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02 AUGUST, 2012

The Calendar as a Meme: A Brief History of Timekeeping


“To be human is to be aware of the passage of time; no concept lies closer to the core of our consciousness.”

For millennia, humans have sought to make sense of time, to visualize it, to ride its arrow, to hack it, to understand our biological connection to it. “Time is the very foundation of conscious experience,” writes Dan Falk in In Search of Time: The History, Physics, and Philosophy of Time (public library). “To be human is to be aware of the passage of time; no concept lies closer to the core of our consciousness.”

And yet that awareness has a long history of friction — to mark and measure the passage of time has proven remarkably challenging. For instance, Falk traces the evolution of the calendar, our dominant system for collectively experiencing time:

The Gregorian calendar is one of the most successful ideas in the history of civilization. (Richard Dawkins might call it a successful ‘meme’ — a unit of cultural information that propagates over time.)

The Gregorian calendar is not the only timekeeping system invented by humankind — nor, as we’ll see, is it even (by some measures) the most accurate. But its story is a noteworthy one, an achievement centuries, even millennia, in the making. We saw in the previous chapter how early humans were captivated by — and began to follow — the regular motions of the night sky. By the time of the great ancient civilizations, such systematic observation had become a virtual industry; every culture would develop some sort of calendar for mapping out the year, based on their observations of the heavens and their own particular needs and priorities. The one that rules today — the Gregorian Christian calendar — exploits ideas from many different cultures, each with a unique perspective on the significance of the heavenly bodies and unique solutions to the problem of tracking their motions. In this chapter we’ll take a look at some of the challenges confronting would-be calendar makers through the ages, as they tried to tame the myriad of motions displayed by the sun, moon, and stars.

Like much of knowledge, the contemporary calendar, it turns out, is an additive innovation:

The first rudimentary steps toward tracking those celestial motions, as we’ve seen, may have occurred as early as the Paleolithic period. But it is only with the rise of the first civilizations — marked by complex, agriculture-based urban settlements with full-blown writing systems — that we can be certain that people were keeping track of days, months, and years. Making sense of those celestial cycles, however, is complicated by the fact that neither the number of days in the lunar cycle nor the number of lunar cycles in a year is a nice round number (indeed, not even a whole number). The lunar month, as mentioned earlier, is about 29 ½ days long (actually 29.5306); the average solar year (also known as the “tropical” year) is about 365 ¼ days long (actually a smidgeon less, at 365.2422 days). That these cycles did not fit neatly into one another was well known: back in the fifth century B.C., the Greek poet Aristophanes, in his play The Clouds, had the moon complaining that the days refused to keep pace with her phases.

These incongruent cycles is where it gets interesting:

Try dividing the length of the year by the length of the lunar month, and again you get a fractional number, greater than 12 but less than 13 — the true figure is close to 12.3683. Over the millennia, different civilizations tried every possible trick for reconciling these incongruent cycles. Some simply rounded the length of the month up to 30 days, a practice adopted by the ancient Sumerians; 12 such months yield a 360-day year, just 5 days (roughly) short of the true solar year. Others used a more precise length for the lunar cycle and then assumed there were exactly 12 months in a year: the result is a year that is 354 days long — 11 days short (roughly) of the true solar year. Adopt such a calendar, and each New Year’s celebration will be 11 days earlier than it was the year before. A midsummer celebration would become a midwinter celebration after just 16 years.

Any calendar system that uses the phases of the moon to track the months but also attempts to reconcile those months with the cycle of the seasons is called a luni-solar calendar. The Babylonians adopted one such system. A new month was determined by the first sighting of the crescent moon in the western sky — a practice that continues in Muslim nations to this day (notice how many Muslim nations feature the crescent moon on their flag). To keep the months in step with the solar year, the Babylonians employed a cycle in which seven 13-month years alternated with 12 years of just 12 months. The result was a 19-year cycle known as the Metonic cycle, after the Greek astronomer Meton of Athens, who lived in the fifth century B.C. (Meton discovered that 235 lunar months amount to almost exactly the same interval as 19 solar years; a calendar based on this cycle would deviate from the true solar year by just 1 day every 219 years.) Beginning in the second millennium B.C., the extra month would be added — “intercalated” — following either the sixth month (Ululu) or the twelfth month (Addaru) of the Babylonian calendar. We have a record dating from the nineteenth century B.C. of King Hammurabi’s decree on just such an adjustment:

This year has an additional month. The coming month should be designated as the second month Ululu, and wherever the annual tax has been ordered to be brought in to Babylon on the 24th of the month of Tashritu it should now be brought to Babylon on the 24th of the second month of Ululu.


