Sunday, July 10, 2011

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

In 1826 Eli Terry installed a $200 clock in the town hall of New Haven, Connecticut.   All went well until townspeople noticed that the Terry clock was falling further and further behind the nearby Yale College clock.  At first the Terry clock lagged, gradually losing some 15 minutes.  Then it began to gain, eventually racing ahead of the Yale clock by 15 minutes before, over the course of weeks, gradually falling behind again. 

Broken?   Not likely.  Terry was arguably the most distinguished clockmaker in America and among the earliest practitioners of uniform, interchangeable parts.  Meanwhile, Yale’s clock had been designed by the talented Simeon Jocelyn, another favored son of Connecticut, and had been telling seemingly reliable time for years.

The difference—and it’s one we rarely consider today—is that Terry’s clock offered mean time—solid, consistent hours that reflected an average of the sun’s daily variation—while Jocelyn’s clock followed the sun itself.  As Michael O’Malley writes in his book, Keeping Watch: A History of American Time, the question among the puzzled New Haven community was not “what time is it,” but “what is time?”

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Hoodies and the Point of No Return

When I was 30 years old I was playing a fair bit of tennis.  I was not very good, so decided to take some lessons.

I met my instructor one morning and we hit for about 10 minutes before he walked up to me and asked, “How old are you?”


“Well, if you were 20,” he said, “I’d force you to learn a two-handed backhand.  And if you were 40 we wouldn't even bother-- I’d just work on improving the one-handed backhand you already have.”

“But,” he continued, “since you’re 30, I’m going to give you the choice:  Which would you like to do?”  Of course, that was his way of saying my backhand was pitiful and needed reconstructive work.   He was also asking me, in a sense, if I’d reached the point of no return.

Next month, Starling Lawrence will step down as long-time editor-in-chief of WW Norton, the largest and oldest employee-owned publisher in the United States.   He joined Norton in 1969 and became the top editor in 1993.

Lawrence, who is 68, commented, “I have certainly enjoyed this job. . .[but] I’m not particularly knowledgeable about electronic publishing. . .And frankly, if I were 20 years younger, it would be imperative that I understand and educate myself on those issues.”  Then he added, “But that has seemed less important to me because I’m frankly not a consumer of e-books myself. It’s not something that touches me personally.”

This was Mr. Lawrence essentially saying to his tennis instructor, “You know, Bjorn, I think I’ll keep my one-handed backhand.”   He’d reach the point of no return.

It's something that happens all the time, especially as you get older.  I suppose for women there's that moment when they decide to cut their hair short, or maybe to stop dyeing it.  For older folks there's the time when they stop pretending they're just "resting their eyes" and just 'fess up that they like to nap.

It seems everyone in techland is wearing a hoodie these days, thanks to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg.  Investors in Silicon Valley even have cashmere hoodies.

I was in a Bob’s Store the other day looking at a rack of hoodies thinking, hmmm, everyone who’s anyone wears a hoodie these days.  Maybe I should get one.

The last time I wore a hoodie, I think, I was about 9 years old and fishing with my Dad.  The hoodie I have in mind would have had a Boston Patriots logo and some combination of quahog juice, fish slime, and Almond Joy on it.  (Thanks, Dad.)

Unlike Mr. Lawrence, I’m a big fan of electronic publishing--but I get his point.  Sometimes you have to leave the kids stuff for the kids.  I walked away from the hoodie rack, picked out a couple of polo shirts instead, and went on my way.

Ditto with tennis.

After a few seconds of slightly offended contemplation, I decided to stick with my one-handed backhand.  To prove his point, I guess, my instructor then hit about 100 balls to my backhand, most of which I wafted into the net.

Shortly after that I fixed my backhand when I stopped playing tennis altogether.   I already possess a horrendous golf game, and there's no real need to stink at two sports.

That’s a point of no return from which I have never looked back.