Modern Times: A New Clock

If you’re a regular reader, you might know that I occasionally play with different ways of representing time. I’ve come up with my latest version which I call UIT, and you can see it on github.

Clock Difficulties

Why do we need a new clock? Well, you could ask William Burke. On the 31st of October 1828, William Burke and his co-conspirators murdered Mary Docherty, the last in a line of 16 murders they’d committed in order to sell the bodies to the medical profession. When the law finally caught up with them, Burke and his partner, Helen McDougal had already disposed of the body and agreed their story; Burke did indeed meet Mary Docherty in a pub and invited her back to stay with them, but she’d left before 7 and they had no idea where she’d gone. When the police questioned them separately, Burke insisted that she’d left at 7 in the morning while Helen swore she’d left at 7 in the evening.

It can be difficult to get your story straight when you’re dealing with time, but Burke and McDougal got off lightly. In September 1999, three terrorists died at the same time in two different cities. Both groups were killed by the bombs they were transporting which were set to go off at 17:30. The confusion was simply that the bombs were set to go off according to Palestinian Daylight Savings Time while the guys driving the cars had made their plans on Israel Standard Time.

Even if you’ve never found yourself hanged or blown up over a clock confusion if you’re anything like me you’ve still made plenty of mistakes with clock arithmetic and daylight savings time.


So why is the clock the way it is? Dividing a ‘day’ into 12 parts was something that the ancient Egyptians started. They liked to set their sundials up with a dawn and a dusk hour, and ten full daylight hours. Since it was based on the hours of sunlight, the length of an hour would change with the seasons. In 1500 BC, the Egyptians had already invented a portable shadow clock, the spiritual precursor to the modern watch.

The Egyptians were not alone in preferring to divide things into twelves. The Babylonians had a similar obsession inherited from the Sumerians. The Sumerians were one of a group of peoples who independently invented writing around 3500 BC. The Sumerians pretty much invented civilisation as we know it, but they had inherited the Wheel and a number of other important advances from a culture that was lost to climate change (the 5.9 kiloyear event), the Ubaid culture. Anyway, for the Sumerians, counting to 60 seems to have been as natural as counting to 10 is for us. One suggestion for how they may have done it is by using five fingers from one hand to point to one of the 12 finger joints on the other hand, which perhaps explains why they divided the whole day into 12 parts (each around 2 of our modern hours).

When you’re wondering when to get up, when to eat lunch and when to feed the animals, measuring time according to the amount of light left in the day is a good idea, but when you’re trying to formalise systems and work with people in different parts of the world it becomes awkward. The ancient Greeks decided that the Egyptian system of variable length daytime hours was no good, and started splitting the day into 24 equal length hours. This was quite a big change and was by no means universally accepted until the advent of mechanical clocks made it by far the easiest way to measure time.

But why have we kept such an ancient system? After all, the Babylonians tended to measure things based on the lengths of various body parts or the weight of a grain of Barley. We don’t do that any more, but we seem to have carried their predilection for 60s into an age where it’s pretty inconvenient.

A New System

When you’re trying to come up with a new system, nature throws a couple of roadblocks in the way. There are two extremely useful natural time periods – the solar day, which is a nicely predictable cycle of light and dark, and the solar year which is a larger cycle of weather and temperature. Unfortunately in absolute terms, both vary annoyingly making them unsuitable for use in science and engineering, and even worse, the solar year is not an integer multiple of the day.

I think that while science and engineering may need a fixed length period of time, perhaps based on a fraction of the speed of light, this is not particularly useful for day-to-day use. So I wanted to choose a humane system based on either the length of a year or the length of a day. Ultimately I choose day, because I find it more useful to have lunch at the same time every day than to buy a winter coat at the same time every year.

Astronomical Clock Face

The obvious choice therefore is to measure everything in fractions of a solar day. I’d already hit on this by accident – if you create time units based on tens and hundreds, what you are actually doing is just naming some of the different places in the fraction of a day decimal. The places that relate most closely to what we currently do are to have hour-equivalents which are tenths of a day, minute-equivalents which are hundredths of an hour-equivalent, and second-equivalents which are hundredths of a minute-equivalent. Interestingly, the second equivalents come out fairly close to old-style seconds, and calculations become incredibly easy – 8:30 plus 5:80 becomes 1 day 4:10 (or 0.83 + 0.58 = 1.41).

