Thursday, May 22, 2008

and there was evening, and there was morning

Cranky Old Guy's back for more. Looking at my most recent posts, I'm really starting to wonder. Anyway . . .

From metrics, to digital, to standard time. I've been reading lately about the development of standard time in America. I never really thought about there being much controversy around this stuff, and as with metrics, I've probably spent most of my life wholeheartedly embracing the current norms. I liked to set my watch down to the second, usually at New Year's. (Yeah, that's what I did at midnight--set my watch.) I'm the one who zealously goes through the house resetting all the clocks twice a year. When I first discovered that I could sync my computer clock with the Naval Observatory online, I couldn't get enough of it. And I was really pretty excited (as much as I disliked the idea of getting a cell phone) about having a clock built into my phone that syncs itself regularly.

But once I realized that these time standards were not implemented without controversy--that they were largely introduced only in a context of war--once I started thinking about them as imposed standards that the government had no business setting, my opinions formed pretty quickly. I'm not sure it would be at all practical to "turn back the clock" on this issue (so to speak), but I'm definitely nostalgic for solar time.

For just about all of human history until the past couple of centuries, the basic standards of time were found in nature--the sun, the moon, the seasons, etc. For marking out the time of day, the sun was the norm. Sunrise in the morning, high noon, sunset in the evening, and some regular divisions in between. Of course, by colonial times in America, there were clocks to help keep things a bit more regular and bridge the gaps when the sun was not readily visible. But they weren't very consistent and had to be constantly re-calibrated--to the sun. And because they weren't very accurate, it was uncommon to find precise agreement between one clock and another, so they couldn't be taken very seriously. Their manufacture was relatively expensive, so many people didn't own one. Needs for common time, to schedule a meeting or show up for an event, were met by public devices--a church bell or clock tower, or maybe a town hall. Those who had their own clocks or watches could set them by the public clock in town, and any clock could be set by a sundial. In a less mechanized world, the system worked well enough.

Ever since moving to Maryland, I've had a conviction that drivers around here lack a certain perspective on their own existence. They drive like there is no higher power. When it snows, half of them drive like the roads are perfectly dry and there's nothing to worry about. The other half panic like the world is about to end. The result, of course, is total chaos. But things are different in Western New York, where I learned to drive. Snow is a fact of life and a substantial reminder of things beyond human control. You learn to drive with a healthy sense of contingency. We'll get there at such and such time--if God wills. It doesn't always go as planned.

There seems to be a broader pattern to all of this. There is an older, more traditional way of life that recognizes our place within the natural order; there is a newer, more modern view that rejects this order and seeks the control that comes from crafting our own arbitrary existence. This newer view took the lowly clock and elevated it to a sovereign role for which it was never intended. Instead of expressing the sun's time, it came to define its own time. The sun was just too irregular and too local in its effects. Factories had to run like clockwork, and trains had to keep tight schedules. Indeed, it was the railroads that pushed for, developed, and implemented what we now know as standard time. No longer could timekeeping be a merely local affair. Clocks had to be synced across the continent.

The time zones were established, but not without objection. Cities that fell between one meridian and another often balked at adjusting their time as much as a half-hour forward or backward. States were split up by time zones and proceeded to wobble back and forth. The Federal government did not step in until it also chose to impose daylight saving time during WWI, at which point it also codified standard time. DST also sparked controversy--and contrary to popular belief, it was not primarily for the benefit of farmers. They were, if anything, its most consistent opponents. Their lives operated by natural patterns that could not arbitrarily adjust back and forth each year. The main advocates of DST wanted it for recreational purposes, but it never passed into law without the conviction that it would save energy. (Energy savings is actually the hardest defense of DST to substantiate.) And that usually happened when we were at war.

So I take my stand with the more traditional way. (Surprise, surprise!) Again, I don't think it's at all likely that I'll be on solar time next week. I do, after all, have to interact with the world around me. I have to show up for work, catch buses, and even attend church according to standard and daylight time. But I'm still going to be looking for ways to take back some sanity.

