Mostly, when people talk about memes, they have a notion of something somebody does or says and that then will spread like wildfire.  Somebody puts up a YouTube video of a cute cat doing cute things, and a week later, the video has been seen 3 million times, things like that.   Somebody or somebodies call Obama a socialist over and over and over, and as a result, a year later, the word socialist means something different from what it used to mean, and now – in the US – “socialist” means what used to be called  “librul”.  And for the people who want to use a word that connotes scary-ness, “librul” was no longer sufficient, since somehow it had lost its scary connotations.

As I commented before, we tend to think of memes as starting in one place and moving outwards.  This view of memes is most useful when you are tracking the progress of something deliberately started and not yet commonplace.

I think ultimately memes are more important as a way to look and track the stuff that is already all around us, traveling back and forth in cycles narrow and wide, and interconnected with related memes in ways that have the whole thing be very entrenched.

A fun way to trace the propagation of memes is to look for places where something goes slightly wrong.  By this I don’t mean that somebody makes a spelling mistake or picks the wrong talking point on a political talk show.

I have a particular interest in the phenomenon where somebody thinks they are passing along something that everybody knows, something they pass off without comment and without trying to be funny, and yet they clearly had a misconception about the origin of what they are passing along.  The title of this post gives one example:

Whoa Is Me!

I can just imagine somebody hearing the phrase “Woe is me!” all around them, presumably when they are young, and attempting to make sense of the phrase, without having seen it in print.  The word “woe”, by itself, is not very common in modern usage, but the word “whoa!” is quite common.  They sound the same, and it would be an honest mistake to think that the people who said “Woe is me!” really were saying “Whoa is me!”.  But it is also clear that something is going on that goes way beyond an honest mistake.  The phrase “Whoa is me!” makes at least as much sense as the phrase “Woe is me!” ever did.  Allowing for the strange and archaic-sounding syntax, somebody reconstructing the phrase as “Whoa is me!” must be thinking of being hit with something very disconcerting, which would have made perfect sense in most if not all occasions in which the people around were saying “woe is me!”
I call this phenomenon reinvention – and I believe it is an absolutely essential part of any language learning, even if it escapes notice, as it usually does.

In a previous era, such reinvention might never be noticed.  The person saying “whoa is me!” might never have occasion to write it down.  It is not the kind of thing you’d write in school reports, or in job applications, or in the kinds of unedited writing that people would do.  It is precisely the kind of thing that editors of the “letters to the editor” section of a newspaper would correct back to the “woe is me!” form..

In the Internet era, such reinventions are more likely to surface, in blogs and comment sections, and i think they deserve to be studied.  In the last several years, I’ve collected a bunch of these.  My criterion for the collection is that they appear to be unselfconscious, that is, not in an attempt to be funny or clever.  Also, that they can be defended as making at least as much sense as the “official” version the “historically correct” version.  The purpose of the collection is to draw attention to a phenomenon of language and of language learning.  What I assume is that the same kinds of thinking that lead to this particular collection of utterances is also at play when the language learner reconstructs something the same way as everybody else – the difference is simply that in those (more common) cases nobody notices that any reinvention was taking place.  It is the exceptions that shine a light on the normal.

Here are some of the other examples I’ve collected:

gorilla warfare


reeking havoc

piss pour


ferocious reader

fowl play

honest engine

blind sighted

move the gold posts

gang green

take his marvels and go home

here here!

need deep

sorted history

a brush of fresh air


cut off one’s nose despite their own face

I hate to dissolution you

The canary in the mind

Flushing out ideas

For some of these, your reaction might be “what’s wrong with this?  Isn’t this the way it is supposed to be?”  The construct “here here!”, in particular, gets more Google hits than the (apparently historically correct) version “hear, hear!”  For many modern English speakers, the origin of “hear, hear” is lost and lacks context.

