Executive Suite: On leap hour, IT logic should trump tradition

Mimi Browning

If there ever were a litmus test for the IT professional, this is it'how we measure time. The U.S. is proposing a new world-timekeeping standard that would add a leap hour every 500 to 600 years instead of a leap second every few years, as is the current method.

Why this proposal? The problem is the moon. Its gravity has been slowing the Earth so it takes a bit longer than 24 hours to rotate on its axis. To compensate, official world timekeeping organizations add an extra leap second every few years to keep clocks in synch. However, ad hoc leap seconds and computers are not natural allies. Random leap seconds do not mesh well with the rigorous logic of computers'60 seconds per minute, 60 minutes per hour, 24 hours per day, etc. In fact, GPS and radio broadcast glitches due to this incompatibility have been reported. Although there are no reports of airplane incidents or of military operations having been affected by this situation, it's not fully known what safety issues or other problems the clash of random leap seconds with the precision of computer programs could trigger.

Why is this proposal the perfect litmus test for IT professionals?

First, it is based on the logic of today's digital world. IT professionals know that computer systems and networks sing in harmony to the zero-one beat of the computer. The process of converting customer requirements into computer language ultimately boils down to producing precise zero-one numerical machine programs.

In the case of the time measurement proposal, the logic of adding a leap hour every 500 to 600 years is simple digital pragmatics. Computer programs avoid an unnecessary glitch, and we will not have to deal with this problem during future Y3K, Y4K, Y5K, Y6K, and Y7K drills.

Second, the proposal exemplifies the alpha metrics of the IT world: improved operations and reduced costs. When IT professionals create new systems, they know they have to demonstrate results that reflect these metrics. By eliminating leap seconds in favor of a leap hour, we improve real-time operations by adding a measure of increased safety in today's relatively unsafe world. The cost savings metric, meanwhile, would be monumental, since global businesses would not have to frequently recode, test, and implement millions of upgraded systems.

Third, the proposal challenges the status quo. IT professionals typically build solutions that change the way the world works. Telemedicine, supply chain operations, retail buying, electronic banking and travel represent just some of the millions of business and personal transactions most people accomplish using computers. When first proposed, these new automated processes were tradition breakers; today, they are routine and accepted.

The two communities most vocal in their opposition to the U.S. proposal are classical astronomers and the guardians of Greenwich Mean Time. For astronomers, it is a discomforting thought that ordinary computer logic, not the grand philosophical link between time and the heavens, could be the preeminent factor in determining world time-keeping standards. And the Yanks' upstaging of GMT as the world standard is causing a minor uproar in Great Britain.

Perhaps this suggests a fourth factor'the optimism true IT professionals carry in their very DNA. This is a great opportunity for someone to invent a whole suite of leap-hour telescopes, thus giving birth to a new generation of avid astronomers, associated gear, and sports and entertainment options. As for the defenders of the GMT faith, what an opportunity for the British to showcase a digitally remastered Big Ben, ringing out those leap seconds every 500 years.

Mimi Browning, a former Army senior executive, is a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc. in McLean, VA. She can be reached at browning_miriam@bah.com.

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