of my favorite authors about how to make a tired, important topic interesting again.
Bob Krulwich writes:
Global warming is important, yes; controversial, certainly; complicated (OK by me); but somehow, even broaching this subject makes me feel like someone’s put heavy stones in my head. Why is that?
He attempts to answer his question by citing someone else’s answer (Ursula Goodenough’s). But her answer is actually a non-answer that hints at an answer by citing Jonathan Franzen’s recent NYT op-ed about his journey away from, and back to, environmentalism.
Both Boulder and Longmont have noted a marked increase in bank robberies so far this year over 2010, a surge FBI officials say they can’t explain.
Boulder has had two bank robberies so far this year, up from none during the same period last year.
Longmont has had four bank robberies — twice as many as the city had in all of last year.
“When you only have two (bank robberies last year), that’s a huge increase,” said Longmont police Cmdr. Jeff Satur. “We’re hoping they’ll die off and slow down.”
The explanation is that it’s not a “marked increase” at all. When your average annual bank robbery numbers are in the single digits, and they’re still in the single digits a quarter of the way into the year, it’s not a big deal.
Let’s look at the “robbery” row (since bank robberies aren’t called out) and apply some basic statistics:
No year is going to be exactly like the previous one. It’s normal to see numbers like this go up and down with natural variability. If you started keeping track in 2006, when there were 29 robberies, the 27 in 2007 wouldn’t surprise you, and the 33 in 2008 would prompt you to expect about 30 or so robberies in 2009. But the 51 in 2009 would throw you. Is this the beginning of a multi-year crime wave? Well, with 29 robberies recorded in 2010, it looks like we’re back to normal.
If you could only see 2008 and 2009 data, you would think, whoah! 51 is a pretty big jump from 33. Crime is on the rise! What could be at fault? But if you can see all the data from 2006-2010, you realize that the 51 in 2009 is just a blip in a local robbery rate that hovers around 30 per year.
And one cluster of bank robberies does not mean bank robberies are on the rise in Boulder County or that they even deserve a specific explanation. It’s called natural variability. Stochasticity, if you will. One hot summer does not prove global warming, nor does one cold winter disprove it.
So the numbers aren’t backing you up if you say “robbery on the rise in Boulder.” But you can make it look that way if you present a table of 3-year moving averages:
Robbery (3-yr moving average)
These numbers are basically true, but they can be used to tell a lie. To get a 3-year moving average, you average each year with its two neighboring years. This is a common statistical practice to smooth out some of the year-to-year fluctuations that you typically see in real data. But it’s nearly meaningless with this tiny amount of data. Five years gives you only three points, which is nowhere near enough information to infer a trend. The last two points are both skewed by that 51, and the moving average effectively erases that little 29-robbery blip in 2010. If you wanted to use real numbers to make the point that the tough economy is driving Boulder folks to desperate measures, you’d do it this way.
We expect robberies to grow with population, too:
The population changed by less than 1% per year, so you wouldn’t expect a big effect from population growth. But wait, this table says the population didn’t change at all between 2006 and 2007. And the population after 2007 is always a round number? Ah yes, the red highlighted abbreviation means “estimate.”
Numbers like the population counts in this table should set off a quiet alarm in your head. It’s very, very unlikely for an honest census to turn up round multiples of 100 three years in a row. A one in a million chance, really.
Anyway, what does this says about bank robberies? Is it a sign of our financially strident times that Longmont had four bank robberies all piled up in the first three months of the year, when it only had two bank robberies over the twelve months of 2010? Here’s our table of all the data we have about bank robberies:
4 (first 3 months)
This is a pretty feeble-looking table. Any statistical inferences you can make from this table would be feeble, too. The second number doesn’t even represent a whole year of bank robberies, so we can’t average it with the first one, which does. There could be zero bank robberies for the rest of 2011, to give us a total of 4 bank robberies for the year. And you could make the alarming statement that “bank robberies are up 200%” or “100%,” however you like to mislead your public.
All we can really say from this table is: our numbers are far too small, and we have far too few of them, to make any statements about bank robbery in Boulder County other than that it seems to be quite rare.