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Moon Fever

First it was a heavenly body—a beacon, or a world, a place where no one could possibly go. Then, from 1969 to 1972, twelve people landed there in spaceships. On behalf of all humanity, they said. Is it time to go back?

For the New York Review of Books, August 15, 2019

Charles Le Morvan: Systematic Photographic Map of the Moon, Decreasing Phases, 1899–1909

“The Telephone Transformed—Into Practically Everything”


“I carry around one of these little boxes,” says a Motorola executive, Al Zabarsky, “and get every day, besides my personalized mail, clippings from services that clip according to your temperament, from companies that specialize in original source material—whatever you guys in the business call it.”

We used to call it news, Al.

It’s the twenty-fifth anniversary of this New York Times Magazine cover story. In other words, it was written fourteen years before the arrival of the iPhone.

Does it hold up? You be the judge. I mentioned in the opening paragraph a new and little-known communications medium called “electronic mail.” I said, “Our sense of what can be private and what must be public is being overhauled under our noses.” I claimed:

Well into its second century, the telephone has begun a transformation more profound than any in its history—dragging with it much of our other technological baggage, including the computer, the fax machine, the clock, the pager, the compass, the stock ticker and the television.

Pager? Stock ticker? That was a fast twenty-five years.

Oop: Time Travelers Missing from My Book Time Travel

The odds that anyone’s favorite time travelers appear in the pages of Time Travel are, unfortunately, less than 100%. Perhaps much less. Some readers are already, graciously, pointing out the omissions.

One such is Alley Oop, the caveman hero of the comic strip with that name, created by V. T. Hamlin in 1932. He was not a time traveler right from the start. ooptimemachine4939At first he was just a caveman. But let Perry Bowker explain. He is a reader from Burlington, Ontario, and he has the whole story:

I want to point out a possible addition to the Philosophers and Pulps” chapter … I refer to the comic strip “Alley Oop,” which ran in daily papers from the 1930s to the present. The strip took its ultimate shape in the 1939 when the artist, V. T. Hamlin, introduced a peculiar time machine which had the ability to reach into the past, transporting caveman Oop from his prehistoric home, and later shuttling he and companions back and forth to various historic eras. Having quickly absorbed 20th century skills and attitudes, Oop became an explorer of sorts, transported to somewhere in the past, where he often interacted with historic figures like Cleopatra (well-endowed females were a feature of the artwork). The machine’s inventor, Dr. Wonmug, could follow the action on a TV monitor, and often rescued Oop from sticky situations, or not. As was common in funny papers, a story arc played out over weeks or months (a style regrettably almost all gone from comic strips today). Oop could have changed history — how would we ever know?
Oddly, as far as I know, Dr. Wonmug never explored the future with his device.

Clifford Simak paid tribute to Alley Oop by creating a debonair Neanderthal of that name in his 1968 novel, The Goblin Reservation. Wikipedia—the ultimate completist—provides a List of Alley Oop Time Travels.

I’m not a completist myself, obviously. Still, please do send in your missing time travelers.

Time for Earth Time


[First published in slightly different form in The New York Times, Nov. 6, 2016]

We awaken to yet another disturbance in the chronosphere — our twice-yearly jolt from resetting the clocks, mechanical and biological. Thanks to Daylight Saving Time, we get a dose of jet lag without going anywhere.

Most people would be happy to dispense with this oddity of timekeeping, first imposed in Germany exactly 100 years ago, during the First World War. But we can do better. The time has come to deep-six not just Daylight Saving Time but the whole jury-rigged scheme of time zones that has ruled the world’s clocks for the last century and a half.

The time-zone map is a surrealist hodge-podge—a jigsaw puzzle by Dalí. Logically you might assume there are 24, one for each hour. You would be wrong. There are 39, crossing and overlapping, defying the sun, some offset by 30 minutes or even 45, and fluctuating on the whims of local parliamentarians and satraps. The cacaphony of hours confuses global communication. If your teleconference is scheduled for 10:00 BST, will that be Bangladesh Standard Time, Bougainville Standard Time, or British Summer Time?

Let us all—wherever and whenever—live on what the world’s timekeepers call Universal Time, or UTC (though “Earth time” might be less presumptuous). When it’s noon in Greenwich, England, let it be 12:00 everywhere. No more resetting the clocks. No more wondering what time it is in Peoria or Petropavlovsk. No more befuddled headaches crossing the International Dateline from Tuesday back into Monday.

Our biological clocks can stay with the sun, on local time, as they have from the dawn of history. We can continue to live our days and nights as we like, waking and sleeping with the light and the darkness, or not, according to taste. Only the numerals on our devices will change, and they have always been arbitrary.

