To some people, time zones are just a fancy way of sounding important

As I noted some time ago, there is a standard series of announcements that are sent out when a server is undergoing planned (or unplanned) maintenance. And since these are official announcements, the authors want to sound official.

One way of sounding official is to give the times during which the outage will take place is a very formal manner. "The servers will be unavailable on Saturday, March 17, 2012 from 1:00 AM to 9:00 AM Pacific Standard Time."

Did you notice something funny about that announcement?

On March 17, 2012, most of the United States will not be on Standard Time. They will be on Daylight Time. (The switchover takes place this weekend.)¹

I sent mail to the "If you have questions, please contact X" address to confirm that they are indeed taking the server down from 1am to 9am Pacific Standard Time (i.e., from 2am to 10am Pacific Daylight Time), pointing out that on March 17th, most of the United States won't be using Standard Time. (I was planning on coming to work, but if the servers won't be back up until 10am, I can sleep in.)

The response I got back was "The machines will be unavailable from 1am to 9am local time."

So in fact when they wrote Pacific Standard Time, they didn't mean Pacific Standard Time. They really meant Pacific Time, but we'll stick the word Standard in there because it makes us sound all official-like. In other words, "We're using words not for what they mean but for how they sound." I'm surprised they didn't use military time, just to sound that much more awesome.

Bonus chatter: Not to be outdone, another announcement said that a particular server would be available from time X to time Y PDT, even though the United States was on standard time. So now I'm not sure what the logic is. Maybe they just pick a time zone randomly.

Tip to people who write these announcements: Just say "Pacific Time" or "Redmond local time".

Nitpicker's corner

¹ Other parts of the world may change on a different day from the United States.

Comments (42)
  1. John says:

    Daylight Savings Time is dumb.  That is all.

  2. Grant Husbands says:

    That naming format explains why Windows calls the British timezones "GMT Standard Time" and "GMT Daylight Time", even though the British timezones are simply GMT and BST. It's something I'd wondered about.

  3. grumpy says:

    They should give it in the old Bombay time zone. Nothing beats UTC+04:51. :-D If it has to be a valid TZ, Nepal (UTC+5.45) is good too.

  4. David Nesting says:

    I've had exactly the same conversation with people at my former employer (major telco).  That discussion led me to a different conclusion, though: many people simply have no clue what PST and PDT mean.  They understand that something called "Daylight Savings [sic] Time" changes the clock, but they don't realize that that also defines the second letter in the three-letter time zone initialisms.  So they use whichever one is at the top of their brain at the time.  They similarly equate both of those to "Pacific Standard Time" presumably because it's the "standard", not because they're trying to differentiate it from "daylight" time.

    I'm sure they thought I was a kook and future announcements continued to abuse the terms.

  5. JM says:

    @Grant: I had the hardest time convincing a colleague that Great Britain doesn't use GMT all year round and that they do in fact use a different time zone when switching to DST. Maybe this is why. The problem was compounded by the fact that he thought GMT = UTC, which is arguably true, but not if you believe GMT is the time zone of Great Britain all the time.

    Things would be much easier if people got used to saying either "local time" or "UTC+X", whichever was appropriate at the time (pardon the expression). Forget those wonky time zone initialisms.

  6. Yuri Khan says:

    Announcements about servers of anything wider than local significance must use UTC, so as to sidestep the whole two issues of time zone and daylight saving.

  7. AP² says:

    On a related note, I still can't believe it's 2012 and we still don't have decent support for adding date and converting dates in an automated way. Hopefully the new <time> element in HTML will improve the situation, but that still requires good UI implementations, and it obviously won't work for plain-text emails.

    I think email clients should detect that you're writing a date and offer to autocomplete it with the local values for year (if you haven't inserted it yet) and timezone.

  8. MJP says:

    Bookmarked for the next time I have to explain the difference between precision and accuracy.

  9. Pato Moschcovich says:

    At least in the Commodities industry it's common to use Prevailing time (e.g.: EPT, PPT) which means Standard or Daylight Saving, whichever is in effect at that time.

    This is the best reference that I could find online (search for prevailing):

  10. Evan says:

    "we'll stick the word Standard in there because it makes us sound all official-like"

    If you want to feel really pretentious, drop the "s" from the end of "savings": "daylight saving time". (This is actually "correct".)

  11. dave says:

    The Nitpicker's Corner failed to point out that other parts of the world may not refer to 24-hour time as 'military time'.

    (And we don't generally use it to sound awesome, we use it to sound unambiguous).

  12. Nitpicker says:

    Isn't 'military time' usually written as 0900 i.e. 'oh-nine-hundred'? Not all 24hr clocks are military clocks ;)

  13. EMB says:

    Here Comes A New Challenger: The Nitpicker's The Nitpicker's Corner.

  14. loanianren says:

    In the UK military time is known as zulu time, which is GMT.  I don't know if that's the same as US military time.