But solving my difficulties with Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training was not the extent of my ambition. I’ve also had to work extensively with people in distant timezones, and it can be very confusing to know when you’re actually going to have a meeting, so I wanted a time that was numerically the same everywhere. We could do this already – everyone could use GMT for example, but that’s awkward, because it’s not obvious what time midnight or noon is where you are. Actually, it’s currently not obvious when noon is, because you probably don’t live at the exact center of your time zone. For example Oxford Time should be 5 minutes and 2 seconds behind Greenwich Time, but with the old system, this is too difficult to represent. These days, we can calculate this kind of thing exactly, so my new clock requires access to your GPS coordinates. While the numbers stay the same for everyone, their position on the clock face always ensures that your local solar noon is at the top of the clock face and solar midnight is at the bottom of the clockface, with high accuracy. Another benefit of having the whole day be one complete rotation of the clock is that I can draw on the dark and light times, based on your location with sunrise and sunset marked on every day.

Of course, choosing the day to have your IM meeting can be difficult too, since days start at different times for different people, so I’ve invented a new set of days, with a base 10 as well, going Nullday, Unday, Duoday, Triday, Quadday, Pentday, Hexday, Heptday, Octday, Nonday. These days form a new 10 day week. Now, I don’t want to replace the 7 day work week (well actually I do, I’d like 4 days on, 3 days off), so I’ve made sure my clock shows the old weekdays too, but when organising meetings, you should use the new weekdays. Instead of months, they get numbered in the year, so the first day of the year is the zeroth Nullday, and the last day of most years is the 36th Pentday, although some years will have a 36th Hexday.

Sadly, I can’t really fix the years, but once everyone has adopted this system of time, perhaps we can work on modifying the Earths orbit to make the years more sensible too.

In order to make the transition easy, I’ve made a canvas based app that should run in your browser (even on mobile devices), which is available here. It can hook in to Google Calendar and draw your meetings on the clock face, it displays sunrise and sunset and shows noon at the top and midnight at the bottom based on your location. It even shows you legacy time too, so that you can still talk to any luddites you might know.

But I can’t be responsible for bad outcomes if you make arrangements to plant bombs or evade justice with anyone still using the old time system.

Money: Where it comes from and where it might go

Everyone eventually wonders why people use money when it doesn’t have any ‘intrinsic’ value. It can feel like a house of cards built over an abyss.

Of course the answer is that people want money because they think that other people want money. That means that the value of money is mainly speculative. You value it because you speculate that you’ll be able to offload it to someone else for something you actually want later.

It’s only mostly speculative though. There are two mechanisms by which it acquires a small amount of nonspeculative value which is then magnified by its usefulness.

Firstly, the government demands that individuals give it some of the money it has issued back in taxation. That means that there will always be at least some demand for money. You probably know already that the government is going to demand some of that money from you this year, so you know you need some. That tiny kernel of certainty (death and taxes) is enough to bootstrap it as a medium of exchange, which means that there’s more and more you can do with these tokens, which means that people value them more and more.

If that isn’t enough then the government has another trick up its sleeve – they will not provide the power of the justice system to enforce collection of a debt in anything except the government issued tokens when the debtor has offered to pay in that (that’s the meaning of legal tender). Ebay used to do something similar with paypal; they would insure transactions made with paypal against fraud to a higher value than those made in any other way. By using government issued money, you get to rely on extra government backing. And making sure you have a stock or income of government tokens is a way of protecting yourself against unreasonable demands by creditors.

It can go wrong though. The ability to trade and enforce debts and pay taxes in a currency is valuable in its own right, however if a government is too weak or corrupt or economically pressed to guarantee the payment of debts, or perceived to be increasing the supply of tokens too quickly causing the value of the money you have to fall quicker than it provides value or if it simply becomes too difficult for people to get hold of the government tokens (perhaps they’ve all gone to Germany), then they will start to create their own tokens.

Nevertheless, much of what people think of as money with intrinsic value isn’t in a very different position. Why would a normal person want gold? What can they do with it? The only reason I would want gold is if I believed that other people in the future would want gold which would allow me to swap it for something I really wanted. This is just as speculative as government issued money, assuming the government provides those selfsame two guarantees with gold, otherwise it could be even more speculative. The argument that it’s useful in electronics is valid, but only to the same extent that if the worst comes to the worst I can burn my government issued banknotes for heat. Ultimately, there are few currencies that can’t be converted into the base currency of the universe: joules.

Anything near the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy is much less speculative. I can eat a hamburger to get rid of my hunger. That’s real, nonspeculative value right there. There’ll be time in anyone’s life where they’ll take a mess of pottage now over a hypothetical fortune in gold later. Indeed, the ancient currency unit ‘shekel’ was originally a measure of barley (180 standard grains). The first metal currencies were actually tokens which represented stored (and could be converted into) actual grain. Hygenie is an essential human need, so perhaps it’s not surprising that tide detergent is being used as currency amoung drug dealers in the US.

