A date with sanity

I would like to refer you back to the second video clip on ‘We are what we do‘, the one entitled ‘Arctic Death Spiral and the Methane Time Bomb’. It’s a bit long by today’s go-faster standards: well over an hour. Time well spent, I suggest. In fact, if you haven’t already seen it, your time would be better spent watching that than continuing to read my feeble drivel.

You may want to download the video via deturl.com. Deturl.com is a bit cryptic, but the time spent figuring it out is a good investment — the site will enable you to download many video clips so that you can watch them at your leisure instead of having to download them afresh each time — which may also save you money. I also like to think that the (admittedly tiny) reduction in the load placed on the Internet’s infrastructure by doing so helps the global digital commons in a small way — an example of something that, if scaled up, could have a big impact.

Now, on to the point of this post…

There are several places within ‘Arctic Death Spiral and the Methane Time Bomb’ that feature dates, at the lower right. For instance, at time 58:39 there is a legend ‘3/6/13′.

Clearly, the ’13’ refers to 2013 — just a baker’s dozen years after we learnt what a mistake it was not to store years as four digits. So short, our attention span: we’ve forgotten the millennium bug lesson already.

But, it’s worse than that.

These dates are associated with clips from other video footage, and there is no way to be sure whether the date format used in those clips is month/day/year (which USAns and others will assume) or day/month/year (which Brits like me, and others, will assume). The date ‘3/6/13’ could thus be either 06Mar2013 or 03Jun2013 [1]. So much for data accuracy in scientific material.

My main point, though, is this: if we cannot even agree upon a universal date format, what chance have we of co-operating on anything more important?

Homo fatuus brutus strikes again.

Image of an unusual 'rocking' calendar (for the year 2014)[1] A long time ago — well, for me, anyway: and, as it happens, in a galaxy that resembled this one but was very, very different — during my early interactions with these new-fangled computer thingies, I taught myself BASIC (beginner’s all-purpose symbolic instruction code). My first computer was a ZX Spectrum; my second was an Amstrad PCW (personal computer word-processor).

Why am I waffling on about this? I’m getting to it…

There was a magazine dedicated to the PCW, ‘8000 Plus’, that ran a regular feature showcasing BASIC programs that were written in just ten lines of code. I toyed with the idea for some time before coming up with such a program of my own, in 1986: I called it ‘valiDATE’. I recall struggling to coerce the mass of code into the requisite ten lines, and the sense of achievement when I finally succeeded. Sadly, I no longer have a copy of the program (such is the fleeting nature of digital memory).

What valiDATE did was accept any date in any format and convert it into what I call ‘UUDF’: universally unambiguous date format. UUDF is ‘nnMmmyyyy’; ie two digits for the day, three letters representing the month (the first upper case, the next two lower case) and then — anticipating Y2K — a four-digit year. UUDF has the benefit of a fixed length (any date from 01Jan0001 through to 31Dec9999 is just nine characters) and it features inbuilt separation of the three fields, by virtue of the switch from numeral to letter and back again.

<detour type=’minor’>

It’s true that from 1988 we’ve had the option to use ISO 8601 — which has many advantages, but to my mind the biggest downsides with that standard are a) it’s hard to read and b) it offers too many choices which overcomplicate it; YYYY-MM-DD or YYYYMMDD; YYYY-MM but, importantly, not YYYYMM (so as to try to avoid confusion with the ‘truncated form’ YYMMDD — though the attempt fails because that format is still used, and there are similar conflicts with the very common DDMMYY and MMDDYY, albeit that separators are often used in those).

Unsurprisingly, nobody at the ISO asked me for my opinion when they were deciding on the ISO 8601 standard. There is, of course, absolutely no reason why they should as I’m just another grunt; though if they had I might have tried to argue that UUDF is more legible than an all-numeric code, and that, while it might seem that only using the digits 0-9 might make data entry easier, what it really does is makes it more error-prone because it’s all too easy to enter a wrong digit and not realise it.

Oddly enough, I came across this very problem just this past week: I had entered ‘12022010’ instead of ‘12122010’. The error there is easily overlooked: and yet the difference between ’12Feb2010′ and ’12Dec2010′ is immediately obvious.

I do grant you that I had made the mistake of using a dash of parochial thinking in my design of UUDF; I had neglected to consider that those whose first language is other than English will have different names for each of the months. But even so, catering for all such differences is infeasible, and English, by dint of Old Empire (and the linguistic laziness of your average Brit) is more common across our world than almost all other languages.

