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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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The Language of Numbers

I love words. I love words like accountants love numbers. When asked why they love numbers, many accounting types will say that numbers are “precise,” “lacking ambiguity,” and that numbers “never lie.” Ask me, though, and I will tell you that words can be precise and unambiguous, too. And words do not lie. People may lie, but words do not. Unfortunately, though, at the nexus where words and numbers mingle, precision seems to have died. That nexus, of course, is our casual speech.

Perhaps we have been conditioned, or desensitized, to “number words.” Sure enough, the news media throws around words like “million,” “billion,” and “trillion” very casually. And so do we.

Every day I hear gross exaggerations and imprecisions and I chuckle. At the donut shop a young girl says, “There’s like a million donuts to choose from.” That would be one huge donut shop. The guy from the tire shop told me there are “…thousands of tires that will fit your truck.” I rather doubt it. At the store the day after Thanksgiving I asked the clerk if he had been busy, and he said wearily, “We’ve had millions of customers all day.” Well, it looked crowded, but that would truly be an epic crowd. The lady at the car wash tried to impress me with how clean my truck would be, and said, “The spray comes out at like a billion pounds of pressure…” Wow, my truck is strong, it made it through the wash unscathed… and un-cleaned… a billion pounds of pressure just isn’t what it used to be.

Figure 8 - Grover Cleveland on the $1,000 bill --- the only
President to serve two terms, but not in sequence. He was
our 22nd and 24th President. Who was the 23rd?
So, like a lot of things, it is up to us woodworkers to correct the lazy and ambiguous language of others. After all, who better? We are precise, we measure in fractions, and the difference between 3/32” and 5/64” can ruin our day. So let’s do a quick gut-check on big numbers. We, the media, and everyday people toss around words like “million,” “billion,” and “trillion” in a cavalier, devil-may-care way. Exactly how big are those numbers?

It used to really mean something when someone said “a million.” That was in the days when a thousand dollars was a lot of money, and ten thousand would buy two cars with change. Imagine, even today, if someone gave you a crisp new thousand-dollar bill, it would be pretty nice, huh? You might even be tempted to figure out just exactly who Grover Cleveland was and why his face is on such an obscure note.

With a one-thousand-dollar bill* you could buy a few new tools, a third of a table saw, or make a down payment on some Festool equipment. Imagine now that someone gave you ten of those thousand dollar greenbacks. That could definitely change your shop for the better. And if someone ponied up a hundred of those thousand dollar bills, that could be life-changing money. Pay off the credit cards, stick away enough to pay for Junior’s college, and have enough left over to get something nice for your spouse. One hundred thousand dollars --- big money. So how much, exactly, is a million dollars? It is one thousand of those one thousand dollar bills. If they were new crisp bills, it would be a stack of thousand dollar bills four inches tall.

So, a million is a really big number… even today… a four-inch stack of thousand dollar bills. So how much is a billion? It is one thousand million! Think about that… one million dollars, a thousand times. A stack of one thousand dollar bills over three hundred and thirty feet tall. Unbelievable. And a trillion is even harder to fathom. A trillion is one thousand billion. Or, to put it another way, a million million. And how big is that stack of one-thousand dollar bills? Sixty three miles… to the edge of space.

So while we noodle the concept of a 63-mile high stack of one thousand dollar bills, let’s try to put it all into some kind of perspective. There are currently seven billion people on our planet. So a trillion dollars would be $141.32 for every man, woman, and child on earth. Pretty good, considering about 40% of the earth’s population lives on less than the equivalent of $2 per day.

These are big numbers, not just words. The next time you venture out to your local diner and someone says “There’s like a million people waiting for a table,” take a moment to gently correct them… otherwise they may not take seriously the things they should take seriously. Like, for instance, the U.S. national debt.

When a newscaster says “sixteen-point-four trillion dollars,” our conditioning trivializes the number (at best) or we are totally oblivious to the magnitude (at worst). But sixteen point four trillion is sixteen million, four hundred thousand of those 4-inch high stacks of thousand-dollar bills. That stack of $1,000 bills is now 1,035 miles high. At the current U.S. population, the national debt is equal to $52,112 for every man, woman, and child living here. And I would be deliriously happy to get just one of those precious $1,000 bills… oh, the tools I could buy!

But this is the holiday season, so let’s not focus on anything negative. Let’s instead, be joyous. I mean, I have like a million projects to get done, and there are like a billion emails I need to answer, and I’ve got a trillion things on my mind, so I better get going. But before I do, let me leave you with my most sincere holiday wish… that we can help others achieve the same degree of accuracy in language as in our woodworking. And I will start right now… I actually have two projects underway in my shop, six emails needing responses, and just one thing on my mind… That you have a wonderful, healthy, safe, loving, and joyful holiday and more time than ever in your shop next year!

*Note: The $1,000 bill has not been in production since 1969 and on the rare occasion when one shows up at a bank it is sent back to the Federal Reserve for destruction. A $1,000 bill would actually be worth considerably more than $1,000 to collectors.

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