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.