The essence of time in computer science

An old and cringy post about time with really dumb analogies 🤦

The essence of time in computer science

Software developers sometimes feel the need to add temporal  information to the systems they build: for instance, it might be useful  to know the last time you logged in to a certain chat application, so  your friends know exactly when to bug you. Maybe the system is a  database and there is a strong need to maintain information about when  actions take place, and that may even imply defining a total order of  events. While there is nothing bad about depending on timestamps for particular  features of your system, there are anomalies related to the way  computers store that information that you should be aware of.

1. Realising computer clocks are weird

Time,  and more importantly, its speed are generally perceived as constant to  us. You can experience some anomalies when you have to wait for your  doctor’s appointment or when you’re having fun, but every time you look at the clock you should see time passing at the same rate.

For  the purpose of this post, let’s also assume that your relative speed is  no where near the speed of light, and so time will pass at the same  rate as your friendly neighbour.

How computers actually keep track of time

The device you’re using to read this post uses some arbitrary date in time, called epoch,  which is considered to be the start of the time. The current time can  then be calculated as the number of cpu cycles or ticks since that date.  Here’s how you can see what the epoch is on a terminal:

you@yourmachine:~$ date -j -f %s 0
Thu Jan 1 01:00:00 CET 1970

This is basically asking: “Give me the date in a string format of the time when only 0 ticks have passed since the start”, which basically equates to giving you the epoch.

This  number of ticks is stored somewhere in your operating system, and if  you happen to store it in a fixed size variable, well, let’s just say  that eventually you’ll run out of space and overflow the value. Here’s a  good future example of this, and another more humorous one from 1999.

But  I’m not here to tell you that you’ll have to worry about the future.  No! If someones runs your software for more than 20 years, you should be  flattered but by that time AI will have taken over the world and maybe  it can patch that error without your intervention. If not, humanity will  probably have bigger problems (fighting T-1000 terminators).

Harambe the chimp

Meet  Harambe. Harambe is a chimp that lives in an undisclosed zoo, whose job  it is to log the time at which hippos take naps (they can’t get too  much sleep). The zoo was kind enough to give her a watch with little  bananas drawn on it, because they’re cool like that. But it’s one of  those fancy digital clocks.

Harambe’s had an impeccable record of 10 years as a hippo nap supervisor. Her everyday log was something like this:

23:31:32 Alfred nap
23:32:13 Barold nap
23:37:52 Caesar nap

But there was one fateful day where Harambe’s record was  corrupted. Zookeepers were baffled about what made Harambe write an  obviously wrong timestamp. Here is her log for that day:

00:59:12 Barold nap
00:59:49 Caesar nap
00:00:13 Alfred nap

Luckily, one theoretical physicist came forward to vouch  for Harambe. After a complex analysis, he said that she did not  actually travel back in time to log a forgotten nap, but instead that  morning was when daylight savings kicked in, and the clock was set back 1  hour automatically.

Harambe kept her job and was even offered a raise.

Time volatility

Harambe’s  story is a rough reminder that programs are very literal. If you tell  your program to look at the system time, be aware that it cannot infer  time adjustments and understand that you’ll run into these anomalies  that can cause unexpected behaviour. It’s particularly chaotic in  applications that absolutely rely on time like calculating daily  interest rates in the banking sector, or buying airplane tickets for  future dates.

If you want to think about very weird anomalies,  think about time intervals. It’s not uncommon to check how long a piece  of code takes to execute, and you usually do that by checking system  time before and after the code is run. If one of the aforementioned time  anomalies were to happen during the execution of the code, you might  momentarily believe to be looking at the fastest code in existence,  looking at a negative time variation result.

But some of you might  yet not be convinced. After all, if something like day light savings is  predictable, maybe there’s some smart trick to adjust the clock without  notice from both users and programs alike. Perhaps that could be true,  but there are other time adjustments that are not easily predictable by  systems developers, like leap seconds, so the issue needs to be  addressed in another way.

1.5 A brief monotonous pit-stop

Here’s  a complementary crash course in monotonicity. You’ll need it later! Let’s say you have a sequence of numbers. If it only increases, you can  call it monotonous. If there are no repeated values, it’s strictly  monotonous.

[-1,1,2,3,3,3,3,9] # monotonous
[-1,0,1,3,4,5,6,7] # strictly monotonous

2. Engineers to the rescue

After  probably getting burned by these pesky time anomalies a few times and  hours of head scratching, operating system developers realised that a  new time API was needed, and so monotonic system time was created. Programs that use such monotonic sources to obtain system time will not  experience time travel to the past, and that sounds great!

You’ll  be pleased to know that its implementation is also easy to understand.  The operating system can return an arbitrary integer number in the  following way:

// choose your preferred programming language
OS.getMonotonicTime(); // returns -123456789
OS.getMonotonicTime(); // returns -123456711

If the very large negative number annoy you, just imagine the returned values were 22 and 43.  The point here is that these numbers don’t really make sense on their  own, but you can get meaning out of it once you subtract two values.  This solves the negative time intervals, which as I said causes all  sorts of chaos.

A new question arises: how does the operating  system adjust the monotonic time value to catch up or to wait for the  real time? Protocols like NTP, which is vastly used as the norm to  synchronise the clocks for all sorts of electronic devices just override  the old value, causing sudden jumps or discontinuities in time, which  is exactly what causes the unexpected behaviours. So what are the  alternatives?

If you’re curious about this sort of issue, I highly advise you to read these two articles from Google. It’s the type of thing that makes people want to  work for them. They basically cast a not-so-complex spell that happens  to slow down the server clock approximately 14 parts per million,  spreading time anomalies like those damned leap seconds across a time  window of your choosing (say, 20 hours).

Outside of Google, there  are some programming languages and runtimes which add their own layer of  abstraction since this is a very known area for bugs. C++, Java, Go and Erlang all include this in the standard library, but I’m sure there are more  out there that I don’t know or care about. Despite my mixed feelings for  Erlang, I have to recommend this post by Fred Hebert.


This  was something I’ve been wanting to learn about for some time, and it’s  possible that I might have to write some time aware code in the near  future, so that’s why this post exists. I think it retransmits what I  learned quite well, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an  imprecision (or three). In that case, I’d appreciate it if you’d kindly  yell at me below.