Thursday, April 7, 2011

Time to Think About Time

Time to Think About Time

Beware of stopping to think about time and inspecting its relevance in philosophy, logic, science, history, administration, religion, or politics. On the one hand it is a confusing field, of vital importance in all sorts of things on all sorts of scales; on the other it is a snare for anyone who wishes to make sense of it in unsuitable connections or on invalid or irrelevant assumptions.

Commonly the most pathological nonsense emerges when obsessive personalities try to apply abstract metaphysical concepts to practical problems; they effortlessly progress from nonsense to nonsense without so much as coming within sight of either the sublime or the mundane on the way. It takes an uncommonly strong stomach (and commonly an uncommonly weak head) to read some of the history and the debates concerning the spiritual significance of religious calendars for example; compulsive zealots spend their lives blinding their bodies (their minds went blind shortly after they first took up their scriptures) poring over the texts and smugly yielding non-sequiturs from tawdry metaphysics.  As Shakespeare had Julius Caesar say:
“Such men as he be never at heart's ease
           Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
           And therefore are they very dangerous.”

Perhaps even more appositely, ‘twas Kurt Vonnegut who said:
"Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before," Bokonon tells us. "He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way."
Just questioning the views of such a man, let alone contradicting him, is to open yourself to poisonous vilification, and sometimes even to take your life in your hands. And please do not think for one moment, either that the debates have been settled in any rational way, or that you can safely select any particular sect as being immune to such nonsense. The more blindly devout, the greater the nonsense and the greater the danger, often the actual physical danger, of entering into debate on the matter. People have died in debates ostensibly over lunar calendars and year lengths, and whether elephants can jump, and what time of the day which day started or which year ended, and which thus denoted day is the right day to let your slave cheat or eat the stranger within your gates. And many of those who died did not even know there was a debate, let alone what it was about. 

It really is not funny, when you get into it; it is a sadness to realise the intellectual and ethical depths of rationalisation and rage to which dedicated minds, sometimes quite good minds, can permit their preconceptions and bigotry to sink them.

At the other extreme, in science and technology people work on scales of measurement of time beyond the imagination of the unassisted minds of the religious. I have yet to encounter among the spite-driven text-quibblers, any sign of true comprehension of deep time, such as we see it in palaeontology, astronomy or cosmology. "From everlasting to everlasting" is an empty phrase coined by peoples whose temporal horizons were measured in lifetimes, or occasionally, vaguely, in millennia. As for the religious significance of Planck time, the less said the better.

The interesting thing is that to the layman in scientific matters, such time intervals seem nonsensical; and why? Simply because they cannot conceive them. And yet to those silly scientists working with meaningless time intervals, milliseconds are as meaningful as seconds, and femtoseconds as meaningful as microseconds or petaseconds.

Somewhere in there, there should be a lesson, I cannot help thinking...

However, to move from the obscenely ridiculous to the sublimely ridiculous, let us contemplate a few hardy perennials in contemporary politics and administration.

Times and Lines

These matters were not always ridiculous, in fact all of them are surprisingly recent concepts and through most of our intellectual history most of them never emerged at all. For one thing, they depend on comparatively recent technological and scientific advances.  In earlier centuries they simply did not arise at all as day-to-day concerns, and at most rarely as abstract intellectual concerns — angel on pin stuff.  Nowadays however, we not only have the technology to measure time with greater precision than our everyday activities demand, we also have the ability to contact each other pretty well anywhere on the planet at a few seconds notice. In an age when it took a good sundial and a competent reader of sundials to tell the time with a probable error much smaller than an hour, and when it would take special, expensive arrangements to get a message say, from London to Bristol in less than two days, or to New York in less than two months, the very concepts we discuss here would hardly have meant anything.

Time Zones

Let's begin with the concept of time zones. Now, one could hardly get more down to earth and obvious than that, could one? Time zones are not only a practical consideration, but practically inescapable, right?  The sun does after all move round the Earth (or is it the other way round?) in twenty four hours, right? If we accept one hour as a time zone, that gives us 15 degrees per zone, right?

