Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Marking Time

My previous post got me to thinking. . .

There aren't any separate, uniquely 'metric' units of time - folks who use metric units to measure distance, mass, volume, speed, force, pressure, etc, etc, use the same seconds, minutes, hours, days, etc, as the rest of us.  And just as well, I'm sure; 24-hour days, and hours divided into 60 minutes of 60 seconds each are pretty well ingrained in us at a pretty fundamental, intuitive level.  But even so, it got me to thinking about how we measure time. . .

Just like the meter is marked off from the dimensions of the earth, the fundamental unit of time on all sorts of levels is the day - sunrise, sunset, 'the evening and the morning - one day'.  Our bodies are dialed into this daily rhythm of light and darkness on fundamental levels.  All things being equal, we're synched-up with the rotation of the earth on its axis, waking with the sunrise and sleeping during the hours of darkness (I once read a fascinating article discussing the 'daily rhythms' of people who get 'decoupled' from the 24-hour cycle - astronauts, crews of nuclear submarines, a few deep miners who spend long periods underground - and, left to themselves, they tended to settle into a 'day' of roughly 26 hours, give-or-take; so even when you take us out of the direct rhythm of light and darkness, our bodies don't want to vary all that much from what sunrise and sunset would 'impose' on us anyway).

I suppose there's nothing sacred about dividing a day into 24 hours, hours into 60 minutes, and minutes into 60 seconds (a direct 'analog' of how we divide angles, which seems somehow appropriate).  I mean, if we say that there are 86,400 seconds in a day, we could as easily divide a day into 100,000 small parts that wouldn't be very different from seconds, then collect 100 of these 'metric seconds' into 'metric minutes', 100 'metric minutes' into a 'metric hour', and then a day would be 10 'metric hours', and we'd have all the nice multiples of 10 that metric freaks are so fond of.  A work day could be 3.5 'metric hours', and so on.  But. . . why???

When we go bigger than days, we get into some fascinating stuff.  At the level above days, there are two more-or-less 'fundamental' measures of time - the year, marking off a complete revolution of the earth on its orbit around the sun, and the month, marking off the cycle of the phases of the moon. Neither is as 'fundamental' to our lives as the day, but both have rhythms of their own.  Especially in 'temperate' climates like ours, the year manifests itself in the passage of the seasons, cold winters and warm summers, longer and shorter periods of daylight and darkness (solstices and equinoxes), the cycles of growth and dormancy of plant life (most especially crops), etc, etc.  So the year has an intuitive rhythm to it, to the point that we count our own life spans in terms of it.  (I suppose, if I were 'King of the World', that I'd align the months with the solstices and equinoxes, so that the solstices and equinoxes were always the first of the month, and the winter solstice would be New Year's Day; but I'm not, and aren't you glad?)

The month seems a little less 'fundamental' than the year, but there is no denying the simple visual progression of the phases of the moon,  And those of us who live near the ocean are at least somewhat aware of the cycle of the tides.  Even something as 'bodily' as women's fertility cycles seems at least coincidentally (if not causally, and I can't imagine how it could be; but what do I know?) 'synched-up' with the phases of the moon.

The thing is, neither years nor months match up very cleanly with days.  A year is about 365-1/4 days, so as far back as the ancient Romans, folks would add an extra day to the calendar every four years, to get things 'lined back up' (the Gregorian calendar we use today removes three leap years every 400 from the Julian calendar, since the actual number of days in a year is closer to 365.2425).

Things get even more interesting when we take a look at months.  The lunar phases complete a cycle in about 29.5 days.  Which means that there are more than 12 lunar cycles in a year.  On a 'solar' calendar like the one we're familiar with, the year is regarded as 'fundamental', and months are more-or-less 'arbitrary' - we divide the year into 12 months of 30-31 days ("excepting February, which alone has 28"), without regard to where the phases of the moon fall, so the full moon might fall (as it does this year) on the 29th of August, then the 28th of September (30 days later), and then the 27th of October (29 days later).  The phases of the moon have no necessary relationship to the day of the month, so they will 'drift' from month to month.

