Metric Money

September 25, 2009 By: erik Category: Musings, USA 571 views

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Fourteen Thousand EurosThis is an idea that’s been rattling around my brain for some time. It involves how we talk about large sums of money. The past year has seen banking system and government bailout news stories that often reference millions and billions and trillions of dollars. I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one that has trouble grasping the difference between large quantities when they are thrown out quickly by a news reporter. The famous web comic, XKCD, as it often does, hit the nail right on the head some time ago.

1000 Times

On the other hand, I have absolutely no trouble understanding the difference between a byte, kilobyte, megabyte, gigabyte, and terabyte. I’ve learned that those roughly correspond to one letter, a page of text, a minute of MP3, a feature length movie file, and my enormous (at the moment!) storage hard drive. Which of these sentences, upon a quick read, is easier to understand in terms of the quantities involved?

The government gave our bank $23 billion, so I took a $15 million bonus!


My new iPod holds 23 GB of music, and I’m already using 15 MB!

For me, at least, the difference in the level of comprehension of these sentences is enormous!

Proposal: Use metric prefixes for money

While most Americans have little idea of what a kilogram is, thanks to the ubiquity of computers and MP3 players, most now have some grasp of the SI prefix structure as it would be needed for this proposal to work. Normal people would measure their salaries in kilodollars (k$), lottery prizes would be in megadollars (M$), and bank bailouts would be in gigadollars (G$).

Let’s give it a try:

The total US federal budget is 3 T$. Of that, 612 G$ goes to social security, and 613 G$ goes to defense. NASA gets 17 G$, with each shuttle launch costing 60 M$.

Or in the current system:

The total US federal budget is $3 trillion. Of that, $612 billion goes to social security, and $613 billion goes to defense. NASA gets $17 billion, with each shuttle launch costing $60 million.

If this proposal is accepted, I wouldn’t dream of taking more than a single solitary yottadollar for my idea.

  • We should do this, and just go full metric already. Time and mapping coordinates, too.
    If there is one thing I could have changed about what I was taught in elementary school, it would have been the metric system. I love it, but it is a ‘second language” to me. Lamentable.

    On another note: (Does bandwidth use the 1024 or 1000 rule, like hard drives?)

    If you have a 6Mbps internet connection, and a 3GB bandwidth cap, you can only use your top speed a mere 2:15 minutes a day.

    • The 1000 vs. 1024 problem is already solved. They’re called Gibibytes!

  • I like blog posts like this, and I’m glad you’re posting them. I totally agree about the existence and the importance of the problem. But I don’t think the metric system is any kind of a solution. The phrase “For me, at least” is doing a whole lot of the work in this post. For a member of the American Guild of Organists, at least, the difference between the works of Dietrich Buxtehude and those of Heinrich Schí¼tz are obvious. This doesn’t mean that most people can tell them apart, any more than the personal metric prefix experience of a programmer (and, presumably, one of the top H.S. sophomore mathematicians in North Carolina in 199x) tells us anything about what the rest of the world understands.

    I doubt that first sentence after your proposal is accurate. I think you’re assuming too much when you say “most”, and that it should read “…some now have some grasp…”. People don’t need to understand the relationship between “giga” and “mega” to purchase or own an MP3 player. Apple and other manufacturers still advertise the number of songs or hours of video a device will hold alongside the number of bytes. And at Walmart, there will be someone at the counter who can say “yeah, this one holds a whole lot of music”. If people can do a thing without having to learn something new, they usually will.

    Anyway, in 2005, the average MP3 player held 375 songs. I’m sure that number has gone up, but consider the effect on that average of the 1-2% of us who have 10,000+ song music libraries. My point is that most any mainstream MP3 player will contain enough storage for most users, which means that very few people are learning hard lessons about the importance of understanding metric prefixes when they run out of room on their iPod.

    All of this goes, more or less, for electronic storage in other contexts, too. If you go to the page for Dell’s Inspiron 14 laptop (which I imagine to be a pretty mainstream choice), HDD size is first addressed near the bottom of the page, along with this explanatory note: “GB means 1 billion bytes and TB equals 1 trillion bytes.” Dell seems to think that consumers’ choices will be driven more by color, weight, display, processor and wireless capabilities than by HDD size.

