Mendacity in order

Augustine of Hippo’s taxonomy of lies, deduced from his book On Lying (De Mendacio) (395) in order of descending severity:

  • Lies in religious teaching.
  • Lies that harm others and help no one.
  • Lies that harm others and help someone.
  • Lies told for the pleasure of lying.
  • Lies told to “please others in smooth discourse.”
  • Lies that harm no one and that help someone.
  • Lies that harm no one and that save someone’s life.
  • Lies that harm no one and that save someone’s “purity.”

Svenn Lindskold and Pamela Walters reduce those by 2—though Augustine’s previous work is uncited— in “Categories for the Acceptability of Lies” (1983). Listed from least permissible to most.

  1. Telling a lie that hurts someone else so that you can gain. In social motivational terms these categories can be said to range from
  2. Telling a lie that, if successful, could cause others to do something that benefits you while, at the same time, harming themselves or causing themselves a loss.
  3. Telling a lie to make yourself appear better than you really are or to protect some gain, acquired some time ago, to which you were not really entitled.
  4. Telling a lie that will influence others in an official position in such a way that you will gain by their response to you, but they will not be harmed.
  5. Telling a lie to protect yourself or another from punishment or disapproval for a minor failing or blunder which hurts no one.
  6. Telling a lie to save others from minor hurt, shame, or embarrassment.

Leaders and privileged voices

From Active Voices: Composing a Rhetoric for Social Movements by Sharon McKenzie Stevens. Chapter 2, “Vernacular Rhetoric and Social Movements: Performances of Resistance in the Rhetoric of the Everyday”, by Gerard A Hauser and Erin Daina McClellan (emphasis mine):

In the communication tradition of rhetoric, studies of social movements mostly have focused on the discourse of leaders, on single events, or on movement strategies. Although leader rhetoric is significant in shaping a movement and explaining its causes and objectives to an observing public, it provides a specific interpretation of what caused the movement, what it means to those involved, and what it aspires to achieve. As Touraine (1983) has shown, when the movement’s rank-and-file is invited to explain it, they often give different accounts once the leader leaves the room. Ignoring rank-and-file voices in the rhetorical criticism of social movements is problematic. It leads to a skewed picture of the public sphere by defining it in terms of privileged voices. Even in social movements, leaders have greater access to the podium, press,and public attention than those whose resistance is expressed in rhetorical exchanges of the everyday. Second, it misses resistance found in seemingly mundane expressions, such as modes of politeness that, to the knowing eye of the oppressed, convey an ironic critique of domination but, to the blind eye of the censor, evade detection. Third, they ignore Bakhtinian-like dialogizing exchanges between the dominant and dominated within and across classes. Fourth, a focus on leader statements interprets bodily displays of opposition through the filter of a movement’s formal rhetoric rather than regarding them as rhetorical performances in their own right. FinallyL ignoring rank-and-file voices deflects attention from the hidden transcripts of resistance developed in hush harbors and the underground that later puncture the patina of the official realm as public expressions of discontent. Here we wish to clarify that our point is not to dismiss leader-focused studies of movements, but rather to indicate the need for greater attention to the vernacular rhetoric that occurs among social actors who are part of a movement.

Quotes on self

Tales of the Hasidim by Martin Buber:

The Query of Queries: Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said, ‘In the coming world, they will not ask me, “Why were you not Moses?” They will ask me “Why were you not Zusya?”’

Carl Rogers on the seven stages of change (cribbed from here, who cribbed it from Making Sense of Change Management by Esther Cameron and Mike Green):


  • an unwillingness to communicate about self, only externals;
  • no desire for change;
  • feelings neither recognized nor owned;
  • problems neither recognized nor perceived.


  • expressions begin to flow;
  • feelings may be shown but not owned;
  • problems perceived but seen as external;
  • no sense of personal responsibility;
  • experience more in terms of the past not the present.


  • a little talk about the self, but only as an object;
  • expression of feelings, but in the past;
  • non-acceptance of feelings; seen as bad, shameful, abnormal;
  • recognition of contradictions;
  • personal choice seen as ineffective.