But who determines the distribution of the government tokens in society? Well there are a few ways. Obviously we got here from a system of barter, where you would swap one tangible good (a cow) for another tangible good (some gold or silver). When we eventually switched the gold and silver for intangible ‘money’, the government tokens were distributed to people according to how the gold and silver had previously been distributed. The original distribution was not completely fair, but it had a history of at least sometimes rewarding hard work and wealth creation. The government can also modify the distribution by giving people tokens in exchange for work hopefully benefitting the community (employing them), or by paying them interest on a bond or by disbursing some as welfare or grants, not to mention adjusting the amount it takes off different kinds of people in tax.

Some systems try to equate currency with labour. There are time banks where if you labour for an hour you are provided with 1 hours worth of tokens which you can then redeem against someone else prepared to labour for an hour. Since almost everything we want requires labour (either to acquire the raw materials or to work them), labour is in some ways the human equivalent of the joule; an energy based currency.

Early Chinese Tool MoneyIn China, I saw tool based money for the first time. Small trowel heads and knives were used as currency during the Zhou dynasty (although they ultimately became very stylised). Tools are labour multipliers. There’s a lot to recommend tool based money – you can actually use a tool to create wealth directly. Use the trowel to plant, and the knife to hunt or butcher. They can be stored easily and are durable. It seems that there are some people who could survive almost anywhere in the world given a decent machete. It’d be interesting to see what an economy based on survival tools would look like.

Naturally anyone thinking along these lines for the modern age will be considering the ultimate human tool; the computer. There are a number of computer based currencies, some backed by boring old gold (the USA has a history of jailing and shutting down e-gold operations, although pecunix seems to have survived better than many), some just a score in a computer that you can pay to have incremented (and increment others at the cost of decrementing your own). The popularity of these is driven by a distrust in the governments that control their currencies but also by the friction and pain that moving small amounts of money between individuals and sometimes across borders entails at the moment.

Amazingly corporations like Visa can charge an insane percentage on nearly every transaction in our economy. By requiring that merchants offer the same price to those paying with and without credit and debit cards, it means that anyone paying cash is subsidizing the cost to the merchant of everyone else that is paying by card. All this for something (debit) that in the age of the computer should be free.

In a more rational system, banks would be required to provide every current account with an incoming and an outgoing account number (so that there is no danger in sharing your incoming account number), and then an api that would allow me to push money from my account to some arbitrary account number. I imagine that every payment, whether giving a friend 50 cents or paying hundreds of dollars of electricity bill would become something like scanning the QR code of the receiving bank account with a mobile phone. And there’s no reason it should cost anything beyond a normal current account.

Interestingly, removing the 4% rent that the card companies charge would result in a massive stimulus to the economy at a time when it could really do with it. (Reducing VAT in the UK made a big difference and was smaller, and more painful to the government finances than this would be). Beyond the fact of the stimulus though, there are a million interesting business models that the internet is crying out to implement, but can’t because of the needless cost of transactions.

Some startup companies are struggling to address this already. Flattr is a nice idea, but takes a 10% cut, which I can’t countenance. Gittip seems more equitable.

One great hope is bitcoin. It’s decentralised, so there is no need to worry about governments undermining its value (although also of course there is no base value or justice system guaranteed by government either…), semi-anonymous (everyone knows the wallet ids that own the bitcoins, but they don’t know which human owns those ids without further investigation) so you don’t have to worry so much about intrusive marketeers (or governments) snooping into your transactions, and because it’s modern and thoroughly electronic, the transaction cost is vanishingly small.

There are two things I don’t like about bitcoin though. Firstly the initial distribution of coins. While with real currencies, the initial distribution was bootstrapped on top of centuries of barter, bitcoin has a concept of ‘mining’ which is guaranteed to get much harder over time until it ultimately becomes impossible. This means that the people who originally joined the network were easily able to amass millions of dollars worth of bitcoins for very little work, while now to ‘mine’ a single bitcoin requires an amount of computer power outside the reach of casual users. This kind of initial distribution is strikingly unfair and leaves a bad taste.

Secondly bitcoin is not backed by anything. You can’t redeem your bitcoin for anything except its speculative value – even the computer power that went into ‘mining’ it originally wasn’t actually solving a problem that is valued for anything except its effect on bitcoins. You can’t burn it for its joules or get back those computer cycles for something useful.

I would much prefer a system where all grid computing systems offer certificates to certify that you’ve done some useful work (electronic labour, perhaps on protein folding, or on some problem that other people would be prepared to pay the grid providers for). The issuing grid network could guarantee to redeem them for some percentage of the work that you’ve done, and then allow them to be freely exchanged. The decentralisation would come from the fact that anyone could run these grid computing networks, so there would be many authorities. That way the currency is backed by something, has a real value and furthermore is doing something more useful than just bringing closer the heat death of the universe.

