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I was at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich last week. There were several exhibits on the work of the observatory, including a large section on their work dealing with longitude and time.
In the 1700s, people were interested the solving the “Longitude Problem”: how does a sailor determine his longitude? Without a good solution, sailors lacked good position data, which could lead to shipwrecks. It turns out that the Longitude Problem is equivalent to determining local time, and one solution was to build accurate and portable clocks.
These issues of longitude and time are fun to think about, but I noticed that they require making a lot of non-canonical choices. Here, by canonical I mean choices that are natural or motivated; non-canonical choices are
arbitrary and would make just as much sense if chosen any other way.
Consider this: There is a (reasonably) canonical place to set 0 degrees latitude; it is natural to define it as the equator, being halfway between the poles and splitting the globe into equal halves. But as there is no “east pole” or “west pole”, there’s no such natural choice for 0 degrees longitude. We currently use the Greenwich meridian as 0 degrees, but there’s no good reason (besides history and random chance) that Greenwich should be special… in fact, the French used the competing Paris meridian for some time. The way we define longitude on the globe is completely arbitrary, and we could just as well use a Svalbard meridian instead.
The measurement of time is similarly non-canonical. Each civilization in history has come up with their own calendar, with its own quirks. The calendar that we use today is just one of those, and there’s no clear reason that it is naturally better than the others. In the end, the everyday world that feels so natural to us is actually based on an accumulation of historical coincidences.
While we’re discussing non-canonical choices, I’ll quickly list a few more that I noticed recently:
I spent all of spring quarter feeling somewhat overworked. It felt as if I was trying to juggle too many things: three math classes, another class that was a waste of time, SUMO events, ARML coaching, and everything else that happened over the quarter: launching rockets, finishing up SMT stuff, various miscellaneous meetings… I didn’t have time to do anything as well as I would like, and work was often deferred until it become no longer relevant.
Now that the quarter is over, I suddenly have a lot more free time. There are no more constant deadlines, and I can actually look more than a day or two into the future without recoiling in horror at mountains of work. I’m returning to a regular sleep schedule, and everything is good — except for one minor problem. I’ve become accustomed to always having lots to do, and having free time feels rather foreign.
I’m still trying to keep myself busy, of course. My summer to do list is long, longer than what could possibly be finished in one summer. But the lack of firm deadlines makes all of that seem distant, maybe even optional. The clear lesson here is that I need more work.
Surely, I’ll stop feeling this way fairly soon. By the fall, having any work at all will probably feel odious and unpleasant. But for now, I’ll continue to ponder my long to do list, procrastinate on most of it, and wonder why I have so little work.
An average human (if such a thing exists) typically spends approximately a third of its life sleeping. This seems like a massive inefficiency. If humans did not waste so much time sleeping, just think about how much more they could accomplish in a day! A human that sleeps for 8 hours a day could potentially increase its productivity by 50% simply by not sleeping. Right?
OK, maybe not. Empirical evidence has shown sleep to be essential to human functionality. Indeed, many (though apparently not all) humans cease to function effectively after sleep deprivation on the order of days. Though they have learned to use chemical stimulants such as caffeine to help them stay conscious for longer periods of time, they inevitably fall victim to sleep. This seeming need to waste years of each individual’s life on totally unproductive sleep is not yet understood by this researcher, so it shall be an area for further study.
That was my attempt at imitating biologists and sociologists. Which one did I actually imitate? I believe that biologists and sociologists are more or less isomorphic, so it doesn’t matter.
And now, after that little bit of excitement, we’ll abandon the world of biology and sociology and return to the standard mindnumbingly dull content that we all know and love.
I haven’t been sleeping enough recently. That’s unfortunate. It’s not because I have too much work — as work expands to fill all available time, I could sleep more and the same quantity of work would still be done. Instead, I’ve decided that sleeping for more than eight hours in a night is a waste of time. In fact, even sleeping for eight hours is a waste of time, as the biologist/sociologist said above; however, I’ve demonstrated that I cannot function without sleep.
So I don’t consider sleeping until eight hours before my alarm. Then, I remember other things on my to do list and deal with a bunch of emails, and then I regret staying up so late. It’s a failure of rationality and intelligently designed planning. Any suggestions?
Maybe sleeping isn’t such a waste after all. But the thought of spending 20 years (in the unlikely circumstance that I live as long as expected value predicts) of my finite life sleeping instead of doing math just seems ridiculous and depressing. Am I insane?
As we all know, I probably am insane. So life will go on as normal… that is, until life comes to an end.