Wednesday, February 19, 2014

T is for time

Three hours have passed. You sit nervously by your phone, waiting for a reply from your crush. You message your best friend: "Hey, when do you think s(he) will get back to me – it’s been three hours. Three hours, [insert best friends name] !!!!!". You start to wonder why your crush hasn’t responded. Is it because s(he) lacks service? Then you remember it is the middle of the day on Tuesday, and that s(he) might be at work. Wait, who has three hours of meetings? Then, like an angel, the phone buzzes (because who uses ringtones anymore), and the name pops up on the screen with the response: "Not much, what is up with you?" The tables have turned.

You could respond right away, but then think to yourself: Hold on, will I look desperate? I don't want him/her knowing that I was waiting for a reply. You start to wonder how long you should take to respond. Is it five minutes, is it 10? Maybe three hours - maybe that will be our interval between texts.

We’ve all done it -- worried about time -- either having too much, or not having enough. The funny thing about time is that we humans created it. Time is a measurement of the interval between two events, but there is no natural occurrence of it. We used it to measure the time between sunrises (also known as days). Time gives us some level of expectation; we have a sense of how long it takes an egg to boil, or how long our daily commutes are; how long a movie should be before people get up and walk out.

Time is a very important thing; that’s why we created it. Imagine life without time. When will George get here? Erm, when his horse gets him here. Time allows us to build the foundations of expectations and creates structure in our society. We need to be to work "on time,",we make dinner plans with a specific time in mind (Meet you there at 7:30). Time is most certainly not a bad thing, but sometimes our interpretation of it is quite off. We value time in different categories: the immediate, the short run, and the long run. How we handle time depends on context.

Nerd Alert : The science of expected time

The Poisson distribution is how us fancy suspender-wearin’ folk deal with time. The concept, at its most simple level is: If we are given the last occurrence of an event, and how often that event occurs, we can calculate the nth time you will see that event. Boring formula below: where lambda is the rate and k being some occurrence of it, say the 5th.

\!f(k; \lambda)= \Pr(X=k)= \frac{\lambda^k e^{-\lambda}}{k!},

So how does this tie back in? Well, if we know the rate that our crush texts at, and we know the last time s(he) sent us a message, we could calculate the next time they will text us. However, we don't know our crush’s text rate, and to be honest, I don't even know my text rate. So we do what every scientist does: We guess at what his/her rate is. Sometimes we apply the “attacked by lion factor'” which states: " If said person does not respond within t, I will assume they were attacked by a lion and thus could not respond."  To many this seems silly, but the next time someone hasn’t responded to a text, write down the reason why you think they didn’t respond. Sometimes, they are funny months later.

Time, in the immediate

These are short time events, like how long should a pot boil? Their effect can be massive, but more often than not, hey are actually not a big deal. Short term time is where we test our impatience. It’s the time we think we will never get back, and it’s also the one we have the most expectations about. I take the L train (what up, Brooklyn) and my favorite thing about the L train is that it tells you how long until the next train. They have these fancy signs at all the stops (P.S. not every subway line has these).

Now normally, these info boards say something like three, five, or seven minutes, or something more reasonable. However, we expect that the train will arrive in seven minutes, and when the train takes nine minutes, we are angry about it. The L train violated the contract we made with it; I pay you $2.50, and you show up at that time above. Being late falls into the immediate time category. I always push the line of "on-time", generally I am a few minutes late. It angers people, because like the L train, we agreed to show up at that time. The immediate time interval angers us so much because since the interval is so short, we expect few things to get in the way of our planned time. The chaos level is much smaller if the interval is smaller. Our confidence in our expectations is much more solid than say, our short run time interval.

Time, in the short run:
It’s Monday. You have five days to figure out what you are doing Saturday night. This medium planning is where we really learn how to plan. We also do not put a lot pressure on ourselves about short run issues. Your friend's flight gets moved, but that’s ok because you have four days to deal with it before it approaches. Short run planning also has lower stakes. If plans fall through, you are just sitting at home watching some reruns on Netflix. The expected rewards are generally less than those of the long run, and generally there is enough time to change course, unlike the immediate time category.

Time, in the long run
So if you read my last post , you will notice my emphasis that in the long run, we need to focus on what is best for us. However, that long run does end. As Rolen pointed out, we are all dead in the long run. Fight Club said it best, "On a long enough timeline, the survival rate of everyone is zero". It’s kind of depressing, but it’s true. In the back our minds, we know our shot clock is ticking.

We have natural shot clocks. For women, it is having children, for men, it is having a full head of hair. We get old and our time is limited. Being single at 18 is vastly different then being single at 35, but it’s because time is no longer on our side. Time is more telling than just the number - time has an end, an end we often fear. Without an endpoint, time does not exist. Time is why YOLO exists, we don't want to waste these precious minutes, so we must carpe diem (apparently saying it in Latin was too hard, so we switched it to YOLO).

The scary part about time in the long run is our expectations and the rewards from those expectations. The small actions we do everyday affect us in the long run, and we are trying to optimize things that are years away from today. Choosing a college is a great example of this; juniors and seniors have to choose what college they want to attend that will change their life forever.  The thought that we are trying to plan for something 10 years down the road makes us crazy. 

People often overthink the time and the long run. Some people think (seriously, they do) like the following:

Min(marriage) = 2 years, Min(per child)*n(desired children) = (2)*(3)=6. Marriage + Children =  8 years. My age + 8 years = X (age that i will have three children).

Then they often wonder if that is too old.  This concept is known as search theory. According to some economist, we worry too much about being lonely today, and not enough emphasis on the long run. We are pressured (for various reasons) to get married within some time frame, but no one worries about the years after that time frame. Take the person that says: “I want to get married before I'm 35." Well, sure that is fair, but if you rush it, do remember that you might spend the next 35+ years with that person, so make sure that person is good.

About Time:

Time dictates our life, and we created it. We get angry at something that we control! We create these expectations, so we can allow more time for things, and the stress will go away. Our interactions with this data type time is like few others. It can be quite unpredictable but makes us dependable on it.