Vanishing Point A Bookand Websiteby Ander Monson


Days, Time of

#An obscure place, if it can be called a place at all, the Zoneinfo database is a public domain database which "contains code and data that represent the history of local time for many representative locations around the globe." You probably won't have heard of it. It's only required reading for system administrators and those whose job it is to update computer systems running on some variety of Unix (this includes nearly all big mainframes as well as any Mac made after 2000 or so). And then it's under constant discussion by those who subscribe to the time zone electronic mailing list. But you, the unknowing end-user, won't need to check it out unless you want to. It's the database that contains rules for your computer that allows your machine to automatically adjust to daylight savings time or time zones as you move throughout the world or the calendar year.

#At this time I live in Arizona, which has its own time zone. As of this writing, the state does not change time to save daylight, so for part of the year it is effectively on Mountain Time, and the rest of the year, the state is effectively on pacific time. (The Navajo Nation in Arizona does honor daylight saving time--though the Hopi Nation, which is entirely surrounded by the Navajo Nation, does not, so there is a daylight saving time doughnut within the confines of the state.) This has not always been the case. On March 31, 1918, most of Arizona (except some of the western cities) went on Daylight Saving time (known at the time as War Time). In 1919 congress repealed the law mandating Daylight Saving time, and Arizona, like many other states, returned to standard time, having no interest in saving any daylight. Then in 1942 Arizona, like most states, went back to War Time on FDR's mandate. In 1944 Arizona's governor rebelled and decreed that the state return to Standard Time (excepting some western communities and any industries mandated by federal law to continue on War Time, such as railroads). Four months later, the Arizona legislature validated this decision and returned to standard time for 23 years. In 1966 Congress got uppity and passed The Uniform Time Act that went into effect in 1967 mandating Daylight Saving Time across the board. Arizona honored that for one summer only and then went back off DST which continues to this day, though the last section of the law states ominously and redundantly (one can't mandate that a law can never be changed) that "The rejection of daylight saving time as provided for in this section may be changed by future legislative action."

#Of course Arizona's actual time zone has changed several times, from Pacific to Mountain, that is, when there was a statewide time zone at all. Geographically Mountain seems more right. Arizona has mountains but is nowhere close to the Pacific. Most of Arizona is the opposite of the Pacific, obvious and cactused and dry. But like Michigan, it exists on the cusp, not on on a coast, not central, and is only variably comfortable calling itself Pacific. Arizona's current time zone is called Arizona time, which is also suggestive of a general lackadaiscal (or laid-back) approach to road construction and other state-run Official Things to Fix and Do.

#Until I moved to Arizona I had little experience with this waffling. Michigan, though originally, like Arizona, granted an exception from DST because it was so far west, eventually decided to switch to DST (though the Upper Peninsula, my own peninsula, lagged behind, and geographically should certainly be on Central Time rather than the Eastern that the rest of the state is on; in fact, four counties--the ones that border Wisconsin, itself on Central Time--on the western edge of the Upper Peninsula are still on Central Time, shockingly). I say shockingly because I am actually shocked to find this out. Did I know this? Maybe. This is just one of the thousands of strange eddies within the apparent ease and convenience of the rules imposed by time zones and Daylight Saving Time (interestingly I assumed it was Daylight Savings Time, note the extra s, though that appears to be not the case, as grammar would suggest the time is used to save daylight).

#For some time the western world has defined our time by relation to Greenwich Mean Time, which has given way to and is generally approximately equivalent to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). UTC has since been modified twice (slightly, to keep it within .9 seconds of GMT as the earth's rotation shows a slight variance, leading to seasonal fluctuations) and is now based on atomic time, which is more futuristic sounding, but also, more importantly, much more constant and predictable.

#Pleasingly, the Zoneinfo database includes these sorts of stories buried within the lines of the code in the huge file that you can download and read for fun. Here's what a bit of code actually looks like:

# Rule  NAME       FROM   TO     TYPE IN  ON      AT   SAVE LETTER
Rule    Menominee  1946   only   -    Apr lastSun 2:00 1:00 D
Rule    Menominee  1946   only   -    Sep lastSun 2:00 0    S
Rule    Menominee  1966   only   -    Apr lastSun 2:00 1:00 D
Rule    Menominee  1966   only   -    Oct lastSun 2:00 0    S

# Zone  NAME              GMTOFF   RULES   FORMAT   [UNTIL]
Zone    America/Menominee -5:50:27 -       LMT      1885 Sep 18 12:00
                          -6:00    US      C%sT     1946
                          -6:00 Menominee  C%sT     1969 Apr 27 2:00
                          -5:00    -       EST      1973 Apr 29 2:00
                          -6:00    US      C%sT

