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23 February 2017
Morning Sedition

Try To Remember, The Days of, uh, Kankin?

Mayan Calendar Stone

Mayan Calendar Stone (Sunstone) depicting the four cycles of creation and destruction. The skull is the god Tonatiuh, the fifth sun.

I was looking at my dead Seiko Kinetic — the storage cells in these electrically-powered self-winding watches are known to have serious manufacturing defects causing them to die after a few years but Seiko refuses to repair them — and was thinking about timekeeping. (I was also thinking I'm going to take Seiko to small claims court over this piece of junk, but that's another issue for another entry.) Anyway, it got me thinking about calendars.

Calendars are a useful thing beyond remembering your special someone's birthday. Without them governments can't collect taxes, farmers can't plant crops, and landlords can't collect the rent. (The last one has some special significance which will become clear later.) Which is why just about every culture has created a calendar of one sort or another. While most are based on the dating of some religious event, or a revolution, all tend to have, in rough terms, the traditional number of months and days, with some rejiggering as needed to account for minor errors.

Compare the oldest, and most complex, calendars with one of the newest yields an interesting juxtaposition. We'll start with the Mayan calendar.

The Maya calendar uses three different dating systems in parallel, the Long Count, the Tzolkin (divine calendar), and the Haab (civil calendar). Of these, only the Haab has a direct relationship to the length of the year. A typical Mayan date looks like this: 12.18.16.2.6, 3 Cimi 4 Zotz.

12.18.16.2.6 is the Long Count date.
3 Cimi is the Tzolkin date.
4 Zotz is the Haab date.

...

As the named week is 20 days and the smallest Long Count digit is 20 days, there is synchrony between the two; if, for example, the last digit of today's Long Count is 0, today must be Ahau; if it is 6, it must be Cimi. Since the numbered and the named week were both "weeks," each of their name/number change daily; therefore, the day after 3 Cimi is not 4 Cimi, but 4 Manik, and the day after that, 5 Lamat. The next time Cimi rolls around, 20 days later, it will be 10 Cimi instead of 3 Cimi. The next 3 Cimi will not occur until 260 (or 13 x 20) days have passed. This 260-day cycle also had good-luck or bad-luck associations connected with each day, and for this reason, it became known as the "divinatory year."

Calendars Through the Ages

This is so complicated it makes my brain hurt. (Sensible people use a program or library routines to do these conversions.) So let's go from the frightfully complex to the dirt simple. At last year's American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting, Richard Henry, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at The Johns Hopkins University, resurrected an old proposal to create a new, and simpler, calendar:

The world's presently-used Gregorian calendar is extremely clumsy, because the Gregorian calendar repeats only after 400 years (Seidelman 1961), and therefore organizations, including the AAS, have to re-work their calendar each and every year. This work is totally unnecessary. I propose that the American Astronomical Society advocate the world-wide adoption of the CCC&T calendar, which is an adaptation of Bob McClenon's Calendar, a brilliant fix which results in the calendar being identical every year. This calendar is far superior to previously suggested reformed calendars, in that it does not break the cycle of the days of the week, ever! Pragmatic (and more than adequate) synchronization with the seasons is achieved by the introduction of an extra week-long "month" every four or five years at the end of June; I propose that this seven-day month be called Newton. The target for adoption is 2006 Jan 1, and at the same time, universal use of universal time should be adopted, making the date and time identical everywhere on Earth. Time zones remain as "hours of work" zones, EST for example becoming "14 o'clock to 22 o'clock" for a "nine-to-five" job. The economic benefit that astronomers could provide the world through shepherding this simple reform would easily and indeed more than repay all that the world has kindly spent on astronomical research.

AAS Meeting January 2004

Professor Richard Henry

Professor Richard Henry

Henry's proposal is based on Bob McClenon's "Reformed Weekly Calendar". (The original proposal and revised proposal have details.) McClenon's issues with the current calendar are shared by most of us:

The Gregorian calendar has two obvious disadvantages. First, the weekday of a date in a month varies from year to year and is difficult to predict. One cannot quickly determine whether a future day will be a day of work or a day of rest without consulting a perpetual calendar. Second, the months are of variable length with no particular pattern.

