Friday, March 09, 2007

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. 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'.

Cross-posted at Blue Mass Group