Friday, May 19, 2023

Grasping a big number

We don't think about numbers linearly
That is, as numbers get large, their "largeness" kind of flat-lines in our thinking, like a logarithmic scale (*)

Grasp the future
We can't grasp the future very well either when it is really far removed from the present. 
Daniel Miessler posted this bit of schedule data in a recent blog:
The difference between a million and a billion is counter-intuitively large.

As an example, a million seconds is 12 days, and a billion seconds is 

32 years.
I had to look it up to confirm. That's bonkers.

Risk management
The phenomenon of a flattening of the future possibilities affects risk perception big time. 
If you're trying to finance your project, "2 year money" is more expensive than "10 year money". And "90 day" money is more expensive than either of those. 
The "cone of uncertainty".

We can 'accurately' gauge the next few weeks, perhaps even a year is not too far off. 
The finance guys think the near-term risks are more certain and more expensive than those we can't really forecast (so we fall back on historical models)
Just think about how the 'cone of uncertainty' widens as we view the future, but is it wide enough? Can we really bring our mind to consider the limiting case?

A million deaths in U.S. from COVID; no one would have accepted such an outlandish forecast of the cone of uncertainty when it all began.

"They say" that one really bad mistake is tragedy, but a thousand similar mistakes is just a lot of mistakes. We just can't muster the impact of one mistake multiplied up to that of a thousand.

And so it's generally understood that we view the future more optimistically that the present (there's time to fix things), or we have a bias towards optimism, as we cannot grasp the extent of the risk possibilities, even as someone gives us a number (one billion seconds: the mind numbs; there's no grasp of reality). Climate science is a present example.

(*) A log scale is plot of exponents, rather than that of the base number. As an example, the base number might go 10, 100, 1000 and be plotted as an ever-extending curve; but on a log scale, the plot of exponents is 1, 2, 3, and the plot would be linear, just a straight line. So whereas a phenomenon might change by a 1000:1, in our mind's eye we might flatten that to 3:1.  

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