To quote the pop band Chicago: "Does anybody really know what time it is?"
Furthermore, does anybody really care?
Ray Avrutis does. Care, that is. As for knowing what time it is, he's not so sure.
Ray lives in the District and occasionally calls that Verizon number that announces the local time: 202-844-2525. (You can dial the same number with the 301 or 703 area codes.) He also calls the master clock operated by the U.S. Naval Observatory: 202-762-1401. About a month ago, he noticed that the two times were different. The Verizon time was about 30 seconds behind the USNO time.
In recent weeks, the difference has grown. When I called on Tuesday to compare the two, the Verizon time line was a whopping three minutes behind the USNO time.
Now, I didn't want to jump to conclusions. I didn't want to immediately assume that the phone company was in error just because they're, you know, the phone company. So I called Cmdr. Charles Schilling, deputy superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory, and asked if it was possible that his clock was three minutes fast.
"I don't think that's possible," Cmdr. Schilling said with a chuckle. Sixty-eight clocks -- an assortment of cesium and hydrogen master clocks -- keep the time over on Massachusetts Avenue. From there, what's known as Coordinated Universal Time is fed into the satellites of the Global Positioning System. Companies and organizations that need super-accurate time then pull it down. (You can find out more at www.time.gov.)
Said Cmdr. Schilling: "A three-minute error is huge. . . . For the casual user, three minutes probably doesn't affect them that much, but for a cell phone company, that would affect them."
Of course, Verizon is a cell phone company. If their telephone time line is wrong, is it possible that the time that automatically displays on your mobile phone could be wrong, too?
No, said Verizon wireless spokesman John Johnson. They use the GPS system -- along with various backup systems -- and he's not aware of any problems. But there is something wonky with the telephone time line, said Christy Reap, a spokeswoman who handles the wired side of things for Verizon.
"There has been an issue with the way the [telephone] time line reaches out to the GPS satellite and pulls down the time," Christy said Tuesday. "Verizon has been aware of it and in fact tweaked it this morning to sync it up with the Navy."
We're time-obsessed in Washington. We keep an eye on the digital clock in the corner of our PC. We watch the clock to make sure we're using off-peak minutes on our cell phone or are riding the HOV lanes or Metro at non-rush-hour times.
This week they've been even more obsessed out in Vancouver, British Columbia, which is where the nation's leading time scientists gathered for the annual Precise Time & Time Interval meeting. (How precise? NIST-F1, a cesium fountain clock at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo., is accurate to about one second every 30 million years. You work there and you have no excuse for being late to a meeting.)
I asked Ray why he cared about that three-minute difference. "The reason is simple," he said. "If you have to catch a plane or a train or a bus, or be at work -- and this is universal throughout humanity -- you want to know what time it is."
And three minutes can make a difference, Ray said. Set your watch by Verizon, and you might find that your bus left three minutes ago.
I asked Ray whom he trusted.
"The Naval Observatory," he said. "The government will lie to us about a lot of things, but about the time, we figure the astronomers are honest and accurate to the second."
The nanosecond, actually.
The State of the Reunion
Well, it looks like it's about time (geddit?) for some high school reunions:
Falls Church High Class of 1955 -- Sept. 2, 3 and 4. Contact Mary Downing at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-620-9082.
Lake Braddock Secondary Class of 1985 -- Sept. 17. www.capitalreunions.com.
James W. Robinson Secondary Class of 1985 -- Sept. 17. www.capitalreunions.com.
Theodore Roosevelt High Class of 1955 -- Sept. 23 and 24. E-mail Gerry Wolf at email@example.com or call Ronnie Lenkin at 301-460-6064.
Centreville High Class of 1995 -- Oct. 1. www.greatreunions.com.
Fairfax High Class of 1975 -- Oct. 1. www.capitalreunions.com.
James Madison High Class of 1995 -- Oct. 1. www.capitalreunions.com.
Einstein High Classes of 1964, 1965 and 1966 -- Oct. 8. www.aplusreunion.com.
Fairfax High Class of 1965 -- Oct. 7, 8 and 9. Contact Holly Harris Lee at 540-439-1020 after 5:30.
Falls Church High Class of 1985 -- Oct. 8. www.capitalreunions.com.
James W. Robinson Secondary Class of 1975 -- Oct. 8. www.capitalreunions.com.
Lake Braddock Secondary Class of 1995 -- Oct. 8. www.capitalreunions.com.
Thomas S. Wootton High Class of 1975 -- Oct. 8. Contact Lori Garnher at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 301-838-7449.
W.T. Woodson High Class of 1985 -- Oct. 8. www.capitalreunions.com.
Fort Hunt High Class of 1985 -- Oct. 15. Contact Tracey Sherman Scott at email@example.com.
High Point High Class of 1995 -- Oct. 15. www.greatreunions.com.
James W. Robinson Secondary Class of 1995 -- Oct. 15. www.capitalreunions.com.
Oakton High Class of 1985 -- Oct. 15. www.capitalreunions.com.
Bladensburg High Classes of 1949 and 1950 -- Oct. 19. E-mail Carroll Cuppett at LandTCup@comcast.net.
Central High Class of 1945 -- Oct. 21. Contact Bill Plunkett at 301-424-5931 or WilliamPlunkett@aol.com.
Western High (now Duke Ellington School of the Arts) Class of 1944, 1945 and 1946 -- Oct. 21. Contact Irene Ulmer Boublik at 703-893-1680 or Jackie Freer Clark at 703-938-8044.
McLean High Class of 1955 -- Oct. 21 and 22. www.mclean50.com or call 703-714-5863.
Annandale High Class of 1985 -- Oct. 22. www.capitalreunions.com.
Garfield Senior High Class of 1995 -- Oct. 22. www.capitalreunions.com.
Oakton High Class of 1995 -- Oct. 22. www.greatreunions.com.
South Lakes High Class of 1985 -- Oct. 22. www.slhs1985.org.
Oxon Hill High Class of 1965 -- Oct. 29. Contact Bonnie Douglas at 301-259-2887.
Oxon Hill High Class of 1975 -- Oct. 29. www.aplusreunion.com.
Bethesda-Chevy Chase High Class of 1985 -- Nov. 26. Contact Linda Epstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or Julian Mansfield at email@example.com or Matthew Gandal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My e-mail: email@example.com.