Dictionary of Numbers helps clarify measurements
Courtesy Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing
Dictionary of Numbers is a Chrome extension that watches your browsing activity for mentions of large numerical measurements and automatically inserts equivalences in real-world terms that are meant to clarify things. For example, a story about a 300,000 acre forest fire would be annotated to note that this is about the area of LA or Hong Kong; or that 315 million people is about the population of the USA.
I noticed that my friends who were good at math generally rely on "landmark quantities", quantities they know by heart because they relate to them in human terms. They know, for example, that there are about 315 million people in the United States and that the most damaging Atlantic hurricanes cost anywhere from $20 billion to $100 billion. When they explain things to me, they use these numbers to give me a better sense of context about the subject, turning abstract numbers into something more concrete.
When I realized they were doing this, I thought this process could be automated, that perhaps through contextual descriptions people could become more familiar with quantities and begin evaluating and reasoning about them. There are many ways of approaching this problem, but given that most of the words we read are probably inside web browsers,** It might be interesting to to develop a similar system for use in spoken lectures. I decided to build a Chrome extension that inserts human explanations of numbers into web pages.