Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

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Time is money – except when it’s not

Posted by digglahhh on 16 January 2008

Time is money. The cliché stems from the world of per-hour labor, but in a more metaphysical sense as well, time is the “currency” of our lives. We have social obligations to spend time with people in our lives along with our professional obligations to our employers. Much as our bills await our paychecks, most of our time is already spoken for in advance. We all have endeavors, mundane and illustrious, we’d like to undertake… time permitting.

Perhaps the above was a grandiose introduction for the question I plan to pose. Money is not the only thing we trade time for. How do we determine what a minute is worth in comparison to some abstract concept, like comfort or convenience? We don’t break these “transactions” down into a mathematical formula. Any putative formula needs to be constantly tweaked by an infinite set of variables.

Here is a simple dynamic many New Yorkers can relate to. (Car commuters face similar choices.) I live in Queens and work in downtown Manhattan. There are various combinations of trains I can take to and from work. By strategically switching between local and express trains, I can make it to work in about 35 minutes of subway time. This would involve taking three different trains, each of which is inevitably very crowded. I have almost no chance of having a seat at any time on the trip. Instead, I usually take the local all the way. I have about a 50% chance of getting a seat from the beginning and at least an 80% chance of having a seat for at least half of the trip. This trip keeps me on the train for about 50 minutes.

Raw-time-wise, I’m sacrificing 15 minutes for a seat. Percentage-wise, I’m accepting an approximately 40% longer trip for a seat. I’ve often asked myself what the tipping point is; at what set of respective durations would I choose the uncomfortable ride?

Surely, there are too many variables to pin this down to a strict, “when difference is greater than X, I take uncomfortable route” axiom. If I’m running late, and I have an early morning conference call, I really have no choice. If I’m supposed to meet a friend for dinner and I get stuck fifteen minutes late at the office, once again I have no choice. There are varying degrees of obligation that cause one to reassess the choice.

I’m fascinated to think that these types of decisions are rarely micro-analyzed, at least fully consciously, yet, people make these time vs. comfort decisions all the time. Elevator on sixth floor, I’m on first floor and have to go to the second floor – wait, or take the stairs?

As complex as these decisions are, we rarely shy from assessing the ones other people make. Have you ever been in a car with somebody else who keeps passing over parking spaces you think are reasonable distances from your destination, in order to get closer and you begin to think to yourself, “Geez, what a lazy ass this guy is.”

We never really try to pin down the exact formula, maybe because we just don’t know. In objective terms, 40% longer seems like a substantial sacrifice, substantial enough that I would decide against it. In reality, it’s a no-brainer the other way. Like so many social experiments, analyzing this behavior makes me think how unpredictable my behavior is, even to myself.

What does it say about me, that I’m the type of guy for whom a seat on the subway is worth 15 minutes of commute time? After all, that’s fifteen fewer minutes I have to spend with my girlfriend, fifteen minutes later I’ll eat dinner, ten fewer baskets I’ll see the Knicks’ opponent score – two fewer I’ll see the Knicks score… On the other hand, if I’m in the middle of a good novel, the fifteen minutes would be similarly spent on the living room couch, so there’s hardly any trade-off at all. Maybe it says nothing at all about me; maybe the very complexity of the decision process immunizes me from your harsh judgments.

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Posted by metaphorical on 3 June 2007

I entered the auditorium at LaGuardia Community College only about 5 minutes before the ceremonies were to begin. Standing in my way as I walked over to the aisle was a stocky guy about my age and height. Even from the back, even in a sea of identical dress blues, I recognized my brother-in-law right away. I put my hand on his shoulder. “Hey buddy, you’re blocking the aisle here.” Without turning around he smiled. “Well then you’ll just have to go around like everyone else, won’t you?”

The uniforms aren’t perfectly identical of course. One silver stripe on the cuff is a Lieutenant; two gold stripes is a captain. Even though New York City merged the Emergency Medical Service into the Fire Department, the patches on their shirts are different. And even within EMS, there’s one patch for an EMT and another for a paramedic.

On Friday, 71 young men and women entered the EMS as certified EMTs. Another 28 members of EMS were promoted to Lieutenant—to wear the silver stripe that my brother-in-law has worn for more than three years now, that my sister has worn for almost five.