One interesting thought I had as I was contemplating all this: Not so long ago, I was actually closer to practicing what I now preach (yet without any principled stance at the time). When I was in school, I kept my watch set to the bell tower at the Basilica. I have (and had) no idea what it was set to (probably standard time). But the point is that my referent was local. In a sense, it didn't matter what it was set to. It was the most prominent public timekeeper in my life, and it was enough to go by. (Admittedly, if it had been too far off from standard time, I wouldn't have used it--but that was me then.) I can't think of a similar referent in my life right now, but if I could, it just might be enough to get me wearing a watch again (instead of always going by the time on my cell phone). Which of course would be ironic in itself--another clock, to free myself from over-mechanized time.

For now, about the most I can do is find those times to ignore the clock altogether. And maybe invest in a sundial . . .

Saturday, May 17, 2008

the digital stone-age

RANT WARNING: This entire post is just me complaining. It has nothing useful to do with anything. Read at your own risk.

So, today we got a digital receiver for our TV. We have continued to watch only broadcast TV, mostly because I'm too cheap and too anti-TV to invest the money in cable or satellite. We augment the broadcast offerings with a subscription to Netflix, which includes a generous selection of TV series on disc. We also have a lot of movies and TV series available for free through the local library. To my thinking, this is more than sufficient.

Well, as hopefully everyone knows by now, in about nine months everything will change. Congress has mandated that all broadcast TV convert to digital signals, so frequencies are freed up for other uses. (Apparently, digital signals are more compact.) The newly available frequencies will be used for "public safety communications" and commercial wireless. Needless to say, they are listed in that order on the FCC's Web site. We're told that benefits will include improved clarity and expanded variety due to the opportunity for sub-channels. Our local PBS station, for instance, has already developed multiple digital sub-channels with greater programming specialization.

So what's the catch? Well, like most technological "progress," the first thing you'll notice is widespread obsolescence. There are plenty of new TVs out there with the capability to receive a digital signal, and of course those who already pay hundreds of dollars a year for cable or satellite can pretty much ignore the change. But for the countless older TVs being used to watch broadcast TV, there are only two options--buy a new one, or buy a separate digital receiver.

Not to worry--your helpful government is providing $40 coupons--two per household upon request--for the external receivers. Right now, you can easily find a receiver priced at $50, so $10 out of pocket isn't too bad. Given the benefits, what's to complain about?

Plenty. Yes, a good digital signal gives a cleaner output than a comparable analog signal. But what happens with the signal is less than perfect? With analog, you might get a fuzzy image that makes it a little hard to read print on the screen. You might even get some static in the audio that obscures quiet dialog. But you can still watch the show. With digital, you get severe pixelation, frozen picture and sound, and complete loss of the signal. Watching a show like Lost, where every detail counts, you might experience some frustration with a weak analog signal where dark scenes are a bit hard to follow. But try missing a piece of dialog because your signal faded a bit. Think, watching a scratched DVD where you finally have to give up and skip to the next scene. That's worse than just about anything you'd get with analog. Well, with the possible exception of a badly positioned antenna while taping your favorite show and finding out the static was so bad you can't hear anything. But that brings us to the next problem.

Get ready to junk your VCR. Of course, if you've already migrated to DVR, you might not have much to worry about. (I wouldn't know.) And I guess there are some newer VCR/DVD combos (you can't buy just a VCR anymore) with built-in digital receivers. But most of the stand-alone VCRs out there will become practically useless for recording programs. For starters, you can hook your receiver to your VCR (supposedly--it didn't seem to work right when I tried it), but say goodbye to taping one show while watching another. The VCR must stay parked on channel 3, while the receiver controls the actual channel. There is a work-around--buy two receivers, so you can have one on your TV and one on your VCR. I'm not sure if that means you also need two antennas, but either way, you've just used up your allotment of coupons.

Say goodbye as well to easily programmable taping of shows you can't be there to watch. You can still use your VCR's program feature to set the time to record, but remember--you can only record channel 3. The receiver needs to be set to the right channel ahead of time; although you might program the VCR to tape your favorite show every Wednesday evening, you'll need to verify every Wednesday morning or afternoon that the channel is set properly. And forget taping two shows on two different channels in the same evening if you can't be there to change the channel.

