The artificial constructs of the French Republican Calendar and the metric system

The first French Republic introduced two new ideas – a new calendar and the metric system – but only one of them stuck.

The Republican Calendar lasted a meager twelve years before Napoleon reinstated the Gregorian on January 1, 1805. It was, in a way, perhaps a victim of its own success, as Eviatar Zerubavel suggests. “One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the calendar reformers was exposing people to the naked truth, that their traditional calendar, whose absolute validity they had probably taken for granted, was a mere social artifact and by no means unalterable,” Zerubavel writes. However, this truth works both ways, and what the French reformers found was that “it was impossible to expose the conventionality and artificiality of the traditional calendar without exposing those of any other calendar, including the new one, at the same time.” While the Earth’s orbit is not a fiction, any attempt to organize that orbit’s movement into a rigid order is as arbitrary as any other.

It’s not entirely a fluke that the Republican Calendar failed while another of the Revolutionaries’ great projects — the Metric system — was a wild success. Unlike Metric-standard conversions, or, for that matter, Gregorian-Julian conversions, there was no way to translate the days of the Republican Calendar to the Gregorian calendar, which meant that France found itself isolated from other nations. But more importantly, the Metric system did not, in itself, threaten social order, and the natural diurnal rhythms of human lived experience that have evolved over millennia. By suddenly asserting a ten-day work week, with one day of rest for nine days’ work, the Republicans completely up-ended the ergonomics of the day, and this — more so than the religious function of the old calendar — was what was irreplaceable. The Metric system of weights and measurements marks a triumph of sense over tradition — it’s just plain easier to work with multiples of tens than the odd figures of the Standard measurement system. But in the case of calendars and time, convention wins out over sense.

Pretty fascinating to think how parts of social life that we often take for granted – the calendar and time, measurement – have complicated social histories. It didn’t necessarily have to turn out this way, as the rest of the discussion of the calendar demonstrates. Yet, once we are socialized into a particular system and may even passionately defend the way it is constructed without really knowing the reasons behind it, it can be very hard to conceive of a different way of doing things.

Who is the most powerful person in the world?

One commentator argues Janet Yellen would become the most powerful female in history as Chair of the Federal Reserve:

The Fed is as powerful as it is boring. (Alright, maybe not that powerful, but you get the point). See, its job is to make sure the U.S. economy stays in the Goldilocks zone: growing neither too fast nor too slow, but just right to keep both unemployment and inflation low. It raises interest rates when it thinks growth is too high, and cuts them when it thinks growth is too low — and it does all this by controlling how much money is in the economy. But the Fed’s interest rate decisions don’t just set the course for the U.S. economy; its decisions set the course for the world economy too. That’s because the dollar is the world’s reserve currency, and so many emerging markets have pegged their own to it — which means they’ve decided to import our monetary policy. Think about it this way. If I say my currency will always be worth a certain number of dollars, then I have to print more of it when the Fed prints more dollars. That’s why economists call the Fed a monetary superpower: it’s the world’s central bank all but in name. And, as you can see in the chart below from economist David Beckworth, the Fed’s hegemony isn’t limited to emerging markets. The European Central Bank (light blue line) and the Bank of Japan (black dotted line)  have also followed the Fed’s lead the past 10 years or so.

In other words, Janet Yellen will have more control over the global economy than any other living person once she’s confirmed as Fed Chair. Now, the Fed is a democracy, not a dictatorship, but it’s a funny kind of democracy — the Chair alone sets the agenda. So if Yellen even just talks about slowing down the Fed’s bond-buying, Europe’s troubled economies are liable to see their interest rates rise, and emerging markets are liable to see their currencies collapse.

This might be enough to get conspiracy thinkers going: the Fed Chair, an appointed position, certainly has a lot of international power. This got me to thinking: if Yellen has all this power, who else might be in the conversation for most powerful person in the world? Here are some options:

1. The President of the United States. Political power backed with a lot of economic, military, and cultural power. The “leader of the free world.”

2. The wealthiest person in the world. Bill Gates has $72 billion, the most in the United States, but Carlos Slim has the wealth in the world at $73 billion. Both men are connected to powerful companies. However, just how much can even the wealthiest business leader do compared to the economic prowess of a large country?

3. People that Time names as Person of the Year. It is an American publication so that skews the data with lots of American political leaders. But, still a well-known list.

4. Another Time list: the 100 most influential people in the world. This list tends to make room for more cultural and artistic leaders, in addition to the more typical political and economic leaders.

