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Wristwatches are the most precise way to tell time, but they’re not the only way. Indeed, we frequently judge the passage of time by a bunch of imprecise, ambient cues in our environment: The pace of our breathing, the changing noises of the street, how long it takes a cup of coffee to cool. That’s why we can often be quite good at knowing “how much time has passed” even when we’re not near a clock.

Conversely, this is why torturers — and many prisons — put their captives in rooms (or hooded cowls) that seal them off from any of the environmental markers of time. It drives them crazy: Without any external markers of the passage of time, the world takes on a troubling sense of unreality. Hell, that’s why cubicle-farms in many corporations are so maddening. When you’re shoved into one of those anonymously beige bins, so deep inside the building that you can’t see out a window, you live in a completely inert environment. No wonder time seems to stand still! Hence the obsession of salarymen and GenX wage slaves — so regularly reflected in comic strips and movies — of glancing up at the clock every five minutes. They’re not doing it merely because they want to leave work. They’re seeking reassurance that the entire universe hasn’t ground to a halt.

Which brings me to the brilliance of the SineClock — a timepiece that exists purely in this ambient space. It has no precision; you cannot look at it to say, “hey, it’s 3:12!” But it nonetheless marks the passage of time in a weirdly soothing way. You download it onto your desktop, and it produces three Moog-like pulsing hums that change subtly as the day goes by. As the creator explains it:

The low pulsing goes from slow to fast to slow over the course of one minute, the medium pulsing goes from slow to fast to slow over the course of one hour, and the high pulsing goes from slow to fast to slow over the course of one day, so if you sit and listen to the low sound for a minute, you’ll hear its pulse slowly speed up for thirty seconds, then slow down for another thirty seconds. Then it starts again.

Because the speed of each pulse is constantly changing, each moment in the day has a distinct set of pulse speeds.

I tried it out, and it’s quite cool: It’s like an electronic version of a babbling brook.

(Thanks to Sensory Impact for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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