Should we get rid of the Gregorian calendar

A physicist at Johns Hopkins University, Dick Henry has proposed replacing the Gregorian calendar with a new one. 

The current calendar, which runs for 365 days, was instituted by Pope Gregory in 1582 to bring the length of the year in line with the seasons. But because the Earth actually orbits the Sun every 365.24 days, a 366-day “leap year” must be added every four years to account for the extra fraction of a day. In this Gregorian system, a given date (such as New Year’s Day) falls on different days of the week in different years because 365 is not evenly divisible by seven.

. . .

So Henry designed a calendar that uses 364 days, which breaks down evenly into 52 weeks. In his so called ‘Calendar-and-Time’ (C&T) plan, each month contains 30 or 31 days. He decided on each month’s length by forbidding the new calendar to differ from the old one by more than five days and by setting Christmas Day, 25 December, to always fall on a Sunday.

. . .

His constraints meant eight months would have different lengths than they do now. March, June, September, and December would each contain 31 days, while the other months would each get 30. To keep the calendar in synchronisation with the seasons, Henry inserted an extra week – which is not part of any month – every five or six years. He named the addition ‘Newton Week’ in honour of his favourite physicist, Isaac Newton.

‘If I had my way, everyone would get Newton Week off as a paid vacation and could spend the time doing physics, or other activities of their choice,’ he says.

Despite this incentive, Henry says he has encountered resistance to his plan – mainly because people would be ‘stuck’ with a birthday that always falls on a Wednesday, for example. Henry, who is among that group, is not moved by the argument. ‘You have my permission to celebrate your birthday the preceding or following Saturday,’ he says.”

Bernard Henri Levy Under Attack

Via political theory daily review:

France’s love affair with its highest-profile living philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy, appears to be at an end after the publication of a number of books attacking his writings and methodology.

The latest critique, by the investigative journalist Philippe Cohen, brands Lévy intellectually ‘incoherent’. His book, BHL – a biography, published this week, coldly sets out to unmask the philosopher.

It attacks France’s most media-friendly intellectual on all fronts, dissecting not just his work but the man himself.

It reproaches him for impoverishing French intellectual debate by over-simplifying any complex issue for mass consumption and demonising the opposite point of view.

It even suggests that the ideas set out in his work French Ideology accelerated the rise of France’s hard-Right National Front.”

Giddens on the New Terrorism

The sociologist Anthony Giddens has a provocative piece on Al Qaeda and the new terrorism in The New Statesman.  The upshot:

“The left has to adjust its attitudes towards terrorism, just as it had to adjust them towards crime. It won’t do to say that there are no serious threats. It won’t do to blame the troubles of the world on George W Bush or the Iraq war. It is no good pretending that there aren’t problems in reconciling civil liberties with adequate protection and security. It is not wrong to say that we have to deal with the social conditions that have helped to produce new-style terrorism – poverty and unemployment, schisms between the Islamic world and the west, the situation in Israel/Palestine. And it is certainly right to say that we need urgent measures to halt further nuclear proliferation.

But as with crime, we cannot think only of the underlying conditions. New-style terrorists are by no means always drawn from the ranks of the dispossessed; and their aims, as in the case of al-Qaeda, may be primarily religious and strategic. We have to respond to the dangers they pose in the here and now.”

Gerard Debreu, 1921-2005

Another great economist, Gerard Debreu, winner of the 1983 Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, has also died.  Debreu was known for his work on general equilibrium, his proofs of the first and second fundamental theorems of welfare economics, and the integration of uncertainty into general equilibrium through state-contingent commodities.

“Mr. Debreu won the Nobel for his work on a mathematical approach to one of the most basic economic problems: how prices function to balance what producers supply with what buyers want.

A slender 100-page book he wrote that was published in 1959, ‘Theory of Value: An Axiomatic Analysis of Economic Equilibrium,’ is considered a classic of the field.

. . .

In contrast to other winners in economics, Mr. Debreu focused on basic research rather than applications of economic theory.

‘You would not get much of an economic policy discussion out of him,’ Assar Lindbeck, chairman of the panel that reviewed nominations for the Nobel committee, said when he announced the award to Mr. Debreu 21 years ago. ‘He is the kind of teacher who starts in the top left corner of the blackboard, fills it with formulae and reaches the bottom right corner at the end of the class.'”

