Rambling about time zones


Here's some rambling about time zones which I decided not to send to a mailing list. Posted by Thomas Sutton on June 22, 2016

I wrote this as a reply to a private discussion about ways to handle date and time values in data processing systems. Rather than continue a discussion that really wasn’t going to lead anywhere interesting I saved the draft and now I’m posting it here. It’s probably not very interesting or useful but it’s been a while since I last posted.

If you are interested in time in programs go read falsehoods programmers believe about time. If you are interested in historical times make sure you’re aware of travesties like Sydney’s pre-standard time offset of 10:04:52.


Future times can’t, in general, be specified in UTC timestamp and offset: the definitions of timezones can and do change and can change with little notice. For dates this doesn’t make too much of a difference (a date, of course, denotes the whole 23, 24, or 25 hour period and not some particular instant within the day) but values with higher precision it’s possible (though in Australian fairly unlikely) to convert a future date/time to UTC with a time zone definition which is not the one which actually applies when the time occurs.

There’s no particular reason to expect any polity to not change it’s time zone over any particular period (New South Wales did it for the Olympic and Commonwealth Games; Fiji changed it’s DST start/end dates in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014; Israel negotiated the dates in parliament in every year but now has a regular schedule - except where it conflicts Jewish new year).

You need to represent a local date and time in the target time zone and, at some point, commit to using the time zone definitions you happen to have to interpret the local time into UTC. Ideally this would be safe for instants in the upcoming 12 months , say, but who knows? For some polities it might make sense to commit with the time zone definitions we have now (DST in Australia’s eastern states has settled down in the last few years and there are still a few more years before they can attempt another referendum to introduce it to Western Australia) but not in others.

PS: As a person who lives in the world and interacts with people and organisations around me, I’m using “time” to mean “the numbers which are supposed to correspond to the the numbers on my clock” and not “absolute time”, “UTC”, etc. I generally try to use words like “instant” and “timestamp” (respectively) to refer to those latter things.


Update On Monday, July 4 2016 a meeting of Egypt’s cabinet cancelled daylight savings time which was due to start on Thursday, July 7. Three day’s notice is enough to upgrade the TZ database on all your computer systems, right?

This post was published on June 22, 2016 and last modified on July 8, 2016. It is tagged with: rambling, notes, time.