Everything is BREAKING

One big problem with modern life is the turnover of emotive content. Weekly newspapers have turned into rolling news coverage, which has turned into short text updates on Twitter. Everything is literally <BREAKING>.

This appears to be highly damaging to our political systems and our mental health. The half-life of any government seems to be measured in months. We applaud the downfall of our political opponents on social media and revel in the drama but then get bored and stop paying attention for the harder work of clearing up the mess.

Log Time

In this vane, I’ve always been interested with setting priorities across time. One way to make this manageable is to look at logarithmic time scales – where we can cover periods that range from milliseconds to eons using a handful of levels.

The idea is that we represent different timescales using different powers, and the logarithm allows us to work with the powers rather than the number itself.

Much of our systems of scientific measurement are set up for measuring time relative to seconds. This is actually surprisingly human-centric, as it syncs roughly with a human resting heartbeat. If we look at timescales in the brain, scans often show activity unfolding at a timescale of 100s of milliseconds. Indeed, display static images at a rate of more than 30 pictures per second – 33ms per image – and we cannot see the join, perceiving a continuous movie. So we can set our lowest unit of time at the millisecond. In the table below I sketch out how a log scale captures linearly large differences in time (rounding rough – more for intelligibility than accuracy).

Time Period (Useful Units)Time Period (Seconds)Log2 ValueLog10 Value
1 ms0.001~ -10-3
100ms0.01~ -7-2
1s100
10s10~ 31
30s30~ 5~1.5
1m60~ 6~ 2
1hr3600~ 12~ 4
24hr86400~ 16~ 5
1 week604800~ 19~ 6
1 month2635200~ 21~ 6.5
1 year31557600~ 25~ 7.5
5 years157788000~ 27~ 8
10 years315576000~ 28~ 8.5
20 years (~average age of
motherhood historically)
631152000~ 29~ 9
30 years (~average age of
motherhood recently)
946728000~ 30~ 9
60 years (~retirement age /
lifetime-esque)
1893456000~ 31~ 9.5
100 years (lifetime if lucky)3155760000~ 32~ 9.5
500 years15778800000~ 34~ 10
1 millennium31557600000~ 35~ 10.5
5000 years (writing /
major religions)
157788000000~ 37~ 11
10,000 years (agriculture)315576000000~ 38~ 11.5
100,000 years (culture per se?)3155760000000~ 42~ 12.5
1 million years (tool use /
modern humans / evolution)
31557600000000~ 45~ 13.5
100 million years (biological class
dominance periods)
3155760000000000~ 51~ 15.5
1 billion years (~multicell life)31557600000000000~ 55~ 16.5
5 billion years (life / planets)1.57788e+17~ 57~ 17
10 billion years (~universe)3.15576e+17~ 58~ 17.5

Only the middle of the table captures event periods that are meaningful as humans – from ~1hr to 500 years (multi-generation) – just 3 to 10 on a base 10 logarithmic scale. When thinking of decisions we can then look at just a few levels:

Time LevelSeconds Base 10 Log LevelRough Human Span
13~ 15 minutes
24~ 3 hours
35~ 1 day
46~ 1-2 weeks
57~ 3-4 months
68~ 3 years
78.5~ 10 years
89~ 1 generation scale
(20-30 years)
99.5~ 1 lifetime (if lucky)
1010~ multi-generational (300ish years)

Using this as a framework, we can think about actions in a simple 10-level space but have them meaningfully relate to a much larger set of human-centric timespans.

Space

Now we’ve looked at time, we can also think a little about space.

For me, this can be fairly easily mapped to kinship circles, nationhood and planethood.

We can also think of space as representing the limitations of physical agency, we can easily act on our own minds from anywhere but we would struggle to causally influence an unknown stranger on the other side of the world.

To simply things, we can start with three core levels:

  • Self;
  • Others; and
  • World.

“Self” includes aspects of our bodies, including inner (mind) aspects and outer (physical) aspects.

“Others” is constructed from a series of concentric rings, starting with immediate family, partners, and housemates, then working out to encompass neighbours and extended family, then those in the same town or region, then country, then continent, then the Earth. This is not to ignore distant folks, more an acknowledgement that we are physically limited in space and have evolved within that limitation. Also, in terms of prioritisation, if everyone starts local then looks outward, you will get global coverage.

“World” level then encompasses the environment and non-human things, such as animals and plants. Again, this can be considered to work from local to global (based on circles of physical access), where at a largest extent you have the whole planet and its ecosystems.

You can also think of spatial distance as mapping onto phylogenic distance – we are related to family members more closely than other human beings and we are related to other human beings more closely than we are to other mammals or bird.