  • more intense past feelings;
  • occasional expression of current feelings;
  • distrust and fear of direct expression of feelings;
  • a little acceptance of feelings;
  • possible current experiencing;
  • some discovery of personal constructs;
  • some feelings of self-responsibility in problems;
  • close relationships seen as dangerous;
  • some small risk-taking.


  • feelings freely expressed in the present;
  • surprise and fright at emerging feelings;
  • increasing ownership of feelings;
  • increasing self-responsibility;
  • clear facing up to contradictions and incongruence.


  • previously stuck feelings experienced in the here and now;
  • the self seen as less of an object, more of a feeling;
  • some physiological loosening;
  • some psychological loosening – that is, new ways of seeing the world and the self;
  • incongruence between experience and awareness reduced.


  • new feelings experienced and accepted in the present;
  • basic trust in the process;
  • self becomes confidently felt in the process;
  • personal constructs reformulated but much less rigid;
  • strong feelings of choice and self-responsibility.

Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster:

All men contain several men inside them, and most of us bounce from one self to another without ever knowing who we are. Up one day and down the next; morose and silent in the morning, laughing and cracking jokes at night. Harry had been low when he talked to Tom, but now that his business venture was in the works, he was flying high with me.

Internships and the media

An exceprt from “Internment Camp: The Intern Economy and the Culture Trust (Interns Built the Pyramids)” by Jim Federick in The Baffler ( 1997: Vol. 1, No. 9.) - mentioned by Henri Makembe on the Mission Based Massachusetts listserv.

All Internships Lead to MTV

Given the fact that they benefit so handsomely from the intern economy, it is no surprise that the media routinely run stories on the virtues of internships. The stories always seem to follow the same pattern. First comes the bad news about how tough it is out there: “For 17 years straight, A. Todd Iannucelli made a late summer trip to the stationary store to buy loose-leafsheets for classroom note-taking,” goes one cautionary tale that appeared in August 1995 in the Washington Post. “This year, he went to replenish a dwindling supply of resume paper, having joined a growing number of college grads who, as fall approaches, remain jobless and planless.” Then they assure us that internships are the only way a college kid is going to get by in the cutthroat world of the Culture Trust: “Consultants say the route has become a popular one with savvy jobseekers,” the Post continues. “For a new entrant into the job market, volunteering or unpaid internships may be the only ways to amass credentials”

It should hardly surprise us, given the amount they stand to gain from the unfettered operating of the intern economy, that the hippest publications are among the most regular and most sanguine chroniclers of the intern’s happy lot. Rolling Stone, a notorious intern abuser, runs gooey features on the glories of unpaid internships in its annual college issue. One year it profiled the lucky guy who drove the Oscar Meyer weinermobile, the even luckier guy who got to fetch lunch for Howard Stern, and, luckiest of all, the New York Knicks towel guy. But Rolling Stone doesn’t want Chip and Jessica getting swollen heads just because they get to sweat for the stars, and so on occasion it will tincture the standard categories of the intern story with a certain wholesome contempt for the young people who put themselves out for the glamour business. “You would be surprised how many intelligent people cannot take a cohesive phone message or Xerox more than one copy of a document,” it quoted Victoria Rowan, a woman who had risen from internhood to be a powerful and glamorous assistant editor at Mirabella, as saying back in 1993. “It’s not a game of shit on the peon. Coffee has to be ordered.” Indeed it does, gentle Victoria. But if you’re not paying the peon minimum you are, in fact, shitting on her. Even girl-empowering Sassy gets in on the act, following in 1995 the heroic exploits of an intern at - surprise - MTV: “Biggest perk: We got to go to Madonna’a Bedtime Story Pajama Party at Webster Hall (a huge club in New York City). Worst part of the job: We have to go up to the 50th floor a lot, and the elevator makes me nauseous.