All of these examples are from actual writing, most of it on the Internet, though I admit to not having sources to link to.  It’s not difficult finding references of use, it is harder to find examples where you can see it used in un-selfconscious ways.  Sometimes it is not clear if someone is trying to kid you, like in this example for honest engine.  Note that the meaning they quote in the urban dictionary is exactly like the meaning you would expect for “honest Injun” or “honest Indian” which is held as offensive and thus rarely seen in serious, edited, print anymore.

I think the Reinventions are different enough from Mondegreens to deserve a separate designation.


Updated July 25, 2010: Here’s one I saw the other day –

move the gold posts

which has, at the moment, 149 different Google hits.  It’s interesting to imagine the thinking that would hear “goal posts” and interprets it as “gold posts”.  It helps that very few people in any sane scenario ever move goal posts for soccer, or any similar sports that actually do have goal posts.  Since the meaning appears metaphorically anyway, a metaphor involving gold posts seems quite defensible.  If I was faced with posts made of real gold, I might want to move them too!

Updated February 21, 2011:

I added “blind sighted” to the list.  Saw this in a comment thread at a political website.  Since being blind has to do with eyesight, it isn’t too hard to empathize with someone hearing “blind-sided” and thinking the whole thing is about not-seeing.  The origin of “blind-sided” has to do with being attacked from your “blind side”, i.e. from an angle where you can’t see them.

Google tells me there are at least three books with “Blind Sighted” in their title, one by Karin Slaughter, one by Peter Moore, one by David Olsen.  I’ll assume those are self-conscious uses, that is, they are deliberate plays on the ambiguity.

Update March 11, 2011:

I added “gang green” and “take his marvels and go home” to the list.  Feel free to show me (for any of these entries) that I’ve been pwned and that the person using the language did so deliberately.

Update August 12, 2011:

I added “need deep”.  Saw this in a commentary thread.  Doesn’t look like a typo for ‘knee deep’ but instead a recreation of the sound of the expression.

Update November 20, 2011:

I added “sorted history”, “a brush of fresh air”, and “skiddish”.  “Sorted history” most likely relates to “sordid history’ but might also relate to “checkered history”.  A brush of fresh air relates to a breath of fresh air.  Skiddish reinvents skittish, with the same pronunciation (at least in American English) but a different root.

Update January 7, 2012:

Added “cut off one’s nose despite their own face” – it evokes a battle between the person with the knife and the person with the face fighting back, even though it is the same person.

Also added “hate to dissolution you” as if what’s going on is some kind of PWNing.  “Canary in the mind” must make sense to someone very unfamiliar with mines and their history: it evokes the idea of going ‘coocoo’ for me.

Added “Flushing out ideas”, which evokes the flushing out of birds  by dogs or hunters so that they can be clearly seen.  To someone hearing it this way, “fleshing out ideas” must sound like a positively strange and unlikely conception.

exchange is creation

– Muriel Rukeyser, 1913-1980, from The Life of Poetry

Rukeyser was a poet, and in the quote above she shows an unconventional notion of creation.  A normal way to think of creation is that it brings something new into existence, something that was never there before.  How does Rukeyser’s notion compare with that, and does Rukeyser see something new being brought into existence?

In my copy of Out of Silence, there is a poem called The Conjugation of the Paramecium which might elucidate Rukeyser’s thinking.  I am not entirely positive that it is OK for me to copy it here, though it is already widely available on the web, including through the link above.

The Conjugation of the Paramecium
by Muriel Rukeyser

This has nothing
to do with

The species
is continued
as so many are
(among the smaller creatures)
by fission

(and this species
is very small
next in order to
the amoeba, the beginning one)

The paramecium
achieves, then,
by dividing

But when
the paramecium
desires renewal
strength another joy
this is what
the paramecium does:

The paramecium
lies down beside
another paramecium

Slowly inexplicably
the exchange
takes place
in which
some bits
of the nucleus of each
are exchanged

for some bits
of the nucleus
of the other

This is called
the conjugation of the paramecium.

