Numeracy Matters More Than Ever

I have a list on my website suggesting the skills needed to become a successful journalist. Numeracy is one of them.

In Wired, tech writer (and fellow Canadian) Clive Thompson, makes the argument again:

Statistics is hard. But that’s not just an issue of individual understanding; it’s also becoming one of the nation’s biggest political problems. We live in a world where the thorniest policy issues increasingly boil down to arguments over what the data mean. If you don’t understand statistics, you don’t know what’s going on — and you can’t tell when you’re being lied to. Statistics should now be a core part of general education. You shouldn’t finish high school without understanding it reasonably well — as well, say, as you can compose an essay.

Consider the economy: Is it improving or not? That’s a statistical question. You can’t actually measure the entire economy, so analysts sample chunks of it — they take a slice here and a slice there and try to piece together a representative story. One metric that’s frequently touted is same-store sales growth, a comparison of how much each store in a big retail chain is selling compared with a year ago. It’s been trending upward, which has financial pundits excited.

Problem is, to calculate that stat, economists remove stores that have closed from their sample. As New York University statistician Kaiser Fung points out, that makes the chains look healthier than they might really be. Does this methodological issue matter? Absolutely: When politicians see economic numbers pointing upward, they’re less inclined to fund stimulus programs.

Do you think most reporters handle stats well? Who does it best? Worst?

Whose Nose Do You Have?

Nostrils by David Shankbone
Image via Wikipedia

Loved this poignant essay in Elle about a young woman regretting her nose job that took away the nose that resembled her Dad’s, who is now dying:

And then there was my nose—his nose—which grew more exaggerated at the onset of puberty. It became the focus of my self-loathing, a manifestation of all my shortcomings as a girl. Altering it was one way, at least, that I could become more feminine.

So, a few days after high school graduation, I finally got my nose job. The surgery flattened the bridge of my nose but left it with a lengthy tip and asymmetrical nostrils. A second procedure shaved down the tip and reshaped the nostrils. As promised, it made my face softer. Less self-conscious, I began to put more care into the way I dressed and even wore a little makeup.

But the anxious, tugging sensation in my chest was still there. Surgery eliminated the one problem that had so preoccupied me, but it forced me to acknowledge another, bigger issue—my sexuality—that would make me a failed woman in my father’s eyes.

I definitely have my Dad’s nose, one that looks a little better on my two half-brothers. But I couldn’t imagine changing it.

Who do you most resemble, your Dad or Mom? Have you surgically altered any of your features?

Buy It, Show It Off, Attract 200,000 Views: Welcome to 'Haul' Videos

NEW YORK - JULY 09:  A shopper carries an Aber...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Here’s a sad little commentary on what young women care about, memorialized (where else?) in today’s Times Styles section:

The majority of haul videos are made by women in their teens and early 20s, and their favorite stores are the ones you might expect for that age: Abercrombie & Fitch, H&M, Forever 21. In the two dozen videos I watched, there was hardly any mention of upscale brands, except perhaps a perfume bought at a discounter, and indeed girls are called out by followers if they seem to brag.

Alice Marwick, a doctoral candidate in culture and media studies at New York University, has been looking at haul videos as part of a research project, and she admits that watching a teenager show off six new T-shirts can be mind-numbing. “But most of the videos have 200,000 views,” she said. “And the girls all comment on them. That’s a fascinating idea of consumption.”

Among the most popular channels are allthatglitters21, by Elle Fowler, and juicystar07, by her younger sister, Blair. One of their joint videos had more than 500,000 views.

Gotta love it all. The blond chick with the glittery pale blue eyeshadow in her sterile white suburban bedroom with the — bien sur! — requisite taste-signifier, a giclee print of Paris over her bed. The camera zooming in. Her Chiclet teeth. Her preternatural comfort with the camera. Her utter conviction that boasting about all the crap she’s just bought is really interesting.

Am I alone in finding this really depressing?

