Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The time traveller's strife

The concept of time travel is so fascinating and multi-faceted, it's a shame I'm completely incapable of wrapping my head around it, however often I try.

Sure, I can keep track of the overlapping timelines in the Back to the Future films, unravel the gender-bending ontological paradoxes of Robert A. Heinlein's short stories and get frustrated when a below-par episode of Red Dwarf breaks its own time travel rules established 20 minutes earlier in the same episode, but when it comes to the practical, real-world experiences of crossing time zones or adjusting for daylight savings time and then trying to work out if I've gained or lost hours from my day, the rusting, wheezing cogs in my brain grind to a halt. But time keeps ticking on.

I began 2011 at GMT +8 and ended it at GMT +9, which I think means my year was one hour shorter than it should have been overall. Is that right? I mean, I travelled back and forth a lot last year, give or take a couple of time zones, but unless the universe works in a very different way than the one I'm barely grasping as it is, that doesn't add up into any extra or lost hours... does it? I'm not even joking, I really am this hopeless with numbers.

But I don't have to despair or feel cheated out of my hour (or hours), because this year we were all awarded an extra day for good behaviour, free of charge. Happy Leap Year!

Quantum leap year (let's keep the rubbish puns going)

I love the 29th of February, which might seem surprising considering I couldn't care less about other calendar events like New Year, Christmas, Halloween or my birthday. Those things are too regular to get excited about, but leap years come at just the right interval. Take note, Christmas - I've ignored you for three consecutive years now, so maybe this year you might just be something special again.

The reason I love the 29th of February is that it's basically a frank and public admission that our best efforts to impose a sense of order on a chaotic universe (specifically regarding the Earth's orbit around the sun, which doesn't correlate precisely with the daily rotation on its axis) is far from perfect. The solar system isn't choreographed for our convenience - though the coincidentally similar sizes of the Sun and the Moon viewed from our vantage point are very convenient for dazzling solar eclipses, I'll give you that.

The creation of time zones as an attempt to bring a global community together was a great idea, but is similarly rife with problems. I couldn't do better - well, apart from maybe losing those half-hour and 15-minute time zones like Nepal, that's just getting silly. If I do end up following my vague travel plans for 2012, I might end this year on the American side of the time barrier - making my year almost 367 days in length.

But will I take advantage of this extra time to do something special? Or will I just waste it doing things like writing overlong blogs and Photoshopping myself over Arnold Schwarzenegger? I can't get those days back, I'm not Doctor Who (though we do have the same initials).

Terminator 2: Judgement Daylight Savings Time

Daylight savings is another funny one, especially when you discover that it was originally proposed by George Vernon Hudson just so he could have more hours of daylight in which to collect insects from his garden. Making large-scale, long-lasting, biannual changes to millions of people's lives in multiple countries was clearly less hassle than him waking up an hour earlier. Or is it later? Bloody hell.

If I was smarter and didn't have to scrape through my Maths GCSE by copying off Chris Bailey, I'm sure I would be dazzled by the intricate laws that govern the universe, which clever people have put to such incredible practical and technological use. But at the end of the day (23 hours, 56 minutes and 4 seconds if we're talking sidereal days), Maths can't make all aspects of everyday life any more comprehensible - we just do the best we can.

Time Banned-its

We weren't even doing too badly in some areas until superstition and bureaucracy intervened and spoiled some of our best achievements. Months would make so much more sense if we still used the old lunar calendar that laid out 13 equal months of 28 days, roughly aligned with the phases of the Moon and surely being more convenient for women's sanitary planning too (alright, it's 28.076923 days - nobody's perfect, even the Druids). But religious people had a thing about the number 13, which left us with these uneven months of 31 days, 28 but sometimes 29... um, 31... 30, 31, 30, 31, 30 - no wait, I mean 31. 30, 31, 30, 31.