The Jewish calendar is closely modeled on the Babylonian. (The mutual influence of the two cultures can be traced back to the sixth century B.C., when Babylon, under Nebuchadnezzar II, conquered Jerusalem; the Jewish people spent the next 70 years or so in exile.) The Jewish calendar, like the Babylonian, is built on the nineteen-year Metonic cycle, with its combination of 12-month and 13-month years. Within that cycle, the lengths of certain months can also vary, so that a “regular” year can be 353, 354, or 355 days long, while a leap year (containing an extra month) can be 383, 384, or 385 days long. (This is why the date of Jewish holidays such as Hanukkah leaps around so much with respect to the Gregorian calendar.)

The rest of In Search of Time, a fine addition to these essential books on time, is just as fascinating an untangling of the basic fabric of our existence, exploring everything from the science of time travel to the persistence and mechanisms of memory to the inevitability of impermanence.

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01 AUGUST, 2012

Anaïs Nin on Paris vs. New York, 1939


“The ivory tower of the artist may be the only stronghold left for human values, cultural treasures, man’s cult of beauty.”

French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin (1903-1977), an author of short stories and erotica, remains best-known as a prolific and dedicated diarist, perhaps the most prolific and dedicated diarist in modern literary history. Her sixteen tomes of published journals, spanning more than half a century between the time she began writing at the age of eleven and her death, speak volumes about the intellectual and creative landscape of 20th-century Europe and America.

Nin first began journaling in 1914 when her mother whisked Anaïs and brother from France to New York. Only months later did Nin find out that her parents had separated permanently and she wasn’t to be reunited with her father, with whom she loved and admired enormously. Tossed into a state of grief and turmoil, she came to project her anxious discomfort on her new non-home, New York — and joined the ranks of the city’s famous diarists. “When a child is uprooted,” she later wrote, “it seeks to make a center from which it cannot be uprooted.” Nin eventually returned from Europe but, with World War II looming menacing on the horizon, she once again fled to New York twenty years after her first exile, where she once again felt like an outsider.

From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) comes this poignant, articulate description of what Nin experienced as the difference between Parisians and New Yorkers — something recently explored in much lighter, more tongue-in-cheek terms — penned in the winter of 1939:

In Paris, when entering a room, everyone pays attention, seeks to make you feel welcome, to enter into conversation, is curious, responsive. Here it seems everyone is pretending not to see, hear, or look too intently. The faces reveal no interest, no responsiveness.

Overtones are missing. Relationships seem impersonal and everyone conceals his secret life, whereas in Paris it was the exciting substance of our talks, intimate revelations and sharing of experience.


I read over my old diaries. I sit by the fire of my life in Paris and wonder when this life here will start to burn brightly. So far it looks like those electric logs in artificial fireplaces burning with moderate glow and without sparkle or warmth.

Anais Nin portrait

Then, in September of 1940, she revisits the parallel:

Sometimes I think of Paris not as a city but as a home. Enclosed, curtained, sheltered, intimate. The sound of rain outside the window, the spirit and the body turned towards intimacy, to friendships and loves. One more enclosed and intimate day of friendship and love, an alcove. Paris intimate like a room. Everything designed for intimacy. Five to seven was the magic hour of the lovers’ rendezvous. Here it is the cocktail hour.

New York is the very opposite of Paris. People’s last concern is with intimacy. No attention is given to friendship and its development. Nothing is done to soften the harshness of life itself. There is much talk about the ‘world,’ about millions, groups, but no warmth between human beings. They persecute subjectivity, which is a sense of inner life; an individual’s concern with growth and self-development is frowned upon.

