Dictionary of Numbers

I don’t like large numbers without context. Phrases like “they called for a $21 billion budget cut” or “the probe will travel 60 billion miles” or “a 150,000-ton ship ran aground” don’t mean very much to me on their own. Is that a large ship? Does 60 billion miles take you outside the Solar System? How much is $21 billion compared to the overall budget? (That last question is  why I made my money chart.)

A friend of mine, Glen Chiacchieri, has created a Chrome extension to help solve this problem: Dictionary of Numbers. It searches the text in your browser for quantities it understands and inserts contextual statements in brackets. It might turn the phrase “315 million people” into “315 million people [≈ the population of the United States]“.

As Glen explains, he once read an article about US wildfires which mentioned that the largest fire of the year had burned “300,000 acres.” This didn’t mean much to Glen:

I have no idea how much 300,000 acres is [...] But we need to understand this number to answer the obvious question: how much of the United States was on fire? This is why I made Dictionary of Numbers.

Dictionary of Numbers helpfully informs me that 300,000 acres is about the area of LA or Hong Kong.

Wolfram|Alpha provides a lookup service like this, but you have to load the site and type in the quantity you’re curious about, which I never remember to do. (It’s also often short on good points of comparison.)

Dictionary of Numbers is a new project, so it’s got its share of glitches and rendering hiccups; it’s very much a work in progress. You can submit bug reports, feedback, and suggestions for data sources via a link on the project’s website.

I think these kinds of tools are a great idea, and I want to encourage them. Intelligence is all about context, and when computers get better at providing it, they make us smarter.

The extension can even be surprisingly funny, like when it seems to be making an oblique suggestion for how to solve a problem—e.g. “The telescope has been criticized for its budget of $200 million [≈ Mitt Romney net worth].” It can also come across as unexpectedly judgmental. Glen told me about complaint he got from a user: “I installed your extension and then forgot about it … until I logged into my bank account. Apparently my total balance is equal to the cost of a low-end bicycle. Thanks.”

You can get Dictionary of Numbers here.

244 thoughts on “Dictionary of Numbers

  1. In the 90′s I read an article from Haro Tecglen (a Spanish intelectual now deceased) where he adressed the same problem. He basically took the amount of money that costed to rebuild the Royal Opera Palace in Madrid (Spain), he was a great theater critic too, as a reference. I was 16 then and never ever had a problem again with numbers without reference.

  2. Thank you for enriching my every day life in yet another tiny way of thought provoking material.

  3. I think going to Wolfram Alpha is quicker than opening Chrome and visiting the same website. Anyone know of a firefox extension with similar functionality?

  4. Reading this article with the Chrome extension installed is a little awkward.

    It might turn the phrase “315 million people [≈ population of United States (nation)]” into “315 million people [≈ population of United States (nation)] [≈ the population of the United States]“.

    I’m sure reading this comment after posting it will be interesting…

  5. Pingback: Dictionary of Numbers: browser extension humanizes the numbers on the Web - Heavenarticles

  6. This reminded me to check my bank account. I have enough for a high-end bicycle. BITCHEEESSSSSSS!

  7. Pingback: Dictionary of Numbers: browser extension humanizes the numbers on the Web | Slackpile

  8. For the last two months I a have been wanting to buy a bike, but I haven’t had enough cash for a decent one. But now I reckon I have enough, but I can’t be bothered logging into my bank to check.

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  10. Pingback: Dictionary of Numbers: browser extension humanizes the numbers on the Web | Je tictac.com

  11. Pingback: Dictionary of Numbers | xkcd | EggBlog

  12. Pingback: Dictionary of Numbers: from raw numbers to human-understandable | Weirder Web

  13. Pingback: Dictionary of Numbers: browser extension humanizes the numbers on the Web – Boing Boing – web news | Fonte English

  14. Pingback: Dictionary of Numbers: browser extension humanizes the numbers on the Web – Boing Boing – web news

  15. And it gives you useful bits of trivia when viewing addresses:

    1715 W [≈ heat output of a domestic electric kettle]. Ceasar Chavez

  16. uhhhh I installed this and then went to a page with a textbox of A LOT of links that I was saving to read later (on notepad.cc) and it replaced parts of a lot of the URLs with blank strings. I have lost a lot of links I had saved and I’m not happy.

