Sunday, March 28, 2010

Except At Zero, We Never Stand Still

What time is it?

Sounds like a simple enough question, but I'm going to go much deeper than that. Can you think of a single aspect of your life, or in the world, that doesn't move forward - or backwards? That is frozen in time, never progressing or regressing?

Think of your habits, health, relationships, money, possessions, and opportunities, and anything that is important to you. Changes can be subtle or dramatic, and the goal of this post is to give you one amazing reason why.

But first, I want you to think of every asset and every challenge in every aspect of your life in mathematical terms, and I'll make it easy for you if numbers ain't your thing.

There is a wise, older physics professor named Albert A. Bartlett. I like what I've seen of him, a lot. His specialty is sustainable living.

Two weeks ago I stumbled upon an old lecture in 1999 and have been pondering other uses for his wisdom since then. Dr. Bartlett presented a unique, amazing and easy way of understanding the problem of population growth and diminishing resources by using an example he calls Bacteria In A Bottle.

I've taken it a step further.

In this post, I'll quickly show you how to apply this example to the problems in your life, along with the big picture. The advantage is you'll get a peak into the future, your future.


By knowing when a problem began, you can have a better idea of how it will progress if no action is taken to stop it.

Now for the easy arithmetic. If something grows "exponentially", it only means that it grows at a certain pace over time.

Pretend that one bacteria in a bottle is a problem you have.

This bacteria is an analogy for any kind of challenge, i.e., how you handle your money, homework assignments, office work, eating habits, excessive spending, loneliness, depression, anxiety, alcohol, drugs, gambling, health, dating, love, sex, friends, family, relatives, neighbors. Anything. Like many things or problems, they start off small, or seem small.

Below is his a visual representation his Bacteria In A Bottle metaphor.

It is 11 o'clock. The bacteria (your problem) is microscopic.

It has a lot of space in this bottle. It will grow by doubling in size every minute. We could just as easily say every month, year, or decade, but we'll use Dr. Bartlett's example and say that it doubles every minute.






Thirty two

The bacteria has been growing exponentially, or doubling their number every minute. As you can seen, five minutes have gone by, there are thirty two bacteria, and they still have a great deal of space.

If this bacteria is representative of a problem, it is still so small that it's probably flying under your radar and everyone elses.

What time do you think it will it be when the bottle is half full?

Take a guess.

Here's the answer:


Guess what time it will be when the bottle is full?

12 o'clock

The reason is that the bacteria did what it always did, and at the same pace - it grew by doubling every minute.

Now let's pretend that bacteria can think.

Let's go back a bit to 11:58. At that time they would have filled up only 1/4 of the bottle because they double every minute, at 11:59, they were at the halfway mark.

Some bacteria may been alarmed over the "sudden" rapid growth, but still thought they had plenty of space and time left, they didn't, because nothing changed in their behavior.

With the bottle full at 12 o'clock, the bacteria would have suffered in numerous ways from overcrowding and not enough resources, but they had remarkable good luck and found three empty bottles!

They sang and danced and celebrated. The one thing they didn't do was change their behavior, because they thought a major change had occurred and that they had plenty more resources to continue doing the same thing they always did.

Since they doubled their number every minute, guess how long it took to fill up three new empty bottles?

At 12:01, the second bottle is full.

At 12:02, they've doubled again,
and the 3rd & 4th bottles are full.

Note: hat tip to this site for the illustrations, two that I slightly modified to make the bacteria clearer.

You can watch Dr. Bartlett explain the Bacteria In A Bottle problem here, in Part 3, beginning at 3:25 minutes, if you don't want watch first three of eight videos that I uploaded.

Also check out Part 2 beginning at 5:00 minutes, and Part 1 is a definitely a don't miss; he explains how the number 70 is like a magic number. It's not; it may have been the genius of the guy who modified a Persian game called shantranj, which evolved into chess.

You can calculate the doubling time of anything by using the number 70, divided by the percentage of growth.

Here's an example that comes to mind. If your Internet bill is $100 per month, with a 7% annual increase, it doesn't sound like much of an increase. However, 70/7 = 10 years. (That's that magic number divided by the 7%.) The answer, ten years, is the time it will take for the bill to double to $200 per month.

If we're talking about your rent at $1000 a month, an annual increase of 7% will have you paying twice that ten years from now.

What if the growth is "only" 5% a year? This would be 70/5 = 14 years before the rent doubled.

So let's look at your weight. Say you weigh around 150 pounds and have had trouble keeping it down, and you gain an average of 4% each year.

"Oh, I gained six pounds this year," doesn't sound like a whole lot. When you do the math, though, 70/4 = 17.5 years is the time it will take you to double your weight.

At this rate, in 17.5 years of unstoppable growth, you'll weigh 300 pounds. This explains how those small moments of eating just a little bit too much add up big time, and why so many Americans are overweight and suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure in their 30s or 40s. Their bodies are the environment, and cannot sustain good health or even life from uncontrolled growth.

Now you might try to what several countries are trying with population problems and sustainability, by doing something called "smart" growth. This is where you see the trend in saving the environment. You may even own a cute T shirt that says I've Gone Green!, but if you haven't quite gone down to zero growth in the resources you use, the pollution you make or the number of kids you have, it only slows down the problem, not stops it.

As Dr. Bartlett said:

"Smart growth or dumb growth, both destroy the environment. Smart growth just destroys it with good taste. It's a little like buying a ticket on the Titanic. If you're smart, you go first class. If you're dumb you go in storage. The result is the same."

