Stop Freaking Out About Ebola (Because: Math)



When I read Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone in the mid-1990s, I was terrified. This was the first I had heard of a scary new disease called ebola. I was working for an AIDS Service Organization at the time, so I understood — better than most — how blood-borne infectious diseases are contracted. Still, the images of how the victims of this virus die are still with me. Horrifying.

But I’m not at all afraid of ebola today. Not one little bit. Why? Math.

It’s difficult for ebola to spread. Really difficult. Like HIV, the ebola virus only lives in bodily fluids, including blood, saliva, mucus, vomit, semen, breast milk, sweat, tears, feces and urine. (HIV is only transmitted through four bodily fluids: semen, vaginal fluids, breast milk and blood.) Transmission can occur when infected bodily fluids come into contact with a person’s eyes, mouth or nose, or an open wound or abrasion.

Compare this to measles, which is transmitted through the air. The measles virus lives in the mucus lining of the nose. A sneeze or cough can release virus-infected droplets into the air. Breathe in the air with little measles droplets, and unless you’ve been vaccinated, it’s very likely you’ll see a tell-tale rash in a few days.

Since measles is highly contagious for four days before symptoms appear, a person can transmit the virus without even knowing he has it himself. According to the CDC, measles is so contagious that if one person has it, it will spread to 90 percent of the people who come in contact with that person (if they are not already immune, thanks to the vaccine).

It’s All About the R0

The way a virus is transmitted helps determine how contagious the disease is. And the big deal here is something called R0 or “reproduction number” (also called “r-naught”). R0 is the number of people that one infected person will likely infect during an outbreak.

Those of us of a certain age might remember a shampoo commercial that illustrates this perfectly.

Like Fabrerge Organics shampoo, ebola’s R0 is 2. When one person contracts ebola, it is likely that two others will become infected. Yes, those numbers add up — and they have in parts of Africa.

Now take a look at measles, with an R0 of 18. When one person gets measles, it’s likely that 18 people around him do too. Then each of those 18 people spread the virus to 18 more people. In one generation of this infection, 18 x 18 (324) have contracted measles. That’s compared to only 2 x 2 (4) people who will likely contract ebola in one generation of the infection. In fact, measles is still one of the leading causes of death in children around the world. According to the WHO:

Measles is still common in many developing countries – particularly in parts of Africa and Asia. More than 20 million people are affected by measles each year. The overwhelming majority (more than 95%) of measles deaths occur in countries with low per capita incomes and weak health infrastructures.

But measles is not a major threat in the U.S., and we all know why — the measles vaccine. Ebola has no vaccine, but a relatively strong health care system in our country and its very low R0 makes ebola a low threat, compared to other viruses, like HIV and certain strains of influenza.

The scary thing about ebola is not how quickly it spreads but how basic medical care can keep it from spreading. We have that basic care here in the U.S. Large swaths of Africa do not.

And along with a low R0, the ebola virus has a relatively short infectious period — about a week. On the other hand, HIV is infectious for years and years — many of those years while the infected person has no symptoms or does not even test positive on an HIV test. The relationship between time and infection matters, too.

You Should Worry About Other Things Instead

For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that each year, about 5,000 people under the age of 21 die in alcohol-related incidents, including car crashes, falls, burns, homicides, suicides and alcohol poisoning.

According to the Federal Reserve, Americans held $229.4 billion in consumer credit (outstanding household debt, including credit cards and loans) in July 2014.

The global sea level is rising at alarming rates, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Before 1900, these levels remained constant. Since 1900, the levels have risen 0.04 to 0.1 inches per year. But beginning in 1992, that rate climbed to 0.12 inches per year. This translates to much greater likelihood of flooding in coastal areas (including the neighborhood where I lived for 10 years).

And we should be concerned about ebola in Africa, mainly because we can do something about the higher rates of ebola infection and deaths there.

But ebola in the United States? Really, this shouldn’t be a worry for you. Let the math ease your mind.

Photo Credit: CDC Global Health via Compfight cc

Math at Work Monday: Kelly the Virtual Assistant



This world is spinning fast, and a lot of things are changing.  Today’s interview is with Kelly Case of Time on Hand Services.  She is a virtual assistant or VA – in fact, she’s my VA!  Without Kelly, this blog would be empty most of the time. She also lays out my newsletter and does lots of research for me. 

