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One Billion Seconds

By mbrubeck in Culture
Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 09:19:40 AM EST
Tags: etc (all tags)

March 29, 2001, 04:42:33 UTC. One billion seconds ago, Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the surface of the moon.

Meanwhile, on Earth, Ken Thompson was writing a game called "Space Travel" on a used PDP-7 minicomputer. Space Travel was Thompson's first program on the machine, but from that simple foundation he soon built an operating system. By the end of 1969, that PDP-7 was the first full development platform running Thompson's new system, which was named "UNIX" by Dennis Ritchie in 1970. Along with the moon landing, Unix turns one billion seconds old this year.

Why would anyone notice such an esoteric anniversary? Because our computers have kept track of it for us. Thompson and Ritchie's first Unix systems measured time from the start of 1969. This "Unix epoch" was later moved to January 1, 1970 at midnight UTC. Today every Unix computer in the world has an internal clock that counts seconds since the epoch. On September 9, 2001 at 01:46:40 UTC, that clock will strike 1,000,000,000. Hackers around the world will count down and cheer as the first gigasecond ends and the second gigasecond begins.

[Actually, due to leap seconds added to UTC since 1970, the true billionth second since the epoch will occur 22 seconds earlier at 01:46:18 UTC. The difference arises because UTC is adjusted for fluctuation in the Earth's rotational speed. The US Naval Observatory explains the discrepancies between various systems of time, for those interested in the details.]

So through pure coincidence, the Unix epoch is only four months after the Apollo 11 landing. The landing itself is a commonly-proposed zero date for hypothetical new time systems. Would-be calendar reformers point out that unlike most traditional epochs, Armstrong's first step is a precisely recorded point in time and has significance to the entire human race. Their "Tranquility calendar" may not replace the Gregorian system anytime soon, but in the computer world we can expect Unix time to remain standard for quite a while. The gigasecond celebrations this fall will be the first time many people are aware of this obscure but ubiquitous time reckoning.

Of course the gigasecond is no less arbitrary than the millennium: a chronological curiosity, and an excuse to throw a party. Unlike a millennium or a century though, most of us will live to see the next billion seconds -- though we don't often think that far ahead. The first gigasecond began as humans walked on the moon, and ends as we complete the sequencing of our own genome. I'm interested in hearing how you plan to celebrate the start of a new gigasecond, and what you hope to see and do in the next 31.7 years.


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One Billion Seconds | 28 comments (28 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
Reference links (5.00 / 3) (#1)
by mbrubeck on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 04:04:16 AM EST

Here are some useful links that didn't fit into the main article:
  • Bell Labs' web site has a very detailed and entertaining History of Unix, which I used as a source.
  • The Gigasecond Server will calculate the billionth second from any point in time.
  • D.J. Bernstein's libtai pages contain a detailed discussion of UTC and TAI in relation to Unix time.
And one last bit of trivia: The binary gigasecond (2^30 seconds) will be in January 2004.

The S1G bug? (4.75 / 4) (#2)
by mbrubeck on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 04:11:23 AM EST

One more interesting link. It was just discovered that old versions of the KDE mail client KMail have a Y2K-like bug, and can't handle dates more than a billion seconds since the epoch. Curiously, this was published after I began writing up this story. I guess I'm not the only one thinking ahead to the gigasecond.

A bit offtopic (none / 0) (#18)
by Emacs on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 05:21:10 PM EST

But I have to wonder why you cannot just download the latest version of Kmail, instead you have to get the whole KDE 2.1 package... or the network package or whatever it's part off. Seems rather odd to me. Anyways, I didn't know anyone used kamil except me.

[ Parent ]
Oops (none / 0) (#24)
by Devil Ducky on Wed Mar 28, 2001 at 06:16:31 PM EST

That comment made me think and I found the exact same bug in one of my (non-opensource) programs for work.

Now, had it been open source I would have recieved a whole bunch of e-mails in September, as it stands I'll just get a frantic phone-call.

Well at least I always put two digits in front of the year in my windows programs...

Devil Ducky

Immune to the Forces of Duct Tape
Day trading at it's Funnest
[ Parent ]
Hey... (4.28 / 7) (#3)
by elenchos on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 04:20:34 AM EST

That means that I just turned 1 billion seconds old a couple months ago. Where did they all go?


