Archive for category Setting Thoughts

A Writer Reviews: Almost Hollow, the Sleepy Human

SleepyHumanTwo new genre shows debuted on Fox this year. One was an insane notion of turning the legend of Sleepy Hollow into a weekly series. The other was a high concept future buddy cop show headlined by a successful movie star. If I had to put money on only one of the two shows succeeding, I’d have put the one starring a bankable star with the safer premise.

Which is to say, I’d have bet on Almost Human beating Sleepy Hollow.

However, we’re now in mid-February. Sleepy Hollow got a pickup for season two before any other new show this season, and Almost Human is possibly limping towards cancellation. So this raises a question, what did the one do so right, and the other do so wrong?

Let me first say, before I start digging into the shows, that I really do love both of them. Almost Human is one of the first hours of television I catch up with every week. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty to indict the show on, nor has my enjoyment of the characters left me blind to the flaws of the show.

First, these two shows are equally weird. That I felt Almost Human was more approachable demonstrates my bias towards science fiction over fantasy. However, asking a broader audience to accept androids, quasi-sentient bullets, and sexbots is no different than asking them to accept the headless horseman, witches, and zombie George Washington. That’s right, zombie George Washington is the sexbot in this comparison. You’re welcome.

Fantasy has also been on more of a winning streak on television lately. But I don’t think that the problem comes down solely to the different genres. One of the most popular shows on television, Person of Interest, has slowly become one of the more compelling science fiction shows of the last two decades.

So what did Sleepy Hollow do right that Almost Human did wrong?

If I had to chalk it up to one factor, I would say Sleepy Hollow better compelled an audience into its world. From the word go, the show hardly let up. It trusted the audience to be willing to come along for a ride. Frankly, it had to. I was dubious going into the show, but it didn’t give me enough of an opportunity to think about what an insane piece of media I was watching.

Almost Human, on the other hand, has given the audience too many opportunities to stop and think about what they’re watching. Look, the dynamic between the two lead stars is incredible, but too often the show has relied on their dialogue in the car. The world is painted on, a thin veneer that relies on the audience to remember Blade Runner. It was only in Episode Nine when the show was willing to embrace the world, and show the audience that there was something out there beyond a familiar pastiche. Unfortunately, that’s too late for a lot of viewers.  Nearly a third of the initial audience has abandoned the show.

It’s far too late to make a thesis statement now.

So what’s the lesson?

First, trust your audience. They want to be taken for a ride, take them for that ride. Don’t feel the need to apologize for a story being what you want it to be. There are so many stories and novels that someone can pick up and read, be your own.

Second, make sure you have a world. If you spend too much time giving your audience a chance to build the world on their own, many are going to fight that. Others are going to paint in another, similar world, and be upset when they get the details wrong. Don’t give them the opportunity to make the world their own, because the world is your own.

I’m still holding out hope for Almost Human. Both from the story telling department, and in my hopes that it gets a second season. Plenty of brilliant genre shows have had slow starts. If it does survive, then everyone needs to stop giving Fox shit about cancelling science fiction.

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Things to do at World Horror, Other than World Horror

I have a special level of jealousy for those who are attending World Horror this year. Until February, I was going to be among them, but having a ninth month old never made it the best idea and being involuntarily thrown into the job market made the timing awkward. If all goes well we’ll be there in Portland next year. But I was hoping for a chance to meet Ramsay Campbell. Here’s a short story:

Few years ago my wife (then girlfriend) and I were at World Fantasy in Saratoga Springs, where the theme basically made it World Dark Fantasy. Campbell was there to get a lifetime achievement award, and we made sure to go to every reading he did. Shortly after coming home I was poking around eBay, curious what a copy of Campbell’s first published book went for. I found a copy, and knew I had to have it when I saw Campbell had signed the book on the day I was born. Not in the same city, or even continent, but the same day. I got myself the book as a Christmas present, and fully hope to have him re-sign it some day.

I know some of my friends going to World Horror are already in New Orleans. New Orleans. What better place to have World Horror? As someone who has been to New Orleans once for a grand total of about five days, I feel uniquely qualified to serve as your remote tour guide of the city, so much as I did for San Diego, may I present the things to do at World Horror other than World Horror.

