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Posts Tagged ‘time

“Be a good ancestor”*…

Even though– especially because– it’s hard…

… Mental time travel is essential. In one of Aesop’s fables, ants chastise a grasshopper for not collecting food for the winter; the grasshopper, who lives in the moment, admits, “I was so busy singing that I hadn’t the time.” It’s important to find a proper balance between being in the moment and stepping out of it. We all know people who live too much in the past or worry too much about the future. At the end of their lives, people often regret most their failures to act, stemming from unrealistic worries about consequences. Others, indifferent to the future or disdainful of the past, become unwise risk-takers or jerks. Any functioning person has to live, to some extent, out of the moment. We might also think that it’s right for our consciousnesses to shift to other times—such inner mobility is part of a rich and meaningful life.

On a group level, too, we struggle to strike a balance. It’s a common complaint that, as societies, we are too fixated on the present and the immediate future. In 2019, in a speech to the United Nations about climate change, the young activist Greta Thunberg inveighed against the inaction of policymakers: “Young people are starting to understand your betrayal,” she said. “The eyes of all future generations are upon you.” But, if their inaction is a betrayal, it’s most likely not a malicious one; it’s just that our current pleasures and predicaments are much more salient in our minds than the fates of our descendants. And there are also those who worry that we are too future-biased. A typical reaction to long-range programs, such as John F. Kennedy’s Apollo program or Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is that the money would be better spent on those who need it right now. Others complain that we are too focussed on the past, or with the sentimental reconstruction of it. Past, present, future; history, this year, the decades to come. How should we balance them in our minds?

Meghan Sullivan, a philosopher at the University of Notre Dame, contemplates these questions in her book “Time Biases: A Theory of Rational Planning and Personal Persistence.” Sullivan is mainly concerned with how we relate to time as individuals, and she thinks that many of us do it poorly, because we are “time-biased”—we have unwarranted preferences about when events should happen. Maybe you have a “near bias”: you eat the popcorn as the movie is about to start, even though you would probably enjoy it more if you waited. Maybe you have a “future bias”: you are upset about an unpleasant task that you have to do tomorrow, even though you’re hardly bothered by the memory of performing an equally unpleasant task yesterday. Or maybe you have a “structural bias,” preferring your experiences to have a certain temporal shape: you plan your vacation such that the best part comes at the end.

For Sullivan, all of these time biases are mistakes. She advocates for temporal neutrality—a habit of mind that gives the past, the present, and the future equal weight. She arrives at her arguments for temporal neutrality by outlining several principles of rational decision-making. According to the principle of success, Sullivan writes, a rational person prefers that “her life going forward go as well as possible”; according to the principle of non-arbitrariness, a rational person’s preferences “are insensitive to arbitrary differences.” A commitment to being rational, Sullivan argues, will make us more time-neutral, and temporal neutrality will help us think better about everyday problems, such as how best to care for elderly parents and save for retirement.

Perhaps our biggest time error is near bias—caring too much about what’s about to happen, and too little about the future. There are occasions when this kind of near bias can be rational: if someone offers you the choice between a gift of a thousand dollars today and a year from now, you’d be justified in taking the money now, for any number of reasons. (You can put it in the bank and get interest; there’s a chance you could die in the next year; the gift giver could change her mind.) Still, it’s more often the case that, as economists say, we too steeply “discount” the value of what’s to come. This near bias pulls at us in our everyday decisions. We tend to be cool and rational when planning for the far-off future, but we lose control when temptations grow nearer in time.

If near bias is irrational, Sullivan argues, so is future bias… Sullivan shares an example invented by the philosopher Derek Parfit. Suppose that you require surgery. It’s an unpleasant procedure, for which you need to be awake, in order to coöperate with the surgeon. Afterward, you will be given a drug that wipes out your memory of the experience. On the appointed day, you wake up in the hospital bed, confused, and ask the nurse about the surgery. She says that there are two patients in the ward—one who’s already had the operation, and another who’s soon to have it; she adds that, unusually, the operation that already happened took much longer than expected. She isn’t sure which patient you are, and has to go check. You would be greatly relieved, Parfit says, if the nurse comes back and tells you that you already had the operation. That is, you would willingly consign to your past self a long and agonizing procedure to avoid a much shorter procedure to come.