Exchange leads to “renewal strength another joy”.  I love her image of the paramecium, engaged in a modern form of Horizontal Gene Transfer, which I brought up in this post.  The paramecium is not doing this for sheer survival, she says, since it already has another way of propagating.  What the paramecium does is important, but not for survival as-is.  What gets created?  In this poem, she doesn’t use the word ‘creation’ explicitly.

Another hint at what Rukeyser means is found in The Life of Poetry, where she writes a section The Arrangement Is The Life.  A short quote from : “All these words were known, as the results leading to a scientific discovery may have been known.   But they were not arranged before the poet seized them and discovered their pattern.  The arrangement turned them into a new poem, a new science.  Here, as everywhere, the arrangement is the life.”  From the quote, it is clear that Rukeyser isn’t just talking about poetry, isn’t just talking about the creation of poetry.  Her mentioning of scientific discovery isn’t accidental or fatuous: Rukeyser had already published a biography of the American physicist Willard Gibbs, and elsewhere in her writings you get a strong sense that she knows what she is talking about.  Another quote from The Life of Poetry: “When Darwin wrote of Humboldt that he displayed the rare union between poetry and science, he set the man in a line of heroes of that meeting-place”.  The meeting place: the exchange.  (Later on, in Life of Poetry, Rukeyser expands explicitly on the sentence Exchange is creation, in multiple places.  What she says there, though less quotable, confirms the impressions formed above.)

My interest is in the phenomenon of emergence, which is a word quite similar in meaning to creation, but without some of the baggage and the fixed reactions that the word creation tends to evoke (though the word emergence carries its own baggage already and is getting more each passing day).

The relationship between exchange and emergence, as suggested by Rukeyser, is worth further exploration.

It is very tempting to look for parallels between biological evolution and cultural evolution.  There have been many attempts, some more successful than others.   A very promising approach was offered by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene.  In this book, he suggests that biological evolution can be seen as a dance between replicating systems and an environment that is selective.   Roughly speaking, in biological systems, the gene is the replicator, and the system that is selected upon is the phenotype of the biological organism.  If the replication of the gene is sufficiently accurate, but not perfectly accurate, you have a situation on which Darwinian evolution can go to work.  In Dawkins’ words: “all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities.”  Dawkins suggests that replicators other than biological replicators can exist and do exist and that Darwinian evolution is an explanatory principle for those situations as well.  He mentions “dialect groups” of a particular songbird, the saddleback, found near New Zealand.  He also mentions human phenomena, such as language and fashion, diet, ceremonies and customs, art and architecture, engineering and technology.  He calls the unit of replication, in these cases, the meme, and then proceeds to give us an idea of what a meme might consist of: tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.   The way he sees the analogy with genes is that “memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain in a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”

This is a powerful concept, worked out in some detail by Dawkins himself, and expanded upon by Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine and by others.  One thing powerful about it is that we can kind of see memes traveling in our mind’s eye.  For example, we can imagine that somebody comes up with the idea for a TV commercial spot, talks to various people about the idea; eventually the spot is produced, then shown on TV in various markets, and people watch these spots and acquire certain ideas about products and brands, in predictable response.  Particularly successful ads may have additional effects like people yelling out to their spouse “Come see this!” or some variant of this.  In the recent past, we’ve witnessed certain ads being posted on YouTube and scoring tens of thousands of viewings.

We might also see this with successful movies, where people tell each other about the good movie they saw and how the other person really ought to go see it themselves; this phenomenon is called “by word of mouth”, which is a strange phrasing, though too familiar to seem strange anymore.  Whatever the “thing” is that spreads by word of mouth, that just might be exactly what people mean when they are talking about memes.

