Are we really saving time?

c: | f: /

Daylight bloody savings time is upon us once more. That weird tradition where we alter the clocks in order to… well, what the heck do we do it for?

I really don’t care for flip-flopping Daylight Savings Time twice a year. Being a programmer, and having written code that deals with dates and calendars on many an occasion, it’s another headache in a long line of software headaches I could do without. Timezones are bad enough without the additional burden of whimsy legislation to fiddle with our perception of time.

There have always been rumours and falsehoods about why this spurious practice prevails. For the farmers to get an extra hour of daylight. For the safety of kids so they don’t have to go to school in the dark. For the planet because it saves energy. I’ve heard them all, and none of them stand up to scrutiny.

Truth is, up here at around 51.5° north of the equator, days get shorter in winter. No amount of altering clocks will get away from the fact. Taking the energy angle, pulling the clocks back an hour might make it light enough for a while in the morning to not have to put the lights on, but it means you need them on at five pm instead. Studies have been performed to analyse the effects, and energy savings are negligible, if not worse, when shunting time around. In places with hot climates, an extra hour in the evening means the air conditioning is on an hour longer. That adds up.

If the safety of children is a concern, change the working pattern instead. In winter, why not make school and work start at 9:30 or 10am instead and work an hour later? And if farmers really needed an extra hour in summer, they could get up an hour earlier. It’s light enough to do so without meddling with all our timepieces.

The tradition has been in and out of favour for hundreds of years. Heck, Edward VII even decreed that Sandringham had its own timezone half an hour ahead of the rest of the UK between 1901 and 1936. But it wasn’t really until the world war(s) that the practice took off, when changing the clocks meant big savings in coal consumption and better use of daylight for preparing to engage the enemy.

Now it just seems silly, especially given that not all places observe it, and it happens at different times of the year depending where you live. The US put the clocks back a week later than the UK. Some states like (most of) Arizona and Hawaii don’t change things at all. Utah is considering doing the same, as is Alabama. Most places in the world are ahead or behind GMT anyway by hour or half-hour increments, except Kathmandu which loves being different at 4 hours and 45 minutes ahead of GMT. So the added burden of figuring out if there’s an additional hour to be observed makes calculations a nightmare.

It becomes especially cumbersome when storing dates in databases. Let’s say I have a party I’m planning in the UK in November that’s taking place at 7pm. If I publish it on my website and tell it to store the date of the event, then today it will show 7pm. On Sunday, after we’ve changed the clocks back, it’ll show up as 8pm unless the software between the database and your screen intervenes.

What makes this worse is that if my web server is in, say, California, the date is actually stored as 11am because of the eight-hour time difference. Without some form of correction to take account of the difference between the time on the server, the time of the event, the time of the person viewing the date, and whether Daylight Savings is in effect a) “now” for the server, b) “now” for the viewer, c) at the time the date was stored, and d) at the time the event is due to take place, many people will turn up late. And let’s not even consider what happens if my Internet hosting company move my data to a server in a different time zone.

Swatch were onto something when they proposed Swatch Internet Time. Dividing the day into 1000 beats and having no timezones or daylight savings gets my vote at any time of day or year.

Back to my party: storing the event date in the bizarrely-acronymed UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is one way round it because UTC does not observe DST. But there still has to be compensation between the date of the event as stored in UTC compared with the date of the website viewer, in terms of their time zone and whether DST is in effect.

All this madness means that the time saved extending the working day is lost as people spend hours longer coding workarounds to cater for the whims of regulatory pressure and governmental meddling.

Enough already. End the crazy. Let’s just globally agree to move the clocks half an hour one year and be done with it. No more gaining or losing an hour’s sleep, no more wasted taxpayer money on studies to prove which is better, no more turning up to work an hour early or late because you forgot to change the clocks. And one less problem for the programmers of the world to work around, making software more stable as a result. What’s not to like?

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