Are we getting too clocky?

By now, most everyone subjected to the “spring ahead” time shift should have almost all of the household clocks set properly. Perhaps a timer, a handheld gadget, a gaming console, or a piece of exercise equipment buried under clothes and boxes remains unset, out of sight, out of mind. The spring ahead part is tougher because of not only losing an hour of sleep, but of needing an extra hour to hunt down every analog or digital contraption with a clock that does not set automatically.

Admittedly, most clocks embedded in devices manufactured since the late 1990s will synchronize either to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) radio transmitter or to a Network Time Protocol (NTP) server. The Internet of Things (IoT) promises to make this chore easier in the future. An individual probably may receive a special certification for complete “Interconnected Devices, Internet of Things” achievement. Heaven knows, we probably know a few people deserving of that certification.

At one point, clocks did not set themselves. Think back 40 years ago when setting the analog clock in the car meant either pulling or pushing a knurled stem while trying to turn the darn thing either clockwise or counterclockwise. The grinding sound meant that the stem needed more force in or out, resulting in a sore wrist or finger blisters. Within a couple of years, car clocks either had broken stems or were left alone. After setting or ignoring the car clock, there might be a wrist watch, kitchen clock, oven clock, and an alarm clock to set. There were maybe a half-dozen timepieces requiring attention.

Sometime in the 1980s, a marketing wonk, whose name is lost to the ages, decided that adding a clock to a gizmo increases its coolness factor, similar to how every electronic thingamabob is better with Bluetooth. During the early years of clock proliferation, many of the clocks would gain or lose many minutes per day. Setting them required feats of digital dexterity and prestidigitation because of pressing multiple tiny buttons. Wristwatches used LED displays rather than LCD displays and required a button push to see what time it was (stream old episodes of “Kojack” to see an LED watch in action). LED watches could not have the display on all the time because the alkaline battery would drain within a week. VCRs had non-intuitive clock controls resulting in an ominous and annoying green blinking “12:00” display. A strip of black electrical tape quickly fixed that problem, though the problem of recording shows at a particular time remained unsolved. That explains how Blockbuster got so huge in a short time. Even after getting the ever multiplying number of clocks set properly, a brief power outage rendered all the effort for naught.

Even computers had issues with time changes. The standard $4,000 personal computer contained a Real Time Clock (RTC) circuit that was poorly named. RTCs slowed down in direct proportion to CPU load. Multimillion dollar mainframes fared worse. Nearly every mainframe operating system before the early 1990s required a system reboot after setting the clock. Reboots were time-consuming and quite boring unless something went wrong. Many of these problems went away after operating system upgrades allowed time resets without a reboot and by using NTP servers for time synchronization. Windows 2000 did have the annoying pop up window proclaiming Daylight Saving Time started or ended. That was as helpful as a cat dropping a dead creature at your feet and giving you the “See what I did for you?” look. It was probably an unused feature from Microsoft Bob.

As battery and electronics technologies improved, clocks began appearing in previously inconceivable places. We now live in an age where clocks get synchronized to within milliseconds of each other, but where weekly status meetings chronically start eight minutes late, and the traditional 5:00 pm quitting time drifts closer to 7:30 pm. The IoT means a future of more devices connected to the Internet, which means these connected devices will have clocks. I am not arguing that a clock controlling auto start on a coffee maker is not sheer genius, even if the clock presently requires manual adjustments twice per year. My Nest thermostat is another example of properly using a clock synchronized to an Internet time server, and it worked with my antiquated thermostat wiring unlike other WiFi enabled thermostats. Modern households have probably three dozen clocks scattered about. But do we really need a time of day clock on the microwave, and the stove, and the coffee maker? Even the wall phone has a clock because of the Caller ID display. I have a kitchen clock that works quite well, thank you. I’m glad my spatula is lacking a clock, though it is possibly conspiring with the ladle to get back room timepiece injections done. Maybe the rolling-pin will keep them in line.

With our obsession for time keeping and with clocks everywhere reminding us that we are late for everything like the rabbit in “Alice of Wonderland”, take a break to spend quality time with your loved ones. It helps lower stress and is quite enjoyable. Good things happen after an attitude adjustment. Who knows, perhaps your mandatory 9:30 meeting will start on time? One can always hope.

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