Time and tide wait for no man

I’m a bit of an anorak about timekeeping. I like my watches and clocks to be spot on so most of the ones in the house are radio controlled. (The only exceptions are the thermostat, the central heating time clock, the cooker and karen’s bedside clock radio).

If a show or a movie is scheduled to start at 8pm, I expect it to do so.  If I have an appointment then I will ensure that I try to be there in good time and I expect the others to do the same.

I am also obsessively fussy about technical systems being set correctly. Anyone who has tried to reconcile phone calls where the phone system time does not align with the Management Information time or the voice recorder time and neither map on to telco billing time will probably also end up as insistent as myself that they are all set correctly.

I recall, back in the 80s, we had a problem with a phone system losing time. It was the biggest SL1 system in the world (at the time) and was fully maxed out on the hardware. It belonged to Saudia Airlines and ran a huge compound known as Saudia City in Jeddah. As there was a cable limit on how far the peripheral equipment could be located from the common equipment it was housed in a large circular building to get it all in range.

We eventually worked out what the problem was. As it was maxed out on hardware, there were also times when it was maxed out on software as well.  Every 128 miliseconds, the software scheduler was meant to add 128 to a counter and if it reached 1000, to update the system seconds counter by one and subtract 1000 from the counter value. (It needed to carry the value forward as there are not a whole number of 128 milisecond increments in a second).

The trouble was, sometimes the system had so much to do handling calls that it ran out of real-time and effectively missed a tickalong the way. This could result in the clock losing several minutes a week (sometimes in a day) and whilst there was an adjustment figure you could apply to the daily time, it wasn’t big enough and was too coarse.

During the course of the investigation, I exchanged several Faxes with mike Steer, then Chief Engineer at Bin laden Telecommunications. (Yes, that Bin Laden!) As the case progressed, Mike started using more and more flowery language and eventually i sent him a nonsense Fax in retaliation, composed with the aid of a Thesaurus. The Fax memo was headed “Monadic denudation on the horology sub-system“, the most flowery phrase I could come up with for the clock losing time.

Mike Steer was an interesting character and the first Nortel Customer I ever met. I was asked to take him out for a meal on expenses as no-one else was available. Mike was not a happy man as he had had his bottom inspected that morning by the Customs and Excise at heathrow. He resolved never to come to England again and spent his R&Rs in switzerland visiting the gnomes who looked after his money.

I worked out why no-one else was available fairly quickly- he was gnome-like himself and muttered on at great length about all that was wrong in the world. Technically though he was sharp as a razor blade and we exchanged badinage for many years.

Why did this distant memory pop into the brain uninvited? Eddys in the space-time continuum.

Something slightly odd happened on Wednesday morning whilst I was driving to work. I generally arrive before 8am but there had been an accident at the motorway interchange so I was slightly later than normal. As I drove down the ramp into our car park, it was time for the pips but they never came. I glanced down at my watch (which is radio controlled, of course) and saw that it was now past 8am. Suddenly the pips sounded- and there were seven of them, six short, one long. Now normally this only happens when there needs to be a leap second but this flummoxed the presenters slightly as the pips are ever so reliable. Indeed, they will pip at precisely  quarter past, half past and quarter to if the fader is left open accidentally. (I even heard then at the same time as Big Ben once in the afternoon).

The BBC gave an explanation on air, which basically boiled down to they hadn’t a clue why it went wrong, but an “Engineer’s Reset” sorted it out. You might be able to catch it if you are quick on listen again for Wednesday’s Today Programme, or just make do with this.  

Still on the subject of time, Corpus Christi have a new clock which I heard described on this morning’s today programme (listen again at 7:45 am slot). It sounded rather bizarre and looked it as well. It has a large insect at the top forming a grasshopper escapement and it is known as the chronophage which means a time eater.

Rather than describe it, let me leave it to the wonders of Youtube.