    None of this is to say that the computer tech use of the terms “megabyte” and “gigabyte” have had no effect on the masses. Just that I doubt that the terms are any more helpful to most folks than the familiar “millions” and “billions”. Replacing one abstract notation with the other would incur all of the costs of change in the hopes of achieving very speculative (and, I think, unlikely) benefits.

    • Thank you for your 2 c$.

      You are probably correct that I’m overestimating my countrymen. I usually do. The truth is that numbers of that size will always be difficult for the human brain to comprehend. In the path of our evolution, once you get past about 10, the term “a bunch” is good enough to describe quantities of, say, gazelle.

      However, I still maintain that the metric prefixes are the best solution we have to contemplating large numbers. Much better than the -illion words. Did you know that the term “billion” in British English and Spanish is the equivalent of what we call a “trillion”? The Brits are slowly caving under the pressure of Hollywood, though, and they are slowly adopting ours. It’s still not uncommon to hear a BBC reporter say “5 thousand million” for clarity.

      • “Hollywood” was not the word I expected to find following “The Brits are slowly caving under the pressure of…”. Sounds like there’s a story there!

        If by “best” you mean “least ambiguous”, then we are in agreement. I stand by my cost benefit analysis, though. I think, for the U.S., it’s a solution without a net benefit.

        (And thanks for leading with “Thank you for your 2 c$”, rather than a sarcastic “Thanks 1MM”.)

        • I used “Hollywood” to mean all of American culture, television, and media that the Brits import which erodes the differences between word meanings. e.g. Every Brit knows what “hood of a car” means, but hardly any Yanks know what “bonnet of a car” means.

          • I guess American wins again. I was imagining some kind of lobbying effort around standardizing opening weekend sales totals, or something. This makes more sense. The pressure you’re talking about isn’t so much being applied by the US as being purchased by the UK. If the Brits made more marketable movies, I’m sure we’d be more familiar over here with the dialect spoken in those particular islands.

            (Related: isn’t it weird that the name of the US language sounds so much like the name of one of the countries in the UK?)

  • Also, can we get a blog post on the benefits of metric monkey?

    • You mean they aren’t obvious?

      Just the phrase, “The kilomonkey is loose! Run for your lives!” seems enough to persuade any listener.

  • Ines

    que?!!!??? no entiendo…what the cojones are you guys talking about? lol
    I don’t need to know any of the lingo when buying a mp3 or pc or anything techno. I mean even ignorant people like me can get by by telling the seller our budget and asking him/her to make sure we get the best within the given budget 😉

  • I’m not sure whose argument this favors, but it certainly raises the stakes: Bank of America Sued for 1.784 Sextillion Dollars

  • Lance: I take issue with your assertion about the marketability of British films. Anything is marketable if you identify your target audience properly. The difference is in the size of the potential audience for a gritty social drama as opposed to a robot war film.

    • Point taken. In this case “more marketable movies” was an ill-advised euphemism for “good culturally-British movies”. And I guess by “good culturally-British movies” I mean “culturally-British movies that people want to see”. My point was that the British presumably buy American culture because they want to. I doubt it’s necessary to blame anyone if British regional linguistic variants die off as a result. But if we were looking for someone to blame, why would U.S. producers be any more culpable than the British consumers, or than British producers who failed to produce successful content in which the linguistic variant was relevant?

      (All of this assumes that commercial culture is a driving force in the Brits decisions to stop saying “bonnet” and start saying “hood”. I have no idea whether that is a good assumption.)

      • To clarify, I never said that the Brits used the term “car hood”, just that they knew what it meant. The US meaning of “billion” is one thing that the Brits are adopting.

      • I don’t *blame* anyone for the choices consumers made. it’s more a case of economic reality – if you can afford to spend $50m on your ad campaign and include a handful of impressive CG shots in your trailer you can “buy” the number one slot at the box office on your opening weekend. British producers don’t have that kind of power.
        But yes, I do think it’s fair to assume that Brits use an increasing amount of US slang after being exposed to it in American cultural exports (rather than, say copying things they’ve heard Americans say when they met them on holiday. I mean, “vacation”).