The concept certainly escaped most people in days when pocket watches did not exist, and even after the marvellous creations of John Harrison and Thomas Tompion, it would have been very rare for people in different towns, or even in neighbouring villages out of earshot of each other, to synchronise their clocks. Almost throughout history people have been without precise time measurement, and even when reasonably accurate and reliable timepieces were no longer objects of wonder, practically every village kept its own time. And time everywhere amounted roughly to local solar time. To the best of my knowledge hardly anyone ever imagined time zones. Susan Glaspell and George Cram Cook referred to such ideas in a light, satirical one-act playlet called "Tickless Time". It opened in 1918, and as such was well behind the time, technologically speaking, but it was good-humouredly thought provoking.

The main impetus behind the synchronisation of timekeeping in various villages and towns around the world, was not the requirement for everyday local schedules, which managed very nicely for most purposes, thank you; it was the introduction and growing significance of electronic communication (which in those days amounted to telegraph!) and high-speed transport. Railway schedules became more than just matters of neatness and prestige; they became matters of  money – and life and death – in fact probably thousands of people have died because of timing errors on railways.  

But affordable watches became more accurate and soon his pocket watch was as characteristic of the train guard as his uniform. Not only was it possible for different towns to keep tolerably synchronised, but for different towns to keep their own times, though indeed, largely different times. Each town understandably preferred to fit its own time to its own activities.  This largely meant that towns kept solar time according to the local noon, something that they each could check on independently, and needed no telegraph for.

Around the world, bit by bit, that largely came to an end, though the ending took a long time. From the first faltering suggestions in the mid-19th century, it was some 70 years before the implementation of time zones became effectively universal.  Even a rotten idea, like chopping the planet into 15 degree slices, may be slow to catch on.

The problem that time zones addressed, consciously or not, was coordination of times, both between dates and daytimes, and between neighbour and neighbour. Time zones have precious little to do with scheduling local daily activities. Some countries did their best to upset the apple cart; They asserted the personality and independence of their savants by defiantly and daringly adopting half-hour offsets, and a few even used quarter-hour offsets — there is no accounting for... mental confusion, if I might put it so delicately.  The problem that fractional hours aggravated was that people confused the time shown on their clocks as local time with “real time” or something like that. The time to get up was say, six in the morning, and the time for shops to open might be say, eight. Not surprisingly,  this led to great inefficiency, because six in the morning might be dark at one extreme of the country, but broad daylight at the other, not to mention seasonal changes. If there were inconveniently placed mountain ranges in the country,  that could add more than an hour to local discrepancies.  

A hint at the right way to do things was demonstrated by China. After the Communist revolution in 1949 the entire country adopted Beijing time. Note that, partly because of its closeness to the North Pole, China spans no less than five time zones; possibly more if one counts the islands it lays claim to.

Forcing five time zones into one may sound terrible, but enforcing that single time zone was one of the most constructively and benignly effective acts of that government. Even politicians can achieve great things if they get confused enough! And did China collapse in the confusion of having just one time zone? Hardly! In areas in which Beijing time was inconvenient, people simply adjusted their working hours accordingly. If the clock said that it was 10 AM when day dawned, then people in such a town got up about 10 AM, perhaps four hours after Beijing. To them breakfast at 10 did not seem strange or inconvenient, and why should it? Seven in the morning is a mark on the clock, not the definitive time for breakfast. If everything else in China had worked so simply and constructively, we would all be speaking Chinese by now.

All the tools had been in place to avert the time zone problem since the mid-1880s after the International Meridian Conference of 1884 had established the Prime Meridian at Greenwich and formulated and proposed the adoption of the Universal Day.  If we had all dropped the idea of time zones and used UTC 24-hour time, as the Chinese now use Beijing time, there would have been enormous economies in administration and reductions in confusion world wide. No AM/PM confusion, no doubts as to the actual time anything happened anywhere on the planet.  

Daylight Silly Time

Now, if it had been the case that the time-zone system had obviated all problems dealing with everyday timekeeping, I should have had nothing more to say, but in fact we have no end of niggles with our time zones, sometimes dangerous and expensive niggles.  These niggles are so widely unsatisfactory that they have given rise to another idiocy of unbelievable ingenuity: Daylight Saving Time!

Could you believe it? Some genius observes the horrifying reality that in some places the sun does not rise at the same time every day... This means that on some days we use our natural light less optimally than on other days...
Something Must Be DONE!
But what?

Illuminate the whole planet? Tempting no doubt, but...

Rise and shine at different times during the year? Let shops open an hour later in winter than in summer? Ridiculous! Impossible! Get a bigger ‘ammer!

