Category Archives: Stories

Posts which have some kind of narrative in them, typically to illustrate some point. Whole or part of the post can be such a narrative.

Practice and Practicality

[This post isn’t about anything to do directly with time or illusion (except perhaps the loss of the latter over the former), but it’s still about things I think are important in academia.]

Here’s a story I’ve never told anyone, and am not proud of. But it’s been years and it illustrates something I think is important.

I started off doing Physics, taking it along with Maths and Computer Science in my first year. I continued into my second year but only to ordinary level. I was a lazy undergraduate. I did almost no work, and continued falling to that standard throughout. Even when I switched to philosophy — which was and is much more suited to me — I did not work. On my graduation, the head of my department told me they had to give me the grade I got because I handed up no assignments in my second year, and that year’s result was a part of my final grade. And I didn’t do much work in third year either.

During this time, I was pretty much indifferent to this failure, since I was going through a subjectively much deeper – but in the long run less important – crisis. During college — especially in the last year — I was in the makings of a band. We practiced three times a week. A few months before finals, the band fell apart (for unavoidable reasons which was no one in the band’s fault).

Suddenly, I was lost, uncommitted to college and no other idea what to do with my life. After that came a bad time, especially as I felt then like I certainly deserved it (I felt like a complete fool and a parasite). And I continued like that in that mindset for several years.

But back up a little bit, to the transition from physics.

I didn’t simply drop from honours first year to second year. In a hem-hawing fashion typical of myself as an undergrad, I actively dragged myself down. I did no study, panicked in the exam,  but got a second chance to repeat in the Autumn. I met the department head. He told me if I got more than 60% I could continue into honours. I didn’t. I got 50%. Yet, I worked quite hard in the Autumn. I did better in other repeat exams (remember, I was doing badly in everything, doing no work at all).

So did this mean I was no good at physics? I don’t know. But I was no good at exams, or understanding what was wanted.

If I remember it right, here’s what happened: I got enough answers right to get more than 60%. However,  for one question  — I remember it involved a rotating wheel — although I got the answer right (and the dept. head agreed afterwards), the examiner didn’t give me full marks. Here is why: I didn’t answer the question properly.

I remember the question (will probably never forget it in general terms): I looked at the question and realised the question could be answered using relatively simple, pass-level physics. There was no need to use relatively complex, honours-level physics. So I answered it using pass-level physics. And the examiner knocked marks off because I didn’t solve it using the more complicated physics.

Afterwards, talking the dept head, I explained myself, and he suggested I call down to the examiner to explain what happened. I headed down there, got as far as his door, then withdrew. I’m not sure why, but the fight was out of me. At the time, I’d a hard time believing that failure wasn’t deserved. (I believed that a lot those days.)

Okay, so what’s the reason for this glum little story?

It’s this:

If I were working in a physics lab, or under a deadline, maybe it would be better if I used the pass-level analysis. This is what satellite scientists do sending things to other planets. They don’t draw on relativity, they draw on Newtonian physics. It’s simpler. It works, so it will do.

The physics department didn’t want this from me. I wasn’t actually sending anything real anywhere. I was doing an exam. They wanted to know could I do complex physics, not could I answer the question in as simple way as possible.

Whatever about the second ability, I failed the first in their eyes. As that’s what the exam was for, and what they were looking for in an honours student, I failed to show I could be an honours student.

The moral is about practice vs practicality. As a student, you are showing that you have practiced. What you do is a sign of your ability, of your knowledge, your grasp of concepts and so on. But as a professional, or post-student, this is assumed. Now you must show that you can use these to go further.

As a student, you show your grasp of the hammer; as a professional, you hit the nail.

Simplicity and complexity.

Of course, even professionally, you want to show you know your stuff. And you also want to understand it more deeply. So you’ll continue to practice. But you are also using it for something, and knowing the difference between practicing and doing is important.

In philosophy (and maybe other disciplines), this difference is as follows:

Sometimes, there are very complex ways of thinking through a problem to a solution. Engaging with that requires skill and understanding.  It can also be fun. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to the solution.

Sometimes, it’s better to be simple. To use pass-level philosophy, as it were. The important thing is to recognise when the honours-level is unnecessary.

Like in my summer exam: I recognised that it was unnecessary to use honours-level for the correct answer. However, I wasn’t a professional physicist being asked to come up with the answer as efficiently as possible. I was a student being asked to show my understanding of complex solutions.

As is typical with many arrogant kids, I didn’t think of myself as a student really. I gave them the practical answer. My failure — and indeed failure for at least a few more years to come — was in my recognition of what I was in the situation. I was blind to my position, to what others want from me.

Lots of people can be like that one time or another — that is, blind to their position and to what others want. I think it can be useful to be this way. It is itself more efficient to be this way, to ignore what others think about or want from you.

It works when you’re defining a position, when what is happening is determined by what you want. Like when you are the only expert in the room about what works.

But that is not common roles to play in most of social discourse. Furthermore, even if it is right — you are the one who is the expert, for example — you only get that social position, and such things as relevant credit, if others recognise you for that.

A lot of practice is constrained by others’ summed opinions, rather than your own ability.

