Free Throw Shooting (And Tracking) Zeal Garners Local Media Coverage

Lefty form, from a recent free throw session.

As circumstances have played out, this post represents the second consecutive basketball-related piece.

Fortunately, this one has a much happier, benign thrust than the prior story about my long-ago interactions with, and writing about, the late, could-have-been-so-great Len Bias.

Just a brief mention here of my ambidextrous free throw-shooting zeal, as chronicled by fellow Oak Parker Brad Spencer of the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park & River Forest.

Right-handed form.

My dedication to honing my free throw form is matched or perhaps exceeded by my passion to track the stats related to that pursuit.

Go figure…at least, that’s what I always seem to be doing.

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At Year’s End

Pasadena Star News, December 27, 2002
by Larry Wilson

HERE at Star-News world headquarters on fabulous Colorado Boulevard, which any day now will be teeming with Cougars and Sooners, but currently is blissfully quiet in that eye of the storm between Christmas and New Year’s, we were treated to a math seminar this week by Chicago journalist Matt Baron.

His Go Figure interactive talks give lessons to journalists and companies around the country in how not to mess up or be misleading when using numbers in their work in our case, in newspaper stories.

Among lots of other great pointers, from percentages to modes to means, Matt dealt with the way some writers will allow spokespeople to get away with vague phrases such as “a number of complaints came in about’ such and such pointing out that zero is also a number and warning us against using “several,’ though that word is generally taken to be occurrences of between
three and nine.

So if I were to say that in this space Saturdays over the past year there were several items I had meant to get to and yet didn’t, it would be an example of the fudge factor at work.

That’s because there were definitely more than nine topics big and small I scribbled down or promised someone I’d mention or even started to write about, and didn’t, in palindromic 2002.

Here’s a few of them.

In October I for the first time visited Pasadena Christian School up on North Los Robles to see the really rather nicely done new Fritz B. Burns Library. I’d passed by for months during construction and was impressed that, as is the case with two or three other new developments in the neighborhood, Greene & Greene and other local greats were clearly the jumping-off point for the design.

Jeffrey M. Kalban & Associates Architecture use a massive, beam-heavy, Craftsman-inspired roof line with a startling big- circle motif down which travels the central ventilation duct. Kalban aimed for the look of a light-filled chapel, saying as he walked me through the place that as a child he had to use libraries “where you never felt like reading a book there in the musty dark.’

The kids of 55-year-old Pasadena Christian, the largest private K-8 school in the city, are lucky to have this place in which to read, bursting with light pouring through its clerestory windows. Slightly bowed-out walls allow all the bookcases to be visible from throughout the long room; inglenook built-in seating is a great place to settle in for a long read.

A good read that’s been on my desk now for several weeks is “Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City’ (Chelsea Green Publishing Co.) by my old friend and our former outdoors columnist Christopher Nyerges and his wife Dolores Lynn Nyerges. Dolores and Christopher live in an older house on a rambling hillside lot in Eagle Rock; in this book they show how they have
made it into an almost self-sufficient urban farm, with a pig and geese and bees, solar heating and spreading vegetable gardens. The Nyergeses quote Tolstoy:”Everybody thinks of changing humanity, and no one thinks of changing himself.’ All of us have something to learn from this book.

“The Hours,’ opening this week, has been scaring my daughter for some time already, what with those posters showing button-nosed Nicole Kidman gaining the proboscis of Virginia Woolf. Always on my mind is the local angle: the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel the movie is based upon is Michael Cunningham, a graduate of Pasadena High School.

Remember that bobcat that scared the Linda Vista-area parents of young children earlier this year? My LV-area wife had a beautiful 4 p.m. stare-down with it or its close kin this week at the corner of Lida and Parkview on the banks of the Arroyo Seco.

“The Syringa Tree,’ by and starring Pamela Gien, was my favorite offering from The Pasadena Playhouse in years; I laughed, I cried, I remembered again the many similarities, the good and the bad, between her homeland of South Africa and our Southern California.