Some cultures have used 'lunar' calendars, in which the month is taken as 'fundamental' - the new moon, say, is always the 1st of the month - and years are adjusted around the progression of months.  For example, in the Hebrew calendar, there is a 19-year cycle of twelve 12-month years, and seven 13-month years (months alternate between 29 and 30 days), since 19 years contain very close to exactly 235 lunar cycles.  So, rather than adding a 'leap day' once every four years, the ancient Jews would add a 'leap month' seven out of every 19 years.  Different, but it still works out reasonably cleanly.

"But," I hear some of you saying, "what about weeks?"  To which I reply - I have no freakin' idea.  The Bible roots the seven-day cycle in Creation itself.  But virtually all ancient civilizations have some manner of the seven-day cycle built into themselves, whether they ever met a Jew or Christian, or not.  Which I find fascinating. . .

So there you have it.  Not quite as grandiose as Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time, but I hope you've gotten at least some meager (or meagre, if you're the Brighton Pensioner) bit of enjoyment from it. . .

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Meters and Liters and Grams, Oh My!

I recently stumbled across an article about the Metric System.  In particular, Americans' resistance to it.  I've always found our collective national reluctance to adopt things metric to be a little bit. . . I dunno. . . odd.  I mean, what does it matter, really, whether it's 3 miles to the next town, or 5 kilometers?  Although I suppose it could get a little strange in places like suburban Detroit, where the main roads are named 15-Mile, 16-Mile, etc.  Would they have to change them to 24-Kilometer, 25.6-Kilometer, etc?  Would Eminem have to change the name of his movie to 12.8 Kilometer?  And I suppose nobody wants to hear Mary Poppins sing about 5 milliliters of sugar. . .

I suppose it's mainly a matter of what you're comfortable with.  We've all honed our sense of inches and feet since we were small, and we know what a pound is, or a gallon, and this metric stuff just seems weird, and not worth the effort.  Plus, I think some of the 'metrification' initiatives from back in the 70s/80s were kind-of heavy-handed, and inspired resistance just by pushing too hard.  But I also suspect that some of our national resistance to metric-ness is akin to why lots of us don't like soccer - it's something 'Foreigners' do, and dammit, we're Americans, and nobody is gonna make us do stuff like they do in the rest of the world, because, dammit, we're Americans, and we can do as we damn well please, and screw the rest of the world.  Dammit.

Most people don't know it, but the metric system isn't just arbitrary; it's based on the dimensions of the earth itself - by definition, there are 10,000 kilometers along a standard meridian from the equator to the poles. Which, I dunno, seems more reasonable than counting barleycorns, or keeping track of the king's nose, or whatever. And liters are derived from meters (a liter is 1000 cubic centimers, if you were wondering).  And a gram is the weight of a cubic centimeter of water.  And so forth.  I mean, heck, in Celsius (which are like 'metric degrees'), water freezes at 0 degrees, and boils at 100 degrees; does anybody even know what 32 and 212 are all about? I sure don't. . .

I've always smiled wryly at the notion that 'Americans don't do metric', anyway.  You see, I work as an engineer in the automotive industry.  From the day I walked off my college campus and into my first cubicle 30-odd years ago, I have never done my job with an inch, a pound, or a foot.  All your cars, whether domestic or imported, are designed and developed by engineers thinking and measuring in millimeters, kilograms, liters and Celsius.  Really.  Unless, you know, you're driving some American iron from the 60s or earlier.  In which case, the people from the Woodward Dream Cruise would like to hear from you.  And us engineers know (and nobody else wants to hear) that metric units are a lot easier to use, calculationally speaking.  It's true.

Truth to tell, you've already adopted more metric than you probably think you have.  How natural does it feel to buy a 2-liter of pop (that's soda for you non-midwesterners)?  Even so, a few years back, a local dairy in OurTown tried to sell milk in 4-liter jugs, 5% more milk, for the same price as a gallon.  And people simply wouldn't buy the 4-liters; I'll be darned if I can figure out why.  Alcoholic beverages are typically sold in 750 ml bottles (although you probably think of it as a fifth).  Track and field (and swimming, for what it's worth) events haven't been run in yard or mile distances in decades; we're used to hearing about 5k and 10k runs, and we know that a 100-meter time below 10 seconds is faster than hell.  Even the jumping (high jump, long jump, pole vault) and throwing (shot put, discus, javelin) records are 'officially' kept in metric distances, while being duly translated into feet and inches for American audiences (years ago, Sergei Bubka asked that the pole vault bar be set at 6.10 meters, because he knew the Americans would flip out over 20 feet).   And I won't say anything at all about, say, grams of cocaine. . .

