Brain Candy
12:00 pm
Mon January 2, 2012

Op-Ed: 364-Day Calendar Intriguing But Unnecessary

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

And now, the Opinion Page. It's the start of a new year. Already, millions of us have posted new calendars on the wall or installed new ones on our computers. But Steven Hanke and Richard Henry, two Johns Hopkins University professors, propose a more radical step: the Hanke-Henry permanent calendar, which they say will solve the yearly hassle of reworking our schedules and even help businesses put fiscal calendars in sync. But that raises a question: Is the current calendar a problem for you?

If it is, call and tell us why or why not. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Brandon Keim is an associate editor for Wired Science and wrote a piece for Wired.com, "Proposed New Calendar Would Make Time Rational." And he joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION. Happy New Year.

BRANDON KEIM: You, too, Neal. Thank you for inviting me.

CONAN: New Years is an appropriate - this is the official holiday, of course, not the actual holiday, which I guess is their point. Why is it a different day every year?

KEIM: Well, the Earth takes 365 days to orbit the sun, and under our Gregorian calendar, there's seven days in a week. And you divide 365 by seven, and you have 52 weeks, 364 days and one left over.

CONAN: And that's where we get into problems. It's not quite 365. It's 365 plus some change, and the division just doesn't work.

KEIM: It does not. And for people of a certain persuasion, that does cause a pea-under-the-mattress irritation. And also in the world of finance, there are apparently instruments by which interest is calculated that the calendar, as we have it now, causes a certain amount of inefficiency or even enables people to take advantage of it.

CONAN: Well, presumably, we have computers now to handle those abstruse calculations. But in the meantime, what they've proposed is a calendar that is far more rational. It chops it to 364 days a year, and then deals with those extra day per year and some change by saying every five or six years, we're going to have an extra week.

KEIM: Yup. A whole brand-new week, which does seem a little - well, I don't want to say irrational, but it does add a certain irregularity to things. But it would be every five or six years, and specifically on those years which begin or end in a Gregorian calendar Thursday.

CONAN: I bet it's not going to be easy to remember - as easy to remember as 30 days hath September.

KEIM: Yup. The rhymes go out the window, as do the knuckle counting, which I wasn't even aware of. Somebody on the train yesterday explained it to me.

CONAN: Wait. Knuckle counting? I was unaware of this, too, until this very minute.

KEIM: It's a mystery. I still don't understand how it works. But I'm sure if you Google knuckle counting the months, you will find out that the peaks and valleys on your knuckles correspond to short and long months.

CONAN: How does - never mind. Anyway, that's kind of the problem. All of us figure out this stuff as we grow up, and we learn to deal with it.

KEIM: Yes, we do. And I think part of what is so appealing about the Richard Henry and Steve Hanke's project - and really the many calendars that have come before. There's a rich history of people who have proposed new and better designed calendars during the 20th century. And, you know, there's really something kind of noble and enduring and can-do about it. There is the Raventos Symmetrical Calendar, which had 13 months and 28 days, and something called the Symmetry454 Calendar, where there were no Friday the 13ths.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEIM: And actually, in the 1950s, the United Nations formally rejected the idea of a world calendar, which would have had an extra day at the end of each year that would have been known as World's Day, and depicted on the calendar with a W on it. It would have been a holiday for everyone, which - I must admit, I do like that idea.

CONAN: It's got a certain charm to it. Of course, there were universal calendars - at least we're talking about the Western world, for the most part - the Julian calendar dictated by Julius Caesar back in Roman times. But because of the inaccuracies over time, well, we started observing winter was not in the winter months anymore. So Pope Gregory corrected that. We have the Gregorian calendar.

KEIM: Indeed. And - but whereas Pope Gregory needed a papal decree to make this happen, back in 2004, Richard Henry thought to himself, well, you know, we have the Internet now. And if I make a Web page, people will come to me, and this idea will filter out and perhaps, it will - the calendar will change from the ground up.

CONAN: He should for pope. And that way, he could issue - well, anyway. You know, nobody has the power of Julius Caesar or Pope Gregory anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEIM: Nobody does. But perhaps all of us combined would have the power to change the calendar.

CONAN: We're talking with Brandon Keim of Wired Science, who wrote the piece "Proposed New Calendar Would Make Time Rational." And you're - we want to hear your thoughts. What's wrong with the current calendar we've got? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And Bob joins us on the line from St. Paul.

BOB: Hey, thanks. Wouldn't just be easier to go day one through 365, and then start over? Why do we even need to rationalize it with names and days and splitting things up into, you know, smaller, you know, time segments? Why not just do - it's day one of, you know, 2012, whatever?

CONAN: He's got an argument. There are celestial mechanics that tell us the number of days and the number of days it takes for a complete year. Why are we missing with it's Tuesday the 13th?

