To this day, I bet you’ve never heard of leap seconds – seconds, not years. Since 1972, we have occasionally added a second to our global clock to account for variations in the Earth’s rotation speed. As it decreases, we add a second. So far, we’ve added 27.
You might think this has no impact on you (or be happy to have an extra second free), but if you remember not being able to access Reddit in 2012 or dozens of Cloudflare-supported sites that went offline in 2017, then you I looked into the cold, hard face of a leap second.
Meta, a company not necessarily known for always having our best interests at heart, is not a fan of leap seconds. Meta wants to finish them off, and he made his case this week in an extensive blog post (opens in new tab) About the subject.
That’s not personal, says Meta (although it can be a little selfish): The company’s global network faces the same challenges as everyone else when it comes to that seemingly harmless extra tick of the clock. The successful implementation of a leap second, which causes a glitch of a second from the world clock to add that extra beat, is a precise synchronization of a global dance troupe that hasn’t learned all the steps.
If, as is often the case, all systems are not handling change in the same way or communicating it in a timely, split-second time, systems like the ones described above – systems you trust – fail.
To be clear, leap seconds are not an annual or guaranteed occurrence. They’ve happened just over half of the years we’ve had the system up and running, but they can occur with unpredictable regularity, and disruption can be incalculably bad.
Learning about leap seconds is as disorienting as learning about Y2K (opens in new tab) it was in the late 1990s. Up until that point, we were enjoying a digital spring, nearly twenty years with home PCs and decades more with corporate and mainframe computers making our everyday lives better and more productive. Then someone noticed that no one had programmed most systems for the change that would happen when the date shifted from 1999 to 2000. We were told that the Internet and a multitude of other systems could collapse. Businesses and banks would collapse, and there would be global panic.
Everyone got a little scared… until developers and engineers like those working at Meta today recognized the risk and started working to adjust. When January 1, 2000 arrived, the dreaded Armageddon hardly showed up.
We prepare. And so we survive.
The existence of the leap second is probably not such a dire situation – probably. It does, however, have that “butterfly flapping its wings in Houston and starting a tsunami in Taipei” potential. As Meta notes, “As an industry, we run into problems whenever a leap second is introduced. And because it’s such a rare event, it devastates the community every time it happens.”
You didn’t know about the leap second until now, but it might make sense to recognize it and now support its demise.