Subjectivity seems to be in itself a defect. No praise or compliments are given, because praise is politeness and all politeness is hypocrisy. Americans are proud of telling you only the bad. The ‘never-talk-about-yourself’ taboo is linked with the most candid, unabashed self-seeking, and selfishness.

If people knew more about psychology they would have recognized in Hitler a psychotic killer. Nations are neurotic, and leaders can be psychotic.

The ivory tower of the artist may be the only stronghold left for human values, cultural treasures, man’s cult of beauty.

Nin’s lament was, of course, filtered through the lens of her painful, forced exile. Whether or not it bespeaks some grand universal truth about the New York way remains a question to be answered privately by each of us. But to deny that New York fosters a kind of Schopenhauer’s porcupine dilemma would be naive — the key to the city, as it were, is in learning how to unlock the enormity of Gotham’s magnificent humanity.

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01 AUGUST, 2012

Cheating the Impossible: Wire-Walker Philippe Petit on Education, Creativity, and Patience


The art of self-correction and the value of tenacity in a world obsessed with instant results.

On August 7th, 1974, shortly after the World Trade Center was erected, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit stood in front of the impossible and took it full stride as he walked 200 feet between the Twin Towers, 1,368 feet above ground, on a 55-pound balancing rope. Dubbed “the artistic crime of the century,” the feat — which took place almost exactly a century after the first crossing of the East River on wire — took six years of planning. Petit — who never finished formal education — had to acquaint himself with the most esoteric details of engineering, architecture, and the physics of wind, among other preemptive intricacies. In Cheating The Impossible: Ideas and Recipes from a Rebellious High-Wire Artist, the latest release from TEDBooks, Petit tells his story in a broader context of how to live life with “patience and tenacity” in an age of silver bullets and shortcuts.

A lifelong autodidact, Petit dedicates much of the book to the nature and conditions of learning, and how those relate to concepts like curiosity and discovery, including an emphasis on the role of serendipity in invention and creativity:

Why does problem solving bring me joy? Because it’s a game. The multitude and the diversity in shape and color of the building blocks, the solutions, found in my basket provide me with extensive and entertaining permutations — and the solutions keep multiplying: those lurking as shadows of existing ones; those not yet invented; those that hibernate, awaiting the spring of chance. Among the few things I retained from my brief high school attendance was, ‘Man’s greatest inventions were found by accident.’ At the time, I wondered if there were a point to staying indoors collecting knowledge.

Maybe I have an advantage over the classically educated. Often, students are encouraged to abandon the problem in the cold and to rush to warm themselves at the table of contents of thick books of knowledge. I cannot stress enough the importance of learning to unknot the problem (I’m tempted to say ‘the streetwise way’) as opposed to focusing on acquisition of the right answer — possibly one major flaw of what I would refer to as a ‘formal education.’ Are my street education, my autodidact beginnings, my Luddite inclinations and my disregard for rules what allow me to approach a problem and hear whenever it whispers its solution — which is most of the time? For instance, I delight in the types of quizzes that present a problem related to one element and which can be solved by that same element. Allow me to describe just one among a great variety of clever little bar challenges that are supposed to reward the perpetrator with a free drink: the well-known ‘How can you pick up three matches using only a fourth one?’ Here the problem has to do with fire (matches), and it is solved by fire. Set the three matches into a little tripod, red heads touching on top. Light the fourth match and bring the fire under the match heads, let it burn for a second, then gently blow. You can now lift the ‘welded’ tripod using only the fourth match because fire has fused the three heads together. Is it my unorthodox way of life that permits me, once I assemble a display of clever solutions, to know for sure that the best one is undoubtedly the most pleasing, the one exuding simplicity, elegance and poetry?

