Whisper it softly but these are bad times we live in, literally.

A mass delusion has swept the planet, the extent of which is not lessened by the fact it is hardly commentated upon. People are unable to tell the time and this failing has nothing to do with race, creed or location. North, south, east, west, rich and poor nations alike are blighted by this fin de siecle occurrence.

The time I’m talking about is not the simple matter of looking at your watch, or knowing what time the train leaves Shinjuku but the big time. Not virtual reality but real rock-bottom reality. The time of our lives, to be precise, which is still, whisper it very softly, er, er, the 20th century.

I know, I know, you at the back of the class with your hand raised, I know the question you are about to ask concerning the millennium celebrations that ushered in the new year. Well yes, what about them, except that they were colorful, enjoyable, entertaining and, like talk of full economic recovery, a touch premature.

This news does not exactly spoil the party (they have already been held) besides, anyone with a basic touch of entrepreneurial foresight could hold a millennium bash again, maybe under the slogan “This time it’s for real.”

This delusion has many facets. In London they built a giant pin cushion and called it the Millennium Dome in of all places Greenwich where you could expect, in the meantime, an accurate reading of the century’s progress toward completion. They also constructed a Millennium Wheel, popularly known as the London Eye. A welcome attraction and proof that commercial success does not rest entirely on a product’s name.

In the dying days of last year thousands of tourists spent thousands of dollars and flocked to watch the sunrise on Jan. 1 on near-deserted Pacific islands in the belief that it was the first of the new century. Just 365 days out. Those same islands are still deserted waiting for people to witness the genuine article.

I know, I know, for you at the back of the class much of this is academic, the centuries are marked in Christian time. Jews, Muslims, Hindus have different dates for their calendars, but since Christian time is the acknowledged international measurement surely it’s important to get it right.

OK, so we don’t know the precise day or year that Christ was born and the Gregorian calendar (on which our time is based), like an inaccurate phone bill, has had a few questionable numbers inserted into it. In all likelihood the 21st century started decades ago. But if we accept that we live in the 20th century surely, yes you at the back, of course I see your hand, surely we don’t need the brainpower of Einstein to relatively work out out that the 20th century gets the adjective from its last year.

Mothers proudly display their newborn proclaiming to the world that they are the first batch of 21st century citizens. But they are the last batch from the 20th. Events are heralded as signifying the beginning of the 21st when what they really define is a misunderstanding of the spluttering days of the 20th.

We may have reason to wish the century on its merry way, even to speed its history from our minds and embrace a new time not yet scarred by words such as Holocaust, genocide, or world war. But in a century that boasts as one of its finest achievements the advance in technology and mass communications isn’t it ironic that we can’t tell the exact time?