1) Eat! If you’re only doing meals at the hotel or convention center you are doing something seriously wrong. I’m not even going to bother looking up where in the city World Horror is before I say, unequivocally, that there are ten fantastic restaurants within walking distance. Because there are ten fantastic restaurants within walking distance of any particular spot in New Orleans. At least. Get some seafood, get some beignets, and for goodness sakes find yourself a snowball stand. They’re more than just snow cones. And say yes if asked about sweetened condensed milk on your snowball.

not_the_bees2) St Louis Cemetery #1 There are any number of walking tours of the cemeteries of New Orleans. Because the cemeteries of New Orleans are fascinating. Tombs built above ground, used and reused, ornate, beautiful and spooky. But if you do a tour, make sure it includes St. Louis #1. Seriously. It’s one of the oldest in the city, probably the most fascinating, and includes as points of interest the crypt (probably) of Marie Laveau, Homer Plessy (as in Plessy v Ferguson) and a white pyramid built to serve as Nicolas Cage’s future crypt. If you get creeped out easily, you’ll be walking through narrow alleys that weave between crypts, you may or may not see this as a selling point.

3) The French Quarter It’s interesting to walk the French Quarter during the day. It feels more quiet, more historic. It’s certainly interesting to walk it just after dawn as the streets are getting hosed down from the night before and everything smells a bit of beer and daddy issues. I skipped Bourbon Street at night while in New Orleans, just not my preferred kind of insanity, but there’s obviously that, too. But if your only mental picture of the French Quarter is Bourbon Street at night, there’s plenty more to do and see, so just wander for awhile.

4) Don’t get on a cruise ship! Seriously. Don’t.

5) Stick around. This is my advise for almost any city. Hang around a few extra days. There’s really no point having conventions like Worldcon and World Horror in fantastic destination cities if everyone is just going to fly in, do the con, then fly right back out again. Go to the aquarium. Get on a bus and do a swamp tour. Be prepared to drive past areas still devastated by Katrina on that bus ride. I understand some people have busy schedules and lives, but nothing makes me sadder than the idea of going to New Orleans and not actually going to New Orleans.

So…know I’m seething with jealously back here in Northern Virginia, and enjoy World Horror. Next year in Portland, I promise. I’ll just have to pack an empty suitcase for my trip to Powell’s.


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Constant Tech: Mobile Factories

I had an old feature on this blog called Capsule Tech, back when I was writing a novel called Capsule, that was meant to show my work in a way. It brought together real life tech that I was using as springboards for the circa 2070s tech I was using in that novel. Well, now that Capsule is on the back burner until I manager to rip it apart into two novels, the feature is now Constant Tech, little bits and pieces of tech that fit with the Sarah Constant series. I’m going to retcon this post about people signing up for a one-way space trip as the first bit of Constant Tech.

There’s a problem with going out into space on a one-way mission: you’ve got no choice but to bring everything you need with you. That includes the things that you know you’ll need and the things you don’t know you’ll need. The first is easy, the second…causes problems. Mars One could be resupplied from earth, but what about a generation ship barreling out of the solar system? What do they do when they discover an unaddressed need fifty years down the road when you’re 2.5 light years from earth?

The military, specifically the Navy, is looking at this question. Not from a perspective of a one-way trip, more from a perspective of readiness. According to the Armed Forced Journal (ht: Gizmodo), the Navy is considering whether three-dimensional printing is the future of readiness.

As Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Neil Gershenfeld puts it, the revolutionary aspect of 3-D printing is that it allows us to make things into data and data back into things. For the Navy, the technology promises to shift inventory from the physical world to the digital one. Instead of actual parts, a ship might carry 3-D printers and bags of various powdered ingredients, and simply download the design files needed to print items as necessary.

But is this really a new idea when applied to space travel? Captain Picard walks up to a hole in the wall, says “tea, Earl Gray, hot,” and enjoys a tasty beverage. It’s assembled molecule-by-molecule in a process similar to matter transportation, but that assembles spare matter into a desired form rather than moving the bits of a human being from one place to another. Perhaps it could be seen as an abstraction of 3-D printing, but that’s not how it’s portrayed. Instead, whenever it’s technobabbled, the replicators are an abstraction of transporter technology, which itself is likely to remain illusive.

Three dimensional printing, however, is already a reality. It’s expensive, but it’s available today. Abstracting that into the future of not matter replication, but object assembly, feels more comfortable. Going forward, it’s likely to be essential tech for space exploration. Especially long-term exploration. The only problem becomes the raw resources fed into the printer to become the necessary items. What can we mine from the places we land? What raw resources to we need to take with us on our ships? How much of each kind? There’s still the potential problem of what you don’t know you’ll need in terms of printables, but it’s a little easier to work out.

