Zen and the art of time zones


Four weeks ago, in this space, we put on our flying scarves and took a jetsetter’s look at the phonetic alphabet. We wound up by noting that “Zulu,” the phonetic term for the letter “Z,” is also shorthand for Greenwich Mean Time. GMT is rooted in the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. It’s the reference point for zero degrees longitude and it serves as the reference point for the world’s time zones. Navigation and time zones go together like peanut butter and jelly if you do it right, or like payday Friday and car crashes if someone messes things up.

If you’re on Saipan and doing business internationally, you often have to describe how to reckon local time to people who have never even seen Saipan on a map.

First of all, we have to stir the alphabet soup a bit. In addition to GMT, you might also encounter the term “UTC,” which stands for Coordinated Universal Time; I think the abbreviation doesn’t match the term because it’s really a French phrase. Anyway, whatever it came from, it’s just a scientifically-refined version of GMT. It has something to do with atomic clocks, if you’re wondering. Anyway, “GMT,” “UTC,” and “Zulu” are the same thing for our purposes.

When it comes to time differences, there are probably more misunderstandings than understandings on this count, especially when dealing with the U.S. mainland. I’ve seen some business disputes boil up out of this stuff because of broken deadlines. The biggest dispute I was in pertained to a broken deadline to receive a critical (and expensive) aircraft component. I don’t know who was really at fault in the matter, but finding fault doesn’t solve a problem when your aircraft is sitting on the ground, gathering dust, instead of flying in the sky making profits.

When it comes to the time zone thing, one approach that is popular, but not very effective, is to have your most inarticulate clerk explain to some other clerk in a distant land how to reckon local time.

Good luck with that. Not only won’t they agree on what time it is, they won’t even agree on what day it is.

I have a three-step approach to this problem.

First of all, I say that “Saipan’s time is GMT plus 10 hours.”

If I’m dealing with pilots, mariners, foreign-exchange traders, or other geographically-savvy people, this is entirely sufficient. Problem solved.

On the other hand, if I’m dealing with someone who might not be entirely comfortable with the GMT realm, I’ll add a second step by noting, “If you don’t want to mess with GMT, then you can consider that Saipan’s time is Tokyo time plus one hour.”

This leads me to my third step, and this is the most elegant part of the process: I shut up.

After all, open-ended discussions about what time it is on Saipan when it’s 5pm in Peoria aren’t going to get you very far. These things go around in circles.

On a more abstract note, I’ll offer an observation that applies not only to time zones but also to the overall concept of navigation: Many people see themselves as the reference for the outside world’s elements. This is subjective. This is intuitive. This is a great way to remain perpetually lost.

By contrast, navigators, and, likewise, those who juggle time zones, understand that the only meaningful way to consider their positions is to reckon how those positions are situated relative to an outside object, which is to say, a landmark. GMT, time-wise, serves as this landmark. GMT is the basic reference, not us. We work around GMT, it doesn’t work around us.

If you want to get downright philosophical about it, we can note that this brings us to the ancient split between the subjective and the objective outlooks.

Modern technology, of course, appeals to the subjective impulse. The “I’m the center of the world” outlook meshes with the way GPS displays are typically configured. On more than one occasion I’ve been a car passenger when some feckless driver, in a slack-jawed trance, is blindly following the magical GPS screen and gets utterly lost in the process.

Likewise, if you wind up having to discuss a time-zone calculation, or anything else in just about any realm I can think of, you might be met with rolling eyes as someone snips, “There’s an app for that.” Well, true enough. There are certainly many very clever apps out there. For me, though, while technology makes a great tool, I’m not willing to let it supplant my basic connection to the physical world.

Anyway, where were we? Oh yeah, trying to figure out what time it is. Well, I do know that it’s Friday night. I can’t tell the drunk drivers from the screen-watchers these days, so I’m just going to keep off the roads and hunker down in the kitchen with a peanut butter sandwich. It is, therefore, the best time of all: dinner time.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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