Towards a Universal Time

On this day in 1879, at a meeting of the Royal Canadian Institute in Toronto, Scottish-Canadian engineer and inventor Sandford Fleming proposed the idea of standard time zones based on a single universal world time. He suggested that standard time zones could be used locally, but would follow a single world time, which he called “Cosmic Time”. The proposal divided the world into twenty-four time zones, each one covering 15 degrees of longitude. All clocks within each zone would be set to the same time as the others but differed by one hour from those in the neighboring zones.

An amazing innovation we take for granted. Wikimedia Commons.

We take time zones for granted today, but for most of human history, time was kept locally, based on how people in each town or city measured the position of the sun. Most humans did not travel beyond their community, and the few who did would takes days or weeks, so it never really made a difference whether one city was hours off from another one.

But the development of rail travel in the late 19th century posed a huge challenge. For the first time in history, people were crossing through multiple towns in the span of hours, leading to the absurd practice of having to continually reset clocks throughout the day.

An 1853 “Universal Dial Plate” showing the relative times of “all nations” before the adoption of universal time. Wikimedia Commons.

As the first country to industrialize, Great Britain was the first to deal with this problem on a large scale; in response, it established Greenwich Mean Time, which was the mean solar time on the Prime Meridian at Greenwich, England. (Ironically, this had been developed to resolve the same issue with respect to ocean navigation. Each country had its own prime meridian in its navigational charts to serve as something of a starting point; it usually passed through the country in question, until the navally dominant British developed the Prime Meridian that most others would soon follow.) Clocks in Britain were set to this time irrespective of local solar noon.

Anyway, Fleming’s proposal gave way to a flurry of international discussion about how to address this issue. The British government even forwarded his work to eighteen foreign countries and several scientific bodies to determine a solution. The United States called an “International Meridian Conference” in 1884 that gathered delegates from around the world to set up a universally recognized basis for time. It was announced the Greenwich Mean Time would be used, for the simple reason that by then, two-thirds of all nautical charts and maps already used it as their prime meridian

By 1972, all major countries adopted time zones based on the Greenwich meridian (since 1935, called “Universal Time”). The saga of universal time is yet another example of our species’ move towards a more global and interconnected community.

Article of Interest: The Cost of Paying Attention

From the New York Times comes a highly relevant reflection on something that bedevils most people in the modern world: the constant bombardment of distractions and stimuli that make it harder and harder for us to focus on any one thing.

Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging.

Rethinking Daylight Savings Time

And by rethinking it, I mean ending it. Aside from the inconvenience of having to adjust one’s sleeping pattern — most clocks nowadays are automated so at least that part is less troublesome — daylight savings time (DST) is both unnecessary and in many measurable respects, does more harm than good.

The Atlantic outlines just some of the problems with this fairly new and unusual concept:

Daylight Saving has been an official ritual since 1918, when President Woodrow Wilson codified it into law during the waning days of World War One. Nowadays, its ostensible purpose is to save energy: One more hour of sunlight in the evening means one less hour of consumption of artificial lighting. In 2005, President George W. Bush lengthened Daylight Saving Time by a month as part of a sweeping energy bill signed that year, citing the need to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil.

But does Daylight Saving Time actually make much of a difference? Evidence suggests that the answer is no. After the Australian government extended Daylight Saving Time by two months in 2000 in order to accommodate the Sydney Olympic Games, a study at UC Berkeley showed that the move failed to reduce electricity demand at all. More recently, a study of homes in Indiana—a state that adopted Daylight Saving Time only in 2006—showed that the savings from electricity use were negated, and then some, by additional use of air conditioning and heat.

The simple act of adjusting to the time change, however subtle, also has measurable consequences. Many people feel the effects of the “spring forward” for longer than a day; a study showed that Americans lose around 40 minutes of sleep on the Sunday night after the shift. This means more than just additional yawns on Monday: the resulting loss in productivity costs the economy an estimated $434 million a year.

Daylight Saving Time may also hurt people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, depriving them of light in the mornings. “Our circadian rhythms were set eons ago to a rhythm that didn’t include daylight savings time, so the shift tends to throw people off a bit,” Nicholas Rummo, the director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mt. Kisco, New York, told HealthDay News. The switchover to Daylight Saving Time is also linked to an increase in heart attacks as well as traffic accidents.

While we take it as a given, adjusting our clocks in this manner is actually a pretty novel idea, and one that is hardly universal. The article points out that millions of people in the United States — namely those living Arizona, Hawaii, and territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands — do not observe the practice, and have done just fine (even despite being out of step with the majority of the nation).

