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Billions and Billions: A math lesson for NBC

An article by Patrick Rizzo appeared on NBC’s website today entitled, “World’s Billionaires Grow Even Richer, Led by Bill Gates.”, he wrote:

“In total, Forbes found that there were 1,645 billionaires around the world, with an aggregate net worth of $6.4 trillion (yes, that’s trillion, with a T), up from $5.4 trillion last year.”

Despite all of the political and socioeconomic ramifications of that sentence, what struck me was the parenthetical. I couldn’t decide whether (a) Rizzo was actually surprised that the aggregate net worth of over a thousand billionaires is over a trillion dollars, or (b) Rizzo thought his readers don’t know what “billion” and “trillion” mean. Either one of those possibilities makes me sad.

I briefly pondered whether he was trying to address an international audience, but dismissed the thought immediately, as his entire article would mean something different to most of Europe (and South America, and the rest of North America…) and the parenthetical in that case would be quite wrong.

In the U.S., a billion is 1,000,000,000 and a trillion is 1,000,000,000,000 (a thousand billion). It would be quite impossible to have over a thousand billionaires and not have their total net worth be over a trillion (yes, a trillion, with a T).

The good news in all of this, however, is that it gives me an excuse to dust off an article I wrote a long time ago and breathe some new life into it:

Big numbers

Start with a three. Put 12 zeros after it. At a glance, tell someone what that number is. Our convention of grouping digits in threes helps. 3,000,000,000,000 is easier to parse mentally than 3000000000000. Still, there must be a better way, and there is.

People have been naming numbers for as long as we’ve had language. Almost nobody would refer to that number in the prior paragraph as “three followed by twelve zeros.” An American television newscaster would call it three trillion. A British newscaster before 1974 would have called it three billion (there’s a reason George Bernard Shaw said that “England and America are two countries separated by the same language”!). A scientist would write 3×1012, or say it out loud as “three times ten to the twelfth power.” A computer programmer would write 3E12, which is a different way of saying the same thing. In fact, these are all different ways of saying the same thing.

Wait! What’s this “before 1974” stuff?

The United States has always been a bit of a rebel. Where most of the rest of the world changed number names every six digits, we silly Americans changed every three digits. Where the British would say sixty thousand million, we’d say sixty billion. This, as you can imagine, caused problems, especially for countries like poor Canada, which had to work with both the U.S. and the U.K., so in 1974, the U.K. officially changed to the U.S. system.

When I was learning number names in school, we called the “count by powers of three” system the “American” system and the “count by powers of six” system the “British” system. Once the British adopted the American system, that had to change, and they became known as the short scale and long scale, respectively.

Names of Large Numbers

Both systems make logical sense. In the short scale (nee “American system”), our number names change with every three digits we add. Americans count the groups of three digits starting after 1,000. If you add two groups of three digits, it is called a billion (“bi” being the root for “two”). Add three groups of three digits to a thousand, and you have a trillion (“tri” for three). In exponential notation, a billion is 1,000×1,0002, and a trillion is 1,000×1,0003.

The British, on the other hand, changed the names with every six digits, or powers of one million. A billion was a million million. A trillion was a million billion, and so forth. The exponential notation for the long scale is easy: a million is 1,000,0001, a billion is 1,000,0002, and a trillion is 1,000,0003. Most of Europe still uses this style of numbering, as does Mexico and most of South America (Canada uses both systems). Here are the commonly-accepted names in both systems:

# of Zeros Short Scale (formerly “American”) Name Long Scale (formerly “British”) Name
3 thousand thousand
6 million million
9 billion milliard
12 trillion billion
15 quadrillion thousand billion, or billiard
18 quintillion trillion
21 sextillion thousand trillion, or trilliard
24 septillion quadrillion
27 octillion thousand quadrillion
30 nonillion quintillion
33 decillion thousand quintillion
36 undecillion sextillion
39 duodecillion thousand sextillion
42 tredecillion septillion
45 quattuordecillion thousand septillion
48 quindecillion octillion
51 sexdecillion thousand octillion
54 septendecillion nonillion
57 octodecillion thousand nonillion
60 novemdecillion decillion
63 vigintillion thousand decillion
100 googol googol
303 centillion quinquagintilliard
600 cennovemnonagintillion centillion
1 googol googolplex googolplex

Some of these numbers are so unimaginably huge that they have no meaning in the “real world.” A sexdecillion is larger than the number of hydrogen atoms you’d have to put in a line to span the entire universe. Yet, strangely, that still isn’t quite enough.

