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The No. 3 Editorial

January 26, 2002

1. Americans do love their numbers. We have Social Security numbers, house and apartment numbers, phone, cell and fax numbers, PIN numbers, employee numbers and pager numbers (with numbered codes). We like Zip Code numbers so much we're adding four digits. We have license plate numbers, VIN numbers, prescription numbers, all kinds of account numbers for banks, insurance, mortgages and credit. We have student ID numbers now down through junior high, where old-fashioned letter grades are converted to numbers for averaging to create a class ranking by, that's right, number. We have driver's license numbers, lucky numbers and lottery numbers. Highways and many city streets have numbers. We track movie success by dollar numbers. Sometimes we get fancy with numbers, as in Super Bowl XXXVI. We have endless bestseller rankings and Top 10 lists; No. 1 is usually the best, unless you're scoring an Olympic skater or Bo Derek, who was a "10."

2. Historians like Daniel Boorstin attribute America's long-standing numbers penchant to a fundamental, instinctive drive toward more democratic social rankings over the arbitrary duke, earl and princess rankings of old monarchical societies.

3. So it probably should not be surprising that California, which is No. 1 in U.S. population, is finally buckling after 50 years and giving every interstate and freeway exit its very own number, as well as keeping the traditional, sometimes confusingly similar street names. Some folks (sorry, the number is imprecise) bemoan this as a continuing institutional impersonalization akin to the loss of telephone exchange names like BUtterfield and OLympic. Most of the other states have already found a convenience in exit numbers that match the nearest milepost number. Thus, you know that Exit 48 is 10 miles from Exit 38. This will be especially beneficial for tourists, some of whom visit California.

4. On California's north-south freeways, exit numbers will start in the south and tick off how many miles to or from the Mexican border, in case you're fleeing in one direction or the other. On east-west freeways the exit numbers will reveal how many miles to or from the nearest ocean, particularly helpful for surfers and those fleeing possible tidal waves.

5. By the way, the cost for the 36-month project to change all of the exit signs along about 5,800 miles of California's controlled- access freeways will be $30,000,000, which is a lot of numbers in anyone's checkbook.

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