#This first section of code explains the Menominee rule, which means that Menominee county, one of the western Michigan counties that border Wisconsin, observed daylight savings time in 1946 and 1966, whereas Michigan did not. The second set of code indicates the Menominee rule was invoked during the following years: up to 1885 it was minus 5 hours, fifty minutes, and twenty-seven seconds from GMT, and was operating at LMT (Local Mean Time) which was locally determined. In the years 1946 and 1966 it differed from the US rule in that it did use Daylight Saving Time. In 1969 it switched back to the US rule and joined the Eastern Time Zone, then in 1973 it returned to the Central Time Zone which is where it currently resides.

#So the code is designed to guide computers that want to be able to display the correct local time in Menominee county at any date in recent history and into the future.

#The code is also designed to guide the humans that guide the computers that need to be able to display correct local time, so the editors and writers of the Zoneinfo database can remember what they thought and argued about and learned years ago.

#The measurement of time continues to be contentious, with the necessity of periodic leap seconds and leap years and other calendrical legedermain. When we measure, we invoke authority, so as authorities battle, so do measurements. We may live in the modern world, but then, we always have lived in the modern world until it ages and becomes less so. To this day the British pint glass, which uses the Imperial Measure, holds 20 fluid ounces. The American pint glass, based on the English Measure (which England changed to the Imperial System after America's independence), holds only 16 ounces. And even to this day the British fluid ounce is slightly smaller than the American fluid ounce, so even among friends and allies and cultures that are as close as you're going to get to equivalent in this world, we do not agree what makes up something as apparently standard as a pint.

#If you don't read much code, you should know that every programming language allows you to include comments within the code of a program. Good programming practices include commenting your code so that other programmers can easily determine why the code looks like it does, and how it works, in order to better update it. Plus you yourself, if you're a computer programmer, might have to return to a piece of code later, and if it's sufficiently complicated, you'll be happy you left yourself notes for the future so you understand what you were thinking and doing when you wrote said code. The comments are not operated or even included when the code is compiled (in order to run a program you wrote, you need to compile the code--to render it executable by a user, and the comments won't be useful at that point). For those operating on open-source systems (like Unix, which uses a variant of the C programming language as often as anything else) the code is publicly available, and as such it usually includes comments. The comments in the Zoneinfo database are extensive (because the rules are labyrinthine, and they change all the time since state or local or federal governments can mandate new ways of approaching time; and they do! as recently as 2007 Indiana decided that all of its counties would abide by Daylight Saving Time (formerly they were county by county, which was obviously confusing, even if it was more convenient from a local standpoint).

#As an aside, because Amtrak trains--a federally-funded program--cannot leave a station before their designated departure time, in order to conform to DST and other variations, they will occasionally have to stop for one hour at 2am on the day when the time changes over in order to not arrive early or late. So if you're on a passenger train overnight on that date you might experience this hour of nonmotion, of dead time, intransitive in transit, and wonder.

#I always sucked at the time change. Back when I went to church I would almost inevitably show up an hour late after we fell back into regular time. Beyond that I can't say I cared a whole lot. You have to admit it doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense.

#In Unix scripts the pound (#) symbol at the beginning of a line of code indicates that the line is a comment, meant for humans only, not an instruction, and is not to be executed by the machine.

#I'm not sure how the pound symbol was accorded such a status. Probably it was used since it is not a mathematical operand (you'd be an idiot to choose the plus sign or an equals sign, as flashy and dashing as it might otherwise be, to indicate a comment) and isn't usable in Unix in other ways. If you're reading from somewhere other than America (yay), the glyph is also called the number sign, though in the 1960s telephone engineers tried to coin a special name for the symbol (variously octothorpe, octathorp, octatherp, or octothorp, designed to irritate their superiors at Bell Laboratories since the name included the diphthong which does not translate to all languages, so would create irritations down the line; this invented name was reportedly introduced in a footnote (a kind of comment) in a technical document outlining the use of the symbol). These names did not catch on but persist in lore (and persist here), and you can of course find lots of discussion of their invention and abandonment if you troll deep enough in the informational history of the phone system. Resultingly, properly you might call "2#" two pounds and a "#2 pencil" a number-two pencil, so the location of the glyph--prefix or postfix--determines the way it's read, at least in North America.