KEIM: Well, I do think - that question actually does get it, the fact that keeping time is, to an extent, very arbitrary. The Earth goes around the sun once every 365 days. There are points at which it is closer or farther in, so it is warmer or hotter. And we have seasons that correspond to that. But what we choose to name the days and how we choose to keep track of them is really a human project. And it would be possible to have day 76 or day 274, but I think most of us would find it inconvenient. We are established in our seven-day weeks, of which the six and seventh day are used to rest, and it's just simpler. I think it adds - it makes life more tractable and progresses in a more fulfilling way to have Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday.

CONAN: And, Bob, I can say - I think that, you know, it's pretty easy to say that, well, the Iowa caucus is day three and the New Hampshire primary is day, I guess, seven days after that would be 10. But it's a little hard to say, you know, would you like to go out to the movies with me on day - 275. I think Bob has left us, probably to get to his abacus and figure all of this out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: As we look at the calendars, though, it is time that we're talking about. And, indeed, these two proponents have an even more radical solution, and that is we do away with time zones.

KEIM: Yes, it would be - Greenwich Mean Time, universal time around the world all the time. And so I believe right now that would make it 7:47 p.m., and that would be the time for all of us. And once again, there is a certain truth to that. The time is the same, wherever you are. And from Richard Henry's perspective, it makes no sense to say it's one time in Australia and another time here - although I do think that most of us find that keeping time is supposed to be relative to our own experience. And so from our own experience, it does make sense to say to someone in Australia, I had to get up at 5 a.m. And they can relate to that, because 5 a.m. equals early.

CONAN: And it's going to be awkward, too, if you're in some place like Fiji, to have Monday become Tuesday in the middle of the day.

KEIM: There would be that, although on the flipside, there would no - be no more International Date Line. So...

CONAN: That's true, which is confusing enough if you've ever gone across it on the way to a place like Japan or China. You pick up a day on the way there, or lose a day on the way back, or vice versa. I forget.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEIM: Exactly. It's tricky.

CONAN: Let's see. This is an email from Eric in Greensboro. So when is Shabbat? And my birthday is October 31st. When do I get to celebrate it? Of course, Shabbat, one of the holidays on the Jewish calendar.

KEIM: Indeed. And I'm glad, actually, he brought up the Hebrew calendar, because there are many people out there who use more than one calendar. Jewish people have the Hebrew calendar, which proceeds in time right alongside the Gregorian, and live according to both. And I think an idea like this, in practical terms, is not going to be adopted. I don't think people are ready to get rid of the rhythm of their lives just so easily. But if enough people really did want to do that, you could start keeping time by it right now. And communities, cultures could spring up around it. And you really could have the Hanke-Henry Permanent system existing alongside the Gregorian, and, who knows, maybe supplanting it some day.

CONAN: Though they're very close, and so that might be a problem, the Jewish calendars. You also get the - many places in the world, for example, we think of Christmas as a - early winter, so solstice - right around the solstice, is a holiday. Easter is a spring time holiday, that sort of thing. In much of the world, Tet, which is the important holiday, that moves. It's on the lunar calendar. It could be any time of the year.

KEIM: In here, actually, I must confess, you're running up against the limits of my own provincial ignorance. And I go, Tet, when is that?

CONAN: It changes, is the answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Here's another email, this from Barb in Virginia Beach: Our presidential election falls during leap year, giving us one extra day of campaign commercials and/or debates. Shortening the calendar would give us some relief.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEIM: Wow. Going to a Canadian system, with six weeks of campaigning, would really give us relief.

CONAN: But that's talking about changing culture. That would be something else entirely. Another email, this one from Paul: I would not support a permanent calendar. I like the chance to have my birthday on the weekend, and would hate to have it stuck on a Monday.

KEIM: I agree. Many people feel that way. And I know that Dr. Henry's response would be: well celebrate your day on whatever you want, whenever it is. But I must confess, I am sympathetic to that view as well. I like having the holidays change from year to year. And actually, I feel that, you know, a calendar that proceeds uniformly and regularly for economic purposes, really, there's too much in our lives already that is abrogated or warps to fit economic demands. And I think we need less of that, not more. I think if the economy slows down for two weeks when Christmas and New Year's fall on weekdays, so be it. That's a good thing. Let us be human for two weeks.

CONAN: I have to day say, I do get annoyed at the holidays, but mostly at the ones that are celebrated by moving them. Martin Luther King's birthday is Martin Luther King's birthday. It is not the nearest Monday. I like July 4th because it's July 4th. Christmas is December 25th.

KEIM: Hmm. I agree. How do you feel about Thanksgiving?

CONAN: I think it's the third Thursday in November, whatever that is.

KEIM: Hmm. Yeah. I - the floating holidays, I agree with you. They are a little annoying.

