Sunday, October 10, 2010


I've always loved numbers. And that make's today's date irresistible for comment.

I'm pausing for coffee (& wi-fi) on my way home from a weekend in St Louis where I was facilitating for friends Tom & Carol Braford, who produced the Cool St Louis Climate Summit. This event was inspired by Bill McKibben's work with, aiming to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80% in the next 10 years, in the hopes of bringing atmospheric levels down to 350 parts per million—which scientists think is necessary to sustain human life on Earth long term.

The Brafords timed their event to conclude this morning, when all the 10's lined up like Rockettes on calendrical odometers. While this numerical oddity will not make a fig's difference to atmospheric CO2, it might help lock the concept into people's consciousness, which, after all, is where the necessary changes will have to originate. Yesterday's conferees focused on three leverage points: residential energy use, public facilities (schools, churches, senior centers, etc.), and transportation choices. In each case, the key challenge was how to motivate people to effect voluntary changes in the personal behavior. Even when people know that shifts are needed, that's often not enough to get them to change habits.

A main hope of the Brafords is that people will be more successful in getting over the hump if they gather together in "Eco Teams" to reinforce each others good intentions, a la Weight Watchers. This concept is laid out in no-nonsense, practical terms by David Gershon in his recent book, The Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5000 Pounds. We'll see what they achieve.

• • •
It's a Number Thing
Following my natural fascination with numbers, it was an easy choice for me to be a math major in college. (Among other things, it was the option that required the least number of courses I didn't want to take.) When I went into the job market post-graduation, my prospective employer (the US Dept of Transportation in Washington DC) was attracted to my math credentials. Imagine my surprise when I got hired and learned that what they were actually looking for was not my facility with psi-squared statistical analysis—they were just wanted someone who didn't freak out when there were numbers in a report. In two years, I was never called upon to use anything more advanced than high school algebra, yet almost every report that came through our office and included numerical data was run by me to see I thought the data and the prose told the same story. I stood out as a valued analyst merely because my eyes didn't glaze over and I could follow the bouncing ball.
We're talking about a low bar.

What I came to understand was that math is simply a different language, and not everyone can speak it—even though almost everyone was introduced to it as early as kindergarten—any more than everyone is facile in Farsi. As a nonprofit administrator (rather than a working mathematician), I most frequently bump into the limitations this represents when trying to walk groups through financial reports and fiscal planning. For an alarming number (pardon the expression) this is the same as voodoo. And I'm not even talking about the nuances of accrual versus cash accounting, or capital reserve funds.

Basically, I stumble over a problem that's hard for many of us: how to explain clearly something that is not hard for me yet is for my audience. I rarely have a feel for where others get stuck when it comes to numbers, and I can mess it up in either direction—either by "dumbing it down" to the point where people feel condescended to; or by going too fast and leaving everyone dust. It's a mine field. And it's my field. Uffda.

• • •
While the relief is no doubt ephemeral, at least for today, I am taking a moment to pause and celebrate that everything is a perfect 10.

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