5. People who subvert international norms on a global scale. Think Adolph Hitler or Osama bin Laden. With some resources put to more nefarious uses, they are able to dominate policy decisions and cultural understandings.

6. The flip side of #5: people who are leaders of successful large social movements. Think Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. They become icons for helping bring about great good.

7. Whomever currently has the most Twitter followers. Justin Bieber currently tops the list followed by Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Barack Obama. Definitely more about cultural power and Twitter users are still a relatively small percentage of the population.

I’m sure there are more options out there. From a Marxist perspective, we would want to look more at economic leaders while Weber’s addition of status and power are also helpful. And, we could also think of how big of a structure or number of followers a single person can leverage – by themselves, individuals, even the wealthiest, may not be able to do much.

Have enough money, pay others to wait in line for you

The Jakarta Post reports on a phenomenon found in a number of places: people being paid an hourly wage to wait in line.

Student Ansari Haja has endured bad weather, hunger and the call of nature to stand in line for hours and secure an apartment at Bedok Residences.

The catch – the apartment was not for himself. The 19-year-old was paid $300 last November by a real-estate agent to spend 28 hours in a queue. He did it again a month later, for another showflat launch in Serangoon North – this time queuing for 14 hours…

It appears that apartments, clothing and gadgets top the list of things people will pay others to queue for.

Associate Professor Xiao Hong, from the Nanyang Technological University’s Division of Sociology, said that this practice reflects the affluence of a society that allows one person to buy another’s time.

‘Everyone’s time has a value on it. But because of social-economic factors, others have more value placed on their time. To compensate for a lack of it, they use economic resources to ‘extend’ the hours that they currently have in a day,’ she added.

And Singapore is not alone when it comes to the phenomenon of ‘queue-sitting’.

In Japan, businessmen have paid people to stand in line for the launch of the PlayStation 3, while in Britain, students at Edinburgh University were paid to help secure the best flats on the market.

I’m surprised I haven’t heard of this in the United States. This past Thanksgiving, I stood in line for 45 minutes before midnight at Best Buy and you could see that people were jumpy about things like people joining their friends in line right before the doors opened or not getting in the store even a few minutes after midnight. Would Americans accept the idea of someone in front of them being paid to wait in line and then changing places with the payee at the end?

The concept of paying for extra time is interesting. How is this any different than paying a personal assistant or a personal shopper to take care of certain tasks during the day? If you have the money, you can afford this. Does this suggest that inequalities of wealth can be translated into inequalities of time? People with more money or resources can literally do more each day.

Copyrighting time

David Kravets at Wired reports on a copyright lawsuit that seems to attempt to enforce a copyright over data about time itself:

The publisher of a database chronicling historical time-zone data [Astrolabe] is claiming copyright ownership of those facts, and is suing two researchers for re-purposing it in a free-to-use database relied on by millions of computers….The researchers’ publicly available database was being hosted on a server at the Maryland-based National Institutes of Health, which apparently has removed the data at the request of Massachusetts-based publishing house, Astrolabe. The publisher markets its programs to astrology buffs “seeking to determine the historical time at any given time in any particular location, world-wide,” and claims ownership to the data in its “AC International Atlas” and “ACS American Atlas” software programs.

Wired posted a copy of Astrolabe’s complaint.  Digging into it a bit, here are the main facts alleged:

9. Defendant [researcher Arthur] Olson’s unauthorized reproduction of the Works have been published at ftp://elsie.nci.nih.gov/tzarchive.qz, where the references to historic international time zone data is replete with references to the fact that the source for this information is, indeed, the ACS Atlas [emphasis added].
10. In connection with his unlawful publication of some and/or any portion of the Works, defendant Olson has wrongly and unlawfully asserted that this information and/or data is “in the public domain,” in violation of the protections afforded by the federal copyright laws.
[11. and 12. The same as 9 and 10, except naming second defendant Paul R. Eggert.]

In other words, based on this complaint, it seems that the researchers simply took facts (e.g., “in 1900, Greenwich Mean Time +3 was defined as the longitude running from…”) and incorporated them into their own database.

If this is true, Astrolabe, as Wired points out,

faces the tough challenge of overcoming a 1991 Supreme Court decision [Feist v. Rural Telephone Service Co.], concerning a company that harvested listings from a phone company’s telephone book and re-published them. The court ruled that “copyright does not extend to facts contained in [a] compilation.”