Indeed, most of the world does not observe DST, and those comparatively few nations that do so have no appreciable advantage.

Daylight Savings Time Around The World

In short, DST is a dated idea with little empirical evidence or efficacy backing up it up. But even if there emerges any concerted effort to end this practice, phasing it out will probably take time given its familiarity.


The “end of history illusion” describes an almost universal phenomenon among human beings, in which we have a tendency to see the present time as the stopping point for any change of in lives. Once we reach a certain age, we essentially assume that from then on we’ll remain the same. It’s a little difficult to describe given that the “present” tense of time slides as we age. But the New York Times has a great article on it:

When we remember our past selves, they seem quite different. We know how much our personalities and tastes have changed over the years. But when we look ahead, somehow we expect ourselves to stay the same, a team of psychologists said Thursday, describing research they conducted of people’s self-perceptions.

They called this phenomenon the “end of history illusion,” in which people tend to “underestimate how much they will change in the future.” According to their research, which involved more than 19,000 people ages 18 to 68, the illusion persists from teenage years into retirement.

“Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin,” said one of the authors, Daniel T. Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard. “What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”

Trying to explain this tendency yields even more interesting considerations. After all, if people acknowledge how much they’ve changed over the years, why can’t they seem to realize that such change will continue?

People seemed to be much better at recalling their former selves than at imagining how much they would change in the future.

Why? Dr. Gilbert and his collaborators, Jordi Quoidbach of Harvard and Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia, had a few theories, starting with the well-documented tendency of people to overestimate their own wonderfulness.

“Believing that we just reached the peak of our personal evolution makes us feel good,” Dr. Quoidbach said. “The ‘I wish that I knew then what I know now’ experience might give us a sense of satisfaction and meaning, whereas realizing how transient our preferences and values are might lead us to doubt every decision and generate anxiety.”

Or maybe the explanation has more to do with mental energy: predicting the future requires more work than simply recalling the past. “People may confuse the difficulty of imagining personal change with the unlikelihood of change itself,” the authors wrote in Science.

But it’s false comfort, as this mentality does have its caveats:

The phenomenon does have its downsides, the authors said. For instance, people make decisions in their youth — about getting a tattoo, say, or a choice of spouse — that they sometimes come to regret.

I think it comes down to the nature of the human mind. Our brains are limited in their capacity to look into the future. Our senses and perceptions are shaped by the here and the now, not by a hypothetical future that is far and away – and therefore difficult to grasp, let alone feel concerned about. Try as we might, we’re just too cognitively limited.

Before I Met You

You know what’s strange? Looking back on the period of your life before you knew your current friends or lovers, while keeping in mind that they were still around out there. Before I knew any of you, we were each going about our own independent lives completely unaware of each other’s existence. Then all of a sudden, on some fateful day, our lives intersected. Your presence became known, and our lives were no longer totally separate. From my perspective, your history doesn’t begin until I meet you.

Furthermore, you were a very different person before I got to know you, and visa versa: with time, I began to forget what it was like not to know or love you; it starts to feel like you were always there in my life. Even if we lose touch, our lives will remain irreversibly influenced or impacted in some way. You’ll be a part of my narrative in some way or another until my story ends.

Why Daylight Saving Time is Pointless

Personally, I don’t mind having an extra hour or so in the day, considering that the sun is rising earlier and setting later anyway. But for obvious reasons – namely a disruption of sleep – a lot of people disagree. Gizmodo lists its own reasons as to why DST is dated and causes more trouble than it’s worth. I guess being insomniatic makes me somewhat bias in its favor!

Also, it was British-born New Zealander George Vernon Hudson who first advocated that we move our clocks forward one hour in advance, back in 1895. He too wanted to squeeze more out of the day, since his work as an entomologist required more daylight (he collected bugs). Englishman William Willett is also credited with being the first to promote the practice, for similar reasons. Guess our obsession with trying to make more time in the day is hardly a new one. I wonder what other innovations we’ll come up with to that end.

Read more about the history of DST here, or some little-known facts and misconceptions here. Hope those of you living in DST-practicing regions are adjusting well.

Happy Leap Day

The following fun-facts are courtesy of the BBC, which saved me the trouble of having to write about it myself.

1. The leap year’s extra day is necessary because of the “messiness” of our Solar System. One Earth year (a complete orbit around the Sun) does not take an exact number of whole days (one complete spin of the Earth on its axis). In fact, it takes 365.2422 days, give or take.

