It’s About Time

I'm back from a week out of the office to attend a high-school reunion and do other touristy activities in the greater Washington, DC, area and I see that our new Web site has indeed launched. Unfortunately, the full blog capability hasn't yet been worked out, so for the time being, I will have to manage new posts by editing the original article. This isn't how blogs are supposed to work, but it's being worked on.

Anyway, one of the activities of last week was getting a tour of the US Naval Observatory from public affairs director Geoff Chester. Geoff showed me around years ago, but this time I brought along my girlfriend, sister, nephew, and niece. Geoff gave a very informative tour that updated me on various programs that USNO is doing to provide the world the best timekeeping. Nowadays, one of the most important activities that the scientists there do is looking after the time signals from the satellites of the Global Positioning System (GPS).

One of the Internet-releated aspects of the tour was that USNO has been battling hackers lately. This was first brought to my attention by a high-school classmate at the reunion who is an astronomer at USNO. He had to help get the Web site back to normal. You see, while the facility is an observatory, it's also a part of the US Navy, and anything with a .mil domain name tends to get attention by online troublemakers.

Another point of interest was when Geoff explained that over the past few years, more and more computers have been wanting to sychronize their internal clocks to the master atomic clock at USNO. Many operating systems do this automatically via Network Time Protocol (NTP). These requests began to use so much of the observatory's Internet bandwidth that it had to ask for a separate high-speed line to carry the load. Also, USNO still has dial-up lines in which you can use a modem to connect to the master clock at 1,200 baud. Ah, those were the days. . . .

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