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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

When is a million a billion?

Answer: only in spam. I got a link the other day which pointed to a page of synopses of stories about airplanes. One of these synopses claimed that EasyJet PLC . . . [is] spending approximately 1.52 billion dollars to make it work. That's a lot of money, but if you follow the link, you find that the number is only 1.5 million dollars, which is a minor engineering project, especially minor since it relates to airplanes.

But this reminded me that names for numbers over a million mean something else in Europe than they do here, so maybe we just have a communication problem. I found an article on Wikipedia that explains the difference between the so-called Long and Short Scales. A million is a million where ever you go, but a European billion is a thousand times bigger than an American billion.

If you want to prevent misunderstandings, you can try writing the number out in digits, or use scientific notation. If you are simply trying to stir the pot, well, go ahead and inflate your values by a factor of a thousand. It's doubtful anyone is paying attention.

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