And 38 EMTs were recognized for completing a grueling 9-month course—full-time, and then some—in paramedic training. It’s the highest non-hospital medical training there is. After the ceremony, a captain told me that his brother, a surgeon, thinks the paramedic training is brutal. My sister was one of them. She will be 50 next month. She’s not the academic I am. (I learned Spanish out of a book, for example; she learned it by living in Hispanic neighborhoods.) She dropped out of college. She had to learn how to take tests, how to study, really, for the first time in her life this year.

Brendan, my brother-in-law, has been a paramedic for well over a decade now. My little sister, Elizabeth—“Bet” to me since grade school, “Betsy” to everyone else—finished her training and passed all her tests last week. She and 37 other EMTs were handed their certificates, shook hands with Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, and got to sew a Paramedic shirt-patch onto their right sleeve, where the EMT patch had first gone, in my sister’s case, almost fifteen years ago. It wasn’t her first time meeting Scoppetta. He shook her hand and posed when she was promoted to Lieutenant. Shortly before that, in the aftermath of 9/11, she ran into him at the World Trade Center site. She wasn’t there on September 11th, but she worked the site afterward, first looking for survivors, then, for weeks, she and dozens of other EMTs combed the wreckage and catalogued body parts.

EMS-FDNY is a somewhat loveable ugly duckling sibling within the Fire Department, itself an odd family to have been adopted into. Its businesslike uniforms and nonchalant salutes mark it as an organization with the same ideals and dedication, and a similar chain of command, as the military, but with few of its hard edges. Instead of dramatic courts-martial, for example, disputes tend to be settled in humdrum union arbitrations. And you can see the difference pinned to their jackets. Look at the red-and-white lapel pins, for example. Instead of rewarding the storming of a machine gun nest, they represent saved lives. (You can only wear two, but some EMTs have dozens more tucked away in jewelry boxes at home.) There are pink and blue ones that aren’t worn nowadays, for babies delivered. (I asked my sister how many she had done. “Four,” she said. “I hate it. Some guys love doing them though.”) Brendan has five different kinds of pins on his jacket, but my sister has only one. She just doesn’t go in for them.

The only similarity to the military is the important one; the willingness to throw down one’s life. At dinner a few weeks ago, my sister described a training exercise she had to help out with at the academy. The exercise was running into a smoke-filled building and finding your way around. At the academy that day they didn’t bother with the smoke, she said, but the room was pitch-black. “I’m the Lieutenant,” she said. “These four kids are waiting for me, following me. You know what was weird in that exercise? We were the first wave. But we know that in a big disaster, the first couple of waves, we’re just fodder. In maybe the third wave, you have a chance of coming out.” I looked at her. She just shrugged.

After the ceremony, our mother had her pose with Brendan for a photo. I looked again at their lapels, at the one pin they have in common, the only one my sister wears. Just about every uniform in that auditorium at LaGuardia, except for the new recruits, wore that pin. It’s a long, narrow rectangle. The left side is purple and the right side is black. It’s worn by everyone who was a FDNY firefighter or EMT on 9/11. On the left side is just a number, “343,” the number of firefighters who died that day. I couldn’t be more proud of my little sister.

[Some copy edits were made to this article on 24 January 2008.]

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19 hours, 7700 air miles, and 13 time zones

Posted by metaphorical on 19 January 2007

To my thousands and thousands of devoted readers and subscribers: I leave for Shanghai early Saturday morning, returning the evening of the 31st. Posting may be sporadic, and might take a travelogue-like turn. But don’t expect the stylistic second coming of Paul Bowles (more like Jane Bowles, I would think). Mambo-king: I expect to see a draft of your first assignment, no matter where I am.

Oh, and for the sticklers: the figure of 19 hours is door-to-door, or at least terminal-to-terminal, including a 2-hour layover in Chitown. I’ll only have 17 hours in the air, and only 14:30 on the main leg. Luckily I’ll have about 137 hours worth of reading material with me.

By the way, might be a good time to point out, as Brooklynite does on his blog, that this is National DeLurking Week 2007!

More posts from Shanghai here and here.

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In the prime of life?

Posted by metaphorical on 18 December 2006

My cousin writes to congratulate me on being 17—for the third time. In gratitude, I offer him another way to be less than elated about one’s age.

My next prime number age is 53. The one after that is 59, a six-year gap, as was the gap between 47 and 53. The gap between successive prime number ages generally gets larger as we get older. (I’m doing this mostly in my head, so I might miscalculate) but there seem to be 4 two-year gaps before 40, and only 2 after that, all the way to 100. There are only 2 six-year gaps before 40, after that there are 4.

The hidden message is that anyone 53 should savor his last two days of it. That means you, cousin.

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