There is an evolutionary logic behind this kind of bias. As Caspar Hare, a philosopher at M.I.T., puts it, “It is not an accident that we are future-biased with respect to pain. That feature of ourselves has been selected-for by evolution.” In general, Hare writes, it seems likely that animals that focussed their attention on the future survived longer and reproduced more…

In 1992, Parfit teamed up with the economist Tyler Cowen to argue, in a book chapter, that our governments are too eager to discount the fortunes of future people. Parfit and Cowen proposed that even a small bias in favor of the present over the future could have huge consequences over time. Suppose that a politician reasons that one life now is equal to 1.01 lives a year from now, and so embraces policies that favor a hundred people now over a hundred people next year. This hardly seems to matter—but this “discount rate” of one per cent per year implies that we would rather save a single life now, at the cost of a million lives in about fourteen hundred years. At a ten-per-cent discount rate, one life now would be worth a million in a mere century and half. Although no one in power thinks in exactly these terms, many of our decisions favor the present over the future.

In a 2018 book, “Stubborn Attachments,” Cowen expands on the idea, asking how we can fight near bias at a societal level and better further the interests of future people. There are “a variety of relevant values” that we might want to consider in our temporal rebalancing, he writes, “including human well-being, justice, fairness, beauty, the artistic peaks of human achievement, the quality of mercy,” and so on. Cowen concludes that the best way to maximize all of these things for the future is to increase economic growth. (He doesn’t go just by G.D.P.—he adds in various measures of “leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities.”)

The thing about economic growth, Cowen tells us, is that it has the potential to advance just about everything that people value. “Wealthier societies have better living standards, better medicines, and offer greater personal autonomy, greater fulfillment, and more sources of fun,” he writes. He concedes that, in recent decades, inequality has risen within wealthier nations, but also notes that, as a consequence of global economic growth, “recent world history has been an extraordinarily egalitarian time”: over all, countries are becoming more equal. In terms of happiness, Cowen shows that there is considerable evidence supporting the commonsense view that citizens of rich countries are happier than citizens of poor countries, and that, within rich countries, wealthier individuals are happier than poorer ones. The data actually understate the strength of the effect, Cowen writes, because many studies miss the happiness boost that comes from more years on the earth: “Researchers do not poll the dead.”

Cowen is sympathetic to the school of thought known as effective altruism, which holds that we should use data and research to figure out how to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. But he worries that these sorts of altruists are too prone to think about the greatest good for people right now. An effective altruist might hold that, instead of spending money on some luxury for yourself, you should use it to help the poor. But, for Cowen, this sort of advice is too present-oriented. Even a small boost in the growth rate has enormous ramifications for years to come. “Our strongest obligations are to contribute to sustainable economic growth,” he writes, “and to support the general spread of civilization, rather than to engage in massive charitable redistribution in the narrower sense.” In general, Cowen thinks that policymakers should be more future-oriented. He suggests that we should put fewer resources into improving the lives of the elderly and devote correspondingly more resources to the young and the not-yet-born. Most politicians would balk at this suggestion, but, when they do the opposite—well, that’s a choice, too.

Cowen, to my mind, glosses over the problem of diminishing returns. Suppose that our prosperity increases a hundredfold. Life would be better, but would our happiness also increase by a multiple of a hundred? After a certain point, it might make sense to worry less about growth. Perhaps the most privileged of us are close to that point now. But these things can be hard to judge. The Babylonian kings might have thought that they were living the best possible lives, not realizing that, in the future, even everyday schmoes would be wiser and more pain-free, living longer, eating better, and traveling more.

