A Year in Review

I happy that I scored a few accomplishments in 2018 in my distaffian pursuits, besides sewing. In no particular order, here they are, plus some recommendations in case you’re interested in knowing more.

Survey Research and Statistics

survey

I enrolled in a graduate program in survey research. I took an intro to survey research class in the spring and a statistics class in the fall. I recommend that everyone gets to know a little about surveys – how they’re conducted, what a good one looks like, what a bad one looks like, how the math is done and how to interpret results.

There are so many surveys these days. I estimate I get a request to take a survey at least twice a week – mostly marketing and customer service surveys where companies want to know why I bought or  didn’t buy something or what my experience was like. Sometimes a pollster calls me for a public opinion survey or a political poll. I used to say “thanks but no thanks” to surveys, but after learning more about them, I participate more often.

A couple of takeaways:

  • People like to harp on surveys that are “wrong,” but they rarely are wrong. Most 2016 US presidential polls predicted Hillary Clinton would win by a slim margin. Most Brexit polls predicted the UK would vote to “remain,” by a slim margin. Those surveys were not wrong. A slim margin is still a margin – the margin represents the likelihood that the outcome would go the other way. It’s unlikely, but it does happen, as we know all too well.
  • Innumeracy is a problem. Many people do not understand simple statistics and random chance. For example, if you flip a coin, the chance it will be heads is 1 in 2 (expressed mathematically as 0.5). If you flip a coin twice, the chance it will be heads twice in a row is 1 in 4 (0.5 times 0.5 = 0.25), but the chance is will land heads on each individual flip is still 1 in 2. The odds reset with each flip of the coin. If you flip a coin 9 times and it comes up heads 9 times, what’s the chance it will be heads on the 10th flip? Still 1 in 2. Every slot machine ever was built on peoples’ inability to understand this.
  • All surveys contain some kind of bias, no matter how well the pollster controls for it. For example, some respondents will modify their survey responses depending on the gender or race of the person asking the question. Some people will misunderstand a question. Maybe a question is poorly worded. The person asking the questions may not be clear or understand a response. Many other things can go wrong.
  • Survey fatigue is a problem. As more and more surveys are conducted, respondents are getting better and better at evading them. This makes it harder to get a decent response rate, which increases the cost and time it takes to do a solid survey. The old random-digit telephone dialing methodology doesn’t work well when so many people have cut the cord, and most young people have never had a land line at all. New technologies are needed to combat this.
  • Internet polls are useless. Seriously, don’t ever pay attention to what an Internet survey says.

These two college textbooks were pretty well written and approachable:

Elementary Statistics in Social Research by Jack Levin et al.

Survey Methodology by Robert Groves et al.

Also, the statistics posts on DrMath.com and the LinkedIn courses by Eddie Davila are good.

Easy-Does-It Gardening

I finished my perennial beds this year. A few things didn’t do so well, but all in all, I am happy with how this turned out. I am glad I spent the money to have the old bed dug up and new beds created.

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New perennial beds

I have learned the hard way not to engineer a perennial bed that closely. Maybe some gardeners are OK with fussing over everything, but I lack the money, time and energy for any high-maintenance plants. They have to grow with little love or supervision, or they’ll take their chances. That means no delphinium, which need constant fertilizer, or Asian lilies, which get eaten by bugs.

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Asters (blue) and false sunflower (yellow)

I didn’t design these beds but instead adapted a sample bed design from the book “The Garden Primer” by Barbara Damrosch. Not all of the plants were available in the varieties and colors the book suggested, but I was able to find decent substitutes. A friend gave me this book years ago. There’s a new edition out that has updated recommendations for plant varieties.

I’ll revisit the plan in the spring, as some plants likely won’t survive the winter. I wanted some white phlox, but I couldn’t find any – will seek again in the spring. Also, I think the design overall has a few too many “daisy” shaped flowers – I’d like more shape variety.

The vegetable garden turned out pretty well, considering the soil in my raised beds needs replacing. I augmented it heavily with compost – bought some in addition to what I made. As usual, I planted too many tomatoes.

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There is such a thing as too many tomatoes

And I really messed up with the seedlings I bought from a roadside stand. I will always go to a reputable garden center from now on.

Modular Cooking

In 2018 I discovered the joys of modular cooking. In brief, my husband and I cook and prepare a variety of proteins, veggies, starches, salads and soups that can mix and match into meals.

For example, in the summer I do every week a big mixed grill of vegetables, and in the winter I do a big pan of roasted mixed vegetables. The mixes are seasonal and vary a bit week to week.

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Mixed grill of summer vegetables

This mix above has bell peppers, mushrooms, zucchini and yellow squash. Alongside this grill wok we cooked several chicken breasts and a few ears of corn. We get these meals out of it:

Meal 1: Chicken and veggies with corn on the cob

Meal 2: Chicken fajitas with the veggies, plus salsa and tortillas, with corn salad on the side

Meal 3: Pasta primavera with the veggies and the last of the chicken, plus some Parmesan cheese and a tossed salad on the side

Meal 4: Omelets with the last of the veggies, plus cheese, bread and salad

Winter takes on this concept start like this, with a whole roasted chicken and roasted root vegetables.

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Modular cooking in fall and winter

Dinner 1: Roasted chicken with sweet potatoes and roasted carrots and parsnips

Dinner 2: Chicken pot pie with some of the leftover chicken and roasted vegetables, plus a gravy and a pastry crust

Dinner 3: Stuffed sweet potatoes with leftover chicken, plus some nuts and dried fruit

Dinner 4: Chicken noodle soup, with broth made from the chicken carcass, plus pasta and the rest of the roasted veggies

This method of cooking is a revelation for me. For this to work, you have to be OK with leftovers, admittedly. Often as the week goes on, the more flavorful dishes appear. Hot sauce is my new best friend.