The Diet, Week Three: Loose Pants, A Piece Of Toast, Ignoring Cheesecake

A visitor walk past wine bottles on display du...
Look, but don't touch...Image by AFP via Daylife

Only five more weeks to go.

I went out for dinner on Thursday with my colleagues on the board of a writers’ group. We ate at a midtown Manhattan restaurant, set menu: salad, steak, a piece of cheesecake the size of a foot for dessert. I ate strawberries instead, watching the man beside me dip large, multiple pieces of bread into olive oil. Everyone drank a lot of very good red wine, not allowed to me for another three weeks.

Lessons learned, so far:

You can say no to anything. You may have to say it loudly, and forcefully and repeatedly when out in public or at a restaurant — as I did last night when offered a fistful of succulent (off-limits) Peking Duck. Ditto, the rice.

A teaspoonful of peanut butter starts to resemble some sort of divinity.

Lean protein really makes you feel very full for a long time.

Doing almost no exercise at all (still awaiting clearance post-arthritis flare-up) I see a difference in two weeks: pants are much looser. So (weeps the sweetie) is my bra.

Carrying the right amounts of prescribed food (a measured bag of almonds, a 2-ounce piece of cheese) with you helps when you are so hungry you are ready to eat your arm.

Whining about the rigors of this regime has its benefits — people have been kind and supportive and offered me tips and special low-calorie, low-carb foods I didn’t know about. I now have the name of a friend’s smart, kind nutritionist. She’s in California but you learn to value expertise where you can find it.

Cups of very good tea or a creamy (skim milk) cappuccino are satisfying. They are not a martini or cheesecake, sorry to say, but they are both safely soothing and familiar.

Zut Alors! How A Can Of Shaving Cream Made Me Homesick

It hits you without warning. I’m sitting on the edge of the tub about to shave my legs when I realize the new can of shaving cream is eerily familiar.

The label — although I bought it here in downstate New York — is in French and English.

{{fr|Photo des Plaines d'Abraham de la Ville d...
The Plains of Abraham. Image via Wikipedia

Quel big deal, vous dites? Non, c’est super!

One thing I really miss about Canada, where I was born and raised, is seeing French on everything you buy even if your first language is English. A bored little kid, even in Edmonton or Iqaluit, ends up reading it on the back of the cereal box, learning by default.  You just end up knowing weird words like “rabais” (discount) or, if you’ve ever lived in Quebec, “depanneur” (which literally means someone who helps you out; “etre en panne” is when your car breaks down) which is — natch — a corner or convenience store.

The U.S. has such a thing about bilingualism. Some people froth at the mouth with indignation when a voicemail prompt says to hit another number if you want to continue in Spanish.

The French got their collective butts whipped on the Plains of Abraham on Sept. 13, 1759 when Wolfe defeated Montcalm; Montreal succumbed soon after that and Canada became English-dominated. The Quebec license plates, forever middle finger raised in reply to les maudits anglais, say “Je Me Souviens” — “I Remember.”

But Canada remains officially bilingual, which really pisses people off in places like British Columbia (its name might be a clue), as opposed to Manitoba or New Brunswick which still have some significant pockets of French-speakers. English speaking Canadians know they’re Anglophones, Anglos, and those who speak neither English or French allophones.

I miss seeing two languages everywhere, a reminder that life — certainly in a culturally as well as fiscally intertwined global economy — can never be seen through the lens of one tongue and one point of view.

Choosing A Career? How Exactly Does That Work?

Cover of "What Should I Do with My Life?&...
Cover of What Should I Do with My Life?

I knew from the age of 12 or so I wanted to be a writer, especially a foreign correspondent. I grew up in a family of journalists and film-makers and writers and actresses and it all looked like a lot of fun.

Some people, as this recent Wall Street Journal piece points out, don’t have a clear direction and seek one. Or their job, career or industry (hello, print journalism!) has buckled beneath them like a horse shot through its heart.