#Pounds have been a major consideration in my life. Both in London when trying to figure out just how much my McDonalds McTexan burger was costing me in real terms, and back in the States where I have always considered myself a fat kid, even though I am less fat, and a long way from being a kid.

#Sometimes I think that the essay is a way of commenting the code of the world.

#In HTML comments are not typically read by the machine that executes it (your browser software). They can be read by other software, however, and executed in different ways. As an example, this page (this site) is built in Dreamweaver with templates, so there are comments in the source that indicate to Dreamweaver which part of the page is user-editable, and which is the template. These comments are not meant for humans, except the humans doing the programming and editing.

#You had better believe that the world runs on code, and is itself code. Listen to the teams involved in delivering the fully-sequenced and -understood genome to the scientists of the world. Listen to the Y2K freaker-outers who played Cassandra until we threw lots and lots of know-how and money into the problem and actually succeeded, for once, a rarity!, in defusing a potential major problem before it happened; as a result Y2K was a nonevent, and it was sadly a kind of letdown for those of us who really wanted to see the world brought a notch or two lower through lazy coding. But, unlike, say, Katrina, it seemed anticlimactic, because either (1) it wasn't that big of a deal in the first place or (2) we actually prevented it, so it stopped being news.

#And as a result the real action and muscle, the code moving underneath the skin of the world, receded into invisibility. A recent SLATE article makes the claim that the Y2K freakout was at least partly responsible for elevating the status of IT as a profession to its then ascendancy.

#As it is in the world, in the Zoneinfo database the real action is in fact in the comments. They include records of debates over time zones and time changes, with one person citing sources at or over another:

# From Paul Eggert (1999-03-31):
# Shanks writes that Michigan started using standard time on 1885-09-18,
# but Howse writes (pp 124-125, referring to Popular Astronomy, 1901-01)
# that Detroit kept
# local time until 1900 when the City Council decreed that clocks should
# be put back twenty-eight minutes to Central Standard Time. Half the
# city obeyed, half refused. After considerable debate, the decision
# was rescinded and the city reverted to Sun time. A derisive offer to
# erect a sundial in front of the city hall was referred to the
# Committee on Sewers. Then, in 1905, Central time was adopted
# by city vote.
# This story is too entertaining to be false, so go with Howse over Shanks.

#I don't know if I remember the first time I had a sense that there was such a thing as a time zone or the saving of daylight. I knew that when I would travel to the western counties in Michigan we had to be careful about arriving at the wrong time, but I thought it was because of the backwardness of Wisconsin which everyone in Upper Michigan understands implicitly.

#I was ten or so when I first used a modem to connect my computer to another's computer. I started calling bulletin board systems (BBSes) in California, since a friend of mine had recently moved to California and was somehow connected to the pirated software scene out there. He gave me a couple numbers to dial up systems in Marin County since I didn't know any local ones. One was run by a guy who called himself Eagleman. I don't know why. You have to have a name, a handle, and Eagleman isn't any worse than anything else, even if the guy was operating on Pacific Time and under the rules of California which I never fully believed was an actual, physical place until this moment of connection.

#When you logged into a pirate BBS for the first time you had to pass some kind of test to prove your hacker knowledge, to prove that you belonged to the culture, that you knew what you were doing, and that you were not a cop.

#This is where l33t speak originates. If you've used the forums on most popular websites or frequent websites where computer geek types congregate you've seen this: l33t pronounced "leet" and short for "elite." Elite meant you were above the fray of regular computer users, that you had specialized knowledge, that you had seen inside of the systems that the rest of the world took for granted. Partly because of its exclusivity and partly because of its illegality this culture developed its own language, its own jargon, and its own codes. The idea was that someone who didn't know the code wouldn't be able to understand what you were talking about with other hackers or software pirates, so you would be safe talking to other pirates. Since then geek culture has invaded most aspects of culture (because geek culture undergirds and makes possible most other media) so that it has started to rear its head up more and more publicly. As always technology allows us to keep our conversations hidden, as in comments hidden inside of code, or just buried among the trillions of data-wells and dead ends that a system as complicated as this very one inevitably produces. l33tspeak, along with other vocabulary (multiple choice tests, even: "what is the name of a device that mimics the tone of the quarters people put in pay phones? 1> black box; 2> mauve box; 3> red box; 4> blotto box" for instance) would sometimes be part of these initial tests that you would have to fill out to prove you belonged.