CONAN: We're talking with Brandon Keim of Wired Science and Wired.com. He wrote a piece called "Proposed New Calendar Would Make Time Rational." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And here's the knuckle explanation in an email from Larry in Pineville, North Carolina: I learned this in first grade, in 1941. With your right hand, point to the first top knuckle on your left. It's on top, so it's a longer month. Between the high spots are low spots or shorter months. Here's the trick. On the last knuckle, which hits on July, a long month, hit it twice, as August is also a long month. Kids stuff. Best mnemonic I ever heard. I still like 30 days hath September, April, June...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: In this email from Ryan in Gainesville: It auspiciously being 2012, didn't the Mayans have this whole calendar thing figured out?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: That's another, of course, talking to the point that I think the Mayan calendar ends right around the solstice, the winter solstice come December.

KEIM: Yes, it does end then. And let's hope we're all there to see it.

CONAN: And here's an email from Linda in Richmond - Richmond, California, I should say. How weird is it that our calendar in the United States still begins the week on Sunday? What is the history of this strange practice? I wonder if your calendar research unveiled an answer to that.

KEIM: That is a superb question. It never even occurred to me - which just shows how ubiquitous it is - that I took it for granted. I will look that up. And if she can provide her email, I'll send her an answer.

CONAN: All right. If not, we'll get answer from you and put it on our Letter segment tomorrow if we can get the answer that quickly. I think Google might provide it for us. But - or maybe the Wikipedia. Now, let's go to Luke, and Luke's on the line with us from Fort Collins in Colorado.

LUKE: Good day. How are you?

CONAN: Fine. Thank you. Happy New Year.

LUKE: To you, as well. So, a number of years ago, I was sitting around pondering the irregularity of our calendar and decided to sit down with an Excel spreadsheet and divide the number 365 by every number up to 365 to find out: Is the year divisible by an even pattern? And what I found is that it's only divisible by two numbers: five and 73. Obviously, it ends in five. So I pondered then, what could you do with five periods of 73 days? And so I came up with a scheme to break down the 73 days into 10 seven-day weeks, so that we would maintain the seven-day weeks. And at the end of each of those five periods throughout the year, you'd have an additional three-day weekend. And so it would maintain the seven-day week, but it would also break down the year into perfectly regularly systems.

And so once you calculate the weekends for each of the 10 seven-day weeks and then the additional three-day weekend, you come up with approximately the same number of days that our current system allows for holidays and federal holidays and whatnot. You still have approximately the same number of working days per year.

CONAN: And the - and change - 365 days and change. So a leap day every four years?

LUKE: Yes.

KEIM: I think that's fantastic. Did you come up with names for the periods?

LUKE: You know, I fiddled around with it for quite awhile and tried to see if I could make it collate with the zodiacal pattern of the constellations. What I found was that the constellations aren't quite perfectly regular, either, so they didn't fit perfectly. I fiddled around with it some, but no. I didn't come up with, like, seasonal-type names. No, I didn't really go that far with it. The only other time that I've seen that exact same idea proposed was with a pseudo-religion called the Discordians. You can find a Wikipedia article on them. But they also suggest the same sort of pattern.

CONAN: Didn't Napoleon also rename the months and the days of the week?

LUKE: I don't know if it was Napoleon, but during the French Revolution, the Thermidorian revolution, I think, also came up with the system of replacing all religious connotations, so street names, like (unintelligible) Saint-Michel, the saint was removed from...

CONAN: Right.

LUKE: Yeah. You're totally right on that.

CONAN: Thermidori - well, perhaps, they called for lobster every Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Speaking of celestial mechanics, Christine Kearns(ph) from Morris, Minnesota, among many who wrote to correct our guest on email: Don't let that statement Earth closer or further from the sun causes warmer or cooler. It's the tilt of the ecliptic...

KEIM: Oh.

CONAN: ...that causes the seasons, not the ecliptic - not the elliptic of the orbit. OK. So...

KEIM: Oh, I'm going to go eat some humble pie after I take off the headphones here.

CONAN: Thanks very much. And, Luke, thanks very much for the phone call.

LUKE: Thank you.

CONAN: And here's an email from Claire in Bend, Oregon: As a teacher trying to explain the calendar to elementary school students is yet another difficult undertaking in explaining the logic - or perhaps lack of it - in a system, much like English spelling rules or our system of measurement. So perhaps it's one of those lessons that we ought to learn that, essentially, life is unfair, and you can spell through about six different ways.

KEIM: There is that. And actually, on the subject of measurements, I would refer people to a lovely little essay by George Orwell, whom would expect to be so very rational and yet, he liked the - just the sound of the words, inches and pounds. And there you have a man who just holds with tradition sometimes, even when it doesn't make sense.

CONAN: Hard to say: and kilometers to go before we sleep. It just doesn't work. Anyway, Brandon, thanks very much for your time today.

KEIM: Happy New Year.

CONAN: Brandon Keim, associate editor for Wired Science, joined us from our bureau in New York. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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