Unfortunately, I’m guessing that Astrolabe filed this lawsuit simply to scare Olson and Eggert into a quick settlement well before a judge rule on the merits of their claim to use this data under established copyright law.  In part, my surmise is based on the counsel Astrolabe retained.  Their complaint is signed by Julie C. Maloney, an attorney who appears to be a solo practitioner based out of a small town in Cape Cod in Massachusetts.  Although she doesn’t have a law firm website, a bit of Internet searching appears to confirm that land use/zoning rather than intellectual property is her legal specialty.

While I don’t know Ms. Maloney or her professional reputation and am sure she is a capable advocate, these facts don’t suggest that Astrolabe is seeking a discussion on the legal merits of copyright law.  On the contrary, Astrolabe appears (1) primarily concerned with saving money by going with a solo practitioner rather than a bigger law firm, (2) incapable of finding a copyright-specializing attorney willing to take their (weak) case, or (3) both.

Quick Review: The Social Network

Much has been written about the movie The Social Network since it was released earlier this year. Adding to the positive buzz about the movie, commentators think it will be up for some Oscars and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg was recently named “Person of the Year” by Time (more on this shortly). While sagescape has already offered his views (from Harvard itself), I have some thoughts after finally seeing this movie in the theater:

1. This story revolves around two primary themes and plot devices: social status and two court cases.

1a. Social status. Zuckerberg is portrayed as a computer genius who is desperate for social acceptance on a campus where the rich, beautiful, and athletic get attention. The movie begins and ends with this as he tries to reestablish a relationship with his one-time girlfriend. He is shown wanting to be accepted into Harvard’s prestigious social clubs and is petty when his friend Eduardo has an opportunity to enter one of these clubs himself. Ultimately, the story is not that different than any film about high school or college: people have cliques and personal vendettas, nerds and the rich/beautiful don’t travel in the same circles, and all of them spend years trying to get a leg up on others.

1b. The two court cases involve people suing Zuckerberg regarding Facebook. On one hand, this is a useful plot device as we see all of the pertinent characters providing testimony at depositions as they retell how Facebook began. On the other hand, this seems to make the court cases out to be particularly important moments in Facebook’s history. These court cases tie back into the issue of social status as those suing Zuckerberg suggest he was out to improve his own status and Zuckerberg still seems interested in knocking them down a peg or two.

1c. As others have noted, these two themes seem to be quite dependent on the book used as the main source for this film. Since this book details one of the two court cases, this is what may be responsible for the plot structure. However, other texts, such as The Facebook Effect, are much more favorable toward Zuckerberg and treat these issues as minor irritants on the way to Facebook’s success. Both court cases were settled out of court with money payouts and non-disclosure agreements so we may not really know what happened.

2. Zuckerberg is not a likable character in this film. But we don’t really learn much about his background or what makes him tick. The most we know from this film: he is eccentric, doesn’t have many friends, likes his own ideas, and tells it as he sees it. This does not endear him to many people in the film.

3. I imagine the story of Facebook’s origins will be up for more interpretation as time goes on. And I think these stories will depend heavily on the angle of the storytellers and the relationship the author/interpreter/commentator has with Mark Zuckerberg.

4. Because of the emphasis on these two issues, we don’t see much about how Facebook grew. We see a lot of the initial work in the dorm and early on in California but not much after Facebook has its one millionth user. Obviously, much has happened since then as Facebook has now over 500 million users and has spread around the globe.

5. Much has been said about Justin Timberlake’s role as Sean Parker. He is an energizing figure but doesn’t play a huge role. In fact, his character has an ignominious end with the company toward the end of the film. And this final stretch of the film featuring Parker seemed to drag on a bit.

6. Without this film, I don’t think there is any way Zuckerberg would have been named Time’s Person of the Year. Yes, he helped found a company that has grown incredibly quickly and become a part of people’s lives. But in terms of being consequential for human events or world history, does Zuckerberg really rank up there? And why pick him out this year as opposed to previous years when Facebook was also gaining popularity? But perhaps once You were named Person of the Year in 2006 (yes, I mean You), Person of the Year lost some of its gravitas.

Overall, this is an interesting film about a popular social phenomena. Whether this is the real story or not, it is an engrossing look at an enigmatic former Harvard student whose website idea has changed how people connect.

(This film received positive reviews from critics: the reviews were 96% fresh, 248 fresh out of 257 total reviews, at rottentomatos.com.)

The slow death of Christmas cards?

