Commentary: Time

Updated: Oct 13

How does the measurement of time impact your progress toward success? Have you ever wondered what is so special about December 31 that all success hinges on the values of your securities in relation to exactly 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 20 seconds earlier?

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” – Leo Tolstoy

Dear Family, Friends, and Clients,

Does time exist? If you sit and ponder this question in a quiet room alone it could cause deep enough thought to stimulate a little anxiety. “Of course, it does- I can see the clock ticking right there.” But time is not consistent, it is relative. Due to gravitational time dilation, a watch on your ankle will eventually fall behind a watch on your wrist given sufficient ticking years- which means that technically, your head ages faster than your toes. Furthermore, due to relative velocity time dilation, an atomic clock on the International Space Station will fall behind an equivalent clock down on the ground because of the high speed at which it travels around the Earth; astronauts return home ever so slightly younger than they should be. In this case, the magnitude of the relative velocity time dilation is greater than the impact of gravitational time dilation, because the closer one is to the center of the Earth, the slower time moves. Time passes faster at the top of a mountain than it does at sea level. These are all minute effects that accumulate over many passing seconds, but it begs the question: Does time exist?

An even more important question is whether what we perceive as time requires observation to manifest. According to the relationalists, time is really a measure of motion; it prevents everything from happening at once. It prevents the motion of particles viewed by us as events from occurring simultaneously. In a sense, there is no motion without time- and is there time without an observer? Quantum Physics has shown that subatomic particles only exist as probabilities until they are measured. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) concluded that “time is all in our heads” after a lifetime of pondering, and many physicists and philosophers agree with him.

So how does the measurement of time impact your progress toward success? We are told that average annual returns, as compared to an index, are the way we should judge our success. Some even wring their hands over quarterly returns or even shorter periods of time. Have you ever wondered what is so special about December 31 that all success hinges on the values of your securities in relation to exactly 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 20 seconds earlier? Determining the validity of this last premise will be our purpose in this exploration.

Fine Print

Alfred Korzybski was a Polish American academic who developed a discipline called General Semantics. His theory was that no human can directly experience reality because we are limited by our senses and by our language. There are certain concepts and emotions that we simply lack the words to express, so we are forced to use the words we have available to give an estimate of what we think, or how we feel. “The map is not the territory”, was his famous mantra. Looking at a map of Germany does not allow the viewer to experience Germany, even though it can help one understand the structure of the country. We can never truly think outside of abstractions, because of the physical limits of our nervous system and the structure of our lexicon. I bring this up because we will discuss time as an abstraction, and we may never truly understand the nature and reality of time.

Base Units of Time

Let us consider whether time is continuous or discreet. In other words, is there a measure of time that is a still frame, like a movie, or is it infinitely divisible? The smallest theoretical unit of time is Planck Time, which is 10-43 seconds. That is a decimal, followed by 42 zeros, 1. The smallest unit of time that has been measured is the zeptosecond. A zeptosecond is a trillionth of a billionth of a second, and it measures how long it takes for single photon to travel the length of a hydrogen atom. Apparently, it takes 247 zeptoseconds for this journey, but we will have to take their word for it. An even larger measure is the attosecond, which is 1,000 zeptoseconds. 100 attoseconds is to 1 second as 1 second is to 300 million years. 24 attoseconds is the atomic unit of time. It appears that the search for an infinitesimal tick of time is still currently beyond our ability to measure it, so we will have to consider time continuous given the information that we have.

“You’re splitting hairs, Allen, who cares about this, let’s talk about stocks!” A perfectly rational opinion on the subject- but putting time into perspective is an important key to the emotional aspect of investing. Spinoza said that you must “measure all things in the aspect of calamity”, but I have also read that same quote translated as “measure all things in the aspect of eternity”, the latter I like better, but they are both poignant statements. Understanding the massive scope and scale of time allows us to find our exact location in the Universe. As Tennessee Williams wrote in The Glass Menagerie, “time is the longest distance between two places.” If we define distance in terms of difficulty and effort required to reach, imagine how far you are from any day in your past, even when you are standing in the same spot. Our longest measures of distance are the time it takes for light to travel.

An Interlude

Time feels like a river of motion that moves us from one “now” to the next. If you think about your life, you spend 100% of it living “now”, but you probably spend 98% of it thinking of sometime in the past or the future that isn’t “now”. Yet each successive “now” is the culmination of all the decisions you’ve made in a period of time that was not “now”. Each “now” you experience is dependent on your decision making at a point in the Universe that has become impossible to reach. This is why we put so much emphasis on good decision making; there are no do overs for reality. Once we have made a bad decision, all future moments are shaped by the impact of that error. It would be just as difficult to change something that happened 1 minute ago, than it would be to change Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon on January 10, 49 BC, which if you read on you will find that even locating that day may be impossible given the difficulty inherent in measuring our trips around the sun.