These are fun questions, but questions that we’ll need to answer one day.

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World Building Question: Do You Need Change With That?

While I’m working on something rather larger related to maps and the like, I wanted to switch things up and look at the coins you might have in your pocket. Specifically, looking at the etymology of the names of the four most common US coins. But first, let’s start with the general concept of what to call subdivisions of the dollar.

Cent. This comes from the Latin word “centum.” This is an oddly important word when looking at the history of language, as the Indo-European languages are broadly divided into two groups based on their word for “hundred.” Centum languages are those in western Europe, including English, and satem languages spread through Iran and India. This is a whole discussion that I barely understand enough to expound on, but trust me, that’s how linguists divide the Indo-European languages. As for the word “centum,” Latin pronounced it with a hard k. The French, as they did with much Latin, softened the k to an s. They also dropped a syllable. The word then came to the British Isles with the Norman invasion as Old English became Middle English. If anything the use of the word “cent” is a shortening of “percent,” which fits more closely with the original Latin. When we talk about ten percent of the population, we’re talking ten out of every one hundred people. It does make it a linguistic oddity, as the meaning of the word has shifted from hundred to hundredth, which is a demotion of four orders of magnitude.

Penny. Penny is one of those funny words, in that linguists don’t have a solid origin for it. It may come from a word that meant “token.” The bit of the word’s history linguists can track ties it to the German word Pfennig, the pre-Euro division of the German Mark. It’s a word that has meant a small-value coin for centuries, but no one knows quite where it came from. It passed into English, and is currently used as the name of the smallest denomination coin in several English-speaking nations.

Nickel. The nickel was named after the metal which currently makes up 25% of the coin. Have one in your pocket? Pull it out. Look for the word “nickel” anywhere on there. You’re not going to find it. Instead it’s a five cent piece. Through all its incarnations, the coin has never borne the word “nickel” only “five cents” or “5 cents” or “V cents”. In common parlance it’s also been called the “half dime,” as the dime preceded the nickel by 70 years. Being the only coin minted in nickel, it was a natural nickname, and this was in common use by no later than 1919.

Dime. This again represents the move of a word from Latin to French to English. The original Latin is decima pars, which meant a tenth part. Again, this was a Latin hard k. Again, French softened the sound to an s and simplified the syllables, turning the word into disme in Old French, which referred to a tenth part or a tithe. When a ten cent coin was authorized by the United States government in the 1790s, the legislation still spelled the word as “disme”. The s disappeared no later than 1837 when the first ten cent coin with the word “dime” was minted.

Quarter. This one’s easy. As minted, the coin says “quarter dollar” and gets almost universally shortened to just the word “quarter.” It’s the only of the four major coins that is named after the modern English word for the portion of a dollar it represents. We don’t have tenths in our pockets, or twentieths, or hundredths, but we do have quarters. Of course, we also don’t call the 25 cent coin the “fourth.” English has a colloquial term for one fourth that it doesn’t have for any of the other fractions represented by modern coins. Unless you want to count half, as in the half dollar, but that’s mostly minted for collectible purposes. The word itself does made the same Latin to French to English transition (quartus to quartier to quarter), but unlike “cent” or “dime” the meaning of the word survives outside of coinage.

Four coins. One that comes from a word that’s always just meant “coin,” one named after a prominent metal in its minting, one after another language’s version of its value, and only one based on the modern English version of its value.

So what? Why am I talking about etymology of coinage?

Language is a funny thing. I’m sure I’ve said this before in the WBQ series. The point here is similar to the point that I made when looking at the names of the months, or names of days of the week, things that feel like they should have a uniform naming convention often don’t. It’s just one of those things to keep in mind when creating a world. In human languages, uniform naming conventions usually denote recently created words. But disjointed naming conventions speak of a broader and richer history of the language and of the world.


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One-Way Trip

One of the questions running through my head as I world build a generation ship is whether or not people would sign up for the voyage. How many people would be willing to uproot themselves from everything that they knew and love, from the earth itself, knowing full well that they would never return?

It’s fantastic when real life gives you answers to questions like these.

The Mars One project announced last week they would accept applications and auditions to be one of four people sent to Mars to build a permanent settlement on the fourth planet. The chosen few will go on a one-way trip to the planet, setting up the colony with no intent of returning to earth. They’ll have some touch with the folks back home, but for all intents and purposes they’re off to Mars to eventually die there.

So who would want to do this?

