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Early daylight saving spurs race against time

Clocks move ahead Sunday, but millions of computers are programmed to make the change in April. Mayhem lite may ensue.

March 06, 2007|Michelle Quinn | Times Staff Writer

Springing forward in the computer age just got more complicated.

At 2 a.m. Sunday, daylight saving time starts three weeks earlier than usual in a federal effort to save energy. But millions of computers, servers and networks are programmed to move the hands forward on the first Sunday in April.

So information technologists are racing against the computer clocks to make the software fixes. Otherwise, heat and lights in some buildings could come on an hour later than they should. Meeting rooms may be double booked. Sprinklers might go haywire. Doors may lock and unlock when they aren't supposed to. People could be late to meetings with their bosses if their computerized calendars aren't tweaked in time.

"People will start associating anything that happens wrong that day with the change in daylight saving time,'' said Bruce Vincent, Stanford University's chief technologist whose staff of six spent two weeks on fixes.

Moving daylight saving time up three weeks isn't producing anywhere near the anxiety Y2K did heading into the year 2000. Doomsayers then were predicting havoc because computers would not recognize the 00. But the technology industry mobilized, fixed the problem and Y2K fears ended when the ball finished dropping in Times Square.

This time around, the threat is at best mayhem lite.

Few alarms have been sounded, in part because the fears are more subtle. Meetings off by an hour aren't a calamity, and people can still check their watches.

For most people at home who do not tap into work e-mail or a network, the new start for daylight saving time could pass virtually unnoticed. TiVo and other digital video recorders have made fixes. Those with older computer systems may have to hunt online for software fixes called "patches," or just endure having a clock out of sync for three weeks.

Still, Kevin Watne, president of Los Angeles technology consultant Generation IX, has a novel solution for Californians if all else fails: set their haywire technology on Mountain Standard Time for three weeks.

"Buys you time," he said.

Congress' rationale in making the time shift was to give people more hours of daylight in the late afternoon and evenings, cutting their electricity needs. It's similar to the argument Benjamin Franklin made in the 1700s when he suggested people save money on candles by taking maximum advantage of the sunlight.

In 1966, Congress passed the Uniform Time Act, which established daylight saving time as beginning the last Sunday in April and ending the last Sunday in October. The federal government extended it during the 1973 Arab oil embargo and, in 1986, pushed up the start date to the first Sunday in April.

Small businesses could be vulnerable because many lack access to technologists who can make fixes. Generation IX has spent hours working with high schools and small companies to fix everything that has an internal clock, such as accounting systems, electronic punch cards, fax machines, fire walls, and even shredders and iPods.

In big organizations, making fixes is proving considerably harder than nudging forward a clock's hands. Patches from Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp. and other firms have not been enough.

"The computers all talk to each other about time," said Shelton Waggener, UC Berkeley's chief information officer. "It is more complex than people in Washington considered."

For information technology professionals, the challenge has been figuring out how to synchronize the myriad devices and computers people have, then testing whether it worked in the least disruptive way.

"I have to go find people's mobile devices and fix each one," said Andrew Laurence, systems analyst at UC Irvine.

Some institutions have quickly applied patches and moved on. But for some, those patches have created new problems, such as making some appointments appear to be an hour later than they should.

"You have no idea what the original time of the event was," said Dave Thewlis, executive director of Cal Connect, a consortium of individuals and companies focused on electronic calendar and scheduling problems.

UC Irvine and UC Berkeley installed systemwide calendar patches at the end of December, only to find that some appointments were one hour late in the period from Sunday to April 1, when daylight saving time normally would have started. All users had to check their calendars and manually make fixes.

"We had a couple weeks of grumbling and unpleasantness," said UC Irvine's Laurence.

At Stanford, information chief Vincent balked at telling people at the university that they would have to correct their calendars themselves, as software companies have instructed.

But he worried about the looming tech support nightmare if he didn't act fast. On campus and off, there are 75,000 computers registered, about three per person, including mobile devices such as BlackBerrys and smart phones.

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