Time is both one and many

As you intuitively know, there is only one time. Yet in the domain of information modeling we speak of “valid time”, “transaction time”, “user defined time”, “system time”, “application time”, “happening time”, “changing time”, “speech act time”, “inscription time”, “appearance time”, “assertion time”, “decision time” and so on, as not being the same. In fact, I will boldly say that the only one of these coming close to true time is happening time, defined in Anchor modeling as ‘the moment or interval at which an event took place’, even if it goes on to define other types of time. However, if we assume that only happening times exist, then all other types of time should be able to be represented on the form:

[EventTimepoint].

In Transitional modeling we have the concept of a posit, with its appearance time defined as ‘the time when some value can be said to have appeared (or will appear) for some thing or a collection of things’. However, it also has assertion time, defined as ‘the time when someone is expressing an opinion about their certainty toward a posit’. To exemplify, “Archie and Bella will be ‘married’ on the 1st of April” and “Charlie is expressing that he is almost certain of this on the 31st of March”. In this case the 1st of April is the appearance time and 31st of March the assertion time.

Given the previous assumption on how to represent everything as events and time points, we can rewrite the previous example as [The value ‘married’ appears for Archie and Bella1st of April] and [The value ‘almost certain’ is given to a posit by Charlie31st of March]. Now they are on the same form, indicating that there is indeed only one true time. Why, then, do we feel the need to distinguish between appearance and assertion time? Why not just have a single “event time”? Well, as it turns out, there is a crucial difference between the two, but it has less to do with time and more to do with the actual events taking place.

Some events are temporally orthogonal to each other. Charlie can change his mind about how certain he is of the posit, independently of the posit itself. The posit “Archie and Bella will be ‘married’ on the 1st of April” remains the same, even if Charlie changes his mind and [The value ‘quite uncertain’ is given to a posit by Charlie1st of April]. Maybe Charlie realized that he may have been the subject of an elaborate prank, strengthened by the fact that he was only given one day’s notice of the wedding and that pranks are quite frequent on this particular day. To summarize, for one given point in appearance time there are now two points in assertion time. This means assertion time runs orthogonal to appearance time. They are two different “dimensions” of time.

But, really, there is only one time. We choose to view these as two dimensions, not because there are different times, but because there are different types of events. Plotting these on a plane just makes it easier for us to illustrate this fact. In Transitional modeling, assertion time is not only orthogonal to appearance time, it is also relative the one making the assertion. Let’s introduce Donna and [The value ‘absolute prank’ is given to a posit by Donna31st of March]. In other words, Donna knew from the start that the wedding was a prank. Now, for one given point in appearance time there are three points in assertion time, two belonging to Charlie and one belonging to Donna, with one also coinciding. Even so, there is only one time, but different and subjective events.

If these temporally orthogonal events are abundant, even the list of types of time presented in the beginning of the article may seem few. The problem is that we are used to seeing only one objective assertion time coinciding with the appearance time. Looking at the representation on a (helpfully constructed) plane, this would be the 45 degree line on which a (helpfully positioned) bitemporal timepoint has the same value for both its coordinates: (tx, ty) with tx ty. Most information, likely wrongfully, is represented on this line. We have lost the nuance of distinguishing between the actual information and the opinion of the one stating it. This makes it easy to fall into the trap thinking that there is no need to distinguish between orthogonal events. I have, unfortunately, seen many a database in which attempts have been made to crush orthogonal events into a single column with less than desirable results and the negative impact discovered in irrecoverable retrospect.

I believe that every new modeling technique, and any modeler dealing with time in existing techniques, must decide on which events it wants to recognize as important and if they are temporally orthogonal or not. If not, they will never be able to represent information close to how information behaves in reality. Orthogonal events will need different timelines and different timelines need to be managed separately, such as being stored in different columns or tables in a database. I think there are many orthogonal events of interest, some quite generally applicable and some very specific to certain use cases. While we could get away with a single “event time” we often choose not to. The reasoning is that by making orthogonal events integral to a modeling technique allows for it to provide their theory, stringency, consistency and optimization.

Recognizing orthogonal events can therefore be a smart move. The events of interest in Transitional modeling is “the appearance of a value” and “having an opinion”. The events of interest in the works of Richard T. Snodgrass are “making a database fact valid in the modeled reality”, “making a database fact true in the database”. The events of interest in the works of Tom Johnston are “entering a certain state”, “utterances about enterings of states”, and “the inscription of utterances”, and so goes on for all modeling techniques. We have all probably added to the confusion, but if we can start to recognize a common ground and that we only slightly differ in the events we recognize, this terminological mess can be untangled. With all the notions afloat, the question that begs answers is what events you recognize and if any of them are subjective? Feel free to share in the comments below!

I do think it’s time for all of us to abide by the thought of one true time, dissociated by temporally orthogonal events, and be careful when using the misleading ‘dimensions of time’ notion.

Published by

Lars Rönnbäck

Co-developer of the Anchor Modeling technique. Programmer of the online modeling tool. Site maintainer. Presenter and trainer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.