Why Do We Change Our Clocks Twice A Year?

This morning I had to turn all of my clocks back an hour. This wasn’t so hard for some of my clocks; my cell phone updated automatically, and my wall clock has a little dial I can use to quickly adjust the time. However, the clocks in my car and on my oven are a bit more complicated, and figuring out how to change them can be quite frustrating, especially since I only change them twice a year.

Which begs the question: why do we change our clocks by an hour twice a year? Why do we “Spring Ahead and Fall Back”? What is the point of this bizarre exercise?

The idea of Daylight Saving Time – adjusting our clocks by an hour in order to have an extra hour of daylight in the summer – was proposed in 1895 by George Vernon Hudson, a famed entomologist and astronomer from New Zealand. The idea came to him while he was working a day job that had him working different shifts on different days. When not working, he would spend his daylight hours collecting insects to study, and he began to grumble that there weren’t enough hours of daylight in the afternoons. He reasoned that since, in the summertime, sunrise tends to happen before most people wake up, adjusting the clocks an hour later would make the sunrise appear to happen closer to when everyone is getting up in the morning and give people more daylight to enjoy in the evening.

People slowly started to warm to the idea. In part, this was because Hudson was not the only person who advocated such a scheme. In fact, none other than Benjamin Franklin had proposed something rather like Daylight Saving Time more than a century earlier. The first real push to turn this little idea into actual government policy, though, was in the United Kingdom, where William Willett published a pamphlet in 1907 entitled “Waste of Daylight” to drum up support for the proposal.

The first town to actually try this “Daylight Saving Time” idea for itself was Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, in 1908. In 1914, Regina, Saskatchewan decided to adopt it as well, and in 1916, so did Winnipeg, Manitoba.

That same year, Germany and Austria-Hungary became the first nations to adopt Daylight Saving Time nationwide; ironically, they did so to aid in their war effort against the very British Empire that they stole the idea from. The logic was that by adjusting their clocks and gaining that evening hour of daylight, they would use less artificial lighting and thus save fuel. Soon thereafter, the British and French adopted DST as well for the same reason. The United States adopted it in 1918.

Then, the First World War ended, and almost all of the countries that had adopted DST quickly abolished it. Why? Well, in part because it was meant as a temporary wartime measure, not as something permanent, but in part it also had to do with opposition to the scheme from many sectors of society. Here in the United States, for example, DST was supported by retailers (because workers who had extra daylight after work were more likely to go shopping) but opposed by farmers (because they had less time in the pre-dawn hours to get their goods to market) and by the young motion picture industry (because it was thought people wouldn’t want to spend their daytime in a dark theater). When World War II broke out, the warring nations once again adopted DST, once again as a temporary measure to save fuel, and once again dropped it once the war was over.

So, if Daylight Saving Time was abolished after WWII, why do we use it today? Thank Wall Street. See, New York City really liked DST and kept it around even as the rest of the United States ditched it. This meant that the stock market in the United States observed the twice-yearly clock change, and so did banks and the rest of the American finance industry. Other cities followed the Big Apple’s lead, and soon the United States was a crazy patchwork of places that did and that didn’t observe DST, and to make matters worse, there was no consistency for when DST started and ended for those places that did observe it. It became rather frustrating for months out of the year, as it became very difficult for travelers to know exactly what time it would be when they reached their destination.

To end the confusion, in 1966, Congress passed the Uniform Time Act. Under this scheme, Daylight Saving Time would be regulated by the federal government and adopted nationwide, though individual states could opt-out of having to observe it. The feds would set the starting and ending dates of DST for those states that participated. Today, all states observe DST except Arizona and Hawaii.

Well, actually, it’s a little more complicated than that. Most of Arizona doesn’t observe DST, but the Navajo Nation, an Indian reservation that lies in three states, does observe DST in order to have consistent time throughout the tribal lands. However, the Hopi Indian Reservation is located inside the Navajo Nation and does lie entirely within Arizona, and therefore doesn’t observe DST. If that wasn’t confusing enough, a tiny piece of the Navajo Nation actually lies within the Hopi Indian Reservation! This is the last remnant of the Daylight Saving Time confusion once common in the United States – if you were to travel in a straight line through this one spot, you could end up changing your clock seven times! So, nothing is ever that simple.