    @JM: The British Government passed an order about a quarter of a century ago defining GMT as equal to UTC, so they are the same.  It's kind of important (for nitpickers anyway) because British legislation that refers to time is assumed to be talking about GMT.

  15. spork says:

    To some people, time zones are just a fancy way of sounding important

    never let a chance to nitpick go by…

  16. Joshua Ganes says:

    I imagine that this could come from ignorance over arrogance. The person may not be well versed on daylight saving time and just be trying to say the "standard" time for the Pacific time zone. I know enough about daylight saving to get this right, but sometimes I need to pause and think about it to get things right.

    P.S. Daylight saving time is nearly pointless. It doesn't save daylight any more than moving to an earlier schedule would. It's a big headache for farmers too — animals don't observe daylight saving time. I guess that's why Saskatchewan doesn't do it.

  17. Henri Hein says:

    John and Joshua: +1.  Maybe daylight saving makes sense in an industrial economy, but the US at least is not an industrial economy anymore.

  18. Myria says:

    If you want to be grammatically correct, put a dash in it: "daylight-saving time".

    The energy usage reason for daylight-saving time is bunk; instead of turning on the lights when you get home, you'll turn on the air conditioner, which is much worse.

  19. DWalker says:

    At the risk of stating the obvious, why isn't this called "Daylight Shifting Time"?  Cutting an inch off one end of a string and tying it to the other end doesn't make the string any longer.

  20. John says:

    I've never thought about this before, but do people in the southern hemisphere do the reverse of people in the northern hemisphere?  Does that mean one man's daylight savings is another man's daylight losings?  Crossing time zones is bad enough; throwing the equator in there makes my brain hurt.

  21. do people in the southern hemisphere do the reverse of people in the northern hemisphere?

    Yes, Daylight Saving Time centers around the summer, which in the southern hemisphere is November to January-ish.

    People who live near the equator either don't do Daylight Saving Time, or tie their clock adjustments to that of their neighbors/primary trading partners.

  22. Ben says:

    @DWalker: Why isn't it called "shifting money"? After all, not spending it now and spending it later instead doesn't create any more money.

  23. Bob says:

    I rather just go on DST and stay there for two reasons:

    1) I'd rather drive to work in the dark than home in the dark.

    2) I can come home from work during the winter and do work outside, such as cutting the grass, rather than having to put it off until the weekend.

  24. Evan says:

    @Bob: "I rather just go on DST and stay there"

    Same here. Sunset happens before 4:30 where I live for over a month each year, and that gets pretty depressing.

  25. Time zones are stupidly confusing in this global world.  So then it goes down "1 AM to 9 AM local time".  What does that mean?

    Give the time in UTC.  That takes time zones out of the equation, and there is no ambiguity.  (Yes, I keep the clocks on all my digital devices set to UTC time zone, 24 hour format…)

    (Airplane itineraries are the worst, because they print times on the same itinerary but in different time zones, and don't declare what time zone each time is in.  Want to do a simple subtraction to find out how long you are in the air?  Ha!  You wish!)

  26. Give the time in UTC

    This.  Also takes the guesswork out of when the Super Bowl is going to come on.

  27. Gabe says:

    I feel sorry for the people in Arizona because they're always on Mountain Standard Time. That means whenever they call a business and get a recording saying "Our hours are 9am to 5pm Mountain Time", they never know if Daylight Saving might apply or not.

  28. Evan says:


    Again, I disagree. For instance, take your flight example. I strongly think that the local time is much more useful to know than UTC. Who cares how long the flight will last? It's not like you usually have much of a choice. Are you really going to say "that flight is 8 hours; I don't want to spend 8 hours going on that trip. Never mind." The important information is when you leave and when you arrive — and that's as easy to scope out if you use local time as with UTC.

    By contrast, the local time *is* important. If you're flying through somewhere and arrive at 9pm local time, you may not be able to count on airport food vendors being open, for instance. *That's* something that requires action on your part. If you're arriving at 3pm, you know you're fine.

  29. I recall once getting a meeting invitation by email stating a meeting time of "2:00pm GMT" (it may have been 14:00 GMT), during the summer (in Britain). Very strange – auto-generated (by Outlook?) from a calendar entry, I suppose.

    I remember TV network trailers announcing shows as "8, 7 Central" – the feed probably came from somewhere like New York, aimed at Eastern and Central time zones, then anywhere further west would get a different network feed coming from somewhere like California. I seem to recall reading they tended to use two satellite positions, one somewhere over towards the East Coast, one for the West, which would fit well with that setup. (That way, you can use the same frequency for both satellites, but different positions.)

