Leaping into the past: Software to face another ‘Y2K’ moment?

AP Photo/Courtesy of Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center The cosmos, it appears, has it in for your computer.

Google is cheating time. By June the internet service company will have added an entire second to its ether world.

Don’t be alarmed. Google is just playing catch-up, or in this case catch-down to the slowing rotation of the earth. Its “leap smear” is considered maybe the best way to keep computers from going haywire — a la Y2K — when a second gets added to the world’s clocks in June.

Yep, it’s the next round of the “leap second,” a periodic adjustment to the atomic clocks governing world time, to keep pace with a slower orbit. The possibility of software glitches makes some computer operators as antsy as the dreaded change-of-century adjustment did in the year 2000, the notorious Y2K bug.

But the actual impact might be even less than that one.

The cosmos couldn’t care less. The moon, in fact, is the heavenly body slowing down time, its orbit stealing momentum from the rotating earth to keep ever-so-slightly creeping out of our orbit, according to Physics and Astronomy Online.

The pull acts like a brake, the way swinging a rock in a sock while walking uphill would tend to pull you back down hill. The leap second adjustment has been some two dozen times since the formal Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) keeping started a half-century ago.

But when computers began operating programs according to internal clocks, the leap began to wreak a modest havoc. The most infamous events happened in 2005, when among other software failures, the Qantas Airways system crashed — stranding passengers and forcing flight attendants to check them by hand.

It’s that serious. Really. Maybe.

Despite periodic calls to do away with the leap second as a way to keep the world’s computers from a catastrophic cascading crash, not a whole lot else has gone wrong in a big way so far. Companies whose systems can be affected quietly have put in at least patchwork fixes.

For the state of South Carolina, where hackers in 2012 swiped the personal data of millions of residents from the Department of Revenue, few if any problems are expected with the leap second.

The IT wizards “are aware of it. They’re examining it to see if there’s anything we need to do,” said S.C. Budget and Control Board spokesman Scott Hawkins.

In the Charleston area, the Medical University of South Carolina had no glitches in 2012, when the last second was added, and doesn’t expect to this time, said spokeswoman Heather Woolwine.

“Talking to our IT experts here, it sounds like it’s not as scary as people are making it out to be. It has been a non-issue for MUSC that has not required any additional resources,” she said.

Google began “smearing” as it did routine updates of its software the day before a leap second was added in 2008. Programmers popped on a few more milliseconds at a time — flickers of time so quick the software didn’t bat an eye.

By the time midnight rolled around, and a second had to be added worldwide, Google was already there. In a company blog, Christopher Pascoe, site reliability engineer called it skewing time. It’s now standard operating procedure at the company.

The United States among others called for an end to the leap second at the United Nations in 2008. But it’s tough to overrule the lords of the universe. Adding leap seconds is decided by the International Telecommunications Union.

The union’s job is straightforward, its website tells you: to ensure the safety of life on land, sea and in the air. That means overseeing stuff like radio frequencies, satellite orbits, mobile broadcasting and the ubiquitous GPS that rules over it all.

If it’s up there somewhere, it’s in their realm. Including time itself.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.