“you can never predict what it will be, but over time some kind of pattern emerges, a trend or rhythm. tonight’s background fits, somehow, as she reads. there’s not any real forwardness to it. you don’t sense it’s straining to get anywhere. the thing it makes you see as she reads is something heavy swinging slowly at the end of a long rope.” [1]

06/01/2012 § Leave a comment

a pot will boil, whether or not you watch it.  when people say that a watched one won’t, they mean (1) that things don’t always happen when you want them to, and (2) that you shouldn’t stand around like an idiot, waiting for a thing to happen – in this case, for still water to become, as the chinese say, a rope of pearls.  they mean do something better with your time.  feed the fish, alphabetize the spice rack, tweet.

what if there were a device telling you how much time it would take for the pot to boil? might knowing that the water will come to a boil in say, a hundred and thirty eight seconds actually dispose you to watch it do so?  the feeling here is that it would.  once you know exactly when the pot will boil, there’s no longer any harm in staring at it until it does.  it’s easier to waste time when you know how much time there is left to waste.

such a device does not yet exist, buts equivalents are everywhere.  technology has brought a proliferation of countdowns.  it’s an egg-timer world.  l.e.d. displays on the subway platform tell you how many minutes until the next train pulls in.  pedestrian-crosswalk signals tick off the seconds before the light turns yellow.  automobile navigation systems and airplane-cabin monitors count down to arrival.  click on a vid or download an app, and the time kicks in.  (if apps were eggs, they’d be soft-boiled.)  the times square new year’s eve ball drop, the pullout from iraq, the end of the world, as per the mayans: tick, tick, tick.  your video will resume in :12, :11, :10.  clearview expressway: seven minutes.  we are eleventh in line for takeoff.

an n.f.l. quarterback has to pay attention to a game clock, a play clock, and the so-called clock in his head, which ticks off the seconds between the snap and the likely arrival, on his blind side, of a defensive end.  a q.b.’s life seems tranquil, by comparison.  still, it’s hard to complain.  studies have shown that people – in a hospital waiting room, a restaurant, a traffic jam – would rather know what they-re in for.  the subway updates, for example, save you from the pointless ritual of leaning over the tracks again and again to peer into the tunnel in the hope of a headlight.

and yet those agitated peeks into the dark inevitably bring the sudden quicksilver dance of light up the rails – a touch of delight that you forgo if you know that a brooklyn-bound local train will be arriving in two minutes.  (would jimi hendrix have written “hear my train a-coming'” if he’d known when his was going to come?) as annoying as it is to hear children ask, “when are we gonna be there?,” it is oddly pleasing to answer them with little lies – to bend the time to manipulate the mood.  the curmudgeon might say that the push to optimize every second chops the day into discrete, bounded blocks of time and drains them of possibility.  it makes an assembly line of time and cheats us of opportunities for revelation or surprise.  put another way: would any of us really want to know how many days we have until we die?

in 1927, thomas parnell, a physics professor at the university of queensland, in australia, designed an experiment to show his students how viscous a fluid could be.  he poured hot pitch into a glass funnel, let it cool, and then waited.  [ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be arriving at the rhetorical purpose of this example in a hundred and sixty-two words.]  eight years later, the first drop fell.  after another nine years, the second one fell.  the pitch drop experiment is now the world’s longest-running lab experiment.  there have been a total of eight drops, occurring at an average interval of ten years.  the drop takes about a tenth of a second.  no one has ever actually seen a drop fall.

john mainstone, the professor who has overseen the experiment since 1961, is eagerly awaiting the ninth drop of pitch, which he expects will occur sometime in 2013.  “unpredictability is one of the great things about nature,” he said the other day.  “it’s the spice of life.  just look at the due dates of babies.  we so rarely get even that right.”  the pitch drop doesn’t accommodate countdowns, he said.  “i’ve been around long enough that i just see time before and time after.  it’s only when the drop has happened that what has gone before makes sense in the flow of time.  that is, i don’t become aware of what was going on just before the drop until after the drop occurs.”

 

happy friday

a young hare

 

 

notes:

[1]     wallace, david foster. infinite jest: a novel. boston: back bay books, 1996: p. 190. print

[image]     the pitch drop experiment circa the fifth drop (via atlas obscura)

[text]     paumgarten, nick. “dept. of predictions” the new yorker jan 2 (2011): p. 20-21. print.

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You are currently reading “you can never predict what it will be, but over time some kind of pattern emerges, a trend or rhythm. tonight’s background fits, somehow, as she reads. there’s not any real forwardness to it. you don’t sense it’s straining to get anywhere. the thing it makes you see as she reads is something heavy swinging slowly at the end of a long rope.” [1] at a young hare.

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