The Hourglass

Before the time of John Harrison, the XVIIIth century English inventor and clockmaker, the only tool for telling the time at sea was the hourglass. The hourglass was actually a half-hour glass, and the turn of the glass was accompanied by the ringing of a bell on board. Eight bells corresponded to one watch, so every twenty-four hour day had six watches. For the Portuguese sailors, a watch was logically called a quarto or quarter, and each bell was a relógio or hourglass clock.

In The India Road, Bartolomeu Dias, the man who rounded the Cape of Storms and openend the maritime door to India, scoffs:

“The hourglass is as fickle as a woman. What it says is not what it means—it can be as misleading to a sailorman as the siren’s song.”

Dom João de Castro, in his book Roteiro de Lisboa a Goa, guide from Lisbon to Goa, dated 1538, tells the story of ‘weighing the sun’, and of the inaccuracy of the four ‘clocks’ on board. Two of the hourglasses read midday, but the other two read half past and twenty past eleven.

Castro was a student of Pedro Nunes, a great Portuguese cosmographer, and knew that you didn’t need the exact time to read the latitude. What you did need was repeated measurements of the sun’s height around noon to identify its peak. In fact it seems obvious to us now that on the contrary, you could read the sun to tell the local time―as long as the skies were clear.

As we sail east, we lose an hour for every fifteen degrees of longitude, giving us the full twelve hours in the half circle from Greenwich to the Dateline. Out of the triumvirate of Genovese needle, astrolabe, and hourglass, the latter was by far the weakest link.

The hourglass is a metaphor for the British economy, where employment and income exist at the head and feet, but the waistline looks pretty tight. I’m not sure how many kids can draw an hourglass though, much like, to paraphrase Sam Cooke, they ‘don’t know what a slide rule is for.’ Next time you’re with a teenager, ask them to draw a woman with an hourglass figure and see what they come up with.

I certainly didn’t feel a positive vibe in my recent transits through the UK, nor do I expect to as I go through again tomorrow. Apart from the 2012 Olympics, which are a natural source of pride, the image is of hardship, accompanied by the acrimonious debate around executive compensation, which is leading to a diaspora of CEOs to Singapore. I saw evidence of this last Sunday morning: pale white legs, flip flops, and Latte. And the Financial Times. Ugh.

The view from the top, or at least from the fifty-seventh floor. Singapore, a new home for the upmarket CEO, in his exodus from bonusphobe Britain.

Europe this week was consumed with the predictable outcomes of the two elections, and the consequences for the euro and for austerity. Despite the protests of German politicians and the European Commission alike, the situation is unsustainable. As Cheech and Chong famously joked, “I know times is hard, yesterday I seen a pimp drivin’ a Volkswagen!”

Thursday the German foreign minister insisted that these irresponsible European countries must take their medicine, even if it tastes bad (I think he meant ‘especially’). Problem is, the cure is worse than the disease. The medicine doesn’t just taste bad, it doesn’t work. So much so that Germany is showing signs of stimulating wage increases and growth in consumption, which will boost the European economy.

Enough stupid metaphors already! The West needs a paradigm shift, because with a globalized economy, everything works in a different way. J.P. Morgan Chase sinks two billion dollars on credit default swaps, and describes it as a ‘surprise’ loss. If you’re interested in understanding why there is no salvation with this religion, examine your debt. I’ve used the UK example for consistency, but the others are equally alarming. I’m a simple man, and what I see is that every German owes twenty-four thousand euros, and every Portuguese fourteen thousand. Go figure.

The other thing I see is that these numbers rack up on paper, but nowhere else. Despite appearances, natural science is far more concerned with balancing the books than accountants are. This is because ecologists know that you can’t invent energy. Like money, it’s a zero sum game. The whole idea is well illustrated by an IPhone game which has been banned by Apple. Yes, absolute power corrupts absolutely, so when the only place you can get stuff is called The App Store, with the emphasis on the definite article, that’s what happens.

In this particular zero sum game, there are children mining coltan in the Congo, and Chinese workers committing suicide in the manufacturing plant. Yes, I know we’re all to blame. Wired Magazine aired the story, and emotions run predictably high but no one there takes a monastic vow to go analog, the modern day equivalent of celibacy.

So I quite like that debt clock, though I have no idea whether it’s true. It’s a bit like the garbage clock along Ipanema beach, telling you how many tons of garbage the city of Rio has cleaned that day.

Problem is, I feel like I’m watching the crocodile eat, without a clue where he gets his food.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.


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