One of my university professors told me a secret about how he would decide how much homework to give his students. The secret was: it doesn’t matter. Students will complain that any amount of homework is too much, and then they’ll find time to do it. A student with only one class and very little homework will somehow fill her schedule such that the very little homework seems to be taking too much time, but is still possible to complete. And a student with five classes all with extensive homework will somehow clear her schedule such that the homework seems to be taking too much time, but is still possible to complete. Time is magically elastic for university students.

When I worked in an office, I would go to work in the morning, then back home for lunch, then back to work in the afternoon, then back home at night. During those trips, I occasionally imagined how much more time I would have to do things I should be doing more often (e.g cooking, reading, exercising). Four trips a day at ten minutes per trip, plus time packing up and unpacking on each end, must be at least an hour of every day I spent in transition.

Now that I’ve been working from home for a while, I have almost no time lost in transition. Yet I notice the extra time hasn’t materialized. I can now work in the kitchen, and somehow I still feel like I don’t have time to cook a good meal for lunch. My time appears to be just as elastic as it was when I was a university student.

Where does time go when it stretches? For a full time student, I think the time goes primarily to socializing. When your friend invites you to go somewhere and you don’t have pressing homework, it would seem rather unlike a student to decline the invitation. And a university is full of friends inviting each other to go places. Socializing is a black hole, endlessly sucking in all student time not otherwise attracted to a mass of homework.

For me, the black hole is web work. I try to restrict myself to close to forty hours a week for my full time employer, and though I almost never reach that goal, that’s not really the problem. My time sink is largely freelance work. When someone offers me money to work on an interesting project, it just seems odd to decline. What would I even say? “No thanks. That sounds interesting, and I like money, but I’d rather read books and cook better meals.“ Maybe I should say that, but I don’t.

Your black hole is what you won’t regret. When your university friends come back from the bar, and you’ve just spent a few hours making sure you understand the subject really well instead of just okay, you’re going to regret the missed opportunities at the bar. But they won’t regret the missed studying. And when that really neat website launches after I turned down the opportunity to work on it so that I could learn to make Pad Thai instead of Mac and Cheese, I’ll be regretting the missed opportunity on the web, but I don’t yet regret the Mac and Cheese.

So it turns out time is elastic for everyone, not just students. And we all just choose a different black hole to suck it up. Some day I hope to be the kind of person whose black hole is the simpler things in life: good food, good books, health, a sunny day. But right now my black hole is interesting web work. I don’t need more time, and most likely you don’t either. What’s your black hole, sucking up all your free time? TV? Books? A sunny day?

 

In 1866, the US government made it legal to employ weights and measurements of the metric system (e.g. kilometers, liters, grams) in addition to standard US measurements (e.g. miles, gallons, pounds). A hundred years later, the system wasn’t really catching on in America as quickly as it had throughout most of the world, so in 1975, the US government adopted the metric system for all government weights and measures. Ten years later, the metric system became the preferred system for trade and commerce. After another decade had passed, the metric system became not just preferred, but mandatory on all consumer commodities, though US standard measurements were, and are, still allowed.

Another decade has passed since, but the metric system still hasn’t really caught on in America. If you look closely at nutritional labels, you can see how many grams of fat your food contains, and you can even see how many liters are in your gallon of milk. But you’re unlikely to get a ticket for driving too many kilometers per hour. And you certainly won’t get a ticket for driving too many kilometers per kilosecond. (The decimalisation of time hasn’t really begun to catch on anywhere outside of Swatch.)

But as with universal health care, America is far behind the curve on the decimalization of weights and measurements. Liberia and Myanmar are the only other two countries in the world not using the metric system for nearly everything. And those two have just been distracted from the task of metrication, both going through civil wars while the rest of the world was converting speeding tickets to be easily divisible by ten.

America, on the other hand, has had plenty of time to do the metrication, but has steadfastly resisted the idea. The state of Kentucky even went so far as to reverse the national government’s mandate to use the metric system within government agencies. The process of converting the nation to the metric system has generally stalled in the past ten years and shows no signs of restarting any time soon.

While decimalisation has almost spanned the globe in weights and measurements, and hasn’t really begun in time, decimalisation has actually been completed in every country of the world in one area: currency. Decimalised currency is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a country that had non-decimal currency.

But prior to 1710, no currency was decimalised. In that year, Russia was the first country to decimalise currency. Peter ("the Great") I is most well-known for the westernization of Russia, including oddities such as changing from the Russian calendar to the Julian calendar just as Europe was changing from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, and taxing men who wore beards. And at the time, currency decimalisation probably seemed odd as well.

I didn’t find any record of the relative value between rubels and kopeks prior to 1710, but assuming it was something other than 100, Peter’s declaration that it was to be 100 henceforth probably sounded as crazy as someone declaring that a gallon of milk will always cost $5. After all, money back then had actual value based in scarcity, not just the agreed upon value money has today.

