Friday, March 20, 2009

Billion is the new million

I'm not a math peevologist, or whatever you'd call such a person, but I've been noticing the looseness in the gap between the BILLIONS of the bailout of AIG and the MILLIONS in bonuses to their execs. I'm noticing pretty regular speech errors in talking about the amounts from people who clearly know the amounts involved. In private conversations, I've been worried once or twice that some folks aren't clear on the numbers.

Good old xkcd is on the case (click through to see the rollover):

As a serious numbers guy, xkcd is taking it much more seriously than I had — I find it clunky to have to do that little transformation in my head during these discussions, but it doesn't set me off. Still, I appreciate the approach illustrated on the right; some folks find it confusing, though. I just caught a tiny bit of radio yesterday where someone (no idea who it was) actually used 'thousands of millions' and the person he was talking to — a politician, I think — didn't get it until the first speaker put it in 'billions'. What would it take to change how we talk about these numbers? Now that a billion is the new million and a trillion is the new billion, we probably need to get this right.

I won't even comment on the politics and spin on this topic.


GAC said...

Oddly, many Spanish language papers do in fact speak in terms of "mil millones", I was once corrected by an (Argentine) Spanish teacher who insisted that Spanish "billon" is actually equivalent to our "trillion" (I understand that also may have been the case in BrE for some time).

In any case, it's not nearly as much a pain as translating big numbers to and from Chinese. I've pretty much gotten that a million is 百万 (bai3 wan4 = hundred myriad) but mentally having to move all those commas is a little difficult. I remember being quite confused by CCTV reports of the Sichuan earthquake (I was in China at the end of may -- that was all the ten or so CCTV news channels would show) with lots of death tolls and high dollar amounts that didn't register right (mind you I could barely understand anything outside the numbers, and Chinese news reports are still a bit too much for my skill).

@bdul muHib said...

What a great cartoon!

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, @bdul, xkcd is generally just brilliant ... He could revolutionize math education in this country, I think, by his ability to say smart things in ways you can't forget!

@bdul muHib said...

If only I understood the math of more of his cartoons ;-)

Mr. Verb said...

At least there's plenty of NON-math cartoons!