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Passing Thoughts

Just Switch To UTC And Get Used To It

People seem to make a lot of fuss about time zones and Daylight-Saving Time, particularly when they live near a time zone boundary and/or there's a political will to change something about it. Really, it would just be a lot simpler if the whole world used one time zone.

Before I expand on that a bit, I'd like to point out how absurd the existing custom can be. We say that when it's 15:00 in New York, it's 21:00 in Paris… at the same time. How can it be two different times at the same time? Of course, we really mean that when it's mid-afternoon in New York, it's evening in Paris; considering they're on different parts of a round spinning planet, that's quite logical. What's arbitrary (and these days, sometimes problematic) is asserting that midnight and noon should occur at roughly 0:00 and 12:00 everywhere, even though these things don't actually occur at the same time for everyone. And the fractured system we have now doesn't even do that very well. In Indianapolis, it can be almost 14:00 at solar noon in the summer. Okay, so half of that error is due to Daylight-Saving Time, but that's its own bit of absurdity.

Essentially, DST is an edict from the government that all scheduled activities occurring at (for example) 16:00 during the winter must instead take place at 15:00 during the summer, from the perspective of a fixed (standard) timezone. We change our clocks so these events seem like they're happening at the same time, but really we're just doing everything an hour earlier in the summer. While DST was conceived as an energy-saving measure, studies of actual changes in energy consumption have shown the savings to be very near (and on either side of) zero. If any scheduled event is actually impacted by which hours have daylight, the schedule has to be adjusted seasonally anyway, even with DST.

So if everyone just switched to one time zone, such as UTC, we wouldn't have these complications. We just have to lose the association we have (loose as it is already) between specific numeric representations of time, and the natural day/night cycle for our individual localities. Folks in Chicago would get used to the sun rising around 12:00 (give or take an hour or so, seasonally) and setting around 24:00/0:00. (Imagine the boost to local night life, starting a new calendar day just as evening social activities start to get interesting…)

If one of these Chicago residents wants to call Mumbai, they must determine whether it's an appropriate time of day for the callee. With our existing system, that thought process might go like this: “I'm 6 hours behind GMT, but it's summer, so that's actually only 5 hours, and India is 5 and a half hours ahead of that, so they're 11.5 hours ahead of me. It's now 9:07 AM here, so there it must be, uh, 8:57 PM there, I think. Okay, that's not too late…” But if everyone is on UTC, it would be more like this: “It's 14:07. Here that's morning, but India is basically opposite of us, so it's evening there. It's probably not too late… Oh, now that I think about it, my friend once told me he goes to bed around 16:00, so I'm sure it's not too late!” Our current system requires us to manipulate numbers, which can be tedious and error-prone if done mentally. Besides, the numbers give us false precision that we just can't rely on so simply. The day/night cycle relies on latitude and season in addition to longitude (for which time zones stand in) so a rough estimation is probably better anyway.

So yeah, switching everyone to UTC would make everything a lot simpler. Let's face it, most of our modern activities don't depend on daylight. And when we do need to schedule something to occur at day or night hours, it's going to be local in scope and people can easily adapt to a new association between time and daylight in their local context.

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