[LEAPSECS] All of this has happened before

Kevin Birth Kevin.Birth at qc.cuny.edu
Thu Jan 29 10:11:57 EST 2015

Oh dear, my ears are burning.

The leap second debate is all about social custom.  It is about definitions (which are social customs) used by people (which is social) and decided by international bodies of experts (which involve social relationships and social processes) that will determine policies (social rules).

Long, long ago Aristotle pointed out the confusion caused when we conflate the measure of time (a human convention and technique) with time. 

The leap second debate is about the measure of time, not time itself.  It is about which customs of timekeeping should be the global standard.  Atomic timekeeping is a custom that has an edge because it is more precise in measuring duration than other systems of timekeeping, and by custom, we privilege duration in how we currently think about time (not all cultures do this).  If we privileged kairos (points in time, or determining the "right time) like some cultures (e.g., Jewish time traditions), then we'd see atomic timekeeping as a complementary technology not a dominant one in thinking about time.  

What we are contending with is some very impressive metrological science mixed with a decision to be made in which there will be winners and losers.  Because there will be winner and losers, this is a political process as well as a technical one.    Because it is political, the decision will be made by an international body because our current custom values democratic processes over tyrannical decrees.   The problem is that democratic processes do not always reflect sound science or even rationality.  That, too, seems to be a social custom.

My impression is that the technical arguments about the leap second are very well rehearsed, whereas the collision of social customs and international politics  in the ITU-R process is the big unknown.   Will the UK continue to protest because, as one of its former ministers put it, getting rid of the leap second will move the prime meridian for timekeeping toward the US? What he didn't say was that it will actually reach UK's parliament first!  Such an argument grounded in nationalism (hence custom) not science.  

It is easy to denigrate mere social custom and claim that science should triumph.  Tell that to all the NSF staff that are battling Congress destroying the peer review process in favor of politicians approving what scientific research gets done.  Sometimes custom and politics trump all scientific arguments.




From: LEAPSECS [leapsecs-bounces at leapsecond.com] on behalf of Rob Seaman [seaman at noao.edu]
Sent: Thursday, January 29, 2015 7:44 AM
To: Leap Second Discussion List
Subject: Re: [LEAPSECS] All of this has happened before

On Jan 29, 2015, at 1:05 AM, Poul-Henning Kamp <phk at phk.freebsd.dk> wrote:

> In message <BDF1DD12-9E80-4516-91BA-76127DCB9804 at noao.edu>, Rob Seaman writes:
>> On Jan 28, 2015, at 1:34 PM, Poul-Henning Kamp <phk at phk.freebsd.dk> wrote:
>>> "Derives from" is not a "physical reality", it's merely a social custom.
>> So many replies to choose from [...]
> ... all of them unresponsive to my complaint.

Well, no.  You denigrated social custom by prepending the word "mere", so in lieu of my composing an essay to refute this by referencing a thousand-and-one things starting with Kevin Birth's work I went looking for a pithy quote to suggest the great importance that custom has.  I found many quotes and deemed that simple numbers would emphasize the point.  Your dismissive usage was similar to the numerous times that an attempt to diminish important issues has been made by referring to them as "non-technical".  On the contrary, social constructs are highly pertinent to technical discussions.

I then followed that by explicitly rejecting your unstated premise that somehow LOD of day is not fixed by the synodic motions of the Earth.  And then a brief restatement of the theme that proper systems engineering will provide the quickest and surest path to a resolution acceptable to all.  I'll include these here in case you didn't read that far down in the message:

>> Try adjusting the knob for LOD even one-hundredth of one percent away from mean solar time in either direction.  Day will turn to night in a dozen years.  You don't like "physical reality"?  How about "engineering requirement so obvious it remains unstated"?
>> Requirements are inputs to the systems engineering process.  They clarify the nature of the problem space. Multiple solutions can, however, be entertained to a single problem.  The ITU has rather only ever been presented with one option - an option that cannot satisfy the engineering requirements.


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