But to read the most addle-eyed intern-economy glorification of all you have to turn to the new New Yorker, which in October 1994 ran Rocking in Shangri-La: a story by John Seabrook about interns at - you guessed it - MTV. The story actually attempts to convince readers that “the real power brokers at MTV are not President Shirley McGrath, Chair Tom Freston, or even Viacom Chair Sumner Redstone, but its “employees under the age of twenty-five.” “When you are in your early twenties and you are working for MTV,” Seabrook writes, in one of the most appallingly misguided tributes to the Culture Trust to appear to date, “you carry in your brain, muscles, and gonads a kind of mystical authority that your bosses don’t possess.” After 14 long pages it turns out that the “authority” possessed by the low-paid production assistants and the unpaid interns boils down to this: They are walking, talking demographic surveys who tell executives what ia cool and what sucks. In exchange, they get free MTV stuff! And they’re allowed to listen to music as loud as they want! Often, observes the venerable New Yorker, interns will “rock out together for a moment before continuing along the hall,” because, we are told, “employees who think that a particular song ‘rules’ are encouraged to crank it.”

Do what I say

Peter Klausler’s “Principles of the American Cargo Cult” is one of my favorite statements (even more when applied to the idea of “best practices”).

II. Causality is selectable

All interconnection is apparent

Otherwise, complicated explanations would be necessary.

The end supports the explanation of the means

A successful person’s explanation of the means of his success is highly credible by the very fact of his success.

You can succeed by emulating the purported behavior of successful people

This is the key to the cargo cult. To enjoy the success of another, just mimic the rituals he claims to follow.

Your idol gets the blame if things don’t work out, not you.

You have a right to your share

You get to define your share.

Your share is the least you will accept without crying injustice.

Celebrate getting more than your share.

"If you don't know how to notice, you can't do anything well"

A subchapter on art from K.C. Cole’s Something incredibly wonderful happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the world he made up.

A Matter of Urgency

“It’s through familiarity with the arts that I think we will make the kinds of changes that make life stay human.”

A respect for aesthetics, Frank thought, should be a central part of sound decision-making. He didn’t think it would be out of place — though he admitted it would be impractical — if Congress, unable to decide on a difficult matter, took a recess to visit the National Gallery for guidance. “Art,” he liked to say, “is not valid merely to decorate our surroundings with statues in the plazas of skyscrapers, any more than science is valid because it provides the conveniences of electric shavers.”

When people said, “We need more art,” Frank complained, they tended to say it in the same tone of voice they used to say, “We need more trees.” True, both art and trees make our surroundings more pleasant, but artists also make discoveries about nature and human nature that are on the same level as the discoveries scientists make. And in the same way that we can make better decisions about global warming if we know what scientists have discovered about the earth’s changing climate, so we can make better decisions about human affairs and environments if we pay better attention to what artists have learned.

Frank worried a lot that the arts were undervalued, and that aesthetic considerations were largely ignored whether people were designing schools, supermarkets, bridges, or “topless dance joints, nuclear weapons, and homes for the aged.” If money was tight, aesthetics was the first thing to go. “We’re in terrible trouble because of that,” he said. Historically, places that respected the arts and based decisions on aesthetics were also places where “better things happen,” he argued. If art were considered more important, he wrote to David Rockefeller, “many of the things that now shock or degrade people’s sensitivities would not be tolerated.”

Of course, as a physicist Frank had learned to trust aesthetics. Scientists often try things because they “smell right.” They believe in theories because the mathematics behind them are “beautiful,” even when they contradict evidence. Like artists, scientists develop an eye (and ear) for nature, a sense of what is true and what is not. Laypeople, too, should be encouraged to rely on their aesthetic sense to guide their decisions, Frank thought; if a certain course of action or behavior struck them as “ugly,” then it probably was.

