20160312

Why am I here?

My last post was the first one in over a year, and it got three comments, which is more than I've seen in a very long time. It reminds me of the halcyon days of the 2000s.


I think that the difference is that when the Web was new, i.e. the 90s and early 00s, information was still sparse and just starting to explode. Wikipedia and Google were just getting started around the turn of the century, so there was no central repository of all knowledge, and only primitive search engines to find what relatively little had been posted online by then. Due to this, information about decimal time was hard to come by, leading to a lot of speculation and innovation. Decimal/metric time proposals abounded on the World-Wide Web back in the 1990s, with little communication between their authors. The likely reason that they are rare today is that it is now so easy to get the information that speculation is unnecessary, and there is little desire to "re-invent the wheel".

 As I recall, my own interest in the subject began in the 1970s. Perhaps it began with stardates, since I was a trekkie. I read about Julian Dates and wondered if they were related. I also remember finding it confusing that half hours were 30 minutes after the hour, rather than 0.50 hour, which I found validated in an Isaac Asimov story in the early 80s. Somewhere I learned that decimal time had been introduced by the French during the Revolution. I even made my own decimal clocks, both analog and digital, written in BASIC on an Atari 800 computer. But I did not know much details, or if decimal time was even used then by anybody or how. Although I occasionally used Julian Dates as timestamps, I gave up searching for information on the subject.

 Kids today don't know what it was like in the Dark Ages before the Internet. Back then, if you didn't know the answer to something, chances are you never would. Oh, you could spend time in libraries, or write to experts, but these dead-tree media were usually more trouble than it was worth, without any guarantee of success. Decimal time was just one of many things that I didn't have the answers to. Every once in a while, I'll remember something else that I used to wonder about, and simply google the answer to some childhood mystery, like, can you swim right after eating or do we really only use 10% of our brains.

 So around the turn of the century, when Google was just getting started down the road from me, and Wikipedia was not yet a thing, I remembered my fascination with decimal time and decided to get answers. Back then, there were many proposals for decimal or metric time, so I started scraping the Internet for all that I could find. I wondered if there was any sort of standard or consensus. It turned out that, for the most part, there wasn't. Most proposals were by individuals, independent of each other, without prior knowledge on the subject. Although the obvious base units used by French revolutionaries were common, there many other proposals, using all sorts of different names, often with alternative calendars, and no consensus whatsoever. I wrote them all down and published them on my web page, and provided a message board where decimal time fans could discuss it. I even programmed the board to display whatever proprietary decimal time/date format posters liked. Over time interest gradually waned, and I had to shut the site down for a while after it got hacked, but eventually I brought it back as a blog, although few people ever seemed to read it.

 Since I started the site, I found the answers I sought. I learned about the French system in great detail, and about the origins of Julian Dates and related systems, and how they inspired stardates, and I was able to trace the connections between them all. Most of what I discovered is now on Wikipedia, much of it contributed by myself. People no longer make proposals because decimal time is already alive and well, although not in common usage.

So if you want me to post here more often, please comment on the posts here! You can also tweet me at @DecimalTime.

MJD 57460.193

4 comments:

  1. PLease keep posting John - this is so important. I just attended a meeting about the difficulty scheduling online meetings. I got no traction, but someday people will realize how absurd are hours & seconds.

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    1. I know what you mean. I used to attend teleconferences with people on other continents for work. There used to be a chat room here, and we scheduled meetings according to decimal time, e.g. MJD 57471.9 would be 21:36 UTC.

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  2. Just checking in from Iceland. A few weeks ago I found out about the Swatch attempts with the .beats-time. Although I don't like the idea of abolishing time zones* (and other minor bugs like this @symbol), it made me think about if there was ever a need for a unit like the hour, and if the 'beat' alone wouldn't be a sufficient unit for everyday time-keeping. (of course appropriate metric prefixes could be used whenever people felt the need to be more specific).

    Anyway, I'd like to know your opinion on time zones. Do you think they create more confusion than they are meant to solve?

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    1. The alternative to time zones is not a single time for the world, but a different time in every city. Before time zones, not only did London, Paris, Berlin and New York all have different times. but so did every city in between. Having entire countries or regions synchronize their clocks made local time a little less accurate with regards to the sun, but made it easier to organize nation-states. But just having Iceland and Greece have the same time caused problems, since the sun is 3 hours different between them, so imagine if the entire world were on the same time; somewhere it would be midnight in the middle of the day.

      I can only see Universal Time (either 24-hour time or decimal time) working as an adjunct to standard time zones, not as a replacement for them.

      As for .beats, I would prefer to use decimal time the way that astronomers have been doing for centuries already. Let the day be the base unit and represent the time as a decimal fraction, with 0h UT as .000. You can then display however many digits as needed for precision, with a single digit equivalent to French decimal hours, 3 digits equivalent to decimal minutes (or .beats), 5 digits to seconds, etc. This can be added to any date, whether Julian date, ordinal date or calendar date. MJD 57608.340

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