Tag Archives: math

In Praise of Scroogenomics


Yes, I fully realize I’m a bit of a killjoy, posting a review about a book called Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays

And yes, I fully realize the irony that a good many Eleventh Stack readers might very well be out doing the exact thing that economist Joel Waldfogel cautions against, instead of reading my brilliant review of this intriguing book.

To that I say, bah humbug.  Because really, it is high time that someone tells it like it is in regards to holiday gift giving.  It isn’t a secret that every year we spend way too much on gifts people don’t want, don’t need and would never buy for themselves.

Walk through a major department store in December. The aisles are blocked not just with panicked shoppers but also with tables covered with “gift items.” In the aisles near the men’s clothing department, you’ll find lots of golf-themed knickknacks — mugs festooned with golf balls, golf club mittens, brass tees, and so on. Would anyone buy this stuff for him-or-herself?  Does anybody want it? I’ll hazard a “no” on both counts. But it’s there every year, along with singing fish — and it sells — because of a confluence of reasons that together make a perfect storm for wasteful giving (6).

According to Waldfogel, we spent $66 billion dollars on this type of crap during the 2007 holiday season (and that was eight years ago!). He breaks down how he came up with this $66 billion dollar figure in great detail, including examining the retail sales for November, December and January. You’ll just have to read the book for those calculations, while trusting me that his math makes much more sense than mine ever could.

Where the wastefulness comes in is with an economic term called “deadweight loss,” which describes “losses to one person that are not offset by gains to someone else.”   The way I understand this is if you buy me a sweater for $75, that same sweater might only be worth $25 to me.  (Or, in other words, if I was to purchase said sweater for myself, $25 would be the maximum amount I would personally spend.)  Hence, the “deadweight loss” is $50.  That’s the wastefulness aspect of the holidays and when you multiply this by billions of crappy cheesy sweaters and stupid singing fish, then you’re talking some big bucks being wasted.

I think this is a concept that most of us kind of already knew, but seeing these numbers tossed around is sobering.  It makes me want to never buy another thing again, for any holiday.

One might think that the solution is to give gift cards, which is logical and reflects the increase in gift card sales in recent years.  But Waldfogel states that even gift cards (while a better alternative to yet another FORE THE BEST UNCLE! golf mug) have some negatives.  They expire.  They get lost.  Sometimes they are for stores that the recipient isn’t interested in.

Waldfogel presents (heh … pun not intended) his theories in great detail, with many supporting facts.  Scroogenomics is more wonkish than whimsy, and since I’m not a mathematician (despite sometimes playing one in my day job here at the Library) some of the number-crunching made my eyes glaze over a bit.  Waldfogel calculates and compares the United States’ holiday spending with that of other countries and with the amount spent in decades past, as a way of stating that this over-consumption of gift-buying isn’t new. It’s a valid argument and one that makes much sense.

(And cents.)

Although Scroogenomics has a bit more highfalutin math than I was expecting, I still enjoyed this book, which I borrowed from the library (naturally).  It’s an eye-opening read jam-packed with information and facts that would likely appeal to fans of Freakonomics or Malcolm Gladwell (which I am.). It’s the epitome of efficient (it’s about the size of my palm) which makes for a fast (and sobering) read.

Bah humbug.

~ Melissa F., who hasn’t bought a single holiday gift yet and is more inspired than ever to procrastinate on her shopping.


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Contingency Table Analysis What?

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned
lies and statistics.”
-Mark Twain*

I established in another post that I hate school. It partly stems from my dismal mathematical abilities. I wanted to understand calculus. I wanted to understand chemistry formulas. In college, I even took Basic Applied Statistics. After three minutes of lecture I wanted to puke on my shoes. I had no idea what was happening. Yet, I persist in reading books about math and physics and economics, even if I don’t always understand them.


Thankfully, the rockstar economists (Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner) who brought you the ground-breaking Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything and Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance (as well as the movie and weekly podcast) have come out with a new book that will retrain your brain to think about economics and statistics creatively, productively, and sans math skills.


For example: remember the “Year of the Shark” in 2001? During that entire year, there were 68 shark attacks, 4 of which were fatal. Four in a world of 6 BILLION people. Elephants kill at least 200 people every year, but we never hear about the “Year of the Elephant” (International Shark Attack File  if you’re really that interested in shark attacks).

Vicious killer.

Vicious killer.

Or see the math that proves drunk walking is far more dangerous than drunk driving. In one of my favorite chapters, find out why a “street prostitute is like a department store santa” (hint: it involves spikes in demand).

Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics are about recognizing the tricks in statistics and economics. Yes, elephants kill more people yearly but elephants don’t have an image problem. Unless you consider Dumbo or Babar “too” cute. And, yes, on a per mile basis, drunk walking is more dangerous. Does that mean the next time you drink too much whiskey you should go on a joyride or become a seasonal prostitute? Probably not. So the first two books focused on the magic behind the numbers. Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain instead wants you to recognize your attitude toward these numbers, in a local and global context. Some advice from the book includes:

  • Think like a child.
  • Never be afraid to say “I don’t know.”
  • Be prepared for a really, really simple answer.
  • Get rid of your moral compass.
  • And, seriously, never forget incentives. Ever. It’s a thing in economics.

Along the way, you’ll learn about hot dog eating competitions (Kobayashi!) and why those pesky Nigerian scammers will never, ever give up. Learn when to break up and discover that David Lee Roth isn’t being a diva when he wants his brown M&Ms removed.

Finally, find out here why there is no such thing as a free appetizer and why Americans just aren’t into soccer (Be prepared to waste some serious time on this website. The questions are better than Dear Abby!).

happy mathing!