Some mental adjustment will be necessary at first. Every place will learn a new relationship with the hours. New York (with its longitudinal companions) will be the place where people breakfast at noon, where the sun reaches its zenith around 4 PM, and where people start dinner close to midnight. (“Midnight” will come to seem a quaint word for the zero hour, in places where the sun still shines, and future folk will puzzle over the term “high noon.”) In Sydney, the sun will set around 7 AM, but the Australians can handle it; after all, their winter comes in June.

The human relationship with time changed dramatically with the arrival of modernity—trains and telegraphs and wristwatches all around—and we can see it changing yet again in our globally networked era. It’s time to synchronize our watches for real.

I’m not the first to propose this seemingly radical notion. The visionary Arthur C. Clarke suggested a single all-Earth time zone when he was pondering the future of global communication as far back as 1976. Two Johns Hopkins University professors, Richard Conn Henry and Steve H. Hanke, an astrophysicist and an economist, have been advocating it for several years. Aviation already uses UTC (they call it “Zulu time”), and so do many computer folk. Scientists know that UTC is maintained to the nanosecond by a global array of atomic clocks. Strange as Earth time might seem at first, the awkwardness would soon pass and the benefits would be “immense,” Henry and Hanke argue. “The economy—that’s all of us—would receive a permanent ‘harmonization dividend.’”

Perhaps you’re asking why the Greenwich meridian gets to define Earth time. Why should only Britain keep the traditional hours? Yes, it’s unfair, but that ship has sailed. The French don’t like it either. With e whole world on Earth time, the English would get a nostalgia bonus. “The U.K. would turn into a time theme park,” tweets John Powers from the Lake District, “where you could experience 9 o’clock as your grandparents knew it.”

People forget how recent is the development of our whole ungainly apparatus. A century and a half ago, time zones did not exist. They were a consequence of the invention of railroads. At first they were neither popular nor easy to understand. When New York officially reset its clocks to railway time on Sunday, Nov. 18, 1883—known afterwards as “The Day of Two Noons”—this newspaper methodically explained the messy affair:

When the reader of The Times consults his paper at 8 o’clock this morning at his breakfast table it will be 9 o’clock in St. John, New- Brunswick, 7 o’clock in Chicago, or rather in St. Louis—for Chicago authorities have refused to adopt the standard time, perhaps because the Chicago meridian was not selected as the one on which all time must be based—6 o’clock in Denver, Col., and 5 o’clock in San Francisco. That is the whole story in a nut-shell.

It was by no means the whole story. Time, that most ancient and mysterious of our masters, seemed to be coming under human jurisdiction. Time seemed malleable. It was no coincidence that H. G. Wells now invented his time machine, nor that Einstein invented relativity soon after. With everything still unsettled, Germany created Sommerzeit, “summer time,” as Daylight Saving Time is still called in Europe. In England, King Edward VII, had the clocks on the royal estate moved forward a half-hour—“Sandringham time”—to allow more evening light for hunting.

“There was much talk of relative time, physiological time, subjective time and even compressible time,” wrote the French novelist Marcel Aymé in “The Problem of Summer Time,” a 1943 time-travel story. “It became obvious that the notion of time, as our ancestors had transmitted it down the millennia, was in fact absurd claptrap.”

Aymé was reacting in part to the politicization of time zones: the Nazis imposed Berlin time on Paris when they occupied it in World War II. It is no less political today, no less arbitrary, and no less confusing. Last year North Korea set its clocks back 30 minutes to create an oddball time zone all its own, Pyongyang time—just to show that it could, apparently. On the other hand, China has established a single time zone across its breadth, overlapping six time zones in its northern and southern neighbors.

Drawbacks? Those bar-crawler T-shirts that read “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere” will go obsolete.

It might seem impossible to imagine all the world’s nations uniting behind an official Earth time. We’re a country that can’t get seem to rid of the penny or embrace the meter. Still, the current system is unstable, a Rube Goldberg contraption ready to collapse from its own complexity.

The human relationship with time is changing again. We’re not living in the railroad world anymore. We’re living in a networked world—a zone of experience where the sun neither rises nor sets. What time zone governs Twitter? What time is it on Facebook? There’s plenty to argue about in cyberspace, as in the real world. We could at least agree on the time.

The Discovery of Time

Twenty-five years after the publication of H. G. Wells’s first book, The Time Machine, the “new realist” philosopher Samuel Alexander said this:

If I were asked to name the most characteristic feature of the thought of the last twenty-five years I should answer: the discovery of Time.