I'm a gigasecond old. More than a gigasecond old. Older than Unix, and if anything is old, Unix is old. Already into my second gig and what have I done? I'll be dead soon. Not that it will make any difference. Everyone dies and that is it. Nothing left, as if you never existed. You just fade into the cold void of cosmos that never cared about your pointless self to begin with. You really start to die the second you begin to live. Death is everywhere, there are flies on the windscreen, for a start. And no matter if you make it into your second gigasecond or only live for a meg, or even just flicker for a moment like a falling star, it is all the same. You die. Blip. That's all. Yep. No one here gets out alive. I sit here at the midpoint between this gigasecond and the last one and looking both ways, what do I see? Seconds of time that add up to nothing and lead only in one direction: death. Then you decay in your grave, your beloved earthy remains turn putrid and rot away, eaten by worms and maggots. Your bones turn to dust. It is inevitable. Just look in the mirror and all you see is a prediction of death's head. Your death, looking at you every day. It is there whether you look or not, really. Might as well accept it. Or don't accept it. You will die either way. We all will and in thousand years it will mean nothing. No difference at all.

Well, thanks for pointing all that out to me. Not that it will change anything. Death. *sigh*


The Return of Marvin (3.50 / 2) (#5)
by wiredog on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 07:54:42 AM EST

The Paranoid Andriod

The idea of a global village is wrong, it's more like a gazillion pub bars.
[ Parent ]

Just because you're paranoid... (2.50 / 2) (#20)
by YelM3 on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 06:50:39 PM EST

...doesn't mean they're not after you!

[ Parent ]
eternal life doesn't work, but indefinite life... (2.33 / 3) (#6)
by sayke on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 08:09:19 AM EST

sounds quite doable. ;)

i don't think i'm going to die of old age. having some idea of the mechanisms involved, i think curing aging is an engineering problem, just like curing any other genetic disease... and engineering problems just ("just", heh) take time and money to solve. as there is massive demand for a cure for aging, we can expect research leading to such to be well-funded, which should hurry things along... the point is, i honestly don't think i'm as likely to just die, as i am likely to get killed, sooner or later.

realizing that put a new spin on things, for me.

sayke, v2.3.1 /* i am the middle finger of the invisible hand */
[ Parent ]

Don't be so negative. (5.00 / 1) (#19)
by YelM3 on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 06:44:09 PM EST

Life is energy, it moves in waves. Living and dying are two parts to the same existance, you cannot have one without the other. They are "two phases of the same act." As Alan Watts put it:

    "Listen, there's something I must tell. I've never, never seen it so clearly. But it doesn't matter a bit if you don't understand, because each one of you is quite perfect as you are, even if you don't know it. Life is basically a gesture, but no one, no thing, is making it. There is no necessity for it to happen, and none for it to go on happening. For it isn't being driven by anything; it just happens freely of itself. It's a gesture of motion, of sound, of color, and just as no one is making it, it isn't happening to anyone. There is simply no problem of life; it is completely purposeless play---exuberance which is its own end. Basically there is the gesture. Time, space, and multiplicity are complications of it. There is no reason whatever to explain it, for explanations are just another form of complexity, a new manifestation of life on top of life, of gestures gesturing. Pain and suffering are simply extreme forms of play, and there isn't anything in the whole universe to be afraid of because it doesn't happen to anyone! There isn't any substantial ego at all. The ego is a kind of flip, a knowing of knowing, a fearing of fearing. It's a curlicue, an extra jazz to experience, a sort of double-take or reverberation, a dithering of consciousness which is the same as anxiety."
       --The Joyous Cosmology

Feel better now? :)

[ Parent ]
ytiliuqnart emit (3.50 / 6) (#4)
by eLuddite on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 04:24:13 AM EST

I'm interested in hearing how you plan to celebrate the start of a new gigasecond, and what you hope to see and do in the next 31.7 years.

I'm hoping to build up enough personal momentum to upgrade to a 64bit system some time before 2038.


