Clock Speed

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, July 1998

Passing a magazine stand I noticed the emblazoned headline on the cover of one of the personal computer magazines -- "400MHz!" it screamed.

I was undecided whether to gasp or yawn.  In a few years that magazine cover is going to look antiquated and quaint.  We all know that the clock speeds keep escalating according to Moore's Law.  We also know that computers are still going to take forever to boot, and that all the application programs will get correspondingly bigger and more bloated with features, and will still seem as sluggish as ever.

Still, I wanted one of those 400MHz jobbies.  What is wrong with me, I wondered?  Maybe I want to feel the wind in my face, the swoosh of 400MHz.  Maybe I'm worried that people will ask me what kind of machine I have, and I'll mumble an inaudible "233 MHz."  They'll look at me in amused contempt, and say, "But I thought you were a high-tech person?"  It is getting difficult to keep up pretenses.

My ambivalence about the magazine story isn't my main problem though.  The real problem is my own clock speed.  Nobody is speeding up the neurons in my brain.  There is no Moore's Law for humans.  Here I am, stuck in the dark ages back at 3MHz or whatever.  Nobody is going to put out a magazine with my picture on the cover and a big headline -- "5MHz!"

There is a disparity here that someone should worry about.  It isn't that I'm concerned about computers catching up with human intelligence -- I'll leave that for the hype media.  My concern is that while computers hurry their administrative chores, we humans still proceed at our own leisurely pace.  Business meetings still take two hours, and we still talk, read, and listen at the same historic rate.  Studies show that we only process information at a speed of about 50 bits per second, and we aren't getting any faster.  We still sleep the same amount.  There are still only 24 hours in the day.

Ah, but maybe that is the key!  Why are there only 24 hours in the day?  Surely this is an arbitrary number.  While we're stuck with the actual length of the day itself, we can chop it up however we want.  Suppose some international tribunal would periodically assess the situation, and issue a world command to divide the clock differently.  "Beginning January 1, 1999, all clocks will be divided into 25-hour days," the announcement might say.  Just like the computer, our own clocks would be speeded.

"Wait a minute," you say, "This is trickery.  You haven't changed time itself!"

But think what you have just said.  That minute you asked me to wait is now only 57.6 of the old seconds in duration.  Efficiency has already been increased.

One-hour meetings will now only last 57 of the old minutes.  Television shows will be shortened.  Commercials will be slightly shorter.  Basketball games and other timed sports will be faster, possibly with fewer time-outs.  Speed limits on the highways will translate to higher actual speeds, based on the new concept of an "hour."  Traffic will move more frantically.  Dentists will drill faster to keep their next appointment on the hour.  Business executives would have more slots in their hour-by-hour calendars to fill.  There is no end to the ramifications.  We are locked in so many ways to the psychological standard of the "hour".

In these days of electronic, throw-away clocks this re-labeling would be trivial to implement.  One morning you would notice that the LCD face of your wall clock had more hours than it did previously.  There would be a problem with Big Ben, possibly, and certainly there would be difficulties with keeping the clocks at large sports stadiums updated.  I've never been able to understand myself, for example, why when the referee says, "Please reset the clock to 38 seconds," all the millions of viewers have to wait interminably as the clock-keeper fumbles step-by-step forwards and backwards trying unsuccessfully to get 38 seconds on the clock.  Why doesn't he or she just push a button to do this?  And how often does the clock in the stadium go out of commission.  "Official time will be kept on the field," a stentorian voice announces.  I mean, what is this?  Can't these stadiums afford a clock chip?

Even the actual length of the day itself might not be immutable in spite of the earth's rotation.  I've always thought myself that the day isn't quite long enough.  Someone made a mistake here.  I'm not always ready to go to bed at nights or excited about getting up in the morning.  I have a theory that life would be much more pleasant if we could travel one time zone westward every day.  That would give us an actual 25-hour day in today's minutes.  Just think; you could sleep in for an extra hour every morning, or you could get in an extra hour of work.  The sunlight would be longer every day.  Perhaps this would better match our circadian rhythm.

There might be some small problem when we crossed the international date line.  Even that, however, is not unchangeable.  I am told that when the anti-ballistic missile tests were being conducted in Kwajalein Island that there was some awkwardness about the missiles crossing the date line on their way to interception.  Sort of a miniature year-2000 problem where the missiles would arrive a day before they were launched.  Simple fix, however -- they just redrew the date line.  (Maybe there is a lesson here.)  There was a little transient problem, because during the changeover they enjoyed a day that didn't exist on the calendar.  The thought of a holiday like this makes me think that we could move the date line every now and then just for the fun of it!  Precautions were taken -- mostly consisting of doing a lot of hoping -- to ensure that no babies were born on the island during that non-day.

My search for the elusive 25-hour day stems from my enchantment with the old movie "Endless Summer."  This was a kind of documentary about surfers who followed the sun around the world.  As summer moved, so did they.  Surf was always up, and they enjoyed perpetual summer.  Similarly, a skier could move around the world in the opposite direction.  All I'm looking for is an extra hour in each day.

I'm staring at my wall clock and watching its inexorable, unchanging pace.  I'm not going to stay stuck at 3MHz, or whatever it is, while those computers boast increasingly higher clock rates.  There has to be something in this for us poor humans.  We need to get on magazine covers too.


Robert W. Lucky