What is a leap second? And why does Big Tech want to change time?

What unites Meta, Amazon, Microsoft and the US government? Advocating for an end to “leap seconds”—blink-and-you’ll-miss-it timekeeping adjustments to compensate for fluctuations in Earth’s rotation.

Scientists have added 27 additional seconds since 1972 to synchronize atomic clocks with astronomical time. Tech companies hate the practice because it can wreak havoc on accurate tech systems by telling time better than humans — at least until we add one more second. The increase in leap seconds has caused internet segments to slow down for hours.

On Monday, Facebook parent Meta kicked off a second round of protests by jumping to a blog post to cancel the move, with Amazon and Microsoft joining the cause. At best, it messes up meta, distorts information and defaces websites. “Every second is a huge source of pain for those who manage the hardware infrastructure,” wrote Meta engineers Oleg Oblekhov and Ahmed Bayagowi.

John Graham-Cumming, chief technology officer at Clodflare, one of the companies experiencing disruption from the addition of leap seconds, said: “I’m not sad to see leap seconds go.

Amazon and Microsoft did not respond to requests for comment.

from time to time

Atomic clocks based on international time standards measure time by measuring the natural vibrations of cesium atoms, said Elizabeth Donley, chief of the Time and Frequency Division of the US government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Before the advent of atomic clocks in the 20th century, time was measured by the length of the solar day, an approach derived from astronomy. But due to the tilt and rotation of the Earth on its slightly irregular axis, there can be differences between atomic time (Coordinated Universal Time or UTC) and astronomical time, known as Universal Time or UT1.

In short, it’s weird and random.

Periodically, those systems are reconciled with a leap second – which occurs only on June 30 or December 31 and is announced in advance. What it looks like, in practice, is that the clock goes from 23:59:59 to 23:59:60 before hitting midnight, 00:00:00.

A Meta blog post highlighted one potential twist ahead: the negative leap second. It helps compensate for Earth’s faster-than-expected rotation in recent years. Basically, world clocks jump a full second from 24:59:58 to 00:00:00 on the appointed day.

“The impact of a negative leap second has never been extensively tested; it can cause significant damage to software based on timers or schedulers,” argued the Metapost.

A leap second, either positive or negative, which is not available in computer programming, will cause them to crash. This is one reason why people are so worried about Y2K as the year 2000 approaches. At the time, many computer programs represented years using only the last two digits, meaning that 2000 and 1900 looked like the same year. While that concern is overblown, similar issues around telling time lie behind criticism of leap seconds.

“Over time this has become a problem with digital networks because technology has become so dominant in our society and now in the last 10 years, when they are added, they have caused many failures in different. Websites and computer systems,” said Donnelly. “This is a great initiative to solve them. .”

Is it time for a new system?

It is not presumptuous or rigid. A second time jump led to a shutdown at Reddit in 2012 and hiatuses at Foursquare, LinkedIn, and Yale over the years. The most recent leap second occurred in 2015.

Adding leap seconds can be a problem if it’s not properly handled in the software system, Donley says. “You may have a conflict with the network node timing or between different websites,” she added. “This can cause failures. And the updated second comes at midnight UTC, which could be mid-day on the West Coast of the United States or in Hawaii.”

Meta, on the other hand, has started to “smear” the company’s timing infrastructure by slowing down or speeding up the seconds of the clock appliance over a period of 17 hours. It can be more integrated for computers.

“On the first day of the year, we went down for seconds at midnight,” said Graham-Cumming, whose employer Cloudflare helps provide security and accessibility for millions of websites. “Leap seconds were first introduced at midnight in January and so we experienced outages and saw systems fail.”

Given Meta’s large network and vast server farms, he wasn’t surprised to see it take a leap second. But David Finkelman, chief technical officer of the US Space Command, said the recent post from Meta was incomplete and biased.

“Each plan has its own unique features to ease jump second corrections – in this case installing special software,” he said. And killing a leap second could pose a big problem for scientists studying space, he said, because accurate measurements of stars, galaxies and other objects require aligning human time with astronomical time and pointing telescopes at the right target.

“It’s important to adjust for the Earth’s rotation, and the smear doesn’t match the Earth’s rotation,” Finkelman said. “Secondly, people who despise jumping have not learned to handle it properly.”

Donley said that while there is broad agreement among governments about eliminating the second bottleneck, with the exception of Russia, nothing will change. Averting the act will require the various parts of the Internet and timeline to do so and come to an agreement on what comes next.

“Almost everyone is,” Donley said. “The way it all works is by agreement. We’re going to take baby steps to try to stop the process. It’s been discussed over and over for as long as possible. [leap seconds] were”

That, well, takes time.

The Time and Frequency Advisory Committee is expected to vote in November to end the use of leap seconds in 2035 or earlier.

“It’s not clear how many, if any, leap seconds will need to be put in before then — hopefully,” Donley said. Because their input rate has decreased and the difference between UTC and the new UT1 is now heading towards zero.

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copying this article.

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