  30. Jack Mathews says:

    It's pretty obvious that the person who wrote the email was just trying to say "Pacific Time," but has seen "Pacific Standard Time" so many times that they assumed that it was the way to refer to it 100% of the time. In fact, the fact that its meaning changes based on time of year is apocrypha. Everyone reading that email knew in context what the person was trying to say. Same with "PST" vs. "PDT" – they probably got corrected to say "PDT" and thought "ok, that's the real term, I'll use that from now on."

    In fact, then, you're the person sounding self important by bullying some poor person and telling them that they're dumb, when in fact, nothing you did cleared up anything for anyone. That person was just leading their life, doing their job, and you went out of your way to make them have a bad day by having yet another engineer go out of their way (and yes, you went out of your way) to make someone feel like an idiot.

  31. Danny says:

    @Jack Mathews

    I disagree, Ray was trying to figure how much time he has before must go to work, so that person writing the mail was not doing his/her job properly. If you don't know something don't do it, not do something to a worse outcome. Next time when you need to go somewhere at a specific hour go one hour earlier then just sit idle around, see how boring it is. The you'll wish you did better with that hour.

  32. Charles says:

    Lol, can't even get the daylight savings right and they let that guy play with a server ?!

    Who's the more stupid of the two: the guy or the boss hiring that guy ?

    I know americans are stupid, high above the average percentage of stupid people in a country, but this is ridiculous !

    I wonder if the same boss hired the people that are developing windows 8 too. At least that will explain all the stupid, unreasonable and desperate changes.

  33. Drak says:

    @Bob and @Evan: Hell no, I'd rather see DST go away completely. Waking up with sunlight is so much better for you (apparently). Perhaps the problem is that we, in Holland, switch over too late. I get to wake up at 'dawn' now, and in a week or two it will be dark again when I have to wake up. And it's all nice that in the summer it stays light outside till midnight, but seeing as I'm in bed by 11pm (23:00) that hour is totally wasted on me anyway.

  34. Shabook says:

    loanianren: Zulu imples both military style 'hhmm' *and* UTC.

    John: No.  We switch on to DST late in the year in spring, have it on over the year boundry and switch it off in fall/autumn.  (Spring foward/fall back).  The big difference is that we're on DST over the year boundry (unlike the northern hemisphere).  Also means that the new 'dynamic DST handling' for Vista and above doesn't quite handle changes to DST rules south of the equator completely right.

    JamesJohnston: Oh, I really want to go to work on a Monday and it's Tuesday by the time I go home — yes that's what would happen if New Zealand used UTC.  (It can happen often enough for OTHER reasons, but never mind that…)

  35. Joe says:

    My proposal is that this fall, we move our clocks back 30 minutes and leave them there.

    There is a significant hidden cost of daylight savings time. For example, calculating hourly wages when the shift goes over the time change. Or worse, ends in the fall in the at 2:30 am.

    @Charles; "high above the average percentage of stupid people in a country". Actually testing doesn't bear that out, but it's a nice strawman.

  36. What can I say?  I guess I'm used to it.  I've set all my clocks to UTC since 2005.  Doesn't bother me a bit.

  37. Steve M says:

    I went through this exact same thing at a company I worked at many years back. I had to write up software release notes, and we would always include our technical support hours somewhere in there.  I always wrote it with "Pacific Time", and they always edited it to "Pacific Standard Time" before distributing, whether the release was during PDT or not (or spanned both periods, as we always seemed to have a release right around the time change). I had a discussion with the people responsible for this every time, and explained to them exactly what Raymond pointed out.  At first I think they just didn't believe me. But even after I convinced them, they just could NOT resist changing it to Pacific Standard Time. It apparenlty just sounds/looks so much cooler than Pacific Time.

    [They probably just love the sound of the word Standard. I mean, Standard time is clearly the best. Maybe if it were instead called "Pacific Winter Time." -Raymond]
  38. Jordy/Jediknil says:

    The worst thing to me is that in the US, the change (in either direction) happens at 2:00AM in the "old" time. So the e-mail should have said 1AM PST to 9AM PDT. *facepalm*

    Actually, I take it back. In the fall we could have an outage from 1:30AM PDT to 1:00AM PST.

  39. Evan says:

    @Jordy: "Actually, I take it back. In the fall we could have an outage from 1:30AM PDT to 1:00AM PST."

    Oh man. If I'm ever a sysadmin who needs to do maintenance around that time, I am totally doing that.

  40. hagenp says:

    Same problem for webinars, it would be simple if the announcers could just add the UTC difference:

    "Server down from 9am to 5pm Pacific Standard Time (UTC-8)"

    Most people know or at least can easily find out the "UTC delta", and then convert locally.

  41. Wavel says:

    I am actually on the phone with Intuit right now and I said "You should call me Monday at 1pm Pacific Time". He replied, "Ok, we'll call you 1pm Pacific Standard Time". I said, "Well, if you must, but I'm observing daylight savings time soooooo….."

  42. Bolt says:

    Should be filed under Social Skills of a Thermonuclear Device…

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