A Better Clock

Everyone hates today’s clocks, which display the same configuration for completely different times of day, like noon and midnight. Here is a better clock that displays solar noon, midnight, sunrise, and sunset, with colors to represent solar elevation. I wrote this when I realized that even though I like analog displays, I dislike analog clocks because they misrepresent the single periodic nature of a day, and this has bothered me ever since I was a kid learning to tell time. Input your latitude and longitude, in degrees, with Southern latitudes and Western longitudes as negative values.


Why is this clock better?

Displays 24 hours. Sundials are the precursors to modern clocks, and although they only cast a shadow when the sun is up, they track a single revolution per day (and you can actually see the whole revolution near the poles in the summer). So why have clocks switched to two, twelve hour revolutions per day? Did we run out of numbers? Should we go one more step with a 6 hour clock face and 4 daily periods (aam, apm, pam, and ppm)?  This is like observing January  – June, then renaming July to “January pm”, and August to “February pm”, until December becomes “June pm”. Why would we do this? And why should we do it to the 24 hour day? Imagine how many mistakes have stemmed from mixing up am and pm alarms. A 24 hour clock face eliminates these tragedies.

True noon is on top. Solar noon occurs when the sun reaches its highest point above the horizon for the day at your location, which varies with longitude. Time zones lump regions so you don’t need to reset your clock every time you move slightly east or west, but keep observed noon pretty close to solar noon. Daylight savings time, however, ruins this, intentionally setting clocks wrong (and throwing away centuries of advances in timekeeping)  to pretend we have an extra hour of daylight. We don’t have an extra hour – if you simply wanted to get up early you could have done that without setting your clock to an incorrect time. This is like skipping March and claiming its April (springing forward), just to pretend Summer lasts longer (“Look, it’s October and still summertime!”). Later, you’d need to repeat October twice in a row (falling back) to get back on schedule. What’s the point when the length of summer (like the length of the day) isn’t actually affected at all? The better clock simply rotates the indicator numbers to adjust for longitude (and stupid daylight savings time), so the hand points to the current time but both the sun and clock reach their highest points simultaneously.

Indicates sunrise, sunset and solar zenith angle. Sunrise and sunset are important events for biologists in the field, or hikers, or divers, or cyclists – they are important for humans in general. This better clock marks them in the same style as solar noon and midnight, and varies radial colors to represent the sun’s elevation. Here we have used an approximation of “plasma“, one of the beautiful, perceptually uniform, default colormaps from matplotlib, a plotting library for the Python programming language. All these values depend on your latitude.

No Roman numerals. The Romans did a lot for us, but Roman numerals are something we should leave behind. They make simple math difficult, include only a finite set of numbers, many of which don’t have a standardized representation, and most people can’t count to a hundred with them. They also lack a zero, and have different bases for whole numbers and fractions! Arabic numerals in the decimal system are so vastly superior in every way that it is bizarre we feel nostalgic enough to retain Roman numerals at all (and not the many other numeral systems people once used). Clock faces are one of the few places they still survive, and getting them off of clocks, (and a few other holdouts, like the opening pages of some books, movies, and the superbowl) would let us remove them from children’s education. Reallocate time spent teaching Roman numerals for something useful, like maybe bring back recess. Historians still have to learn Roman numerals, which is okay because they aren’t really hard, but no one should use them and they should be off of clocks forever.

Optional minutes display. Most clock faces demand that we quickly multiply the labeled value of the hours indicator by 5 to get the unlabeled value of the minutes. This is bizarre given that the clock is supposed to tell me what time it is, but instead requires me to calculate minutes from a formula. Also strange is that the minutes, which aren’t labeled, are indicated by the larger hand, despite being a less significant digit than hours. On this clock I can usually tell the time within a minute or two just by the progression of the hour hand. But if you need better precision, you can activate the minutes indicator, which has its own, labeled dial, and is properly represented as the smaller hand on the clock. You can keep zero near the bottom, as with the hour hand, or put it at its traditional place on top, if you prefer.
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