Daylight Saving Time – Plague or Miracle?

I like Ed Markey.  He was even my U.S. Rep after I was redistricted out of Joe Kennedy’s district into his (Can you tell where I used to live, Pablo?).  It isn’t entirely his fault that the next few weeks have the potential to fall somewhere between annoying frustration and total chaos, but he is responsible for the part of the 2005 energy legislation  that lengthened the Daylight Saving Time part of the year.

Why is this a problem?  Computers have been programmed to automatically switch from Standard to Daylight Saving Time, and have been doing it relatively smoothly for a while.  All the computer has to know is when.  And that’s the problem.  It seems there were a few lazy or unimaginative programmers who apparently thought that the rules for when DST would begin and end were handed to Moses on the original stone tablets, so they hard-coded them in operating systems, calendar applications, etc., instead of making the assumption that they could change and that it should be easy to adjust to any changes.

And apparently, many of these short-sighted programmers work in Redmond, Washington, for a little software company that happens to own the major market share for PC operating systems and office-suite applications.


There’s been some tinkering with DST over the years; changes have been made in the name of wartime energy savings and for several other rationales.  So there’s no suggestion that it would never change again, and it just adds to the list of examples critics can cite of Microsoft’s monumental arrogance.  I run the core business system for a medium-sized company, and that computer uses an industrial-strength operating system found primarily in hospitals, lottery systems, financial institutions — industries where you don’t even joke about running the business on a Microsoft platform.  There was a patch to this operating system available months ago to implement the new rule; Microsoft responded to the changes passed in 2005 three weeks ago by sending out updates for Windows.

One of the arguments against breaking Microsoft into an operating-system company and an application company is that there would be better integration between things like Windows and Outlook.  How’s that working out for ya?  My company’s MS Exchange/Outlook e-mail system was down for 18 hours after it was patched for the DST change several days ago.  Without going into any more detail, I’ll just tell you what IT professionals already know — it’s not going well in Microsoft shops, and it could get ugly in the few weeks between the new start (this weekend) and what would have been the old start of DST. 

Where Y2K was happily anticlimactic, this has the potential for enough unpleasant surprises to make grown men weep.  The good news is that Microsoft feels so bad about the situation that it’s going to drop the entry-level price of Windows Vista from $100 to $19.

Just kidding.  In fact, there have been complaints that MS is charging customers thousands of dollars to fix a problem that they designed into the product to begin with.  I’m sure it’s because they need the money.

But enough about Microsoft.  I’m really interested in the question of whether we need to tinker with the clocks at all.  To me it seems like a cheesy mind game, like setting your clock ahead five minutes because you’re always five minutes late for everything.  To tie the concept of time to the rotation of the earth and the relative position of the sun in the sky, and then to play games with it — that never made sense to me.  In fact, the whole concept of time zones could be considered more of a problem than a solution to anything, especially in the age of globalization.  Do you realize that not only is Indiana split between two time zones, but up until recently, whether you observed DST depended on what county you live in?

I like the idea that’s been adopted in aviation, the military, and other disciplines:  UTC, or Coordinated Universal Time (the acronym is derived from the French version), once known as Greenwich Mean Time, is used.  I fly light airplanes as a hobby, and from the time I get to the airport until I get back in my car to go home, there is no Eastern Standard Time, Daylight Saving Time, Happy Shiny Energy Savings Time, or anything else but Zulu (UTC), which is how time is expressed in your dealings with the weather service and the air traffic control system.

I know this will never be widely accepted enough to change at a national level (for all the bluster about how a free-market economy accelerates progress, the list of good ideas that have been adopted in the name of progress in every other industrialized nation besides ours grows longer every year), but it would make a lot of sense to me if we dispensed with DST and time zones altogether.  For one thing, individuals and corporations would be free to adjust hours on the basis of need, and not according to national edict.  If it made sense in the summertime to close up shop at 2100 UTC instead of 2200, that could be implemented on a case-by-case basis.  International customers would know without consulting a chart when your business hours were.

Yes, I know, people don’t like change, and it would be something folks would have to adjust to and get used to.  For example, when I started my flight training it took me about three weeks to get used to expressing and understanding time in Zulu.

In other words, in the three weeks we’re about to spend in computer calendar scheduling limbo, where some computers are going to know what time it is and some aren’t, we could have switched to a simpler, better way of handling it, got used to it, and moved on.

I’m just sayin’.

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14 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. In short answer to your question, should all time be in UTC, the answer is yes.

    I operate in at least five time zones, Pacific, Mountain, Eastern, GMT (or whatever they're calling what's in the UK now), and Central European, and do a mental translation to try to  figure out what time it is in each time zone when I'm operating there.  (I don't have a reason to do Central or Atlantic, but I could do the mental conversions for those zones if I had a reason to.)  And I have to do it from two different time zones--when we're in Boston, I do it from Eastern, and when we're in Munich, I do it from Central European.  And daylight saving time adds to the complication, because the US and the Europeans go on and off daylight saving time (German: Sommerzeit) on different days, which are sometimes a month apart.  UTC is definitely the way to go to resolve any confusion.  It would require providing some instruction on the transition, and it would probably take a generation to get the people to actually think in terms of UTC.

    The rather significant problem is that Americans are as unlikely to switch to UTC as they have proven unwilling to switch to the metric system.  The rest of the civilized, and probably much of the uncivilized, world is on the metric system so why is the USofA not?  (The metric system is the measurement analog to the UTC issue.)  But, unlike the case with the metric system, the rest of the world hasn't switched to UTC as the "common time."  The US will ultimately be driven to the metric system as it becomes far less predominant in economic terms, but there is no obvious push for UTC coming from the rest of the world.

