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ON TRILLIONS

SUPPOSE AN OFFICIAL Counter had been commissioned at the birth of Christ to begin numbering the seconds (assuming, for the moment, a start at 1 A.D., not the 4 B.C. that some biblical scholars suggest). “One, two, three, …” this Official Counter intoned, passing his responsibility to the next one without missing a second. 

How many seconds since 12:00 a.m. 1 A.D. until, as a convenient point, 12:00 a.m. on January 1, 2021?

Calculator in Hand. With some convenient estimating (ignoring revised calendars, leap years, no 0 A.D., etc), here’s one answer: 2020 years = 2020 x 365 days = 737,300 days = 737,300 x 24 hours each day = 17,695,200 hours = 17,695,200 x 60 minute per hour = 1,061,712,000 minutes = 1,061,712,000 x 60 seconds per minute = 63,702,720,000 seconds. 

Gee. A bit less than 64 billion seconds. Almost yesterday in the sense of its being less than 0.064 trillion. 

That is, just as 1 billion is 1 followed by nine zeroes, 1 trillion is a thousand billion, 1 followed by 12 zeros.

 A Billion is a Lot. Back in the 1960s, Senator Everett Dirksen was reported to have said, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” However, according to the Dirksen Congressional Research Center, when asked about this remark, Dirksen replied, “Oh, I never said that. A newspaper fella misquoted me once, and I thought it sounded so good that I never bothered to deny it.”

Agreed; it’s a good line. 

Just Make New Units. Obviously it is primarily in finance that huge numerical values occur. In other areas, studying the galaxies, for example, we formulate new units of appropriate size: A light year, the distance light travels in one year, is a lot easier to deal with than its equivalent 5.88 trillion miles.

At the other extreme, the nanometer is one billionth of a meter, 1 x 10-9 meter, 0.000000001 meter; the nanosecond, a billionth of a second.

Why Not Currencies Too? Following this practice, why not formalize the gigadollar, a billion of them? Also, I like the sound of a yottadollar, a septillion dollars, 1024 of them. 

Now there’s an amount Senator Dirksen could have engaged his chops on.  

Computers. The growth of computer memory size has modified this System Internationale prefix practice. Ancient computer hardware, like in the 1950s, was measured in KB, kilobytes, one kilobyte being 1024 bytes. Note, not 1000 bytes; remember computers prefer Base Two arithmetic; hence 210 or 1024). One MB, a megabyte, is 1024 KB. One GB, a gigabyte, is 1024 MB. 

And my current computer has a 1 TB disc, one terrabyte being, you guessed it, 1024 GB. 

In Dollars, Trillion is the New Billion. Steven Kurutz discusses this in “How Many is a Trillion?,” in The New York Times, April 6, 2021. He notes, “It was a big moment for the word ‘trillion,’ which came into full flower over the past year, mostly as a number that gets thrown around with casual disregard for all those zeros (12)—particularly in the United States when talking about stimulus dollars or the budget deficit or the national debt or the four trillion-dollar companies of the tech industry.”

Kurutz’s online article has an informative interactive graphic of 1 million compared with 1 trillion, the latter requiring extensive scrolling to the right to complete. 

“Unless you were a Wall Street quant, however,” Kurutz says, “trillion had long felt remote. It was like gazillion: a joke number. The Trillionaire Next Door” is what Andy Borowitz, the humorist, titled his spoof 2000 book about day trading. In a radio appearance at the time, Mr. Borowitz said he wrote it because, “People aim too low. I mean, a millionaire? Please.”

Kurutz continues, “That same year—2000—the word ‘trillion’ appeared in The New York Times 856 times. In the first three months of 2021, ‘trillion’ has already appeared in this paper 723 times.”

It has become old hat here at SimanaitisSays as well. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021 

3 comments on “ON TRILLIONS

  1. sabresoftware
    April 14, 2021

    Brings to mind the hyperinflation Germany post WW1. I found the following on a website. I didn’t validate the numbers, but I believe that they are proportionally reasonably accurate to describe the effects of the hyperinflation:

    “Five years later, in December 1923, the Reichsbank had issued 496.5 quintillion marks, each of which had fallen to one-trillionth of its 1914 gold value.”.

    If you got paid on Friday you immediately went to the store to buy your loaf of bread or whatever supply(ies) you needed, because by Saturday you’d need a wheelbarrow full of the same currency to make the same purchases.

    Hopefully we don’t get a repeat of that post COVID.

  2. Mike B
    April 17, 2021

    GB … except it isn’t. The marketers have gotten involved, and disk drives now *are* measured in decimals. So a GB really is 1e9 bytes, or 1000 MB. A MB really is 1e6 bytes, or 1000 KB. Leading to all sorts of misunderstandings when you ask your computer how much space you really have. If you want the actual powers-of-2 measure, it’s GiB, MiB, etc. Which of course the marketers won’t let the engineers list on the box.

    • simanaitissays
      April 18, 2021

      Thanks for this correction, Mike.
      To me, it’s marketers’ base meddling and intellectually irresponsible. Ha.

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