Monday, December 9, 2013

It's about time.

I've been thinking about time. Not in the Einsteinian sense, but in the human sense, the wristwatch sense.

What is it for, why do we use it?

The answer is fairly straightforward. Time of day is a tool. We use it to coordinate with the world, physical and social. In other words, to help us do things at the right time either in relation to the sun, moon, tides etc, or in relation to other people. And the tool we use for a given task changes over time, depending on the way we live our lives and relate to the world and each other.

Once upon a time (no pun intended), we all lived our daily lives according to the sun. Time related to sunrise, noon and sunset and these depended on where you were on the planet. We were in touch with our environment. Society and technology developed. Division of labour meant that not everyone was ploughing a furrow or herding sheep and so not everyone was so closely wedded to the sun. As our working lives (and it was mostly work) became less wedded to daylight, so did our measurement of time. We went from using sundials to clockwork. Of course we still set our clocks locally, using the sun as reference. Consequently, noon in Bristol happened about 10 minutes after noon in London. It was only with the combination of of really accurate timepieces, the coming of the railways and the telegraph that time was standardised across a country in the 1840s and 50s, using what was called Railway Time.

During the mid 19th Century, local solar time persisted and some clocks displayed both the local time and GMT, which did not become the official legally recognised time until 1880. The idea of using more than one time was not uncommon in this period. World trade, communication and transport demanded mutually comprehensible time references. This could be achieved either by knowing what time zone you were referring to and doing the maths, or by reference to a universal standard time. Italian mathematician Quirico Filopanti proposed such a universal time to be used alongside local time zones for astronomy and telegraphy. Such a universal time would provide a point of reference for global events and make it impossible for an event to end before it's begun simply by crossing the international dateline. In the 19th Century, globalisation had not yet proceeded to the point where it was really useful and the technology was probably not refined enough to keep everyone on track. It's worth noting that India and China, both vast countries crossing several time zones, only use a single centralised time.

Now, we have the internet, global positioning, vast processing power and friends and business partners all around the world. Many of us work from home at least some of the time and  may never meet the people we do business with. So in a world in which universal time is relevant and possible, what of local time? Here's the really interesting part. Local time can now be liberated from the time zone, artificially shackling it to its capital city. Micro time zones, kept pace of by the device in your pocket, on your Google Glasses or in a chip in your head; can allow you to live much more in tune with your neighbours and your world. Don't worry about how you'll work things out. Your gadget will do the work. All you need to know is that you want to meet your friend in Brighton at 1400. If that means 1408 where you're travelling from and 1356 where she's coming from, that's no problem. Your journey time, transport connections and everything else will be taken care of.

Why, seems the obvious question. Universal time has a fairly obvious practical use. The year 2014 will only have one start - a shame for those who can only imagine fireworks as the way to herald the exact start of the new year but hardly a deal breaker. Coordinating global communication will be easier. And referencing events of global significance will be clearer. As for the local times, the answer is that given our information technology capability, they are the flipside of universal time. Zones shackled to 19th Century industrial nation states are irrelevant in a global society, but noon where you are retains a meaning. Children can walk to school at the most practical and safe time all year round, across the country. No need for the sudden loss of an hour's daylight in the autumn.

The most important thing to remember here is that the hours on our watches are human inventions and we already work with numerous definitions of time in parallel - based on the sun, the stars, the day, the year or caesium 133. Are measurement and use of time has changed in the past and it is likely to again. The capability to measure time and place accurately and the need to coordinate globally mean that change is likely again.
What does a writer do for a living. Prior to writing the masterpiece, that is. Content marketing seems to be the answer and it's a subject I'm learning more about, some of it good. The most noticeable thing I've noticed is that a lot of content websites are not designed to be read by a human being, but exist either to attract the attention of Google to other sites, where the real selling is going on. At this point, I should be including a link to a tenuously connected website - selling antique typewriters perhaps.

So I've joined a couple of freelancing websites. They pay about a penny a word, which, bearing in mind that you can't just pick up jobs one after the other, means knocking off a 1000 word piece in an hour to make it worthwhile, in terms of the money that is. Another site has jobs of as little as 100 words - at the same rate. It seems to me that once you know what you're doing you may be able to bang them out without much thought - but it has to be said getting my head around what a website selling car tyres wants to the extent that I can write 250 words, all for £2.50, is not an attractive prospect. Currently I can't imagine it taking less than an hour to work out what I was going to write, check against their style, purpose and audience and then write it.

One of the jobs I came across was an invitation to write a blog post on how much money to give your girlfriend's parents for Chinese New Year. I have some experience of this. So I thought I would put myself to the test, see if I could bang it out in half an hour and then see if they accepted my offer - this is in reverse to the normal order of things but my main aim was to see if I could quickly write something suitable, at least on a subject I knew something about. This one at least didn't have to be particularly search engine optimised or contain links to manufacturers of red envelopes!

So, I wrote the post in about half an hour, which would have been viable. Sadly, the customer chose another offer, but, rather than waste it, here it is, a short piece for the uninitiated on how to play red envelope roulette.

How much money should you give your girlfriend's parents for Chinese New Year?

Chinese New Year is approaching for the first time since you got together with your girlfriend, or perhaps the first time since she made the big step of telling her parents about you – make no mistake, telling the parents about a suitor, particularly a foreign one, is a significant milestone in a relationship. Your girlfriend will of course be visiting her family, assuming she has already left home and you may even be accompanying her. Naturally, you want to make a good impression, aware of how important this is, particularly given your status as an outsider. And so the issue of hong bao (red envelopes) arises.

Initially, particularly if you have not been in China for long, you may have difficulty with the idea of giving envelopes stuffed full of money to family or friends. To your mind, gifts are more personal and hard cash seems rather mercenary – as if you’re saying exactly how much they’re worth. People do give money as a gift in the west but it is often in the form of tokens and more likely to be for children. Lets face it, a gift of money says to you “I really couldn’t think of what to get you and I didn’t want to risk getting it wrong”.

This is something you just have to get over! You are not going to single-handedly change Chinese culture and as you come to a deeper understanding of it, you will see that this practice is not so strange or mercenary. Bear in mind that giving money is not unheard of in European culture – for example pinning money to the bride’s dress in Italy. Nevertheless, you know you are going to be judged on how much you give and upon whether you get the figure right, avoiding inauspicious numbers. Get it right and you may well have smoothed the way to a fruitful relationship with those who may one day become your in-laws. And what goes around comes around – strong family relationships can be very helpful in Chinese society, particularly in terms of getting started out in married life and providing childcare.

Fortunately, you have one asset up your sleeve – your girlfriend. You love her. You trust her. She understands the culture. The simple answer is, you should let her decide. She knows best. Really. Talk to her about it, tell her how you feel about it and discuss what you can afford – there may be alternative figures depending on how much you have spare. But do not skimp. There really is no point and it will only get you into trouble. The likelihood is that you are well paid compared to most local people and even if you are short of money at the moment, as far as they’re concerned you should be well off. The fact is, this is more important than a couple of nights out with your mates as you enjoy ten days off work. You should listen to her while expecting her to listen to you too. And then do what you’re told.

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