Artists and scientists, Frank liked to say, are the official “noticers” of society — those who help us pay attention to things we’ve either never learned to see or have learned to ignore. Artists of all ages and in all lands have traditionally sensitized people to nature through their poetry and painting, sculpture and drama, and, less obviously, through their music. Without art, “one even ignores what people’s faces are like,” Frank said, “but by seeing paintings of people’s faces you begin to look at them again, and I think that the same thing is true of science. You look at the sky and you see the stars, and it is just an amorphous mass; but suddenly somebody talks to you about it and you see that some stars move with respect to other stars.”

He gave artists credit for teaching us great human truths. Without art we might not have recognized the universality of the feeling between mother and child, he said, or the emotion between man and woman.

“If you don’t know how to notice, you can’t do anything well,” Frank said. “You can’t even relate to people well.” You can’t tell if someone is angry or amused or hurt, or if the weather is about to change and maybe you should get an umbrella. You’ll miss that guy lurking in the shadows, and Saturn shining overhead.

Frank wondered why urban planners didn’t look at paintings in order to learn how to design cities; why architects didn’t look at Cezannes to design cafés; why people didn’t look at portraits to find meaning and wonder in the transformations that occur in aging faces and bodies. Why didn’t people realize that paintings enable us to find pattern and structure in scenes that would otherwise seem shapeless, amorphous, and emotionless?

So above all else, the Exploratorium was a place that encouraged the kind of everyday noticing that helped people develop an eye and ear and feel for the social and physical universe aroundthem — an almost artistic sensibility.

Visitors to the Exploratorium certainly build up intuitive feelings for physical phenomena as much from artistic works as from “science” exhibits — whether the subject is wave mechanics or the nature of light or fluid dynamics or the quantum properties of matter. To this day, when I imagine stars being born from swirling interstellar clouds, I think of Ned Kahn’s “Whirlpool”; when I think of exotic bits of matter coming into being seemingly out of nothing, I see his “Visible Effects of the Invisible.” Most of my intuitive feel for light and color and shadow and reflection comes from Bob Miller, and there is a lot of the spinning black hole in Doug Hollis’s “Vortex.”

Even in terms of process, Frank pointed out, artists and scientists work in similar ways. They both start by noticing patterns in space and time, trying to make sense of them, rearranging them, and then linking patterns together in ways no one had thought to do before. They make sketches with equations or charcoal. They elaborate and synthesize. “They end up with a composition which means more than what they started with,” Frank wrote — melodies and theories. In essence, they make patterns of patterns that reveal new insights. Their compositions, theories, and other works separate relevancies from trivialities; provide a framework for memory; reassure by creating order out of confusion.

Of course, all people spend much of their time perceiving and making sense of patterns; even animals do it (the dog knows exactly what follows the fetching of the leash). Frank once told me that when he can’t see a pattern, he gets “miserable.” But artists and scientists spend their whole lives looking for patterns in nature, and so perhaps learn to see more than the rest of us.

To Frank, artists were people who looked at human experience in the same way astronomers looked at the sky through telescopes. Just as astronomers collect, codify, interpret, and communicate what is known about the stars, so artists collect, codify, interpret, and communicate what we know about human feelings.

The reason we need this knowledge so much, he argued, is the rapid pace of change. If things didn’t change, then perhaps education could simply be a matter of learning to conduct business and follow directions. But everything in nature changes. People inevitably change the world in which they live. They change themselves. And as people(s) change, at some level there’s always a worry that we might lose some of that indefinable and extraordinary specialness that makes people human. And who can define that essential nature of humanity we so want to preserve? Who can tell us (or remind us) what is fine, what is beautiful, what is important, in humankind? Frank claimed that was the role of artists.

Decisions about how to adapt to inevitable changes are based, by necessity, on what we believe is possible. Science tells us what is possible in the physical realm, and in doing so, gives us a basis for action. If we don’t know that it’s possible to make antibiotics, for example, we won’t learn how to protect ourselves against disease. In the same way, Frank thought, art tells us what is possible in human experience. What’s more, it tells us how we feel about the various possibilities or at least how an individual artist feels, and therefore one way it is possible to feel. “If you don’t know those things, you are not going to make good decisions,” he said.