Bob McClenon's Proposal

The whole business is so complicated we need mnemonics to keep it all straight:

Thirti Dayes hath Nouembir
Thirti dayes hath Nouembir,
April, June, and Septembir;
Of xxviijti is but oon,
And all the remenaunt xxxti and j.
Author unknown, circa 1300 — 1450

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November;
All the rest have thirty-one,
Excepting February alone,
And that has twenty-eight days clear
And twenty-nine in each leap year.
M.S. Stevins, circa 1555
Also attributed to Richard Grafton, "Chronicles of England", 1568

Thirty dayes hath Nouember,
Aprill, Iune and September;
Twentie and eyght hath February alone,
And all the rest thirty and one,
But in the leape you must adde one.
William Harrison, Description of Britain, prefixed to Holinshed's "Chronicle", 1577

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November,
February has twenty-eight alone,
All the rest have thirty-one;
Excepting leap year, — that's the time
When February’s days are twenty-nine.
John Day, "The Return from Parnassus" 1601

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November;
All the rest have thirty-one,
Excepting February alone,
Which hath but twenty-eight, in fine,
Till leap year gives it twenty-nine.
New England Saying

Fourth, eleventh, ninth, and sixth,
Thirty days to each affix;
Every other thirty-one
Except the second month alone.
The Friends, Chester County, Pennsylvania

Various Sources

So how did we get into this mess? Consider some calendar history:

The Julian Calendar

In ancient Rome the lunar calendar was constantly being adjusted, adding days here and there to bring the seasons back into sync. Some corrupt politicians and officials even added days to the calendar to lengthen their stay in office, or for financial gain. Then in 45 B.C. Roman Emperor Julius Caesar decreed that a new calendar, called the Julian calendar, would be adopted. The astronomer Sosigenes designed the calendar to strictly follow the seasons, not the moon. Each year had 365 days, with an extra "leap" day added every 4 years. This made the length of a Julian year 365.25 days, not far from the actual value of 365.2422 days.

The Gregorian Calendar

But the average length of the Julian year was a bit too long, by some 11 minutes. Slowly the first day of spring shifted to earlier and earlier dates, at the rate of about eight days every thousand years. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII, advised by the astronomer Christopher Clavius, decreed that the date of the vernal equinox, which had crept forward to March 11, should revert to March 21, its date at the time of the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. It was at the Council of Nicaea that the church decided Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. By bringing the calendar back into sync, Easter would be celebrated closer to its original date.

The only way to make such a change was to skip ten days; and so in Catholic countries the day after October 4, 1582, was October 15, 1582. Many non-Catholic nations, however, did not go along with this jump. England and the British colonies held out until 1752 when September 2nd was followed by September 14th. Many citizens thought they were being cheated out of 11 days of life and in the resultant riots a number of people were killed!

The change brought the first day of spring back to March 21st, but it was necessary to prevent future date-jumping. So the new Gregorian calendar was shortened a tiny amount. A leap day was still added every four years, but with a special rule about century-end years: only century-end years divisible by 400 would be leap years. Therefore, the years 1800, 1900, and 2100 have no February 29th, but 2000 and 2400 do. This makes the average length of the Gregorian year 365.2524 days, less than half a minute off each year. This will produce an error of only one day every 3000 years.

NASA History of Calendars

NASA, however, has one item dead wrong. (That's why I picked their explanation.) People were not rioting because "they were being cheated out of 11 days of life" but because at the time of calendar transition the landlords were charging tenants for a full month's rent, instead of pro-rating for a month eleven days shorter than the full month. (Remember when I said in the introduction that calendars were important to landlords?)

But back to Henry's proposal. It has an interesting characteristic: days of the week in his calendar always stay the same, year after year. July 4, for example, will always be a Wednesday; Christmas, a Sunday. (Thus clearly gaining the support of both Christians and patriots. Ok, just kidding about the patriots. True patriots know that July 4 should always be a Friday so we get a long weekend. Some things should only be tinkered with for the better.)

Henry assures us that there are impressive benefits to switching calendars, beyond dumping a fortune into retooling so much software it would make the Y2K upgrades look simple:

1.) Why fool with the calendar?
There are enormous economic advantages to the proposed calendar. These benefits come because the new calendar is identical every year... except that, every five or six years, there is a one-week long "Mini-Month," called "Newton," between June and July. "Newton Week" brings the calendar into sync with the seasonal change as the Earth circles the Sun. How much needless work do institutions, such as companies and colleges, put into arranging their calendars for every coming year? From 2006 on, they do it once ... and it is done forevermore.

Henry's Calendar Reform Proposal

Yeah, right. I don't think anyone needs Jimmy the Greek to give odds on this happening.

Oh, and that title line? It's an allusion to a song. The "Kankin" is the Mayan month approximately where September would be. (See where this is going? No? Oh, well. I am not Citizen Arcane for nothing.) I couldn't find the lyrics online. Best I could turn up was: "Try to remember, the days of September, when life was sweet and oh so mellow...". As far as I can determine, the song is from the musical The Fantasticks. But I'm certain Harry Belafonte sang the version I recall.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Calendars Through the Ages
  2. Mayan Calendar
  3. Henry's Calendar Reform Proposal
  4. Henry's Calendar Reform Presentation at AAS Meeting January 2004
  5. Bob McClenon's "Reformed Weekly Calendar" proposal (original)
  6. Bob McClenon's "Reformed Weekly Calendar" proposal (revised)

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