If none of that is bad enough, you will probably lose channels that you can get now. We live between Washington and Baltimore, where it is sometimes possible to get channels from both cities. Tests so far have shown that the fuzzy stations you might have got before could become non-existent. Hopefully there will be some improvement on this count. Apparently many broadcasters are waiting for the official switchover to beef up the power on their digital signals. Right now, we can't get either of the two Baltimore PBS stations, but according to Wikipedia the signal strength is pretty minimal. It's disappointing, because Ian watches a lot of PBS as it is, and we were looking forward to the better niche programming of their digital offerings. Without any signal at all, it's a deal-breaker for now. We've boxed up the receiver until February, in hopes that things will improve. For now, we'll stick with our trusty analog.

It's sad, really. Analog TV still works fine. Old VCRs still serve the purposes for which they were created. The only problem is that, in less than a year, there will be no signal to receive. I'm reminded of Ralph Nader's point that the airwaves belong to us. Somewhere along the line, we (through our elected representatives) sold them off to big corporations. Don't hold your breath for some renegade broadcaster to keep sending out analog signals for all the freedom-loving fuddy-duddies who want to receive them.

Is it a conspiracy to force more of us into buying cable or satellite service? Or is it just simple crowding of free broadcast to make way for more important things? Either way, the outcome seems to be more expensive for anyone who hasn't already chosen to pay for TV (beyond what we already pay to the manipulative advertisers). Well, there's one other group that won't be paying more--anyone who has chosen or chooses now to opt out. Your analog equipment will continue to work just fine. If you can't get a signal, so what? You can still watch VHS tapes, DVDs--heck, you can even watch Beta if that's your thing. Many of the networks are now providing current episodes online for free. If you don't mind being a year or so behind, you can watch a favorite series on video. Or you can find something more productive to do with your time than sit in front of a TV.

I don't plan to challenge anyone's right to complain about this scam. But I do offer this encouragement: You are not a slave. You still can choose. You don't have to play their game. You have nine months to think about it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

in praise of traditional measurements

OK, I'll admit it. I swallowed a lot of liberal propaganda when I was growing up in public school. Somewhere along the way, for instance, I bought into environmentalism--even adopted my own humpback whale--then later repudiated the idea under the influence of Rush Limbaugh. I've since come back around to what is more properly labeled "conservation," which is a great conservative value (even etymologically) and resonates with my innate abhorrence of waste and the way I was brought up.

Something I accepted more wholeheartedly and never thought to repudiate until now was the metric system. My ambitions at the time were mathematical and scientific, and it did seem like a natural fit. I embraced the simplicity of the decimal base, the regularity of its fit to scientific applications, and the universality of the system. On the other hand, I guess I did come to accept that America wasn't changing anytime soon. And by that point I'd already internalized traditional America measurements. Metrics was a nice system to play around with in science classes, but since then I haven't given it much thought. I just went on with the assumption that it was better.

Well, no more! I am now decidedly pro-traditional measurements. Why? Glad you asked :-)
  • They're traditional; and, well, you should know by now how I feel about tradition. The point here is that they've been used for centuries, even millennia, and they've worked quite well. You have to ask--or at least I do--what's the compelling reason to change? (And whom does it serve to do so?)
  • They're endangered. There's been a specific campaign to abolish traditional measurements, mostly by governments and pseudo-governments that have no business in such areas anyway. The U.S. may be only one of three countries that still use traditional measurements officially (though there are plenty of others that haven't given them up altogether), but I don't see that as a bad thing. The bad thing is that so many others have caved to an artificial standard.
  • From an antiquarian perspective, traditional measurements are a whole lot more interesting. The metric system is a boring, bureaucratic standardization. Its history is the sort of thing to help with insomnia. The story of traditional measurements has twists and turns and legends and myths. What's not to like about that?
  • Traditional measurements, to a great extent, make more sense in real life. The scales fit our normal measurement needs. The units are based on familiar things to which we can relate. (Well, they would be if our culture weren't so degenerate that it no longer knows what length of furrow makes good sense with an ox-drawn plow.) But let's look at some examples.
Units of length, based on the human body:
inch = thumb width = (etymologically) 1/12 ft.
palm = hand width w/o thumb (3 in.)
hand = palm + thumb (4 in.)
span = hand width stretched out (9 in.)
foot = foot length
cubit = forearm length (18 in.)
yard = belt length (or 1/2 fathom)
fathom = armspan (6 ft.)

