How long’s a piece of string?

How long’s a piece of string?

20110320 Catenary window smile chippenham station 150x150 How longs a piece of string?

“In a few moments time this train will be calling at Bristol Temple Meads, where this service will terminate.  Bristol Temple Meads your final station stop.  All change please, all change.”

This is a second most familiar announcement to those regularly travelling on the Great Western Railway line between London and Bristol, the most familiar being, “We’re sorry that the 1709 First Great Western service to Bristol Temple Meads is delayed by approximately 23 minutes”.  Public transport.  We loves it.

This is a photograph of Chippenham station.  There is currently a Portakabin situated near the front gate with an LV power supply dangling beneath a couple of windows.  I spotted it the other day as I walked past.  Those of you who have read other posts will notice that a lot of things happen “the other day”.  I find it a useful phrase for any unspecified date in the past, either forgotten or not important to the flow of the article.

Time is interesting in that it is very subjective and perceptions of it vary from one moment to the next and from person to person.  You might have your head down, engrossed in something for hours and it will feel like minutes.  On the other hand you might be clock-watching in a boring meeting that lasts only an hour.  Only an hour, I say!  Again that depends.  If you were given a free shopping spree for an hour, à la Supermarket Sweep, it would be great.  But if you had to walk home for an hour carrying what you had just “purchased” it would be less so.  Is an hour long or short?

There is a fantastic Indonesian expression “Karet!” which means “rubber” but alludes to the stretchiness of elastic bands in reference to a relaxed attitude to timekeeping.  In Britain we are terrible at timekeeping.  If a party is billed to start at 8.30pm, expect the first guests to arrive around 9.00pm.  It’s known as being fashionably late… or something.  On the one hand, everyone accepts it and it’s a way of life.  On the other hand people expect punctuality – especially when you have paid for it, like public transport.  My continental upbringing has taught me punctuality and I try to make an effort to be somewhere on time if it matters.  5 minutes here and there is forgivable, especially on a weekday when people have busy lives, running from work to social engagements in the evening.

So, exactly how long is a few moments?  Are you ready for some screwball logic?  Are you ready to have a few moments of your life wasted?  Bear with me while I take you on a quasi-philosophical journey.

Firstly the definition of a few is somewhat open to interpretation.  I understand a few to mean any undefined small number for which there is no name or set phrase.  Perhaps by looking at it in the context of weeks, a clearer understanding can be gained.  If someone told you “a few weeks”, most people (according to a quick Google search) would say the answer is three.  After all, seven days is a week, a fortnight is two, a month is four and a dozen is a quarter.  All numbers in between are small undefined numbers.  On this basis a few could then be quantified as three, five or any number between six and 11 (inclusive).  In the words of Aleksandr Orlov: Simples!

Having quantified a few, how long is a moment?  I understand a moment to be longer than an instant.  An instant is something instantaneous but greater than zero – it is the shortest non-zero quantity of time possible.  It is infinitesimal (if we neglect Planck Time).  That’s the lower bound, but what about the longest duration of a moment?  Following the same screwball logic as before, the largest quantity of time a moment can be is that quantity of time for which no single set phrase exists.  The answer then, is any duration of time upto a minute but not a minute itself – so 59 seconds to the nearest tick on your average clock.

So how long is a few moments?  It is unquantifiable but I am pleased to present to you a solution in terms of a range, for the first time in human history: it has a lower bound of 3 seconds and an upper bound of 10 minutes 49 seconds, or if you’re that way inclined:

00:00:3 ≤ A few moments ≤ 00:10:49

The average would be 5 minutes and 26 seconds.  Maths geeks will no doubt be jumping up and down shouting at the screen, pointing out that I should have used 60 seconds as the upper bound for a moment and then used a less than symbol instead of less than or equal to but 59 gives more interesting numbers and I have tried to fudge a reason for using that instead…

Next time someone asks you for a few moments of your time get your stopwatch out and hold them to account.  I know I won’t.  If only trains ran on time this thought would never have occurred to me.  Now, how long’s a piece of string…

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