That’s the the “new realist” philosopher Samuel Alexander, twenty-five years after the publication of H. G. Wells’s first book, The Time Machine

I do not mean that we have waited till to-day to become familiar with Time. I mean that we have only just begun in our speculation to take Time seriously and to realize that in some way or other Time is an essential ingredient in the constitution of things.

More about the discovery of time in my new book, Time Travel.)

Remembering “Chris Marker”

Ben Lerner offers a beautiful tribute in the Paris Review to the creator of La jetée, the movie—or “photo-novel”—that serves as my touchstone in Chapter Ten of Time Travel (The Paradoxes). Lerner introduces that strange and wonderful man this way:

Chris Marker, whose name was not “Chris Marker,” was a play of masks and avatars, an artist who leapt, like one of his beloved cats, from medium to medium.  

It’s almost impossible to find a photograph of the elusive Marker. The occasion for Lerner’s essay is a years-long accumulation of photographs by Adam Bartos of Marker’s studio in Paris—portraits, as Lerner says, “from which the subject has gone missing.” It is a strange memorial: objects displaced in time, spaces both crowded and empty. Fitting for an artist whose subject was memory. Which is to say, forgetting.

See also the cornucopia of Marker images and archives at

Annals of Internet Porn: 1995

[First published in The New York Times Magazine, June 11, 1995,
under the headline “This Is Sex?”
A version of this essay appears in What Just Happened.]

AT FIRST GLANCE, THERE’S a lot of sex on the Internet. Or, not at first glance—nobody can find anything on the Internet at first glance. But if you have time on your hands, if you’re comfortable with computing, and if you have an unflagging curiosity about sex—in other words, if you’re a teen-ager—you may think you’ve suddenly landed in pornography heaven. Nude pictures! Foul language! Weird bathroom humor! No wonder the Christian Coalition thinks the Internet is turning into a red-light district. There’s even a “Red Light District” World Wide Web page.

The battle cry of the online voyeur is “Host Contacted—Waiting for Reply”

So we explore. Some sites make you promise to be a grown-up. (O.K.: you promise.) You try “Girls,” a link leading to a computer at the University of Bordeaux, France. The message flashes back: Document Contains No Data. “Girls” at Funet, Finland, seems to offer lots of pictures (Dolly Parton! Ivana Trump!)—Connect Timed Out. “Girls,” courtesy of Liberac University of Technology, Czech Republic, does finally, with painful slowness, deliver itself of a 112,696-byte image of Madchen Amick. You could watch it spread across your screen, pixel by tantalizing pixel, but instead you go have lunch during the download, and when you return, there she is—in black-and-white and wearing clothes.

These pictures, by the way, are obviously scanned from magazines. And magazines are the ideal medium for them. Clearly the battle cry of the online voyeur is “Host Contacted—Waiting for Reply.”

With old Internet technology, retrieving and viewing any graphic image on a PC at home could be laborious. New Internet technology, like browsers for the Web, makes all this easier, though it still takes minutes for the typical picture to squeeze its way through your modem. Meanwhile, though, ease of use has killed off the typical purveyor of dirty pictures, capable of serving hundreds of users a day but uninterested in handling hundreds of thousands. The Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers has turned off its “Femmes femmes femmes je vous aime” Web page. The good news for erotica fans is that users are redirected to a new site where “You can find naked women, including topless and total nudity”; the bad news is that this new site is the Louvre.

The Internet does offer access to hundreds of sex “newsgroups,” forums for discussion encompassing an amazing spectrum of interests. They’re easy to find—in the newsgroup hierarchy “” (“alt” for alternative) comes right after “alt.sewing.” And yes, is busier than alt.sewing. But quite a few of them turn out to be sham and self-parody. Look at—practically nothing.—aha! just what Jesse Helms fears most—gives way to, and fascinating as this sounds, when you call it up you find it’s empty, presumably the vestige of a short-lived joke. is followed by—help!

Still, if you look hard enough, there is grotesque stuff available. If pornography doesn’t bother you, your stomach may be curdled by the vulgar commentary and clinical how-to’s in the militia and gun newsgroups. Your local newsstand is a far more user-friendly source of obscenity than the on-line world, but it’s also true that, if you work at it, you can find plenty on line that will disgust you, and possibly even disgust your children.

This is the justification for an effort in Congress to give the Federal Government tools to control the content available on the Internet. The Communications Decency Act, making its way through Congress, aims to transform the obscene-phone-call laws into a vehicle for prosecuting any Internet user, bulletin-board operator, or on-line service that knowingly makes obscene material available.

As originally written, the bill would not only have made it a crime to write lewd E-mail to your lover; it would also have made it a crime for your Internet provider to transmit it. After a round of lobbying from the large on-line services, the bill’s authors have added “defenses” that could exempt mere unwitting carriers of data, and they say it is children, not consenting adults, they aim to protect. Nevertheless, the legislation is a historically far-reaching attempt at censorship on a national scale.