Robert Heilbroner, 1919-2005

Robert Heilbroner, one of the great economic historians of the era and author of the canonical Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, has died. 

“A professor at the New School in New York for five decades and author of more than 20 books, Dr Heilbroner remains best known for his first book, Worldly Philosophers, an engrossing account of the lives and contributions of economists from Adam Smith and Karl Marx to John Maynard Keynes. Written as his doctoral thesis in 1953, Worldly Philosophers has sold nearly 4m copies – the second best-selling economics text of all time (after Paul Samuelson’s Economics)-and remains required reading in the economics departments of virtually every American college. The book is also credited with inspiring the careers of generations of economists.

In his later years, Dr Heilbroner became a critic of the modern economics, cautioning that the focus on mathematics and esoteric models to the exclusion of any societal factors diverged from the great strides made by his Worldly Philosophers. This failure of vision, he warned, threatened to render the field irrelevant. In 1996’s The Crisis of Vision in Modern Economic Thought, co-authored with Will Milberg, he noted that ‘the high theorising of the present period [in economics] attains a degree of unreality that can be matched only by medieval scholasticism’.”

Still in Theaters

Finger Zhang Yimou’s latest film, House of Flying Daggers is still at select New York metro area theaters. Not without its definitively campy moments, the director’s painterly composition slips from one scene to the next with colors so saturated even the pirate-dvd looks hot, while Takeshi Kanehiro is a beautiful boy and starlet Zhang Ziyi’s willowy figure has prompted the New York Times to breathlessly declare current Chinese film the new orientation of glamour (the original article, written by Manohla Dargis, had a front page spread in the December 5, 2004, Arts and Leisure section but is now inaccessibly archived. Check out the IHT text).

The movie is set in 859 ce amidst the chaos of the latter Tang Dynasty (roughly 618 – 907 ce), an era that has proved an endless repository for the Sinophile (including Japanese and perhaps also Korean literati) imagination ever since its ultimate collapse. The dynasty was brilliance at its most desirable: full of insane elixir quaffing emperors, court intrigue, westward expansion campaigns, Silk Road cosmopolitan decadence, and perhaps one of the most lyricized socio-political apocalypses in world history. The Tang Dynasty poets were the most poetic, the heroines the most heroin, and everyone immortal. So it’s great to see that brought to cinema in loving, precise detail and extravagance. An entire multi-story bordello recreated complete with painted floors and an entire drum brigade deserves major respect and Zhang Ziyi’s dancing is perfected by the most exacting placement of hand to cheek, pinky finger extended just so to set lordly wags twisting in their tombs.

The question of course, after all this beauty-incited longing, is: Zhang Yimou has always been accused of being an Oriental’s Orientalist, making lavishly indigenous films for Western (festival circuit) consumption, what? Stop hating. My own opinion is that if anything, House of Flying Daggers, with its lacquered storyline and forced intrigue, represents a director indulging in a reckless visual excess that transcends criticality. Best to catch it while still in on the big screen.

Save The Subway from Barbarians!

Today is the last day of the 45-day public comment period before New York City Transit votes on whether to institute its asinine proposal to ban photography in the subway. How enforceable. We occupy a moment in time, I believe, in which the state’s limitless appetite for juridical incursions into the sphere of social freedom would make Foucault blanch (not such an easy thing to do). The Times has this piece on those who make pictures underground; the absence of the perspective of graffiti chronicler Martha Cooper is a crying shame. However, there’s also this excellent interactive feature containing some of Bruce Davidson’s work and interviews with many characters you’ll recognize, such as the guy with the mannequin in Times Square (anyone else find New York Times references to Times Square a little uncanny?) and Jonathan Zizmor, Dr. Z himself.

Here’s the text of the proposed rule change (look in Section 1050.6). If you agree that such pointless restrictions of freedom in the name of “security” degrade our civil society and public space, please email the MTA before tomorrow.

