‘Time Zone King’: How a UCLA computer scientist spins digital clocks

'Time Zone King': How a UCLA computer scientist spins digital clocks

Paul Eggert may not be the most famous person in Russell, Kansas. That distinction, he says, goes to former US senators Bob Dole or Arlen Specter. But this Midwestern native certainly knows the pulse of the world’s most precious commodity: time.

If you’ve ever looked at the clock on a computer, smartphone, smartwatch, or virtually any other digital screen — and the time was correct — you owe it to Eggert, UCLA computer science lecturer Samueli School of Engineering, a debt of recognition. Working quietly in his spare time, Eggert helps manage everyone’s time in the world’s more than 24 time zones.

Nicknamed “The Time Zone King” by Medium OneZero Tech SiteEggert never thought he would be in the spotlight doing something he considers a hobby.

“I didn’t do this to get famous, and I don’t think I am now,” Eggert said, looking puzzled by all the fuss. “It’s just a hobby. My brother does genealogy, so I know my ancestors since the 13th century, and my hobby is time zones.

Eggert is currently editor and coordinator of the time zone database for the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which is one of the oldest operational institutions on the Internet. The IANA dates back to the 1970s as an unofficial organization before obtaining funding from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and coining its name in 1988.

A map showing time zones around the world
(Credit: Castigato/istockphoto)

The importance of the time zone database goes beyond keeping everyone on time for Zoom meetings around the world. Hundreds of millions of people use Eggert’s code every day, whether it’s daylight saving time or flying between time zones. It also allows official documents and photos to be timestamped indicating when they were created and modified.

What makes the thankless job of Eggert and a small team of IANA “zone keepers” even more complicated is geopolitics. This is when governments sometimes decide to unilaterally change their time zones with just a few days’ notice. Time is becoming commonplace for those governments looking to flex their political muscles and change the clock without properly alerting the rest of the world.

For Eggert, who undertakes this work without pay and between computer science classes at UCLA, the complexities require staying up to date via an IANA-run mailing list and figuring out when to modify the database so that the order can be maintained.

“Last October it was Palestine and a few weeks before it was Fiji,” Eggert said. “The bread and butter of the job and the most important part of the job is just keeping track of what governments are doing with their clocks.”

And that, Eggert said, is the biggest challenge when it comes to managing the database. The codebase itself isn’t an issue, he said, but different parties’ interests can cloud the issue and make the work unexpectedly controversial.

“Sometimes I think governments take pleasure in proving us wrong,” Eggert said.

Although he now plays an important role in keeping the world online, Eggert did not embark on a career in IT with the intention of pursuing such an ambitious undertaking.

“I wrote a blackjack simulator,” Eggert said. “I was 16 and I dreamed of going to Las Vegas and doing a murder because I would have this computer strategy and everyone was still doing hand stuff. Needless to say, none of that never happened.

When Eggert attended Rice University in 1971, the field of computer science was still new and most schools, including Rice University, did not have a computer science department. Eggert earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1975 and went on to earn his master’s and doctorate degrees. in Computer Science from UCLA.

Eggert joined the UC Santa Barbara faculty as an assistant professor from 1980 to 1983 before embarking on a two-decade career in industry, jumping between his own startups and larger companies. It was during his second startup Twin Sun, Inc., that he first encountered the time zone database in 1991.

“There were a bunch of networked computers in the Far East, and I had to set their clocks,” Eggert said. “And so I discovered this nascent time zone database, maintained by Arthur David Olson at the National Institutes of Health.”

Regarding the future of the database, Eggert warned that it will take a coordinated effort to maintain the legitimacy and consistency of time zone recording.

Olson’s database only covered a small portion of the world’s time zones, and as Eggert began to enter those in the Far East, he figured he’d fill in the rest while there was.

“It’s like coin collecting or stamp collecting,” Eggert said. “You want to have every American dollar ever minted, and if you collected a few, you would want them all. It was a bit like that attitude. »

But maintaining time zone databases isn’t just about knowing what time it is right now. Many programs and software rely on historical data to work properly, and collecting time zone history from all over the world is not an easy task. Fortunately, there was another group of people who had benefited from it for centuries: astrologers.

Before finally joining the regular faculty at UCLA in 2002, Eggert headed to university libraries and pored over old books containing data gathered by fortune tellers and psychics who used that information. to create astrological charts. He combed through tables of information that documented the places and times they observed, dating back to 1883, when standard time in the United States was introduced.

Unfortunately, accuracy was not the main concern of many astrologers who compiled this information. For them, time was a matter.

“Astrologers focused on wealthy parts of the world where people had money to cast horoscopes,” Eggert said. “I’ve been pretty firm about how I want to get rid of fake and biased data, but agreed to do it more gradually to give people time to adjust their old software.”

Regarding the future of the database, Eggert warned that it will take a coordinated effort to maintain the legitimacy and consistency of time zone recording.

“It needs to be collaborative and institutionalized,” Eggert said. “The technical challenges are there, but the political challenges are what I most want people to understand and think about if we want this to continue.”

Sara Hubbard contributed to this story.