I’ve been getting deeper into timekeeping and calendar-related software the last few years. Besides my work on GPSD, I’m now the tech lead of NTPsec. Accordingly, I have learned a great deal about time mensuration and the many odd problems that beset calendricists. I could tell you more about the flakiness of timezones, leap seconds, and the error budget of UTC than you probably want to know.
Paradoxically, I find that studying the glitches in the system (some of which are quite maddening from a software engineer’s point of view) has left me more opposed to efforts to simplify them out of existence. I am against, as a major example, the efforts to abolish leap seconds.
My reason is that studying this mess has made me more aware than I used to be of the actual function of civil timekeeping. It is to allow humans to have consistent and useful intuitions about how clock time relates to the solar day, and in particular to how human circadian rhythms are entrained by the solar day. Secondarily to maintain knowledge of how human biological rhythms connect to the seasonal round (a weaker effect but not a trivial one).
Yes, in theory we could abolish calendars and timestamp everything by atomic-clock kiloseconds since an epoch. And if there ever comes a day when we all live in completely controlled environments like space habs or dome colonies that might actually work for us.
Until then, the trouble with that sort of computer-optimized timestamp is that while it tells us what time it is, it doesn’t tell us what kind of time it is – how the time relates to human living. Day? Night? Season?
Those sideband meanings are an important component of how humans use and interpret time references. Yes, I know January in Australia doesn’t mean the same thing as January in the U.S. – the point is that people in both places have stable intuitions about what the weather will be like then, what sorts of holidays will be celebrated, what kind of mood is prevalent.
I judge that all the crap I go though reconciling scientific absolute time to human-centered solar time is worth it. Because when all is said and done, clocks and calendars are human instruments to serve human needs. We should be glad when they add texture and meaning to human life, and beware lest in our attempts to make software easier to write we inadvertently bulldoze away entire structures of delicate meaning.
UPDATE: There is one context, however, in which I would cheerfully junk timezones. I think timestamps on things like file modifications and version-control commits should always be kept, and represented, in UTC, and I’m a big fan of RFC3339 format as the way to do that.
The reason I say this is that these times almost never have a human-body-clock meaning, while on the other hand it is often useful to be able to compare them unambiguously across timezones. Their usage pattern is more like scientific than civil time.