Spurious post on Wes Anderson

Lifeaquatic2_2 So, assuming that reviews would be raving about Wes Anderson’s latest film, I was on the verge of not posting anything when doing a little research I found to my surprise that writers across all (web-posted) media almost unanimously cracked down on the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, highlighting ‘unconvincing pirate attacks and animated sea creatures’ (Rolling Stone); Wes Anderson’s “precious”-ness (was that somewhere in the studio press release? Cited in multiple reviews including Entertainment Weekly and Slate); “mawkish”-ness (Slate); lack of narrative continuity (again, singling out the pirate attack: see the New York Daily News); and stifled character development (Village Voice), among other points.

All of which suggests the alarming literal-mindedness with which respected, or at least authoritative, reviewers in the American media establishment view cinema, if not life. Suggesting, further, the residual and overpowering morality (the Darwinian-ascetic drive to perfection) that informs prevailing continental aesthetics. While Anderson’s neo-cinephile appeal can indeed quaff irritatingly “precious” or gimmicky or baroque, taken on it’s own, Life Aquatic achieves a lightness uncommon in current American film. Its humor is restrained, subtle, and reflective (what many reviewers term quasi-pejoratively as “deadpan”)—full of quirky details, such as the much maligned pirate sequence: bravo to Wes Anderson for finding a way to work Tagalog (the language spoken by most Filipinos, the ethnicity of the movie’s pirate crew) into a 50-million dollar English-language production! And incorporating a sophisticated use of musical overlay to redirect dramatic tension into a marvelous concatenation of twitchy retro-chic techno-synth non-sequitor.

the spurious part,

Movies, even Wes Anderson movies, need be neither brilliant nor profound, and it’s debatable whether Wes Anderson has yet achieved such a movie himself. Nor does a movie’s significance have to rest in the realm of gut-gratifying metaphor that so many reviewers seem to crave. The Life Aquatic lolls in those always escaping half-stops between statement and meaning that constitute irony, yes, but this does not make it heavy-handedly ironic. How about playful? Enjoyable? Seductive? Indeed, the film’s initial surface artifice inevitably leads the viewer into darkly fulfilling desolate spaces—a torched boat, an abandoned island resort, oceanic abysses.

And perhaps the long-standing tyranny of “character development” as critical hammer is also indebted to an all-too facile embrace of psychology as interpretive crutch, assuming that even in intimate interaction two people can ever explain each other’s actions? Or that in any community (ensemble) all personalities can be accounted for?

more spurious.

Regardless of how I felt critically, what has impressed me about the two Wes Anderson movies I have seen, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, is that the director seems to have a preternatural understanding of the Japanese aesthetic of “mono no aware,” which can be understood as “the evanescence of things,” or “the evanescence of beauty,” or “the pathos inherent in evanescent beauty.” In Japanese material culture, for example, the mono no aware aesthetic has contributed to a taste for “the quirky,” or “the imperfect,” “the asymmetrical,” “the scarred,” and the grotesque as propagated most infamously by current figurehead artist Takashi Murakami’s theory of superflat. And in literary culture, the mono no aware aesthetic has manifested itself in countless celebrations and inversions of interrupted love and longing: the play between love/emotion, beauty, and death.

It’s kind of interesting and refreshing to find this expressed in Anderson’s work, as characters, in between wisecracks, confront the sudden loss of something they hold dear. And if viewed through the sympathetic lens of mono no aware, many of Anderson’s uneven edges become understandable or endearing. In a way the he might even be working towards the Neosincerity that fellow 3quarkser Morgan Meis has already been noted for in this same blogspace. All this to say, Speak up for a practicing director who has a good eye for twisted melodrama in the face of boorish boors.

Tom DeLay and the tsunami

Continuing on the theme of the tsunami and religion, Representative Tom DeLay (R-Texas) offered this passage from Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount.

21. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

22. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’

23. Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’

24. Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.

25. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.

26. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand.

27. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.”

