The Tao of Large Numbers

Hey, so I went to a couple more concerts recently, and I’m about to buckle down and work hard so here’s an entry for you.

Last Thursday I saw Modest Mouse. Their lyrics are pretty crucial to the overall enjoyment of their music, but unfortunately the vocals were muddy so the show was a little disappointing. Then on Saturday a whole bunch of us went to see Luna (basically, mostly people to whom I’ve transitively introduced Luna over the years). They’re one of my favorite bands, and they’re breaking up after this tour, so it was a somewhat bittersweet show…. my last chance to experience Dean Wareham’s inimitable lyrics and singing style, Sean Eden’s great solos and general zaniness… and oh yeah, Britta Phillips, clearly the hottest bass player in rock and roll. And she was the singing voice of Jem! Sigh.

Anyway, so what else… oh, I’ve been making a number of mixes recently, for some reason. I think you can safely say that a band is really good if you can put together an 80-minute CD of their best songs without a single dud on it. This is surprisingly hard to do. Oh yeah, also, you know how media players and stuff have this playback mode that no one uses where they play the first 10 seconds of every song? Well, there should be a “mix” mode where they play back the first and last 10 seconds of every song, so you can figure out how the songs flow from one to the next.

Bizarrely, LJ-buddy Feng (f18225) and I both had our website ideas (hers, mine) co-opted (down to the URL!) recently, and it got me thinking about how the ol’ Internet has done a pretty powerful thing.

Before the web, it was really hard to grasp the essence of large numbers. For instance, the United States has 280 million people, and that number is so staggeringly huge that we just store it away without really understanding. Sure, there were little aphorisms like “that means that there are 280 people who are one in a million” or something, but that’s nearly as meaningless. Expressing large numbers in terms of smaller ones (“X many books laid end to end would reach around the world Y times”, etc.) doesn’t really do the trick.

The closest I ever got to understanding large numbers was when I went to shows by small bands way off the mainstream radar and touring far away from home, and still saw a couple hundred other fans there too — the world was big enough to allow for this many people in this particular region to appreciate this obscure set of CDs.

[Edit: Another informative experience is watching professional sports, specifically basketball and football. How often have you seen a 6’8″ person? It’s the kind of thing that’s so rare that it happens once every few years in real life… and the NBA stocked with guys that tall.]

With the web — and search engines — though, man, you get a real sense of large numbers in terms you can understand. You get a peek into the minds of web content creators, a small subset of the 600+ million or so web users (maybe a third, max). This is the kind of thing that is just impossible without this technology of simple publishing and dissemination. It’s amazing. It lets you translate a large number into a measure of uniqueness, which is somehow much more palatable.

So how big is 200 million? It’s big enough that our two web ideas were a) also conceived by some number of other people and b) of those people, some decided to actually make web sites about them (a non-trivial undertaking) and c) of those people, at least two picked the same URLs we thought of and actually and did it. Or: it’s big enough that all of the words “occupational”, “integrate”, and “ski” — three words chosen totally at random by me — occur on over 7000 different pages.

Etc., but you get the picture. That’s a big number. I wish I could do this topic more justice; I just feel like it’s a direct benefit of the web that’s worth appreciating. So when I see a stat like “there are 500 million cases of malaria worldwide each year”, I’ll try not to store it away as some huge number that doesn’t inspire any response. Among those 500 million people is an amazing range of ideas, thoughts, beliefs, emotions, impulses, talents, creativity, and humor. A couple of visits to Google is enough to verify this.

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2 Responses to The Tao of Large Numbers

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