Imagining memes as something starting with some individual and then spreading out, isn’t the only way to imagine them – and I think in fact it might be better imagined differently.  Crucial, in our conception of memes, it seems to me, is to imagine them in some kind of cyclical pattern.  If something spreads quickly and widely, perhaps like wildfire, but doesn’t cycle back onto itself, we have another phrase for it: a flash in the pan.  It burns itself out, it is a passing fad, it is a momentary craze.  In contrast, let’s look at a behavior such as voting.  The meme “you ought to go out and vote” isn’t a one-time good idea, it is something that circulates, and has high tides and low tides, with high tides right before elections.  I vote in all elections, and perhaps so do you.  And yet it has never occurred to me to mark my calendar for the next 20 years to make sure I don’t miss an election.  The meme to go and vote will reach me before an election as surely as pumpkins reach the store prior to Halloween (and in similar ways).  Memes are nothing of consequence if they don’t cycle back and keep flowing.  In terms of physics, the important memes aren’t responses propagating from an impulse, they are standing waves.

A researcher into the origin of life hit on the importance of cyclical chemical processes quite a while ago, and set his thinking down in his book The Hypercycle.  In a sense, none of this is too terribly surprising, since any kind of replication could be seen as completing a cycle.  At a more abstract level, we have John von Neumann’s paper from 1966 on The Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata.   None of these deal directly with cultural evolution, but if there is any meaningful parallel between biological propagation and evolution on the one hand, and propagation and evolution of cultural traits on the other, the cyclical nature of meme infection must be front and center of any serious account.

If you ask some random acquaintances what they think of when they hear the word “cooperation”, they tend to give you answers that stress the voluntary nature of it, and the perceived benefit by all parties involved.  Whether the parties are individuals, or companies, or entire countries, people’s view of cooperation tends to be that it is something positive,  something entered into freely, and for the duration of clearly perceived benefit by all parties involved.

Cooperation is a hugely important phenomenon, and is so at all levels, down to the biological.  My body’s functioning is dependent on a large colony of bacteria in my intestinal tract, and those bacteria carry their own DNA, and the arrangement benefits them as well as me.  Cooperation exists at the level of strangers: I buy my movie ticket at the theater from a person I’ve never seen before and may never see again.  I get my ticket, the person gets the money, and it is a transaction by two parties voluntarily entering into it.  Cooperation exists at the level of friends.  It exists at the level of certain jobs, where the employee can quit with two weeks’ notice and the employer can let the employee go ‘at will’ with two weeks’ notice.  It exists at the level of countries with certain bi-lateral accords – for example, in the USA you can use a US stamp to put on a letter that is to be delivered in Canada by the Canadian postal service, and in Canada, you can use a Canadian stamp to get your letter delivered in the USA.  This is convenient for residents of both countries, and the costs to each country for delivering a letter that was mailed in the other country will completely or largely balance out.

When parties cooperate, this cooperation can be seen to create a whole of which the cooperating parties are a part.  For the duration of the cooperation, the parts are participating in a whole.  Though this whole may have a fleeting existence – and may not have, or warrant, or need, its own name (what would you call the whole formed by the USA and Canada agreeing on mutual mail delivery?) – it nevertheless can be viewed as a whole and you can look for properties of the whole that are not simply properties of the parts.  In many instances, you can see the properties of the whole relatively easily, and there are enough of those to suggest that looking for such properties where they can’t easily be seen may yet be very worthwhile.

When I buy a share of a stock, from someone I may never meet, I partake – just like the seller does – in a voluntarily entered-into transaction, and, in doing so, we become part of a larger whole called the stock market.  In this case, the stock market is already there before I enter into the transaction.  You could credibly say that my transaction is with the stock market, rather than with the seller.  I enter my desire to buy a share of stock, and the stock market matches my desire to buy with a seller’s desire to buy at a corresponding price.  The seller is found for me based on rules that I may or may not be aware of, rules that may or may not be perfectly enforced, and rules that I may have never voted on.  Yet even though the rules were set by somebody else, I may still relate to my transaction as a voluntary one.  Many people do, even as they feel that prices for the shares of stock they buy and sell are out of their control.  Yes, I can place a buy order at a price that’s attractive to me, but there is no guarantee that it will be filled: there may not be any seller that agrees to sell at the price that I’m offering.

