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Facebook seeks to redefine time with 'flicks'

Seconds, minutes and hours won't become obsolete, but the social network giant has a new kind of clock for techies.

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If Facebook gets its way, maybe the next time you want your friend to hold the door for a second, you'll say, "Hang on for 705,600,000 flicks."

Well, OK, you probably won't. But you could, because Facebook introduced a new unit of time on Monday called the flick. The company thinks it'll be useful for programmers if not for talking to your pal while you run back for your keys.

Different cultures disagree about whether recipes use cups or grams or whether your car odometer counts miles or kilometers, but humanity has settled on the second as the universal unit to measure time. Facebook's new tick-tock technique, though, is geared for people who deal in inconvenient slivers of a second.

Why? Because programmers have to deal with things like phone and laptop screens that refresh frequently, with fractions of a second that make math unpleasant.

If this all seems like worrisome complexity in your life, just relax, take off your watch and try not to remember that a second is defined as the duration of 9,192,631,770 cycles of a microwave radio signal tuned to get cesium-133 atoms to resonate.

Here's an example of why flicks are useful in video game programming. In a game that displays at 60 frames per second, software gets a time budget of 16.667 milliseconds (rounded to the nearest microsecond) to figure out how to paint thousands of pixels worth of moving aliens, race tracks, tanks or trolls onto the screen. It's not just games: web browsers, word processors and other software need to pay attention to these slices of time to make sure scrolling and animations stay smooth.

But it's a pain talking about 16.667 milliseconds, and even with slivers of time a billionth of a second long, programs can suffer from rounding errors. The flick is a 1/705,600,000th of a second, which Facebook concluded is a convenient is a nice foundation for many different measurements. For 60-frame-per-second refresh rates, for example, a computer has 11,760,000 flicks to create each new screen frame.

Flicks are useful round numbers even with the much shorter slivers of time, too. For high-end audio, which measures varying sound levels every 1/192,000th of a second, that duration is 3,675 flicks.

Unfortunately, there's no easy way to handle the supremely awkward video standard of 29.97fps. But there is a mathematical kludge: it's 30 times 1000/1001. If this all sounds like a solution to your problem, you can download Facebook's open-source software for counting in flicks from Github.

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