Monthly Archives: September 2010


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Saw a sign posted on the RPI campus, promoting a food-related club, that said “Sweet corn is better than sex.” Under which someone scribbled, “YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.”

Seriously, what is wrong with people?

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Ghost bike in Glass Lake

Image by carljohnson via Flickr

I’ve tried to take the stoic approach. I’ve tried to ignore people and go on with my life. I’ve tried not to let people ruin my day. But enough’s enough.

Imagine walking down the street, just like you might do on any day. But 7% of the times you go out for a walk, someone you don’t know randomly throws something at you. A cup of ice, a water bottle, who knows what. You’re walking along, and someone throws something at you. We wouldn’t put up with that for long.

Imagine driving down the street, just like you might do on any day. But 7% of the times you go out for a drive, someone chucks something at your car. You would think you were living in Palestine. We wouldn’t put up with that for long.

Now imagine riding your bike along our roads. By my very conservative calculations, 7% of the times I go out for a bike ride, someone I don’t know decides to throw something at me. Usually they miss, sometimes they hit. Luckily, I’m a very experienced rider, so unless it hits me hard enough to throw me off my bike, I’m not going to lose my line because of a thrown object. Even MORE often, someone decides to come up behind me or alongside me and either scream at the top of their lungs or lay on the horn — and that’s often even more of a surprise, and it’s hard not to be startled. I’m not sure when it became funny to try to hurt or kill people you don’t know, to see if you could make two girls fatherless, and I’m not sure why it’s only okay when the object is on a bicycle. No one would put up with this if it were happening to their cars — there would be unbelievable outrage. But to bikes? Well, what’s the problem?

I can nearly ALWAYS get the license number. I can often chase people down — I’ve successfully caught three cars this summer that thought that trying to knock me off my bike would be a hoot. But after screaming and photographing, I’ve drawn the line at ruining my day by calling the police and bringing my ride to an end. Until yesterday, when a passenger in a gray sedan thought it would be cute to whip some small object into my chest. I was in a hurry to get somewhere so I put off filing the police report until later, and I don’t have any illusions about what they’ll be able to do, but the Saratoga County Sheriff’s office was very helpful.

And from now on, every single person who harasses me when I’m on my bike will be called in to the local police.

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Time will come today

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Time to insure

Image by carljohnson via Flickr

After reading Daniel Walker Howe’s brilliant history of the transformation of the U.S. in the early 1800s, What Hath God Wrought, and then researching a brief story on the establishment of Albany Time, I realized that our approach to time has become standardized, perfect, and wrong. Reading Ian Bartky’s Selling the True Time only reinforces my wonder that we have transformed time from the local true time to something that is delivered from a distant location and that is nearly always wrong.

They say that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Ironically, our highly synchronized clocks, now tied in to official timeservers by high-speed internet connections, are almost never right.

It’s commonly thought that in olden days, time was set by solar noon, the point at which the sun is highest in the sky. Not really true, because it was understood early on that the earth actually rotates 361 degrees each day in relation to the sun, making the solar day a very inaccurate time reference (not to mention the difficulty of measuring the position of a disk that takes up such a large space in the sky and blinds you as you stare at it — leading to the stereotype of the squinty-eyed sailor). Instead, astronomers adopted sidereal time, measuring the earth’s rotation against the night sky, setting a day according to a normal 360-degree rotation. As the use of accurate clocks and watches spread widely in the 19th century, it was common for local jewelers and clockmakers to keep the correct time: local sidereal time. These merchants often were, or were assisted by, amateur astronomers, armed with star charts from Europe and the established reference of the Greenwich observatory, who would frequently set local time with a fair degree of accuracy. So here in Albany, the local watchmaker on Pearl Street was where you went to find out what time it was. And if you took the train to Syracuse, you might step off the train and go across the street to another jeweler to check the time, because it is about 9 minutes earlier in Syracuse than in Albany. That’s how time really works: it’s tied to your longitude, and even a small distance on the planet can make a significant difference in what time it is.

