Pondering Time Before the Pandemic

Time is a funny concept.

For most of humanity, time has been an arbitrary measure of things. It was Protagoras who waxed philosophically that man was the measure of all things and certainly man invented time. So the philosophical question is to ask is time then imperfect?

Civilizations that remain lost to our lives created calendars that we marvel at the astronomical accuracy of today. Of course, the skies before our industrial economy were clear and vast in the past, and while we look for written records as evidence, the ruins that populate Instagram and fuel speculation about purpose. Mostly about time or the position of constellations. Places that would take a long time to visit.

Technology has increasingly achieved what has resulted in the most accurate time ever. GPS (global positioning satellites) pinpoints time and place so that airplanes and rockets, ships, and your neighbor’s SUV can reach places no matter what the conditions are.

Computers, for instance, count time by seconds. The idea of a day is a measure of how many seconds have transpired. But then things get wonky. A week is seven days. A month is …

So what is a month? Recently I was on my way to Ecuador. The trip was booked in February for a travel date in late November. On the day of departure, I got to the airport and was surprised to find out that I could not check in because I did not have six months of validity left on my passport.

Frustrated, I realized that the time I would need to spend to get an emergency same day renewal was going to outweigh the point of the trip, which was a much-needed retreat. I’d have to get from LGA to a passport office. NYC was the default passport office location. If I chose to that, then a wait while they processed the renewal, pay an expedited fee, and then come back the next day for a rebooked flight. I thought of going somewhere else, where this 6-month rule was not in place, but because of a confluence of timing, thanksgiving being the peak American travel period, it would be an expensive option.

Time is the one thing money can’t buy. Once you spend time, it’s gone. You can buy time, in a way, time off from something, but it’s an entirely arbitrary system.

Our economy functions on a trade-off of time for money, but increasingly, time is traded without compensation for it because it has become accepted that you are always connected. And yet, unless you are in control of what you produce, you aren’t really getting a fair exchange.

So what is a month or a week or a day?

Contracts often talk about days. A project I did for a client merged the idea of time and contracts. They wanted a web-based application that would track time off for municipal employees covered by dozens of labor contracts. Often I would read the contract to uncover a clause that would state that an employee would earn a 1/4 day of time off for every month they worked. I would have to calculate what a day was, based on what a workweek was, and then convert all that to algorithms that would identify an employee by location and contract. A 32-hour workweek would calculate differently than a 35 hour work week or a 40-hour workweek. And then what was considered a day of work when schedules could result in 10 hour days?

Then there were the leap years. An extra day wedged into the month of February to account for the elliptical orbit of the earth.

From the end of November to the date, my passport expired was 168 days. Half of a 365 day is 182.5 days. I was missing 14 days.

May is the 5th month of the year. December is the 12th. Together they represent six months.

But computers, running programs that someone programmed, don’t live in a world where their position on a calendar calculates months. They are coded by people who make decisions on how to calculate a day, a week, or a month. An algorithm blocked my ability to fly to Ecuador. Assuming I made it to an immigration desk in Ecuador, I would have been scrutinized by a human who would see that my passport would expire six months after I left the country.

Algorithms govern so much in life these days. Where you live, what your credit score is, what box you check on a form. Decisions are made based on what criteria are set, interpreted by programmers who learn their craft by reviewing the imprecise words of lawyers, politicians, regulators, scientists, and people.

The requirement by the government of Ecuador required six months of passport validity. The question of validity on departure date or arrival date? How that is interpreted results in different outcomes for the edge cases.

Three months, or 90 days. So many legal contracts make such arbitrary time calculations. In 90 days, my passport would have still been valid. In exactly another 90 days, it would not have been. The two 90 day periods are a total of 180 days. Not quite half the year defined as 182.5. So two three month periods of 90 days is not necessarily six months or half a year.

My return flight to leave Ecuador was scheduled for midnight on November 29th. 00:00 hours. An hour earlier, and it would have left a day earlier. The number of days between November 28th and May 5th, the day my passport would be invalid is 180. Still 2.5 days short of the magical algorithmically calculated 182.5.



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