For some, it’s clear what our vocation — from the Latin word “to call” — will be, and nothing will deter us in our efforts. But job markets have a nasty habit of drying up and disappearing (mortgage lending), sometimes overnight.

In 1989, burned out and utterly fed up with journalism and desperate for some idea what other paths might even fit my skills and behavior patterns, I took three days’ worth of career and psychological testing. It cost a fortune and suggested I become a…journalist. Or lawyer or florist.

I’m still here, writing for a living. The tests did help me much better understand some of my other aptitudes and how I might use them in other fields. Turns out not everyone loves being decisive all the time or talking to strangers every day for a living. My retail job taught me a lot more about what I love and hate about certain kinds of work — love meeting tons of new people, loathe being emotionally abused by them. Loved selling a great product, hated the mindless tedium of cleaning shelves and folding T-shirts month after month.

Po Bronson wrote a best-selling book called “What Should I Do With My Life?”, a plaintive wail if there ever was one.

When and where and how did you choose your job or career? Have you changed it along the way? How did you know where to go next?

For Some of Us, Everything Is Material — Look Out!

Loved this frank admission from film director Nicole Holofcener, featured in The New York Times discussing her new film:

“I’ve been hearing a lot lately, ‘Don’t say that in front of Nicole,’ ” she said in a phone interview from her home in Venice, Calif. “And I’m going, ‘No, I won’t exploit you.’ But I probably will.”

It’s a real hazard for anyone who comes within range of a writer or painter or poet or musician. Anyone perpetually in search of new material, the raw clay of imagination we shape into whatever form we can sell into the marketplace.

With, and usually without, their permission, I’ve written about my mom, Dad, physical therapists, doctors, ex-husband, friends, colleagues, former colleagues, neighbors. And, as regulars here know, the sweetie, who I do ask permission to write about.

I’ve been written about, favorably and much less so, as well. It’s a little weird. When it’s really over the line, I’ll threaten to sue, and mean it, as I expect others to do.

Nora Ephron wrote about her marriage in her 1996 novel Heartburn, a snarl at her ex-husband, journalism legend Carl Bernstein.

I won my National Magazine Award for writing this essay about my divorce. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but what delicious revenge it is to cash those checks after reworking it into something sale-able.

Visual artists have done it for years. Visit any art museum and you’ll see portraits of the wives and mistresses and children of men (and some women) whose work we revere.

If you hang out out with someone creative, it’s entirely possible you’ll end up in their art somewhere. (Read the fantastic triple biography of Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell and Carole King, Sheila Weller’s “Girls Like Us” to find out who’s really being talked about it in some of the best songs ever written by women. “Car on A Hill” was Joni Mitchell awaiting her first date with Cat Stevens.)

Has it happened to you? What was it like?

Women And Money: We Earn Less And Invest Poorly (If At All)

Today’s New York Times offers a helpful look at several new books and a website, I blogged about a few weeks back, all designed to help women better invest and manage their earnings:

The real issue, experts say, is that many women, despite strides in education and in the workplace, simply aren’t as confident and knowledgeable about financial matters as men. This problem persists even as women handle many of their families’ routine money management duties, like paying bills and making many purchasing decisions.

“Research has shown that women, even professional women with good jobs and successful careers, tend to be less financially literate than men,” said Annamaria Lusardi, an economics professor at Dartmouth College who has studied the issue. “The gap in financial literacy between women and men is large not only among older people, or those 50 and older, but also among young adults, an age group where women are more likely to have a college degree than men.”

That’s similar to what Eleanor Blayney, a financial planner who focuses on middle-age women, said she found when she gave a speech to her fellow alumnae at Mount Holyoke College a few years ago. “At the end, the hands went up, and they were all stuck at the very beginning of my speech,” said Ms. Blayney, who has a new book on the subject, “Women’s Worth: Finding Your Financial Confidence” (Directions). “They were scientists, professors, municipal elected officials. These were women with brains and jobs, and they were just at a loss to even know where to begin.”