#Some BBSes specialized in various kinds of private knowledge: textfiles designed to show you how to hack software or hardware systems, or the telephone system, or TYMNET or whatever. Some BBSes specialized in drugs, particularly the psychotropic and homemade variety. Others specialized in illegally pirated and cracked software. Others in sex. These were all, then as now, powerful lures. You could choose your vice community and you could certainly find it out there. Out there was thousands on thousands of telephone numbers that led to nowhere, mostly, but occasionally to networks or to BBSes or sometimes to people.

#An older computer game, Leisure Suit Larry, written for adults, would make you take a test at the beginning, too, to establish your age. They'd ask questions that they figured ten year olds wouldn't be able to know or figure out (how many calories is in a can of beer was one that I remember, and what was the use of spanish fly--odd that these things stick with you). We'd just call our friends and ask their older brothers. The game sucked. You probably played it and hoped for the litany of lame jokes to give way at last to pixelated images of boobs and puns about sex.

#$400 worth of phone bills to BBSes like Eagleman's later, I realized that I would have to find some local BBSes so as not to have to pay long distance (and not to have to hack my way to free phone calls as I would learn how to do later), plus there was the issue of time zones keeping us apart. This would be a bigger problem in Saudi Arabia, where to connect with anyone in the states, you would have to take into account the seven-hour time difference, so I would end up staying up most of the night and dialing through a local network into BBS systems surrounding Washington, D. C., then go to bed with the sun's rise, rinse, and repeat.

#It's no surprise that I, like other oddities, established my own schedule for my own reasons. Zoneinfo tells us many of these individual stories. The Mount Washington Observatory Weather Station atop Mount Washington, NH, does not change their clocks ever for DST. As of 2006, in Wisconsin, since the Daylight Saving changeover happened at 1am and bars closed at 2am, every year police issued citations for the sale of alcohol after prohibited hours to confused bartenders. Then in 2007 Wisconsin's government updated this rule and that small loophole of story was closed.

#These stories are important not only because of usefulness: while it's possible a user might want to know what time it was in 1967 in Washtenaw County in Michigan on a certain date, and how far off that was from GMT, that seems like a pretty esoteric goal. (Though for scientists trying to sync various types of data the translation's accuracy is important.) These are important for their own sake, for the sake of history and preservation.

#The clock on my wife's car seems to run fast. Every month or so we have to reset it. The clock is one of those mechanisms that I rely on more than I should, and it's not like this is complicated tech.

#One of the features of the Zoneinfo database is that it's meant to be interactive. As the Europe datafile indicates:

# This data is by no means authoritative; if you think you know better,
# go ahead and edit the file (and please send any changes to
# for general use in the future).

#It's an oddity that since time is mostly meaningful for humans in terms of sunlight and transition into night, the further you are away from the equator, the less time begins to mean. At the equator, the difference between time zones is several hours of travel. As we move toward the poles, approaching the South Pole, for instance, the longitudinal lines start to rapidly converge, so that at some point, you could presumably lay your body down across five or six time zones so that the zone starts to be meaningless. It has nothing to do with daylight. And the closer you are to the poles the longer the days and nights become, respectively, so time loses that hold on actual lived experience, though the actual passing of time in darkness for 20 hours might become, perversely, even more important in the absence of the usual physical cues of time passing. This is probably why all the stations in the Antarctic just use the time zone of their home country.

#If you settle a new piece of land somewhere you'll want to let people know, at least the Zoneinfo people know, what time you plan to keep.

#Somehow, at the South Pole, all the clocks run fast there too. Every couple days they have to resync them because they gain 5-10 minutes a day. Also:

# The tz database does not currently support Mars time, but it is
# documented here in the hopes that support will be added eventually.

#It's still amazing to realize that you're talking to someone three hours earlier in the evening. You wonder why they're so chipper when you're tiring and then you know. It is almost as if you are speaking to the past, you think, but then that makes no real sense when looked at in the light. It is one of many modern magics that this is possible. You could call one town in the Upper Peninsula from another twenty minutes away, leave town A, and arrive at town B earlier than when you left. Sure it all makes sense when you think hard about it, when you get inside it. But in the moment before the mystery resolves, we should just enjoy that question mark, and then we can find out more if we want to about all of the world's whatever. (Take a hint and look at the code of a thing if you want to see inside it.)

#Lastly, here's a quoted bit from Zoneinfo:

# From Winston Churchill (1934-04-28):
# It is one of the paradoxes of history that we should owe the boon of
# summer time, which gives every year to the people of this country
# between 160 and 170 hours more daylight leisure, to a war which
# plunged Europe into darkness for four years, and shook the
# foundations of civilization throughout the world.

Which will do for a point of termination.