I just read a popular book on chemical elements, The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. It was very entertaining, and seemed quite credible and clear, even if slightly fuzzy on the quantum mechanics. There was one claim that I took exception to, though:
The length of a day is slowly increasing because of the sloshing of ocean tides, which drag and slow earth’s rotation. To correct for this, metrologists slip in a “leap second” about every third year, usually when no one’s paying attention, at midnight on December 31.
Is there any time in the year when people are paying more attention to the time exact to a second than precisely at midnight on December 31? Does he think people would notice an extra second if it were interpolated at noon on July 7? I always assumed they did it at the one time of year when people would notice an extra second precisely because they want to be noticed. “Never fear, humble citizens. While you sleep, we are looking after your time.”
I was struck by a comment in Kalefa Sanneh’s fascinating review of several new books on the economics of the entertainment industry. Discussing Anita Elberse’s book Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, and the argument that the obsession with finding isolated major hits rather than the profits to be made in the “Long Tail”, Sanneh writes
In the seventies and eighties the hit men worried mainly about each other, but the rise of digital delivery means that their modern-day successors must also contend with a more existential threat… Betting on blockbusters might be a defensive strategy: a way for established entertainment companies to stall the larger forces eroding their “channel power”, at least for a while. Unlike the old hit men, Elberse’s executives can’t assume that their industries will be around forever.
This got me to marvelling, once again, at how short a time forever is, in human experience. (This was a major theme of one of my small excursuses into academic literary criticism, the essay Kafka’s Geometry.) The “old hit men” are only 30 years or so in the past. I suppose “around forever” could mean here “around until the end of their careers”, and this would just about be right. But it seems logically inevitable that if workers toiling in the modern entertainment industry have reason to doubt that it will be around forever, then those of 30 years ago were simply deluded to think that their industry’s future was assured. It’s the same future. It makes as much sense as it would to explain ones teenage behaviour by saying, “Back then I was going to live forever.” You might say this, but only as a joke, or as an expression of amazement at your earlier delusion. (Speaking for myself, I was never immortal, and I doubt that anyone was. It looks to me as though teenagers may not care about the consequences of their actions, for reasons good and bad, and they may have difficulty inhibiting their impulses if they do care, but the research I am aware of does not suggest that they actually feel invulnerable.) (more…)