*Mark Twain is maybe the author. Or Benjamin Disraeli.



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By the numbers.

There was a particular lament I remember hearing frequently as I was going through school: “When will I ever use this in the real world?”  It might have been in English class, or history, or science, or math, or most likely, all of the above.  Now that I think about it, I was probably doing the asking at various times, especially when I didn’t feel like working very hard in a class or on an assignment.  Nevertheless, I am here today to tell you that I use math every day.  For schedules, budgets, measuring improvement and decline; and that’s just at work.  I use it at home to bake, to make curtains, to see how many pages of a book I have to read each day in order to return it on time.  I can sometimes spend a little too much time calculating and not enough actually doing, but that’s just because I enjoy it so much.

Recently, I’ve been doing some calculations that I don’t enjoy so much.  For example, how many of our magazine slots will be empty if we cut our magazines by 35%?  [The answer: 60.] 

Our soon to be much emptier magazine room.

Our soon to be much emptier magazine room.

How many programs will be eliminated with a 50% cut in evening hours at Main?  [The answer: not sure yet, we just got this news yesterday.]  How much money would it cost each resident of Pittsburgh over the age of 18 to make up the projected $6 million budget shortfall the library is trying to prevent with these cuts? [The answer:  $25.  Feel free to make a donation now!]  Truth is, my math skills don’t extend quite this far, but thanks to CMU’s Center for Economic Development, I know that for every $1 spent on Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, we provide over $6 in benefits, which answers the sophisticated version of the above question, “What is the return on my investment?”

Now let me give you eight ways that the library can help you, specifically, with both your math skills and your relationship to math:

  1. Business Math Demystified, by Allan G. Bluman
  2. Everyday Math Demystified, by Stan Gibilisco
  3. All the Math You’ll Ever Need: a Self-teaching Guide, by Steve Slavin
  4. Fear of Math: How to Get Over It and Get on with Your Life, by Claudia Zaslavsky
  5. How Math Explains the World: a Guide to the Power of Numbers, from Car Repair to Modern Physics, by James D. Stein
  6. The Numbers Game: the Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life, by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot
  7. Geekspeak: How Life + Mathematics = Happiness, by Graham Tattersall
  8. The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, the Meaning of Life, and How to Be Happy, by Rudy Rucker


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Math Anxiety

Of all the indignities one has to suffer through as a teenager, I think math class was the thing I dreaded most about those years. Ask me a math question to this day and I’m likely to break out in a cold sweat. Given the number of books on how to overcome math anxiety, I’m far from being the only one who has a fear of math. But while I’m not about to start solving equations for fun, I have developed something of an appreciation for math. Aside from the fact that I need to use at least a little math in everyday life, I find math quite beautiful in the abstract. I enjoy learning about newly-discovered prime numbers or math problems that took centuries to solve. I like how math turns up in nature and art and music, and how even our idea of what is beautiful owes something to mathematical proportions. CLP has many math materials, from the basics to advanced calculus. I tend to like those books that are about the less obvious (until you think about it) uses of math, like knitting or cooking.  A few books that I like are:

  • Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, by Michael Ruhlman: I’ve always thought that cooking is an art, while baking is more of a science.  Ruhlman breaks down the different ratios and proportions in different baked goods, helping even the most math-fearing bakers learn the basic math that’s needed for creating great baked goods. 
  • Coincidences, Chaos, and All That Math Jazz: Making Light of Weighty Ideas, by Edward Burger and Michael Starbird: Even those of you who slept through algebra class will probably find this an interesting– if somewhat corny– read.  The authors crack jokes while discussing things like coincidences, chaos, and cryptography. 
  • Origami Design Secrets: Mathematical Methods For an Ancient Art, by Robert J. Lang: Some of the origami patterns in this book are just fantastic, but the real draw is the instruction on how to design your own origami.  A good introduction to how math is used in design. 
  • Making Mathematics with Needlework: Ten Papers and Ten Projects, by Sarah-Marie Belcastro and Carolyn Yackel: If you’ve ever wondered what a mobius strip would look like as a quilt, you probably already own this book.  Knitters who have discovered that it’s impossible to design a pattern without using math will also like this book, which places math in a crafty context. 


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By the numbers

I’m the kind of person who prefers crosswords to Sudoku, and, like many library folk, am thrilled to spend my day surrounded by words, words, words! I cannot help but be intrigued, however, by the number of, er, numbers we have floating around the building, in various collections.

Let’s take, for example, 2012. Depending on how you look at it, this year will bring either the end of civilization or a quantum change in consciousness. If you can’t buy either scenario, you can dream about 2112, or, conversely, cast your fancy backward to 1189

On the mathematical front, we’ve got pi, the pumped-up world of pre-algebra, and the fabulous Fibonacci numbers, to name but a few. You’ll also find practical math manuals, just in case you’re not ready for the calculus wars.  But when you are, we’ve got that covered, too.

The more I look around, the more numbers I see, and it’s both exciting and dizzying to uncover more and more of them everywhere I go. Of course, folks who write series fiction, like Janet Evanovich and James Patterson are easy to spot, but let’s not forget all those filmmakers who have favored us with countless sequels. And, of course, you have to give a shout out to the British monarchy, if you’re going to get an accurate count.

Although I will probably always feel more comfortable in the realm of language than in the multifaceted kingdom of numbers, it’s exciting to find them co-existing on the shelves, woven in and out of each other like music (which is, arguably, the perfect marriage of both). It’s enough to make a person skip around the stacks, singing a little song:

“We’ve got algorithms, we’ve got music,
Words and numbers, who could ask for anything more?”

Okay, maybe not. But will this wordsmith do her very best to make sure your numerical needs are being met? You can definitely count on that.

–Leigh Anne

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