Of Time and Tides

It is maybe 20 minutes after sunrise, dead high tide on the West Passage of Passamaquoddy bay, at the southern edge of the Bay of Fundy. It is pleasantly warm, almost balmy, but when the wind blows just right, you can feel the cool breath of the North Atlantic, a short distance away. The air is perfumed with the scent of a hundred different types of flowers.

The Passage is busy this morning. An official-looking vessel flying a maple-leaf flag heads southeast down the channel at a good clip, hugging the far shore, taking obvious care not to cross the invisible line running down the middle, which separates the American political entity from the Canadian. A gathering of Minke whales and Harbor porpoises, scofflaws, are not so mindful. They meander about following no apparent plan, crossing and re-crossing the line, feeding or perhaps just goofing off. Here and there grey seals dive and resurface, dive and resurface in an endlessly repeated cycle. Birds of many types I am unable to discern float by, bobbing in the wavelets, continually taking off and landing. One bird, perched on a prominent snag near the shore, I can easily identify, though. Its white head, black body, and bright yellow beak mark it as an American Bald Eagle.

Searching the far shore with binoculars, I realize with a start that there are two people there, looking back. The far side is thickly wooded, with few signs of human habitation, so they seem jarringly out of place. Like me, they have binoculars in hand and scan the Passage and far banks for anything of interest. At one point they seem to be looking in my direction, so I raise my hand in a wave. They do not respond.

For those of us used to life in lower latitudes, sunrise comes shockingly early in these parts. Geometry, latitude, and longitude are all to blame. Because of the Earth’s twenty-three degrees and a fraction tilt, relative to its orbital plane about the sun, the northern half of the planet spends significantly more time in sunlight than in shadow this time of year. The farther north you go, the greater the ratio of light to dark. Here, at the 45th parallel, halfway between the Equator and the North Pole, the effect is fairly pronounced. Right now the days run about three hours longer than at latitude 30 degrees North, where I am from. Go another twenty-two degrees or so closer to the Pole, though, and the sun doesn’t set at all; look due North at midnight and you will see it hanging low over the horizon.

The effect is skewed by our far easterly longitude. As it turns out, another invisible line runs down the middle of the West Passage, separating two of the planet’s twenty-four time zones. On this side we observe the Eastern Time Zone. New Brunswick, a few hundred yards away, is in the Atlantic Time Zone, an hour later. Local cell phones, unable to decide which time zone to observe, switch randomly back and forth between the two.

Time zones are a human invention of course, enabling us to more easily synchronize our clocks–another invention–to the motions of the sun. Thus aligned, we are able to carry out no end of prearranged and coordinated activities, precisely “on time.” A twenty-four hour day necessitates a like number of time zones. The number twenty four is arbitrary, other than that it is about the right size to reasonably define a day, neither so large as to be unwieldy nor so small as to be useless. It is also easily divisible by multiples of two into smaller intervals, for measuring events of shorter duration.

The passing of time is often compared to the flow of a river, or if you wish, the tide. Although there is poetry in the analogy, the comparison is a false one because, in fact, time is the ultimate human invention, an illusion derived from the persistence of matter. In reality there is no past or future, only an eternal now; no was or will be, only a never-ending is. We perceive that time has passed because our minds retain impressions of events we experience and store them in something of a sequential order. We perceive that there is a future because we are able to imagine one, extrapolating “forward” the trajectories of our experience, as one might predict the path of a billiard ball. Without memory, without intelligence, there would be no such thing as time.

High tide, the intermission between rising and falling tide, is surprisingly brief, and harder to spot than you might suppose. Ten minutes ago the tide was indisputably incoming, its trace clearly visible as a tongue of turbulent water racing around Deer Island and up the Passage. But now the channel is a confused muddle of currents running this way and that, like a crowd milling about, awaiting a signal. That signal will arrive shortly. Over the next few minutes the milling about will gradually cease, and the waters of Passamaquoddy Bay will gather force and head seaward. In six hours and 13 minutes, give or take, the pattern will reverse.

Here, on on the West Passage, tides are a force to be reckoned with, averaging over twenty feet from high to low. A hundred or so miles away, at the head of the Bay of Fundy, they are two and a half times larger, pushing, some days, fifty five feet. In fact, the Bay of Fundy has the greatest average tidal range to be found anywhere on Planet Earth. Every day, twice a day, regular as a metronome, twenty-some trillion, with a T, gallons of water rush in and then spill back out. This gargantuan oscillation is driven, as are tides everywhere, by the moon’s gravitational attraction, combined with complex, planetary-scale inertial forces. But the Bay of Fundy’s unique location and geography concentrate the effect as nowhere else, with spectacular results.