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I have my own business that provides administrative services to other companies.  These companies vary in size and may be located anywhere in the world.  Thanks to the internet, there is less and less need for your assistant to be in the physical office with you.  My clients enjoy the freedom of having a virtual assistant. They don’t have to provide office space, computer equipment, or benefits.  They decide how many hours they want me to work for them each month and then assign tasks to me at their convenience.  These tasks vary widely.  I do bookkeeping, email management, calendar management, blog management, proofreading, data entry, travel planning, transcription, customer service, email marketing, website design, and more.

When do you use basic math in your job?

I use math just about every day, for my own virtual assistance business as well as for the businesses of my clients.  I use math when doing invoicing, payroll, travel planning, and bookkeeping.  For instance, when reconciling credit card or checking accounts, I must use math to make sure the credits and debits match the bank statement.  When invoicing, I use math to make sure I’m charging their clients or mine the right amounts or percentages.  A customer of my client may agree to make three monthly payments to the client for a certain product.  I split the payment into thirds and charge at the appropriate time.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?

Yes, I use the calculator function on my computer whenever I need to calculate long lists of numbers to prevent human error.  I usually do it twice to be sure I come up with the same answer each time.  I also use Microsoft Excel to keep track of credits and expenses for my clients’ check registers. Quickbooks is used often for the bookkeeping aspect as well.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

I’m not sure that it helps me do it better, but it enables me to do my job.  I wouldn’t be able to invoice, do payroll, or keep books without the use of math.  Numbers are an integral part of our daily lives and work places.  And, where there are numbers, there is math.

How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you ?

I am extremely comfortable with math.  The type of math I use in my job is very elementary and basic for me.

What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

I enjoy math very much.  In high school, I got As in math and was asked by friends to do their homework assignments for them.  In fact, I enjoy it so much I took math as one of my college electives because I knew it would be an easy A for me.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pickup using the skills you learned in school?

No, I didn’t need to learn any new math skills per se.  I just had to learn the different programs that I use to do the math, like Quickbooks or an online payroll service.

More and more writers, like me, are hiring virtual assistants. This allows us to focus on our writing, and for me, it means having a detail person on my team. Have a question for Kelly or interested in learning more about her services?  Check her out at Wondering how you can use a virtual assistant in your business? Ask in the comments section.

Photo Credit: Philippe Put via Compfight cc

Is Math Creative?

Is math creative?

As a math major in college, I was required to take a computer programming class. In retrospect, the reasoning made perfect sense: successful programming follows a natural logic, very much the same way math does. But at the time, I was resentful, and a little scared.

Sure enough, I was lost by week two. I enlisted in some tutoring from a dear friend in my section. And she demonstrated to me a completely different way of structuring the code. Her process made much more sense than the methods taught by our instructor, so I adopted it. Three days later, I sat in shock, as the prof announced that some of our assignments looked suspiciously similar.

Let me be clear: I had not copied my friend’s coding. I had identified with her way of thinking and modeled my code after her approach. But it was such out-of-the-box thinking, I understood why the prof thought we were cheating. And sadly, instead of talking to him about it, I simply reverted back to his methods. Yeah, I didn’t get much out of that class.

My friend demonstrated some amazing creativity in her approach to coding. She did this in all of her math classes as well — for which she was greatly rewarded. I learned from her that thinking creatively is critical for succeeding in math of any kind. And I mean any kind — from proving Fermat’s Last Theorem to finding out how many gallons of Symphony in Blue you need to paint your living room.

Too often, math is described in black-and-white terms. There’s a right and a wrong answer. There’s a step-by-step process to follow. If you think of math this way, it’s no wonder. Most of us were taught that math is about a right answer.

But those teachers were wrong. Sure, the right answer is important, but just like those inspirational posters say, it’s all about the journey. How you get to your answer is just as important as the right answer.

And that’s where creativity comes in. Because we all access this information in different ways. Some of us are visual. Some of us need time to think. Some of us like to talk things out. Those of us with true numeracy use creative methods for solving ordinary problems. Take 23 x 6, for example.

Most of the world would stack these numbers up, multiply 6 by 3 and then 6 by 2, add (remembering to align the numbers properly) and get 138. But there are many other ways. I like this one:

23 x 6 = (20 + 3) x 6

                       = (20 x 6) + (3 x 6)

         = 120 + 18

          = 138

With that method, I can do the problem in my head!

But you don’t need to solve the problem that way. Come up with your own process. Be bold! Set off on your own! Be creative!

So in answer to the question, Is math creative? YES! You’ve just got to access your own out of the box thinking.

Photo Credit: Yuri Yu. Samoilov via Compfight cc

Do you agree that math is creative? Why or why not? What examples of creativity (or lack thereof) can you share?

