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Why Daylight Savings Time?


For all of those U.S. readers who do not have the (mixed) blessing of residing in Ashday’s lovely home state of Arizona – we wish you a happy (mixed) blessing of commencing Daylight Savings Time this weekend. And thereby saving daylight. Apparently. Or time. Or … something.

I had always been given to believe, anecdotally, mostly by my mother, that Daylight Savings Time was founded by Benjamin Franklin and was for the benefit of farmers' harvest schedules and suchlike. However I recently conducted a short study of the matter, and it turns out neither assertion is true. Ben did talk about a similar idea in an essay, but seemingly probably only satirically.  And there appears to be no evidence of it having actually been implemented anywhere until well over a century after his passing.  Meanwhile, farmers don’t particularly care for it and were opposed to its implementation — turns out roosters crowing / cows engorging / dew evaporating from fields / the total number of hours of sunlight on the earth … these are all stubbornly disinterested in what time Congress claims it is.

Near as I can tell, reading between the lines of history, DST seems to have started in World War I Germany (and subsequently Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere) as a political/labor trick to get more hours out of weapon factory workers. How does it get more hours out of weapon factory workers? Well, it creates more daylight during which they can work, right? Umm… no. Creating more daylight requires structural alterations to the solar system. How then does it, in fact, produce more working hours?

Here is my (mostly uneducated) theory: Employers can force people to stay at work later in the day, once present, more easily than they can convince them to show up earlier.  If workers are doing work that requires sunlight (which apparently WWI bomb factories did?) and they are already working in the latter hours until sunset, but aren't showing up for work until annoyingly long after sunrise, then you could just tell them they must show up earlier and must still stay till sunset; but probably people wouldn't like that.  So instead if the employer (backed up by the government) tells them it’s NOT earlieryou’re still showing up at “8:00 AM”, this for some reason flies more easily. Then people will show up earlier, cause it’s not earlier, except that actually it is, and then to take advantage of the full spread of “extra” daylight hours they really need to stay all day.

More simply put, it makes the “early to rise” thing a little psychologically easier of pill to swallow (and/or force down someone's throat).  And if you come to work earlier in the day but stay till the same (solar) time you used to, that’s an extra hour worked. Thereby, I guess, producing an extra Sprengbombe Cylindrish (WWI era German bomb; thank you Google rich search results). Thereby helping the Germans lose World War I more slowly.  

(Note to Ashday staff readers: As a practical application, we’re going to commence AST [Ashday Savings Time] as a local corporate implementation. It will have the day starting at 8:00, which is also known as midnight Mountain time. Thus achieving 8 times the benefit that even the Germans accomplished.)

(Note to Ashday staff readers: JK.) 

Despite being in Arizona (more on that later) some of the work we’ve done at Ashday has directly, and painstakingly, been affected by Daylight Savings Time. Certain applications we’ve built have large numbers (in one case around a billion records) of time sequence data. Due to the twice a year switch to and from DST, there are two days a year where very special handling has to occur. The easiest way to avoid confusion on this sort of thing is to store timestamps in a format such as UTC (related to the GMT time zone) which does not observe DST and then translate it to local time based on the time of year (DST or ST) for displays & data interchange for users & systems that do observe it. This is handled, as an industry standard, as follows: The “shoulder” dates of the year when we transition into and out of DST are referred (by geeks in the know) as “Short Day” and “Long Day”, because the former has 23 hours and the latter has 25. (So, happy Short Day, everyone). Specifically, typically, Short Day is considered not to have an hour extending from 1:00 AM to 2:00 AM, and Long Day is considered to have two such hours. Though I’m sure approaches on this vary; I think some people do it from midnight to 1:00, or something else.

If mulling through that last paragraph seemed a little painful, consider having to build a billion record software system that interacts with myriad other systems, and address all of this, ideally without any hiccups on those two days of the year? And consider that such an undertaking is, in fact, a trivially small percentage of the overall global I.T. / data work that has gone in to dealing with this issue. If we generously guesstimate that perhaps Ashday’s billable hours spent on the matter to date have accounted for 0.000000001% of the total human effort and cost expended on dealing with the complications of DST over the past century --- looking back on what Ashday billed for the effort, and multiplying by the appropriate global factor, I conclude that the human race could have far more affordably just gone ahead with implementing structural alterations to the solar system.