And just as technological inventions help us cope with changes in the external environment, we need “heightened social and emotional awareness and invention,” Frank said, to cope with changes in the human environment.

The author function and the internet

I rediscovered this wonderful paper by Siân Bayne of the University of Edinburgh entitled “ Temptation, Trash and Trust: the authorship and authority of digital texts”.

In his influential essay ‘What is an Author?’ (Foucault, 1977), Foucault explores the notion of the author – conventionally taken for granted as a knowable entity existing in a stable relation to a discrete body of texts – and exposes it rather as a historically specific and therefore fluctuating function of discourse. For Foucault, the individualisation of the author is a particularly resonant instance of the working of discourse, representing as it does a ‘privileged moment’ in the history of ideas (p. 115). Foucault in this essay replaces the figure of the humanistic, individualised author with the concept of the ‘author function’.

In what sense does the concept of the author function problematise the Romantic image of the author as an individual in possession of a creative soul from which the unified text emanates? Foucault’s historicising approach reveals, as just one example, the way in which we use the name of the author to perform a classificatory function, permitting us to group together certain texts, define them, and contrast them with others. An example might be the Iliad and the Odyssey – products of centuries of collective oral storytelling, quite possibly ‘authored’ by two or more individuals, one of whom may or may not have been the blind poet, who may or may not have actually inscribed the epics with his own hand (Nagy, 1996; de Jong, 1999), which are nonetheless attributed by modernity to ‘Homer’ as though ambiguity in the issue of authorship were something intolerable.

Certain discourses, certain texts are endowed with the author-function while others are not (Foucault, 1977, p. 202). Novels, textbooks, monographs and poems are all authored. Private letters, public notices (Foucault’s examples), graffiti, advertisements, emails and many websites, though they may have writers, can not be said to have authors. We might write and send fifty individual emails every day, yet we would still not be able to say, ‘I am an author’.

In the case of websites the terminology of authorship is made even more complex by the way we designate ‘authorship’ to the process of generating the design and code behind the web page, rather than its ‘content’. Within the context of the printed and bound artefact, to say ‘I am an author’ is to claim the privileged status of a generator of a uniquely meaningful text. Within the context of the Web, to say ‘I am an author’ is to take a relatively lowly position as a practitioner of behind-the-scenes geekery. If ‘authorship’ is the activity ‘behind’ the Web, perhaps other terms are needed to designate the discourses which operate on the surfaces of our screens.

This paper also quotes from Mark Poster’s text “ What’s the Matter with the Internet?”:

Foucault’s future eviscerates the author’s presence from the text, shifting interpretive focus on the relation of the reader to a discourse understood in its exteriority, without resort to a founding creator, without reference to the patriarchal insemination of text with meaning. His utopia of writing would seem to contravene both Benjaminian aura and culture industry celebrity. Here in his own words is the Foucaultian heterotopia:

All discourses… would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur. We would no longer hear the questions that have been rehashed for so long: Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest self did he express in his discourse? Instead there would be other questions, like these: What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself? What are the places in it where there is room for possible subjects? Who can assume these various subject functions? And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking? (pp. 119-120)

I contend that digital writing, linked to electronic networks, is the mediation Foucault anticipated but did not recognize. Digital writing separates the author from the text, as does print, but also mobilizes the text so that the reader transforms it, not simply in his or her mind or in his or her marginalia, but in the text itself so that it may be redistributed as another text. Digital writing functions to extract the author from the text, to remove from its obvious meaning, his or her intentions, style, concepts, rhetoric, mind, in short, to disrupt the analogue circuit through which the author makes the text his or her own, through which the mechanisms of property solidified a link between creator and object, a theological link that remains in its form even if its content changed from the age of God to the age of Man. Digital writing produces the indifference to the question who speaks that Foucault dreamt of and brings to the fore in its place preoccupations with links, associations, dispersions of meaning throughout the Web of discourse. And this is so not simply for alphabetic text but for sounds and images as well. The issue rests with the mediation, with the change from analogue to digital techniques.