Given the unlikelihood of our calendar system being changed anytime in the near future, what’s needed is twelve short, unique alphabetic labels, and, though these could be chosen from any language, the set Jan/Feb/Mar/Apr/May/Jun/Jul/Aug/Sep/Oct/Nov/Dec is as good as any and better than many.


For instance: consider the UUDF 01Apr2014. The same date is commonly expressed in a multitude of different ways. In ISO 8601 it could be either (!) 2014-04-01 or 20140401. In fact I often use the latter when naming computer files because of the automagical-date-sort-on-name feature. Alternatively, you can take your pick from many other formats, including 1.4.14, 4/1/14, 1st April ’14, April 1 2014, 1 April 2014… and, of course, All Fools’ Day.

Yes, I chose that date for this example for good reason. We are all fools. I say again: if we cannot even agree upon a universal date format, what chance have we of co-operating on anything more important?


About pendantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
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26 Responses to A date with sanity

  1. John Crapper says:

    Would you like to go out on a date? Do you eat dates? Not only can we not agree on a universal way to say a given point in time we have multiple meanings for the word.
    BTW It’s a truck and not a lorry. It’s an apartment and not a flat. And when you knock someone up in this country you get them pregnant not wake them!

    Can you tell I’m an ESL teacher. English is CRAZY and so are we!

  2. “We are all fools. I say again: if we cannot even agree upon a universal date format, what chance have we of co-operating on anything more important?”

    I see it that if we do all conform to universal time then we will have cracked it.
    Humanity has had a real problem with the sun and moon appearing to roughly the same size, in similar parts of the sky and very roughly fitting into a cosmic unity- except months [moon-ths] don’t neatly fit into sunths [years].

    they do kind of if you look at the long 52 year cycles but that just leads to complex calenders like the Mayan’s which is great for working out when to release an epic blockbuster disaster/ end of the world- movie but shite for planning holidays and you have to buy a calender the size of all the Yellow Pages of the UK to last 2000 years.

    Julius Caesar was the gezzer who was tasked with sorting out the Roman calender that was so out that no one knew where they where and if they did they hadn’t a clue if they were supposed to be working or on holiday. Naturally the gods were not best pleased when their day was confused with another god. And hence the Julian calender.

    But calender meddling caesars has meant the 7 month [sept] is number 9 [July being named after Julius for sorting it out] and the 8th month being the 10th because Augustus thought he was better than Julius [and more August] and messing with the 9th month and 10th month.

    But that was all out of sync because of leap years being not a full day every 4 years, you have to drop a leap year every 100 years or so because the year is 365.24 not 365.25. Leaving Gregory the pope to get everyone to the church on time so god would not have to have bothering on the wrong day- Sunday being the day of his rest [busy man, god, needs a day to read the papers and find out all the disasters he has not intervened in]

    and then there was UK dates versus the known world and everyone was very upset that they were all to lose 12 days of their lives- and the Ethiopians are still years behind us – it is 2007 there officially [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/6978629.stm] but at least it is highly accurate to be a prophet of things to come]

    and then there is Islam living in the 14th Century.
    and if the French Revolution was a success then we would have a universal metric decimal calender [as invented by the Egyptians].

    and you are complaining about Americans getting the month and day back to front?

    • pendantry says:

      and you are complaining about Americans (sic) getting the month and day back to front?

      No, I used that discrepancy purely as an example to point out how screwed we are. Another example is to use the term ‘Americans’ when referring to those living in the USA. Canadians are also ‘Americans,’ as are Brazilians, Peruvians, Venezuelans — all these people live in ‘the Americas’.

      The examples you give are also good ones. May I recommend ‘The Tragedy of the Moon’ by Isaac Asimov, in which he proposes a sensible universal calendar; one that will never stand any chance of adoption because nations are incapable of agreeing on anything.

      • ‘all these people live in ‘the Americas’

        technically doesn’t that make them ‘the’ Americans ! – however I feel suitability rebuked [like being whipped with scented bootlaces].

        as for first point I shall stand my ground that given the most horrendous cosmic aspects of the lack of whole numbers in orbits we humans have managed to compromise [except those who rigidly stick to a lunar calendar]- even the French- they have to swallow GMT [although I see their hand in the ‘Universal’ U change!]

        and compromise is the first step to working together [that’s what my partners says].

        now, about this Asimov solution [only a 43% geek score?] the lack of 2nd book shops [the lack of shops for that matter] in my area means I can only ask about his solution. [does it involve gigantic Earth based lasers that heat the surface of the moon there by heating it up and turning it into a lunar engine to drive the moon a few feet further away to ensure an exact 30.46 day orbit?