The googol is a huge number, bigger than the total number of hydrogen atoms in the visible universe. That massive business called Google got its name as a play on the number (albeit spelled differently), because Google’s founders were trying to build a search engine that could index a seemingly infinite amount of information.

In the never-ending quest to name a bigger number, the contest so far has been won by the googolplex. As you can see in the chart above, a googol is a one followed by one hundred zeros. A googolplex (no, I am not making this up) is a one followed by one googol zeros. This is a number so large that you couldn’t even write down the number given your entire lifetime, an endless supply of paper, and all the #2 pencils you wanted. The only way to reasonably express it is to write 1010100. It’s a number only a mathematician could love.

Prefixes of the Metric System

Just for fun, as long as we’re talking about large numbers, let’s take a moment to look at the metric system.

The allure of the metric system is that is uses a system of consistent prefixes that allow you to easily name larger and smaller units. Even though the United States isn’t using the metric system widely today, it has infiltrated our speech. We all know what a megabuck is, and can cope with a gigabyte hard disk. Electronic components are all measured in metric units, like microfarads, megawatts, and milliohms. Here, for your reading pleasure, are the common metric prefixes:

Exponent Prefix Symbol Number
10-18 atto- a 0.000 000 000 000 000 001
10-15 femto- f 0.000 000 000 000 001
10-12 pico- p 0.000 000 000 001
10-9 nano- n 0.000 000 001
10-6 micro- µ (mu) 0.000 001
10-3 milli- m 0.001
10-2 centi- c 0.01
10-1 deci- d 0.1
101 deka- da or D 10
102 hecto- H 100
103 kilo- K 1,000
106 mega- M 1,000,000
109 giga- G 1,000,000,000
1012 tera- T 1,000,000,000,000
1015 peta- P 1,000,000,000,000,000
1018 exa- E 1,000,000,000,000,000,000
1021 zetta- Z 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000
1024 yotta- Y 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

To use these, take any unit of measurement, and put the prefix in front of the unit (no hyphens). If you’re abbreviating the unit, preceed it with the symbol instead of the full prefix. So 3,000 meters is 3 kilometers (3 km). One hundredth of a liter is a centiliter (1 cl). Two million watts is two megawatts (2 MW). Five millionths of a gram is five micrograms (5 µg). Note that the symbols greater than one are uppercase and the symbols less than one are lowercase. They’re all English letters except for the Greek letter µ (mu), which is used for “micro.”

A professional social media business manager, obviously

This blog, like every other blog, gets a lot of spam comments. Most of them are nonsensical, posted by bots in the hope that there’s no spam filter and the comments will remain as links back to the spammer’s site. Many are in other languages and even other alphabets. I regularly get comments in Chinese that are a full screen long.

Facebook likes

Like me! Love me! Make me legitimate, relevant, and authentic!

Sometimes I get one that makes me chuckle, and then makes me think. One such message began with, “Hello, I am a professional social media business manager, obviously.”

At first chuckle, I mentally edited it to read, “Hello, I am a spammer, so I’m a non-professional social media business manager, obviously.” Then I thought about the implications of this message, and what bloggers — especially authors — might think when reading it. After the opening paragraph, the spam comment goes on to say:

“By building more than 10,000 real people profile endorsements using Facebook LIKES to your business page. This tell Google that your website is relative and authentic to what you do. IT WILL BE POSTED RIGHT ON YOUR PAGE FOR ALL VISITORS TO SEE HOW MANY -(people) Facebook LIKES !you have, via Facebook, by real FB counter button. Click on to see how you can do this in you free time or no time.”

(Just to get this out of the way, please assume a great big red [sic] plastered across everything I copy from spam comments.)

We all need metrics in our lives. We need a way to measure how we’re doing. Authors often use book sales, but that information isn’t updated that often for print books. Most traditional print publishers issue royalty statements semiannually, so it’s hard to tell how effective that email you sent last week was. Alternatively, we might use placement on Amazon category bestseller lists, but that only measures Amazon sales, which are a tiny fraction of overall sales for some of us. The last time I ran the numbers, Amazon was responsible for less than 1% of the sales of my Who Pooped books. But there are a few metrics that are up-to-the-minute, and Facebook provides one of them: likes.

