Blurred numbers

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I can remember when a million sounded like a big number. A thousand, thousand. That’s a lot of thousands.

New highway construction was always in the hundreds of thousands per mile; suddenly a mile jumped to a clean million dollars. The neater number package of a simple “one million” made it easier swallow than the more expensive sounding $990,000.

Today we don’t seem to bat an eye at billions spent, even trillions. Billions—a thousand million. Trillion—a thousand billion.

We get numb to numbers larger than we can grasp—and that happens quickly. I cannot imagine a thousand, thousand, let alone a thousand, thousand, thousand, thousand. In fact, I have trouble visualizing much over one hundred.

I hadn’t a lot of trouble wrapping my head around CD rate: forty-four thousand times a second (I couldn’t visualize it, but I could understand it). Then came twice that for upsampling filters, then ninety-six thousand, one hundred and seventy-six thousand, one hundred and ninety-two thousand and onward!

The meaning of numbers blurs quickly. Our evaluation process jumps from grasping actual meaning, to understanding only the abstract. You can visualize one second, but one hundredth, one thousandth, one millionth?

When we try and make judgments of audio quality based on the numbers game, higher isn’t always better. You can’t hear the difference between 24 and 36-bit audio, nor is it likely you can perceive differences between 192kHz and twice that or four times that.

As soon as numbers are large enough to blur meaning, time to turn to your ears instead.