Whether or not one agrees with Cowen’s thesis, there are clearly good reasons for adopting temporal neutrality on a societal level. It’s less clear that we have an obligation to be rigorously time-neutral as individuals. If we can indulge our own time biases without making horrible errors in judgment, why shouldn’t we? Why not distribute our pleasures and pains unevenly throughout our lives, if we believe that, for us, doing so will contribute to “life going forward as well as possible”? For many people, as Seneca wrote, “Things that were hard to bear are sweet to remember.” We undertake activities that we know to be difficult or unpleasant because we see them as part of a good life and wish to think back upon them in the future. We curate our presents to furnish our futures with the right kinds of pasts. If this benign bias encourages us to take on difficult things, isn’t it wise to indulge the bias?

Many people suspect that a good life might be one that’s ordered in a certain way. Psychologists find that people tend to prefer the idea of a wonderful life that ends abruptly to the idea of an equally wonderful one that includes some additional, mildly pleasant years—the “James Dean effect.” There’s also an appeal to starting with the worst and then seeing things improve. Andy Dufresne, the protagonist of the film “The Shawshank Redemption,” based on a novella by Stephen King, is convicted of double murder but maintains his innocence; he spends twenty-eight years in prison before stealing millions of dollars from his corrupt warden and escaping, then living out the rest of his life on a Mexican beach. It’s an exhilarating and powerful tale, but, if one flipped the order—coastal paradise, then brutal prison—it would be impossible to enjoy. Rags to riches beats riches to rags, even if the good and the bad are in precise balance. Maybe this is what Sullivan calls a structural bias—but, without structure, there’s no story, and stories are good things to have.

It’s true that time-biased thinking can mislead us. Imagine that you are listening to a symphony for a pleasurable ninety minutes—and then, at the end, someone’s cell phone goes off, to loud shushing and stifled laughter. You might say that these awful thirty seconds ruined the experience, even though the first ninety-nine per cent of it was wonderful, and think that, if the phone had rung at the start, it would have been less of a problem. But is a disruption in the finale really worse than an interruption in the overture? Sullivan’s arguments show that we should try reconsidering those kinds of intuitions—and that we should be wary, in general, of the strange places to which they can lead us. In a classic series of studies, Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues exposed volunteers to two different experiences—sixty seconds of moderate pain, and sixty seconds of moderate pain followed by thirty seconds of mild pain. When they asked people which experience they would rather repeat, most chose the second experience, just because it ended better. There is little good to be said about choosing more over-all pain just because the experience ends on the right note.

And yet giving up all our time biases is a lot to ask. We are, it seems, constituted to favor the here and now, to radically discount the distant future, and to give special weight to how experiences end. We can move in the direction of temporal neutrality, fighting against certain time biases just as we resist our other unreasonable biases and preferences. This may make us more rational, more kind to others, and, at times, more happy.

How much should we value the past, the present, and the future? “Being in Time,” from Paul Bloom (@paulbloomatyale)

* “Be a good ancestor. Stand for something bigger than yourself. Add value to the Earth during your sojourn.” – Marian Wright Edelman

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As we take the long view, we might recall that it was on this date in 356 BC that the second version of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (which had replaced a Bronze Age structure) was destroyed by arson (by a man, Herostratus, set fire to the wooden roof-beams, seeking fame at any cost; thus the term “herostratic fame“).

Its third iteration was finished several decades later, and survived for six centuries. It was described in Antipater of Sidon‘s list of the world’s Seven Wonders:

I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, “Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand”.

This model of the Temple of Artemis, at Miniatürk Park, Istanbul, Turkey, attempts to recreate the probable appearance of the third temple.

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July 21, 2021 at 1:00 am

“The speed of time is 1 hour per hour, no matter what else is going on in the universe”*…

All the Light You See” (02017–02019) by Alicia Eggert. Photo by Ryan Strand Greenberg.