According to io9, in the first three days they received 20,000 applications, and that number may now be above 40,000. It’s unclear how many of these applications are serious about their willingness to go, but there is an application fee meant to help fund the project and weed out fake applications. The organization behind the project hopes for over half a million applications by the time they’re done. It’s stunning. And it’s nice to see a real answer to the question: how many people are willing to leave everything behind if it means being part of a grand human adventure?

Thanks, real life. I’ll make sure to credit you in the acknowledgements.

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World Building Through Questions

No, this isn’t part of the World Building Questions series. Except in that it’s about world building and the power of doing so through questions and answers.

Once upon a time I was working on a novel set in or around the singularity, about 70 years into the future in an almost unrecognizable Northern Virginia. I had ideas on how big chunks of the world worked and changed, but I wanted to make sure I was focusing on the right elements of the world. So I wrote it all out, handed it out as copies to my writers’ group, and sat down with a pen and paper ready to take the questions they asked about it. What parts of the world were they curious about? What did I not have answers for? By the end of the session I had several hand written pages of questions, notes, bits and pieces of the world that people wanted to know about but I’d not thought about.

Were they all important? Yes and no.

When it comes to crafting a narrative there are two categories of information: what the reader would like to know and what they need to know. The latter are the essential details, the former are fun little additions to the story. They don’t directly influence the story, but a setting is just like any other character in that the author needs to know far more than every appears on the paper. This becomes more and more true as the setting is more and more alien to the reader. A non-magical story set yesterday, down the street from the reader? He or she knows the place well. Around the world? Perhaps less so. A century ago? A century from now? A spaceship? An alien world?

Unfortunately I don’t meet with my writers’ group as much as I once did. It’s one of those things that there’s just less time for with a baby in the house. So instead, I’m turning to you, dear readers of this blog. All three of you. After the break is a brief rundown of what I know about the GS Sarah Constant. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s those details that I think best paint a broad picture of the vessel and life on board. Then I’d be open to questions. If I know the answer, I’ll let you know. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll thank you for your question, and copy it into the part of my Scrivener file dedicated to things I don’t yet know about my setting.

Let’s begin.

Read the rest of this entry »

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World Building Question: Where Am I?

Last time in the World Building Questions I talked about the differences between noon, 12pm, and how those two concepts evolved. In doing so I very briefly touched on Universal Time, offsets, and the fact that timekeeping on the globe centers on a spot to the south-east of downtown London just off the Themes River. This is Greenwich, specifically the Royal Observatory therein. More specifically, the line running up the middle of the front door to the roof peak overhead. This is the origin point for Greenwich time, and it serves as such because the British figured out Longitude at sea first. Which has a lot to do with noon. So there’s a fitting transition from asking questions about how we keep time on planet earth to how we keep directions.

Let’s talk generally about the ideas of latitude and longitude first. The earth is a sphere. That’s the first of several lies in this post, but it’s an extremely helpful lie.  Around this sphere humanity has drawn two imaginary lines and defined these as origin lines. One is the equator, the other is the Prime Meridian. Locations are then defined by how far north or south they are from the equator, and how far east or west from the Prime Meridian, given in degrees. On earth we call these two measurements latitude and longitude, respectively. Lines of latitude circle the globe, parallel to the equator. Lines of longitude run pole to pole, converging at each end.

The equator is a pretty easy and logical defining line, it’s a circle around the earth perpendicular to the axis of rotation where the days don’t really vary in length and equidistant from the poles. To determine how far north or south of the equator you are, whether at land or at sea, simply look at the sky. For centuries, ancient navigators have known which heavenly bodies to consult and measure to know just where they are in relationship to the equator. The problem is…once you know your latitude is 20 degrees north of the equator, that’s great, you’re somewhere on 19,250 mile long line circling the earth. Where on that line are you? What’s your longitude?

Longitude is harder to work out that latitude. There are no clear celestial signs for how far east or west one has traveled. The easiest way to work it out is through a clock. Here’s how. First you find a clock that keeps reliable time. Then you set that clock to 12pm when the sun is directly overhead. Now, start traveling east or west until noon the next day. Noon, not 12pm on the clock, I’m still being serious about that distinction. When the sun is overhead, look at your clock, and you know how far east or west you’ve traveled by the time shown. How?

Well, it takes 24 hours for the sun to circle the earth. A circle is 360 degrees. If you divide 360 by 24 the result is 15 degrees. So, for each hour that the clock is off, you’ve traveled 15 degrees of east or west latitude. If the clock shows a time before 12pm, you’ve traveled east, if it shows a time after 12pm, you’ve traveled west.

