When I was a teenager I had a subscription to Popular Science and each month there was a full page ad in the magazine for something called an "Atomic Clock". Sadly, the Atomic Clock didn't contain any actual radioactive materials (wouldn't that be great!?), but it was almost as cool: it was a clock with a built-in radio receiver that was tuned to a special frequency so that it always displayed the correct time.
In those days, cheap quartz crystal oscillators hadn't been invented yet and clocks invariably ran slow or fast. If you wanted to know what time it really was, you'd call the phone company and listen to a recording. Then you'd have to reset all your clocks. My mother thought resetting all the household clocks was the perfect chore for a teenage son whom you thought was spending WAY too much time lazing in front of the TV. (Not that I'd know anything about that.) But despite the obvious advantages to owning an atomic clock, I never ended up getting one.
Now fast forward to about ten years ago. One day I noticed that my cell phone always displayed the correct time. I'm not sure when this feature was added by my phone service, but holy cow, what a great idea! When daylight savings would kick-in, my phone would automatically adjust for it. (Leap ahead? Fall back? Who cares! The phone knew!) And if I traveled to a new time zone, no problem -- the phone displayed the proper time. It was great. It didn't matter if you took out the batteries or turned the phone off. As soon as the cell phone had a signal, it would set itself to the correct time. It was like we all got our own portable Atomic Clocks. (Hey! And you can make phone calls on them, too!) I was living the dream, baby!
Now you probably know that cell phones in the United States are about two generations behind the rest of the world. Back in the 80's when our cell phones were the size of a carton of cigarettes and had the fidelity of a couple of tin cans connected by a piece of string, Japanese cell phones were the size of a credit card, had the computing power of a Cray, and were powered by body heat. These days, we Americans think we're hot stuff because our phones are smaller than a brick and can access text web pages off the internet. In Japan, the current generation of cell phones probably have a telepathic communication option and give their owners the power to levitate.
So you can imagine how excited I was when I moved to France and was able to get a next generation European cell phone (or "mobiles" as they are known here). Euro-styling and awesome features were what I had in mind. What I got was a ho-hum Nokia. It's about the same size as my last two cell phones and as far as I can tell it has fewer features. I say "as far as I can tell" because truth-in-advertising forces me to admit that there may be hidden features of which I'm unaware. The manual was in French and so are the online voice commands. So it's possible my phone is asking "enable flight mode?" each time it powers up, but I doubt it.
But the most disappointing feature is that the phone doesn't automatically update the time like my old ones in the United States did. I let my French phone run down one weekend and when I charged the battery back up the phone displayed some random time and date. It was like I was carrying around the cell phone equivalent of a VCR. Heaven forbid you lose power or you're back to a ubiquitous flashing "12:00". Now I half expect to get a tape jam if I dial the wrong number.
You know things are bad when the United States has a cutting edge cell phone feature. The only thing I can hope for is that this being France (where 70% of our power is supplied by nuclear reactors) that there's a small possibility that my cell phone battery is actually a miniature atomic pile.
Wouldn't that be great!?
Dan writes a weekly humor column called Tomfoolery & Codswallop. You can visit Dan's website where he welcomes your comments and suggestions for future columns.
Article © Dan H. Woods. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-04-13