today's timezone rant

Everybody knows, I hope, that you have to be really careful when dealing with time in programs. This isn’t a problem only in Perl. Things are bad all over. If you know what you’re doing when you start, you can avoid many, many problems. Unfortunately, not all our code is being bulit anew by our present selves. Quite a lot of it exists already, written by other, less experienced programmers, and often (to our great shame) our younger selves.

Every morning, I look at any unusual exceptions that have been reported overnight. Last night, I saw a few complaining about “invalid datetime values,” and I saw that they were about times around two something in the morning. A chill went up my spine. I knew what was going to be the case. I checked with MySQL:

mysql> update my_table set expires = '20140309015959' where id = 134866408;
Query OK, 1 row affected (0.00 sec)

mysql> update my_table set expires = '20140309030000' where id = 134866408;
Query OK, 1 rows affected (0.00 sec)

mysql> update my_table set expires = '20140309020000' where id = 134866408;
ERROR: Invalid TIMESTAMP value in column 'expires' at row 1

So, 01:59:59 is okay. 03:00:00 is okay. 02:00:00 through 02:59:59 is not okay. Why? Time zones! Daylight saving time causes that hour to not exist in America/New_York, and the field in question is storing local times. You can’t store March 9th, 2014 2:00 in the field because no such moment in time exists. The lesson here is that you shouldn’t be storing your time in a local format. Obviously! I tend to store timestamps as integers, but storing them as universal time would have avoided this problem.

Of course, since there’s a lot of data already stored in local times, and it can’t always be “just fixed,” we also have a bunch of tools that work with times, being careful to avoid time zone problems. Unfortunately, that’s not always easy. This problem, though, came from a dumb little routine that looks something like this:

sub plusdays {
  Date::Calc::Add_Delta_YMDHMS( Now, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 86_400 * $_[0]);

So, you want a time a week in the future? plusdays(7)! You want a time 12 hours from now? plusdays(0.5). Crude, but effective and useful. Unfortunately, when it’s currently 2014-03-08 02:30 and you ask for one day later, you get 2014-03-08 02:30 — a non-time.

The solution to this should was trivial. We already use DateTime extensively. It just hadn’t gotten done to this one little piece of code. I wrote this:

sub plusdays {
  DateTime->local_now->add(seconds => $_[0] * 86_400)

It’s a good thing that we did this in terms of seconds. See, this does what we want:

my $dt = DateTime->new(
  time_zone => 'America/New_York',
  year => 2014, month  => 3, day => 8, hour => 2, minute => 30,

say $dt->clone->add(seconds => 86_400);

It prints 2014-03-09T03:30:00.

On the other hand, if we replace the last line with

say $dt->clone->add(days => 1);

then we get this fatal error:

Invalid local time for date in time zone: America/New_York

This is totally understandable. It’s the kind of thing that lets us distinguish between adding “a month” and adding “30 days,” which are obviously distinct operations. Not all calendar days are 86,400 seconds long, for example.

Actually, this problem wouldn’t have affected us, because we don’t use DateTime. We use a subclass of DateTime that avoids these problems by doing its math in UTC. Unfortunately, this has other bizarre effects.

While I doing the above edit, I saw some other code that was also using Date::Calc when it could’ve been using DateTime. (Or, as above, our internal subclass of DateTime.) This code generated months in a span, so if you say:

my @months = month_range('200106', '200208');

You get:

('200106', '200107', '200108', '200109', ..., '200208')

Great! Somewhere in there, I ended up writing this code:

my $next_month = $curr_month->clone->add(months => 1);

…and something bizarre happened! The test suite entered an infinite loop as it tried to get from the starting month to the ending month. I added more print statements and got this:

CURRENTLY (2001-10-01 00:00) PLUS ONE MONTH: (2001-10-31 23:00)


Well, as I said above, our internal subclass does its date math in UTC to avoid one kind of problem, but it creates another kind. Because the offset to UTC changes over the course of October, the endpoint seems one hour off when it’s converted back to local time. The month in local time, effectively, is an hour shorter than the month in UTC. So, in this instance, I opted not to use our internal subclass.

Now, the real problem here isn’t DateTime being hard to use or date problems being intractably hard. The problem is that when not handled properly from the start, date representations can become a colossal pain. We’re only stuck with most of the stupid problems above because the code in question started with a few innocent-seeming-but-actually-terrible decisions which then metastasized throughout the code base. If all of the time representations had been in universal time, with localization only done as needed, these problems could have been avoided.

Of course, you probably knew that, so in the end, I guess I’m just venting. I feel better now.

Written on March 8, 2014
🐪 perl
🧑🏽‍💻 programming
🏷 time