He offered it at the 109th Congressal Prayer Service, which you can find at C-Span.  The choice of passage paints at least a plausible image that he believes that believers received God’s punishment.  But interestingly, not everyone sees it that way, and certainly, it possible that DeLay doesn’t see it that way.  (Although, my take on Tom DeLay leads me to suspect that he did mean it that way, but I could be wrong.)  The discussion of DeLay’s choice of the passage over at Crooked Timber is interesting.  One commenter suggests that the passage is not about judging unbelievers but rather:

“One of the points Jesus is making in the passage Delay read out is that self-proclaimed ‘faith’ without works will not be recognized. The last sentence before the passage De Lay read is ‘by their fruit you will recognize them.’ (7:20) Among the ‘words’ which hearers are to put into practice are: ‘Love your enemies’ (5:44), ‘do not resist evil,’ (5:39), ‘do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth’ (6:22), and ‘do not judge.’ (7:1) . . . [I]f his prayer is understood as an appeal to his fellow Christians to put their faith into practice, it takes on a different appearance. Try reading it as not about the victims of the tsunami, but about those who are hearing it read out to them. . . The passage, in context, is addressed to Christ’s ‘hearers’ and is a challenge to them. It is explicitly not about judging others. It is about doing God’s will — where that means, as Matthew also tells us, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, inviting in the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison. (25: 35-36)”

I have my doubts that this is how DeLay reads it.  But there are those who do think that things like this are God’s punishment and they do read it that way, even if most believers don’t, as these comments on whether the tsunami was an act of God suggest.  Perhaps the most interesting question is why “blaming the victims” is so easy a turn for religion, even if it isn’t the most common one.

The Tsunami, Religion, Dawkins, and T.H. Huxley

Last week, Robin Varghese wrote a thoughtful post “The Tsunami, Theodicies and Science,” in which he mentioned Richard Dawkins’s response to Martin Kettle’s article about possible theological reactions to the tsunami tragedy in The Guardian. Since then, there has been a series of outraged responses to Dawkins there (and elsewhere), to which he himself has replied thus.

Liz Byrne, one of the outraged many, writes in to The Guardian:

What exactly can science offer or say to the suffering of a parent whose child has been swept out to sea, to thousands who wait for news and to others who watched, powerlessly, as loved ones and strangers drowned in front of them, moments etched cruelly on their minds for ever?

This reminded me of a letter written by T.H. Huxley to the Reverend Charles Kingsley in 1860, soon after Huxley’s young son had died, and in response to a letter of condolence Kingsley had written urging Huxley to accept the immortality of the soul as a way of assuaging his grief. Among other things, Huxley says:

…a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology. Secondly, science and her methods gave me a resting-place independent of authority and tradition. Thirdly, love opened up to me a view of the sanctity of human nature, and impressed me with a deep sense of responsibility.

If at this moment I am not a worn-out, debauched, useless carcass of a man, if it has been or will be my fate to advance the cause of science, if I feel that I have a shadow of a claim on the love of those about me, if in the supreme moment when I looked down into my boy’s grave my sorrow was full of submission and without bitterness, it is because these agencies have worked upon me, and not because I have ever cared whether my poor personality shall remain distinct for ever from the All from whence it came and whither it goes.

And thus, my dear Kingsley, you will understand what my position is. I may be quite wrong, and in that case I know I shall have to pay the penalty for being wrong. But I can only say with Luther, “Gott helfe mir, Ich kann nichts anders.”

I know right well that 99 out of 100 of my fellows would call me atheist, infidel, and all the other usual hard names. As our laws stand, if the lowest thief steals my coat, my evidence (my opinions being known) would not be received against him.

But I cannot help it. One thing people shall not call me with justice and that is–-a liar. As you say of yourself, I too feel that I lack courage; but if ever the occasion arises when I am bound to speak, I will not shame my boy.

Science can, it seems, to those who are committed to it, provide “a resting-place independent of authority and tradition.” And it is to the kindness and love of human beings that we must turn, as Dawkins also suggests, to find solace. Huxley’s steadfastness and bravery in the most trying of moments is intensely moving and inspiring to me, and perhaps answers Liz Byrne’s question to some degree.

Read the rest of Huxley’s letter here.

WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS TRUE EVEN THOUGH YOU CANNOT PROVE IT?

