Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Spooky Things

The morning after Halloween, somebody had abandoned part of their Halloween costume on our lawn: a pair of black feathered wings, apparently a riff on angel wings. They lay awkwardly on the maple leaves: tawdry somehow, as most Halloween things are in the light of day.

But they still had the power to spook some of the residents of our neighborhood. Not long after daybreak they started assembling, scores of them, in the trees and the telephone wires, and started shouting, in shrill (for crows) voices. They did not like that black feathered thing on the ground. It was damned eerie and wrong. They wouldn't leave off making a racket until we came out and took the thing inside. Then they subsided, and in a few minutes later, after a few more warning shouts, they were off to do their morning crow things.

I've been trying to figure out why I so loathe changing the clocks twice a year for so-called Daylight Saving Time. I've always hated it, but growing up as a morbidly sensitive boy you get used to the fact that there are things that greatly distress you that ordinary people shrug off, or even enjoy. This is just one of those things, like torturing insects, that nobody is going to feel as strongly about as I do.

So later that same morning, seven people assembled at the Foundation for our 9:30 Monday morning meeting, each one of them knowing in their heart that it was really 10:30, each pretending that we were doing it at the usual time. I wanted to gather all my friends to cluster on the telephone wires roundabout and shout "Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!" with me. Instead I meekly delivered the fundraising report.

It's partly that I love watching the slow change of the seasons against the stable marks of the hours, the sun rising later and later. And then suddenly somebody moves the marker, just as the drama had become most interesting, and it all becomes meaningless and confusing. For a week or two I'll be disoriented, and when I come out of that strange state, it will be winter. I never get to see fall turn into winter, and I never get to see spring turn into summer, because there's this sudden arbitrary convulsion of the clocks twice a year.

Don't read this last bit. This is where I turn into a crank, like your Uncle Fritz who's still passionate about bimetallism.

If I were emperor I'd decree two clock times, a universal 24-hour clock, with 6:00 AM being some randomly chosen time -- say, sunrise on the Pacific coast of Ecuador -- which you'd use when you needed to coordinate time across more than a couple degrees of longitude, and then a local time, with 6:00 AM being sunrise wherever you happened to be. We have the technology to do this. There's no need to be fiddling with clocks all the time. We're perfectly capable of creating clocks that know where they are and will automatically key themselves to the sunrise there.

I know, I'm the morbidly sensitive boy: but as the only morning person in a houseful of night-owls, I watch the wrenching daily struggle of my household to wake up at an arbitrary clock time, rather than at a time that their circadian rhythms could synchronize with, and I wonder why the devil we do this to ourselves. The technologies that mandated our clock time are obsolete now, and our coordination requirements are now global. Two-hour time zones, across thirty degrees of longitude, made sense in the days when railroads were king and telephones were rare (which is when they were invented). I don't think they do any more. In your daily work you're as likely to need to set up meetings with people in Bombay and Shanghai as with people in Pittsburgh and Duluth, in which case the time zones are more confusing than helpful. As fossil fuel becomes more expensive, mid-range travel, on the hundred- to three hundred-mile scale, will probably become rarer. You'll be dealing either locally or globally. The variations between clocks that know the sunrise won't matter locally, because they're so small, and beyond that you'd just switch to the universal clock. There'd be some complications, of course, but there are complications now: we just take them in stride because we think it's natural for 7:00 to be one time in Paris, and another in Tokyo, and neither to tell you anything very accurate about where the sun will be in the sky. If there were only two times -- local or global -- your watch (or rather, I suppose, your phone), could just toggle between them. "Sure, I'll call you at 15:30 U, which will be (toggle) 2:30 my time." And when you were trying to arrange to conference in Li Zhan Jun in Guangzhou, she'd know right away, without trying to do any mental gymnastics, that 15:30 U would be the middle of the night for her people. Would that be harder than what we do now?

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