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  • Writer's pictureWilliam I. Atkinson

Tick Talk: the Time Display as Oracle

Next to my bedroom pillow sits a prehistoric LED alarm clock with big, angry-red numbers the size of golf balls. It dates from the 1970s and, being made back in an era when things didn’t wear out, will persist to the Last Judgement. Bottom line is, I’m stuck with the damned thing.

Worse, the clock talks to me. Whoever designed it forgot that its display is at right angles to the vision of people sleeping – who tend to be, um, lying down? Ho-ri-fla-ming-zon-tal. Rotate this page a quarter turn counterclockwise, and you’ll get an idea of what it’s like to read my clock’s time: it’s ninety degrees off optimal-orthogonal. Yet despite all this, I find, the human brain’s amazing ability to process wildly varying visual input makes it as easy for me to read a digital time display backwards and upside down, as to view it normally.

I saw this a year ago at 5:03 a.m. It was late June, near the solstice: the birds were screaming, the sunburned red-gold and the clock proclaimed EOS – Greek for dawn. Okay, I thought, thanks for letting me know.

The issue here is that numbers, seen upside down, seem like letters. 1 is lower-case L, or else upper-case I. 2 is Z; 3 is E. 4 is H and 5 is S. 6 is lower-case G and 7 is L; 8 is sent to plague us, signifying nothing (tho’ L8 is a vanity-licence trope meaning ‘late.’) 9 is upper-case G. 0 (Zero) is O (Oh).

My ancient clock’s announcement of EOS/Dawn a year ago was only the beginning; it has since shown an unnerving ability to recognize shifts in the calendar. In the black days of winter when the alarm goes off at 6:00 in the morning (which a dear friend describes as ‘Awful AM’) and the world beyond one’s bedclothes lies in Stygian darkness, the clock says OOG. This is a phoneme perfectly described by Walt Kelly’s Pogo Possum: “Tech-knuckle speakin’, it’s a soft hiccup” – that is, an inhaled phoneme. Which is the perfect response to a pre-sunrise wake-up call in a Canadian January. Oog indeed: leave me alone, dammit. Go away.

The oracles don’t end there. Sleep in, and you suddenly see it’s 7:07 and you should have been in the shower half an hour ago. LOL indeed! If I’m wakeful at 3:17 AM, fretting about some untruth I committed yesterday (Not to my wife. Never to my wife), the clock confirms my remorse by blaring LIE. Forty minutes later at 3:57 comes LSE, the London School of Economics; snooze a bit and at 5:07 there’s LOS, Line of Sight (if you work for Telus) or Loss of Signal (if you work for NASA). Thinking about the spouse sleeping next to you at 3:45 gives you SHE.

I’m in my third year of a doctorate in science studies at York University, and I can’t keep my analytical brain from deriving descriptive algorithms. My clock’s display has four digits. From left to right: digit A has one of two possible displays, 1 or Nothing (not a zero but rather no display at all). Digit B can display 0-9 inclusive, but may show 0-1-2 only when digit A displays a 1. Digit C (the first after the colon [:]) can display 0-5 inclusive, and digit D has a 0-9 range. All this presupposes a 12- rather than a 24-hour clock, the former being standard in North America.

Three AM and four AM are particularly fertile fields. Read ‘em upside down, and you see both end in vowels (E for 3, H for 4). 4:43 marks Bugs Bunny’s sixty-second appearance (EHH!!) and the earlier display 3:04 spells HOE, of which (or whom) the less said the better.

All this leisurely intricacy goes to pot when I run on my treadmill. Its elapsed-time display changes once per second rather than once per minute, so that within a mere ten seconds the time readout 6:59 (for example) gives way to OOL, IOL, ZOL, EOL, HOL, ZOL, GOL, LOL(!), 8OL, and GOL. Most of this is nonsense, but all of it is readable. A few minutes into my run, dawn (5:03, EOS) comes and goes in a single second. Oh well: It takes one’s mind off the discomfort. Years ago I memorized the Runner’s Prayer: Please God, stop the pain. The time-display natter at least distracts me from my misery.

Plus, the treadmill is not limited by clock algorithms. 13:13 is a perfectly legitimate display on the treadmill’s elapsed-time readout, reading EIEI. Add an O, and you have the orthographically challenged person’s spelling of ‘farm.’ You know, ‘Old MacDonald had a farm’ –

Years enjoyably misspent as a science writer have also given me an appreciation for anagrams. HSS, for example, the upside-down take on 5:54, could be Hollow Structural Sections (architectural girders, a blast from my corporate past when Stelco was the biggest employer in Hamilton ON) or else History & Sociology of Science (one of my current concerns).

A rogation I remember from my Anglican Book of Common Prayer humbly asks Almighty God for ‘the priceless gift of sleep.’ That is a wonderful blessing, but then so is gazing at the numerals of an ancient digital clock with an LED readout, and letting one’s mind wander throughout the realms of digital gold. To hell with sheep: insomnia was never this much fun. In fact it’s 3:36 as I write this now. GEE!

Bill Atkinson dozes fitfully in Toronto, watched over by his immortal bedside clock

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Nov 19, 2020

I kept wanting to turn the computer upside down to test your hypotheses.

Fun to read, either way. Thanks for sending this along.

What came to mind was Frost's "Acquainted With The Night". I, too have been so acquainted.

Apparently I can now log in to this? these?

using my eddress. SO, . . . .

Bill Atkinson
Bill Atkinson
Dec 05, 2021
Replying to

Hello tokfm! Just now noticed your comment; sorry I didn't get to you earlier -- I shouldn't confess this, it's hard on the ego, but I don't have a high profile and I don't get a lot of comments. But thanks. Writing is kinds like performing before a hidden audience.

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