The most commonly-used noun in the English language is, according to the Oxford English Corpus, time. Its frequency is partly due to its multiplicity of meanings, and partly due to its use in common phrases. Above all, “time” is ubiquitous because what it refers to dictates all aspects of human life, from the hour we rise to the hour we sleep and most everything in between.

But what is time? The irony, of course, is that it’s hard to say. Trying to pin down its meaning using words can oftentimes feel like grasping at a wriggling fish. The 4th century Christian theologian Saint Augustine sums up the dilemma well:

But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.

Most of us are content to live in a world where time is simply what a clock reads. The interdisciplinary artist Alicia Eggert is not. Through co-opting clocks and forms of commercial signage (billboards, neon signs, inflatable nylon of the kind that animates the air dancers in the parking lots of auto dealerships), Eggert makes conceptual art that invites us to experience the dimensions of time through the language we use to talk about it.

Her art draws on theories of time from physics and philosophy, like the inseparability of time and space and the difference between being and becoming. She expresses these oftentimes complex ideas through simple words and phrases we make use of in our everyday lives, thereby making them tangible and relatable…

From Ahmed Kabil (@ahmedkabil) and The Long Now Foundation, a (wonderfully-illustrated) appreciation of the art of Alicia Eggert (@AliciaEggert) and the questions it addresses: “How Long is Now?

Sean M. Carroll

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As we tackle time, we might recall that it was on this date in 585 BCE that a solar eclipse occurred. According to The Histories of Herodotus, the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus accurately predicted the event. (If Herodotus’s account is accurate, this eclipse is the earliest recorded as being known in advance of its occurrence.)

According to Herodotus, the appearance of the eclipse was interpreted as an omen, and interrupted a battle in a long-standing war between the Medes and the Lydians. The fighting immediately stopped, and they agreed to a truce. Because astronomers can calculate the dates of historical eclipses, Isaac Asimov described this battle as the earliest historical event whose date is known with precision to the day, and called the prediction “the birth of science”; any case “the eclipse of Thales” is one of the cardinal dates from which other dates can be calculated.

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May 28, 2021 at 1:01 am

“What I desire of a poem is a clear understanding of motive”*…

I’m not a Hollywood scriptwriter, but if I were, I know what screenplay I’d write. Imagine a violent murder at the epicenter of early Santa Clara Valley—soon to be renamed Silicon Valley in the popular imagination—and an innocent man sent to Death Row at San Quentin. But a famous literary critic emerges as the super sleuth who gets him freed, amid dark evocations of scandal involving corrupt politicians and murky underworld figures. 

You don’t need to imagine it, because it really happened. It’s like the movie Chinatown—in fact, it took place during the same era as that scrumptiously vintage film—but with intriguing literary twists and turns. And, like Chinatown, it possesses all the same overtones of a brutal California origin myth. It would make a riveting film. But in this case the story is true.

On Memorial Day in 1933, a woman’s [Allene Lamson’s] naked body was found, apparently bludgeoned to death, in her Stanford campus home. Within an hour of their arrival on the crime scene, the police had already decided that the husband [David Lamson]—always the prime suspect in a case of this sort—must be the murderer. 

The police never took any other explanation seriously. A student named John Venderlip had seen a suspicious character near the Lamson home the morning of the crime, as well as the night before. But no effort went into investigating this lead. The possibility of accidental death was ruled out, too, although it would later play a decisive role in the case.

This web of speculation and insinuation proved sufficient to get a conviction after a three-week trial that was front page news day after day. The jury only deliberated for eight hours before delivering a guilty verdict. The judge handed out the death penalty—a court-mandated hanging within 90 days. And David Lamson was sent off to San Quentin to await his imminent execution on Death Row. 

