20080813

I miss POPCORN

For most of my life, I have been able to get the exact time of day over the telephone, set by atomic clocks. Here in Northern California, the usual number to call was 767-2676, which is better known by the letters POPCORN. It must have been started by AT&T way back when, and continued for years by Pacific Bell. Then PacBell got absorbed by SBC, which shortly after merged with the rump AT&T, and the new AT&T canceled the service last September, which I found out when Daylight Saving Time ended. As Lily Tomlin said, "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the phone company."

Now, it could be argued that it's not necessary anymore, since many devices are synced to atomic time, including cable boxes and computers. In fact, the very cell phones that we use to call POPCORN display the time updated from the cell network, and many people use their phone instead of a watch. My problem with this is that, the time is usually wrong! That is, I have noticed that it can be as much as a minute off from atomic time. I don't know why; maybe it updates occassionally and then drifts inbetween updates. Now, that is not much, and I can live with that most of the time, but when I am setting the clock on my car dashboard, or wherever, I want it to the second, not a minute off.

Fortunately, I have free long distance in the contiguous US, so I can call WWV at 303-499-7111, which is operated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). This gives the time in both Mountain Time and UTC, which is good enough. I don't call it very often; mostly when the time changes twice a year, or when the dashboard clock gets reset at the shop. But it's nice to know it's there.

Well, my cab got worked on the other day, and I needed to reset the clock. But when I called WWV, I got no answer. I called back several times and finally got an answer, but when I called again it just rang again. I am not sure, but I suspect that they have been getting a lot more calls since the end of POPCORN and similar numbers across the country, and are exceding their capacity. Or it could be just a coincidence.

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