It’s tempting (and easy) to measure our self-worth by the number of Facebook likes on a page. Was my last comment witty enough? Let me see how many people shared it. Are people excited about the book signing I announced yesterday? Let me see how many people “liked” the announcement.

Likes do more than that, though. When somebody clicks that like button on your page, they’re going to see the next thing you post, too. That helps to build what publishers call a “platform,” and a good platform can help you land the next book contract. I’m not saying Facebook is irrelevant to writers. As I’ve said before, Facebook can be a great tool for us in ways you might not expect.

This spammer is striking right at the heart of our self-worth as writers. She (apparently, her name is Karen) is offering to sell us likes. Thousands of people hanging on our every word. Our blogs flying to the top of Google search results. Our sites become “relative and authentic!” We get bragging rights! Legitimacy! A real platform! And it doesn’t stop there!

“We can help you also with build 10,000 Twitter Followers in 7 days, or 100,000 YouTube visits, to your YouTube video or channel, build 20,000 Google +1, from your peers about your business. Best offer G+1 building in 7 days. You can get help building 100,000 Facebook LIKES in 7 days. Likes Mean visitors endorse your Fan Page or website.”

Let’s back up a minute here. Why did we start using social media professionally in the first place? To help us sell our books, of course. Even if Karen the Spammer followed through on her promise, you wouldn’t get 10,000 people following your tweets because they want to buy your books. You’d get 10,000 bots, shills, and hacked accounts. You’d get people duped by a spammer into clicking a “like” or “follow” or “+1” button.

“How do you think Justin Bieber(singer) get his first 1,000,000 followers before his first album? His producers bought the followers for him?”

Metrics like Twitter followers are, indeed, important to celebrities. I doubt, however, that Justin Bieber became the 2nd most followed person on Twitter (at the moment) because Karen the Spammer delivered a million paid followers.

“Ah, this is all just sour grapes,” you may be thinking. “This Robson dude doesn’t have a million followers on Twitter. Heck, he doesn’t even have a thousand.” True, I don’t. Given the right “social media business manager” and an appropriate budget, you could have ten times the likes and followers I have in a matter of days. Maybe even a hundred times.

But does it sell your books?

I confess. I’ve gotten caught up in the drive for followers on some of my business pages. The first time one of my posts on this blog got over 100 views, I was ready to throw a party! But 1,000 views or 10,000 likes or 100,000 followers won’t pay the bills. It’s dangerously easy to spend your days fighting for social media metrics instead of writing books, putting on book signings, doing interviews, and sending out queries and proposals. It’s important to use social media for marketing, but we have to remember we’re writers, and writing pays the bills.

Social Networking Adult Ed Class

I will be teaching an adult education class called Social Networking for Professionals and Business Owners in the Red Lodge High School computer lab starting later this month. It will be on Monday nights from 7:00 to 9:00, beginning March 5 and running through April 9 — a total of six sessions.

This is not a class for teenagers! Attendees will learn about social networking for professionals and business owners, covering today’s three biggest networks: Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Subjects will include building profiles, advertising, building business pages, customizing the look of your pages, and more.

WEEK 1: Social Networking — not just for wasting time

Social networking websites are a great place to waste time, post pictures of your cat, share what you had for dinner, and keep track of what your kids are up to. But they serve a much more important function for professionals and business owners. Using Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn, you can market yourself and your business, find jobs, promote events, and do business online. In the first session, we’ll go over the most-used networks, explore how they differ, and set up a profile on Facebook using the new Timeline format, complete with photos and events.

WEEK 2: Facebook — the 500 pound gorilla

This session will center around Facebook for businesses. We will set up a business page, examine the difference between “friends,” “likes,” and “subscriptions,” and build an online presence. You will learn how to set up administrators for pages, adjust privacy settings, upload photos and videos, and tag images. We will then look at metrics and analysis tools and set up a Facebook advertising campaign from scratch: building an ad, setting a budget, fine-tuning the target audience, and evaluating results. We’ll have a couple of real-life case studies, including a look at how I used Facebook for all of my interviews for a magazine article.

WEEK 3: Twitter — short, sweet, and powerful

Twitter is amazingly powerful, yet surprisingly easy to use. In the third session, we will set up a Twitter account, build the profile, customize its look, find people to follow, and look at the structure of a tweet. You will learn to use hashtags, send direct messages, retweet, respond, and include links and photos. Once all of the basics are covered, we’ll move into more advanced subjects like setting up TweetDeck and managing Twitter campaigns.

