Friday, October 31, 2008

October Surprise or Ambiguous Reference?

While scanning news headlines, the following from the Associated Press caught my eye:

Obama ads in GOP turf; McCain says he’s leftist

Was John McCain outing himself as a leftist? In the tradition of October Surprises, what could be more “maverick” than that?

I could imagine the instant analysis from cable-TV news: “With Sarah Palin attacking from the right, and now McCain targeting disaffected Kucinich voters, will Obama be left helpless in an ideological pincer?!?”

Then I clicked the article. Turns out McCain was talking about Obama.

So maybe the subhead of the story should have been, “Associated Press commits ambiguous pronoun reference; electorate momentarily confused.”

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Different Ways to Do Percentage Differences

Kitty weighs eight pounds. Fido is 300% heavier than Kitty. How much does Fido weigh?

24 pounds is the intuitive answer for many people, but 32 pounds is correct.

To clarify, let’s try this: Kitty weighs eight pounds. Fido is 24 pounds heavier than Kitty. How much does Fido weigh?

32 pounds, of course.

In the second example, it’s clearer that “24 pounds heavier” refers to the difference between Fido’s and Kitty’s weights. Now apply that same concept to the original example, so that the difference between Kitty’s and Fido’s weights is 300% of Kitty’s weight. That difference is 8 pounds multiplied by 300%, which is 24. Thus, Fido is 24 pounds heavier than Kitty, which makes Fido’s weight 32 pounds.

Got it? Well, there’s one more twist, which is the part worth remembering.

I could have made the original question easier by saying Fido’s weight is 400% of Kitty’s weight. This means the percentage applies directly to Kitty’s weight, so we’d just multiply 8 pounds by 400%, which is 32 pounds.

This latter method is simpler to calculate and to explain. So if you need to compare numbers using a percentage, and especially if the percentage is going to be above 100, avoid terms like “heavier,” “greater,” and the like, and don’t calculate on the difference.

Just remember X is n% of Y (like “Fido’s weight is 400% of Kitty’s weight”). It is easier to understand and calculate.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Wandering Albatross

In a museum recently, I saw what appeared to be a seagull the size of a turkey. Had the taxidermist supersized this specimen? No, it was a real bird—and, as I learned, an extraordinary and endangered bird: the Wandering Albatross.

From BirdLife, here are some albatross facts:

  • Wandering and royal (‘great’) albatrosses have the largest wingspans of any bird in the world, reaching up to 3.5m (11ft).
  • Albatrosses are miracles of nature’s engineering – their long, narrow wings enable them to glide for thousands of miles on wind currents without flapping their wings.
  • Simply by angling their wings and their flight path, albatrosses can use the variation in air speed and direction near the waves to soar over the oceans. This phenomenon is called dynamic soaring.
  • A grey-headed albatross from South Georgia has been recorded circumnavigating the globe in a mere 46 days!

A scientist who instrumented Wandering Albatrosses found:

[T]he soaring flight of the albatross is among the most energy-efficient forms of avian travel known. The heart-rate monitors showed that albatrosses’ heart rates during flight are only 10 to 20 percent higher than they are when the birds are at rest. In contrast, the heart rates of other birds in typical flapping flight can rise to as much as 200 percent higher than the baseline level....

During a single foraging trip, which typically lasted between ten and fifteen days, the birds flew more than 1,800 miles from their nests and covered as much as 9,300 miles.

Out of 22 albatross species, 19 are endangered or on the way to that status. Technically, the Wandering Albatross is “vulnerable,” with decreasing numbers. Current estimates put the number of Wandering Albatross breeding pairs at less than 10,000 worldwide.

A major cause is longlining, a practice in which fishing boats drag lines that are miles long. Each line has thousands of hooks baited with squid and fish. While the lines are being set, albatrosses go for the bait, get tangled in the lines, and are pulled under. An estimated 100,000 albatrosses of all types die this way per year.

Longlining affects other species too, but albatrosses are hit hard because they breed slowly, one egg at a time. Thus, as a species, they do not have the reproductive capacity to counteract their losses from longlining and other human activities.

Solutions to these problems exist. For example, longlines can be modified with materials that scare away birds, or they can be set at night. However, many countries have longlining fishermen, and there is little incentive to absorb the cost of doing the right thing if your competitor from another country isn’t.

To help address this issue, an international agreement exists: the Agreement for the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP). Last week, President Bush recommended that the U.S. Senate ratify ACAP and create laws that implement the agreement.

Outside governmental action, BirdLife has a campaign to raise awareness of these issues, promote countries’ participation in ACAP, and educate fishermen about the albatross problems and solutions. With such efforts, albatrosses have a chance to continue existing both in and outside museums.

[The image is from Wikipedia’s Wandering Albatross page.]

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Evolution of Children’s TV

News flash: A television show for preschoolers had a segment about the value of charts for visualizing information. Please take two minutes to view the evidence yourself.

The show is PBS’s Sid the Science Kid, which my preschooler and I watch. It does a good job of educating while entertaining.

Sid the Science Kid an example of a pleasant surprise that came with parenthood: Children’s TV has a lot more to offer than back in my younger days. Even outside public television, the big commercial entertainment shows for preschoolers—for example, Dora the Explorer, Go Diego Go, and Little Einsteins—have an education component.

Note that these are not Sesame Street replacements; that show is still going (if you haven’t tuned in for a few decades, I’ve got one word for you: Elmo). Rather, the new shows are cartoons that today’s tots want to watch like my generation wanted to watch Bugs Bunny, Yogi Bear, and other classic cartoons that were as educational as Twinkies were nutritional.

Combine today’s shows’ educational fortification with the fact that they are commercial-free (within the shows) not just on PBS but also Nick Jr., Disney, and Noggin, and it’s a different TV world from my toddler times.

Given that most little kids watch TV (hopefully not too much), I’ve got to think that today’s children’s TV is making kids a little smarter, a little sooner. So if you hear a three-year-old distinguish a tapir from a sloth (as Diego fans are wont to do), or tout the virtues of charts, you’ll know why.

[Thanks to information aesthetics for finding the Sid video online.]