Sunday, July 10, 2011

When time is broke ...

"What is dawn in the city to an elderly man standing in the street looking up rather dizzily at the sky?"
This sentence from the penultimate paragraph of Virginia Woolf's work of consummate genius, "The Waves", has been with me since I first read it in the '70s. So has Shakespeare's wonderful

"I wasted time, and now doth time waste me."
Time's measurement has in the last six weeks caused ructions in the United Kingdom, where the legislature is set to uphold a practice which was based on a misconception about time. An interpretation of provisions allowing the police to detain suspects for questioning for no longer than a specified period, which could be extended, had been followed without judicial consideration for over 20 years. Then someone said, just a minute, is this legal, what does the statute mean? It did not mean what it had been assumed to mean: R (On the Application of the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police) v Salford Magistrates' Court [2011] EWHC 1578 (Admin).

The legislature seems eager to establish the position as what the police had thought it to have been rather than what it probably seemed to the original enactors to have been. The police snap their fingers, and the legislature obeys.

In a general sense, the interpretative dispute was over whether time should be measured as if it flows continuously from a specified moment, or as if it is a series of discrete periods which are to be considered in their aggregate.

The kind of people who are reminded by this of passages from Virginia Woolf and Shakespeare will also remember that Zeno's arrow paradox cautions us against the perils of dividing time, while his tortoise paradox shows that division of events can also be problematic.