When time stretches eon and eon

One of my favorite movies from Sundance this past January was David Lowery's A Ghost Story, which remains one of the better movies in what has been a weak year at the cinema. One reason it is so moving is a stretch of the film which decides to take a super long view of time. We're talking centuries long, as in a time lapse that bounds across years and decades in mere seconds.

[The movie also spends five minutes on one much discussed, uncut shot of Rooney Mara eating a pie, so it is a film that plays with time dilation in both directions, one of its several interesting formal tactics.]

Sometimes we can only get true perspective on life by looking at it through binoculars turned backwards. It all sounds a bit vague and hand-wavy except we have evidence that a 10,000 foot view really can alter one's mind. The overview effect is a phenomenon in which astronauts who have seen Earth floating in the vast emptiness of space return to the planet with an intense global perspective, having moved beyond the petty concerns of individual nations or communities. We humans are susceptible to perceptual hacking, but that makes us a fun kit to tinker with.

Perhaps growing older has increased my fondness for art that folds time in on itself so densely. What do we accumulate as we age as reliably as perspective? I really enjoyed the stunning graphic novel Here by Richard McGuire, every page of which takes place in the same living room in the same house, but across hundreds of thousands of years. It is a Cubist story where every frame on the page is a shard of story from a different time in that spot on Earth.

One of my favorite movies of this century, and ever, is Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, which, more than any other film I can recall, grapples with the existential mystery of the universe. It begins after the Big Bang, sweeps through the age of dinosaurs, stops in a childhood story inspired by Malick's own life, and dreams of what the afterlife might hold. And in every frame, you sense the director grappling with the question of why? Why this? Why everything? Why anything?

This genre of time compressing art needs a name. Some label for its own section at the video store or bookstore. For now I take to calling it eonic art, but some reader may come up with something better, or perhaps it already has a name I'm not aware of. It need not cover the history of the universe, but it generally has to traverse at least several centuries, or at a minimum, two generations of mankind. The Three Body Trilogy comes to mind from works I've read in the past few years, as does Cloud Atlas, which I have not read but saw once on an international flight. A.I., for its coda.

I know I'm missing plenty. What are your favorite works in this genre?

In fast-paced modern world, no room for slow talkers, slow walkers

Slowness rage is not confined to the sidewalk, of course. Slow drivers, slow Internet, slow grocery lines—they all drive us crazy. Even the opening of this article may be going on a little too long for you. So I’ll get to the point. Slow things drive us crazy because the fast pace of society has warped our sense of timing. Things that our great-great-grandparents would have found miraculously efficient now drive us around the bend. Patience is a virtue that’s been vanquished in the Twitter age.
Once upon a time, cognitive scientists tell us, patience and impatience had an evolutionary purpose. They constituted a yin and yang balance, a finely tuned internal timer that tells when we’ve waited too long for something and should move on. When that timer went buzz, it was time to stop foraging at an unproductive patch or abandon a failing hunt.
But that good thing is gone. The fast pace of society has thrown our internal timer out of balance. It creates expectations that can’t be rewarded fast enough—or rewarded at all. When things move more slowly than we expect, our internal timer even plays tricks on us, stretching out the wait, summoning anger out of proportion to the delay.
Make no mistake: Society continues to pick up speed like a racer on Bonneville Speedway. In his book, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, Hartmut Rosa informs us that the speed of human movement from pre-modern times to now has increased by a factor of 100. The speed of communications has skyrocketed by a factor of 10 million in the 20th century, and data transmission has soared by a factor of around 10 billion.

From Nautilus.

It shouldn't be any surprise that technology has amplified our impatience. Tech companies were among the first to measure and quantify the monetary value of time. Early on at Amazon, we did an A/B test and realized that every additional millisecond of load time in search meant some users would just abandon their shopping session and bounce. The same applied to web pages. I've read that Google learned the same when testing their search results.

I've been listening to more and more podcasts, and to try and finish more of them in my limited free time, I've been dialing up playback speed. At first I was at 1.25X, then 1.5X, and now I can almost listen at 2X and still understand what folks are saying (contrary to popular belief, all decent podcast apps can do this playback without altering the pitch; when I playback at 2X, Marc Maron doesn't sounds like a chipmunk). The unpleasant side effect, though, is that everyone in the real world seems to speak way......too......slowly. I sometimes find myself losing concentration mid-sentence.

I'm in Hawaii for a wedding, and the wifi on the United flight over was the slowest I've ever used on a plane, and I could feel my blood pressure rising as I hit refresh and reload buttons like a rat in a Skinner box. Yes, I've seen the Louis CK clip about this, and yes, this is a problem of entitlement of the highest order, but it isn't going away, it's worsening.

At its worst, impatience can lead to violence. Few sights make me as pessimistic about humanity as a driver exploding in near apoplectic road rage over a delay of a few seconds. I've seen grown adults slam on their brakes, get out of their cars, and engage in fistfights with another driver over the slightest of inconveniences. Forget the zombie apocalypse, simply failing to start moving immediately when the light turns green can reduce civilization to Lord of the Flies in an instant.

