The Curious Case of My Mac’s Clock

When I traveled to Europe and back, I switched through timezones a lot. I went from Boston to London. When in London, Boston switched off of DST. Then I moved from London to Brno, forward another hour. Then back to London, then back to Boston.

Not wanting to lug my heavy Thinkpad around, I brought my MacBook Air on the trip. (And was appropriately ostracized by coworkers for bringing a Mac to a meeting at a company best known for its Linux distribution.) And it did something that kind of intrigued me — it automatically adjusted to the local timezone.

Now, this shouldn’t be possible. My clock is synchronized using NTP, which exchanges UTC time, deliberately ignorant of timezones or DST. And even if NTP did use local timezones (which would be a huge disaster), it still wouldn’t have worked, because I had hardcoded some local clocks.

Investigating a bit, I found this. This is seemingly a new feature, and it uses the operating system’s location service to find your timezone. My computer doesn’t have an onboard GPS, of course, so it’s doing one of two things — GeoIP, and/or looking up the access points I can see against a database.

This is really neat, but it’s also pretty damned creepy. Here is what I see when I visit that setting:

It knows exactly where I am.

I’m willing to bet it knows exactly where the closest tinfoil hat shop is, too.


Since people have been asking, I thought I’d share a bit about my journey to the Czech Republic. The Aeolus Project (what I do at work) is having a meeting here, as a substantial number of my colleagues work here.

I haven’t travelled internationally much. Back in 2007, I visited Mmofra Trom in Ghana. The Czech Republic would have been the second country I ever visited, keeping an inadvertent trend of only visiting places less geographically-savvy people couldn’t find on a map, if not for a brief stop in London. (I figured that if I was flying to Europe for the week and had never been, I might as well spend the weekends sight-seeing.)

Here is an obligatory photo from London:

(It’s a HDR composite done with Photomatix — the net result looks a little unrealistic, and yet it’s what it actually looked like.)

London was great, though outrageously expensive. And English accents are even more awesome than you might expect. The Underground, besides having an iconic logo, puts the MBTA to shame. I knew that they drive on the “wrong” side of the road, but I didn’t think it would impact me as a tourist who wouldn’t be driving. What I realized is that it’s terrifying as a pedestrian, especially at multi-way intersections, because you have absolutely no clue where cars will be coming from.

We took a WizzAir flight from London to Brno, a large city in the south-eastern part of the Czech Republic. Yes, “WizzAir” is a real airline, and yes, I was hesitant to book a reservation on it based on the name, but it was a nice enough budget airline.

The hotel has absolutely terrible Internet. Here’s what happens when I ping the wireless router:

--- ping statistics ---
49 packets transmitted, 45 packets received, 8.2% packet loss
round-trip min/avg/max/stddev = 4.035/593.420/2627.601/702.471 ms

(Note that 593ms average latency, and the 8.2% packet loss, on a LAN.) This is entirely the fault of the hotel, though — in my company’s office, the Internet is just fine. We’re apparently only about 125ms away from Boston here.

The official language here is Czech, a West Slavic language that sort of seems like Polish to someone generally-ignorant about languages like me. I’ve come to realize that I’m rather afraid of being in a place where I can’t communicate, even though I’m surrounded by bilingual coworkers. It’s rather isolating. The good news is that many people, especially those in customer service venues (and people under perhaps 30) seem to speak some English, so I can get by when I’m at McDonald’s. (More on that soon!) Of course, my coworkers here all speak excellent English, so it’s not as if I’m really stranded not speaking the language. But that doesn’t stop me from worrying about it.

Last night, some friends and coworkers (thanks Tomas and Imre!) took us to a local (indoor) rock-climbing place and gave us training. It’s worth noting that the place served beer, though no one was actually drinking and climbing (or belaying).

I’ve never climbed before, and am deathly afraid of heights. So if someone had told me a few years ago that I’d one day find myself at an indoor climbing facility in the Czech Republic, I’d have thought they were insane.

And indeed, my first time up, I did chicken out after about 6 feet. My second time, I made it up perhaps 10-15 feet before I looked down. But the third time, I had the courage to make it to the top. (I really have no idea how high it was, but I’d guess perhaps 30-50 feet.) The photo of me actually at the top is… not flattering… but here’s a slightly less embarrassing photo of me midway up (exhibiting rather poor form, but hey, it was my first time…):


It might be interesting to note that the place had a small bar. This observation did not exactly help calm my nerves, though it ended up being a non-issue — the only people I saw drinking were chatting over a beer when they were done climbing. My fear that drunk people would be falling from the walls turned out to be entirely unfounded.

And speaking of fears of tolerance leading to mass chaos being unfounded, the country apparently has relatively lax (read: sane) drug laws.

None of us were particularly sure what this stuff was (a hemp hand cream was our best guess), but it led to an interesting discussion about drug laws here. Apparently, possession or use of small amounts of drugs (not just Cannabis) is decriminalized, though the general sale is not. (Which leaves me moderately confused about whatever this display case was.)

At first, it seems mildly insane that small amounts of LSD or cocaine (!) are legal. But it reminds me of something I saw on TV once, which was a (real-life) look at a city police department doing a drug sting. They had an agent sell small bags of cocaine to people, and a cadre of heavily-armed police agents would then swarm and tackle the buyer to the ground. As if this wasn’t appalling enough, there was a clear trend among the drug buyers in terms of race and socioeconomic status, and these people can face years in prison. (And time in prison, in turn, significantly reduces their odds of ever getting a decent job, causing what’s probably a vicious cycle.)

But just as there weren’t any drunks falling from the climbing wall when beer was served in the facility, I haven’t seen any drug addicts in the streets of Brno, or even been had reason to think drug use was a problem. Instead, it seems like the police are free to focus on crimes that have victims, and people with addictions are now able to seek treatment with legal impunity.

Apologies for the accidental political rant. Perhaps it is time I closed with a picture of the city, from my hotel balcony the other night: