Humor: Years and light-years.

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Wed, 10 Sep 1997 20:16:58 -0500

Anton Sherwood wrote:
> ... I once heard someone on radio say
> "This will put us years ahead, maybe even light-years."

Well, one year and six trillion miles *are* the same thing. He could have
been a physicist, familiar with Special Relativity, who was trying to say that
the change would result in either an advance in time or (better yet!) an
advance in distance, but with the same amount of advance on some fundamental
level. And he was so used to thinking of "light-years" as a unit of distance
that he didn't realize how silly the sentence started. If you translate the
sentence, it works out to:

"This will put us years ahead, maybe trillions of miles ahead."

Now, this sounds a bit out-of-context, but you can see how it might be
meaningful if separate correspondences for distance<->progress and
time<->progress had been established. A year and six trillion miles are the
same thing, after all, but one sounds much more impressive.

Since an event trillions of miles away (in our frame of reference) can't
affect us for years to come, he might have meant that there had been a huge
leap in technology, which wouldn't have any immediate effects, but would
result in a huge shock years down the road. An advance in nanotechnology, for example.

Or, moving light-years during a single advance (which presumably takes only a
few months to develop) would require a large Tau factor, meaning that you were
going close to the speed of light and time would slow down. So he could be
saying that the advance was moving very fast... or considering the other
implications of high Tau, he could be saying that it was of massive
importance. Or since we *know* the advance is moving very fast, he could be
saying that it's hard to pin down the position of the technology - a
Heisenbergian thing.

Of course, that would mean he only had a surface familiarity with Special
Relativity, because otherwise he would know perfectly well that, even though
it would seem like only a few months, it would also seem (from that frame of
reference) that distances had contracted, so one would not have appeared to
move light-years. However, this apparent error could be a witty commentary on
how quickly we acclimate, so that what was once the epitome of high technology
seems old and stale. After all, how can we move "years ahead" in just a few
months? In a few months, we move a few months ahead; the only faster progress
is relative to our previous estimates, just as one can traverse light-years in
months only from someone else's frame of reference. This would also introduce
the controversial concept that there is no absolute measurement of
technological progress.

Or, he could have meant it literally; traveling light-years in months within a
single frame of reference. Considering the Tau, he could be saying that the
advance was really imaginary. Or, if the speed of advance was continuous, he
could be implying that for a few moments, the researchers were infinitely
dense. Or, since FTL travel allows global causality violation, he could be
saying that this would give us a second chance at some previously botched
effort. Or he could simply be using it as a metaphor for a technology so
strange it violates our concept of causality, or referring to stock-market
speculation that would seem to put the effect before the cause.

Or, considering that General Relativity causes the speed of light to change
(as observed from another gravitational gradient), he could be implying that
the technology was close to a singularity. (Remember, earlier, how I
suggested he could be talking about nanotechnological progress?) Or, since
this is General Relativity, he could be saying that everything is relative -
or that the technological advance was relative *to* *a* *General*, meaning
that it was a *military* advance.


"Assume the speaker is right, then ask yourself HOW he could be right." - "The Gentle Art Of Verbal Self-Defense."

--       Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

Disclaimer:  Actually, I like the "slip-of-the-tongue"
explanation better.