So, why do we still observe DST all these years later, willingly giving ourselves a twice-yearly challenge to try to figure out how to change our clocks and trying to remember which direction to turn the clock? The same reason that we adopted it during the world wars: saving energy.

About 3.5% of all electricity consumption in North America is made up of electrical lighting use by residential homes. Since the 1970s, many studies have shown energy savings from the use of DST by many Americans. However, these findings aren’t consistent everywhere – in my home state of California, a 2007 study showed no significant energy savings, which makes sense considering that what may be gained from less light usage would be offset in many of the hotter parts of the state by heavy air conditioning usage.

Whether Daylight Saving Time is actually useful or not, though, it is clearly here to stay. So, may I make a simple request of all makers of ovens, cars, and other devices with clocks on them? Please make it easier for us to change the time forward and back for an hour! Is that too much to ask?

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What even is Oktoberfest, anyway?

Today is the first day of October, and already pumpkins are on sale at the local farmer’s market, the stores are selling Halloween decorations and candy, and almost every craft brewery in America is rolling out its seasonal “Oktoberfest” beers. In various cities and towns across America, Oktoberfest celebrations and festivities are being held as we speak. There is even one near where I live.

All of which begs the question: what is Oktoberfest? Is it just some fancy way of saying “October”? A traditional harvest festival? An excuse to drink beer?

Actually, it celebrates, of all things, a wedding.

On October 12, 1810, Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria married Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The Bavarian royal family decided to celebrate this royal wedding with a giant public festival in a field in front of Munich’s city gates. The celebration lasted for days, ending with a huge horse race.

It was this last decision that proved fateful. Otherwise, the festival would have just been a one-time wedding party. However, the people of Bavaria loved the horse race and wanted another one the following year, and the city of Munich was happy to oblige. In 1811, an autumn harvest festival, featuring a horse race, was held. This was the beginning of Oktoberfest’s history as an annual event held in Munich in the fall.

Ironically enough, given its name, these days the original Oktoberfest in Munich is held in late September. These days, it largely resembles a state fair here in the United States, with roller coasters and rides, games, and food.

And, of course, beer – the one thing the festival is by far the most famous for. See, the early Oktoberfests happened to coincide with the invention of lager beer, which many at the time saw as superior to the ales that people had been brewing since ancient times. However, lager needs to be brewed in cold conditions, and in an age before refrigeration, that meant you had to wait until fall to start making it. Thus, Oktoberfest became, in part, a celebration of the changeover from ale-brewing to lager-brewing.

That’s why Oktoberfest is so closely associated with beer culture, and why so many breweries carry “Oktoberfest” beers. However, if you attend the Oktoberfest in Munich, you won’t find any of those beers anywhere. See, only a small handful of breweries in Munich are actually permitted to sell their beer at the festival. After all, it’s the city’s festival, and they want to promote their city’s business!

So that’s the story of the original Oktoberfest… but what about other Oktoberfest celebrations here in America and around the world? Well, over the generations, thousands of Germans emigrated to America, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, and other countries. As one might expect from people who have journeyed thousands of miles to start a new life in a strange foreign land, these German immigrants would often get homesick. So, they began to hold their own “Oktoberfests” in the lands where they now lived, in order to celebrate their German heritage. Today, the largest Oktoberfest celebrations are in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, Blumenau, Brazil, and Cincinnati, Ohio.

It’s sometimes funny how history and culture works out. Sometimes, you find out that things you might not have ever considered before have truly bizarre origins. Like a big, international celebration that millions participate in today existing because of a wedding and a horse race.

Countries that Don’t Exist (but Almost Did)

Recently, I have become quite fascinated by “alternative history” – speculative re-imaginings of historical events and how they could have played out differently. How would have history been reshaped if, for example, Alexander the Great’s empire didn’t fragment shortly after his death? Or if Napoleon had won his war against Russia? Or if electricity had never been discovered? There are all manner of ways the world as we know it could have ended up completely different if a few circumstances had changed.

