What date is it?

“Captain’s log, stardate twenty-nine sixty-four point two.” You do not need to be a lifelong Star Trek fan to recognize these words. The date terminology used in the TV programs and movies was rather inconsistent. I was about 12 when the first Star Trek TV programs were shown in the UK and, even then, it was clear to me that having a workable date/time system in a context where warp drive is employed would be challenging. Under those circumstances, Einstein’s equations become very relevant to everyday life.

But I am not about to discuss the Time Dilation Effect – another day perhaps. I am interested in the thorough mess we make of dealing with dates and times here on Terra Firma …

So, what is the problem? I will start with an example. My next birthday is on the third of April 2011. There are a variety of ways to write this date – here are a few possibilities:

3rd April 2011
April 3rd, 2011
3 April 2011
03-Apr-11
3/4/11
4/3/11

All of these are correct. The first three, where the month is spelled out and the year is in full, are, at least, unambiguous. The fourth one, where the year is shortened is OK for most purposes. It is the last two that trouble me. In most European countries we would use “3/4/11”; in the US it is “4/3/11”. I do not mind if my [American] boss sends me a birthday greeting on the wrong day – it is the thought that counts. But, in many business situations, getting the date right is critical. So, which of these formats is “right”? That is hard to say, but I feel there is an intrinsic logic in having the decreasing precision in a date by having day/month/year. I endeavor to write all dates with the month as a word to avoid confusion.

Interestingly, we all kind of agree when it comes to time. Imagine writing the time as minutes:hours:seconds – that would be madness. It is curious though that we write dates with decreasing precision [years at the end], but write time the other way around, with the highest precision [seconds] at the end. This gives us the opportunity to reduce precision, when it does not matter, and omit the seconds.

There are certain countries where they do think about the date more logically. I believe that Sweden and Japan are examples, but I would be happy to be corrected. In those places, they write the date in the sequence: year, month, day. For example: 2011/4-3 [I am not sure of the standard punctuation, but you get the idea.] I feel it would be much neater to just write all dates as 8 digits, thus: 20110403. This has the benefit of sorting easily, as dates are automatically ascending numbers. I commonly use this format for computer filenames, when it is useful to include the date.

So, we have a bit of a mess with dates. How about time? That is probably worse. Half of the world uses the 24 hour clock, which is unambiguous, and the rest insist on the 12 hour system and cannot see the problem. I have been told that a flight is at ten past seven. Is that morning or evening? I have to ask. 19:10 is much clearer. I knew someone who went for a meeting with her councilor [who worked odd hours] at 10:00 in the evening, to discover that she had been expected 12 hours earlier.

So, here is my proposed format for the precise time of an evening flight on my next birthday: 2011.04.03.19.10.00 – not sure about the punctuation yet. The idea is that you can remove fields from the right, if you need less precision, in a consistent way.

On a previous occasion, I proposed a new way to organize the calendar. I am beginning to think that it really would be a good idea to start afresh.

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0 thoughts about “What date is it?
  • I think what you are looking for is the ISO 8601 standard, of the form 2010-09-16.

    Sweden uses this form for most official purposes, though the 16/09/2010 form is common for informal usage.

    Most European countries use dd/mm/yyyy style dates (with varying punctuation) or ISO 8601 for more formal documents. I think the USA is the only country that has the illogical month-first ordering.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2010/09/16/what-date-is-it/