Monday, 18 May 2020

The Language of Time

Stop and think. When were you last free from the worry of time passing? If you spend an hour daydreaming, you are wasting time. If your order takes too long in a restaurant, they are wasting your time. Did you sleep in? You have wasted the day! 
We also have a concept of who owns time, such as “do that in your own time!” Or doing things in “free time”.  
Even the idea that we have to stop in order to think gives us a clue. We are trying to live our lives at a speed which is too fast to even think.
The pressure of time is all around us. From an early age we have to be on time – nursery, school, lectures, and then work. Our language, and our culture, reinforces those beliefs all the time. 
What if we lived in a world without that pressure? What if our language did not reinforce the belief that time is well spent, or badly spent? What if ….
It turns out that there is a language that does express life as if everything is done to the beat of a drum. The Amondawa language[i], spoken by tribes in the Amazonian forest in Brazil, does not slice time into units, like hours or minutes, but into events. Instead of noon, there is the time to eat the mid-day meal. There is also something similar in the Chinese language – the time it takes to drink a cup of tea. 
I once read about ancient Aztecs using the cooking time of a potato[ii] as a unit of time measurement. They certainly ate potatoes, but their potatoes, in common with ours, would have varied in size. And the time they take to cook will vary with altitude. But maybe the time period was accurate enough for their needs. Or maybe the story is plain wrong. I don’t know but using time periods that are “accurate enough” is an interesting philosophical idea.
This argument does not just apply to ancient civilisations. Consider the time period used to measure sales in business. Measure sales monthly, and you shorten the sales cycle because salespeople are trying to close sales and get the credit before month end. Measure sales quarterly and the sales cycle is lengthened, for the same reason.
But how much influence does a salesperson have over the customer? Do they make their minds up at the speed that suits their business, not the seller’s? If you increase the pressure with a shorter sales cycle, you might risk more people cancelling after they have agreed. At the very least it is worth measuring.
What if you want a sales period that is not a month and is not a quarter? That is, we have no ready-made language for it, and no ready-made time unit, but it suits your business. This is not an esoteric point. Managing the sales cycle, giving enough time for each stage, and booking only solid business is beneficial to buyer and seller. 
The language of time has more influence over our actions than we are necessarily conscious of. Making our lives, and our businesses, fit within constructs that do not necessarily work for us may be more detrimental than we realise. 
We are living through strange times. Many notions that seemed immovable have moved. Like going into the office every day. Like putting up with the daily commute. Questioning our actions and questioning our language, could result in some interesting answers.

[i] Da Silva Sinha, Vera – Event-based Time in Three Indigenous Amazonian and Xinguan Cultures and Languages – 18 March 2019

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Give Us Back Our Eleven Days!

Although we are not conscious of it, our world view is built around time; being late for meetings, early for a first date. The time the concert starts, the day of a new term.

In business we are driven by time. Sales are compared to this time last year or last month. We forecast by month or quarter, and year. Dates, times, and time periods are a fundamental building block to how we understand the world. And it is how we measure our businesses.

Yet when you think about it, time is a slippery concept. The idea that events, like sales or profit, occur within a concept we call time, is philosophically tricky. When we talk about time, what do we mean? And what would a world look like that did not include time? If it sounds far-fetched, think again.

A tribe, deep in the Amazonian forest, was found by researchers to have no language for time. Their  language does not have time as a separate entity. There is the time when it is dry, and the time when it is wet. The time when it is dark, or the time when it is light. They do not map events backwards or analyse forwards. Their events are all in the present. Think about it – what if being late was not even a thing? What if planning your career was not a thing? What if you could not miss someone's birthday?

What if you just did what you needed to do, and when you had finished you all relaxed or played sport. Our mental health might be a world away from what it is now.

There are some similarities, however, from a non-time-based culture, to a time-based culture. Day and night are universal, as is getting old. Whether we meet to play sport once work has finished, or at 7pm, the concept is similar. For most of the world, and through most of history, the need to co-ordinate activities with a common and agreed language has been important. It became even more important with the railways. Over centuries our understanding developed, and we developed time zones, and today we measure time very precisely and can be late for anything, anywhere. It is quite an achievement. But it did not come without a cost.

The Julian calendar developed by Julius Caesar was not accurate. Not to the degree of accuracy we enjoy today. In the year 45 BC 80 days was added to the year to bring it back into line with the “real year” of the sun and moon. It was, not surprisingly, dubbed “the year of confusion”.  It also became a political issue, with Emperor Augustus renaming a month after himself (August) and moving a day from February for good measure. It was typical, however, of the difficulty of aligning the calendar, or any calendar, with the reality of the world. The answer turned out to be the Gregorian calendar that we use today, named after Pope Gregory. The only problem was how to move from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar? Just as in the Year of Confusion, it was going to cause, well, confusion ….

It did not just cause confusion, it caused riots. “Popery” was stealing days, rent, and asking for taxes in return. There was a flat refusal to pay taxes for days that did not exist - which is why the UK’s tax year ends of the 5th April. Even more confusingly, Wednesday 2nd September would be followed by Thursday 14th September. I don’t know about you, but the clocks changing twice a year causes a philosophical battle in my head about the meaning of space and time. Imagine the September the 2nd being followed by September 14th, without the days of the week missing a beat. The mathematics and science were awe inspiring, but the practical implementation baffling.

Happily, that is all behind us. Science has turned to more pressing matters like saving humanity. But there are reminders of the time that politicians had to navigate the delicate waters of messing with the people’s calendar. Microsoft SQL Server, which stores data for banks, multi-national businesses, charities, and more besides, includes a data type called datetime. Datetime stores dates from 1-1-1753. 1753 might seem like an arbitrary year, until the stolen days are remembered. Then it is far from arbitrary.

Only historians need to capture data as far back as 1753, or before the Gregorian calendar. But for those who do look backwards, those days are missing as clearly as if it were yesterday. For the rest of us, analysing data by time is normally a more recent exercise. Microsoft Power BI and Excel, for example, have date types that store dates from 1-1-1900.

The story of the calendar, and how some very clever people figured it out is told in a little book called The Calendar by David Duncan. It has more twists than a Dan Brown novel, and in my view a lot more interesting. But that is just me.

Over at the day job blog, I have been writing about analysing data over time using Microsoft Power BI. If you have recently started using this magic bit of software, go have a look. It is complete with all the days, months, quarters and years. From 1900 onwards. Obviously.