3 Website Statistics Tools Reveal Your Visitors’ Secrets (in a good way)

Web site analytics

We writers have all heard about platform, and so many of us have blogs — both to share what we’re thinking and to reach audiences that might also be interested in reading our books. But how can you tell if your website or blog is really working for you? Stats, of course. Since this can be overwhelming, I’ve asked Donna K. Fitch — an expert on WordPress and a fellow writer — to share her favorite tools for gathering and analyzing website stats. She’s broken it all down, making the process easier to understand and to follow. Plus, she’s offering you a free glossary of analytics terms. (I’m snatching that bad boy right up!)

Who’s visiting your website? Is anyone reading your blog posts? Site statistics provide the keys to these questions. Many options exist for providing these statistics, depending on what site platform you use or how much depth of analysis you desire.

Your hosting provider will often show you the rough numbers in your dashboard or cPanel, such as “x number of visitors this month,” but that’s not helpful. That number is the equivalent of the counters people were enamored of a few years back. Seeing “302,455 site visitors since 1997” is not that impressive if you think about it. Site visitors is a raw number that may include the site owner herself, and tells nothing about how many of those visited multiple times.

I design and maintain WordPress sites, so I’ll be focusing on that platform, but you may find many of the same tools available on your site. If you’re not familiar with the terms used, I’ve provided a glossary of analytics terms as an exclusive free PDF download for you.


A suite of free features available on hosted sites, Jetpack offers website statistics. If you use self-hosted WordPress, you can link your account to a account and take advantage of Jetpack as well. At a glance, Jetpack shows you a graph of site visits, referrers, search engine terms, subscriptions, top posts and pages, and clicks. As you dig into the information, you will find an “About the math” section, where their logic is explained.

When should you use Jetpack? When you’re mainly interested in how many site visits occurred when. This number is useful if you want to determine the optimum day to post on your blog. If more people read it on Friday than on Monday, you can adjust the day you post accordingly.

Google Analytics

Available for free to anyone with a Google email address, Google Analytics can be quite daunting, but the wealth of information provided is astounding. Hooking your site up to the analytics tracking requires signing up at You must use a Gmail account for the requested email address. Google provides you with an ID code which you then insert into either all the pages you wish to track, or your site template. After that, wait about 24 hours to see the results.

When you log into the Google dashboard, you immediately see a graph of visits, with information on sessions, users, pageviews, pages per session, average session duration, bounce rate, and percentage of new sessions, plus a pie chart showing the percentage of new and returning visitors. Below that you see three sections: Demographics, including the language of the top ten visitors, their country or territory, and city from which they visited; System, showing what browser they used, what operating system (Windows, Macintosh, Android, iOS, Linux), and what service provider (Charter Communications, Time Warner, etc.); and Mobile, listing operating system, service provider and screen resolution.

While you could spend hours on each section alone, skip down to the Behavior section to see interesting facts about how people interacted with your site. (The Acquisition section is primarily useful to those purchase ads on Google AdWords.) You can learn what pages were visited the most, how fast pages were accessed, and the flow of the user’s behavior through the site. You can even click on Real Time and see who is visiting your site at that very moment.

When should you use Google Analytics? When you’re interested in knowing in detail who’s visiting your site, from where, how often. When you want to tweak your site’s content or architecture in answer to visitor patterns, to enhance the user experience. When you just love seeing all the numbers generated by your website.

WP SlimStat

This is a highly-rated free web analytics plugin for WordPress. I have only recently installed it, but am amazed at the range of information it provides, some of which isn’t provided by Google. A real-time log shows you who’s viewing your site at any given moment. The Audience section uses the term “daily human visits,” separating out people from visits by bot. Site analysis gives you at a glance how many content items your site has, as well as the number of comments. The Map overlay provides a fun way to see if you’re getting visits from around the world.

When to use WP SlimStat? When you’re a WordPress self-hosted user who wants a rich, broad array of statistics in an easy to use format.

I’d love to hear from you about your experiences with these tools. Please use the comments below to share!

Donna K FitchDonna K. Fitch, MLS (Master of Library Science), MCert (Master’s Certificate in Web Design and Development), is the founder and CEO of Maximum Author Impact, creating beautiful WordPress websites, training webinars and other resources for indie authors. She is the independent author of Second Death, The Source of Lightning, and The Color of Darkness and Other Stories, newsletter web editor and member of the Horror Writers Association, and a member of the Alexandria Publishing Group, aimed at raising the level of professionalism among indie authors. In her day job, she is the digital communication specialist in the office of marketing and communication at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, USA.