The article notes that our internal timers may be overclocked, leading to an acceleration of the vicious cycle of impatience --> rage --> impulsive behavior.

Recent research points to a possibility that could make this cycle worse. As my slow-walking friend and I strolled at a snail’s pace down the street, I started to fear that we would be so late for our reservation that we would miss it. But when we got to the restaurant, we were no more than a couple minutes behind. My sense of time had warped.
Why? Rage may sabotage our internal timer. Our experience of time is subjective—it can fly by in a flash, or it can drag out seemingly forever. And strong emotions affect our sense of time most of all, explains Claudia Hammond in her 2012 book Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception. “Just as Einstein’s theory of relativity tells us that there is no such thing as absolute time, neither is there an absolute mechanism for measuring time in the brain,” she writes.
Time stretches when we are frightened or anxious, Hammond explains. An arachnophobe overestimates the time spent in a room with a spider; a fearful novice skydiver, the time spent hurtling to Earth. People in car accidents report watching events unfold in slow motion. But it’s not because our brains speed up in those situations. Time warps because our experiences are so intense. Every moment when we are under threat seems new and vivid. That physiological survival mechanism amplifies our awareness and packs more memories than usual into a short time interval. Our brains are tricked into thinking more time has passed.
On top of that, our brains—in particular, the insular cortex, linked to motor skills and perception—may measure the passing of time in part by integrating many different signals from our bodies, like our heartbeats, the tickle of a breeze on our skin, and the burning heat of rage. In this model, the brain judges time by counting the number of signals it is getting from the body. So if the signals come faster, over a given interval the brain will count more signals, and so it will seem that the interval has taken longer than it actually has.

[As an aside, I do love the metaphor for how our bodies measure time, using natural cues like heartbeats, breaths, and other natural cues of cadence.]

With devices like mobile phones and tablets and ubiquitous network connectivity filling every empty moment in our lives, however brief, like water into cracks in the ground, we may be past the point of no return on our ability to live in the moment. Often today I find myself magnetized by people who can sit and chat with me without glancing at their phone every few minutes; they are an increasingly rare species. 

This next generation of kids will grow up with such devices from the moment they can handle one; will any of them escape addiction to the screens around them, or will they regard long face-to-face conversation as an antiquated tradition? Perhaps those who can eschew their phone for long stretches and give their companions their full attention will be seen as superhuman. I've read so many times that Bill Clinton's most amazing gift is his ability to make anyone, no matter how humble, feel like the absolute center of his attention. 

Still, I'm not optimistic. What happens to our impulse control when technologies like virtual reality tempt us every moment with the possibility of going anywhere, experiencing anything, instantaneously? Technology is just beginning to expose the shadow prices of living in the real world, and the profit motive and Moore's Law are working in favor of just one side.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go meditate. Using an app on my iPhone, of course.


Superhot is a Kickstarter project for a game in which time moves only when you physically move your character. Here's one fascinating analysis:

In Superhot, it’s not that you can distort time exactly – after all, whenever you take a step, your enemies get the same amount of time to take a step themselves. Instead, your brain is running as fast as it likes while (the rest of) your body remains in the same time stream as everything else.

And then it struck me: this might be close to the experience of an emulated brain housed in a regular-sized body.

Let’s say that, in the future, we artificially replicate/emulate human minds on computers. And let’s put an emulated human mind inside a physical, robotic body. The limits on how fast it can think are its hardware and its programming. As technology and processor speeds improve, the “person” could think faster and faster and would experience the outside world as moving slower and slower in comparison.

… but even though you might have a ridiculously high processing speed to think and analyze a situation, your physical body is still bound by the normal laws of physics. Moving your arms or legs requires moving forward in the same stream of time as everyone else. In order to, say, turn your head to look to your left and gather more information, you need to let time pass for your enemies, too.

The article concludes that to make the game more physically realistic, you'd have to have place a finite budget of processing power on the character's brain since being able to think indefinitely while the rest of the world stayed frozen would require a near infinite amount of processing power.

The trailer for Lucy, a new action movie starring Scarlett Johansson, posits what might happen if a person could use 100% of their brain instead of just 10%. But we might need far more such brain capacity to achieve what is shown in The Matrix or Superhot. Perhaps that is what it feels like to be God-like, to have so much energy and processing power that you can understand all things that are happening before any time has passed.

At the same blog Measure of Doubt (a brother-sister blog about rationality, science, and philosophy, perhaps the first of its kind), a meditation on why it might be hellish to be The Flash.

The game theory dynamics are complex. It seems like to the extent that you’re competing with others, you want to be faster. To the extent that you’re cooperating/collaborating with others, you want them to be faster. And overarching all of it, there’s a coordination factor in that you don’t want to be too different from others.