There you have it. Noon tells you where you are. Segue complete!

Alright, it’s a little more complicated than that. Not the math, the math is simple to derive. The difficulty is in that first step: finding a clock that keep reliable time. That’s not too difficult in the year 2013, however clocks of a sufficiently reliable accuracy are a relatively new invention. Clocks of a reliable accuracy that will retain that accuracy while at sea are newer yet. And here is where I’m going to reference A History of the World in 100 Objects, a fantastic podcast and audiobook and hardback that I’ve talked about on this blog before. If you’re curious about history, grab this! The 100 objects range from millions of years old to only three years old, presented chronologically. Object 91 is a ship’s chronometer from the HMS Beagle voyage that brought Darwin to the Galápagos Islands.

What John Harrison did was to invent a clock, a chronometer, that would go on accurately telling the time set in Greenwich, despite the constant movement of the ship and, just as important, despite any fluctuations in temperature and humidity. It was a great feat of precision engineering, but Harrison’s chronometers were pioneering, high-quality instruments, made in tiny numbers and affordable only by the Admiralty. Then, around 1800, two London clock-makers managed to simplify the mechanisms of his chronometer, so that virtually any ship – and certainly the whole of the Royal Navy – could carry them as routine equipment.

First Sea ClockThe image over to the right is one of John Harrison’s first clocks intended for use at sea, not one of the simpler devices that followed. It is the Creative Commons released image I could find.

So this is all well and good, there’s some nice math involved, and I like math. But why is the Prime Meridian where it is, and not one of the infinite other equally arbitrary lines of longitude? When I made that post about noon, I said that the Greenwich Meridian was the Prime Meridian “because an Englishman figured out longitude at sea.” I was London clock makers who perfected the ship’s chronometer, it was the Royal Navy that first used it, and they needed a point to use as their baseline when setting all the chronometers that would go on all the ships. So they chose the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

It doesn’t entirely answer the question, though, as it only explains why the British chose the Greenwich Meridian. Why did the rest of the world accept this meridian? Simple. They voted on it. In 1884 a conference was held in Washington, DC for the purpose of defining which arbitrary north-south line would be the arbitrary north-south line. 26 nations were invited, 22 voted for the Greenwich Meridian, and the motion passed.

Do I even need to say that the French were one of those opposing. They used their own meridian which ran through Paris, and kept it until 1914. Which means the Prime Meridian has been an international standard for less than a century. Which makes it slightly older than the full international adoption of the modern calendar, but puts it squarely on the list of things you might have thought were international standards longer than they actually have been.

One equator, one Prime Meridian. That’s also how we can know where we are on an arbitrary, but internationally agreed upon, scale of latitudinal and longitudinal measurements. Certainly we now have more sophisticated ways of determining our location, such as GPS, but it all comes down to clocks and the sun.

How do you know where you are at sea without a way to calculate longitude? Answer is, you don’t. Not really. Oh, the best navigators could guess by using a process called dead reckoning which relies on knowing three things: where you were, what heading you were on, and how fast you were going. If I traveled 50 nautical miles east-northeast, I can put a dot on a map 50 nm east-northeast of the dot I drew yesterday. Which was based on the dot the day before. And the day before that. It’s a series of educated guesses which allows errors to compound. Yet it brought Columbus to the new world and back again.

I’ll admit, while a fun transition from time to direction, this is a harder post than usual to come up with world building questions for.

I could posit a planet in tidal lock to its sun has an interesting set of non-arbitrary meridians. It has an equator, and it has the delineation between day side and night side. Since the sun doesn’t rise or set, its position in the sky would always provide an exact location on the day side. The night side would have to rely on purely stellar navigation. This is actually the case in Frederick Pohl’s book Jem, which has a “heat pole” and a “cold pole” instead of a North and South pole, representing the points farthest from the day/night line.

I could posit an uninhabited alien world. Would a human colony on a new planet use its first outpost to define a prime meridian for the planet?

I could posit an inhabited world. Would an alien race come up with another way of defining a point on their globe? I can actually think of one. Start with the equator around the center of the globe, then rotate it a given number of degrees about a set axis. A point on the globe could be defined by the angle of rotation and the distance from the equator. I’m not sure that makes sense as I’ve written it, I might try to diagram it if it doesn’t.

I suppose the world building lesson is that north and south, as we define them, are easy on a rotating body. East and west are a little harder. A society that navigates with something like latitude would need a way to compute that latitude, whether technical, biological, or magical.