Once the tidal current gets going, it moves with impressive speed, generating a clearly audible rushing sound and kicking up, in places, standing waves 5 or 6 feet high. Whirlpools a hundred feet across form and dissipate with clock-like regularity. Sometimes a bend in the shoreline or an obstruction on the bottom deflects some of the onrushing current so that it curves back on itself and runs, improbably, backward. Such imbalance cannot be long sustained, though. Inevitably, as though recognizing the futility of resistance, the errant plume falters, and is quickly absorbed back into the main stream.

When you look at a tidal calendar, you see that the tidal pulse forms an almost perfect sinusoidal wave. A sinusoidal wave mathematically describes the change in value or magnitude of a cyclic phenomenon, for example a swinging pendulum, a vibrating string, or a revolving planet. Like anything in nature, though, the reality imperfectly approximates the ideal. Wind, coastal geography, and perhaps a dozen other factors smear and nudge this way and that the peaks and valleys of the tidal cycle, adding bumps and dips to its otherwise smooth curves. Even the sun is a player, albeit a minor one, in this production, its slender gravitational pull by turns adding or subtracting a bit of tidal range. Notwithstanding minor irregularities, the tides are broadly predictable enough that they are easily tracked with simple mechanical devices. There is one in the living room of the place my girlfriend and I are renting. It is basically a clock without a minute hand, tweaked a bit with an extra gear tooth or two or a slightly heavier balance wheel, to approximate the tides’ twelve hour and twenty-something minute period.

On a larger scale, the apparent rising and falling of the sun over the course of a year, which drives the seasons, comprise yet another familiar, predictable cycle. Six months from now the place I am standing will be covered in snow, the sun will arc low across the southern horizon, and the days will be short and frigid. Thick rafts of ice will jostle upon the tidal waters. Six months from that time, the land will be draped in green once again, the sun high in the sky, the air warm and redolent.

On an even larger scale, the cycle of glacial advance and retreat that has shaped and reshaped the landscape here continues unabated. At least fourteen times in the last seven hundred thousand years, vast sheets of ice many thousands of feet thick have swept over this landscape, grinding the surface into dust, obliterating every last trace of life. Each time the ice eventually melted away, leaving behind a moonscape of barren, sterile bedrock. And each time, Nature, neglecting to learn from her experience, has repopulated the wasteland, filling in that blank slate. There will be a fifteenth time. Someday, twenty or fifty or a hundred human lifetimes from now, after the minor carbon bubble our species has released is resorbed, the ice will return.

We humans are strongly attuned to the idea of cyclicity. Our brains, the product of millions of generations of steady refinement, are wired to extract meaningful patterns from the apparent chaos around us. And so we see cycles everywhere, an infinitude of clockworks large and small, all springing from a great cosmic wheel. To our remote ancestors, whose sense of wonder had not yet been blunted by the cold logic of science, the tides must have seemed like God’s own heartbeat.

But it occurs to me as  I contemplate this beautiful and seemingly timeless scene, that in reality there is no such thing as a cycle; the relentlessly unidirectional nature of the universe forbids it. There is only motion in all its forms, always forward, sometimes so constrained as to resemble cyclicity. There is no exact repetition of anything, ever.

Microsoft Takes a Mulligan with Windows 8.1

As anyone who has not been living under a rock already knows, Microsoft has released a beta version of its pending reboot of Windows 8, cleverly dubbed Windows 8.1. (Where do they come up with this stuff?) Retail versions of this much-anticipated makeover should be hitting the channel by October. Windows 8.1 promises to restore popular and useful features deleted in the initial release of Windows 8, while tempering some of its more irritating features. The public preview of 8.1 is available here.

With the release of 8.1, Microsoft has tacitly acknowledged what the industry has been saying for months: Windows 8 is a flop.  It is now generally conceded that Windows 8 has been a huge failure, responsible for, among other things, depressing the sales of new desktops and laptops by as much as 30 percent. Some have suggested that the Windows 8 debacle has permanently altered the computer space, tipping the balance irrevocably away from traditional laptops and desktops and toward handheld devices. In my business I see the impact nearly every day, in the form of customers who say–and here I quote exactly– “I HATE Windows 8.” Sometimes, though, they put it a bit more coarsely than that.

Thinking Different

With Windows 8, Microsoft pretty much reinvented the wheel. This is not, generally speaking, a good thing. In place of the desktop and start menu, fixtures since Windows 95 (approximately 200 computer-years) was a visually striking but initially confusing collage of “tiles,” each of which represented categories, applications, or portals. The tiles were designed for use with a touch screen interface, although a mouse may also be used. As an added irritant, many of the tiles seem to have no purpose other than to deliver advertisements, merchandizing opportunities, and other unwanted solicitations. Eminently useful features like the Safe Start option and Help and Support have been removed, radically altered, or made essentially inaccessible. Though not without its appealing elements, perhaps the most common reaction on seeing Windows 8 for the first time has been some variation of “WTF?”