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Temporal Measures are Like Currency (Standards for Experienced Duration 3)

Previous: Time and Tide
Previous: The Windowsill Clock

The man is bemused by this exchange. His colleague makes some tea and sits by the window. Looking out at her ‘clock’ (or, he thinks, exactly not a clock).

“How about this” she says, after some while (or other). “Let’s define a new unit of time. A unit to which we can neutrally refer. It refers to what an hour, second, etc. refers to, but can be linked to any standard. The tide, a dripping tap, experience, etc.”

“For standard time — that measured by a clock — it might be a second, minute, hour, day; whatever you like.

But for any other standard or means of measurement, it needn’t correspond to a clock hour, second, etc.”

The man grunts. “And what will we call it?”

She scratches her ear. “I don’t know….a moment, perhaps? That seems neutral enough.”

He grunts again. “That’s very general. It could mean anything. A second, a millisecond, a year, even, given the scale.”

She dips her head to the side (like the sea did).

“That’s right. Or, at least, it is empty. It denotes a unit of time without any specification of what defines that unit. It’s like units of currency defined without talking about pennies, pounds, kroner, cents.

But here’s the thing: that’s good. We shouldn’t be judging time measured by the tide as accurate or inaccurate according to the clock. They are completely different processes. It is ridiculous to do so, even if they coincide occasionally.

You wish to hold on to the terminology of ‘hours’, etc.. Any use of these terms implies evaluation with respect to a clock. It is always an Hour O’Clock, never an Hour O’Something else. So we need a new set of alternatives for other measures of time.

First,  some neutral terms referring to any unit of any measurement of time. Without the presupposition that we mean clock time — or tidal time, or even experienced time.

Second, for each measure, specific terms if we like. We might do it by qualifying the neutral term, e.g., it is X Moments O’Tide. For the particularly common measures, we might use condensed terms, or even familiar terms. Obviously, for the standard time of human society, we use ‘seconds’, ‘minutes’, ‘hours’.

So, now I say it takes ….4000 tidal moments for the event to happen and there is no problem with the clock — at least, initially.

Two last things.

First, like currency, these measures can be translated into one another. But they aren’t required to stay in fixed translations. Say a moment of tide matches a GMT hour on one occasion and not on another. This is not a reason to reject either the tide’s measure or GMT. It’s not evidence of error on either side. It’s evidence of a complex relationship between them.

— It’s like the relationship between the kroner and the yen.

— It’s not like the relationship between a good dancer and a bad dancer. Or a bad painting and a good painting.

Second, I might give a rough answer to a question about how much time has passed in clock time. But what I’m doing is basing it on a guess as to how tidal time translates to clock time. It’s like if you asked me ‘How much does an umbrella cost?’ in Kroner. I have no idea; but in my home country, in Japan, I know: I look at one for sale in the local shop window.

If you insist ‘tell me in Kroner‘, I can try an answer, of course. But I’m not looking in the shop window at the price. I’m guessing based on all sorts of half-rules and -remembered bits about the two currencies relationship.

If you used my answer as a base to judge that I don’t know how much an umbrella costs at all, or am under an illusion of its price, I think it’s fair to say you have gone wrong in your thinking, not me. Sure — I get the wrong ‘kroner’ answer — but I don’t have any information about the kroner answer, except the half-stuff I have about its relationship to the yen.

It shouldn’t surprise you, then that when you ask me, in clock time, ‘how long does it take to walk to the beach?’, if I say an hour, I can be quite off. But I am not deviating or misjudging the clock time duration. I am guessing the clock time duration based on a measurement of tidal duration. There is a complicated relationship here between two measures:

i. One which I am using to measure time.

ii. The other in terms of which you are asking me to answer.”

“That is a lot of work?” said the man.

“Yes, it’s complicated. Doesn’t make it false.”

(Now it’s time for a pint).

/////

On the experience of time:

(1) Illusions are instances of inaccurate experiences (or non-veridical or false experiences).

(2) A typical judgement of experiences of duration is based on matching clock time with experienced time, e.g., a clock-read hour matches an experienced half-hour (if you’re having fun, by all accounts).*

*Strictly speaking, it involves matching clock time with a reported experience of time. But assume for the moment that the reported experience accurately captures the experience.

(3) If you look at the literature on time distortions, illusions of duration (I’ll be very interested in any exceptions to this), you get this idea:

An illusion (or distorted experience) of duration is classed this way because the experienced duration (e.g., the half hour) does not match the clock duration (e.g., the hour).

(4) Like the tide, we aren’t using the same thing to judge the time. We are perhaps measuring something in our experience of time, e.g., such as a succession of emotional/introspective/physiological states. The relationship between that and clock time is, as with the tide, like the relationship between currencies. It’s complex.

(5) This complexity is not a sign of an inaccurate measurement under a common system on the part of either clock or experience. It is a sign of two different measurement systems.

To judge an illusion of duration with standard clock time, then, we need to do the following:

(6) Have a correct system for translating measures in terms of clock time to measures in terms of what is being used in experience,

(7) Whatever value we get in standard clock time, use the system in ‘6’ to translate it into the measure of experienced time.

(8) This value in experienced time is, at the very least, the better candidate for judging the reported experience of time.

I think, actually, that the idea of even judging in the last point, in ‘8’, is more complicated than that. But I leave it here for now.