Archive for November 20th, 2010

November 20, 2010

Number Confusion

As if big numbers weren’t confusing enough in and by themselves there is some language confusion to compound the complexity of all. Up to 1 million everything is fine but after that the problems start.

Let me explain:  there are two scales, the short and the long, when it comes to naming big numbers.  The short scale introduces a new name for every number that is 1,000 times larger than the previous one, so if we start with 1 million (a 1 with 6 zeros) and multiply by 1,000 we get 1 billion (1 with 9 zeros) and if we multiply again by 1,000 we get a trillion (1 with 12 zeros). then comes the quadrillion (15 zeros), the quintillion (18 zeros) and the sextillion (21 zeros).  I am sure there is more but unless you are a astronomer you wont have to concern yourself with those.

The long scale introduces a new name for every number that is 1 million times larger than the previous one. Again starting with 1 million and multiplying by 1 million we get a billion – same name as above for 1 with 9 zeros but this one has 12 zeros.  The 1 with 9 zeros is called milliard.  After the billion comes the billiard (15 zeros), then the trillion (18 zeros) and the trilliard (21 zeros).  Then … who cares?

A scary big number: the national deficit in the US. Pic:

Now, most English-language countries use the short scale.  Therefore the usual suspects: UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, as well as a few others like Brazil, Indonesia, and Israel use the short scale.  Long scale is used a lot in Europe, and Latin America. For a complete listing see here.

So, if you read that the national deficit of the US is $14 trillions it is bad, real bad, but not as bad as you might believe if you think in long scale terms.

November 20, 2010

Getting the hang of it

A "getting the hang of it" word play, pic: the hang of it_55879

Suppose you have been trying to learn something or to acquire a new skill, like learning to speak a language or windsurfing and you finally feel that you are making progress, you are starting to understand, to “get it” – then you are getting the hang of it.  It implies that you haven’t mastered the skill yet but are making real progress.

This expression is fairly casual, it can be used in a business context in more informal situations such as:

Supervisor to summer intern: “Alex, how is it going with the data entry?  Any problems with it?”
Intern: “It’s going good.  First I had some trouble but now I am getting the hang of it.”

It should not be used in formal conversations and might send the wrong message if your boss asks you during the annual review how you think you are performing in your job.

November 20, 2010

Elephants in rooms


I like this expression, at first it seems to make no sense but once you get to understand it it is actually quite clever: “the white elephant in the room.”

White elephants are pretty rare to begin with and if you encounter one you wouldn’t expect to do so in a room, especially a conference room on the 12th floor.  So if there was a white elephant in the room everybody would stare at it and talk about it.

Now if everybody sits in that room and talk about the weather or baseball than you would have a “white elephant in the room” problem, namely a obvious issue or problem that is being ignored, goes unaddressed and no one wants to discuss.

Since it is pretty hard to overlook an elephant the expression implies that people pretend the elephant is not there that they are choosing to concern themselves with small and irrelevant issues rather than deal with the big scary one.  Often the reason for this behavior is that the problem causes embarrassment or involves a social taboo.

Project leader: “Let’s discuss the implementation of this project once we a re done with planning next week.”

Manager: “I suggest we address the white elephant in the room first, planning is delayed and wont be finalized until March.”