2. Until Julius Caesar came to power, people observed a 355-day calendar – with an extra 22-day month every two years. But it was a convoluted solution to the problem and feast days began sliding into different seasons. So Caesar ordered his astronomer, Sosigenes, to simplify things. Sosigenes opted for the 365-day year with an extra day every four years to scoop up the extra hours. This is how the 29 February was born. It was then fine-tuned by Pope Gregory XIII (see below).

3. Every fourth year is a leap year, as a rule of thumb. But that’s not the end of the story. A year that is divisible by 100, but not by 400, is not. So 2000 was a leap year, as was 1600. But 1700, 1800 and 1900 are not leap years. “It seems a bit arbitrary,” says Ian Stewart, emeritus professor of mathematics at Warwick University. But there’s a good reason behind it.

“The year is 365 days and a quarter long – but not exactly. If it was exactly, then you could say it was every four years. But it is very slightly less.” The answer arrived at by Pope Gregory XIII and his astronomers when they introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1582, was to lose three leap days every 400 years. The maths has hung together ever since. It will need to be rethought in about 10,000 years’ time, Stewart warns. But by then mankind might have come up with a new system.

4. Why is February 29, not February 31, a leap year day? All the other months have 30 or 31 days, but February suffered from the ego of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, says Stewart. Under Julius Caesar, February had 30 days, but when Caesar Augustus was emperor he was peeved that his month – August – had only 29 days, whereas the month named after his predecessor Julius – July – had 31. “He pinched a couple of days for August to make it the same as July. And it was poor old February that lost out,” says Prof Stewart.

5. The tradition of a woman proposing on a leap year has been attributed to various historical figures. One, although much disputed, was St Bridget in the 5th Century. She is said to have complained to St Patrick that women had to wait too long for their suitors to propose. St Patrick then supposedly gave women a single day in a leap year to pop the question – the last day of the shortest month. Another popular story is that Queen Margaret of Scotland brought in a law setting fines for men who turned down marriage proposals put by women on a leap year. Sceptics have pointed out that Margaret was five years old at the time and living far away in Norway. The tradition is not thought to have become commonplace until the 19th Century.

It is believed that the right of every woman to propose on this day goes back to the times when the leap year day was not recognised by English law. It was believed that if the day had no legal status, it was acceptable to break with tradition.

6. A prayer has been written by a female cleric for people planning a leap year day marriage proposal. The prayer, for 29 February, asks for blessings on the engaged couple. It reminds them that wedding plans should not overtake preparations for a lifetime together. The prayer has been taken from Pocket Prayers of Blessing by the Venerable Jan McFarlane, Archdeacon of Norwich:

“God of love, please bless N and N as they prepare for the commitment of marriage. May the plans for the wedding not overtake the more important preparation for their lifetime together. Please bless their family and friends as they prepare for this special day and may your blessing be upon them now and always. Amen.”

7. The practice of women proposing in a leap year is different around the world. In Denmark, it is not supposed to be 29 but 24 February, which hails back to the time of Julius Caesar. A refusal to marry by Danish men means they must give the woman 12 pairs of gloves. In Finland, it is not gloves but fabric for a skirt and in Greece, marriage in a leap year is considered unlucky, leading many couples to avoid it.

8. The chance of being born on a leap day is often said to be one in 1,461. Four years is 1,460 days and adding one for the leap year you have 1,461. So, odds of 1/1,461.

But Stewart points out that is very slightly out, owing to the loss of the three leap years every 400 years. In any case, babies are more likely to be born at certain times of the year rather than others, due to a range of other factors, he says. Babies born on 29 February are known as “leapers” or “leaplings”.

9. Other calendars apart from the Gregorian require leap years. The modern Iranian calendar is a solar calendar with eight leap days inserted into a 33-year cycle. The Indian National Calendar and the Revised Bangla Calendar of Bangladesh arrange their leap years so that the leap day is always close to 29 February in the Gregorian calendar.

10. Explorer Christopher Columbus used the lunar eclipse of 29 February 1504 to his advantage during his final trip to the West Indies. After several months of being stranded with his crew on the island of Jamaica, relations with the indigenous population broke down and they refused to continue helping with food and provisions. Columbus, knowing a lunar eclipse was due, consulted his almanac and then gathered the native chiefs on 29 February. He told that God was to punish them by painting the Moon red. During the eclipse, he said that God would withdraw the punishment if they starting co-operating again. The panicked chiefs agreed and the Moon began emerging from its shadow.

Also of a supernatural nature, on 29 February 1692 the first warrants were issued in the Salem witchcraft trials in Massachusetts.