It wasn’t until eighty years later that America, under the progressive leadership of Thomas Jefferson (who would have carried out full metrication at the time were it up to him) became the second country with decimalised currency. The Coinage Act of 1792 defined the dollar as being worth the still-standard 10 dimes and 100 cents, but it also defined an "eagle" as being worth 10 dollars, in the form of a gold coin that was minted until 1933. The Coinage Act also took the seemingly ridiculous step of declaring the relative value between gold and silver, with gold worth fifteen times the equivalent weight in silver. Currently, gold is worth about sixty times silver, so that obviously didn’t stick.

Currency decimalisation did stick, however, and has since been adopted by every country in the world. There are two countries that still formally have non-decimal currency, but not in practice. In Mauritania, one ouguiya has the same value as five khoums, but that value is so low that no one uses khoums at all. The same is true of Madagascar’s currency, where one ariary has the value of five iraimbilanjas.

Neither of these currencies would be difficult to use today if they were in circulation (except perhaps pronouncing "iraimbilanja"). Because ten is easily divisible by five, we can use decimal math to make calculations on these currencies. If I had thirteen khoums, and I wanted to deposit them in a bank that recorded money in ouguiya, they could divide thirteen by five and record that I had deposited 2.6 ouguiyas. Similarly, it’s easy for us to exchange any number of quarters for the equivalent amount of dollars. When doing the math, we don’t actually consider four quarters to a dollar; we consider one quarter to 0.25 dollars.

Where non-decimal currency becomes a problem is with relative values that don’t work cleanly in decimal math. For example, one thaler in Hamburg was once worth three marks. If I took four marks into a Hamburg bank that recorded money in thalers, they would need to record that I deposited 1.333333333... thalers, with the three extending forever. Non-decimal currency works fine under a similarly non-decimal number system. But the prevalence of decimal math in the world has encouraged a gradual decimalisation of the world.

This raises the question of when and how decimal math conquered all other number systems throughout the world. The common assumption is that ten-digit math came from ten-digit appendages, i.e. the ten fingers on our hands. But this certainly wasn’t the only option. Several languages still indicate base numbers of twenty, a vigesimal number system, presumably based on the number of fingers plus toes. The Danish word for sixty, for example, is literally "three times twenty," though it is now written in the conventional "60" or "six times ten."

The twelve months on our calendars, twelve hours on our clocks, and twelve inches to a foot all suggest a duodecimal (base twelve) number system, possibly derived from the twelve knuckles on the fingers of one hand (not counting the thumb). Duodecimal math is actually simpler than decimal math because twelve has more factors than ten. Those four marks I took to the hypothetical Hamburg bank, for example, could be easily recorded as 1.4 thalers in duodecimal notation.

In 1935, F. Emerson Andrews wrote a book titled New Numbers: How Acceptance of a Duodecimal Base Would Simplify Mathematics. And if you’re interested, there are still people promoting duodecimal numbers today. The Dozenal Society of America is next meeting on October 6, 2007 at 10am, location to be announced. But as they declare Today is day 24; of month 1; of year 11#3, I would double-check that date and time (and, of course, get a location) before you head to the meeting.

Dozenal societies and Kentucky notwithstanding, the decimalisation of all things numeric appears to be slowly crawling forward. It will be interesting to see which American politician will next join the ranks of Peter the Great and Thomas Jefferson, declaring America decimalised, and if we’ll be doing so before or after Liberia takes the plunge.

 

One of the last books I read as a university student was Outlaw Culture by bell hooks. I don’t remember if this was explicitly stated or just something I noticed while reading it, but bell hooks often leaves out the common article “the” when referring to movements. Rather than “the feminist movement,” she’ll talk about “feminist movement” and “the gay rights movment” becomes just “gay rights movement.” Such a subtle change has a surprisingly large effect on the meaning of such phrases.

I was reminded of this at the unitarian church this morning during a service around the topic of Martin Luther King, whose national holiday will be observed tomorrow. One woman spoke of attending the march on Washington during which King delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. “The was the beginning of the civil rights movment,” she said. Of course it wasn’t. The minister went on to talk at length about Vernon Johns and Bayard Rustin, who both did extensive work for civil rights before King ever arrived in Alabama.

Clearly King’s speech wasn’t the beginning of the civil rights movement for these two men, nor for Rosa Parks, who sparked the bus boycott that first made King famous. It was, however, the beginning for the woman who called it “the beginning.” Or more precisely, it was the beginning of her civil rights movement — the moment at which her ideas about civil rights began to move.

And that’s all movements are really. Before reading bell hooks, I had imagined movements as groups of people physically moving. But while marching is powerful iconography for movements, it is not really the point. The important thing to move is not people’s bodies, but their ideas. And it’s clear this doesn’t happen in some collective reconsideration deserving a title like “the movement.” It’s a more liquid process that can’t really be quantified. Just as a collection of “water” is still “water,” the collection of each individual’s movement on any given issue is just “movement.”

