Daze of Days

71ccdc1b59f35ce73cc9ba6f39d463a6Humans, as viewing agents, experience something called “perspective.” Close things look big, and distant things look small. If you don’t understand, get someone to whack you across the face with a baseball bat. The part where the bat looks big is bad.

In my childhood, I had moments where these lanes got scrambled: close things would sometimes look small and distant things would look big. Dust motes would momentarily seem like passing asteroids. Apparently I was suffering from Alice in Wonderland Syndrome. I had a mild case. Other people experience terrifying feelings with regard to their own bodies: their tongues will swell up in their mouths, grotesquely huge, threatening to burst past their lips like a slippery red anaconda. Or they’ll look down, to see a massive body balanced precariously on feet the size of thimbles. I’ve since recovered from that, but now suffer from Alice Through the Looking Glass Syndrome, which is where everyone ignores me for my more interesting and famous father.

Alice in Wonderland Syndrome is an illusion. But of course, normal perspective is an illusion, too. The baseball bat stays exactly the same size – it only appears bigger because it’s reflecting more photons into your retinas. It might seem scarier, and not unreasonably – a close-up baseball bat has more potential to harm you than one across the room: but it’s objectively still the same bat.

Chronology follows a similar kind of perspective: time gets bigger or smaller depending on how close it is. The day before and after this one are massive: I can remember lots of stuff I did yesterday, and can predict lots of stuff I will probably do tomorrow. Today is the biggest day of all. But further away, the days drastically resize, until eventually they’re invisibly small. I struggle to remember ten days ago. A hundred days ago I remember not at all. What’s the difference between the 1st of March, 663AD and the 2nd of March, 663AD? From my perspective, nothing. From the perspective of someone who lived on those two days, everything.

(Do people suffer from a chronological Alice in Wonderland Syndrome? Some old people have strong memories of events that happened years ago, but can’t remember yesterday. I’ve heard Catholic women say they strongly identify with Mary the Blessed Virgin, and feel more connected to her struggles than to those of their friends.)

Everyone understands that spatial perspective isn’t a real thing, independent of an observer. I wish more people would realise the same thing about time: that all days are exactly 24 hours long, and the events of one are not more important than the events of any other, except insofar as they affect our lives. You can make money when you see through the illusion.

Brian Caplan is an economist who likes to make bets. That sounds reasonable: even required. An economist who doesn’t make bets would be like a chaos theorist who does. The interest thing is…he wins all his bets. Code red, something isn’t right. Isn’t economics supposed to be a stupid black box that nobody understands? (“Economists were created to make weather forecasters look good.” – Rupert Murdoch)

Some are accusing him of “bum-hunting” – only making bets against crackpots with ridiculous viewpoints. Kind of like a boxer building a perfect record by beating up 10 year olds. But he wins even when he bets against intelligent people, like Tyler Cowen. Caplan insists that his “secret sauce” is refusing to privilege the short term.

“I take the “outside view.” When predicting, I start with long-run averages, and presume the “latest news” is distracting trivia. For example, when I made my unemployment bet with Tyler, I looked at all the unemployment data for 1948 to the present, and assumed the future would resemble the past. As usual, it did.”

In other words, the news is the enemy. To understand the world, you’ve got to zoom back from the distraction of recent events, and adjust all days to the same size. I’ve always noticed this, although I didn’t know how to put it. People complain about how America is a police state, and as soon as a shocking crime occurs, the cry becomes “WE NEED MORE COPS!!!”

I guess there’s practical consequences to treating the recent past and recent future (oxymoron) as more important, just as you might spend more time keeping in contact with geographically close relatives. It makes your life easier. But there’s more to life than making it easy – sometimes you need to understand things.

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