The Secret Powers of Time

Since today has been busier and more hectic than expected, I’ve decided to keep this post brief but no less interesting (I hope).

RSA Animate, one of my favorite sources for discussions on scientific, ethical, and philosophical topics, recently produced a fascinating lecture on the nature of time and our perceptions of it (I came across it courtesy of an old friend, so many thanks to you if you’re reading this). As some of you might have gleaned from my previous post concerning time, I’m extremely interested in the way humans behave and operate in relation to the passage of time, which itself is largely a human construct (as far as measurements and a sense for temporal changes are concerned).

The presentation is hosted by Phillip Zimbardo, a psychologist better known for the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment, which studied human behavior in positions of power (namely between guards and prisoners). It’s conclusions raised many crucial issues about human psychology and behavior, and I recommend looking into this further if any of you have a chance (though I’ll certainly be blogging about it in the future). Here’s the video “The Secret Powers of Time:”

Needless to say, the implications of this are fascinating. We rarely stop to consider how relative our perceptions of time are to one another, and how this could subsequently have larger impacts on society as a whole. We often joke about things such as “Cuban” time and how people perceive it’s passage differently. But the idea that entire nations and cultures could be shaped by their sense of time and their relationship to it is remarkable, and raises questions about how we manage our individual lives, our institutions, and our pursuit of certain activities, such as work and education.

It also raises questions about determinism, since it appears that many people and civilizations are being shaped by forces that are difficult, if not impossible, to control. It’s remarkable, if not potentially disconcerting, to imagine progress being contingent upon externalities we don’t really understand.

But the more we learn about the root nature of our mind and it’s relation to the world, the more we could (hopefully) be able to alter the way society operates – though overcoming tradition and conventional wisdom will certainly take generations, especially given the complex and interconnected systems that define modern civilization. It’s also interesting that the study of psychology, which is often  stereotypically considered to be more applicable to individuals, could in fact be utilized in the aggregate to understand the social order. I think it’s another example of why our public policies and various social organizations should be predicated on developments in science and reason as much as anything else.

But that is a topic for another day and another post. In the meantime, I’ll no doubt be looking very differently at the disparity between myself and others when it comes to perceptions of time (to say nothing of my usual reflections about my own relationship to time).


There are moments in life when I just wish time would stop. Is it just me, or does it seem to accelerate as more of it passes by? I feel the weeks going by faster nowadays than they did just years ago, though I know that is apparently a normal result of the brain developing and becoming more apt at processing the world around it.

I find the idea of time, and how it relates to us and our perceptions, to be fascinating, if not poorly understood.

In any case, it’s hard to believe how far I’ve come. I’ve been on this Earth 23 years. I’ve seen so many things change and occur even in my relatively short life span. Time seems to move quickly now, not only because of the neurological reasons I noted before, but perhaps because of the increasing complexity and advancement of society and technology. We have so much more to do now, and so many ways to do it. Everything is about speed and efficiency, and with that we lose the opportunity to truly sit back and enjoy life, to soak it all in. Paid vacations and weekends last only so long, especially when people are still worrying about bills, debt, what awaits when they return, and so on.

None of this is meant to sound cynical – it’s merely an observation. It can be argued that the overwhelming information stimulus of our modern age is a small price to pay for it’s great achievements, such as the advancements in medicine and the great reductions in poverty .

I suppose I’m simply finding myself mire in a common concern for our generation (if not all young people): being overwhelmed by choices, having so much to do and so little time to do it, and feeling that – despite being so young and looking forward to a longer life – I  still nonetheless feel as if I’m old. Obviously, relative to the past, I’m older. But I’m not just speaking in technical terms: I truly feel as if time is running out for me in some way. Even though I may hopefully have decades of life left to enjoy, I keep feeling this sense of impending doom, as if crossing a certain age threshold within the next few years will trigger a downward spiral in which I won’t be able to have much fun anymore. I know none of this makes sense, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling this way.

I’m reflecting on current events throughout my life time too.  As I write this, economies are in turmoil, riots are intensifying in several cities, rebel movements are trying to change history in their nations, powers are rising – there is an incalculable number of events transpiring throughout the world, some of which the significance won’t be known. What will be the consequences of  all these things a few years down the road? Or a few decades? Will they end up being world-changing in unexpected ways? Will some of the minor occurrences I’m reading about be looked back on decades from now, only knowing then what we couldn’t have possibly known now? It’s both scary and captivating, as a news junkie, to see so much going and on and having no idea how it will end or what will follow. Maybe that’s why I’m so addicted to self-saturation of media.