        • Of course British producers have that power. The Bond films are British, and the Harry Potter films are British-made (if US-funded). Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later were sizable international hits even without large budgets. But these movies (with the exception of maybe Shaun of the Dead) contain very little that is unique to British culture, presumably because there’s no substantial market for it.

          In my comments here, I’m reacting to what I perceive to be a sense that the evolution of UK English is being imposed from without, rather than being chosen by the British. (This isn’t necessarily explicit in Simon’s or Erik’s comments, and I hope I’m not reading too much into them.) The cultural center of the English-speaking world is the U.S., and it’s only natural in an international economy that the Brits would bend culturally toward that center (even when the British themselves continue to produce major cultural artifacts).

          To draw a parallel, people in Appalachia didn’t stop saying “vittles” when they meant “food” or “puny” when they meant “sick” because of any imperialist power. They stopped saying those things because they wanted to communicate with the wider world, and the wider world thinks “vittles” for “food” sounds silly.

  • The Bond films may be culturally British in a way I hadn’t considered. I was just checking my sense that James Bond films contain little that is culturally British, and ran across the following excerpt from Jeffrey Richards’ essay Imperial heroes for a post-imperial age: films and the end of empire in “British Culture and the End of Empire” (I blame transcription errors on Adobe’s OCR):

    [After a discussion of Hollywood’s heroes against English colonial oppression (a la Braveheart):] The single exception to this trend has been the continuing popularity of the James Bond films. As James Chapman has persuasively argued, the Bond novels and films at one level ‘represent a nationalist fantasy, in which Britain’s decline as a world power did not really take place. One of the ideological functions of the Bond narrative is to construct an imaginary world in which the Pax Britannica still operates. Thus Britain is presented as being in the front line of the conspiracies directed against western civilization.\’ In the film series, which began in 1962 and continues to the present day, MI5 agent James Bond and CIA agent Felix Leiter function as partners in a special relationship but in a reversal of political reality, with the American as the junior partner. Bond is permanently on ‘Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ and as late as Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) the Prime Minister is able to order the British battle fleet to the China Seas in a confrontation with Red China. ‘What British battle fleet?’, the informed observer might ask.

  • Escorpiuser

    I love your idea, Erik, especially because it would solve the confusion between the American-anglosaxon term “billion” and the Spanish (and European?) one.

    The things I stand worse are the mistakes that sometimes I find on the media when they get news overseas and translate them from English into Spanish using the same word, “billion”, not knowing that is a very different amount in spite of the identity in the spelling.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure that there wouldn’t be other misunderstandings in the daily speech using those prefixes.

  • Yes, fair enough, Bond and Potter are big hits and are definitely culturally British. Shaun of the Dead was only ever a cult hit ($30m box office worldwide is only really a “hit” in relation to its tiny budget).
    As far as the evolution of the English language is concerned, it’s being influenced by the US, but that’s not to say that the US is imposing these changes. And it still only goes so far – certain words or phrases gradually become acceptable and are integrated into British English, but anyone obviously attempting to sound American by only using US vocabulary or attempting the accent will be mocked mercilessly. I don’t see any danger of British idioms and dialect being killed off by our adoption of a select few words and phrases from our cousins in the ex-colonies…
    Time for a cup of tea – cheerio!

    • That was a good try, Simon. It’s a new system and there will be mistakes at first. The proper way to write that would be, “30 M$ box office worldwide”.

  • Escorpiuser

    I love your idea.

  • Philip

    Gradually metric units are being adopted in Britain, the most recent being blue rectangular km posts on motorways located at intervals of 500 m. Everyone up to the age of 45 has been educated solely in decimal measures so nobody of that age group comprehends “miles per gallon” etc… even though these expressions may be in common parlance among a particular age-group. As a teacher I assure you that a British billion is still a million million, of which many here are unaware especially when we are inundated with U.S. tv programmes and slang.