 

Rejecting the Idea that “I Didn’t Get Into This for the Math”

Innumeracy pisses me off.

People never say “I can’t read!” But many will say “I can’t do math!”

Ridiculous. Of course you can do math. And if you practice, you can get better at it.

I used to be one of those people who avoided math. I struggled with math as a kid, and I was led to believe that math was hard for me because I was a girl. Other parents who watched their daughter sob over arithmetic at the kitchen table might have helped, might have hired a tutor, might have called the teacher to see what was going on. My parents didn’t care. They didn’t think anyone needed math beyond the ability to calculate a restaurant tip or estimate a grocery bill. And so I suffered at the kitchen table, math book open, for years.

My school system grouped students according to their general “smartness” – the smartest kids in the “red” group, middle kids in a “white” group and the dumbest kids in the “blue” group. (Can you tell I grew up the 70s?) These groups never mixed. I was in “red” because I was really great at reading, writing, social studies, science and everything else but math. I got pushed along with the rest of the “reds” through elementary school and was grouped into a similar system in middle school.

Things fell apart in high school. My struggles overwhelmed me and I got a C’s and even one D in Algebra II sophomore year. I had thought about studying medicine as a kid, but I knew you needed great math to be a doctor, so I shelved that ambition and focused instead on what I was good at – writing and reading.

Instead of continuing with the “red” crowd into Trigonometry and Calculus, junior year I downshifted into a remedial math class. I wanted to study what was on the SATs (a college entrance exam) so I could get a decent score and get into a decent college. The remedial class basically drilled you on the SATs – you know, “volume of a cone,” simple algebra, and crap like that. In higher math, I was destined for more C’s and D’s, but in this class I stood a chance. My guidance counselor told me this class would mar my transcripts for college, but I didn’t care. I was cutting my losses. Besides, I thought, I really want to learn this stuff.

To my amazement, I did well. The teacher was great and something just clicked in my head. Math was a lot easier for me after that. I actually got 10 points more on the math than the verbal part of the SAT. I really enjoyed physics. Who would have thought?

I use math all the time on the job. As a journalist, I cut a niche beat for myself in data-heavy analytics. When I joined the business world, I learned how to read companies’ earnings reports. I deal with statistics every day.

I also practice all the time. If you want to get better at math, you need to flex your muscles. Here are some ideas to help you:

  • Calculate tips in your head. This is very easy! You do not need a calculator! Let’s say your bill comes to $82.50 before tax, and you want to leave a 15% tip:
    • 10% of $82.50 is $8.25 (just move over the decimal one place).
    • 15% is just 10% plus 5%. So cut the $8.25 in half ($4.13) and add it to the $8.25 = $12.38. I usually round up to the next dollar, so leave that waitress $13!
    • If you want to leave 20%, just double the 10% = $16.50!
  • Estimate your grocery bill. (This would make my parents proud, anyway.) Just an estimate is OK:
    • Weigh your produce and other items weighed at checkout (there’s usually a basic scale nearby) and estimate the cost. If those tomatoes are $2.99 a pound and you’re buying 2.5 pounds, that’s $7.50 for tomatoes!
    • As you shop, keep a running tally in your head of everything you buy. Bread, eggs, milk, etc.
    • Subtract any coupons or special sale prices offered at the register.
    • See how close your estimate gets to the actual tally.
    • BONUS ROUND: If your estimate is off, it might not be you. Maybe an item rang up incorrectly. I have saved myself many dollars over the year by knowing about what I should pay and spotting errors on the receipt.
  • Calculate sales taxes. Taxes vary depending on where you live. If you don’t know what your standard sales tax is, find out. Whenever you go shopping, calculate that sales tax in your head based on what you’re buying. For example:
    • A $50 shirt, $20 belt and $80 pair of jeans = $150.00 worth of stuff.
    • Let’s say your sales tax for clothing is 7%. You can calculate this the same basic way you did for tips, or make it easier by adding the tax up in 1% increments.
    • 1% of $150.00 – $1.50 (move over the decimal two places). $1.50 times 7 = $10.50. That’s 7%!
    • If you like to work with even numbers, maybe think of it this way: $1.50 + $1.50 = $3 – that’s 2%. Do this twice more, for $9 (that’s 6%) And add that last 1% for $10.50.
    • Add the stuff and the tax. Total you owe for fashion = $160.50.
  • Calculate the true cost of sales items. Lots of times a sale will offer, say, 30% off the full price of an item, and then you might have a coupon for an extra 10% off. You can’t just add those two discounts together to get 40% off. Many people try to do this. They are wrong. The store is going to take the 30% off the full price first, then take 10% off of the discounted price. Sneaky, eh?
    • Let’s take our $150 clothes example from above. If the items were 40% off, the discount would be $60 and the items would cost $90.
    • The real way discounts happen, it looks like this: 30% off of $150 is a discount of $45, so the items would cost $105. Then an additional discount of 10% would equal only $10.50. So you’d pay a total discounted price of $94.50. Still a deal, but a bit more than you might have thought if you hadn’t done the math!
    • BONUS ROUND: Calculate the tax!

I could go on and on. Try it! Exercise those math muscles! The world runs on math. A basic competency will get you far in life – beyond just knowing how much to leave the waiter, you’ll understand the true cost of mortgaging your house, or paying off a car loan, or figuring out a savings plan.