Where this becomes important is not so much in determing the beginning of movements, but in determining the end. “The civil rights movement” is clearly over, as most of the people involved are either dead or retired. But “civil rights movement” goes on, as people’s ideas about civil rights continue to move.

This movement is a rather abstract concept, not something we can easily quantify (though perhaps votes for Obama for president will come close), but one way to keep people thinking about movement as an ongoing process is to leave off “the.” It’s a rare opportunity to improve public consciousness by doing less. So next time you find yourself talking about a movement, try saying one fewer word. It may just move the way someone thinks.

 

Last month I assembled all of my earthly possessions in Des Moines, IA, gave some of them away, put most of them in a truck, and left a few in kitchen cabinets as an accidental gift for my former landlord. I drove the truck to Bloomington, IL and slept for a night. The next morning, my brother-in-law loaded a roll-top desk (that two of me couldn't lift) onto the truck all by himself. I was impressed.

Then I drove the truck to Carbondale, IL, and through Carbondale to Murphysboro, IL, where I now live in a duplex between a dirt road and a forest. I don’t really want to live in a large city, but I also don’t want to live in the middle of nowhere, which unfortunately means I’ll likely be moving again within the next year. Hopefully I’ll manage to lose more stuff before then.

Boxes were left unpacked as Jessica and I drove back to Bloomington, where we spent Christmas. On the day after Christmas, we celebrated “fake New Year’s Eve” (as they call it) with Jessica’s high school friends. One of those friends works for NBC news, and informed us of Gerald Ford’s death hours before you knew about it. I forgot about it almost immediately, only to be reminded of it hours after you knew about it. I remember reading something about how there’s no point in watching the news because you’ll be told about anything newsworthy anyway whether or not you’re interested. I think that’s mostly true.

From Bloomington we went to Peoria to spend “fake Christmas” (as only I call it) with some of my family. We talked briefly about Gerald Ford dying and played some Scrabble. We also watched Charlotte’s Web, which was pretty good for a children’s movie. No wait — we went to Peoria first between Christmas and “fake New Year’s Eve,” then back to Bloomington, then back to Peoria. On the first trip to Peoria, my friend JJ gave me some music by his friend Mitch Ure after we shot BB guns at empty cans.

After the second trip to Peoria, we went back to Bloomington again, where I saw some of Cars while falling asleep. Then we went to Iowa City, IA, where we celebrated actual New Year’s Eve, among my college friends, who — when together — refer to it as “New Yars” due to our shared interest in piracy. In Iowa City I watched most of Wine for the Confused with John Cleese (of Monty Python fame). It was more informative and less funny than I expected. I also watched a few episodes of Firefly, and I expect I’ll watch it all eventually.

From Iowa City, we went to St. Louis, MO where I sang in a recording for a song by Mitch Ure along with a girl whose name I’ve forgotten, but whose picture can be found in the January issue of Guitar Player magazine in the section on MySpace musicians. Also in St. Louis, I watched Factotum, a movie based on books by Charles Bukowski, who I only know of due to a song by Modest Mouse. It was okay. We stayed (and watched the movie) with JJ. Jessica’s grandma called and talked at length about Gerald Ford. She wanted to make sure we saw his funeral procession on TV. We didn’t.

From St. Louis, we got on a plane to Reno, with a layover in Denver. No movies nor discussion of Gerald Ford in Denver. At the boarding gate, we sat near two Japanese girls who spoke to each other in Japanese. My Japanese is very rusty, but I did catch one of them saying she doesn’t like Americans. In Reno, I watched both Children of Men and 28 Days Later, both violent distopian stories set in a future Britian. I preferred 28 Days Later, not least because it involved zombies. We stayed with my brother and sister-in-law, who played a lot of Scrabble with us, took us to visit my cousin in Sacremento, CA, took us skiing in Tahoe, and discussed Gerald Ford with us.

I spent a lot of time in Casinos and eventually succumbed to gambling $1 in a penny slot machine while we waited to be seated for breakfast. At one point I was up to $1.07, but I lost it all in the end. Then we flew back to St. Louis, and attempted to drive back to Murphysboro. Unfortunately, all access to Interstate 55 was closed, so we had to take what ended up to be about a two hour detour through St. Louis to find another bridge over the river. But we eventually got back to a house in the middle of nowhere full of unopened boxes.

I’m working from home now — right now, in fact. So far it’s not as different as I was expecting. I’ve opened a bank account and established new health insurance, but I haven’t watched any movies in Murphysboro yet and the one person I’ve talked to — the cable guy who spent an hour here beforing telling me he couldn’t get the cable modem working on the jack in my office — did not mention Gerald Ford. I have a three day weekend, so odds are pretty good that I’ll experience a movie, Scrabble game, and/or discussion of Gerald Ford. I’ll keep you posted.