There are many wholes, unlike the stock market, where your participation doesn’t feel like it is voluntary.  For many people, taxes fall into this category.  You live or transact business in some country, and then that country insists that you pay taxes!  When it comes to being part of a whole, people often think of it in very different terms: restrictive, oppressive, confining, the whole “takes” from them, they contribute more than others but aren’t recognized or rewarded for it, others don’t pull their weight, they aren’t fully listened to, they don’t have sufficient say.  People can feel confined in a marriage, in a business relationship, trapped in their jobs, told by signs how fast they can drive or when to stop, have to contend with rules that control what they can drink and where they can smoke, and lots more.  A State in the United States may feel powerless with respect to a Federal law that the State government disagrees with but has to execute anyhow; a United States citizen may feel powerless when the country as a whole goes to war, and now the citizen – whether they agree with it or not – is at war too.  The person who gets elected may be somebody you didn’t vote for – and he or she will take office regardless of your approval.

The relationship of the part to the whole tends to be governed by the reaction to the aspects of it that rankle, that rub the wrong way.  The aspects of the relationship that work tend to be taken for granted.  These last two sentences represent grand generalizations, which so far I’ve offered without providing much evidence.  This is stuff worth getting back to in more detail.

People who compare cultural evolution to biological evolution would do well to take a very broad look at biological evolution.  For the high school level views of biological evolution don’t necessarily carry very far when taken into the cultural realm.

Carl Woese, the well-known researcher of the biology of early life, discusses in a 2002 paper the significance of Horizontal Gene Transfer, HGT.  He suggests that, in a sense, the model of descent with modification as described by Darwin has become too successful.  In the modern world of molecular biology, descent with modification has been worked out in great detail by elucidating the genetic code and the (almost flawless) copying of DNA, so we can think of the copying of DNA as the descent, and the occasional mistake in copying as the modification.  Evolution is then seen as the evolution of the gene, and it might appear that all the truly difficult questions about evolution have been answered.

For Woese, the focus on vertical gene transfer, that is, transfer of a gene from parent to offspring, misses much of the history of life.  Vertical gene transfer depends on an already-evolved almost perfect genetic code and almost perfect translation mechanism from RNA to proteins.  But an evolutionary framework is also needed for exploring how a genetic code and a translation mechanism could have come to be.  And why only one genetic code?

Woese has thought about this from many angles.  Prior to a working translation mechanism, could short strands of RNA have sufficient variation in their three-dimensional conformations to be somewhat effective, in the absence of real proteins, to perform some of the catalytic functions of proteins?  Could tRNA have played a much larger role in replicating RNA strands than it plays today?  How much replicative and catalytic function could be explained just from pools of nucleotide chains alone?

Once you are willing to consider a world prior to DNA and proteins, where evolution yet occurs, the notions of clean lines of descent need to be reconsidered also.  Woese suggests a world in which early “cells” would easily exchange material like nucleotide chains.  These early cells would have some kind of membrane, but the early membranes would lack the careful specificity that would make sure no nucleotide chains would leave the cell into the surrounding medium, and no material from the surrounding medium would penetrate into the cell.  This exchange of genetic material from one cell to another is Horizontal Gene Transfer.  You can make models of evolution based on HGT, assuming certain kinds of replicative and catalytic function.  Instead of selective pressure based on being eaten or being attacked, there would still be “selection” based on relative replication rates.  Some communities of cells (all cells in a community wouldn’t even have to be the same) would grow faster than other communities and would spread out more.

Rates of evolution can be expected to be much higher for HGT than for the modern, highly protected, vertical descent creatures with proofreading on DNA copying, and with highly adapted immune systems that destroy foreign bodies in their midst.