Came the telegraph, railroads and professional astronomers, and the case was made that for the sake of safety, to prevent rail collisions in the days before electric track signaling, trains should all run on the same time. In 1883, the railroads adopted the Standard Time system, breaking the U.S. into four time zones. (Standard time wasn’t established by federal law until 1918.) Most major cities, highly dependent on the railroads for the flow of commerce, adjusted their official time to railroad standard time. Suddenly, when it was noon in Boston, it was noon in Detroit – a convenience, but a patent falsehood, as these two cities are 47 minutes apart. But standard time was universally adopted, and became more and more important to commerce as communications sped up and the world got smaller.

In the early days of personal computers and the web, one of the exciting things was that you could suddenly get highly accurate time through your computer — much easier than placing the call to the local time and temperature line and then walking around the house to set your clocks, guessing how long it had been since you got the time as you moved from room to room. It used to require a program; now it’s built right in to the computer, the phone, the cable box, the Playstation. There’s perfect standard time all over my house – and it even adjusts to the lie we tell ourselves, daylight savings time, to enjoy longer summer evenings. We’ve transformed from having highly accurate time in the 19th century to being completely wrong in the 21st.

So we still commonly think that noon is the point when the sun is highest in the sky (which it is, if you’re talking about solar noon) — but solar noon here in Albany, during daylight savings time, is at 1:04:10 PM. Solar noon in Detroit is at 1:41:31 PM. But if I’m on a phone call with someone in Detroit, at noon today, we’ll both get on the phone at the same time and the sun won’t be near its highest point in the sky. Our time is highly accurate and completely wrong.


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Boating down the Hudson, 1938

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For those of us who never got to experience the glory days of the Hudson River Day Line (or the Night Line), here’s how it looked back in 1938. The scenery is virtually unchanged, though a couple of bridges have been added along the way. 10 years later, the original Hudson River Day Line would be out of business. The name and the ships were sold and used for shorter excursion trips, mostly further downriver.

If you want a better sense of the sounds of the great ships that used to ply these waters, the Sound & Story Project of the Hudson Valley has a great collection of sounds from Hudson River steam ships. And where is the Alexander Hamilton, the hero of this watery road movie, today? Resting in several feet of water in New Jersey.

(This entry was later also posted on our sister site,


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Some people keep asking what I want for my birthday. This seems like the easiest place to sort it out.

1) NICE new measuring cups and spoons. Maybe some brushed aluminum or stainless steel. I HATE the plastic measuring spoons. Don’t know why. I just do.

2) Mad Alchemy embrocation. I’ve been wanting this for years. I deserve it, too.

3) You could throw in a bucket of their chamois creme, too.

4) I could really use another chamois, just like the last one, or like this one from Pearl Izumi. I’m a medium, and I don’t need an expensive pad.

5) My Amazon wishlist (which includes a remote for the PS3) is here.

6) You might find a bargain on jerseys Cervelo (about to disappear) or Garmin jerseys here. Or right at Garmin’s shop. Because a new jersey would be nice, too.

7) Apple Magic Mouse, because the Mighty Mouse sucks.

So there you go.

Albany Time

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(This article originally appeared at All Over Albany)

the first dudley observatory

The first Dudley Observatory, in north Albany.

In our global civilization, we’re accustomed to dealing with time zones and standard definitions — Greenwich Time, Eastern Time, Daylight Savings Time.

If one plan from before the Civil War had succeeded, the Northeast might have been on Albany Time.

It started in 1851, with the founding of the Dudley Observatory.

How it started

The Dudley Observatory was formed in an effort to create a world class astronomical observatory in the capital city. The observatory had a local board of trustees and a nationally recognized panel of scientific advisers, including Dr. Benjamin Apthorp Gould, Jr., the first American to receive a PhD in astronomy.

A precision clock was essential for any observatory at the time, and plans called for a “normal clock,” to be built to the greatest precision possible at the time. Erastus Corning (great-grandfather of the famous mayor), who had recently merged 10 railroads into the New York Central Railroad, donated $1,000 toward the clock, which quickly came to be known as the “Corning clock.”

Creating the Corning clock

Dr. Gould commissioned a well-regarded maker of chronometers, Moritz Krille of Altona, near Hamburg in Germany, to build the Corning clock.

