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When a clock falls silent

With the shuttering of Big Ben for the next few years, commentators have tied the distress over the great clock's silence to the fact that it is coinciding with Brexit. But is it more than that? What does this historic clock that is so vividly seen and heard really mean to Londoners and the tourists who flock to it?

The silencing of Big Ben — and the attendant hand-wringing over it — is an object lesson in the extent to which the visual and auditory symbols of timekeeping insinuate themselves into our lives. (Leaving aside for the moment that Big Ben is the bell, not the clock.)

"No one needs Big Ben to tell the time," wrote Anne Perkins in The Guardian. "It depends what you value."
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"The Efficiency Expert" - a film review

An efficiency expert will almost always play the villain or the fool in any fictional scenario. His rigidity will be mocked, and he will eventually proven to be narrow-minded. The people he sets out to study and correct will teach him some valuable lesson about how there are things that are more important than efficiency. He will throw away his stopwatch at the end, and fall in love. Or something similar.

So it’s no surprise that Mark Joffe’s 1991 film “The Efficiency Expert” sets out to follow this well-traveled path in its nostalgic look at labor, management and “modernization” in 1960s Australia. The theme of the movie can be grasped virtually entirely through the first few scenes, which contrast the old-fashioned, companionable folks of Spotswood, a humble Melbourne suburb, with the dour and by-the-book efficiency expert brought in to “modernize” a failing footwear company. Yet, curiously, Joffe hasn’t bothered to make his workers sympathetic, nor his efficiency expert unreasonabl…

Leap second decision put on hold

The International Telecommunication Union recently postponed a decision on whether to do away with the leap second -- which means, by default, it will remain until at least 2015.


The leap second is artificially inserted into the stream of time every now and then to account for the slowdown of the earth's rotation. Like the leap year, this system speaks to a fundamental clumsiness inherent to our system of timekeeping -- however precise it may seem on a day-to-day basis.


Felicitas Arias, director of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, is among those arguing for the abolition of the leap second, as she explains in this interview from December. But scientists could not agree at the ITU's recent summit, so the decision got put off.


"We are using a system that breaks time," Arias argues. "The quality of time is continuity." 


True, but it is hard to accept Arias' unwillingness to come up with an alternate system, instead leaving it to future generat…

Dipping into the stream of media

From The Daily Star:

After writing last week about my secret longing to stumble upon the occasional Christmas program, I started thinking about intentional versus unintentional consumption.

I don't mean "unintentional consumption" like realizing you've eaten an entire box of Girl Scout cookies in one sitting. I mean leaving the TV on after your favorite program is over and watching whatever comes next, or putting the radio on just to have a little background noise. This is the cultural experience I still associate with TV and radio: an ongoing stream of content I can dip into at will.

My current experiment with on-demand viewing has made me realize, however, that this is an increasingly archaic idea. Thanks to the Internet and devices such as digital video recorders, fewer people are dipping into this ongoing stream of content. Instead, like myself, they are siphoning off their own selective streams that contain only the content that interests them.

I can't deny that…

Book review: "The Greenwich Time Lady"

From PopMatters.com:

With its brusque opening lines ("What time is it? It’s a simple question and this book looks at some of the ways we have tried to answer it over the last couple of hundred years"), Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady plunges the reader headlong into a densely packed gem of a history—one that author David Rooney, curator of timekeeping at the British Royal Observatory, is uniquely qualified to tell.

The book’s eponymous heroine was the last in a short line of Belvilles who made their living in a unique manner: they literally brought time itself from the Greenwich Royal Observatory to a London subscriber base that included shopkeepers, shipping firms and clockmakers. Through a tenuous and complex arrangement with the observatory’s Astronomer General, the Belvilles were granted weekly entry to the observatory, where a clerk would adjust their steadfast watch (nicknamed “Arnold” after its maker, John Arnold) to the correct time and provide a certificate den…

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"An American will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his 240,000-odd fellow-Americans. He has no idea of what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity."-- Benedict Anderson, "Imagined Communities," 1983
When Anderson wrote about the origins of modern nationalism, he selected the newspaper and the novel as cultural touchstones that exemplified man's ability to visualize himself as part of a unified mass of people who share a common understanding and experience of the world they inhabit. This "imagined linkage" of "print-capitalism ... made it possible for rapidly growing numbers of people to think about themselves, and relate themselves to others, in profoundly news ways."
Today, of course, we need no literary devices to lend the impression of simultaneous experience; thanks to the Internet, we are instead having simultaneous experiences all over t…