Up next: how maps are centered and oriented (“Which way is up?”), and how we tell directions on a day-to-day basis, especially since we have two different sets of four directions we tend to use (“Is that my right, or your right?”).

Chronometer picture via Wikipedia user Phantom Photographer and released under Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution-Share Alike license.

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Showing My Math

So here’s the deal. I’m working on a new project and I want to make sure at least some of the details have actual technical grounding. I’m okay with a little handwavium, it’s probably unavoidable, but I want to at least have some grounding in reality. Problem is, I’m not all that great at actual technical grounding, as the last physics class I took was non-AP physics in high school where I barely got a B. So I might occasionally make these posts, I might make just this one, in an attempt to crowdsource some of my equations. The questions I have are whether I’ve got the right equations, and whether I’m using them correctly, and to also play around with LaTeX a little. But mostly the first two things.

So here’s today’s problem: Given a cylindrical space ship with an internal radius of 6km, how fast must it be rotating to create a centripetal acceleration equivalent to earth gravity for someone standing on the inside surface? I didn’t know any of these equations, but found them at this rather helpful forum post. First, we must find the speed at that 6km point that would produce an acceleration of 9.8m/s²:

a=9.8 \frac{m}{s^2}
r=6000 m
v=242.49 \frac{m}{s}

That number sounds awfully damn fast, but consider the speed of rotation of the earth at sea level on the equator is roughly 465 m/s. Next step, at least what I’m assured is the next step, is converting this into radians/second:


Finally this can be converted to revolutions per minute. The conversion formula I found is:

1 \frac{rad}{s} = \frac{60}{2pi} = \frac{30}{pi} rpm
0.0404 \frac{rad}{s} = \frac{30*0.0404}{pi}=\frac{1.212}{pi}=0.386 rpm

Therefore the ship is rotating at a rate slightly faster than once every three minutes. What I didn’t expect is that, since the rate of rotation is a constant, centripetal acceleration increases linearly from the axis of rotation. I’m so accustomed to formulas for gravity having squares all over the place, but this isn’t, strictly speaking, gravity. It’s an acceleration equal to gravity. So at half the distance from the axis of rotation, we can work backwards with W as a constant…


a=\frac{121.2^2}{3000} = \frac{14689.44}{3000} = 4.9 \frac{m}{s^2}

Which is equivalent to half gravity.

My next trick will be to find a formula that describes the rate of descent for a body falling through linearly increasing gravity. That’s less likely to come up in-story, but more for my own curiosity.

Edit: Some further poking around (which, I’m ashamed to say, has mostly been at Wikipedia so far) suggests that 2rpm is about the maximum rotation that most humans can adjust to with no ill effects, so my rotation of nearly 1/6 that rate is shockingly safe in and of itself. So that’s good to know. Now if only it didn’t have a “citation needed” tag.

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World Building Question: When is Noon?

This is a direct outgrowth of the previous World Building Question, and yes, continues the feature’s fascination with timekeeping that was only briefly interrupted by henotheism and monolatry. It’s a little harder to tie this back to world building, but I’ve got some of my standard questions at the end of this post. Next time I’ll find something else to talk about, I promise. That said, a simple question:

When is Noon?

To start answering this question, I’m going to take the computer programming route and define some terms first. This is important because people tend to think of “noon” and “12pm” as synonyms, but for the purpose of this post they are not. I will try my damnedest to be consistent.

Noon shall be defined as the time that the sun is at its zenith for the day in a given location. This is also called “solar noon,” but I’m going to simplify the term for this post.

12pm shall be defined as when a clock at a given location, set to that location’s time zone, reads 12pm.

Let’s continue now, shall we?

I brought up noon in my previous world building question that provided a brief history of the length of an hour, listed it as one of those clear delineating points of the day for a culture that uses the sun as its primary time telling device. Oh, that’s not to say it’s perfectly clear the exact moment that the sun is as high in the sky as it’s going to get, no big bright flash or bells going off, nothing like that. But it’s generally clear that, hey, the sun is pretty close to overhead.

Now, as to what time that was? Well, there was some disagreement on that. In modern cultures, with the 24 hour clock we’ve globally settled on, it’s close-ish to the middle of the day (more on that later). In several older cultures, this was true as well. Each new day started at sun-up and went until just before sun-up the following day. Of course, under this notion, noon would be about 6 hours into a 24 hour day. Some cultures considered the new day as starting at noon, so it would be 0 hours into the day. Some cultures counted a new day when the sun set, making noon about 18 hours into the day. These don’t make any actual difference, because things were getting done during the day, and all three ways of counting would agree on what day it is.

