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Chapter Six Dates and Times

6.1 Chapter Overview

This chapter discusses dates and times as a data type. In particular, this chapter discusses the data/time data structures the HLA Standard Library defines and it also discusses date arithmetic and other operations on dates and times.

6.2 Dates

For the first 50 years, or so, of the computer's existence, programmers did not give much thought to date calculations. They either used a date/time package provided with their programming language, or they kludged together their own date processing libraries. It wasn't until the Y2K1 problem came along that programmers began to give dates serious consideration in their programs. The purpose of this chapter is two-fold. First, this chapter teaches that date manipulation is not as trivial as most people would like to believe - it takes a lot of work to properly compute various date functions. Second, this chapter presents the HLA date and time formats found in the "datetime.hhf" library module. Hopefully this chapter will convince you that considerable thought has gone into the HLA datetime.hhf module so you'll be inclined to use it rather than trying to create your own date/time formats and routines.

Although date and time calculations may seem like they should be trivial, they are, in fact, quite complex. Just remember the Y2K problem to get a good idea of the kinds of problems your programs may create if they don't calculate date and time values correctly. Fortunately, you don't have to deal with the complexities of date and time calculations, the HLA Standard Library does the hard stuff for you.

The HLA Standard Library date routines produce valid results for dates between January 1, 1583 and December 31, 99992. HLA represents dates using the following record definition (in the date namespace):



This format (date.daterec) compactly represents all legal dates using only four bytes. Note that this is the same date format that the chapter on Data Representation presents for the extended data format (see "Bit Fields and Packed Data" on page 81). You should use the date.daterec data type when declaring date objects in your HLA programs, e.g.,

	TodaysDate: date.daterec;
	Century21:  date.daterec := date.daterec:[ 1, 1, 2001 ]; // note: d, m ,y


As the second example above demonstrates, the first field is the day field and the second field is the month field if you use a date.daterec constant to initialize a static date.daterec object. Don't fall into the trap of using the mm/dd/yy or yy/mm/dd organization common in most countries.

The HLA date.daterec format has a couple of advantages. First, it is a trivial matter to convert between the internal and external representations of a date. All you have to do is extract the d, m, and y fields and manipulate them as integers of the appropriate sizes. Second, this format makes it very easy to compare two dates to see if one date follows another in time; all you've got to do is compare the date.daterec object as though it were a 32-bit unsigned integer and you'll get the correct result. The Standard Library data.daterec format does have a few disadvantages. Specifically, certain calculations like computing the number of days between two dates is a bit difficult. Fortunately, the HLA Standard Library Date module provides most of the functions you'll ever need for date calculations, so this won't prove to be much of a disadvantage.

A second disadvantage to the date.daterec format is that the resolution is only one day. Some calculations need to maintain the time of day (down to some fraction of a second) as well as the calendar date. The HLA Standard Library also provides a TIME data structure. By combining these two structures together you should be able handle any problem that comes along.

Before going on and discussing the functions available in the HLA Standard Library's Date module, it's probably worthwhile to briefly discuss some other date formats that find common use. Perhaps the most common date format is to use an integer value that specifies the number of days since an epoch, or starting, date. The advantage to this scheme is that it's very easy to do certain kinds of date arithmetic (e.g., to compute the number of days between two dates you simply subtract them) and it's also very easy to compare these dates. The disadvantages to this scheme include the fact that it is difficult to convert between the internal representation and an external representation like "xx/yy/zzzz." Another problem with this scheme, which it shares with the HLA scheme, is that the granularity is one day. You cannot represent time with any more precision than one day.

Another popular format combines dates and times into the same value. For example, the representation of time on most UNIX systems measures the number of seconds that have passed since Jan 1, 1970. Unfortunately, many UNIX systems only use a 32-bit signed integer; therefore, those UNIX systems will experience their own "Y2.038K" problem in the year 2038 when these signed integers roll over from 2,147,483,637 seconds to -2,147,483,638 seconds. Although this format does maintain time down to seconds, it does not handle fractions of a second very well. Most UNIX system include an extra field in their date/time format to handle milliseconds, but this extra field is a kludge. One could just as easily add a time field to an existing date format if you're willing to kludge.

For those who want to be able to accurately measure dates and times, a good solution is to use a 64-bit unsigned integer to count the number of microseconds since some epoch data. A 64-bit unsigned integer will provide microsecond accuracy for a little better than 278,000 years. Probably sufficient for most needs. If you need better than microsecond accuracy, you can get nanosecond accuracy that is good for about 275 years (beyond the epoch date) with a 64-bit integer. Of course, if you want to use such a date/time format, you will have to write the routines that manipulate such dates yourself; the HLA Standard Library's Date/Time module doesn't use that format.

6.3 A Brief History of the Calendar

Man has been interested in keeping track of time since the time man became interested in keeping track of history. To understand why we need to perform various calculations, you'll need to know a little bit about the history of the calendar. So this section will digress a bit from computers and discuss that history.