I was at Amazon when Jeff Bezos banned Powerpoint. Some say it was because he didn't like thinking to be bent and twisted to fit into the tyrannical, atomized slide-by-slide nature of a Powerpoint deck (this is the Tufte argument). But having been in meetings with Jeff, I also think that he was so smart that as soon as anyone started presenting a deck Jeff would just flip ahead in the presentation and finish reading it before you'd even completed presenting your first slide. He would grow bored and impatient waiting for you to unfold some pre-constructed narrative; he'd rather inhale the ideas and get on to debating them.

Writing our ideas out in prose was the only way to get enough of a head start on Jeff's brain to slow him down to the same speed as everyone else. For those dead silent ten minutes while Jeff sat reading your essay, it was as if you were the Flash and time in the world around you had stopped.

Spain's historical schedule

One of the things many visitors to Spain are bound to notice is the peculiar daily rhythm or schedule, with an afternoon siesta and really late-night schedule. One reason for the mid-day siesta might be as part of a more efficient sleep schedule, namely the "siesta" program of polyphasic sleep:

This sleep cycle is actually pretty common around the world in warmer countries such as Latin America, where the temperature is so hot during the middle of the day that people retire to take a short nap after lunch. It involves 6 hours of core sleep and one short 20-30 minute nap. You will find in these countries that most shops close during the early afternoon, as everyone is ‘busy’ taking their siestas! 

The first time I visited Madrid, I remember visiting a night club at around midnight and finding it largely empty, even on a Saturday night. I was about to leave after a half hour when suddenly the crowds started flocking in, and the place was packed until 5 in the morning.

It turns out Spain's late-night schedule may have its roots in World War II, when many European countries under German control switched their clocks to synchronize with Germany.

Now the Spanish government is considering switching back to British time

Until the 1940s, Spain was on the same time as Britain and Portugal, which are on roughly the same latitude. But when Nazi-occupied France switched to German time, Spain's Franco dictatorship followed suit.

"The fact that for more than 71 years Spain has not been in its proper time zone means ... we sleep almost an hour less than the World Health Organization recommends," the lawmakers wrote. "All this has a negative effect on productivity, absenteeism, stress, accidents and school drop-out rates."


Programmed aging

In the whole Instagram TOS kerfuffle, Flickr got a lot of mention. I've had a Pro account with Flickr for years, though my annual subscription payment has felt like a charitable contribution the past few years. For what it's worth, I hope Flickr can start to justify the subscription.

I joked that Flickr had been around so long my photos there had naturally taken on an aged tone. But in all seriousness, I would love to use a service that could digitally simulate the effects of the passage of time on content I had produced, whether it was photos, my writing, music or video. Instead of applying the effect all at once, though, I'd love to see it aged gradually, as if the asset existed in the real world. As I'd revisit my photos or videos, the color tint would change, small scratches might accumulate on the video. The background of my blog might start to yellow a bit, like old parchment.

Since the original is digital, it would always be recoverable, but there would only be one aged copy and it would constantly be evolving. So much of how I mark large periods of time in my life is through the tangible aging artifacts of products that have been with me throughout, and some of that awareness of time's movement is lost in this digital age where everything remains frozen permanently in a pristine state.

Why the return trip always feels shorter

One of the core ideas I took from Moonwalking with Einstein, one of my favorite books of 2011, was the tight relationship between memory and our perception of how quickly time passes. The more you fall into routine, the more your brain chunks those blocks of time, and thus the faster time seems to fly by. Break up patterns in your life, introduce variety, and time slows.

I haven't seen an actual description of the mechanism by which that works until now, but this is a good one from professor of biochemistry William Reville:

Biological cycles are measured by an internal clock that emits steady signals. The signals emitted over a given interval are counted by something called an “accumulator”. The counts can be stored in memory by an animal and used to repeat certain durations by counting signals until they match the count stored in the memory. No awareness of the passage of time is necessary. Humans however are aware of the passage of time and are easily influenced by attentional demands over a target interval.

Humans have an “attentional gate” through which the signals from the clock must pass in order to reach the accumulator. If the individual decides that the passage of time is important , then the attentional gate is opened wide and signal accumulation is maximised. If the passage of time is unimportant then the gate is narrowed and fewer signals are accumulated. Assuming that the estimate of time duration depends on the count registered by the accumulator, it is easy to see that the same objective time duration, eg 15 minutes, will seem longer when waiting for interview that while relaxing. And, memorising the complex figure requires more attentional resources than memorising the circle, leading to a narrower gate and a lower signal count.

Well worth reading the whole thing, it's not very long, and its power is in how it helps to explain all sorts of time perception phenomena. When Reville follows up his description with this homework assignment, suddenly everything makes sense:

Using the attentional gate model of prospective timing, explain why “a watched pot never boils”, why earthquakes feel longer than they are, and why the “return trip” always feels shorter.