So then, World War I having been completed some time ago, and associated expenses being immense, and given widespread evidence of increased injuries and traffic accidents each year following the sleep disruption of Short Day, why is it that do we do the biannual DST dance? Is it simply a vestige of a century old protocol that may or may not have increased Sprengbombe output, which we just kept doing out of habit? It sounds like the charcoal industry is highly in favor of it. Are there others? I like an extra hour after work for grilling as much as the next omnivore, but ... come on. There's something about saving electricity, but I'm not sure I'm convinced on the math.  If we enjoy, as a society, getting up an hour earlier but still having the small hand is pointing at the 9 when businesses open their doors, then I could see permanently setting our clocks ahead an hour, as various U.S. states and other parts of the world are seriously considering.  Or if we, as a society, like getting up later as a rule I could see keeping standard time year-round. But I see no reason why we ought to switch up our opinion on that twice every year, in order to (in name only) “save” Daylight in the middle of the year which, ironically, in this hemisphere, is the time when there is the most daylight and hence the least need to save it even if you could. I’m stumped. I will confess that my aforementioned research was, shall we say, brief. Far less than would have been appropriate for thinking myself qualified to write a blog post about it. People who actually are knowledgeable on the matter are invited to flame me for my ignorant criticisms, and educate me on the true value, and I will gladly change my mind. Mostly I’m just asking “Why?”

And that, at long last, is actually the point of this article. (That and providing a distraction from things I’m supposed to be working on). I have found repeatedly that inertia is an incredibly powerful thing. In undertaking the architecture of software projects, “Why?” is probably the single most useful word in the English language. Often there are requirements stated the point of which is not immediately obvious. “You mentioned we need to do thus and such; why do we need to do thus and such?” elicits one of two responses – either a well reasoned response which clarifies the need; or else, surprisingly frequently, something along the lines of “I’m not sure actually; we always do it that way.” Inertia. At some point then, “Can we stop doing it that way?” is incredibly liberating & valuable.

Another germane observation is that people can be easily fooled in to not really thinking about something if it is wrapped in some clever marketing verbiage.  Some pertinent DST nomenclature historically was “British Summer Time”. That’s OK, but it doesn’t really sell me on it. There was discussion of calling it “Willett Time”, after William Willett who was an enthusiastic proponent. This mostly just risked dumb jokes about “Willett ever end?”. But “Daylight Savings Time” – brilliant. Who could possibly argue against that? Only people who want to waste daylight, obviously. Whatever marketing genius came up with “Daylight Savings Time” must have gotten a permanent small bronze placard somewhere.  Then flesh it out with some rumors about Franklin & helping farmers, inadvertently passed along by all the really loveliest people, like my mom, with a slice of apple pie.  Large bronze placard.

But of course, for a real one two punch, you must combine them both: organizational inertia plus some clever marketing. Wowza.  Powerful permanence. But we ought to fight against it. We ought to fight against it by always asking "why?". Children know this intuitively; somehow later we forget. There may be a good answer to "why?", of course; and there may not be – and when there is not, you will have just peeked over the horizon at a beautiful vista of saved time and dollars, if not daylight. Yes, friends, you too can avoid unfathomable degrees of waste in your digital (or any sort of) projects by simply asking “why” with the charmingly obnoxious frequency of any two year old.

As you may or may not be aware the state of Arizona, like roosters and cow engorgement, stubbornly refuses to observe DST.  Therefore we have our own time zone, sort of – certain pieces of software you may bump into will list the contiguous U.S. zones as Eastern, Central, Mountain, Pacific, and Arizona.   (Hawaii also abstains from DST, incidentally; from what I can discern from postcards everyone there is doing just fine.)  I'm not sure of the story behind Arizona's lack of DST.  Maybe it just makes us feel special. Or maybe we fell for the “Daylight Savings” marketing buzzword as much as anybody else, but, believing it, decided that we already had more than enough (remarkably toasty) daylight during the summer. My hope, though, is that somewhere along the line of our state’s noble history some confident but confused person in the hallowed halls of the Arizona legislature was brave enough to ask “Um, why would we do that?”, and nobody had an answer, and so they all agreed “Ok, so let’s skip it then.” 

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Matt Giambrone

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