(For the blessedly uninitiated, that will be 32 bit unix time flips it's most significant bit causing time to flow backward, entropy to decrease, Ms. Upholstered Spice to grow thin, etc, etc.)

God hates human rights.

Apollo 11 as start point? (3.83 / 6) (#7)
by ZanThrax on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 11:21:49 AM EST

I'm not sure that Apollo 11 was truly signifagant for the entire human race. While it mattered, emotionally, to millions of people in various parts of the northern hemisphere (and to some in the southern), I don't think most of the world cared, or was affected in any way by it. The launch of the first manned orbiter, or perhaps even back to the launch of the first orbital device of any kind is more signifigant, imo. (True, the same people cared for the same reasons, but these events truly indicated the beginning of a change in the world.)

Before flying off the handle over the suggestion that your a cocksucker, be sure that you do not, in fact, have a cock in your mouth.

Significance (4.50 / 2) (#8)
by dennis on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 11:48:08 AM EST

Oh, I dunno, first human footsteps on another world seems fairly significant to me. If we end up populating the solar system or beyond over the next millenium, I imagine 1969 will be at least as famous as 1492 is now in America. First human in orbit probably not far behind, but it just doesn't have quite the same feel of leaving home and going somewhere else.

[ Parent ]
Unlike 1492... (none / 0) (#21)
by nurglich on Wed Mar 28, 2001 at 02:45:16 AM EST

...1969 actually means something. All 1492 means is the first time a Western Europeaner walked on the American continent. Why do people not seem to care about Northern Europeaners and those darned natives? (Or bacteria, heheheh...) I don't seem to recall Armstrong trading his slide rules and space ice cream (yum!) with the natives for the Sea of Tranquility, but I'm sure Fox has something on that...

"There are no bad guys or innocent guys. There's just a bunch of guys!" --Ben Stiller, Zero Effect

[ Parent ]
hey! (none / 0) (#23)
by mikael_j on Wed Mar 28, 2001 at 02:51:47 PM EST

What about the vikings?
They went to northern america as well...

/Mikael Jacobson
We give a bad name to the internet in general. - Rusty
[ Parent ]
Leaving this World (3.00 / 2) (#9)
by Woundweavr on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 11:52:41 AM EST

The first rocket could be debated. You could even make an argument to say that the Wright Brothers were the first to enter orbit. However, with the moon landing it isnt desputable (except by Fox). People watched and for the first time, a human walked on a celestial body other than Earth. Seems signifigant enough to me.

[ Parent ]
Wright Brothers!? (4.00 / 1) (#12)
by davidduncanscott on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 12:52:40 PM EST

How do you figure? One of the criteria for orbital flight, I should think, would be that it's ballistic -- barring atmospheric friction, you need to expend energy to leave orbit. They needed the engine to stay aloft.

I'd be OK with the Gagarin calendar, although I think I'd like the Sputnik better -- my birthdate wouldn't be a negative year!

[ Parent ]

Nonsustained orbit (2.50 / 2) (#14)
by Woundweavr on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 01:32:34 PM EST

They overcame the restrainst of gravity for a short amount of time to fly above the earth. It wasn't a sustainable orbit, nor was it high enough by most standards but the ability to argue that this situation or dozens like it make the first orbit or other unsure events unsuitable for dating systems when compared to the moon walk

[ Parent ]
Not an orbit (4.00 / 2) (#16)
by davidduncanscott on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 02:01:32 PM EST

Being off the ground is not orbiting. Falling around, as opposed to into, the ground makes it an orbit. You could, in principle, orbit at an altitude of six feet, but you have to be moving fast enough that your forward speed offsets your downward speed, so that the curvature of the Earth causes the surface to "fall away" as fast as you fall towards it. It's actually pretty clear cut -- you can discuss whether or not Alan Shepard was in "space" in 1961, but his flight was absolutely sub-orbital, whereas John Glen was in orbit (and of course, Gagarin orbited before either of them).

However, I will agree that the Moon walk is a clear-cut point in time. I just don't want to start listing my birthdate as "7/7/-10".