“The whole is to be air-tight, and a compensation for barometric changes introduced . . . As the clock is to be sheltered as much as possible from changes of temperature, and no loud sound will be necessary for the beat, great delicacy seems attainable. . . . ”

Time and the railroads

As necessary as this was for astronomy, Dr. Gould also had plans for the clock that were very down to earth: he wanted to sell accurate time to the railroads.

As Harper’s New Monthly Magazine noted in 1856, “An exact knowledge of time is also of vital importance to the conductors of all railroad trains. A small error in a conductor’s watch has repeatedly been the occasion of the collision of railroad trains, and the consequent destruction of human life.”

This had led, in Europe, to the establishment of Greenwich time, where the observatory at Greenwich would send out signals by means of dropping a ball from a mast and sending out an electrical signal to the local telegraph system. But while there was a form of standard time in Great Britain, US railroads still relied on highly inaccurate local time.

With the Corning clock on order, in early1856 Dr. Gould wrote the directors of the New York Central Railroad Company, stating the advantages of absolute accuracy of time for railroad operations, outlining how telegraphy was used to give time in Britain, and offering to furnish the railroad with accurate time for the price of $1500 a year. The railroad immediately accepted the offer. Similar offers were made to the Hudson River Railroad and the Western Railroad. “Should the time of any other place, such as Springfield, Worcester or Boston, be preferred to Albany time, it can be given with equal correctness and facility.”

Selling time

But railroads weren’t the only target markets for Albany Time coming from the Corning clock; Dr. Gould also proposed that Utica, Rochester and Buffalo “be told that the Observatory is ready to regulate their large church clocks or small chamber time pieces, to their own local time.”

Even the Big Apple was included: “it would be our pride and pleasure, from and after the day of the Inauguration of the Dudley Observatory, to give accurate time to your city, within the fraction of a second, by the dropping of a time ball.” He also noted that “New York City is so nearly on the meridian of Albany that it ought to use Albany time just as all England uses Greenwich time.” The observatory proposed to make a significant portion of its revenues by dropping “time balls” all over the state. Albany Time would be the New World’s version of Greenwich Time.

Time out

But the inauguration of the Dudley Observatory was, on many levels, a disappointment. Necessary equipment, including the Corning clock, did not arrive in time. In fact, the building was incomplete and the inauguration ceremonies were held under a tent. Once equipment did arrive, some of it sat in boxes for more than a year. This was a sign of things to come.

Albany Time never happened.

The clock and the time scheme were among many things that did not get done under the leadership of Dr. Gould, leading to a huge falling out between the trustees and their scientific advisers in 1858. The trustees were shocked to learn that this plan of selling standard time would require the laying of a new dedicated telegraph wire, an astronomical expense, in advance of any revenues. As the Dudley trustees put it in a scathing report of their breakup with Dr. Gould, “No ‘time ball’ fell in the great commercial emporium. No bond of ever acting sympathy linked together the clocks of Rochester, Buffalo, Troy and Albany. No railroad station exhibited . . . any evidence that the trains . . . were deriving their time from the Dudley Observatory.”

For this and numerous other reasons. Dr. Gould was shown the door, quite literally; having spent as little time in Albany as possible during the organization of the observatory, he now had to be escorted from the observatory by police acting under a judge’s order.

A year and a half after its commissioning, The Corning clock remained unfinished, Erastus Corning kept his $1000, and a less ambitious timepiece ultimately took its place. A time ball was established on the Capitol in 1860, though it was not connected to the clock. For a short time that same year, a signal was sent from the Dudley to a time ball in New York City as well. But it was too late for Albany Time.

Significant research at the Dudley Observatory didn’t resume until 1876, but it lives on as the oldest independent astronomical research organization in the United States (it’s now in Schenectady). And, despite the example set by Britain and Dr. Gould’s forward-thinking proposal, standard time didn’t come to North America until 1883.


For a history of timekeeping, see Ian Bartky’s Selling the True Time: Nineteenth-century timekeeping in America.

photo courtesy of the Dudley Observatory

Hannah sez

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As I randomly and inexplicably segue from singing a Beatles song that I don’t particularly like to “Can Do” from Guys and Dolls, Hannah sez,

“You know, sometimes the songs that are in your head don’t have to come out of your mouth.”