Oh well, then let us rise at the same time every day all year round. That should do it! To solve the insolation problem,  all we do is change time instead of changing times. Reset our watches to  a fictitious time two to four times a year! What could be more logical?  If the farmers don’t like it, tell them to bully their cows into compliance.

Resetting clocks would save everyone from, say four times a year, deciding to set the alarm and open the shops perhaps half an hour earlier or later, or maybe twice a year in zones nearer to the equator, such as Brighton.   Nowadays we could have our clocks automatically programmed to reset the alarm without danger of  confusion or misunderstanding, or clashes between neighbours in neighbouring time zones or neighbouring hemispheres.

What’s my line? International Dates?

Now, another idiocy is less official than Daylight Saving Time, though even more abject: The International Date Line! Actually it has no official standing at all, though unofficially it tacitly is widely recognised.  The International Date Line, much like time zones,  is the result of confusing days with daytimes.  Like most products of confusion it is hard to make sense of the line in hindsight.  The idea of the International Date Line always was ridiculous, but by now it has become unbelievable! Every country has the right to declare that the line does not pass through its territory, and most recently (1995)  Kiribati shifted the line in the most complex pattern so far. If you were to take that shift seriously, it would be possible to change your date, not just by travelling east or west, but by crossing the equator! Or if you prefer something less exciting, you can instead cross the date line at least three times in succession on the same great circle course. Maybe more if you are sneaky. You could do it in a couple of hours if you travelled by air.

The Bermuda Triangle and Sargasso Sea have nothing on the International Date Line, if you ask me!

Now why do we need an International Date Line at all? If we used a Universal Day, the very same form of universal day proposed in 1884, we would not need any International Date Line! Anyone wanting to know what day it is, and what time of that day it might be, could consult a watch; wherever we were on Earth, whether North or South Pole, equator or ocean, any latitude whatsoever, including 180 degrees near the Bering Strait, or 0 degrees near Greenwich, whether up in the air or down a mine, winter or summer, midnight or noon; that watch would tell us the date and the time.  And to within a fraction of a second, that time would be UTC time, the same as Greenwich. What could be simpler? (Did I hear someone say: “The brain of a politician?” Go and stand in a corner; if politicians had brains, we would not have the problem!)

Just a minute, you might reasonably object, that would be fine if I happen to live in Greenwich; I even would not mind resetting my alarm with the seasons, but everywhere else, every day as measured by the sun, I would have two dates as measured by the calendar.

This is true up to a point, but it is neither an unfamiliar type of problem, nor at all a serious problem in practice. Consider: even as things stand in our current ridiculous system, for practically the whole of every day, there are two different dates in various places around the world. Take off in your private jet plane and follow the line of midnight around the planet from hour to hour (and notice that the line becomes pretty confusing in some places, given our current time zones!) You then will find that you have one date to the east your time zone, and a different date to the west. If that is not confusing, what is? And on the same planet at the same time, as measured by your portable atomic clock, whether it is midnight or not, what is happening to the date at the International Date Line?

Having embraced a system like that without objection, who are we to sneer at a more rational system? In particular, a simple convention would adequately solve the two-dates-to-the-day problem almost without thought in all longitudes far away from Greenwich. Stupidity is optional; we have no need to confuse dates with daytimes.

We simply accept some convention (there are several alternatives according to taste) such as that at any point in any context where the contrary had not been stated, the local daylight would be taken as spanning the date that applied at the time of dawn. So for example, if I hire a labourer on a temporary basis, then he gets one day's pay for work done starting at sunrise, even if we happen to be in Hawaii, where the problem would be nearly at its worst. In much of Europe and East-Coast America the problem would hardly be noticeable. Under circumstances where that expedient does not suit, one simply mentions UTC when specifying the date as appropriate, much as people in the United States mention the state when speaking of a city; “Birmingham, Alabama”, “Memphis, Tennessee, and so on. That is all very simple; in comparison the complications of our current time zoning system are positively labyrinthine.

In writing the foregoing I did some homework and you might find it instructive to consult both Wikipedia and “International Conference Held at Washington for the Purpose of Fixing a Prime Meridian and a Universal Day. October, 1884.” That document is available on the WWW at Project Gutenberg. I wasn't there at the time of the conference. Perhaps it is just as well. They had some clever people there, but the voting majority would not have listened to me. I notice that at least a couple of delegates liked the “Standard Day” idea, so it cannot just be me!