[ Parent ]

Gigasecond (3.25 / 4) (#10)
by J'raxis on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 12:02:35 PM EST

Depending on how you like to define "giga," it's 1,000,000,000 (1000^3) or 1,073,741,824 (1024^3). So the gigasecond could be 2001-09-09 01:46:40Z, or it could be 2004-01-10 13:37:04Z. :)

-- The 1,024th Raxis

[ J’raxis·Com | Liberty in your lifetime ]

Re: Gigasecond (3.33 / 3) (#15)
by Skeevy on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 01:52:14 PM EST

I bet you complained that the real millenium didn't start until 2001.01.01, didn't you :)

[ Parent ]
Close (5.00 / 1) (#27)
by Ig0r on Sun Apr 01, 2001 at 03:47:00 PM EST

The real millennium started in 1. The real third millennium started in 2001. :)

[ Parent ]
Giga- vs. Gibi- (4.00 / 5) (#17)
by Ludwig on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 03:43:11 PM EST

There's an alternative prefix system [scroll down] for powers of two, approved by the International Electrotechnical Commission (whatever that is...) in 1998. Nobody uses them, but I suspect that as greater powers of two make their way into our day-to-day lives, the increasingly significant discrepancy between powers of ten and powers of two will encourage an explicit distinction. There's a 2.4% difference between a kilobyte and a "kibibyte," but the difference between one exabyte and one "exbibyte" is over 15%.

[ Parent ]
Celebration (2.66 / 6) (#11)
by pistols on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 12:18:15 PM EST

I plan to gather all my old hardware, array them in a circle around me, light some candles, dance and pray to the programming gods. I've been looking forward to this since I started up the gnome clock applet to show unix time... and discovered how close to 1000000 it was.

Progress (4.00 / 8) (#13)
by kps on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 01:21:28 PM EST

Thirty years ago, there were people on the moon. (Well, thirty years and a month.) They took a computer with 2048 bytes of magnetic core memory. They took slide rules as backup. Off to the moon they went.

Twenty years ago, there had been no one on the moon for nine years. But you could now buy a computer with a desktop-metaphor GUI: windows, icons, mouse pointer.

Ten years ago, there had been no one on the moon for nineteen years. You could buy any of several kinds of computer with a desktop-metaphor GUI.

Today, there has been no one on the moon for twenty-nine years. You can buy only one kind of computer (unless you want to be an outcast), and it has a desktop-metaphor GUI.

Progess is not the same as change (3.50 / 2) (#22)
by 0xdeadbeef on Wed Mar 28, 2001 at 12:26:57 PM EST

A thousand years ago, you could read a book, with pages, index, and an alphabet.

Five hundred years ago, you could read a printed book, with pages, index, and an alphabet.

Fifty years ago, you could transmit a book electronically, with pages, index, and an alphabet.

Twenty years ago, you could read an electronic book on a computer, with pages, index, and an alphabet.

Today, you can transmit the books from anywhere in the world, store them in devices the size of your thumbnail, and read them in computers that fit in your pocket. They still have pages, index, and an alphabet.

[ Parent ]
It's all a sneaky conspiracy (none / 0) (#28)
by leonbrooks on Mon Apr 02, 2001 at 09:17:16 AM EST

Today, there has been no one on the moon for twenty-nine years.

Well... no humans, unless the UFO conspiracy theorists are right. But there have been... computers. None of them running Windows. (``Contact in T minus General Protection Fault in application at 0xF0AD:42696C6C; click on OK to restart your computer.'').

I surmise that the Earth is really the ``B'' Ark of the computer universe. Could you please run a little more hot water, and pass me that duck?
-- If at first you don't succeed, try a shorter bungee
[ Parent ]

Correct me if I am wrong... (2.00 / 1) (#25)
by Woodblock on Thu Mar 29, 2001 at 07:46:05 PM EST

From GNU date:

$ echo "10^9" - `date +%s` | bc

That's how many seconds until 1 billion seconds from the UNIX epoch. Roughly, that's 163 days. How are we both off so much?
-- Real computer scientists don't use computers.
Not off (none / 0) (#26)
by mbrubeck on Fri Mar 30, 2001 at 02:59:38 AM EST

Today + 163 = September 2001, which matches the date in the article.

[ Parent ]
One Billion Seconds | 28 comments (28 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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