How Time Works And What You Can Do About That


Over twelve percent of the population has noticed this phenomenon. You suddenly turn your eyes to pay attention to clock of some kind. Preferably one one of those fancy non-invisible clocks. The important thing is it shows time to the second. And the clock takes its sweet time getting around to advancing that second. It can take as much as a half minute to start, and then it goes puttering on at about one second per second. But flick your eyes away and back and you can have it go back to not moving.

So what’s going on here? And what’s with the people who aren’t always checking that their clocks are counting out seconds? Do they not worry about their clocks getting lazy? Do they not worry their clocks are just wrong when nobody’s looking at them? Do they figure it’s all right for clocks to slack off? Would you slack off if you were a clock? I have no idea how to get from this point to where I meant to go. Give me a second. This could take as many as eighteen minutes.

OK, I think I’ve got it now. Consider something else that we’ve all done. You go to Wikipedia to look up germanium. A couple seconds pass. You’re reading about Saul Wahl, who may have been King of Poland for the 18th of August, 1587. The important thing is after this you look up and it’s twelve days later. You’ve missed, like, four Kings of Poland, three Hapsburg Emperors, and the odd Apostolic King of Hungary. How did all that much time pass without your noticing even a little bit?

Consider another phenomenon. Remember as a child being able to finish watching the cartoons at 9 am, then spend about eight hours on experiments like lying on the floor trying to breathe so that a tennis ball rolls out of and back into your belly button before a sibling comes over and sits on your face? And when you were done with that it was still fifteen minutes until Password Plus started at 10 am?

Here we get to the structure of time. The only real way to know time has passed is to see that something’s changed. Like, the clock’s rolled over some seconds. Wikipedia doesn’t have any clocks on it. Web pages don’t, usually. There was a time in about 1996 when web site designers discovered Javascript. This let them turn a boring lifeless web page into one that loaded slowly, tried to put up a clock, and then crashed. Now we don’t try having a clock at all, and when you look at a web site and then look back up again there’s no guessing how long it’s been. It could have been ten seconds. It could have been since 2012.

And think of being a kid. Back then you didn’t have a clock. All you had was the inaccurate clock on you parents’ car dashboard. This is why you had the greatest accumulation of time when you were being driven somewhere. If you did have a clock it’s because you were one of those freak kids who was really really really into clocks. You had a watch that you had to wind, because that made it even more clock, and you forgot to wind it after three days. Which was fine because it had that little panel that showed the day of the month, from 1 to 31. You couldn’t imagine how it would handle the problem of February. No one has ever found out.

So what practical applications does this have? Well, for one, it means that if someone asks you to do something for just a couple seconds? If you don’t have your eye on some kind of timepiece, then there is no guessing how much time their project will consume. It might be half a second. It might be a four-year expedition that takes you to a foreign planet such as Mars. More often it’s having a meeting about coffee mug policy. But if you keep your eye on a timepiece and are clear about when a “couple seconds” have passed, you won’t have such unpredictable demands on your schedule. This will be because people will sigh and roll their eyes several times, and then finally stop talking to you altogether. This is what you wanted? Well, it’s your time, if you do it right.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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