Heck, some metric stuff is just plain more fun.  If you've ever driven in Canada, wasn't it fun to go 120 on the freeway (of course, if you're a typical Yank, and the sign says '120', you went 130, didn't you)?  All you 210-pound folks would become 95-kilos, and doesn't that just sound better?  I'm 5 feet, 11 inches tall, which is frustratingly just short of 6 feet; but in metric, I'm 180 centimeters, which is just more satisfying.  And eight inches (actually 7-7/8) becomes 20 centimeters.  For those of you to whom that matters. . .

Now, before anybody sets out to firebomb my house with a 2-liter Molotov cocktail, let me stress that I'm not proposing that anybody force anybody else to adopt metric; if and when it happens, it will happen because people adopt it naturally, and 'organically'.  All I'm saying is that, in lots of ways, metric units are easier to use than the 'English' units we've grown up with, and there's really nothing to be afraid of.  Just like 2-liters of pop, you get used to 'em, and it really doesn't take all that much effort to 're-calibrate'.  But I'm not holding my breath. . .


And, on a completely different line of thought. . .

A week ago today was Jenn's-and-my 35th anniversary (and hey, at least there aren't separate 'metric' units of time, right?).  I can scarcely express the depth of my gratitude to my Best Beloved; my life is incredibly richer for having her in it.

Thank you, Sweetheart, from the bottom of my heart.  Further up and further in!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Stuff My Dad Said. . .

As you may have noticed, my bloggerly motivation has been pretty seriously on the wane in recent weeks.  I could say that I've been busy, and that would be (mostly) true.  But I could also say that my bloggity muse has been in seriously deep hibernation, and that would also be true.  So, rather than subject you all to mediocre forced ramblings (even more mediocre and forced than usual), I've gone into dormancy.

But, as you may also have noticed, I have, occasionally in the past, grabbed a comment I left on someone else's blog, and turned it into a post of my own, if I thought it was reasonably worthwhile.  And such is the case with this post.  My friend Bijoux recently put up a post, in honor of Father's Day, about weird stuff her dad used to say, and I left a comment there, which was more-or-less the kind of thing that I might post here on my own blog.  Since it's been almost four years since my dad died, and I'm all about honoring his memory (you can go here, for something more like actual, bona fide honoring), I'll reprise my comments to her post for you all here (or, you could just go drop in on Bijoux; she gives better party than I do. . .)


Everybody's dad, it seems, has a few 'signature phrases' - little oddball things that he says that end up sticking in our minds as uniquely his, and which we carry with us, most probably to reprise them on our own kids.

My friend Bijoux posted recently, in honor of Father's Day, about a few of her dad's favorites, including "That's for me to know, and you to find out," which was one of my dad's signature bits, as well.

Forthwith, a brief sampler of some of his other favorites -

'half-assed' - shoddy or careless work; usually how I was judged to have mowed the lawn

If he was getting annoyed by a barrage of questions asking 'Why?', he'd just answer with, "To make little boys ask questions."

Or, if I was whining/crying for no good reason - "If you don't stop it, I'll give you something to cry about."

A generic expression of surprise - "Holy mackerel, Andy!" (which, when he said it, came out sounding like two words - 'Holy mackrelandy').  I found out later that the phrase was a signature bit from the old Amos 'n' Andy radio show ('cuz when Dad was a boy, they didn't have TV).

And the ever-popular "running around like a chicken with your head cut off," when we were being aimlessly energetic, as kids will be, sometimes (This one always confused me, until I saw a video clip of chickens being butchered, and I saw how the headless chickens would run aimlessly, expending the last remnants of their life-force; Dad grew up on a farm, and was quite familiar with the phenomenon).

And the man couldn't remotely carry a tune in a basket (seriously, he had absolutely zero musical sense; maybe even negative), but he had a favorite ditty, probably from his Army days, that he'd regularly cut loose with, most likely after a few beers -

I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler, I'm a long way from home,
And if people don't like me, they can leave me alone.
I'll eat when I'm hungry and drink when I'm dry,
And if somebody don't shoot me, I'll live 'til I die.