Today we count new days at midnight so noon happens 12 hours into the day at 12pm. Right?


For a time, yes. For a time when the sun was at its highest point of the day where you were it was 12pm, and twelve hours later would be midnight and the start of the new day. This held on for quite a while. Every city would have its own little mini time zone. In Boston it would be 8 minutes earlier than it was in New York, give or take. When it takes several days to get between cities, little differences of a few minutes in time don’t make a hell of a lot of difference. However when the railroad came around, that’s what things started to change. Which means we’re talking 19th century. Mid to late 19th century at that. What was called “railroad time” showed up in England around 1847 and in the United States in the 1880s. This evolved into the time zones we’re aware of today.

So what time is noon? Well, since an entire 1/24 slice of the globe is now on the same time, it can vary by an hour from one edge of a time zone to another. Except that time zones aren’t straight lines, they have bulges and juts that can create a wider gap than one hour. China, notably, has a single time zone that results in a four hour difference in when noon happens from the western extreme of the country to the eastern.

Then there’s Daylight Saving Time that throws everything off by another hour.

So to answer the question of when noon is. Today, March 21, 2013, noon in Washington DC will happen at 1:15pm. In Nashville, Tennessee and Amarillo, Texas, both in the same time zone, noon today will happen at 12:54pm and 1:54pm respectively. That’s a nearly two hour difference between 12pm and noon in west Texas. In Harbin, China, noon will come at 11:40am. In Kashgar, China, 3:03pm. The Kaliningrad Oblast, that little chunk of Russia that’s divorced from the main body of the country, uses the same time zone as St. Petersburg and Moscow. So while the city of Kaliningrad is almost due north of Warsaw, the former will hit noon at 1:45pm, the latter at 11:43am.

And so on.

Then there’s Zulu Time, aka UTC. Whatever you want to call it, the universal international time zone based around the non-DST adjusted time in Greenwich, UK (for various reasons that boil down to “because an Englishman figured out longitude at sea”) is where noon and 1200 hours are completely and forever divorced. Find the right place and noon will be at 0000 hours, or 12am. This is essential for organizations, like the US Navy, that need to coordinate on an international scale on vessels that might rapidly traverse time zones.

So when is noon? It depends on whether you’re on the western or eastern edge of your time zone. Whether you’re in a state or country currently observing Daylight Saving Time. Whether you’re in a culture that depends on rapid transit.  Whether you’re in a culture that needs/values uniformity of time for various transactions. Whether you’re observing a globally constant time. Noon as 12pm served humanity very well for an extremely long time. Now we’re moving increasingly into a society where the day is less defined as the sun and more defined as what we want it to be.

So what does that say about us as a global culture? What would it say about a global culture (either alien or future earth) that fully used UTC? What would it say of a culture that reached a similar technology as earth now has without any form of time zones or universal time, letting each city have its own slightly different time?

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World Building Question: How Long is an Hour?

Has anyone else been thinking about the nature of time lately? Two weekends ago we lost an hour, an entire hour, as Daylight Savings Time began. Today is the vernal equinox, the transition point where days are once again longer than nights. I know I must think about time around this point of the year, because it was almost exactly a year ago that I started asking these World Building Questions, and started by asking What Time Is It? I’m going to move back to my questions about how time works on earth. So we lost an hour recently, but what is an hour?


Cesium. For all your time telling needs. Can you see it performing hyperfine level transitions?

Alright, that’s an easy one. An hour is sixty minutes long. Each of those minutes is sixty seconds long. So an hour is 3600 seconds long. We know the length of a second because it was defined at the 13th General Conference on Weights and Measures, an occasional meeting that sets things like the international standards for metric measurements, and just how many yoctometers are in a yottameter (a hell of a lot). A second, per this SI definition, is “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the [cesium] 133 atom.” Whipping out a calculator to do the math, an hour is thus 33,093,474,372,000 of…whatever the hell they’re talking about with transitions and hyperfine levels. I was never that great at the applied sciences. As I’ll one day demonstrate when I crowd source some physics questions for an upcoming novel.