What exactly is time? Time is a concept that we are all intuitively familiar with, but try and state a concrete definition that does not define time in terms of itself. Before you run off and grab a dictionary, you should note that many of the definitions of time in a typical dictionary contain a circular reference (that is, they define time in terms of itself). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language provides the following definition:

A nonspatial continuum in which events occur in apparently irreversible succession from the past through the present to the future.

As horrible as this definition sounds, it is one of the few that doesn't define time by how we measure it or by a sequence of observable events.

Why are we so obsessed with keeping track of time? This question is much more easily answered. We need to keep track of time so we can predict certain future events. Historically, important events the human race has needed to predict include the arrival of spring (for planting), the observance of religious anniversaries (e.g., Christmas, Passover), or the gestation period for livestock (or even humans). Of course, modern life may seem much more complex and tracking time more important, but we track time for the same reasons the human race always has, to predict the future. Today, we predict business meetings, when a department store will open to the public, the start of a college lecture, periods of high traffic on the highways, and the start of our favorite television shows by using time. The better we are able to measure time, the better we will be able to predict when certain types of events will occur (e.g., the start of spring so we can begin planting).

To measure time, we need some predictable, periodic, event. Since ancient times, there have been three celestial events that suit this purpose: the solar day, the lunar month, and the solar year. The solar day (or tropical day) consists of one complete rotation of the Earth on its axis. The lunar month consists of one complete set of moon phases. The solar year is one complete orbit of the Earth around the Sun. Since these periodic events are easy to measure (crudely, at least), they have become the primary basis by which we measure time.

Since these three celestial events were obvious even in prehistoric times, it should come as no surprise that one society would base their measurement of time on one cyclic standard such as the lunar month while another social group would base their time unit on a different cycle such as the solar year. Clearly, such fundamentally different time keeping schemes would complicate business transactions between the two societies effectively erecting an artificial barrier between them. Nevertheless, until about the year 46 BC (by our modern calendar), most countries used their own system for time keeping.

One major problem with reconciling the different calendars is that the celestial cycles are not integral. That is, there are not an even number of solar days in a lunar month, there are not an integral number of solar days in a solar year, and there are not an integral number of lunar months in a solar year. Indeed, there are approximately 365.2422 days in a solar year and approximately 29.5 days in a lunar month. Twelve lunar months are 354 days, a little over a week short of a full year. Therefore, it is very difficult to reconcile these three periodic events if you want to use two of them or all three of them in your calendar.

In 46 BC (or BCE, for Before Common Era, as it is more modernly written) Julius Caesar introduced the calendar upon which our modern calendar is based. He decreed that each year would be exactly 365 1/4 days long by having three successive years having 365 days each and every fourth year having 366 days. He also abolished reliance upon the lunar cycle from the calendar. However, 365 1/4 is just a little bit more than 365.2422, so Julius Caesar's calendar lost a day every 128 years or so.

Around 700 AD (or CE, for Common Era, as it is more modernly written) it was common to use the birth of Jesus Christ as the Epoch year. Unfortunately, the equinox kept losing a full day every 128 years and by the year 1500 the equinoxes occurred on March 12th, and September 12th. This was of increasing concern to the Church since it was using the Calendar to predict Easter, the most important Christian holiday3. In 1582 CE, Pope Gregory XIII dropped ten days from the Calendar so that the equinoxes would fall on March 21st and September 21st, as before, and as advised by Christoph Clavius, he dropped three leap years every 400 years. From that point forward, century years were leap years only if divisible by 400. Hence 1700, 1800, 1900 are not leap years, but 2000 is a leap year. This new calendar is known as the Gregorian Calendar (named after Pope Gregory XIII) and with the exception of the change from BC/AD to BCE/CE is, essentially, the calendar in common use today4.

The Gregorian Calendar wasn't accepted universally until well into the twentieth century. Largely Roman Catholic countries (e.g., Spain and France) adopted the Gregorian Calendar the same year as Rome. Other countries followed later. For example, portions of Germany did not adopt the Gregorian Calendar until the year 1700 AD while England held out until 1750. For this reason, many of the American founding fathers have two birthdates listed. The first date is the date in force at the time of their birth, the second date is their birthdate using the Gregorian Calendar. For example, George Washington was actually born on February 11th by the English Calendar, but after England adopted the Gregorian Calendar, this date changed to February 22nd. Note that George Washington's birthday didn't actually change, only the calendar used to measure dates at the time changed.

The Gregorian Calendar still isn't correct, though the error is very small. After approximately 3323 years it will be off by a day. Although there has been some proposals thrown around to adjust for this in the year 4000, that is such a long time off that it's hardly worth contemporary concern (with any luck, mankind will be a spacefaring race by then and the concept of a year, month, or day, may be a quaint anachronism).