Top photo credit: trekkyandy via Compfight cc.

Bottom photo credit: Donna K. Fitch.

Math at Work Monday: Joe the Platform Consultant


In the IT field, there are many machines and programs that are really confusing and difficult to understand. Not only do we have to trust and depend on these machines, but also the people who service them. Joe Thompson is one of the good guys. He provides assistance to the users and companies when they need it most. From consulting to maintenance, Joe and his colleagues are there for us when our technology isn’t working quite right. (Joe is also one of my former geometry students. It’s been great to reconnect with him and see how accomplished he is now!)

Can you explain what you do for a living?

Red Hat’s consultants help customers get our products working when they have specific needs that go beyond the usual tech support.  We are essentially advanced computer system administrators on whatever our customers need us to be to get Red Hat’s products to work for them.  Common consulting gigs are setting up Red Hat Satellite to manage the customer’s servers, or doing performance tuning to make things run faster or a “health check” to verify things are running as efficiently as possible.

We just put out a marketing video about our consulting for public-sector clients, actually:

(We do more than just public sector and cloud, of course.)

When do you use basic math in your job?

The most common is when tuning a system to perform well, or configuring various things.  Unit conversions and base conversions are especially important.

IT has a long-running math issue actually: does “kilo” mean “1000” (a round number in base 10), or “1024” (a round number, 10000000000, in base 2)?  There are various ways people try to indicate which is intended, like using a capital K vs. a lowercase k, or using KiB vs. KB.  This matters in a lot of cases because when you get up into large data sizes, the difference between round numbers in base 10 and base 2 gets pretty big.  A 1-TB hard drive (a typical size today, maybe even a little small) is a trillion bytes — 1000 to the fourth power, not 1024 to the fourth power.  The difference is about 10% of the actual size of the drive, so knowing which base you’re dealing with is important.

Then there are units that have to be converted.  A common adjustment for better performance is tweaking how much data is held in memory at a time to be transmitted over the network, which is done by measuring the delay between two systems that have to communicate.  Then you multiply the delay (so many milliseconds) by the transmission speed (so many megabits or gigabits per second) and that gives the buffer size, which you have to set in bytes (1 byte = 8 bits) or sometimes other specified units.

Sometimes software writers like to make you do math so they can write their code easier.  If a program has options that can either be on or off, sometimes a programmer will use a “bitfield” — a string of binary digits that represent all the options in a single number, which is often set in base 10.  So if you have a six-digit bitfield and want to turn off everything but options 1 and 6, you would use the number 33: 33 = 100001 in binary.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?

I’ve always done a lot of arithmetic in my head and I can at least estimate a lot of the conversions without resorting to a calculator.  I’ll break out the calculator if the math is long and tedious though, like averaging a long column of numbers, or if I need a precise answer quickly on something like how many bytes are in 1.25 base-10 gigabits — I can do the billion divided by 8 and come out with 125 million bytes per base-10 gigabit, and then multiplying by 1.25 I know I’m going to be in the neighborhood of 150 million bytes, but I need the calculator to quickly get the exact answer of 156250000 bytes.  If I’m on a conference call about that kind of thing I’ll use the calculator more than otherwise.

Google introduced a new feature a couple of years ago that will do basic math and unit conversions for you, so if I’m deep into things or just feeling lazy I can also just pull up a web browser and type “1.25 gigabits in bytes” in the search bar, and Google does it all for me.  But recently I noticed I was reaching for the calculator more, and arithmetic in my head was getting harder, so I’ve been making a conscious effort to do more head-math lately.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

Without math, I couldn’t do my job at all :)  Even so little a thing as figuring out how long a file will take to transfer takes a good head for numbers.  As soon as you dig under the surface of the operating system, it’s math everywhere.

How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you ?

I’m pretty comfortable with math.  A lot of my off-time hobbies touch on computers too so it’s a lot of the same math as work even when I’m not working.

What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

I took the standard track for an Advanced Studies diploma from grades 8-11 (Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Advanced Math), plus AP Calculus my senior year, and always did well. I didn’t expect to like Geometry going in because it’s not one-right-answer like a lot of math, but I ended up enjoying the logical rigor of proofs.  (Though I do recall giving my Geometry teacher fits on occasion when my proofs took a non-standard tack…)

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pickup using the skills you learned in school?

Most of it was learned in school, although base conversion isn’t something we spent a lot of time on.  I got good at it through long, frequent practice as you might guess…

Do you have a question for Joe? Send me your question and I will forward it to him.

Photo Credit: Dan Hamp via Compfight cc