Of course, everyone's body is a little different, and I suppose there's something mildly sexist in the assumption that we're talking about the body of an adult male. (Though I must say, there are some women around who could squash me like a bug.) But the point is that as rough approximations, these units are pretty good. And the nice thing is, you can estimate lengths in a pinch without any ruler at all.

Units of distance, based largely on agriculture:
pace = paired marching step (5 ft.)
rod = 16 men's feet (16-1/2 ft.)
chain = 4 rods
furlong = standard plow furrow length = 10 chains
Roman mile = (etymologically) 1000 paces
English mile = 8 furlongs
league = hour's walk = 3 mi.

Now, this section needs some extra clarification. Keep in mind that standard definitions and conversions would have come later. For generations, the different units could have got along quite nicely without correlating in any precise way. Most notably, the shorter length units seem to have developed in isolation from the longer distance units, resulting in the awkward relationship between feet and rods. Also, we have a historical development from the Roman mile to various local standards. In the English system, which we adopted here, the accepted conversion came to be eight furlongs to a mile. (Eight is in fact the closest estimate, if you're going to define a mile in terms of furlongs.) The rod and chain were surveyors' tools to break down the furlong into more manageable units. As the tradition goes, you get the length of a rod by having 16 men line up their left feet. In any case, there was probably no specific concern to make the rod come out an even number of feet until much later, at which point the length was relatively stable and didn't easily fit. Not that it makes much difference--we don't have too many instances where it's even necessary to convert from the shorter inches, feet, and yards to chains, furlongs, and miles.

The etymology of "furlong" is pretty obviously the length of a standard plow furrow. This is fairly meaningless to us now (though it may not be for long, with the way fuel prices are going), but it would have been almost universally relevant for talking about land measurements up until the past century or so. Now that we mostly think of acreage as applied to suburban and exurban residential parcels, perhaps we should adjust to something specific to lawn-mowing. But sticking with the agricultural standard, the logic gets even more interesting when we turn to area measurements:

rood = furlong x rod
acre = day's plow w/two oxen = furlong x chain
subdivision = 1/4 division (40 acres)
division = 1/4 section (160 acres)
section = sq. mi. (640 acres)
township = 36 sections (6 mi. x 6 mi.)

In particular, note the definition of an acre, which becomes much more elegant once you know what a chain and a furlong are. So assuming a standard plow drawn by two yoked oxen, you'd have a parcel of land that could be done in a day. The furrows were an acceptable length, and the optimal number of passes fit into a tenth of that distance. The rood would make sense as a unit, just because you could measure the width easily with a rod. (And I suppose it might be worth knowing that it takes a quarter of a day to plow a rood--two before lunch, two after?) The rest shows a more uniquely American system, which established one-square-mile sections, divided them into quarters, then again into quarters, which is why 40 acres comes up as a basic parcel of farmland ("back 40," "40 acres and a mule," etc.). I included "township" just because I've heard the term used so often but never knew where it came from.

Units of volume, based mostly on containers:
teaspoon = teaspoon volume (1/3 T.)
tablespoon = soup spoon volume (1/2 oz.)
ounce = volume of 1 oz.-weight of water
cup = 8 oz.
pint = 2 c.
quart = 2 pints
gallon = 4 qt.
peck = 2 gal.
bushel = 4 pecks
bag = 3 bushels
barrel = 31-1/2 gal.
hogshead = 2 barrels
cord = 8' x 4' x 4'

The barrel is actually somewhat variable depending on where and what is contained. I haven't found where the term hogshead originates, but I just love the term. Which leads me, of course, to a Simpsons quote:
The metric system is the tool of the devil! My car gets forty rods to the hogshead, and that's the way I likes it.
--Abe Simpson, "A Star is Burns"
I don't expect to convince anyone; it's just my own preference. But don't be surprised if I talk about a two-quart bottle of pop instead of a 2-L bottle of soda :-)