There is one final problem with the calendar- the length of the solar day is constantly changing. Ocean tidal forces, meteors burning up in our atmosphere, and other effects are slowing down the Earth's rotation resulting in longer days. The effect is small, but compared to the length of a day, but it amounts to a loss of one to three milliseconds (that is, about 1/500th of a second) every 100 years since the defining Epoch (Jan 1, 1900). That means that Jan 1, 2000 is about two seconds longer than Jan 1, 1900. Since there are 86,400 seconds in a day, it will probably take on the order of 100,000 years before we lose a day due to the Earth's rotation slowing down. However, those who want to measure especially small time intervals have a problem: hours and seconds have been defined as submultiples of a single day. If the length of a day is constantly changing, that means that the definition of a second is constantly changing as well. In other words, two very precise measurements of equivalent events taken 10 years apart may show measurable differences.

To solve this problem scientists have developed the Cesium-155 Atomic Clock, the most accurate timing device ever invented. The Cesium atom, under special conditions, vibrates at exactly 9,192,631,770 cycles per second, for the year 1900. Because the clock is so accurate, it has to be adjusted periodically (about every 500 days, currently) so that its time (known as Universal Coordinated Time or UTC) matches that of the Earth (UT1). A high-quality Cesium Clock (like the one at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, USA) is very large (about the size of a large truck) and can keep accurate time to about one second in a million and a half years. Commercial units (about the size of a large suitcase) are available and they keep time accurate to about one second every 5-10,000 years.

The wall calendar you purchase each year is a device that is very similar to the Cesium Atomic Clock- it lets you measure time. The Cesium clock, clearly, lets time two discrete events that are very close to one another, but either device will probably let you predict that you start two week's vacation in Mexico starting next Monday (and the wall calendar does it for a whole lot less money). Most people don't think of a calendar as a time keeping device, but the only difference between it and a watch is the granularity, that is, the finest amount of time one can measure with the device. With a typical electronic watch, you can probably measure (accurately) to as little as 1/100 seconds. With a calendar, the minimum interval you can measure is one day. While the watch is appropriate for measuring the 100 meter dash, it is inappropriate for measuring the duration of the Second World War; the calendar, however, is perfect for this latter task.

Time measurement devices, be they a Cesium Clock, a wristwatch, or a Calendar, do not measure time in an absolute sense. Instead, these devices measure time between two events. For the Gregorian Calendar, the (intended) Epoch event that marks year one was the birth of Christ. Unfortunately in 1582, the use of negative numbers was not widespread and even the use of zero was not common. Therefore, 1 AD was (supposed to be) the first year of Christ's life. The year prior to that point was considered 1BC. This unfortunate choice created some mathematical problems that tend to bother people 2,000 years later. For example, the first decade was the first 10 years of Christ's life, that is, 1 AD through 10 AD. Likewise, the first century was considered the first 100 years after Christ's birth, that is, 1 AD through 100 AD. Likewise, the first millennium was the first 1,000 years after Christ's birth, specifically 1 AD through 1000 AD. Similarly, the second millennium is the next 1,000 years, specifically 1001 AD through 2000 AD. The third, millennium, contrary to popular belief, began on January 1, 2001 (Hence the title of Clark's book: "2001: A Space Odyssey"). It is an unfortunately accident of human psychology that people attach special significance to round numbers; there were many people mistakenly celebrating the turn of the millennium on December 31st, 1999 when, in fact, the actual date was still a year away.

Now you're probably wondering what this has to do with computers and the representation of dates in the computer... The reason for taking a close look at the history of the Calendar is so that you don't misuse the date and time representations found in the HLA Standard Library. In particular, note that the HLA date format is based on the Gregorian Calendar. Since the Gregorian Calendar was "born" in October of 1582, it makes absolutely no sense to represent any date earlier than about Jan 1, 1583 using the HLA date format. Granted, the data type can represent earlier dates numerically, but any date computations would be severely off if one or both of the dates in the computation are pre-1583 (remember, Pope Gregory droped 10 days from the calendar; right off the bat your "days between two dates" computation would be off by 10 real days if the two dates crossed the date that Rome adopted the Gregorian Calendar).

In fact, you should be wary of any dates prior to about January 1, 1800. Prior to this point there were a couple of different (though similar) calendars in use in various countries. Unless you're a historian and have the appropriate tables to convert between these dates, you should not use dates prior to this point in calculations. Fortunately, by the year 1800, most countries that had a calendar based on Juilus Caesar's calendar fell into line and adopted the Gregorian Calendar. Some other calendars (most notably, the Chinese Calendar) were in common use into the middle of the 20th century. However, it is unlikely you would ever confuse a Chinese date with a Gregorian date.

1For those who missed it, the Y2K (or Year 2000) problem occurred when programmers used two digits for the date and assumed that the H.O. two digits were "19". Clearly this code malfunctioned when the year 2000 came along.

2The Gregorial Calendar came into existence in Oct, 1582, so any dates earlier than this are meaningless as far as date calculations are concerned. The last legal date, 9999, was chosen arbitrarily as a trap for wild dates entering the calculation. This means, of course, that code calling the HLA Standard Library Date/Time package will suffer from the Y10K problem. However, you'll probably not consider this a severe limitation!

3Easter is especially important since the Church computed all other holidays relative to Easter. If the date of Easter was off, then all holidays would be off.

4One can appreciate that non-Christian cultures might be offended at by the abbreviations BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini [day of our Lord]).

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