There are all manner of sci-fi and speculative fiction books set in alternative “what if” worlds, and recently, the Amazon Prime series The Man In The High Castle has attempted to bring the genre into the mainstream. I have become a huge fan of Alternative History Hub, a YouTube channel that presents well-researched, realistic scenarios that answer the “what if” questions of history.

So, inspired by this fascinating genre, I’ve decided to take a look at several countries that never actually existed, but had a really good chance of existing if certain historical events had gone differently. A few circumstances lining up in another way than in our own timeline, and these countries might have ended up on our modern-day maps of the world.

The Republic of Vemerana

Where it would have been: The island of Espirito Santo, in our timeline’s Vanuatu

The proposal: In the 1970s, a U.S.-based, libertarian group known as the Phoenix Foundation was founded by a real estate magnate named Michael Oliver, who had come to America after spending four years in a Nazi concentration camp. Oliver believed that even the good ol’ freedom-loving U.S. of A. was sliding toward tyranny, and so he decided to try to set up a new society somewhere in the world based on his ideas about freedom and minimalist government.

Meanwhile, there was a group of islands in the Pacific known at the time as the New Hebrides that were governed as a joint British-French colony. The islanders wanted their independence, and the British were more than happy to give it to them, but the French objected because they didn’t want their own nearby colony of New Caledonia to get any ideas. As the political wrangling between these groups grew, a man on the island of Espirito Santo named Jimmy Stevens started a political movement called Nagriamel. The movement wanted to break free from everyone and have the island become its own country, and the Phoenix Foundation, seeing an opportunity, formed an alliance with Nagriamel. With the Foundation’s backing, Stevens and his followers seized control of the island in 1980 and declared its independence as “The Republic of Vemerana”. Stevens proclaimed himself Prime Minister, and plans were put in place to make the island the libertarian utopia that Oliver dreamed of.

Why it doesn’t exist: This rebellion took place literally weeks before the New Hebrides were due to gain their independence, and the last thing that the new nation’s soon-to-be leaders wanted was a secessionist crisis. They asked the British and French to move in and crush the rebels, but the colonial powers refused, largely because they were getting ready to evacuate the islands entirely.

Soon, the New Hebrides gained their independence as the Republic of Vanuatu, and one of the new nation’s first acts was to ask neighboring Papua New Guinea to invade the rebellious island. Papua New Guinea agreed, an in the very short “Coconut War”, the rebellion was suppressed and the island was annexed by Vanuatu. Stevens spent 11 years in prison for his rebellion. Yet the Nagriamel movement still exists, now contesting elections peacefully as a political party.

Międzymorze

Thankfully, this one has an alternative English name that is much easier to write and pronounce: Intermarium

Where it would have been: Central Europe, between Germany and the USSR

The proposal: In 1918, the new Bolshevik government that had just seized power in Russia made good in its promise to pull the country out of World War I, signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In the treaty, Russia gave up a vast stretch of territory that included much of central Europe, including Finland, the Baltic Sea coast, Poland, and Ukraine. The Germans certainly wanted to dominate these regions, but they didn’t have the resources or infrastructure to outright annex them. Instead, their plan was to set up a string of pro-German puppet states.

Then, Germany lost the war, and the fate of central Europe was suddenly completely up in the air. Polish general Józef Piłsudski decided to fill the power vacuum with… himself.

Piłsudski romanticized the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which dominated this part of Europe from the 14th century until it was divided between Germany, Russia, and Austria in 1795. Inspired by its centuries of success, he wanted to create a new federation that incorporated all of these newly-independent countries in central Europe into a single union. The idea was that such a union would have enough people, land, and resources to be a major power in Europe and prevent either the Germans or the Russians from dominating them ever again. Piłsudski’s plan was taken seriously by the major powers negotiating the postwar peace settlement, and even had the official backing of the French.

Why it doesn’t exist: Unfortunately for Piłsudski, his plan was not very popular among the people who would have had to join this union for it to work. The Finns, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and others all basically said “We just won our independence, and now you’re asking us to give it back up? No way.”