A system like this could fix spam fairly neatly by adding a step to email exchange where a server receiving an email for delivery requires a small (e.g. 5 seconds worth) payment in certified grid computing work before passing the email on (potentially smaller or waived fees for mail signed by people you know). That way, to send a spam email to a large number of people would require a correspondingly large investment in solving useful problems, and anyone who can solve protein folding deserves to be able to send a few spam emails in my book.

Regardless of what kind of approach wins, we are being held back by lack of trust and transaction costs more appropriate for yesterdays world. Unless governments can move with the times and give us more value from our currencies, more and more alternatives will be tried and eventually one will stick.

Singularity of Great Britishness

I’ve written a bit recently about the technological singularity, the idea that paradigm shifts have been increasing in frequency logarithmically, so that soon there won’t be time to do anything except paradigm shift and that will be so tiring for us that all bets are off about what we will do or become next.

Anyway, the proof of this is all here in this lovely graphic on wikipedia, collecting data from many esteemed sources (click for the big version).

Someone once pointed out to me that people tend to overvalue recent changes, because they mean more to them, and they forget or undervalue older stuff. I’ll call this the Dewhurst effect.

So my question is, are these paradigm shift graphs simply artefacts of the Dewhurst effect?

It’s very difficult to tell, but I thought one thing we could do is to generate a similar graph for something we know to be true, and see if the Dewhurst effect has had a distorting influence on that.

Everyone knows that the British are getting better and better as time goes on. There is no question that we are heading towards a singularity of greatness, when eventually so many great Britons are being born every minute that the Oxford English dictionary has to redefine greatness. Since this is a given, is there any data that I can plot to see if the Dewhurst effect has distorted the evidence for this?

Fortunately, there is. The Great British Broadcasting Corporation a few years ago ran a survey to determine the greatest britons of all time. You can read the full list on Wikipedia. I had to clean up the data a little, removing those whose names could be associated with paradigm shifts and technological discoveries to remove the influence of the technological singularity. Eventually, I got a list of musicians, politicians and humanitarians.

Here’s the graph (click for the full image).

Great People

Result. Well, obviously we don’t have as many data points as all those different think tanks, (I chose 1987, because I figure it takes about 20 years for greatness to manifest, so we wouldn’t have data for the last 20 years) which means that the graph isn’t as nice, and they have data going back more than 10000 years, but there looks to be a definite straight line there to me. In fact, I think if you just consider the last 10000 years our line is actually straighter than theirs. The fact that we are producing great Britons exponentially faster as time goes on is supported by the graph, with no sign of distortion from the Dewhurst effect. Perhaps we could also use the graph predictively. According to my calculations, there was a great briton living about 600 years before Boudica, or in 560 BC, that history has forgotten. This date corresponds neatly to the start of the iron age in Britain, so I would hazard a guess that he was the one who kicked it all off.

Schnee Schni Schnappy

The title is a reference to the German song. This post is not about that. This is just a local copy of a comment I wrote on someone elses blog, discussing the Iraq war and the behaviour of soldiers.

In reply to a comment on apostrophers post about becoming monsters:

This whole ‘snapping’ thing doesn’t give me a lot of solace. Wife beaters claim that they ‘just snapped’, and we still judge them harshly. Whether or not someones snapping reduces the guilt on them depends on how we feel about their reasons for snapping. In the case of wife beaters, we don’t care that they commited the act in a fit of rage, when she didn’t bring him a beer, because we don’t think that’s a very good reason for ‘snapping’. If someone can ‘snap’ over something they shouldn’t ‘snap’ over, then most people think of them as just as guilty.

For most of us, having your friend killed next to you seems like a good reason to snap, but I think that it is very different when you’re in a war situation and your friend is standing there with a machine gun. In that situation, you should expect him to be killed, and if you can’t handle that without committing atrocities than you really really really should not be in the army.

When you work with wife beaters and get them to analyse their thought processes, you discover that ‘snapping’ is not so thoughtless a process as they and it appears you believe. Even in a fit of rage, people plan and have the ability to reason [it is a suspension of morality, not rationality]. ‘Snapping’ is a choice, and you can be trained to make it a less appealing choice (one way is through harsh punishments, other ways include self-talk, etc). This is something that should be one of the main concerns in training anyone who is going to be given a gun.

As an aside to an earlier point, historically speaking, battles in the past weren’t always brute attempts at domination. There were rules to war even before the Geneva convention, to the extent that when Henry gave the order to kill the prisoners at Agincourt because they didn’t have enough men to keep them all under control (they were outnumbered 6 to 1) his orders were ignored. There have always been people who broke the rules of war, and in the past there was little that could be done, except not to invite them to parties, but there has been the notion of morality in the way you treat prisoners and enemy noncombatants for a long time.

Posted by: kyb at May 23, 2006 07:54 AM