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. Oh, and I’ve just noticed that if you hover the mouse, it sometimes gives you a bunch of alternative suggestions, so that if the net worth of some random person you’ve not heard of isn’t interesting, you can see that it’s also the wage bill of some random sports team or the cost of some bit of military hardware or something.

  2. After 2 weeks of using it I must say that too much context to content can be distracting. But I like the way how this context is putting sense to some articles or posts on forums, blogs etc. And it would be even nicer with gmail support.

  3. ….did not know Hong Kong is about 300,000 acres….is that “small”… thanks for the info ;-))

  4. I just revisited the Blag with the extension installed and it turned in to a weird Inception of context…

  5. I was hoping to reply to the inception comment with something witty about a context within a context but I can’t reply directly to a comment. This makes me a sad panda

  6. Is there any way we can contribute to the dictionary? It only recognizes $US as money at the moment so it would be good to have it pick up £GBP as well for example. OK I know there are exchange rate fluctuations, but they hardly matter for this.

  7. I don’t like when National Planet or Discovery submits real numbers with x sizes of footballareas. This submarine weight 5 elephants and are as long as six footballplanes?
    That’s intelligence packed into context, and it’s still meaningless since peoples don’t use SI-prefix properly. Why aren’t they telling it in real values in meter and ton?!

    Context is a accquired experience/knowledge,so I wonder if it’s a american thing?

    I feel it’s straight to middleage, telling peoples that 30 degree of Celsius (A SI-value) is like melting butter, at a time when a foot means everything between 20cm and 35cm. I have bicycled in 29degree Celsius, and it’s almost like melting butter, but not quite.

    I cannot comprehend large values, but it’s still not a good thing to submit it with other things. It’s nice as a accompany, but peoples usually simplify things, so it’s back to square one!

  8. @Egil F:
    Usually Discovery or National Geographic is using american football playing field for comparison so it’s definitely american thing ;)

  9. Brilliant! I have a friend who describes sums of money in terms of how many pairs of shoes she could buy at her favourite shoe store. Finally, clarity for all us liberal arts majors! ; )

  10. Love it. I looked at the Wikipedia article on the RMS Titanic and discovered that “she displaced 52,310 tons [≈ RMS Titanic when fully loaded (52,000 tonnes)].”

  11. The creepiest one I’ve seen so far:

    “I’d like seven pounds [≈ Newborn human baby] of lamb.”

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  14. If it’s helpful, I believe Wolfram Alpha is the source used by Apple’s Siri, so maybe someone can finally make use of the twit, now.

  15. When I was a poor student, I used to measure sums in terms of number of kebabs I could have bought….

  16. Actually, that’s kind of what I – poor university student – am doing: Calculate amounts of money in relation to the rough amount of money spent on groceries each week. That flight I just booked? About 5 months worth of food! *instadepression*

  17. I just wish it were more discerning on where to put them. For example, in a Wikipedia citation:
    Procedures of the National Academy of Science (U.S.A.) 94 (22): 11998–2001. Bibcode:1997PNAS…9411998J [≈ kinetic energy produced as an extra small apple (~100 grams) falls 1 meter against Earth's gravity]. doi:10.1073/pnas.94.22.11998.

  18. I suppose, Carsten, if you are able to book a flight that is worth 5 months of groceries. you are not really a poor student )

  19. A NASA mission science team once overlaid a garbage truck on an image of crater, and a map of Washington on another. Geologists put rock hammers or coins or measuring tape next to pictures of interesting objects.

    The obvious usefulness of this neutralizes all arrogance about SI because even units are meaningless without context.

  20. An awesome addon – I installed it and I love it..

    However, I then re-read this blog post with it installed. Strrrraaannge [.≈ Amount of odd in reading a post explaining Dictionary of Numbers with Dictionary of Numbers installed]

  21. In regards to comic 1228, please don’t give Mr. Bay any ideas. Thank you.

  22. I think that his head is full of even more ‘spectacular’ ideas so it doesn’t matter.

  23. I must say, it’s funny to read this with Dictionary of Numbers already installed. It’s like your friend spoiling a part of a movie right before it happens.

    “Dictionary of Numbers helpfully informs me that 300,000 acres [≈ Los Angeles, California, USA (city)] is about the area of LA or Hong Kong.”

  24. Cool for the most part, but then there’s a lot of stuff like this:

    “This outstanding bungalow with walkout is situated on a one acre [≈ 1 acre] ”

    *facepalm*

  25. Oh my goodness. Reading through these comments, and the post with Dictionary of Numbers already installed makes everything go into duplicate. Or triplicate, with Grant’s comment above. Also, when looking at hyper links that happen to have “V” or “W” in them, it tends to make them into volts and all, resulting in some pretty hilarious results!

  26. This plugin has transformed my reading of news articles. Sure, there are problems – but the context it comes up with is varied, bizarre, sometimes humorous, & always surprisingly & remarkably useful. The phrase “Nasa [...] was given the task of finding 90% of [asteroids] above width of 140 metres” becomes completely transformed when I am told this is the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza; it throws a whole new light on Avatar’s box-office success when I am told it has made more money that the entire worth of gifts from the Gates Foundation.

  27. Wait.. is there a firefox plugin? I only see the chrome version. Would love this on firefox!

  28. Helpful tool. Yet proving, once again, you cant stop thinking just because you have a tool (no sexual connotation implied, well no conscious connotation);

  29. If I remember my Pokémon correctly (1st gen, obviously), a low-end bike costs more than I can ever afford! If only there was a way to get someone to give me one for free…

  30. The What-If about the ocean drain… I actually thought about that quite a bit after seeing Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. I mean, the Silver Surfer effectively punches a bunch of holes through the Earth’s crust, many of which were underwater, and I wondered why nobody seemed to give much consideration to the fact that the seas would now be draining into the Earth’s core.

  31. We read and hear numbers in the news all the time, but it can be hard to imagine what those numbers mean but now i believe the dictionary of numbers will help us in this case.

  32. It seems like there’s some potential for funny spin-offs. For instance, a dictionary of numbers that purposefully chose very unsettling/creepy comparisons (“~Total length of a human intestine”). Or one that made you feel guilty (“~Average area of rainforests destroyed per week”).

  33. Re: Drain the Oceans, Parts I, and II: Personally, I think this is just an elaborate ruse that guarantees the Netherlands win at “Risk.” And, of course, “Risk: 2210 AD.”

  34. My favorite result from this plugin so far was on a men’s fashion website, where it appended the price of the suit I was looking at ($400-something, if memory serves) with [≈ price of a suit]. Tautologiriffic!

  35. The plugin just told me that the 28g of protein in a chicken salad recipe is equal to the weight of an adult mouse. Mmm, appetising…

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