The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

March 3, 2010

Even a Broken Clock is Right 364 Days a Year

Filed under: Technology — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:11 am

With as fast and  powerful as computers have become these days, you’d think a task as simple as keeping accurate time wouldn’t be a problem.  Unfortunately, you’d be wrong about that one.  What most people don’t realize is that in reality, the clocks built into our computers are generally pretty horrible at keeping time, and quite readily drift away from the correct time  by several seconds or even minutes per day if we let them (this page elaborates a bit more on some of the inherent problems with the clocks built into PCs.)  For the most part if you’re just using a PC for standard everyday stuff you won’t notice a problem because modern operating systems are set up to automatically synchronize time to a known accurate source on a regular basis, which provides a “good enough” solution for most users.  Even so, for some users who need a high level of accuracy, this might not be enough.  In extreme cases, some people might even resort to buying shockingly expensive add-on cards just to get an accurate clock on their PC.  For the other 99.7% of you out there with just the plain old clock that came on your motherboard, there’s a pretty good chance your wristwatch is going to be more accurate than your PC clock.

Of course, even in the best of circumstances it can be possible for the whole thing to just go pear-shaped and make a big mess of things.  Just this past weekend a dramatic example of this occurred as millions of older model Playstation 3 game systems (including mine, although since I wasn’t using it at the time it really didn’t affect me at all) were rendered (mostly) inoperable for 24 hours by a bug in the clock that apparently made the systems incorrectly believe that 2010 was a leap year, and confused the built-in clocks into reporting the date as December 31st 1999.  As a result, these systems were blocked from being able to access the Playstation network for having incorrect date and time info, and as a result became pretty much useless until the next day, when the clock was able to get back to dates which actually exist, and resume normal operation.  Based on what I’ve read of the problem, it sounds like this is a similar bug to the one which put original 30GB Zunes out of commission for a day at the end of 2008 due to a code bug which caused the devices to not handle the leap year correctly.  I’d like to think that incidents like these two are the exception more than the rule, but based on over six years of testing software for a living, I’m pretty certain that they aren’t.  In fact, on one of the more recent projects I worked on, we had quite a few issues with inaccurate timekeeping causing problems with our software.

And that’s not even taking into account what might happen if the clock stops working entirely.  On more than one occasion I’ve had an otherwise perfectly good piece of hardware be rendered completely useless by a malfunctioning clock chip.  This happened to one of my old PocketPCs (back in the days before someone had the bright idea of sticking a phone on one of the things, and by the way, get off my lawn) which made the thing pretty useless.  After all, back when the things rarely had any sort of Internet connectivity, one of their primary functions was to keep schedules, and if one of the things can’t be bothered to keep the time accurately, that makes it pretty much a somewhat colorful brick, right?  

Does anybody really know what time it is?  Does anybody really care?

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