But can you monetize it?

A rhetoric for writing in the post-digital era

I love this rhetoric from Georgetown University’s Martin Irvine entitled “ Writing to be Read: A rhetoric for writing in the post-digital era”. It’s written for academic writing, but I appreciate any approach that pushes the dialogic. An excerpt:

Rhetoric 101a: What It Is and Why it Holds

Rhetoric is a learned technique for making an intended effect on an audience or readers. Writers, of course, want to maximize intended effects and minimize unintended ones. The way to do this is to use shared structures and procedures for organizing ideas; this is rhetoric.

Semiotics shows us that meaning and social significance circulate beyond a writer’s/producer’s intentions, and that meaning or value is ultimately determined by an audience’s reception of a discourse as it resonates in a larger context of similar messages, genres, styles, and prior discourses.

Writers work by inhabiting this same social space and sharing expectations about language, discourse, and genres of writing. This is why learning the structure and rules of the genre are essential to making a positive impression on your readers.

Today we write with cross-media sources that need to be cited and documented. The more information sources you can document, the greater your credibility in entering the discussion or debate surrounding your topic.

Rhetoric 101b: Meeting the Expectations of Your Readers and Audience

Some of the rules for this genre of writing are part of our cultural expectations for any kind of discourse or communicative act: a coherent discourse has a beginning (intro, setting up the idea), middle (the argument itself with examples, support of claims, support of prior research, and/or close analysis of material) , and an end (a conclusion that ties up the argument and/or suggests broader implications or wider significance of the “middle”.)

So, to be a good writer of a researched or interpretive paper, or any other genre, you need to keep these rules foremost in mind:

    1. Write to be read, not to “express yourself” or “get your ideas out.” Use the rhetorical structure of explanatory or interpretive writing, and provide a sense of entering a shared dialogue on your topic.
    1. Meet your reader’s/audience’s expectations for the genre you are writing. Know the structure and rules of the genre you are writing.
    1. Develop your “voice” as reliable and authoritative by providing the standard signs of this reliability and authority: documentation of evidence and references to other research that allows a reader to locate your argument in a context of information (shows that you’ve done your homework and background research), clear examples for illustrating your points, logical transitions between points.

Numerical Indifference

I was really proud of myself last week when I made what I felt was a valid and illuminating numerical comparison: I wrote that the amount of Broadband Stimulus money requested for projects within the state of Alaska—projects serving rural and underserved communities—was on a per-capita basis about equal to the federal poverty level for a 2-person household. For those of us who work on access and inclusion (and even those that don’t), that’s a much more meaningful statement than writing “about $15,000”.

I have a degree in math, but at the post-calculus level numbers serve little specialized purpose other than to check your work. One of the professors I now work beside, Marilyn Frankenstein, teaches how to make numbers relevant and meaningful by contextualizing them. She does her studies integrating mathematics and numerical literacy into social justice work (I do work within the College of Public and Community Service, after all), which all falls under Radical Math (which is a funny name if you find math funny).

That all being said, you shouldn’t provide a number without a reason. And since you’re providing the number for a reason, that reason should be apparent. If you expect someone to think “That’s a really big number” you should tell them it’s a really big number and help them understand just how big it is. A number without meaning is just data, and data is boring. If you’re giving someone data and expecting it to have meaning you’re making someone else do extra work by analyzing that data and coming to the conclusion you already have: the reason you thought the number was important in the first place.

The problem with numbers is that within the sphere of other numbers, there isn’t any reference points (other than perhaps zero). And there are a lot of numbers. More than you can count (hah!).

The problem with people is that we can only remember 3 or 4 things at a time. This means that we tend to bunch the infinite space of numbers into a very small number of groups: nothing, a little, a bunch, and a whole heck of a lot. The way we group things is not by some property of the number itself, but rather by the context it’s given in. By contextualizing numbers and giving them meaning, you move them from data (boring!) to useable information: it is not the numbers themselves that will stick with us, but the meaning they represent.