Not all women lack financial skills, of course, and many may simply lack time. But studies show that women don’t find money and investing as interesting as men. Women also prefer to learn about money in person or in groups with others in their situation, as opposed to curling up with a book (the jury is out on whether pink covers help).

According to a 2007 study on gender differences by Tahira Hira of Iowa State University and Cäzilia Loibl of Ohio State University, women are still less likely to be socialized in financial matters, and they are more likely than men to find investment decisions stressful, difficult and time consuming. The study also found that it often takes a life event, like getting married, to prompt women to save and invest, whereas men were more likely to start investing gradually.

I evangelize on this subject — likely to a boring degree — because it is essential. Women work hard for their incomes and trying to park their savings safely means wading into an intimidating, unfamiliar  sea of acronyms, ADRs, ETFs, NASDAQ, CDOs (oh, them, the most toxic of all!) It all too quickly feels like we’re being pulled by a vicious riptide, whether too-high management fees or “money managers” who speak to us very slowly in words of one syllable and just piss us off.

The last time I sat with an advisor from my investment company, I suggested she look at RIM, which anyone anywhere in that business should know immediately is the (very successful) Canadian company that makes the Blackberry. She did not recognize the name.

Not very confidence inspiring.

I once simply gave up on an investment my ex-husband had made for me, an annuity that withdrew every month from my paycheck to save for it, because I didn’t understand it. I’m not stupid or lazy. The financial advisor who’d sold it to my ex was an arrogant jerk who spoke to me with condescension every time I called to ask “What is this thing?” After I lost a job I did not realize that they simply kept funding the thing using my own savings, in effect cannibalizing my own savings to “save.”

What a scam.

I had stopped opening their envelopes because I knew it was bad (and, yes I was a moron) didn’t want to know how bad. I had lost a ton. Not even enough to buy a cheap new car, but my damn money.

Finally, I closed it, took the hit. Never again!

I survived the last Wall Street meltdown because I was mostly in cash. I have read many personal finance books, even those so highly recommended, and they still make my eyes glaze over. I need to fully understand P/E ratios and a bunch of other metrics before I wade in. I read three business sections every day and I also read many financial/money magazines. It doesn’t, frankly, make me any more eager to risk my money.

Women, for all sorts of reasons, earn less than men; these stats from Time are interesting.

If I make 77 cents to a man’s full dollar, maybe I’m 23 percent less likely to blow it in some lousy investment. I get it, no risk, no reward. Risk remains a real four-letter word to me, and to most women.

African American women make 68 cents to the dollar, and Latinas 58 percent. No wonder we clutch our wallets so tightly.

Look at Goldman Sachs and ask yourself why.

The Long-Lost Friend Re-Discovered

We all have one. The kid we knew when we were little whose house and family were as familiar to us as our own, maybe — if your family was weird or cold or fought a lot — even a refuge from yours. One mom kept a full candy dish because she knew how I loved it and was totally cool when I’d head straight for the fridge after saying hello. (Boarding school food was never enough and never very good.)

I always wondered about Becca, who I knew when we were eight in Toronto and our Dads were both filmmakers. They lived in a huge house with all sorts of nooks and crannies. Her younger brothers — to me, an only child — were deeply exotic, their bedrooms filled with Guystuff. Everyone was insanely creative; she was inventing embroidery stitches at the time and I still have a purse she made for me then. Her older brother (crush!) was my date for a ninth-grade prom. I wore a cobalt blue lace dress, vintage, whose zipper split halfway through the evening. He gallantly covered me with his jacket.

I heard from her this week, after 27 years of silence and constant wondering, on Facebook. She’s just moved to a city about four hours’ drive away and we’re filling in the many blanks. Heaven.

Who have you re-found? Who’s re-discovered you after decades apart? How is it now?