  3. ccgwebmaster says:

    When I rule the world, I’m going to standardise on the Japanese approach (yyyy-mm-dd) as not only does it work very well for informational based sorting in chronological order, but it represents the numeric elements in order of descending significance just as we normally do when representing numbers (let’s ignore endian-ness for the sake of this comment).

    Still not sure about the rest of the calendar though. Can’t we divide the year up more logically? Can’t we agree a standard year 0? Maybe we start counting post collapse and the modern era can be “Before Sustainability (BS)”? And we’ll take a year at 360 days and have a holiday with the rest?

    Actually maybe it ought to be yyyyyy-mm-dd, if we truly believe we are going to become sustainable for the long term…

    • pendantry says:

      What you call ‘the Japanese approach’ is the same as one of the options in ISO 8601, which I covered above.

      The main point I’m trying to make, though, is that we humans, globally, have proven ourselves incapable of agreement on something relatively trivial; so it should be no surprise that the Kyoto Protocol had no teeth, and that events such as the 2009 UN climate change conference in Copenhagen are such a farce.

      • ccgwebmaster says:

        That’s right, I just made the logical case for it. While a system with letters might seem appealing it doesn’t reflect the underlying data storage nor lend itself to calculations readily.

        • pendantry says:

          I don’t understand what you mean by ‘reflecting the underlying data storage’. I believe that month names do this better than numbers, exactly because the month names are themselves illogical; for instance September and October were named because they were the seventh and eighth months respectively, before the names of Julius and Augustus Caesar were memorialised. I think it helps to be reminded of the history of the basis of the system. As for ‘not lending itself readily to calculations’: it would be a trivial matter to equate the symbols ‘Jan’ with the integer 1, ‘Feb’ with 2 and so on — and it would make sense to do so if UUDF were the standard.

          Please do note that while I may be a little crazy I’m not so mad as to really be suggesting universal adoption of UUDF. We have better fish to fry.

          • ccgwebmaster says:

            Underlying data storage is numerical, always numerical (binary, technically). You incur a performance hit translating to text that people can understand and back. Not significant for most applications these days of course, and most comparisons could be done without that translation (ie compiled code).

          • pendantry says:

            OK, I’m with you now. But translating from native machine code — binary, as you say — to Roman numerals implies a performance hit, too. Insignificant these days, as you say, unless you’re doing serious date number crunching. Purely as a thought experiment, were UUDF to be adopted, all you need is to compile a tiny lookup table Jan,Feb,Mar,… equating to 1,2,3…. The miniscule performance hit in most day-to-day date calculations would, I suggest, be vastly outweighed by the benefit of making the dates more easily human readable.

          • ccgwebmaster says:

            And actually, now I think about it again, it doesn’t really make any odds with dates – that translation is always required, even with the numeric formats, as computers do not typically seperate out the elements of the date for storage – but instead store them into a single floating point value (elapsed seconds).

          • ccgwebmaster says:

            Er, or days, it’s been a while since I had to worry about it last 🙂

          • pendantry says:

            After all’s said and done there are 10 types of people: those who understand binary, and those who don’t 😉

      • ccgwebmaster says:

        As for areas where we are incapable of global agreement (or action) – I could list a whole array of things simpler than climate change, like: “we shouldn’t torture each other”, “women should be educated just as men are”, “women should choose to have children”, “we shouldn’t need nuclear bombs aimed at each other to avoid world wars”, and so on. Climate change (and related issues) are just one of many items on a long list.

        • pendantry says:

          You seem to be arguing, and yet at the same time agreeing with me. That we aren’t able to co-operate on such items as you suggest underlines the point.

          Where climate change is concerned, of course, the difference is that our inaction threatens not just our own foolish selves, but all life on this planet.

          [Dr James Hansen (2009) Storms of My Grandchildren p236 quote snipped — see this post for reasoning…]

  4. Dan Hoger says:

    I agree with what you’re saying. We should also all switch to the metric system, in my opinion.


    “…what a mistake it was not to store years as less than four digits.”

    Do you mean, “…what a mistake it was to store years as less than four digits.”

    Or perhaps, “…what a mistake it was not to store years as four digits.”

    • pendantry says:

      Good catch! To avoid the less vs fewer issue (I think in this case it should be ‘fewer’ but it’s been a long day), I’ll go with your second offering. Thank you!

      — I’m not sure what the score is, but I think we were even before, which now puts you at +1. Blast!

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