John Brockman poses this question to 118 scientists and thinkers, including the usual Edge suspects: Dawkins, Dennett, Pinker, Diamond, etc. Would that Simon Baron-Cohen had been Sasha. Leon Lederman does provide this joke about a physicist on the witness stand: ‘”What makes you such an authority?” [the lawyer] asked. “Oh, I am without question the world’s most outstanding theoretical physicist”, was the startling reply. It was enough to convince the lawyer to change the subject. However, when the witness came off the stand, he was surrounded by protesting colleagues. “How could you make such an outrageous claim?” they asked. The theoretical physicist defended, “Fellows, you just don’t understand; I was under oath.”‘

American Notes for General Circulation

If you’re ready to move on from the general exhuberance of the New Year I can offer nothing more sobering than J.M. Tyree’s thoughtful, if devastating year-end reflection on a year that included Abu Graib.

Here’s a sample:

It is not easy to come to grips with the moral despair induced by the knowledge that one’s government is engaged in torture. . . . This is all, in a strict sense, beyond belief, and yet we are in the puzzling position of watching it happening and being powerless to stop it. As another Russian writer said, man can get used to anything – the beast. One is charged with not getting used to this and not giving in to the temptation to pretend that everything is operating according to the normal rules. The United States is now caught up in a hallucinatory fog, in which the one thing that cannot be admitted is that the attacks of September 11 succeeded in driving the country insane.

Audioscobbler

I suppose that it was only a matter of time, in this era of ever more sophisticated targeted marketing like Amazon.com’s ‘people who bought this also . . .’, that something like Audioscrobbler would pop up.  (I haven’t tried it and don’t know about the hassle involved, but Nora, who pointed me to it, swears that it’s pretty cool.)

“Audioscrobbler is a computer system that builds up a detailed profile of your musical taste. After installing an Audioscrobbler Plugin, your computer sends the name of every song you play to the Audioscrobbler Server. With this information, the Audioscrobbler server builds you a ‘Musical Profile’. Statistics from your Musical Profile are shown on your Audioscrobbler User Page, available for everyone to view.

There are lots of people using Audioscrobbler, but you probably won’t be interested in most of them. The Audioscrobbler Server calculates which people are most similar to you, based on shared musical taste, so you can take a look at what your peers are listening to.

With this information, Audioscrobbler is able to automatically generate suggestions for new songs/artists you might like. These suggestions are based on the same principles as Amazon’s “People who bought this also bought X,Y,Z”, but because the Audioscrobbler data is what people are actually listening to, the suggestions tend to make more sense than Amazon.”

Kurt Vonnegut/Salman Rushdie/Nelson Algren

Vonnegut in The Guardian:

According to the diary of my wife Jill Krementz, the photographer, the young British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie came to our house in Sagaponack, Long Island, for lunch on May 9, 1981. His excellent novel Midnight’s Children had just been published in the United States, and he told us that the most intelligent review had been written by Nelson Algren, a man he would like to meet. I replied that we knew Algren, since Jill had photographed him several times and he and I had been teachers at the Writers’ Workshop of the University of Iowa back in 1965, when we were both dead broke and I was 43 and he was 56. I said, too, that Algren was one of the few writers I knew who was really funny in conversation. I offered as a sample what Algren said at the workshop after I introduced him to the Chilean novelist José Donoso: “I think it would be nice to come from a country that long and narrow.”

Rushdie was really in luck, I went on, because Algren lived only a few miles to the north, in Sag Harbor, where John Steinbeck had spent the last of his days, and he was giving a cocktail party that very afternoon. I would call him and tell him we were bringing Rushdie along, and Jill would take pictures of the two of them together, both writers about people who were very poor.

More here.

The World of Christopher Marlowe

John Simon reviews The World of Christopher Marlowe by David Riggs, in the New York Times Book Review:

Marlowe184Pity the famous man born the same year as a more famous one: case in point Christopher Marlowe (1564-93) and William Shakespeare. At their simultaneous centenaries, Marlowe was shamefully shortchanged. It would be no less a shame if a recent popular biography of Shakespeare eclipsed David Riggs’s worthy ”World of Christopher Marlowe.” Kit and Will are a pair of equal deservers.

With praiseworthy modesty, Riggs calls his book ”The World,” not ”The Life” of his elusive subject. Elizabethan poets (the word ”playwright” was not yet invented) leave far fewer traces than biographers might wish for. This holds for Shakespeare as much as for Marlowe, though Marlowe benefited from being a brawler and a spy: there is nothing like getting in trouble for getting you into the record books.

More here.