This is clearly a modern definition. An extremely modern definition. A definition less than 50 years old with a clarification less than 25 years old that “[t]his definition refers to a [cesium] atom at rest at a temperature of 0 K.” Cesium itself wasn’t discovered until 1860. And yet the human race has had hours for far longer than this definition has been around. For most of the history of the hour it was defined as 1/24 of a day-night cycle. Actually, this is a subtle lie. For much of the history of the hour, it was defined as 1/12 of the period between sunup and sundown. The period between sundown and sunup didn’t get hours because no one was doing anything during them, so who the hell needed to know what time it was? Night was divided, if at all, into watches.

Why 12? I covered that one when I asked what time is it? For those who don’t want to do the back reading, the short answer is “the Egyptians.”

As a side note: back in that post I said “Once a society becomes more advanced, it needs more granular time,” without really going much into it. I’m not really proud of that statement, as my wanderings through history in the last year have smacked down notions of societies as more or less “advanced,” which is really a modern ethnographic concept. To employ better phrasing, the use of granulated time, which flows from broad chunks of the day to hours to half and quarter hours, relates less to the “advancement” of society as it is to the ability to easily know what time it is while on the go. If you’re bustling around Rome and not stopping to check the nearest sundial, all that matters are the periods before noon, noon itself, and after noon. When you stop at a sundial, you could see where the shadow fell and know more broadly what time it was, but the same could be gauged by looking overhead. It’s not until clocks are visible from multiple points in the city, and the advent of portable clocks we call “watches,” that the person on the go could quickly have a better notion of the actual time.

So, alright, an hour is 1/12 of the time from sunup to sundown. This was thanks to those sundials, which started working every morning when a shadow first appeared and stopped working every night when the last shadows slipped into total darkness. There’s a problem with this definition, however. The period from sunup to sundown is not a constant. Here in the DC area the winter solstice produces just 9 hours and 26 minutes (by modern reckoning using the cesium atom) of sunlight. During the summer solstice DC gets 14 hours and 54 minutes (cesium) of sun. Dividing each of those by twelve, the length of a classical hour here in DC would be 47.2 modern minutes on the winter solstice, 74.5 minutes on the summer solstice. This is a significant swing. Playing this out over a modern eight “hour” work day, this would mean working just 377 minutes in late December but 596 minutes during late June.

Which is why it’s fitting to talk about this today, one of the two equinoxes, when the modern definition of an hour is as close to the classical definition as it gets during the year. Actually, this isn’t quite right as most of the world is today experiencing a day of 727 minutes, not 720, but it’s as good as you’re going to get. This is less the day where we get equal amounts of day and night, and more the day that everyone gets an equal amount of day.

Later hours were defined not as 1/12 of the daylight, but as 1/24 of the period from sunup to sunup. This wouldn’t result in 45 minute swings in time seen by the old definition of an hour but would still drift ever so slightly and require clocks to be reset a little each morning. Using DC from March 20, 2013 to March 21 as an example, on the 20th the sun rose at 7:11, on the 21st it will rise at 7:10, resulting in a day that is a minute short, and hours that are each about 2.5 seconds off. Which doesn’t sound like much, until you turn that into 22,981,579,425 of the cesium things.

So when did hours become equal in length? Not until the 1400s. Why? It took that long for the combination of accurate time keeping and a willingness to move away from the previous sunup-to-sunup definition. Technology fighting the momentum of “that’s how we’ve always done it,” just as it will throughout human history on oh so many issues. This technology continues to push forward, and we now understand that what we once defined as an hour isn’t necessarily a constant. But I’d rather not get into that, because I’m far more likely to say something entirely wrong. Or more wrong than the wrong things I’m sure already litter this post.

I like to bring these posts back to world building, so let’s give it a shot. We’ve seen how the hour evolved on earth, and how it was originally tracked thanks to sundials. The sundial is an intuitive piece of technology, by which I mean it emerged independently at several points in human history. So let’s take it out of the picture. How does time keeping evolve on a planet where the light is diffuse, say through a constant cloud layer? There would be a clear morning and dusk as light grew and diminished in intensity, midday could be intuited as the midway point between the two, but no clear progress of shadows would be seen. How would hours be divided by a species who has a sleep cycle that doesn’t line up with the planet’s day/night cycle? Would two clocks develop? What if a culture developed under more extreme cycles, such as those seen in Iceland where the length of a day swings from 21 hours to 3 hours?

There’s one more bit I wanted to go into, but I’m already over 1200 words so I’ll hopefully get to it later in the week. It’s the related, but interesting question: What time is noon?

Cesium ampule picture released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license by the Dennis s.k collection. Find his other photos at his Wikipedia user page.

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