    Do not use this extension. It just does a mass replace on any page you’re on, even if that damages auto-saving info in un-undoable ways

  17. I once read an article that said that the average Englishperson drinks “a bathtub” or tea per year. I always wondered whether that comparison made the volume more tangible or not at all.

  18. Pingback: Dictionary of Numbers Chrome plugin endorsed by xkcd. | Gordon's shares

  19. The authors need to fix the security permissions on this extension… no way it needs to access all of a user’s data on every website, I’d expect.

  20. palefire, unfortunately it does seem to need access to all data on all websites because it requires injecting text content into every page.

  21. From a previous What-If, “The average car on the road weighs a hair over 4,000 lbs, so we have 850 billion pounds [≈ Total mass of the human world population] of car”. WHAT A CRAZY COINCIDENCE.

  22. The trouble that I have is that some of the numbers don’t mean much in terms of comparisons… I was reading an article about the Ranbaxy debacle, where the number ‘US$48 million’ was used — I got the following:

    US$48 million [≈ Finance industry 2011 political donations to Democrats]

    The trouble is that now, instead of having one number out of context, I have two… it’s not like I have a scale in my head that starts with $27 [≈ Juggling lobby 2011 political donations to Democrats] … Couldn’t they have rounded $50 Million, then given me a number that actually means something?

    This is a wonderful idea, but the program is still definitely alpha (oh yeah … chrome is also telling me that ‘Dictionary of Numbers has crashed. Click this balloon to reload the extension’).

  23. Can’t wait to try this out! I work as a data analyst and have always been numbers obsessed. A few years ago I was called for jury duty and selected as a potential juror on a civil ca$e. The defense attorney asked me if I thought $1 million was a big number, a lot of money. I asked him “compared to what?”. Yeah, you know he promptly excused me from that jury panel.

  24. Anyone know how to contact the author? The email address he listed for submitting bugs (hidden behind a reCAPTCHA, so I won’t post it here) bounced my report.

  25. Reading this blog post when you already have the extension installed is… recursive to say the least.

  26. I thought it would be amusing to install this app and then reread the blog post, and it was, but then looking through the comments for the first time is just making my head hurt…

  27. WolframAlpha reports that:
    3/5 of a mile in 10 seconds (Jefferson Airplane song)
    ~ maximum speed of a nerve impulse (~ 100 m/s)

    Does this new Chrome app give a better comparison? (not a Chrome user)??

  28. Pingback: Dictionary of Numbers Plugin — rbutr

  29. Not quite so good for us English people. Too many of the comparisons rely on knowledge of America.

  30. Well, I just found my favorite thing this app has done: repetition:

    “Harvard’s endowment, 31 billion dollars [≈ Harvard University endowment in 2011]“

  31. Yes, the bug report e-mail address bounces, unfortunately. So there’s no way to tell the creator 1) about bugs or 2) about the bug report contact method being broken. Except here, I guess.

  32. It does some interesting things to recipes, eg: 50g [≈ Mass equivalent of the energy that is called 1 megaton of TNT equivalent] toasted, roughly chopped nuts (optional)

  33. Jessica, I know the bugs email is broken and am trying to fix it. Don’t worry, I’m getting plenty of bug reports regardless.

  34. I thought I was doing okay, because I hit “[≈ Typical annual cost of car ownership]” on my bank account – then I made the mistake of hitting up my credit card’s website and saw “[≈ Average in-state public tuition (one year) (2009)”

  35. The next logical step is the Urban Dictionary of Numbers, which converts everything into penis references. The conversion is always possible in principle because, regardless of what quantity you are a measuring, the penis is your unit.

  36. I like this, but there aren’t enough things to compare too. Maybe if it searched amazon for prices, not everything should be compared to a PS3 in 2011.

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  38. I like the extension, but my main suggestion is to remove the comparison for numbers that don’t need comparison. Saying that 60 years is [≈ average human life expectancy at birth (2011 estimate)] doesn’t really help. Also comparison for values below $1000 seem pointless. I don’t think saying that $100 dollars is the average monthly cost of a smartphone plan really helps put the number in perspective. For large/small numbers though it seems really useful.

  39. I like this gizmo.

    It doesn’t tell me much about the values in the articles. I already knew that 800,000 people was about the population of Liverpool and 5,000 was how many people fitted into the stadium where my local team played. I learn far more about the values they give for comparison. I now know that 800,000 people is the approximate population of Djibouti, and 5,000 is about the population of Monserrat. I feel I’m being educated.

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