Sunday, January 23, 2005

Accountability and the year 2000

The end of the second millenium has come and gone and we are busy setting the tone of the next century, perhaps even the next millenium. So, to the extent we can, it would be helpful if what we do makes a positive difference. The question arises: How do we know we made a positive difference? The only way to know is to have a purpose which is well defined and clear. However, being well defined and clear isn't always as simple as it appears, especially if your mind isn't set correctly in the first place.

By way of example, lets go back to the year 2000, specifically at 12:00 AM January 1. The world celebrated the beginning of a new millenium and had a grand time in general. The only problem being that it was a year too early. The people in charge of celebrating the occasion and those who put them in charge got it wrong. In an enlightened world, with science blazing new paths and worldwide standards of living going up, how could this happen?

First, people get to thinking a certain way and have a difficult time changing simply due to inertia.

Second, the inertia of thought is caused by biases we so take for granted that we have become unaware of them. Think CBS, NBC, ABC et al.

Third, the people don't understand the fundamental concepts used in solving a particular problem. The idea is to be able to come to valid conclusions based on some set of valid facts in a systematic way. To be valid, the conclusion must fit all the facts or at least some minimal subset consistently. This requires an understanding of all the underlying issues.

These reasons then compound to create mistakes. We aren't always as enlightened as we think.

So let's go back a few years and see how these reasons play out with the turn of the millenium. Just what was it we celebrated on January 1, 2000? It wasn't the beginning of a new millenium. We had just completed the 1999th year of the first two millenia. Please note in the previous sentence that the 'th' in '1999th' is not superscripted and could have been done on a manual Olympia typewriter in 1972 :). Ask Dan Rather. 1999 years is not equal to 2000 years and that moment was yet to arrive. This is about hubris, an overbearing pride or presumption in which the world collectively thinks that it really knows what it is doing. In this case, it didn't.

The first reason kicks in with a majority of people believing that the turn of the century occurs on January 1, 2000. There was a group mindset willing to accept that as a fact. You know the concept in animist terms: a sheep mentality. They simply never thought about it and never thought it important to investigate. Everybody is doing it, so what the hey?

The second reason is a bias in favor of large round numbers. As soon as a big round number comes along, it is something to celebrate. There is nothing wrong with this other than the big fat round number doesn't mean what they think it means. If you want to celebrate, almost any reason or excuse will do. In this case you are celebrating the number 2000, not 2000 years. Another bias is the leading number bias. We talk about the 60s, 70s, 80, and 90s. You have a 10 year periods where the leading number is 6, 7, 8, or 9. For example 60 is the last year of the sixth decade of the 20th century, and the rest of the 60s are in the seventh decade. To see it real clearly we go back to the first decade: you have years 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Count them up and you have ten numbers. That makes one decade, a decade being defined as 10 years. Year 10 is part of the first decade, 11 is in the second. To make the difference more pronounced, note that having finished the second millenium, we are now in the third. The actual time elapsed is 2.004063 millenia with today being January 23, 2005. No one would say that by entering the third millenium that we should celebrate 3000 years. The error of one year or a thousand is the same.

The third reason plays out for our premature celebration because a consensus of people didn't understand the difference between points and intervals. 2000 years is a point. The year 2000 is an interval from 12:00 AM January 1, to 12:00 PM December 31 inclusive. At what point in that interval do we complete 2000 years?

The correct answer is at 12:00 PM December 31, 2000 or 12:00 AM January 1, 2001.

You don't agree? Ok. Let's lay it all out.

There was no year zero. However, in order to measure 2000 years you must have a starting point: point zero. That is 0.00000... using as many zeros as you wish for precision. Starting at point 0 we enter the year 1. At the end of the first day how much time has elapsed? That number is 0.00273 years. We're not even close to 1. Yet it is year 1. That is because we use an integer to represent an entire 365 day interval. It is not a point. Any particular moment during the first year is a single point within the range of zero to one. At the end of day two, we are at 0.00547 years. Still nowhere close to a full year. We are closer. At the end of day three we are at 0.00822 years which is closer still. We don't have a full year until the end of the last day of year one. At this point we know that it is the end of the interval which tells us when we have accomplished our goal. If there are going to be 2000 full years, our measurement is complete at the end of the 2000th year, not its beginning.

The millenium celebrations were a year early. As errors go, it wasn't important really. But if you were sending a missle 2000 miles, you want it blowing up at the end of the 2000th mile, not its beginning. Unless there is an atomic warhead on it, one mile is too big of an error.

The point of clarity and accuracy is so that we can arrange solutions that really work. While it isn't always important, being in the habit of being clear and accurate prevents these kinds of errors whether the problem is important or not. Fundamental errors propagate through whole systems and make things complicated when they needn't be. When things go wrong and you can't account for why, it becomes far more difficult to find solutions. When things go wrong it is because assumptions are wrong or the set of assumptions is incomplete. In government, bureaucrats, agencies or polititians deliberately try to hide information about results or fundamental facts with the idea of promoting their own agendas at the expense of the rest of us. To this end, we want to be clear and make everything government does open to examination so we can determine whether we want to keep the status quo or whether we need change.

This article may contain errors of bias, inertia or lack of facts and you are free to comment and let me know. You might even find other categories of errors. :) I'll try to fix up any problems you discover.



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