And that would seem to be the end of the story. But it wasn’t. And the main reason for this surprising turn into the biggest crime story of its day was a mild-mannered poet and literary critic named Yvor Winters…

In the 1930s, Yvor Winters legitimized literary studies at Stanford—but Hollywood should make a movie about his skills as an amateur detective. A remarkable story from the remarkable Ted Gioia (@tedgioia): “When a Famous Literary Critic Unraveled Silicon Valley’s Most Sensational Murder Case.”

And for further (entertaining, but wholly fictional) accounts of a literary critic’s sleuthing, see Edmund Crispin‘s Gervase Fen novels…

* Yvor Winters

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As we consider the clues, we might remind our selves that if the history of the universe was condensed into a year, the Milky Way would form on this date (May 15), life on earth would appear on September 21, and the dinosaurs would go extinct on December 30. Modern humans would evolve on December 31 at 11:52 PM and Columbus would discover America at 11:59:58 PM. (For more detail: the Cosmic Calendar)

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May 15, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Only time (whatever that may be) will tell”*…

Scientists have measured the shortest unit of time ever: the time it takes a light particle to cross a hydrogen molecule. 

That time, for the record, is 247 zeptoseconds. A zeptosecond is a trillionth of a billionth of a second, or a decimal point followed by 20 zeroes and a 1.

Previously, researchers had dipped into the realm of zeptoseconds; in 2016, researchers reporting in the journal Nature Physics used lasers to measure time in increments down to 850 zeptoseconds. This accuracy is a huge leap from the 1999 Nobel Prize-winning work that first measured time in femtoseconds, which are millionths of a billionths of seconds…

More at “Scientists Measure The Shortest Length of Time Ever: in Zeptoseconds.”

* Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

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As we acknowledge alacrity, we might spare a thought for James Clerk Maxwell; he died on this date in 1879.  A mathematician and and physicist, he calculated (circa 1862) that the speed of propagation of an electromagnetic field is approximately that of the speed of light– kicking off his work in uniting electricity, magnetism, and light… that’s to say, formulating the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, which is considered the “second great unification in physics” (after the first, realized by Isaac Newton). Maxwell laid the foundation for modern physics, starting the search for radio waves and paving the way for such fields as special relativity and quantum mechanics.  In the Millennium Poll – a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists at the turn of the 21st century – Maxwell was voted the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Newton and Einstein.

225px-James_Clerk_Maxwell

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November 5, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion”*…

A dog dressed as Marty McFly from Back to the Future attends the 25th Annual Tompkins Square Halloween Dog Parade in New York October 24, 2015.
AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY via Getty Images

“The past is obdurate,” Stephen King wrote in his book about a man who goes back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination. “It doesn’t want to be changed.”

Turns out, King might have been onto something.

Countless science fiction tales have explored the paradox of what would happen if you do something in the past that endangers the future. Perhaps one of the most famous pop culture examples is Back to the Future, when Marty McFly went back in time and accidentally stopped his parents from meeting, putting his own existence in jeopardy.

But maybe McFly wasn’t in much danger after all. According a new paper from researchers at the University of Queensland, even if time travel were possible, the paradox couldn’t actually exist…

Find out why: “Paradox-Free Time Travel Is Theoretically Possible, Researchers Say.

* Albert Einstein

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As we ponder predestination, we might send cosmological birthday greetings to Enrico Fermi; he was born on this date in 1901.  A physicist who is best remembered for (literally) presiding over the birth of the Atomic Age, he was also remarkable as the last “double-threat” in his field:  a genius at creating both important theories and elegant experiments.  As recently observed, the division of labor between theorists and experimentalists has since been pretty complete.

The novelist and historian of science C. P. Snow wrote that “if Fermi had been born a few years earlier, one could well imagine him discovering Rutherford’s atomic nucleus, and then developing Bohr’s theory of the hydrogen atom. If this sounds like hyperbole, anything about Fermi is likely to sound like hyperbole.”

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September 29, 2020 at 1:01 am

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