Rip Up That Calendar

Our Wobbly Sky Clock

It’s easy to think up alternative calendars. The hard part is inventing one that people might actually bother to adopt. For this it must be a significant improvement over our current system – not as simple as it may sound. For though the Gregorian calendar is a bit of a mess, it is a good-enough solution to a surprisingly difficult question.

Think of how it evolved. Nature provides us with a rich system of clocks. Our orbit around the sun gives us our year, divided into days by the turning of the Earth, months and weeks by the phases of the moon. All very balanced and tidy and comforting – the universe is clearly organised.

I say ‘divided’ deliberately though. Imagine the feelings of the Babylonians and other early civilisations when they looked at this more closely. They were already beginning to discover the strange beauty of mathematics. Though devised to share out food and other supplies in communities that were becoming more complex than ever before, early mathematics was showing us that strange and alluring symmetries permeate creation.

And also, jarring asymmetries. Sixty, for example, was a great number because you can divide sixty things fairly between two, three, four, five or six people. But what if you have to divide sixty things between seven? Frustratingly, you cannot. Some mathematical relationships were troubling and unattractive.

You might expect that the heavens at least would be the realm of perfection, but the Babylonians were in for a shock. The number of days from one full moon to another was neither a round thirty nor a reasonable twenty-eight, but a just gratuitously annoying twenty-nine and a half. (A little more in fact, as we know now.) Nor was the number of months in a year a nice neat twelve, but a wholly unjustifiable twelve-and-slightly-more-than-one-third.

Well, that’s the moon. Why should we expect it to divide evenly into the cycles of the sun? At least the two solar cycles, day and year, would surely harmonise. But no; the year, to their immense frustration, was 365 and one quarter days long. And a bit. The heavens it seemed were not symmetrical and elegant, but a godawful mess. How did the ancient Babylonians respond? Like typical people. They ignored the ugly facts and went with the beautiful theory, declaring the year to be an eminently divisible 360 days in length, with twelve tidy months of thirty days each. It was harmonious, it was profound, it was utter bollocks. But it defended the idea of transcendental perfection.

While that may have been good enough for religion and philosophy, it was useless for agriculture or any sort of long-range planning. Pretty soon, as people found themselves going out to harvest corn on a mid-winter night in April, it was obvious that things were adrift. Their embarrassment lives on to this day, haunting your protractor, but with the missing five days restored, plus a quarter-day via the leap year and one or two other minor adjustments, Babylon’s calendar was made practical.

That surprisingly difficult question then was “Can the cycles of the sun and moon be harmonised?” The good-enough answer: “Absolutely. If you leave out the moon”. We abandoned any attempt to stay in time with the lunar cycle. Our calendar has things we still call months, but they’re too long and, unlike any actual orbit, they’re irregular. The advantage though is that unlike real months these stay locked in time with the seasons. July stays in summer, December stays in winter, and some years you can even tell the difference. This is of great practical value for farming and booking holidays.

But it’s sad that we lost the moon.

I believe the calendar can be reformed to include the lunar cycle, and that this will bring rewards. Rather unspecific rewards I admit, but getting back in sync with the lamp that lit the nights of our ancestors since the very beginning of life certainly sounds healthy. And I can promise that it will be spiritually very satisfying, if you consider it to be. At the least, we’d be able to say we found a solution to the issue the ancient Babylonians fudged.

How? Tomorrow!

I Need Less Time

English: Chronological diagram of the date of ...
This calendar is for working out fits of pique. I think.

Well it seems today doesn’t exist. Either that, or I don’t have time to go into my plans for radical calendar reform. I’ll just say this for now: Several readers have pointed out that there are tidier ways to organise a calendar, such as having six five-day weeks to a month, or five 73-day months as the Discordians want, or Azijn’s… interesting two-days-in-one idea. But making the calendar neater was not my objective. Rather, I wanted to make it better.

But more on that anon. Right now, the calendrical reform I most desire is one that would give me fewer hours in the day. I know people are supposed to wish for more, but I figure that’s the last thing I need. My mother is down with a flu so I’m doing all the house stuff, plus keeping two fires on the go so that the place is toasty, plus assembling the media centre PC I bought the parts for this Christmas, plus, you know, my job.

I’m… quite tired. The media centre is coming out good though. That too I’ll have to tell you about some other day. Right now, my sole objective is to stay awake for a few more minutes so I can

Happy Same Year

World Calendar
All the calendar you'll ever need

More calendar bollocks. I linked to this a couple of days ago but it’s been picked up by Time, so now it’s real.

Some people think we should change the calendar so that each date falls on the same day of the week ever year. It’s one of those ideas that’s so brilliantly simple you wonder why no one’s ever done it. Until you realise the reason why no one’s ever done it is that there’s no bloody point in doing it.

The chief stumbling block to the enterprise is that 365 is not divisible by 7. But while others might give up at that point, these two have a simple solution: Adding a day that has no name. It ain’t a Tuesday or a Sunday or nothin’, it’s just “Worldsday”.

The advantages of this? Well, you wouldn’t need to buy a new calendar every year. If you still buy calendars. And you’ll be able to work out which day of the week every date is, forever. Instead of asking a computer to.

Any disadvantages? Well, we’ll have to memorise a different set of month lengths. Thirty days hath… November? And there’s the little detail that it puts an end to a seven-day cycle that has been unbroken for thousands of years. That… seems a shame.

I believe we have a seven day week simply because it divides evenly into both a 364-day solar year and a 28-day lunar month. Of course we know now that the year and month are both a little longer than that, but when the ancients came up with it I bet they thought it was really cool. It isn’t sacred though. Well, not any more. We don’t have to stick with their mistake. Indeed throughout history, people have tried to clear that mess up. What bugs me most about this attempt though is that it is so much change to achieve so little. The sixteenth of May will be a Thursday, forever. So ****ing what? If we’re going to rip it up and start again, let’s replace it with something that will be worth the trouble, something that will really blow the doors off calendrical conformity.

They tried to decimalise it after the French revolution. Unfortunately, ten divides into 365 even less well than seven does and the system was ridiculed. Merely being revolutionary for its own sake doesn’t cut it. For a new system to catch on, it will need to have real benefits. I’ve had a go at this myself, spending weeks on a radical but no doubt ultimately doomed scheme to harmonise the rhythms of the firmament. I’ll tell you how it works if there’s time – and such a thing as – tomorrow.

The End Of The World As Someone Else Knows It

A modern pictogram of the Mayan god Ahau, afte...
My Mayan star sign is Chthulu, apparently

In passing, let’s have a kick at this notion the world is about to end because the Mayans are running out of calendar. Could doomsaying get any sillier? As someone said, if the Mayans were so good at foreseeing catastrophe how come they missed out on 1492?

We’ve gotten the idea that the Mayan calendar runs through a system of cycles that completes this year. This seems strange to us, with our one that can happily keep going forever. (Doubly strange, as it’s supposed to be our culture that believes in a coming End Of The World.) But there’s no reason that more numbers couldn’t be added to their system. It’s a lot like saying that because we never use years longer than four digits, we clearly think the world is going to end in 9999.

But hey, maybe we do. Now. You read it here first – only 7,987 years to go folks. Better start saying your prayers, and studying the arcane mysteries of the Romano-Christian calendar with its cryptically uneven months and mysterious week of seven sacred days. Who knows what other secrets it conceals.