Haven’t seen a New Year’s blimp yet, putt-putting over us like an airborne whale on an annual visit. But I fully agree with Rep. Adam Schiff, Mayor Bill Bogaard and Chief Barney Melekian: While I don’t mind the charming dirigibles and even the Air Force parade and game flyovers, I say ban the advertising banner-carrying Jan. 1 planes. Don’t know if they are a security risk, but I do know they are air pollution.

The happiest 2003 imaginable to you and to yours.

— Larry Wilson is editor of the Pasadena Star-News. Write him at larry.wilson@sgvn.com

With numbers like these, who needs enemies?

Published July 1, 2002 in Corporate Writer & Editor
by Mike Haney

“The small staff we have are not really numbers people,” says John Blake, editor of Mass Mutual’s employee magazine, M. “We prefer words instead of numbers.”

Sound familiar?

Many writers shy away from using numbers in their stories, fearing they will confuse both themselves and their readers. But Blake and others say that knowing how to use numbers effectively is a vital skill for any writer.

“I like numbers stories,” says Mike Glynn, who edits the employee newsletter Infonet for the energy company Aquila. “It adds a real credibility when you don’t just say things are rosy or bad, but you back it up with real figures.”

Perhaps the most common–and feared–numbers story in the corporate world is the earnings report, which often contains several complex figures and financial terms. Experts say it’s crucial in these types of stories to give the numbers some breathing room.

“Do it in small doses,” says Blake. “Too many numbers at once overwhelm people.”

Glynn agrees. “We try to balance them throughout the story, so the reader isn’t just facing a wall of numbers.”

Matt Baron, a free-lance journalist who also trains reporters and corporate communicators in the art of writing about numbers, says one way to keep the story light is to write out numbers when you can. For instance, instead of writing “26.6 percent,” you can say “about a quarter.” Or instead of saying profits were $998,378, you could write “just shy of $1 million.”

But numbers can lose their punch if readers don’t understand what they refer to.

Carl Mueller, an internal communications manager with Liberty Mutual Group, says that’s especially true with earnings stories. “We just have to keep in mind we have 42,000 employees and the vast majority don’t know what combined ratio and other terms mean,” he says. “So we always try to translate things into plain English.”

Glynn says his staff has started running a regular sidebar called Business Buzz, which defines commonly used but often misunderstood financial terms such as EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, for those of you who don’t know) and market cap.

Adrian Ciletti, editor of JC Penney’s employee magazine, JCPeople, runs a similar column called JCPeople Looks at the Numbers. “I call it my Corporate Finance 101,” she says.

Mueller approaches the problem in another way: His staff posts financial reports to the company’s intranet. When the cursor rolls over a term, a little definition box pops up. Mueller says that kind of interactivity can make complex stories less daunting and more fun for readers.

Experts say graphs or charts can also help readers make sense of numerical information. But the same rules apply here: Keep those visuals simple and define what’s being shown. If more than one trend is illustrated in a graph, make sure the numbers are relevant to each other.

Aside from corporate staples such as earnings reports, where can writers find numbers stories?

“Anything that is interesting will have a numerical component,” Baron says. “The key is to let it emerge naturally.”

He advises that writers brainstorm story ideas without thinking about the numbers behind them. Once you’ve got a good idea, he says, find the most interesting numbers that will help tell that story.

Thinking this way can help writers sort out the valuable numbers from the trivia. “View numbers with skepticism like you would anything else,” he says.

Baron reminds writers not to forget the people behind the numbers. “It always goes back to humans,” he says, “whether it’s a human being making a claim about a number, or if it’s a group of human beings the numbers refer to. The more writers keep that in mind, the better off they are,” Baron says.

Ciletti says she always talks to financial officers or other experts to make sure her stories add up. “I know I’m not a finance person,” she says. “So if I can’t understand it, my reader is not going to understand it.”