With so many more things happening at once, and in quick succession, it’s no wonder time moves fast: what is time but the measurement of the duration of events, the intervals between them, and the movement of everything – us and the world – in relation to it all. Some say time is a real thing, a fundamental and measurable structure of the universe that exists objective (aka Newtonian time). Others hold it to be nothing more than subjective, something that exists only in our minds – a concept and nothing more.

Who’s to say time moves in a linear fashion either? Numerous cultures, particularly ancient and Eastern ones, such as the Mayan, Ancient Greeks, Babylonians, Buddhists, and Hindus (among others), held time to by cyclical. It would be strange to imagine time repeating itself as opposed to progressing endlessly, but a part of me finds that to be somewhat more preferable for some reason.

I think I’m way over my head in trying to make sense of it all. In any case, all any of us can do is go with the flow. As the saying goes, time waits for no one. So on that note, I’ll do the best I can to make every minute of it count. Even if I’m just lounging around or getting lost in some mindless video game (which I don’t do that often anyway), it’s all just part of the experience.

What is life and the passage of time but a series of experiences, good or bad, small or big?

Some Day

Some day I will have kids. I will be an “adult” – a true one that is, with my own place and everything. Some day, I will be old, and will eventually die, just like everyone else around me – every celebrity, public figure, inspirational hero, and personal loved one will most certainly perish.

It’s strange to go through life knowing what awaits me, yet pretending not to. Like most people, I remain cognitively dissonant, keeping such concerns in the back of my mind, since I’ll never really know about them until the time comes – when it’s too late. I wonder if I’ll be pondering all this as an old man – I wonder if I’ll even make it to old age. For all I know, I can perish tonight, tomorrow, or a hundred years from now (such thoughts don’t bode well for my paranoid, anxiety-driven mind).

This year has gone by so fast. Is it strange to feel like I’m getting old even at 24? I should be so lucky! But each year, things change, becoming less and less familiar – people come and go, old hangouts disappear and are replaced,  old habits and activities die off while new ones form. It’s scary to think that everything I love and enjoy now will some day be gone or left behind with time. All my experiences will be nothing more than memory, and memories will be almost all Ill have left of an entirely different world from the one I’ll grow old in.

By this time next year, I will have already been out of school for over a year. Where will I be then? And what about years from now? We all talk about where we’ll be in 10 years and what we want to do in the future. Often we do this hypothetically and for fun, feeling secure enough to make whatever claims and goals we want for the distant future. But how many of us truly comprehend what all this means? How many of us truly appreciate the fact that those 10 years will be closed in on quite soon, and that we’ll be forced to confront our promises to ourselves and others?

It’s no wonder people are so nostalgic about the past and obsessed with talking about the ‘better’ days. It’s not so much that there were better. It’s simply that, in retrospect, we know we made it through those periods of time ok. We’re familiar with them and grew used to them, whatever their troubles. The present is lived through day by day, while the totally unknowable future is contemplated with an aloof  mix of excitement, fear, and apprehension.

It’s because of such thoughts that I try my hardest to live in the moment. I can appreciate every single second because I know that as they all pass, they’ll be gone for good, and I’ll have them only in my memories. I want those memories to be good and fulfilling ones, because they will be all I’ll have of my life once I grow old. The sum of our entire existence is recorded in the memories of ourselves and others. I must truly respect the inevitability mine and other’s demise because to neglect it is to lose track of time, under-appreciate the precious moments we have, and be left with a life that is squandered of opportunity.

However, in being so aware of all this, I am left trying too hard to make the most of my life. Ironically, my eagerness and anxiety to ensure a life well lived can leave me stressed out enough to not enjoy it. Time is short, so I struggle with trying to do and experience as much as I can in very little time. I want to read so many books, meet so many people, do so many things, and see so many places. I hope never to die prematurely or be unable to do what I’ve set myself up for. I know I’ll never feel completely satisfied – no one has every done everything they would’ve ever wanted before dying (especially the more ambitious and artistic types among us). That thought still scares me, though I’ve resigned myself to just accept it and do my best anyway.

Ultimately, I should be so lucky as to ponder these things. Most people live their entire lives toiling away to make ends meet. Many barely live for a fraction as long as the rest of us. I have the luxury – the exceptionally rare fortune – to have been one of a tiny percentage of humans that have ever lived that can really make the most of life. No matter what my anxieties, concerns, and thoughts of inadequacy, I can live content knowing that, even as I stand, I’ve experienced more wonderful things and known more wonderful people than most of my fellow humans could ever have imagined. As long as I can remember that down the road, I’ll be at peace.