    BTW, there was an interesting segment on NPR's ATC yesterday or the previous day about the reason behind DST (Daylight Savings Time).  It never had anything to do with energy savings.  Studies have never been able to show that energy usage was reduced using DST.  But there is a huge economic benefit to various segments of the economy.  People who get out of work while there is still a significant length of time of day tend to go shopping more.  They go play golf more--more money for the golf courses.  Candy companies pushed to include Holloween in DST because they figured it would increase candy sales, and, voila!, it did. 

    Of course, the same thing could be accomplished by shifting from "time zone" to "UTC," but it would require a mental calculation that, I suspect, few people would currently be willing to make.

    When I was  kid growing up in Cincinnati in the 1960s, I never could understand the DST issue--it didn't get dark in the summer until about 9PM non-DST time; on the other hand, I did understand the issue when I moved to Boston, when it would get dark earlier.  The difference was that Cincinnati and Boston are on opposite ends of the time zone.

    • Agreed

      You're right:  UTC adoption wouldn't have the same urgency based on the rest of the world as it seemed our adopting the metric system would have had, but I definitely have our failure to move to the metric system in mind when I'm realistic about whether this would ever happen.

      Good stuff about the capitalist underpinnings; I'm just now learning how we got to this point with DST, but I can't say I'm shocked.  I  don't go out of my way to be cynical about these things, but it seems no good cynisism goes unrewarded sometimes.

      Thanks for weighing in.

      • A lot of these things that go through Congress have economic underpinnings...

        ...but I wouldn't denigrate capitalists, as you've suggested.  There are employees involved, after all.  And some of them are likely to be capitalists, too.

        • Didn't mean to

          I think I chose the wrong word, if it sounded like I was using "capitalist" as a perjorative; since I'm go as far as to paint that as some evil conspiracy, I probably should have used something like "commercial underpinnings".  I just wasn't aware of those specific drivers (Halloween, greens fees, etc.) among the somewhat amorphous justifications that DST has been given over the years.  That said, I'm not sure that -- all by itself -- selling more Halloween candy would justify tinkering with the clock twice a year.

          Any better solution worth arguing for would have benefits to corporations as well as individuals.  The rule change alone is costing some companies hundreds of thousands of dollars in IT expenditures.  Maybe the candy makers and the country clubs can work it out to kick them a percentage of the windfall.

          • Butchered the edit

            ...since I wouldn't go as far as to paint that as some evil conspiracy, I probably should have used something like "commercial underpinnings".

            • That's fine...

              ...I've seen more than a bit of anti-corporatist anti-capitalist sentiment around here and a few other liberal/lefty blogs, and just wanted to clarify.

              Yes, indeedy...more than a few actions have commercial underpinnings.  Like Halloween--which, as far as I know, isn't celebrated in most of Europe. 

              Or St. Valentines day, which, in the US supports Hallmark, the card company.  Same with Mothers Day.

  2. Check this out

    Shil,

    You seem to know a lot already, but here is my shameless plug nevertheless. Thought it might interest you.

    • Madness, indeed

      Yes, I saw your post, but not until right after I'd put mine up late last night.  I'm glad I'm not alone thinking there's got to be a better way than the way we're doing it.  Now I'm interested in reading more about it, so thanks for the link, and for checking out my post. 

  3. Ick

    Like time zones are such a burden.  Let's just adopt a metric clock -- 100 seconds in each of 100 minutes in each of 10 hours (changing the length of the second as needed) and declare it a doubleplusgood idea.  Everything in the world is standardized, and I'm fine with some goofy holdover ideas even if they give computer programmers a hard time.

    sabutai   @   Tue 4 Dec 7:00 PM
    • Need a Rolodex?

      I have a couple I'm not using anymore.

    • No, that isn't going to happen...

      ...It would wreak havoc even in the sciences, which heavily rely on the MKS (S=second) system of measurement.  (M is meter, K is kilogram)

      Regarding computer programmers, they don't even rely on the existing time system.  Computers measure time from a particular point in time (I don't recall just what it is, sometime in 1980?) and the computer's clock register (a 32 or 64 bit number) progresses from that point, tick (add one to the register), tick (add one), tick (add one).  It's a simple routine to convert the value in the clock register to the current time.

      Actually, my new MS Windows system obviously checks in periodically with the NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) clock to remain in sync with them.  NIST is the gold standard when it comes to time-keeping.

  4. I hate DST.

    I really do.  I want the clock to be the clock, no tinkering, no blurring of the margins.  In fact, I'd love to see us switch to UTC, as it would be authoritative.  (I barely remember it from my military days....I'm getting old.) 

    At any rate, time to eighty-six DST.  Besides, the cows hate it, too.

  5. You're mixing up two things:

    DST, and changing clocks twice a year.

    A lot of people want to keep DST and lose the time-tinkering.

    The move to Standard Time in October is one of the most depressing days of each year, when you emerge from your office into total blackness and have to fight an irrepressible urge to immediately consume a large bowl of potatoes and crawl directly into bed.

    On the other hand, Daylight Savings Time offers hours of usable daylight in the evenings--not just for shopping, but for walking around, talking to your neighbors, and yes, gasp, shopping.

    So, count me in for year-round DST.

    • I love DST...

      ...l like steverino, it's standard time I hate. Dusk starting around 3:30ish in December. Screw that.

      Maybe everyone in the world working on UTC would in a genration make things easier, but right now I'm psychologically attached to the idea of 12 noon being in the middle of the day, being the aporiximate time (give or take a few hours) for lunch.  Whever I am there is a standard-ish time for lunch, standard-ish time for morning commutes (7-ish to 9 ish), standard time for midnight, etc...

      Even if the current time system is archaic and "broke", I can't see that it is that "broke" that the energy needed to "fix it" would make it all worth while.

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