Matt Baron: Matt@mattbaron.com
John Blake: jblake@massmutual.com
Mike Glynn: mike.quinn@aquila.com
Carl Mueller: carl.mueller@libertymutual.com
Adrienne Ciletti: amcilett@jcpenney.com

Quick Tips
Here are some things to keep in mind as you tackle your next numbers story, adapted from Matt Baron’s seminar, Go Figure:

Don’t clutter numbers together; keep them a respectful distance from one another.

If you can write it better than a number says it, then write it out.

Convert awkward percentages to fractions that are easy to grasp, like “about a quarter” instead of “26.6 percent.”

Don’t settle for someone’s age; get a date of birth and do the math yourself.

Have someone else double-check your math

Use information boxes and graphs to give your stories breathing room.

Rich get richer, the poor play Lotto

– Published in Sun Publications October 23, 2002
By Tom Parisi

Every so often, when I’m feeling psychic, I plunk down a few bucks on the Illinois Lottery. I’ll play my kids’ birthdays and dream about what to do with mounds of money.

It’s a nice daydream for a dollar. But I don’t play the lottery with any regularity. That’s because the logical side of me knows that it’s among the biggest rip-offs on the planet. If you’re going to risk losing money, you’re better off rolling the dice on the riverboats, picking a pony at the OTB or investing in Enron.

No gambler worth his salt would regularly play the lottery. The house edge is just too outrageous. The odds of matching six numbers on a $1 ticket in the Lotto game are more than 10 million to one, according to the Illinois Lottery’s Web site. That’s a mind-boggling edge when you consider that the Lotto game starts out with a minimum jackpot of $2 million.

Sometimes numbers are so big that they’re hard to grasp. So I asked Matt Baron, a friend of mine who free-lances for the likes of Time magazine and Sports Illustrated for Kids, to put some perspective on the figure 10 million. Aside from his free-lancing, Baron trains writers in how to use numbers effectively. (If you’re interested in this, check out www.mattbaron.com.)

If you counted one second at a time to 10 million, Baron points out, it would take 115 days. Imagine trying to pick one jackpot-winning second out of your life over the past four months.

Or imagine a phone book with 10 million names. The book would be too big to be practical, so Baron suggests dividing it up. With 50 names on a page, you would need 500 phone books, each 400 pages long.

Ten million – get the picture.

Even with the smaller Lotto prizes, the house edge is enormous. To match five numbers and win an average prize of just $1,000, the odds are one in 36,881. To match three numbers and win a mere $3, the odds are one in 34. It’s no wonder I end up kicking myself after losing at the lottery. It’s not because I dropped a buck or two, but because I know I was taken. What’s worse, I’ve always felt that the lottery preys on the poor. I said as much in a column several years ago, when the Big Game jackpot was pushing $400 million. It never fails that whenever lottery fever hits, long lines of customers stretch out the doors of convenience stores and gas stations in blue-collar urban areas. Even the unemployed will scrape up enough money for a chance to dream that their problems will disappear overnight.

We never see long lottery lines in well-to-do neighborhoods such as Barrington, Glenview or Wilmette, or even Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles, for that matter. People of means don’t need pipe dreams.

A new analysis by The Chicago Reporter better proves my point about the lottery and the poor. The newspaper found that predominantly African American or Latino low-income Chicago communities have generated the highest lottery sales in the state.

And despite the state’s recent economic woes, lottery spending has increased, the Reporter found. The story included quotes from regular lottery players, including a laid-off laborer who said he spent about $25 a day on tickets. Really, what kind of society dangles the illusion of a pot of gold in front of desperate people who desperately want to improve their lot in life?

What’s more, the amount of lottery revenues distributed to school districts has nothing to do with how much their communities spend on the game. So in essence, the state takes from the poor and gives to the rich and middle-class. School leaders in areas that generate the highest lottery sales rightly feel they should get a bigger slice of the lottery revenue pie.

A better solution would be to get rid of the lottery altogether. Chances are remote, because it has been a cash cow for the state for nearly three decades. If I could handicap the chances of that day arriving – the day we eliminate the lottery – I’d place the odds at about, say, 10 million to one.

OK, so it might happen sometime over the next 27,400 years.