WEEK 4: LinkedIn — serious networking for professionals

Facebook and Twitter are great places to publicize your business, but what about promoting yourself as a professional? LinkedIn is all business: no photos of the family or discussion of last night’s party. When you are looking for work, establishing new business connections, or negotiating a deal, professionals will look for your profile on LinkedIn. In this session, we will set up a LinkedIn profile, looking at all of the different components. We’ll then examine how “connections” on LinkedIn differ from “friends” on Facebook or “followers” on Twitter.

WEEK 5: Using social media to promote events

Whether it’s an open house, a big sale, a concert, or a grand opening, you need to get the word out to people about your event. In this session, we’ll create an event on Facebook and look at the different ways to promote it. We will also build a calendar on Google, load it with some events, and share it through social networking.

WEEK 6: Tying it all together

The course will wrap up with a look at how to make social networking effective and efficient across the board. We’ll look at ways to make your presence consistent online, how to post to multiple networks simultaneously, and talk about some of the other social networks that you might want to use, like Google+, WordPress, Constant Contact, and MySpace.


I like to keep my classes very informal, very hands-on, and highly customized. Feel free to bring in real-life examples of social networking questions and problems and I’ll do my best to help you solve them. To sign up for classes, contact Red Lodge High School at 406/446-1903. The cost is a paltry $15.00 for the entire six-week program. See you there!

Facebook: A tool for journalists?

Facebook logoAsk anyone what Facebook is, and they’re likely to give the same short, sweet answer: it’s a social networking site. Indeed, that’s its primary use for me these days (once I have all of the games filtered out and ignore the politics and religion), but that’s not its only use.

As an example, I’m working on an article about closed captioning for the Journal of Court Reporting. I needed some interviews for the article, so I sat down to compile a list of people to talk to. I had my email program open on one of my screens, and Facebook open on the other, and it got me thinking. I’ve been fairly diligent about sorting my friends into lists, and I just happen to have a list for friends who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, or work with deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

I went through the list, saying “oh, I need to talk to her” and “I wonder what he’d say about this issue.” I fired off a quick private message to each of the people I wanted to talk to, and started scheduling interview times. In the past, I’ve done a lot of telephone interviews, and a lot of email interviews. I have also done interviews using a variety of chat systems, ranging from CompuServe and IRC online to TDDs (telecommunication devices for the deaf) online, but it’s been quite a while since I’ve done online chat interviews.

Just for kicks, I decided to see how much of the communication for this article I can do using Facebook, just to see how it works out. Obviously, this limited my base of potential interviewees to people I know (or can find) on Facebook. It also slows things down a bit, as typed conversations are slower than oral ones. Here are a few comments, observations, and tips on the process:

  1. Having a verbatim transcript of the interview is handy. During phone interviews, I’m often scrambling to take notes as we talk, and doing it on Facebook chat means I can just cut and paste quotes into the article (however, see #4 below).
  2. The process is much more interactive than an email interview, allowing each question to be tailored based on previous responses. Trying to replicate this in email could stretch the process out for days.
  3. Being able to insert links in the chat is a big help if you want to show the interviewee something and get comments on it.
  4. Using chat introduces an interesting journalistic dilemma. Even careful writers have a tendency to use chat abbreviations (e.g., BTW, OTOH, IIRC) and not worry much about punctuation. When quoting them in the article, should you leave their text as-is, or write it out and re-punctuate it as you would for a phone interview? Hmmm. I think I’ll ask that question on a couple of message boards — or maybe bounce it around on Facebook. I’ll follow up here later.
  5. This could work just as well on Google+, except for the paucity of people on G+ compared to Facebook.
  6. This would be an annoying process on Twitter, worrying all the time about hitting that maximum character count. Some of the Facebook responses were quite long.
  7. The partially-synchronous nature of chat leads to some interesting responses. Often, both of you are typing at the same time (Facebook tries to tell you when the other person’s typing, but that is often flaky). Several times, I typed questions as the interviewees were typing comments that answered my questions. Reading the transcript, it looks like they answered my questions before I asked them!
  8. Sometimes it’s hard to hang back and wait for the other person to finish their thoughts before asking something else, but it pays off if you do!

So, is Facebook a social networking site? Certainly it is. But it’s a lot more these days, too.

Once the article appears in print, I’ll put a copy of it online so you can judge how well the process worked out.

UPDATE: Here it is.

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