Links of the Day (02/01/10)

Here’s what caught my attention today:

(1) “But Who’s Counting?” [Los Angeles Times] – a great op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on the confusion that journalists make between the number million and the number billion. The author goes into some theories on why this mistake occurs so often (or, at least, more often than it should occur). According to the author:

I did some calculations and found that The [Los Angeles] Times’ mistakes totaled about $1.4 trillion, or about twice the amount the U.S. spent on the TARP bailout. Our brethren at the New York Times did even worse, making 38 million-billion mistakes in the same three years. Oddly, they were far more likely to overstate the case, doing so almost one time in four. The total of all their errors was $6.5 trillion, or more than half the amount of the national debt.

It’s a very interesting piece, and perhaps the most reasonable explanation for this error is that our brain can’t comprehend the sense of scale between one million and one billion. If I told you that I have a million paper clips vs. a billion paper clips, would you be able to tell the difference in the volume the two occupy? Probably not. Also, can you visualize one billion dollars? I found this infographic helpful. Also of note is how vastly different one billion dollars is from one trillion dollars; see this telling infographic, for instance. In any case, the author of the op-ed has a dismal conclusion:

More diligence would probably have prevented many of our million-billion slips, but after observing The Times newsroom for decades, I can’t avoid the conclusion that our collective numeric literacy — like that of most of America — is appallingly low.

(2) “News Photos, on the Move, Make News” [New York Times] – The Magnum photo collection (a massive archive of over 180,000 images) is moving to a permanent, public display at the University of Texas at Austin.

(3) “Risks Lurk for ETF Investors” [Wall Street Journal] – a short, informative piece which describes the risks (liquidity, pricing) inherent in investing in certain ETFs.

(4) “Timeline of the LOST Universe” [New York Times] – this isn’t an article, but a wonderful interactive graphic which lets you discover when the events in the LOST universe have occurred. It’s a must-see for any fan of the show.

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