So now we all have to mentally work our way through an irritating and long-winded mnemonic rhyme (that doesn't even properly rhyme, unless you had one of those teachers who made desperate changes like saying 'except February clear' to rhyme with 'year,' but just makes things more confusing) to find out that August actually has 31 days, even though intuition always wrongly tells you it's 30 for some reason. Maybe some people just learn and remember the number of days in each month so they don't have to do the rhyme, but I don't think that's very likely.

So we all have to put up with these slightly uneven but dependable values of years, months and days based loosely on our beautiful planet's travels through the cosmos, but when it comes to weeks, hours and smaller increments, that's really just a bunch of people making things up.

Why is a week seven days long? That would be a reasonable division of the lunar calendar's 28-day month, but now it just feels arbitrary, and paydays and Friday the 13th are all over the place (Friday 13th is also a little too common for me to celebrate it - though superstitious readers might be interested to hear that you're statistically less likely to be involved in accidents on those days, as other superstitious people are on their guard and pay a bit more attention to the road).

So what are you going to do about it?

Oh no, I forgot about this bit. If only there was some way I could just criticise established systems without having to take responsibility.

You know what, even though most of us don't work in factors of 12 any more (or it's on the way out, at least - I only know my weight and height in metric now), we're used to this system of irregular months and quadrennial bonus days now, gaping holes and all. Or at least, the majority of the world is used to it, so other cultures will just have to surrender their own time-honoured systems and adopt the Gregorian calendar, time zones, capitalism, the English language, Islam and Dunkin' Donuts.

People are still going to argue about things like which day should go in the left-hand column of wall calendars and which is the day of rest, but as long as we can keep these plates spinning by inserting days, winding back clocks, splitting Alaska in twain and letting mathematicians stress about the value of a leap second, the world will keep turning.

Though the world would have done that anyway. You know that money in your wallet doesn't really mean anything too, right? But let's not get into money - time zones might make my brain hurt, but currency exchange rates are the things aneurysms are made of.


  1. I spend far too much of my life thinking about time. Time zones are ace -- did you know that there are 26 hours on Earth and not just 24? This means it's possible for someone to be enjoying Friday morning (very early morning, admittedly) while someone else is still toiling away on a Wednesday. While I'm quite used to being a day ahead of people in the UK and America/Canada quite often (I'm already enjoying the magical 29th, while others are still labouring through the 28th), it seems bizarre that just a few hours ago there were some showing the special leap day what's what while others were saying their farewells to the 27th.

    I also think out of all the things in the world that we use to measure and communicate, somehow we've all come to agree that one system is best (haven't we?). Language, money, weight, distance all have at least two competing ideas, but as far as I know everyone loves seconds, minutes and hours that lead into days, weeks, months and years. And everyone seems to agree that 60, 60 and 24 lead into seven, four and a bit, 12 and as many as you can manage. Cracking.

    I was reading about this the other day and someone has proposed decimalising time. Shorten seconds (I don't even know how this works) and have a hundred of those in a minute, a hundred of those in an hour and ten of those in a day. Or something. It hasn't really caught on.

  2. Also, I could never remember that rhyme so I use the knuckle system to know which months have 31.

    1. In September (or 'Singapore II' as I think of it - I have my own unique system for remembering the months of 2011) I spent a lot of time in the library, exchanging tourism for random education, which sounds ridiculously nerdy but is something I'd love to do again next time I come across a well-stocked English language library.

      One of the best books I read was an illustrated pocket guide to time travel, which explained several hundred different theories of how time is measured, what it means and what it ultimately doesn't mean. It was amazing. Clearly aimed at kids, but then so was Count Duckula, and that had scenes like this:

      (I'll be honest, I'm not sure what I'm replying to here. I think I'm just having a chat).

  3. I'm now in one of those stupid half hour time zones for the first time (GMT + 5:30). Really throws me off.

    But forget time zone confusion - how can I be 26 years old and still get east and west mixed up ALL THE TIME? It seems so counter-intuitive: left and right, east and west.

    I'm sure I used to get good marks at school. When did I become a moron?