Thursday, April 26, 2007

Musing: Time Zones

When I first started talking to my “inner circle” about my idea for The Voyage -- hard to believe that was over a year and a half ago! -- one of my closest friends said something very interesting:  “You handle the time zones and deal me in.”  At the time I thought it was just another of his many succinct ways of summing up a very large concept:  “You’ll be the one moving around.  You know where I’ll be.  You do the math on keeping in contact and I’ll be happy to carry on like it isn’t really any different.”  Simple, right?  Well, until recently it has been pretty simple.  For the first six or seven months of The Voyage I mostly moved south, with a little bit of east.  I went from PDT to CDT to EDT to EST to CST to EST to ECT to CLT to PET to CLT to ART.  Now, you may not know what time zones all those letters stand for, but it doesn’t really matter.  They are all within the time zones spanned by the US -- where most of my old friends live -- and it was a pretty simple matter to keep track of things:  “Okay, I’m in Chile which is the same as  Eastern time, so the West Coast is three hours behind.”  Simple.  Plus, staying in relatively the same time zones made it pretty normal to call and talk to people at normal hours.  Generally, I was awake when they were awake.

As I have rapidly moved east over the past month, the time zone issue has gotten a bit more complicated.  Right now, for example, the East Coast is six hours behind me and the West Coast is nine hours behind, so being awake at the same time is a little less likely.  Also, I have been making a lot of new friends who live all over the world and whose time zones are plus and minus a lot of hours from wherever I may be at any given moment.  This problem really came into focus for me when I saw the clocks pictured above on an internet cafe wall.  There are a number of time zones shown, but there are no labels to say what is where.  Funny!  Ha ha!  But really, try this little quiz:  What time is it in the zones NDT, AYT, GYT, PYT and CLT?  Answer:  They’re all the same time zone with different names.  Not so funny, is it? 

To solve this problem for myself, I’ve done what many people who deal with multiple time zones on a daily basis have done.  I’ve switched to a GMT± standard.  So, if I know that I am currently GMT+2 and I know somebody else is GMT-4 then I know they are six hours behind me.  For me, that is a lot easier than knowing that I am in CEST and they are in CLT.  (In fact, knowing the latter really doesn’t tell me anything I can use unless I have access to a time zone calculator like the “World Clock” link I put on on the left sidebar for your convenience.) 

Look at it this way:  The relevance of time zones has evolved and increased through history.  Before the railroads made it possible for people to travel great distances, time of day was a purely local phenomena.  The time was whatever the local population said it was.  The railroads couldn’t make schedules based on such local variances, so they promulgated the idea of “time zones” and everyone in each zone used the same time.  Even on trains you couldn’t go all that far, so giving the zones names like “Central Standard Time” was fine.  There, “Eastern Standard Time” was an hour ahead of you and “Mountain” and “Pacific” time were an hour or two behind you.  Simple.  Only a very, very few people needed to know more than an hour ahead or behind and they found ways to just deal with it.  With the advent of the airplane, travel distances increased and the time zone issue became somewhat more problematic, but relatively few people made trips across more than a few time zones at a time and they could just change their watches and do the math once to figure out what time it was “back home.” 

I could make pretty much the same case for the telephone, that while people “could” talk across vast zones, few people really did.  The internet -- and to a large degree my beloved Skype and iChat (and others that will remain nameless) -- has made it so that virtually everyone can reach out and touch someone anywhere in the world -- Have I mentioned it’s free! -- and have to deal with time zones accordingly.  It is no wonder that the “early adopters” of  GMT± are “web people” since they are the ones who have to deal with it the most. 

So, what’s my point?  Well, I suggest it is time for you to add one little piece of information to your mental database: Know your GMT± number.  You may not need it everyday right now, but I guarantee you that you will need it and want to know it more and more often in the near future.  When someone from elsewhere in the world asks you what time zone you are in, don’t give them an antiquated, useless name like “Pacific Daylight Time”, tell them “GMT-7”.  Before you know it, they -- and you -- won’t have to look anything up anymore.  We can all just do some simple math in our heads.  For good reason, dealing with time zones in GMT± isn’t just for geeks and early adopters anymore!  It’s not like converting to the metric system or anything, it is just one simple number to learn and remember.  Try it, you’ll like it!

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