So, those are some of my endearing memories of my dad.  Feel free to add your own below. . .

And, Happy Father's Day, to those of you fathers among my readers.  I will leave you with a saying that Jenn and I used to have on matching His-n-Hers, Mom-n-Dad sweatshirts:

If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy;
If Daddy ain't happy, ain't nobody cares. . .

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Middle School English Class. . .

8M, a 7th-grader about to turn 13, is having a lot of fun in his English class, just lately.  They're doing a unit on Poetry; his English teacher is a young woman who looks like she might not be much older than Middle School herself.  She's wonderfully creative, and puts across real joy and love for her subject, of which 8M, at least, seems to have caught a most virulent case.

She had them memorize two poems of their own choice.  8M asked Jenn and me what our favorite poems were; I told him Lewis Carroll's 'Jabberwocky' and Poe's 'The Bells' (inveterate lover of wordplay that I am; I thought about giving him 'I Am the Walrus', but wasn't sure if that would count as an actual poem).  Jenn gave him Rudyard Kipling's 'If'.  So the three of us spent a couple weeks memorizing all three poems, and had great fun doing so.

The class held a 'tournament' of everyone's favorite poems.  The teacher paired off the poems, and the class voted on which one of each pair they liked, one round every day.  Alas, 8M's poems were eliminated fairly early (evidently, our predilection for whimsical wordplay is not widely shared; pity).  The ultimate winner was a limerick by Ogden Nash (which seems about right for a middle school class):

A flea and a fly in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
     Said the fly, "Let us flee!"
     "Let us fly!" said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

I love limericks. . .

Another recent assignment asked 8M to write a statement describing himself in three words.  He wrote, "I am a rebel," and showed if to 6F, who was standing nearby.  She looked at it and said, "But that's four words."  8M just looked at her, grinning. . .

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Seven Stanzas at Easter

Seven Stanzas at Easter by John Updike
(yes, that John Updike) (really)

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell's dissolution did not reverse,
          the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths
          and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That - pierced - died, withered,
          paused and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable,
          a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages;
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality
          that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck's quanta,
          vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour,
          we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Did Not See This Coming. . .

I almost hate to break into Holy Week with something so mundane as my sporting interests, but. . .

My Spartans are back in the Final Four, for the seventh time in Coach Izzo's 20-year tenure.  This has got to be the most improbable of all his Final Fours, or any of the others in the history of my alma mater (both of 'em).  We graduated a decorated group of players from last year's team, and this had all the earmarks of a rebuilding season.  We just didn't have the kind of players that make deep tournament runs (I mean, heck, we lost to Texas Southern in December - at home!).  Even as late as February, there were serious questions as to whether our string of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (this is our 18th) would be coming to an end this year.  But things came together in the waning weeks of the season, and we made a solid showing in the conference tournament.

We got a 7th seed in the NCAAs, which seemed a tad low, by the time we got there (but only a tad; I thought we deserved a 6th seed, or maybe a 5th).  We duly won our first round game, and then threw a complete defensive blanket over Virginia, a highly-ranked team who won the regular-season championship of the vaunted ACC.  In the next two rounds, we came from behind in both games to pull out gritty, hard-fought victories.

And now we are in the Final Four.  Again.  We play Duke this Saturday, and we don't exactly have a long track record of success against them (Coach Izzo's teams have beaten Duke exactly once in nine tries); and they hung a ten-point loss on us back in November, just to reinforce the point.  But, you know, that was then, and this is now.  And even if we should somehow beat the Dookies, Kentucky is looming, and the conventional wisdom says that nobody can beat Kentucky this year.  But, you know, once you get to the rarefied air of the Final Four, you never know what might happen.  And no matter what happens, it's been a heckuva ride already.  So, we shall see what we shall see. . .


And, just for fun, there's this. . .

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Lest There Be Any Illusions. . .

This is what the Mediterranean Sea looked like in the aftermath of the 21 Coptic Martyrs.

"With their minds fixed on Christ, they despised the tortures of this world and purchased eternal life at the cost of one hour". . . (from The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 2nd century AD)

"Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell."  (The Gospel According to St. Matthew; chapter 10, verse 28)

Or, as Tertullian might have said, way back in the 3rd century - seed for the gospel, right there. . .

And I am still a Nazarene. . .