The plan was also opposed by the British and Americans, who at the time thought the Bolsheviks were a passing fad and that once peace and democracy were restored in Russia, it would continue to be their ally in Europe. They didn’t want to kneecap the “new Russia” as it was being born. If only they knew, huh?

Kurdistan

Where it would have been: In the Middle East, in the northern part of Mesopotamia and the nearby mountains, incorporating parts of present-day Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.

The proposal: The Kurds are an ethnic group living in a region that is divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. They claim to be descendants of the ancient Median Empire, they speak their own language, and they have their own unique culture. Just about the only thing they have in common with their neighbors is that the majority of them are Muslim, but even here there are many exceptions. Their identity is distinct enough that they could viably have an independent, stable, prosperous nation-state of their own.

Indeed, this was the original plan when the Ottoman Turkish Empire was defeated at the end of World War I. The Ottomans were forced to sign the Treaty of Sèvres, which carved up what little remained of the empire and left it with a tiny rump on a small hunk of Anatolia. The rest of the empire would be split between Britain, France, Italy, Greece, a newly-independent Armenia, and a sector corresponding to the lands inhabited by the Kurdish people that would get a referendum on whether to become an independent nation or not. There is little doubt that the Kurds would have voted for independence, as Kurdish nationalists had been fighting the Ottomans since the 19th century.

Why it doesn’t exist: The referendum never happened, because the Treaty of Sèvres was never put into effect. Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rejected the treaty and rose up in rebellion, leading to the Turkish War of Independence. The rebels deposed the last Ottoman sultan, set up a secular, Western-style republic, and forced the Allies to draw up a new treaty. The Treaty of Lausanne more or less gave Turkey and its Middle Eastern neighbors their modern borders, and as a consequence, hopes of Kurdish independence were snuffed out.

Kurds in Turkey were subjected to discrimination, forced to abandon their culture and assimilate into Turkish society. Even their language was banned. Since the 1970s, Kurds living in Turkey have fought an on-again-off-again rebellion against the Turkish authorities. Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Syria have also fought for their independence. Today, Iraqi Kurds are granted a high degree of autonomy by the post-Saddam Hussein 2005 Iraqi constitution, allowing them their own government and military, though they still are technically subordinate to Baghdad. Meanwhile, in Syria, the Kurdish community has taken advantage of the chaos and civil warring to set up their own “government”, called Rojava. It remains to be seen where these new developments will lead, but one has to wonder what would have happened if the Kurds had been able to win their independence peacefully in the 1920s as originally planned.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers! A small sampling of the countless alternative countries that might have existed if history had taken a slightly different path. Let me know if you liked this topic; there are so many other almost-countries I could have picked from, and I’m curious to see if you want to hear some of their stories, too!

Cat Flag: Lake Tahoe Edition

Hey Cat Flaggers! Yes, I just got back from a trip to Lake Tahoe, the giant, deep, high-altitude lake on the California-Nevada border. I had a great time exploring an area I had never been to before, and wanted to share some of what I saw and learned with all of you!

By volume of water, Lake Tahoe is the largest U.S. lake that isn’t one of the Great Lakes. It is also the second-deepest lake in the United States after Crater Lake in Oregon. Its name comes from the Washoe Indian word for “lake”, so technically its name means “Lake lake”. I personally think that’s pretty funny.

It was once a major stop-over point for miners on their way to the silver mines of Nevada, with loggers in the area supplying the timber that the mines needed to build safety support structures to reduce the risk of cave-ins. In the early 20th century, as tourism in the region grew, several unsuccessful attempts were made to designate Tahoe as a national park; today, most of the region is covered by national forests and several state parks. Interestingly, the 1960 Winter Olympics were held in Squaw Valley, California, very near the lake.

What struck me the most about the lake, though, was just how clear the water was! I mean, I’m used to the coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean, which are clouded with salt, sand, and algae. Tahoe’s water, meanwhile, was so clear you could see down to the bottom.

This was just the tip of the natural beauty of the area, though. The pine forests were stunning, especially in the early morning sunlight.

Just look at that view!

The most fascinating thing about the lake, though, was that it was a place of contrasts. Allow me to explain a bit.

