Thursday, January 3, 2019

Nothing Like Numbers

The New York Times of New Years carried a piece by one Paul Greenberg, asserting that we should spend less time with and less money on our smartphones. In general I agree, and probably I would have nodded and forgotten about the piece in ten minutes. But a paragraph caught my eye:
The average reader, reading at a speed of 280 words per minute, would take approximately 71½ hours to read the 1.3 million words in Marcel Proust’s "In Search of Lost Time."
 Has Mr. Greenberg read Lost Time already? If not, is he willing to demonstrate the feat? If so, can he provide an average reader, having no prior acquaintance with the work, to undertake it? I'm sure that the readership of the Times includes dozens of professors who would be happy to devise and grade a test of the reader's comprehension.

I was astonished by this, and so on my first look missed the assertion that
In most Western states, that $1,380 you spent on your phone could buy half an acre of land. In the right conditions, that half acre could easily accommodate 150 trees. A single tree sequesters 48 pounds of carbon a year. It takes about 30 minutes for an amateur forester to plant a tree. If every American smartphone owner used that time and money to plant half an acre of trees, we would sequester about 886 million tons of carbon a year, enough to offset more than 10 percent of the country’s annual emissions.  
Well, for one thing, the right conditions for trees include water, which can be hard to come by in the western United States east of the Sierra Nevada and Cascades. The price per acre will depend on what a seller thinks can be done with it, and I suspect that most western land that will support trees either already does, is used for crops, or is improved by building. In the first case, the land has all the trees it can reasonably accommodate, in the second and third (and maybe the first), the price will be a good deal higher. For another, the roughly 123 million acres, at 640 acres per square mile, amount to about 190 thousand square miles. That is a bit more than the size of California.

Yes, it is a hypothetical proposition. But stated as it is, it invites objection. Numbers can be used to inform or to dazzle. This piece leaned too much towards the latter.

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