To show this, I made up 2 different surveys and sent them to my friends on Facebook and whoever happens to follow me on Twitter. In the first survey I asked people to place someone who makes $1 Million/year and someone who makes $1 Billion/year on a 10 point scale of Poor to Rich. Nearly all responses placed $1 Million/year between 7 and 10; and placed $1 Billion/year between 8 and 10; both very Rich. Nearly half of the responses placed both incomes as equivalent at a 10: the mostest richest.

I admit that many of my friends are Americorps alums, nonprofitty folks and other liberal ilk, but the point I want to make is that there isn’t a whole lot of difference, within the context of rich and poor, between someone who makes $1 Million/year and someone who makes $1 Billion/year. Myself, I split incomes into about 5 different levels:

  • less than $12k/year: been there, done that

  • $12k - $30k/year: limited fun

  • $30k - $50k/year: the expected earnings potential for my career trajectory

  • $50k-$100k: The job of my dreams and/or did I just go corporate?

  • $100k+: Cloud 9

Now I didn’t ask people specifically about themselves, but there are a few things to notice using myself as an example. There are only a few levels (I condensed 100,000 whole numbers into just 4 groups, plus a 5th group for everything else) and there are more groups for smaller numbers than there are for larger numbers (it’s logarithmic-ish: the group sizes are 12, 18, 20, 50, infinity). Also, the numbers are in relation to what I know: what I’m making right now is in the middle and there are 2 groups above and 2 groups below.

So on to the 2nd survey: I asked people where the number 1 Million would fall on a number line between 0 and 1 Billion. This is actually a pretty  typical “aha!” classroom example and a good number of people got it right (many of my friends are also nerds). What’s interesting is the 25% percent of people (1 out of 4) who got it wrong; they chose 3, 5 or 7: exactly where you would divide a 10 point scale into quarters or maybe a few did it by thirds. That’s the expected thing to do if you don’t know this particular trick (and is also a good strategy in Trivial Pursuit).

So what’s the answer? On a 10 point scale, the answer is actually zero, but since that wasn’t an option in my survey, the most correct answer was 1.

The number 1 Billion is 1,000 times larger than the number 1 Million: and 1,000 still is a big number (hilariously, large numbers are made up of many zeros). Compared to 1 Billion, the number 1 Million is rather pale and insignificant….

…unless you’re talking about something meaningful like someone’s salary. In which case, they’re very much the same.

And if you place them in terms of money that’s been wasted through fraud, for example, then the differences should be made apparent because as I’ve shown adding a bunch of zeros just won’t do it on their own.

When numbers are placed in context to things we know and have experience with, they take on actual meaning. This is from the Pew Research Center’s Excellence in Journalism Project’s Principles of Journalism:


Journalism is storytelling with a purpose. It should do more than gather an audience or catalogue the important. For its own survival, it must balance what readers know they want with what they cannot anticipate but need. In short, it must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant. The effectiveness of a piece of journalism is measured both by how much a work engages its audience and enlightens it. This means journalists must continually ask what information has most value to citizens and in what form. While journalism should reach beyond such topics as government and public safety, a journalism overwhelmed by trivia and false significance ultimately engenders a trivial society.

I’m not saying we all should strive to be journalists, but I think we should strive to make the significant interesting and relevant. To be fair, false significance can be a powerful rhetorical device when it comes to numbers: just watch your evening news the next time they breathlessly “break” a story about public employees making “gasp!” $60k/year. “How dare they make twice the local average income level?!” …because that’s how averages work.

Another example: in my last post about doing the layout for Survival News (“the voices of low income women”), I noted that if the newspapers in circulation were spread out, they would completely cover the John Hancock Building in Boston up to its 20th floor. That’s much more fun and meaningful than only writing “4,000 copies” (the building has already been covered with plywood, so why not?).

And now to the entire reason I wrote this post: I would like to point out that at 40 tabloid-sized pages, the latest edition of Survival News has 52 square feet of copy and graphics: that’s about the same surface area as your refrigerator.