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Jun 12 / King Kaufman

Using math to be right, and backs of baseball cards as writing teachers

Some interesting reading for you today:

“How Not to Be Wrong”: What the literary world can learn from math by Laura Miller,

Miller reviews Jordan Ellenberg’s book, “How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking,” pointing out how the math popularizer can be a useful study for non-mathematicians who have to deal with data. Like, for example, journalists. And can you think of a subject within journalism that deals with numbers and their meaning quite a bit?

Ellenberg’s tone is by turns anecdotal and computational, but this book’s most essential chapters have to do with probability and statistics, the spookier and more counterintuitive precincts of mathematical thinking pertaining to what might happen and how likely something is to be true. In an age of big data and slapdash science reporting, all of us need to be better skilled with these brain-twisting conceptual tools if we want to apply the proper skepticism to everything from drug company claims to mutual fund returns.

I would add: Not to mention dubious statistical arguments made by sportswriters and broadcasters.

How Don Zimmer’s baseball card inspired my book on short writing By Roy Peter Clark,

I recently wrote a book about the power of short writing, and I say with confidence that whoever designed the back of the 1954 baseball card for Topps would have been a genius in the digital age. The amount of information contained in about six square inches of space is truly phenomenal; not to mention the efficient use of multiple forms of communication. This is, by any definition, a multi-media production, and multi-sensory, if you include the bubble gum.

A larger point that Clark makes: Concision is a powerful tool. The familiar advice is to read a lot, but Clark says read everything. Ads, backs of product packages. Note how, with both language and design, a lot of information can be conveyed in small spaces or short times.