That’s not entirely fair. Among new users of computers, that is people under the age of 10, the reaction has been pretty positive.

To reduce illegal copying, the traditional product activation key has been retired in favor of a dynamic system that generates a key based on the computer’s BIOS. This might help Microsoft fatten its already healthy bottom line, but has the potential for complicating the process of reloading Windows, something almost every user will have to do sooner or later. Already we have seen, on multiple occasions, legitimate reloads of Windows 8 rejected on activation with the message “this key is already in use.” This is a problem.

On the one hand, you have to commend Microsoft for thinking outside the box. You can imagine the internal arguments that must have raged, with a traditionalist faction pushing for an improved yet familiar interface, and a visionary faction retorting that the future was in handhelds and touchscreens. Ultimately, of course, the visionaries won.

On the other hand, you could be excused for wondering what they are smoking these days in Redmond. Although the visionaries might very well be right about the future, we happen to live in the present, and in the present most of us still use mouses and menus. And we really, really like our start button. Furthermore, you have to seriously question the one-size-fits-all approach of Windows 8. Does it really make sense to have only one interface available to serve the entire range of digital devices: handhelds, tablets, laptops, desktops, and workstations?

So of the three major OS roll-outs shepherded by Steve Ballmer (Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8 ) we have, respectively, one disaster (partially redeemed with two service packs and hundreds of hotfixes), one unqualified success, and one catastrophe. In baseball that might be a good average but in business, not so much. People are beginning to openly grumble: Why is this man still in charge?

It’s easy to play armchair quarterback in these situations, and almost everyone who has been critical of Windows 8 has had the luxury of not having been involved in its creation. It’s different, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, when you are the man in the arena. But seriously, a farm boy from the cornfields of Iowa could have told Microsoft that Windows 8 had major problems. Actually a farm boy from Iowa probably DID tell them that, but they just didn’t listen. I can only imagine the millions that Microsoft spent on focus groups, only to discard almost every bit of their input when it wasn’t what they wanted to hear.

When in Doubt, Double Down

Microsoft has a long history of aggravating its blunders with aggressive, hardball tactics. For example, when it became clear early on that Windows Vista was a problem child, rather than working to address its many deficiencies Microsoft simply ramped up the pressure on OEM builders and hardware manufacturers to support only Vista, at the expense of earlier versions of Windows. And as the complaints continued to pile up, Microsoft circled the corporate wagons. “We have no plans to release a service pack for Vista,” Steve Ballmer famously declared a few months after the initial release. It took a virtual revolt by the biggest players in the business for Microsoft to concede its errors and move to rectify them. Quietly, Microsoft began offering downgrade licenses at no cost to those who wanted them. And to be fair, with two service packs and lots of hotfixes, Vista eventually became a pretty good OS.

With Windows 8, Microsoft seems to be following the same playbook. With the release of Windows 8, literally overnight copies of Windows 7 disappeared from retailer shelves and online inventories. At the same time, large OEMs began offering only Windows 8 on their new units, reflecting either pressure from Redmond, or mass buybacks (or cancellations) of remaining Windows 7 licenses. Or perhaps both. If Windows 7 were an embarrassing failure, you could understand the logic. But it wasn’t; Windows 7 might be the best OS Microsoft has ever made. Where is the logic in pulling a vital, viable product when it is still relevant? A sale is a sale.

What Microsoft seems not to realize is that forcing people to buy something they really don’t like irritates them very much, and leaves them feeling powerless and unappreciated. More importantly, it primes them to consider the competition. And yes, there is competition. Then again, maybe Microsoft knows all this but just doesn’t care.

Deep in denial, Microsoft has been quick to tout impressive-sounding sales figures as evidence of Windows 8’s success. What it fails to mention, though, is that the overwhelming majority of these sales were OEM copies bundled with new hardware. And in the vast majority of those cases, the customer had no choice. If you wanted a new computer you got Windows 8, period. These sales don’t really count. One is reminded of Henry Ford stubbornly offering one car model (the Model T), in one only color (black), even as the rest of the industry began to pass him by.

Although it is far too early to pass judgement, Microsoft may yet snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with 8.1.  However, the buzz is that Ballmer et al have already given up on it and are turning their attention to Windows 9, now in development. Word of advice: When you ask people to give you feedback about it, shut up and listen this time.