Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 890:
SEWAGE AND A LIFE CLOCK

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 890.

Today, a story about a strange clock and a cesspool. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

"Here's a story for the radio," says my wife, handing me a page she's torn from the latest Forbes magazine. The page has six miscellaneous items on it, and I'm puzzled. "Here," she says, "the one about the clock and the one about the sewer."

"I don't see a story," I complain. "No, but you should be able to make one up." She does that: When she has something important to say, she talks in code. I'd better read more carefully.

First, the clock: The Sharper Image Catalog is offering a Personal Life Clock. It counts down what's left of your statistical average lifetime. That comes to 683,280 hours. The clock diplays the remainder to the nearest minutes and seconds. Meanwhile, inspirational messages pop up to spur you on. The thing reminds me of a Colonial American hymn I once heard:

Thy precious time misspent, Redeem,
Each present day thy last esteem.
Savor every minute, the ad says. ... this subtle antiprocrastination tool will help you maximize the quality of all your hours. I shudder and move on to the item about a sewer.

It's a quote from Vaclav Havel, the Czech author who became Czechoslovakia's president. He tells about the night he fell into a sewer. My attempt to swim in this fundamental mud, this strange vegetation, was vain, he remembers. He panicked as he sank deeper. Rescuers couldn't reach him. I could barely keep my nose above the dreadful effluvium, he says. Someone finally managed to lower a ladder and get him out. He tells how hope emerged from hopelessness, from absurdity.

So, on the one hand, we have technology gone mad -- a clockwork goad reminding us how many hours we have to live. On the other hand we have a president drowning in excrement.

The clock says: Organize every moment until, at the age of 78, you die on schedule. But you do not die on schedule. Instead, you lose your footing one night and face death in a cesspool. Only then do you learn what hope really is.

The clock tells us we live life to the fullest by leaving no minute unused. Havel rewrites that unwholesome message. He says,

In the face of ... absurdity, life is too precious to permit its devaluation by living ... without meaning, without love, and finally, without hope.

That clock leaves no room for absurdity. There's no place for lurking cesspools in those tidy 683,280 hours -- and, of course, no hope of surviving anything. Where are you supposed to pause and laugh at the joke that life is? Maybe that's what my wife found too important to say explicitly when she found me working -- husbanding every minute -- in this long vacation weekend.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Other Comments. Forbes, December 6, 1993, pg. 30.

The Sharper Image Catalog. Christmas 1993, pg. 50. The text of the advertisement reads as follows:

Savor every minute with your Personal Life Clock. All lives are finite. In fact, the average life lasts only 683,280 hours or 2.4 billion seconds. This new Timisis Personal Life Clock reminds you to live life to the fullest by displaying the time and the actual hours, minutes, and seconds remaining in your statistical lifetime. It is the most profound number you will ever see. By monitoring every precious minute, it arouses you to the joy of living. The display also flashes 150 motivational messages to inspire you to take command and act. Simply plug into a wall outlet, then enter your name, age, and gender. 11-1/4L. Made in USA, 90 day warranty. On your desk, this subtle anti-procrastination tool will help you maximize the quality of all your hours.


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The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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