You are driving up from Sacramento toward the lake. The landscape is typical California: rolling, golden hills of dried-up grass and the odd tree here and there. Gradually, the trees start to grow more numerous, and more and more of them are pine trees instead of deciduous trees. Then, as you drive through Placerville, the landscape starts to change. All the deciduous trees disappear, as do the rolling grass-covered hills. In their places are steep, rocky slopes covered in pine trees. You keep driving up the mountainside, leaving Placerville behind, watching the road signs marking the increasing altitude as you climb and climb. Gone are the big cities and even medium-sized towns; in their place are small road stops, some of which have a sense of humor about how small they are:

Then you reach South Lake Tahoe, and suddenly you are back in civilization, sort of. Sure, it’s still pine trees and nature’s beauty everywhere you look, and most buildings are built with a rustic, log cabin theme. But there’s also a T.J. Maxx, a Ross, a KFC, and a Safeway.

The mountain pine forests seem at first to dominate the Tahoe area, but as you make your way around the Nevada side of the lake toward Carson City, the pines start to fall away, and over the course of a dozen curves in the road they disappear completely, replaced by high desert sands and scrub. By the time you reach Nevada’s state capital, you are clearly in a completely different environment than you were in South Lake Tahoe. It can seem jarring, moving through so many different ecosystems so quickly.

But nothing is more jarring than what greets you as you cross the border from California to Nevada. There is just a single street separating the California city of South Lake Tahoe from the (appropriately named) Nevada town of Stateline. On the California side of the street, you see a collection of boutiques, art galleries, and tourist traps, very much in keeping with the sort of thing you find in many California tourist towns. Then, you cross the street, and BAM! Massive, 18-story casino, located literally feet inside the Nevada border.

The entrance to Stateline is lined with several monstrously-huge, Vegas-style casino-resorts, each smushed-up as close to the border as they can possibly fit. I found the whole thing rather amusing, a physical manifestation of how man-made boundaries and limits can have as much, if not more, impact on the world and the people in it as natural ones. Indeed, by comparison, the “sudden” shifts in the natural environments from grasslands to mountain pine forests to high desert were all comparatively gradual and smooth. It was a reminder that the real world is one where there are plenty of grey areas, and only humans insist on absolutes. “On this side of the line, gambling is legal, and on this side, it’s illegal. That’s all there is to it.”

Speaking of Nevada, I spent some of the trip exploring Carson City and Reno, and had a good time seeing the sights there. In Carson City, I got to see the Artsy Fartsy Art Gallery, a really cool art collective featuring amazing works from Nevada artists, and the Nevada State Museum, a fascinating showcase of the natural and human history of the Silver State. I highly recommend anybody staying in the Tahoe area pay these places a visit.

In Reno, meanwhile, I managed to snag a snap of the Reno Arch:

Downtown Reno, of course, is most famous for its casinos, and some local sculptors decided to celebrate this fact with some interesting public artworks:

The original plan for my trip was that the first day would be spent in Carson City and Reno, and the second would be spent enjoying the natural beauty of the lake. Then, mother nature decided to throw a monkey wrench into those plans.

That haze you see in the background? Blocking the view of the other side of the lake? That’s not fog.

See, a massive forest fire more than a hundred miles away was pumping the area full of smoke from all the burning trees. A health advisory was imposed on the whole region, urging people to stay indoors to avoid breathing in all the smoke. I was experiencing some itching and burning in my eyes and throat that day, like a really bad case of allergies. I felt really bad for anyone with asthma or emphysema in the area that day.

That got me wondering, though. Surely this is far from the first time such a smoke dump has happened in the Tahoe area, right? I would imagine, since forest fires are such a common occurrence in California, that this would be something that happened fairly regularly. How do the animals and wildlife, who can’t hide indoors, handle these things when they happen? They must have some way of surviving the clouds of ash blowing in, right? After all, in the long run, the ash might actually be good for the forest, helping to fertilize the soil. At least, those were my initial thoughts on the matter.

Smoke aside, I really enjoyed visiting the Tahoe area, and I may go back someday. Hopefully, next time I’ll be able to hike through the piney woods and see some more of the natural sights. As it stands, though, I am very glad I made this trip, and I would encourage any Cat Flaggers who are interested to check the Tahoe area out.

