06 Dec. 2008
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The Accurate and the Dead

I'm not a watch guy.  If I were a watch guy, I'd have plenty of opportunities, according to an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal just before everyone went broke, to spend up to half a million dollars on a mechanical watch.  If I couldn't afford that, I could spend tens of thousands on a fancy watch with platinum/gold/rhodium bands and a sapphire crystal.  And if I couldn't afford that, I could spend a few hundred to a few thousand on a stylish watch of one sort or another.

My old watch just died.  I noticed one morning that its display was blank ().  I was surprised at the rapidity of its demise as it had been functioning flawlessly the night before.  Normally, when the batteries wear out the watch display slowly loses its charisma with photons.  This time the loss was abrupt, which made me suspicious.  Even so, the batteries were replaced, the watch sprung to life, and in the process of setting the time I finally, after almost a decade, figured out how to synchronize the seconds with GPS time.  That must have been my undoing.  Two days later the watch died again, strongly implying that the watch itself was the problem.  Although it had remained faithful and accurate through many bumps and jars and two broken bands, I clearly had to replace this robust (yet unspamworthy) timepiece.

It's not the first time I've been thankful that I lack a sense of style, since I can afford a hundred dollar watch.  I searched "geek watches" on Google just to see if there was anything I had been missing, but other than the NIXIE watch I saw nothing that my three-pen nerdonality even fancied, much less required.  It was off to the store.

Shopping Yet Another Time

Shopping seems to be a theme for me this holiday season.  This was the third time I set foot in store since Thanksgiving.  My first stop was BJ's wholesale club, where, contrary to their name, they seemed to have a fantastic selection of stylish, retail, not-nearly-cheap-enough watches.  With ANALOG DIALS!  What were they thinking?  A salestron suggested "Target," the same place I found the 1875W hair dryers, a few doors down.  Paydirt!

Even Target was infested with expensive analog watches, but following a serpentine route suggested by a cashier brought me to a Casio stand where the watches were digital and the prices reasonable.  They ranged, with little to distinguish the watches from each other (except style?) from almost $100 down to $20.  I found the cheapest among them, was about to petition a wandering salestron to open the stand, when a $35 model caught my eye:

Can you read the writing on the stand?  It says:

CASIO  wave receptor

Atomic Timekeeping
(Radio Controlled for Accurate Timekeeping)
50M Water Resistant
EL Backlight with Afterglow

I immediately disabused myself of the notion that the other watches in the display were not made of atoms.  After all, the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, has an anti-nuclear policy, but that doesn't mean that the atoms there are not permitted any protons or neutrons.  I came to the conclusion that this watch actually received signals from the NTIS radio station WWVB and would set itself to the correct time without further action on my part.  I may not be a watch guy, but I'm most emphatically a time guy, and having a watch accurate to the second is valuable to me.  Having one, when someone asks me the time, I can simply read it off the watch rather than adding or subtracting the varying fractional-minute offset as I had to do with my now-life-free Timex. 

I had never had one of these "atomic watches" before but I am familiar with WWVB reception at 60kHz from the synchronization system I use with the moonbounce beacon.  That system requires a rack-mount receiver and an antenna that weighs a couple of pounds and is the size of a substantial ice cream cone.  Could this tiny watch with its necessarily tinier antenna do the job?  I resolved to find out.  My only remaining hesitation was the price.  $34.99 for a watch?  Yikes!

Although you won't infer it from my recent blogitems, I'm not a shopper.  The refrigerator refills itself by teleportation; at least I have no evidence to the contrary.  When I am forced to attend a place of purveyance and add valuta to the stream of commerce, I do so under protest.  At the very least I view the conveyor belt at the cashier stand as an opportunity to practice earthquake-proof construction with whatever engineering materials are at hand, e.g., bags of chocolate, cookie boxes and cheese bricks.  And the more rigid the pricing structure, the more likely I am to quibble.  I viewed the $34.99 price as a challenge.  It was late at night and there were far more cashiers on duty than shoppers trying to escape.

The cashier scanned the label on the bottom of the watch stand.  The price came up as $24.49.  She was so fast I didn't even have time to ask for a discount.  Stunned, I paid for my purchase and departed.

Store Report

During the supposed shopping frenzy attending this time of year, I was further stunned to find no lines, plenty of parking, and abundant employee assistance.  True, it was almost closing time, but whoever is managing personnel at these stores is supposed to be fanatical about keeping expenses low.  I had literally four cashiers at my immediate disposal.  Other shopping experiences this year included the ability to park almost directly in front of every mall entrance.  I wish I had years of previous experience to compare.  I could become a pundit or even a prognosticator if I only had a referent for what seems to be a remarkable lack of custom.

Amazingly, the watch was "on sale" without so much as an indication or advertisement.  They knocked $10.50 off the price even before I had a chance to whine.  Was this true of everything in the store?  Were they aware I was on my way even though I didn't know until I got the recommendation from BJ's minutes earlier?  Are conditions so dire that everything is secretly reduced and I am the only one who never received the message?  The papers are warning of the dangers of "deflation."  Are we there already?

Watch Report

The watch uses a clever (albeit improvable) algorithm for setting the watch time from WWVB.  Reception is best and noise is lowest at night, so it tries to check sequentially at 01:00, 02:00, etc., until it succeeds.  It calls this "calibration" in the manual, but it's really just updating the time.  After two nights of simply wearing the watch rather than putting it on the window sill as recommended, I found it updated on the first try one night and on the second try the other.  So I now have to-the-second time on my new, almost-cheap-enough watch.  Let's hope this one lasts for another decade, and that the band is robust.

1990 Corvette ZR1 - FOR SALE

Special Advertising Section

Please buy this lovely blue Corvette ZR1


NP:  "The Light" - Jefferson Starship

Richard Factor

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