Wake up! There's a Kolmogorov complexity trough!

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At some time after my breakfast tomorrow morning, as I get ready to leave for my office at the University of Edinburgh, the moment will suddenly arrive when the exact time and date (in all day/month/year syntax formats) is 08:08:08 08/08/08. Why does that seem so special and noteworthy?

I know that in Chinese the number 8 sounds like the word meaning "prosperous"; but that can't be relevant, because I know almost nothing of Chinese — I can't even tell whether a sign says ‘dining hall’ or ‘translate server error’. And of course there is nothing cosmically interesting about any particular date or time: the time will be different in each different time zone, and the date will be different in some of them. It's not a matter of rarity either: every time/date combination is exactly as rare as every other. Yet it still seems like it would be really cool to send out an email, or post to Language Log, with a 08:08:08 08/08/08 time stamp (though the server would probably have the time wrong by a few seconds, which would screw things up)… or to take Barbara her morning coffee at exactly 08:08:08 on the morning of 08/08/08.

It's really just a formal linguistic property, I think, that makes a time and date that's all 8s and 0s seem special. It's so symmetrical and repetitive. The technically minded would say the time/date string has very low Kolmogorov complexity. That's what happens only very rarely, but will happen tomorrow.


  1. TootsNYC said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 6:33 pm

    My favorite was 15 minutes before midnight on June 7, 1989.


    23:45, 6/7/89

    A perfect time for 1 glass of champagne!

  2. Nathan Myers said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 6:48 pm

    Actually it happens all the damn time, e.g. 11:10:09 08-07-06 last month, or, if you like, 08-07-06 05:04:03. What's unique about this one is that all the various conventions of date and time order don't make any difference.

    On Unix or Linux, presuming one's mail transport is configured right, it's easy to set up a cron job to send a message at the right time, advising the recipient to look at the timestamp on the mail. On a Mac, in a terminal window, type "man at".

  3. Paul Clapham said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 7:12 pm

    The opening ceremony for the Olympics is starting at 8 PM (Beijing time) on that date, for the reason you alluded to. Not 8 AM, but I guess either is good enough. I wonder if something significant will happen 8 minutes and 8 seconds into the ceremony?

  4. g nunberg said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 10:26 pm

    Puts me in mind of the limerick:

    There once was a fellow named Tate,
    Who dined with his date at eight-eight.
    But I'd hate to relate
    What that fellow named Tate
    And his tête-à-tête ate at eight-eight.


  5. Geoff Pullum said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 3:04 am

    Well, I tried to submit this at exactly 08:08:08; but of course the transatlantic delay and the inaccuracy of server clocks will defeat me…

  6. Geoff Pullum said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 3:06 am

    Yes, the server in Philadelphia is not only five hours behind because of time zones, but it is also a full 4 minutes off kilter by the judgment of the server that sets the clock on my Mac Powerbook. It will be pure luck if anyone manages to get an email off at the appointed second — though of course millions will by accident.

  7. Bill Poser said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 4:26 am

    Well, if one were to put the server into single-user mode and kill off all unnecessary processes and run a daemon to synch the clock frequently with an accurate timeserver…

    It would probably be easier just to forge the timestamp on the email.

  8. Joel said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 2:58 pm

    My friend Victor got married this June, at 3:45 PM on (US) 6/7/08. We'd had the wedding invitations for months but no one put it together until he explained it moments before the ceremony.

  9. Nathan Myers said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 10:44 pm

    I set up that cron job, thusly, from my Linix shell, yesterday:

    echo '(sleep 7; echo "look at the time!")|mail -s "08-08-08 08:08:08" yoo@hoo.com' | at 8:08am

    It sent mail to my brother this morning, who reported that the mail headers confirmed that it went out 8 seconds after the minute rolled over:

    Received: from crusty.g.dreamhost.com (lax-green-bigip-5.dreamhost.com []) by looneymail-mx1.g.dreamhost.com (Postfix) with ESMTP id 8F6953B95B for ; Fri, 8 Aug 2008 08:08:08 -0700 (PDT)

    (Actual e-mail address scrubbed.) Most cron jobs aren't scheduled to the exact second.

  10. Nick Lamb said,

    August 12, 2008 @ 8:51 am

    Bill, you're really over-thinking this. Modern computers are (as Linus Torvalds says) very fast. Ridiculously fast. Doing something like sending an email or posting a blog entry during one particular second is as difficult for them as it would be for you to post a letter during one particular month.

    Keeping the clock accurate to within a second is embarrassingly easy, so much that none of today's prestige watch or clock makers emphasise accuracy or precision because those are features found in $5 digital time pieces from Taiwan. The Network Time Protocol provides millisecond-accurate time on most of the public Internet.

    But in order to do something at a particular moment the computer must be properly instructed to do it then, and not at some other time – as Nathan Myers illustrates.

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