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7 min read

This is a story about moral superiority...

Standard lengths

We are all well aware that there's no point comparing anything unless we are using the same unit of measurement. To say that my penis is 6 long is meaningless. If it's 6 centimetres then that's not very impressive. If it's 6 millimetres that's a downright micropenis. If it's 6 feet then that's just an impractical length - I'd have to coil it up or sling it over my shoulder. Clearly it's important to know what unit of measurement we're talking about.

Next comes the problem of standardisation. If you've ever bought cocaine then you'll know that your drug dealer's scales use a different set of weights and measures than those which would be officially approved. On a fully calibrated weighing scale, you may be disappointed to learn that you've been ripped off by at least 10%, not including whatever was added to bulk out the product when your precious powder was cut.

On the topic of comparing apples with apples, how should we compare 1g of cocaine cut with teething powder, with 1g of cocaine cut with powdered milk? Is it even meaningful to compare weight when we don't know the purity? You might not even be buying cocaine - there are many [cheaper] drugs that mimic its effects, and others that are added to give the classic numbness you feel when it's rubbed on your gums or snorted.

So, if we have measured length, weight and density (or purity) then what else is there that we could measure? Time. How do we measure time?

We had the movement of the sun, the flow of sand and water through primitive timing devices, and clockwork, but the devices are not very accurate. It wasn't until the miniaturisation of clockwork movements into pocket watches that we had a reliable device to keep time, but these are still quite inaccurate. It was discovered that quartz crystals had a mechanical resonance, and that an electronic device could 'count' the vibrations - 32,768 vibrations is 1 second. Temperature fluctuations will cause a quartz digital clock to gain or lose a second or two over the course of a year. It sounds accurate enough and for the purposes of this piece I won't delve any deeper into the strange workings of time.

Now, let's suppose you and I synchronise our watches and say to one another "let's meet back here at this time tomorrow" do you suppose we have both experienced exactly 24 hours, when we meet up again the following day? Do you suppose that each of our 24 hours passed at exactly the same rate?

I could explain some of the minutiae of special and general relativity, but I'm writing about the kind of relativity that we experience every day. Unless you're on a spaceship travelling at 97% of the speed of light, special relativity is not really going to apply in everyday life. Unless you're mucking about near a neutron star, general relativity is of no concern in this terrestrial tale.

So, you and your companion parted ways for 24 hours. So, when you compare your watches, they're still showing exactly the same time, right? But, did time flow at the same rate for both of you? Is it a useful comparison to say that both of you experienced the same 24 hours, as measured by your watches?

Let's imagine our two experimenters - call them Alice and Bob - went about their normal business. Alice is a scientist and she went back to her lab where she had some discussions with her colleagues about the fundamental nature of reality. Bob works in a pea factory, canning peas. Bob went back to the pea factory and did a 12-hour shift, pulling a lever that puts a pre-measured quantity of peas into a can. Alice isn't even sure how long she was at work, because she was so engrossed in her discussions with fascinating people. Bob knows exactly how long he was at work, because his whole time he was wishing the factory whistle would blow so he could go and punch his timecard. Was one hour of Alice's work the same as one hour of Bob's work?

Next, Alice and Bob go home. Alice has a husband she adores, 3 kids and a cat. She put the kids to bed and drank a glass of red wine with her husband, while updating him on the day's events. Bob lives on his own in a dismal flat. Bob sat drinking vodka because he hates his job, but he has to do another 12-hour shift tomorrow. Did Alice and Bob's evening pass at the same speed as each other's?

Alice slept for 7 hours before springing out of bed to get the kids up and prepare breakfast. She was buzzing with energy and full of enthusiasm about the day ahead. Bob slept for 12 hours and woke up with a sense of dread - he was disappointed that he hadn't died in his sleep. Clearly, there was a disparity in the amount of sleep each of them got, although their watches did not go to sleep. How can we compare two people's day, when we get different amounts of sleep?

We might agree that Alice and Bob's watches experienced the same 24 hours, insofar as can be measured using hours, minutes and seconds, but do you think that time passed at the same speed for them, in the way that they subjectively experienced it? Is time a meaningful unit at all, in this context?

Imagine if every hour we asked Alice and Bob to rate how fast the last hour had passed for them - either "quickly", "slowly" or "normal". We might see that Alice rates her hours as passing quickly, while Bob rates his hours as passing slowly. When we consider this, we see that their conscious hours are very different indeed, and the actual number of hours, minutes and seconds elapsed is not a very useful measure.

Thinking about this disparity in perceived hours, between different individuals in different jobs, it seems quite obvious that it's cruel and torturous to expect those who are suffering to tolerate the passage of time, when others find that their day flies by with ease.

What we see is that a number of people won't hold down a job, and will chop and change between different money-getting pursuits because they find most work to be unbearably shit. Some of us will find so little difference between one McJob and another, that we will be unable to work at all. Some of us know very clearly what kind of work we can't stand: working in offices and having to get up early in the morning, is very badly suited to a night-owl who has a brain and a personality, for example.

Relatively speaking, I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm extremely well remunerated and I pretty much do whatever I want - I'm not somebody you could ever 'manage' or boss around. If I don't feel like working, I don't go to work. If I want to quit, I can quit and find another job really easily. The problem with work is that it never pays enough for what's expected of you - the pay packet never fully compensates you for giving up your precious time, and the interminable tedium. Obviously, that's slightly insulting, considering I earn bucketloads, but I'll gladly switch with you and flip burgers for a while, because the monotony of my 20 year career is killing me.

The grass is greener etc. etc. Believe me I don't want to be mopping floors as my full-time occupation and getting paid minimum wage. However, it's completely bafflingly insane to be grateful for a job that's making you unwell and robbing you of your precious time. We only get one life so I don't understand why we spend so much of it bullying each other into working shitty jobs. I don't understand why those whose days are excruciatingly awful don't complain and demand a hundredfold pay increase. I don't understand why more people don't decide to go hungry and homeless, in the face of the oppressive tyranny of bullshit jobs.

Given the obvious health risks of being bored and stressed at work - as bad if not worse than smoking cigarettes - then I think we should be getting danger money. They're not paying us enough!