One of the traditional objects of the Christmas season, the Christmas card, is on the decline:

After experiencing slowing growth since 2005, Christmas card sales declined in 2009. While the drop was slight, 0.4 percent, according to research firm Mintel International Group, evidence is building that the next generation of correspondents is unlikely to carry on the tradition with the same devotion as their parents.

The rise of social networking, smart phones and Apple iPads is changing the way friends and family stay in touch, diminishing the Christmas card’s long-standing role as the annual social bulletin…

Americans sent more than 1.8 billion Christmas cards through the mail last year, according to greeting card industry statistics. That figure is expected to drop to 1.5 billion this holiday season.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. Compared to other forms of communication, the Christmas card takes time and money. Interestingly, the same story says the Christmas card was born out of an interest in saving time:

A British businessman is credited with creating the Christmas card in 1843 — as a way to save time. Too busy to write a personal holiday greeting, Henry Cole hired a well-known London artist to design a card he could send to all his acquaintances, according to a version of the story recounted by greeting card maker Hallmark Cards Inc. Louis Prang, a German immigrant, is said to have brought the Christmas card tradition to America in 1875, printing a card depicting Killarney roses and the words Merry Christmas.

Some of my thoughts about this tradition that may die a slow death:

1. I’ve always enjoyed getting and reading Christmas cards (and the letters within). It is the one time a year you can count on getting mail and updates about people’s lives.

2. Many of the letters that are included in the cards are just fascinating. The typical one reads something like this: “We all had a great year, Son #1 did amazing things, Son #2 was comparable, and Daughter #1 is only 7 years old but is setting the world on fire!” On the whole, the letters are upbeat and tend to produce the image of “the perfect family.” And if they are Christians, there might be a paragraph or two at the end (or perhaps a verse printed in the card or at the top or bottom of the letter) about bringing the focus back around from their wonderful family to “the real reason for the season.”

2a. Perhaps I am too cynical about these cards. But on the whole, it seems like an exercise in taking a few moments to paint a particular image of one’s family.

2b. Perhaps this is exemplified best by the picture card, the one that puts the family in some sort of Christmas pose.

3. Even with the general tone of such letters, it does suggest someone has put some time into it. The idea that a card or letter (even though most of these letters are typed) is more meaningful than a Facebook post makes sense to me. But maybe this is just nostalgia talking and if the original cards were just a quest for efficiency, perhaps Christmas cards are just another symbol of the efficient modern culture.

Considering workplace flexibility

Some jobs offer more flexibility than others where a worker has an opportunity to structure their own schedule or make it to other important events in life that are held during typical work hours. Sociologist Alfred Young has looked into the issue of workplace flexibility and recently made a report to a conference:

When an assembly-line worker at a Midwestern auto-parts plant studied by Alford A. Young Jr. , a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, left work without permission to coach his son’s football team in a championship game, he paid a high price, Young told about 200 researchers, government officials and employers Tuesday at a Washington, D.C. conference on flexibility.

The story sprang from a study of the means employees use to resolve work-family conflicts–collaborating with the boss vs. sneaking around. The worker, whom Dr. Young called James, had committed to coaching his son’s team, and when the team made the championship round he asked to take a Saturday afternoon off to be present. The boss said no.

When the day arrived, James left work for lunch and later called his boss to say that his car had broken down, saying “ ‘I called Triple-A but I don’t know if I can make it back,’ ” Young says. James got to coach the game, but he also got written up by his supervisor and busted to a lower seniority level.

Such disruptions can be avoided, Young says, if supervisors bend a little, perhaps even breaking a rule or two, to try to find a solution within the work team, perhaps by allowing a shift trade; this benefits employers by motivating employees to go the extra mile and remain loyal to the company.  While this happens routinely at many workplaces, about 80% of all workers still lack the workplace flexibility they want, according to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the conference sponsor. What doesn’t work, his study found, allowing to develop the kind of clash that encompassed James.

I feel like a lot of the talk about telecommuting and the changes that might come to the workplace due to changing technology might really be about increasing the flexibility of workers. If the main concern is that a job gets done, perhaps it doesn’t matter as much whether an employee keeps certain office hours. Younger workers also seem to like the idea of flexibility, to not be completely tied down because of a job. But perhaps even the American small business spirit could be tied to this issue – some people enjoy being able to set their own hours and agenda.  But this may not apply in the same way to areas like manufacturing.

If 80% of workers desire more flexibility, is this something more businesses and organizations should address? I would be interested in knowing what holds businesses back from being more flexible with workers. Profits? Appearances? A certain workplace culture? Directives from higher-ups?