The Senate authors of this language do not use E-mail themselves, or browse the Web, or chat in newsgroups, and their legislation reflects a mental picture of how the on-line world works that does not match the reality. The existing models for Federal regulation of otherwise protected speech—for example, censorship of broadcast television and prohibition of harassing telephone calls—come from a world that is already vanishing over the horizon. There aren’t three big television networks now, serving a unified mass market; there are thousands of television broadcasters serving ever-narrower special interests. And on the Internet, the number of broadcasters is rapidly approaching the number of users: uncountable.

With Internet use spreading globally, most live sources of erotic images already seem to be overseas. The sad reality for Federal authorities is that they cannot cut those off without forcing the middlemen—on-line services in the United States—to do the work of censorship, and that work is a practical impossibility. Any teen-ager with an account on Prodigy can use its new Web browser to search for the word “pornography” and click his way to “Femmes femmes femmes” (oh, well, better luck next time). Policing discussion groups presents the would-be censor with an even more hopeless set of choices. A typical Internet provider carries more than 10,000 groups. As many as 100 million new words flow through them every day. The actual technology of these discussion groups is hard to fathom at first. They are utterly decentralized. Every new message begins on one person’s computer and propagates outward in waves, like a chain letter that could eventually reach every mailbox in the world. Legislators would like to cut off a group like at the source, or at its home—but it has no source and no home, or rather, it has as many homes as there are computers carrying newsgroups.

This is the town-square speech the First Amendment was for: often rancorous, sometimes harsh and occasionally obscene. Voices do carry farther now. The world has never been this global and this intimate at once. Even seasoned Internet users sometimes forget that, lurking just behind the dozen visible participants in an out-of-the-way newsgroup, tens of millions of potential readers can examine every word they post.

If a handful of people wish to share their private experiences with like-minded people in, they can do so, efficiently—the most fervent wishes of Congress notwithstanding — and for better or worse, they’ll have to learn that children can listen in. Meanwhile, if gun-wielding extremists wish to discuss the vulnerable points in the anatomy of F.B.I. agents, they too can do so. At least the rest of us can listen in on them, too. Perhaps there is a grain of consolation there—instead of censorship, exposure to the light. Anyway, the only real alternative now would be to unwire the Information Superhighway altogether.

Her Majesty Defines Time

I learned the hard way that after one writes a book disgruntled readers will ask, “All right—but what is [X], anyway?” (where X may be, for example, chaos or information). Apparently one has failed to provide a succinct definition of the thing in question.

“What is time?” This may be the most difficult of all.

So you can imagine my relief at discovering that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has settled the question legislatively. In 1880, “the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty” (Victoria, of course), by and with “the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal” (Time Lords!), enacted once and for all the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act. It declares itself to be “an Act to remove doubts as to the meaning of Expressions relative to Time occurring in Acts of Parliament, deeds, and other legal instruments.”

Statutes Definition of Time ActRemoving doubts about the meaning of time is an ambitious goal. Alas, it turns out that the question answered by this legislation is not What is time? but a related and simpler question, What is the time?

Answer: The time, in Great Britain, is Greenwich mean time. Oh, well. That’s a little deflating. Even this simple Act, however, failed in its hope of removing all doubts.

A few years later—to be exact, on August 19, 1898, at 8:15 PM (Greenwich mean time)—a man named Gordon was nabbed, nicked, busted, and collared by the police in Bristol for riding his bicycle without a lamp. The local law clearly stated that every person riding a bicycle (which, by the way, was defined as a “carriage”) shall carry a lamp, so lighted as to afford adequate means of signaling the approach of the bicycle, during the period between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise. Got it? On the evening in question, sunset in Greenwich had occurred at 7:13 PM, so Gordon was caught riding lampless a full hour and two minutes after sunset.

This did not sit well with the accused man, because the sun set ten minutes later in Bristol than in Greenwich: 7:23, not 7:13. Nonetheless, the Justices of the city of Bristol, relying on the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act, found him guilty. After all, they reasoned, everyone would benefit by having “a readily ascertained time of lighting up.”

With the help of his solicitors, Darley & Cumberland, poor Gordon appealed. The question before the Court of Appeals was described as “an astronomical one.” And the appellate court saw it his way. They ruled that “sunset” is not a “period of time” but a physical fact. Justice Channell was especially insistent:

According to the decision of the Justices, as it stands, a man on an unlighted bicycle may be looking at the sun in the heavens, and yet be liable to be convicted of the offence of not having his lamp lighted an hour after sunset.

Next question: what is “noon”?