Until next time!

Once again, it’s time to fight to save net neutrality

An Editorial

Two years ago, I wrote a blog about the importance of net neutrality as a whole, and Cat Flag in particular. The context was that a federal court had ruled against the net neutrality rules that had been set up by the Federal Communications Commission, and as a result the FCC was trying to decide how to proceed. After a huge public pressure campaign convinced the FCC that the American public still wanted to keep net neutrality, the FCC classified internet service providers as “common carriers”, the same classification long used for phone companies. As a result, the FCC was able to implement new net neutrality rules that were upheld in court.

So, story’s over right? The Internet is safe now? Of course not.

In 2017, the FCC got a new chairman, former Verizon lawyer Ajit V. Pai, a man who had voted against the FCC’s new net neutrality rules and has gone on the record saying net neutrality’s “days are numbered”. Earlier this year, he began FCC proceedings to repeal the FCC’s earlier decision. Never mind that polls have shown that there is overwhelming support for net neutrality by the vast majority of Americans regardless of their political positions; to Pai, net neutrality is a form of government overreach and an undue regulatory burden on ISPs.

Fortunately, the FCC is required to solicit public comments before making a rule change like that. Unfortunately, some spambot from an unknown source has been busted submitting hundreds of comments under fake names in support of Pai’s proposal. When contacted by Forbes magazine about removing these fake comments, Pai said he would not do so. An activist group decided to set up a website for people to check if the spambot has submitted comments under their own names, comcastroturf.com, only to be handed a cease and desist letter from Comcast threatening to sue them. (Comcast later backed down.) I used the site and found no less than two fake spambot comments under the name “Robert Griffith”. So, I submitted a real comment of my own, explaining my own position on net neutrality and alerting the FCC to the spambot comments.

Fake comment farce aside, I can understand where ISPs and Pai are coming from in opposing net neutrality. From an ISP’s point of view, net neutrality means internet users who just check their e-mails and visit a few blogs have the same internet access, at the same price, as internet users who use high-bandwidth services like Netflix, YouTube, and Steam. It means that the ISPs can’t charge companies like Google and Blizzard to give their customers faster speeds. As an MBA student, I learned about differential pricing – the idea that you want to charge customers exactly what they are willing to pay for a good, but that dollar value will be different for different customers. This is why grocery stores offer coupons and deals that reduce the price for larger purchases; some customers are willing to jump through the hoops to pay less, others aren’t. Each is getting their groceries at a price closer to what they are actually willing to pay for their groceries. Likewise, if internet customers are willing to pay more for higher-bandwidth, faster-speed service, shouldn’t ISPs be able to charge them more?

Except the internet is not a grocery store. As the court that upheld the FCC’s new net neutrality rules pointed out, internet access in the 21st century is a public utility. Since most ISPs are also phone or cable companies, one would think they would be used to being regulated like a public utility.

Most of the big internet companies – Google, Facebook, Amazon, and so on – started out life as small start-ups run by a handful of people. They got to the top through a free market that is free precisely because of the principle of net neutrality. Could you imagine if we lived in a world where Facebook wasn’t able to grow and ended up shutting down because Myspace could pay ISPs extra to load faster on users’ computers? Heck, we’ve seen cable companies drop channels over contract disputes; without net neutrality, what’s to stop Verizon from blocking Hulu for similar reasons? No wonder Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Twitter, Vimeo, Etsy, and other big websites are opposed to Pai’s proposals.

This is an issue I feel passionately about because it directly affects me. Cat Flag runs on WordPress, so if something were to suddenly happen to WordPress, I would be in big trouble. So all I’m asking, if you agree with me (or even if you disagree), is that you let the FCC know what you think about this issue.

  • Please visit this web page on the FCC’s website
  • Where it says “Proceedings”, please list “14-28” and “17-108”; those are the actual FCC cases having to do with the net neutrality proposals.
  • Remember, anything you enter is a matter of public record, so please keep it civil. And don’t set up a spambot.

Thank you.