The current best estimate of the age of the Universe is 14 billion years. To put that into perspective, according to Carl Sagan, “if the cosmic calendar is the size of a football field, all of human history would be the size of my hand”. If the Big Bang occurred during the first second of January 1, all of human history would be the last 10 seconds of December 31. Modifying Spinoza’s advice to view things in the aspect of eternity seems punitive in this case, so we will limit ourselves to relevant eternity. But what amount of time is relevant?

Tracking, Measuring, Naming

The first possible observation of a hominid tracking time was found in the Dordogne Valley in France. Archeologists found an eagle bone with hash marks estimated to be about 30,000 years old. While there is no proof that the carvings are meant to track the passing of moon phases, the pattern and number of tallies is consistent with a 29.5-day month and contains 2.5 months of data. There is also the possibility that the carvings are counting hunting kills, or simply used for knife sharpening. 24,000 years later, in the Neolithic Period, large stone structures called megaliths were being built so that position of the sun would indicate what time of year it was. As the rising sun made its way around the ring of stones, it would reveal within a few days how far away time to plow, sow, or reap was at any given time, when animals would migrate, and when the leaves on the trees would return. There are even some funerary megaliths that focus light on a back wall only on the day of the winter solstice. Tracking the seasons allowed primitive humans to gain their bearings on what time of year it was and allowed them to reliably practice agriculture. The winter solstice let them know that the days were about to get longer, and that winter had arrived.

Once civilization progressed to the point of standardized spoken languages and written words, they turned their eyes to the sky and began making observations of the stars to have a clearer view of exactly what time in the cycle of life it was, and what that meant for weather, crops, animal migration, and eventually religious holidays. As early as 1600 BC the Babylonians were making observations of Venus, and not much later the Egyptians were finding repeating patterns in the sky that correlated with the annual flooding of the Nile, a critical event in their farming cycle. Around 700 BC, Greek writer Hesiod wrote, “when the Pleiades, daughters of Atlas, are rising, begin your harvest, and your plowing when they are going to set”. The first true calendar predates these astronomical observations and was created by the Sumerians in around 2000 BC. The Sumerian Calendar was a lunisolar calendar that broke the year (solar cycle) into 12 months (lunar cycle). The Sumerian calendar was followed by the creation of calendars by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Hebrews, and Chinese.

Our modern calendar is descended from the Roman calendar. The original Roman calendar had 304 days, broken down into 10 months, which meant that it consistently deviated from the tropical year. Our months of September, October, November, and December mean 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th months, respectively, and oddly enough, the new year began in March for many centuries. By the time of Julius Caesar, the year had expanded to 355 days, and in order to rectify the drifting seasons, magistrates or priests (depending on the source) would decree additional months of varying degree to restore synchronization with the solar year. Unfortunately, as is true of human nature, political motivations soiled this process, and favored Senates would get extra days and unfavored Senates would get fewer days, and various other schemes ensued to personally enrich the lords of the calendar. Caesar attempted to clean up the political machinations involved in keeping the calendar by bringing together scholars to study the heavens and implement the new Julian Calendar. The first year of implementation, 46 BC, had 445 days and he called it “the last year of confusion” (ultimus annus confusionis).

Alas, the poor Julian calendar only had 365.25 days in the year and was consistently running short by 11 minutes per year. That doesn’t sound like much, but by the 16th century, the calendar was 11 days behind reality, and it was starting to push Easter into the summer. A travesty in the mind of Pope Gregory XIII. So, a new commission was formed, and our current calendar, the Gregorian Calendar, was devised with the help of a physician named Aloysius Lilius, and a few other Jesuit priests and astronomers. The new calendar was 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 20 seconds. Unfortunately, still 26 seconds short of reality. Our current calendar gains a day every 3,300 years.

To catch the Gregorian Calendar up to reality from the Julian Calendar, 11 days had to be skipped. Most of the predominantly Catholic nations adopted the new calendar soon after October 15, 1582- the day after October 4, 1582. However, England held out until 1752, and on September 14 of that year, mass protests ensued to “give us back our 11 days”. Seems the peasants were under the impression that their life had been shortened by the skipped days, and merchants and landlords were afraid of losing interest and rent. Russia joined us in 1918, and the last holdout, China, relented in 1949.

With the invention of the lunisolar calendar, the year was neatly broken down into 12 months and weeks were broken down into 7 days, which is mostly likely because the 29.5-day lunar cycle has 4 phases of 7.375 days each. Saturday, Sunday, and Monday are named after Saturn, Sun, and Moon, respectively. Tuesday through Friday are named after German gods: Tiw, Woden, Thor, and Freya.

Even after the advent of a neat and tidy calendar that perfectly tracks the heavens, the days themselves are amorphous. There is morning, and mid-day, and evening, but at what exact point in time on a certain day should you show up for an important meeting? The Egyptians had obelisks and the Babylonians and Greeks had sundials, but these could only approximately calculate the time, and only during the day, and the length of the hours depended on the seasons. The Romans were especially uninterested in time, which is illustrated by a story of a sundial being captured by general Valerius Messalla in the Gree