We often attempt to use smart growth to solve our personal problems as well. We see dieters, smokers, workaholics, alcoholics, addicts, gamblers and the sexually promiscuous attempt this. Their reasoning is mathematically sound, i.e., "If I cut back on xyz a little each day, by next month (or year), I'll be free of the problem."

Yeah, if you don't cheat and relapse. Otherwise it's true, but even zero growth
(or zero dysfunctional behavior) may not solve a serious problem. For these, you will need to go into negative growth to eliminate it.

To use the diet example again, the 150 pound person who loses 4% of their weight each year could theoretically weigh zero pounds in 17.5 years. This is more the case of slow-moving famine or disease, and of course, they'd be dead long before then.

Instead you see people use a different time frame with a different end goal in mind.

If they shoot for six pounds or 4% each month, they can stop after three or four months, depending on their goal - and then go into zero growth, not "smart" growth with the resource that tempts them (or you, if you have the weight problem). Having discipline and determination to do this is a whole 'nuther matter.

As Dr. Albert A. Bartlett said, "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."

Discipline and determination can bring some of our problems to zero growth. At least now you have a heads up on how and why our problems never stand still, and without behavior changes, you can guesstimate the end game of your own or those close to you.


  1. Twelve hours and no comments? This must be a WTF? post, lol. Well, lemme know what you think about this one if it's interesting to you.

    If not, maybe you'll like my other new post, Fallen Or Failed?, at my new weekend blog, here.


  2. "Smart growth or dumb growth, both destroy the environment. Smart growth just destroys it with good taste. It's a little like buying a ticket on the Titanic. If you're smart, you go first class. If you're dumb you go in storage. The result is the same."

    This is a classic statement. There is an issue with humanity and its lack of understanding of it's exponential effect on each other and the earth. Locust without cause, without knowing we are locust, and without another planet to inhabit (maybe that's why space exploration is so important).

  3. Well Kit, this may be too deep for some folks. I read the whole post and then sat back to see if anyone replied.

    This blog world can be a fickled bunch. But put some lil Wayne on here and maybe a sliding pole and... you build it and they will come *lol*

    But seriously, this was a long post and, well, it worked me. I mean, I felt like I was back in college. And, unfortunately (for me), it was a class I failed. I got the point, or gist of the post, but I didn't know what to say.

  4. Great post and easy to understand. I liked it on so many levels. The genius of it is you applied one branch of knowledge seamlessly to another for the everyday person to figure out where they are in their own problems.

  5. Folk, Thanks. You mentioned space exploration. If we found another planet to inhabit, like the settlers did in North America, would the new earth have the same problem a minute later if no changes in our behavior were made?

    I'm wondering this because we've been around for several thousand years, but with industry and technology have only be part of humanity for a 100 years. Thus a century ago, we were close to one minute before 12:00.

    Like you said, we are the locusts. To survive, we'll have to be otherwise.

    Carey, *chuckling about the Lil Wayne thing*

    Anyway, my regulars know I write essays more so than the classic of 500 words, and they're a pretty sharp bunch. This one was quite a bit different, though, from what I've done before. Maybe I can chalk off the quietness yesterday to folks being busy on a Sunday.

    Paul, Thank you and I'm glad you enjoyed it. I hope it gives people food for thought.

  6. The time reference in the beginning was very thought provoking. It's like when you're in a car going 60 MPH. You are also going 60 MPH even though you feel like you're sitting still.

    If that car were to be stopped abruptly, you'd still keep going at 60 MPH...

    Little things add up. We don't get that straw to camel analogy from thin air. Small things are tricky, too -- turn your back for 15 mins and anything's liable to happen.

  7. A.Smith, Heh-heh-heh. You go to the head of the class.

  8. I get exactly what you're saying, o wise one, and yeah the post is deep. It's a good one though...

  9. I ain't even gonna lie Kitt....
    I had to reread this twice before I kinda sorta got it. I understand the concept and I get it, but all that damn math had a brother like woah.
    I hate math. The only thing I like counting is money. But I cosign with everyone else Professor, this post was deeper than the sunken Titanic.
    See Professor? I was paying attention....

  10. Penny Wize, You have me laughin'.

    Dirty Red, My eyes used to glaze over in math, too, until I met a neat guy in my Algebra class who introduced me to the Math Library. We started going after each class to do our homework, and this helped in a lot of ways, from getting it down while it was still fresh to the help there.

    Thanks for telling me this; I re-read too and tweaked a couple paragraphs to make it a bit easier.

  11. Readers, I just discovered this guy, a finance analyst who donates his knowledge.

    Salmon Khan on YouTube
    is the channel you want to watch for short, easy to understand lessons in math, finance, banking, bonds, the Bailout, the Geithner Plan, and other subjects like chemistry and the French Revolution.

  12. KIT, I read it and loved every minute of it. Just don't have a moment these days to write the kind of thoughtful, cohesive responses I'd like to.

  13. Little late arriving at this post.Indian time. No I followed the "here" link from your latest post.

    This makes a lotta sense, it's an excellent example of how we can put off action cause we're not gonna be affected till some time in the future, be it car repair or global warming.

    The old physics professor is a wise individual and you ain't no slouch yourself Kit!

  14. Thanks, Oso. Dr. Bartlett's first three videos (each less than 10 minutes) on this concept are surprisingly interesting and easy to understand. If my 14 year old could sit through them and understand them, anyone reading this can too. I highly recommend them.

    Thing is, when you 'get it', personal problems suddenly make sense, and the big ones affecting us all do too. Better yet, we understand oh-so-well what the future holds when we keep doing what we've been doing.


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