An Oasis Of Numbers

For the longest time, I just assumed that nobody could read digital clocks. They’re such jumpy bastards, unreliable in their clarity. Obviously, here was a situation in which analog was overwhelmingly superior.

“What a strange invention,” I would think to myself in high school mornings, munching on cornflakes and staring at our microwave. The bright red numbers wavered in their black desert like a magical oasis: a promise of time, unrealized, intangible. Was it 6:55? 8:55? 3:58? It became a fruitless game of chicken. I would stare at that clock until I felt nauseated and had to look away.

I like to think that my assumption of universal trouble with digital displays was completely and logically founded. I’d had the usual eye checkups as a kid, and every time I was applauded out of the doctor’s office. “She’s got some eagle eyes, that one,” the nurse would tell my mother. This was no surprise to anyone: whenever my mom lost the back of an earring she’d send me into her bedroom to find it; I read text backwards, upside down, reflected in mirrors, in the dark. It’s practically a party trick: joke books have never really worked for me, I’ll read the hidden punchline before I get to the set-up. Obviously, if I couldn’t read digital clocks, no one could.

So it came as some surprise to me when in the laundromat a couple years ago, a friend asked me how much time was left in my dryer, and to my response of a merry scoff they tilted their head questioningly. “Uh, dude,” I said, “I can’t read that freaking thing from here.”

They looked up and across the machines. “You have twenty-eight minutes left. Seriously? You can’t read that?”

I stared. The numbers wavered, glowed, became fuzzy. And thus, at the age of twenty-three, I learned that the reality I’d always assumed to be accurate was, in fact, flawed.

And this has revolutionized my world: I can’t stop thinking about it. Every time we wait for the approaching bus, every time I hit snooze on the alarm, every time I watch the laundry spinning in its elaborate cotton ballet instead of those dizzying neon numbers, I wonder: how many other things are like this? And how does one write, constantly doubting where the universal ends and the personal begins?

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  1. That’s a crazy phenomenon. I wonder what the story is. Go get checked out, so my curiosity can be sated.

  2. My favorite brain weirdness is a condition in which people’s faces all look indistinguishable. (Prosopagnosia I think, or face-blindness). Someone who has it said that it’s kind of like people just sort of all look like golden retrievers; difficult to tell apart. Maybe you have face-blindness for digital clocks. I guess it could always be worse.

  3. It seems unlikely to be quite like prosopagnosia, since that’s a deficit of the fusiform face area in the brain, which developed because it was so damn important for us to recognize faces. Needless to say, I don’t think we evolved any similarly specialized module for recognizing clock faces. But I’m with todd; figure out what the heck it is and get back to us.

  4. It seems to be neon characters on dark backgrounds in general. I’ll make an appointment with Oliver Sacks.

  5. I’ve heard it conjectured that the FFA might actually be a specialized at specializing, rather than specialized at recognizing faces. Claim was, in essence, if you were raised by fish, your FFA might become a fusiform fish area: really great at telling fish apart. Part of this claim is backed up by research which suggests that experts’ FFA is active when viewing objects of their expertise. So supposedly a car guy’s FFA is active when he’s telling a 1976 from a 1975 Mustang, for instance.

  6. Whenever I read something like that I think of the various hilarious ways I could $%^& up my children.

  7. I am desperately curious about this as well. I’ve always noticed that if I clack my teeth together hard, any LED display I’m looking at will appear to shake and waver for moment. Maybe it’s related to your crazy fillings? (No, that’s ridiculous.) Seriously, though, find out for us!

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