Cultural evolution, interestingly enough, has more in common with Horizontal Gene Transfer than with the more familiar style of biological evolution.  Cultural evolution takes place at much higher rates of change than if we look at evolution of wales or mosquitoes.  The membranes around societies, no matter how hard those societies try, will still let in the occasional blue jeans and rock music, as did the Soviet Union; and sushi has done quite well in the United States.  These are horizontal transfers.  They are frequent, they are extensive, and they are hard to block out.  This doesn’t guarantee that all will be successful – many aren’t, and that is probably just as well.

Complex behavior can arise from very simple rules.

This has been observed and studied for ant colonies, flocking behavior of birds, and other complex behaviors.   Though the overall behavior is complex, what each individual ant needs to understand or pay attention to is strictly limited.  Sometimes the complex behavior of the ant colony is referred to as collective intelligence, but I prefer to stick with the more neutral term, also widely in use, of emergent behavior.

With respect to flocks of birds, lots of analysis and modeling has been done.  The characteristic swooping, quick changes in direction of the entire flock, and flowing around obstacles, of the entire flock can be explained, and reproduced in modeling, from some very simple assumptions on what each individual bird is paying attention to.  If each bird only pays attention to a small number of birds closest to it, and adjusts its direction and speed based on some kind of average of their direction and speed, those simple rules account for much of the flock’s over-all behavior.  Simulated flocks, based on the aggregation on simulated birds, can be seen to do interesting things; a computer program that could perform such a simulation, called BOIDS, has been around since 1986.  Reconstructing the simple rules that ants follow – that’s been around even longer: it’s in Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon’s 1969 book “The Sciences of the Artificial”.

Though it is somewhat tricky to apply these ideas to human behaviors, I think it is useful to do so.   The emergent behavior of an entire country (give or take a state or county) to switch to Daylight Savings Time, which I looked at in a previous post, might well follow from a very simple rule: “if enough people or institutions around me say that they are going to move the clock forward on a particular day, I will likewise move my clock forward, too.”  We could quibble for a while as to what “enough” should mean, but it seems fairly clear that some rule like the one I suggest is going to be sufficient to account for the over-all behavior.  Note that it isn’t necessary to claim that this is the rule that is actually in effect for each of us.  It isn’t necessary to claim that people behave like puppets on a string.  Myself, I’m simply interested in the behavior of the whole.

Though the theme of this blog is cultural evolution and cultural cohesiveness, it will be useful to take excursions to the natural world and look at parallels in the evolution of species and the survivability of species inside of an ecosystem.  In this post I like to look at a particular bird, the swift, Apus Apus, which comes perhaps as close as any bird in living its entire life flying.

The swift does have feet, but they are not suitable for walking or even standing.  It doesn’t need feet to catch its food; like swallows, with which they are sometimes confused, swifts catch insects in flight.  Feeding, metabolizing, excreting – all are done in flight.  More surprisingly, perhaps, the swift can sleep during flight, and does.  It starts out high, then glides and sleeps, in short bursts, alternated with short bursts of flying to maintain altitude.

Swifts mate in flight, but laying eggs and raising young is not done in flight.  The swift’s connection with land is the nest, which they build high and fixed to a wall or such.  To leave the nest, they have no alternative but to fall out of it, and take flight while falling – their feet are of no use in take-off.  Baby swifts leave the nest the same way: they fall out, and take off on their first flight.

Swifts fly and cover enormous distances.  If the temperature drops just a tad, people may notice that all the swifts are gone.  And this is a case where the word “gone” is to be taken literally: the swifts may have just flown hundreds of  miles to an area that’s slightly warmer and thus has more insects buzzing about.  That’s what swifts do: they fly, sustained by massive intake of insects.

Species like swifts make it so clear that an animal or plant isn’t just a collection of parts.   A bird isn’t put together by picking a suit of wings from a wing menu, a beak from a beak menu, a tail from the tail menu, and so on.  Most bird species, if given a swift’s feet, would go extinct in a jiffy.  Conversely, I had never thought much about the dependency of birds on a land environment until I learned about the swift.  A very different kind of bird – the albatross – also covers huge distances in flight, but it can take off from horizontal surfaces, whether the surface of the water or islands, in the familiar ungainly-looking maneuver that involves large amounts of flapping and large amounts of running.  For all its aerial prowess, the albatross would soon be lost if its large, powerful feet were replaced by those of the swift.