Petit echoes Mark Van Doren’s famous aphorism that “the art of teaching is the art of assisted discovery” in this anecdote about the intellectual spark of his early education experience:

I was measuring myself by dint of rejections and invitations while my experiments, mostly foolish, forged my personality. From 6 to 16, the only teachers I listened to were those who hardly talked to me: once a week, the old lady at the Art Institute and the old man at the Horseback Riding Academy. I was the youngest student at both places, and both those masters were miserly with their words, although expert at opening doors — and keeping them ajar — for their students to venture in (I always felt I was sneaking in). These two teachers were masters of instructions by gestures — instead of a verbal compliment, they offered a barely perceptible nod of the head. They favored education to come from within; they wanted their pupils to be overcome by the excitement of discovering. I remember vividly my first class in both establishments.

He argues against the industrialized model of formal education and makes a case for the autodidactic way:

The knowledge I acquired through constant struggle was much more valuable to me than if it had been dispensed by a talkative, didactic professor intending to fill my head. Today’s education, with its crash courses, its CliffsNotes, its how-to videos, its Internet instant answers and its multitude of shortcuts gives the impression of winning the race against time, but what it really does is spread insidiously the frailties of artificialness. I have the certitude that although the sum of my autodidactic discoveries took a long time to crystallize, I did not lose any time. In fact, I won; the result remains solidly anchored inside me, and it will fuel my creativity for the rest of my life.

(An ideal model for education would, of course, incorporate both, making room for “useful useless knowledge” and fostering a new culture of learning that borrows the best of both academia’s structured guidance and the curiosity-driven approach of the autodidact.)

Petit stresses the importance of integrating mind and body — an argument echoing sociologist Howard Gardner’s celebrated theory of multiple intelligences, among which is the bodily-kinetic.

It is by entering the road that leads to perfection that I will amaze and inspire myself, then by extension, inspire others. When the path is steep, I instruct my mind, my soul to pull my body by the sleeve. How could I pursue intellectual challenges were I not to remain awake and working furiously? How can my arts profit from the physical discipline of constant practice if I am not on an intellectual lookout, every second, to understand the reason something escapes my control? I must become my own coach, my own stage director, my own critic and reviewer. My thoughts must balance my actions.

I’ve turned self-correction into an art.

Petit ties this intermeshing of body and mind to the additive nature of creative influence, something we’ve recently discussed:

Definitely, body and mind swim in concert. So when I ‘attack’ (here, by electing this term, I choose to feel how aggressive and harsh a first step can be), when I attack a white sheet of Vergé with graphite to render a rigging knot, I become the rope. I travel backward in time inside the rope’s core, through my own naively truncated history of art: I hold hands for an instant with the vermillion dancers of Henri Matisse; I startle Egon Schiele as he is about to begin the self-portrait with his head bent; I carefully step over the creaky oak floor being scraped, so as not to disturb Gustave Caillebotte; I hide with Georges de La Tour to observe in delight the intricate pickpocketing choreography of three daring Gypsy girls; I help the young assistant of Leonardo da Vinci to tidy up the atelier before the master returns from his study at the morgue, and prior to entering the Lascaux cave to marvel at the freshly painted bison, I always find myself on Easter Island, standing still at the base of a giant Moai rock-smiling at me with all his sacred 30 tons.

Ultimately, Petit’s message is one of self-empowerment:

I make a dream come true via the dual conviction that life is not worth living if I do not dedicate it to the making of the dream and, simultaneously, that I would choose death over not working on making the dream come true!

Empowering, yes, but perhaps a bit extreme — then again, let’s not forget we’re taking advice from a man who walks on wire.

In a refreshing touch, each chapter of Cheating The Impossible — which you can get directly through TEDBooks for the full multimedia experience — is accompanied by Petit’s recommendation for a song and a work of literature that capture the essence of the section’s message — for the chapter titled “Where, why, when?,” for instance, Petit recommends Erik Satie’s Six Gnossiennes performed by pianist Evelyne Crochet and Italo Calvino’s story The Baron in the Trees, and for “In pursuit of the impossible,” he suggests a score of Duke Ellington’s “Sunset and the Mockingbird” from The Queen’s Suite and Paul Auster’s Moon Palace.

Sample some of Petit’s singular brand of “holy madness” with his 2012 TED talk:

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