Lost Links Vol. I: Check your math

Posted: August 24th, 2009 | Author: Tyler Dukes | Filed under: Lost Links | Tags: , , , | View Comments

A lot of the blogs I scan in Google Reader are great resources for journalists looking for tutorials, tips and tools to produce better work. I often use delicious to tag links and save them for later. But the problem is, a lot of times I just forget what I’ve saved altogether.

In an effort to rediscover some of the valuable resources stowed away in my arduous bookmark list, I’m going to feature a few of them each week in a series I’m calling Lost Links, a title that demonstrates the shameful extent of my creativity.

Maybe I’ll rediscover a link on how to better name a blog series …


Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.

– Bertrand Russell, 1901

Reporters hate math. That’s the stereotype afforded, rightly or wrongly, to the typically liberal arts-educated newsman/woman. It probably doesn’t help that people generally wear their inability to perform math as a badge of courage. Here are a few links to help you check your calculations — or put those numbers into context.

1. Statistics Help for Journalists

Robert Niles, a journalist and self-professed stats geek, has compiled an incredibly valuable step-by-step walkthrough on how to understand statistics.

Numbers are incredibly powerful and can be used to lend authority and credibility to a story. But misunderstood or misinterpreted, they could bring the whole basis of a story crashing down. Believe me, the last thing you want is a disgruntled mathematician writing a letter to your editor. That’s why Niles has a specific section devoted to ways numbers can trick you and how to effectively analyze data for a story.

Looking for some specific statistics? Check out Niles’ comprehensive list of sources, where you can find everything from U.S. crop statistics to cost of living comparisons.

It’s enough to make you giddy.

units2. Ultimate Unit Converter

Sometimes numbers don’t really make a lot of sense. Can you visualize how long 5.5 miles is? I know I can’t.

It’s often helpful to the reader if you put dimensions and measurements in terms of familiar objects. For example, 5.5 miles is the length of 161 swimming pools, end to end.

The Ultimate Unit Converter will perform these tasks for you, allowing you to plug in just about any number and unit to yield a result. Be sure to click on the “Real Things” tab.

Converting values isn’t always useful, but it can provide a sense of scale for readers and often serves to dramatically illustrate your point.

converter3. MegaConverter 2

Although the Ultimate Unit Converter has a “Scientific Units” tab for converting values into like units (i.e. miles to fathoms, instead of miles to Eiffel Towers), I find MegaConverter 2 to be much more efficient when switching between units.

A drop-down menu allows you to quickly select the exact units you need. The design is a little wonky, but accurate calculation is more coveted here than design aesthetics.

The greatest thing about this converter is the variety of options — we’re not just talking about metric conversions. You can calculate interest, figure out the heat index, even convert your picas to points (for all you design folks out there).

And when you’re done with math for the day, having relinquished your title of “mathematically challenged,” fire up MegaConverter’s Wine and Spirit converter to find out just how many jiggers it’ll take for you profess your love of math from the top of the bar.

Got a favorite site you use to check your math? Submit it in the comments section!

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