Cultures, or societies, are likewise not just a collection of parts.  The society, too, must be able to survive in its niche, as part of an ecosystem, lest it go extinct.  A pure, neutral, borrowing of parts from another culture almost never happens.  Borrowings (or impositions) can be extraordinarily successful, but that doesn’t mean they are neutral.

As an over-simplified example, let’s look at blue jeans and the Soviet Union.  Superficially, the borrowing of this trait – wearing blue jeans – which was seen as an American trait, didn’t mean anything different in the Soviet Union than it did in a slew of other countries.  Young people liked them, and wore them widely and openly, in part as a mild rebellion against a previous generation.  Same in the Soviet Union, except there it was also seen as an act in rebellion against the Soviet system, as openly a rebellion as folks thought they could get away with.  Young people in the Soviet Union wearing blue jeans were making – or at least were seen by the others as making – a pro-West statement.

Another example, also from world trade, involves the Chevy Nova, introduced in South America under the same name.  The brand didn’t do so well there, as Nova, in a Spanish-speaking country, could easily be heard as “no va”: doesn’t go.  The trait – owning a car called Nova – didn’t have survival value in its new habitat.

In the USA we just went through an obligatory ritual: this is the day where the country switches to Daylight Savings Time.  All clocks are set one hour later; watches, clocks in cars, clocks in coffee machines, clocks in ovens, none are exempted.  Typically, clocks in computers and mobile phones adjust automatically; so for those, the rule is don’t set these clocks forward.

I’ve met various DST rebels: people who refuse to set their clock forward.  One person told me that it was unnecessary for her to move the clock in her car forward, because after all she knew that the clock was one hour off, and she could simply mentally add one hour to whatever it told her.  Yet this tends to be the extent to which the rebellion goes.  I have yet to meet somebody who agrees to show up at Starbucks at 1pm to meet somebody, and then deliberately, rebelliously, uses the unmodified clock and shows up one hour later than the other person.

Arizona is a state that doesn’t go on Daylight Savings Time.  People in that state can ignore the frantic messages broadcast to warn people that DST is coming – but only up to a point.  Any Arizonan who interacts with people in other states, e.g. through telephone calls, learns quickly that the rest of the country has moved forward, and that the rest of the country tends not to give the Arizonans any second thought.

In the rush to set our clocks one hour forward, we have an opportunity to really look at what’s going on.  Here is a ritual with near 100% compliance, and rebels don’t get very far.  How come so many people comply to perform this crazy act?  I’m looking for explanations other than the stereotypical Ben Franklin stories about getting more work done in a day.  Even if those stories were completely and unambiguously correct, they wouldn’t come close to prescribing why the change in clocks has to happen on March 14, 2010 at 1am in the morning.

I think that if you really look at the reasons why you, you, change the clocks at that time, the answer would be both strange and clear: you change your clocks, for no other reason than that everybody else changes their clocks!

And the kicker might be this:  they are changing their clocks for no other reason than that you do!

If I live in an area where there is a well-defined rush hour, and I have the option to come in to work an hour earlier, and also leave an hour earlier, I might be successful in avoiding rush hour.  So what would happen if all employees and all employers had the same brilliant idea, and everybody left one hour early?

Well, it’s kind of obvious that we wouldn’t be able to avoid rush hour this way, that instead we’d simply move rush hour to be one hour earlier than it used to be.  In effect, we took rush hour with us, we didn’t escape it.

For my trick to work, it is essential that I’m alone, or in a small minority people who do this.  The idea doesn’t scale.  When implemented at full scale, the practice of leaving early is self-defeating.

What works for the part may not work for the whole.