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One country loses time - literally

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CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) -- If you thought Venezuela's political crisis seemed to be dragging for an impossibly long time -- you were right.

In a bizarre mass-malfunction, Venezuela's clocks are ticking too slowly due to a power shortage weakening the electric current nationwide. By the end of each day, the sluggish time pieces still have another 150 seconds to tick before they catch up to midnight.

"Everything that has to do with time-keeping has slowed down. If it's an electric clock, it's running slow," said Miguel Lara, general manager of the national power grid.

"Your computer isn't affected. Your television isn't affected. No other devices ... just clocks," he added.

The meltdown has taken a total 14 hours and 36 minutes from Venezuela's clocks over 12 of the past 13 months, he said.

Pointing fingers

start quoteIf you're two minutes late to the office, and everybody else is too, there's no problem.end quote
-- Rene Osurna, shipping company employee

In a country fiercely divided between friends and foes of its leader, President Hugo Chavez, it isn't surprising some opponents have jokingly blamed the clock chaos on the president.

But instead it appears to be Mother Nature that lashed out against Father Time. The river powering a major hydroelectric plant in southeast Venezuela lost force due to a severe drought in February 2001. To prevent blackouts, the country slightly lowered the frequency of the current.

At least one time expert was caught off guard.

"It's the most bizarre thing I've ever heard of," said Dan Nied, head of the U.S.-based School of Horology, or the science of time measurement. "But yes, clocks would slow down."

For common quartz clocks, the slight drop in frequency slows the vibration of the crystal that regulates time keeping, he said, adding, "People must be going nuts."

What's the problem?

Venezuelans have taken their time troubles in their stride. An air traffic controller casually said that his office corrected its clocks every few days or months, without incident so far.

"Yes, it's been happening here. But we correct the clocks every three months and there's no problem," he said.

Many people on the streets of Caracas were only vaguely aware that their clocks had been slowing down.

"I wake with the sun," said Rene Osurna, who works at a shipping company. "And if you're two minutes late to the office, and everybody else is too, there's no problem."

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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