Numlock News: December 17, 2020 • Hornbills, Paris, Strike Zone

By Walt Hickey


Bookstores are taking a beating this year, with sales down 31 percent in the first 10 months of the year compared to the same period of 2019. Through October, bookstores moved $4.97 billion worth of pulp, down from $7.19 billion in the span of 2019, a period of time when otherwise overall retail sales ended up coming in flat. There hasn’t been much of a recovery either: In October, bookstore sales were $446 million, down 27.8 percent compared to October 2019, and pretty much the same year-over-year dip was seen in September, when sales were off 27.7 percent.

Jim Milliot, Publishers Weekly


Many states allow police departments to confiscate money and possessions of people accused of crimes, a process known as civil forfeiture that was rolled out with the notion that if you take assets away from people you think are criminals, crime will go down. A new study of crime in New Mexico, which banned civil forfeiture in 2015, has determined that’s BS, and that arrest and offense rates were flat after ending forfeiture, indicating that it was less a “disincentive to do crime” and more “the government ripping money away from poor people who can’t fight it.” The data revealed that civil asset forfeiture — rather than removing the ability of sophisticated criminal syndicates to obtain capital — just rips the bottom dollar of low-level offenders, as the median forfeiture average across 21 states studied was just $1,276, which is not exactly Tony Montana money. In Michigan, half of forfeitures were less than $423, and in Pennsylvania half were less than $369. Those smaller dollar forfeitures, rather than giving the fuzz a reason to get INTERPOL on the line to land the big bust, mainly are making it functionally impossible for indigent and poor defendants who can’t afford a lawyer to recover.

Ian MacDougall, ProPublica


Helmeted hornbills, six-foot long birds native to Indonesia and Thailand, are one of 30 species of Asian hornbills in danger thanks to the forces of deforestation. From 1990 to 2010, the forests they lived in lost 79 million acres, which was particularly rough on the large birds who, by the way, have incredibly fascinating reproductive habits you frankly must hear about. Turns out hornbills are only comfortable nesting in large trees with cavities formed by heart-rot fungi, holes that take a long time to grow and then another long time to rot. A four-year study found 17 such cavity nests in unlogged forests and just one in logged forests, and a second 2017 study found that an area set aside as a refuge for the hornbills lacked suitable holes for them to make homes in. Artificial nest boxes in Thailand have shown promise, with 22 such boxes over the past 16 years leading to 55 hornbill chicks, but the problem is the helmeted hornbills want nothing to do with the boxes — they want their trees.

Yao-Hua Law, The Atlantic


Attorneys general in 10 states filed a suit on Wednesday alleging that Google overcharged publishers of ads sold around the web, and that it used monopoly power — and an agreement with Facebook — to eliminate rivals. A second suit from the Department of Justice related to advertising technology is expected soon, that one coming from other states with both Republican and Democrat attorneys general. The suit alleges that after buying DoubleClick, Google worked to undermine a process that publishers were working on to make the ad business more competitive. In 2019, Google was responsible for 31 percent of U.S. digital advertising and Facebook 23 percent.

David McCabe and Daisuke Wakabayashi, The New York Times


Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo appointed 11 women and five men to become senior officials in 2018, which violated a rule dictating 40 percent of government positions should go to people of each gender. Initially adopted as a push to get more women into government, with 69 percent of appointees women, the city has now been fined 90,000 euros for being in violation of the metrics. In 2019, the rule was changed with a waiver added for if the new hires don’t lead to a gender imbalance, which held to be the case: in Paris, women made up 47 percent of senior executives in government, so this wasn’t exactly breaking the system. The rule came too late so the mayor, sounding somewhat delighted, said the city will pay the fine.

Laurel Wamsley, NPR


Baseball gameplay is a rising source of consternation for fans, players and the league itself, with rising strikeouts making games more pitched defensive battles (read: not a lot of fun hits!) than the more rambunctious days of years gone by. Pitching has gotten significantly better — the average fastball was 93 miles per hour last season, up from 89 mph in 2002 — and the strike zone is about 10 percent larger. The strikeout rate soared from around 15 percent in the early 1990s to just shy of 25 percent as of last season, but the walk rate has remained stable for decades: in 50 years, the average walk rate has been 8.6 percent, and in the last 10 seasons, it was 8.2 percent. This set of facts leads to a relatively simple proposal: if you want fewer strikeouts and more hits, shrink the strike zone.

Craig Edwards, FanGraphs


Many dialysis clinics are owned in part by the nephrology doctors who send patients to them, a potential conflict of interest that’s of new concern as several states consider the business of dialysis. As of 2008, the average zip code had 1.2 dialysis clinics, and today two companies, Fresenius and DaVita, operate 70 percent of them. As of July 2019, the average dialysis clinic hauled in $3 million in receipts annually, and had an estimated profit margin of 18 percent — high for medicine. The number of joint venture clinics operated by DaVita rose from 259 in 2008 to 671 in 2018, which was at the time a quarter of their total outpatient clinics in the U.S. The financial pressure on nephrologists to participate in these businesses is high, and younger, indebted, early-career doctors are reportedly commonly pitched by businesses.

Carrie Arnold, Undark

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