These three areas reflect different levels of control and influence. We have the most (but not total) control on ourselves, (very) limited influence over others, and a (very small statistical) contributory influence over the world. As we move out it becomes more important that our actions are shared to achieve anything.

Mapping these levels onto a measurement unit for physical space, we can also build a table similar to our time table (with the caveat of relativity, but I’ll ignore that for now otherwise our heads will hurt).

Space Measurement (Useful Units)Space Measurement (m)Log2 ValueLog10 Value
~10 µm (human cell)0.00001~ -20-6
~50 cm (things within
our immediate grasp)
0.5~ -1-0.3
6-10m (average width /
length of a UK house)
6-10~ 3~ 1
500m (diameter of a
small hamlet – 100 people)
500~ 9~ 2.7
5km (city or neighbouring hamlet
– hour or two walk)
5000~ 12.3~ 3.7
30km (region/county – day’s walk)30000~ 15~ 4.5
200km (small country /
large region – several days travel)
200000~ 17.6~ 5.3
700km (medium country)700000~ 19.4~ 5.8
3000km (small continent
/ world region)
3000000~ 21.5~ 6.5
8000km (large continent
/ hemisphere)
8000000~ 23~ 6.9
40,000km (Earth circumference)40000000~ 25.3~ 7.6
500 million km (inner planets of
solar system)
500000000000~ 39~ 11.7
50 AU (edge of solar system)7479893535000~ 43~ 12.9
100,000 light years (galaxy size)946073047258080000000~ 70~ 21
50 billion light years (estimated
radius of observable universe)
4.73e+26~ 134~ 40

Of course, again only some of the above rows are relevant for our immediate lives as humans on Earth. We can thus fashion a similar set of human-meaningful space levels:

Space LevelMetre – Base 10 Log LevelHuman Relevance
1-6 to 0Self / internal physical and mental world.
2-0.5 to 1Others – household or immediate family.
32 to 4Others – Local region / city – possibly extended family.
44 to 6Others/World – Country / geographic region – normally most of kin.
56 to 8World – Earth – all humans and animals (distant relations).

We will stop at the Earth – it’s unlikely our actions will stretch to beyond this for at least a while (if at all).

Looking at the Grid

One problematic side-effect of globalisation is that we are now currently working at the largest space scale and the smallest timescale. This is why we struggle to change things and our minds suffer from a lack of perceived control or influence.

In the modern world, we have access to the world and we are informed about changes to the world by individual people at every minute. This is not good.

In the world, there are a near infinite number of issues (8 billion people complaining in the present) and we just can’t act to even address a tiny fraction of those.

However, shrink the world to “self”, while maintaining a very short term time frame, and you also have problems. You get selfishness and self-absorption – an opiate high may be outstanding for 15 minutes but is normally ruinous for at least the self over a longer time span.

The point to remember about the different timescales is that they are not independent – rather they are stacked like Russian dolls – the longest periods naturally contain multitudes of the shorter periods. If we build guidance for the longer periods, limited to a handful of areas that we can hold in our minds, we can use these as stable factors even amongst the noise of the now.

We can also set some rough outlines of desires over the different time periods – not all of the things we like to do in one period are good to do in others.

Let’s start at the biggest timescale and work our way inwards. In space, we’ll start with ourselves (where we have the most power) and work outwards.

Space \ Time1 (mins)2 (hours)3 (days)4 (weeks)5 (quarters)6 (years)7 (decades)8 (generations)9 (lifetime)10 (dynasty)
1 (Self)
2 (Immediate Others)
3 (Region/City)
4 (Country)
5 (World)

So in choosing our actions, the more positives we get in the cells of the table, the better the action. We can also more clearly picture the trade-offs of short term pain for long term gain or the longer term problems of shorter term benefits.

We can also begin to see patterns:

  • Businesses tend to operate within column 5 across all spatial scales (depending on size) but often implement policies with detrimental effects in the top left-hand corner (self/other on a scale of minutes, hours or days) and to the right of column 5 (self to world over years to lifetimes).
  • Addictions are typically highly positive in the first cell but fairly detrimental in the first two rows over all the columns. At larger spatial scales, the effect of the actions are fairly quickly neutralised – i.e. an effect on a country or the world over all the times scales is negligible.
  • Social media is dangerous because actions taken in column 1 can quickly fill all spatial scales and ripple out over multiple time scales via the sheer connectivity of the system.
  • Going for a walk or doing exercise are the inverse of additions – generally negative within the top left cell but rippling out with positive effects in the first two rows over the columns.

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