Leap Days, Years and Seconds

Leap Year 2012

2020 has an extra day because it is a leap year. This year has 366 days instead of 365. This year also will not begin and end on the same day of the week, as a “normal” non–leap year does. The extra day is February 29 – a day added nearly every four years to the calendar year.

Why? The short answer is that try as we do to control time, we need to adjust to keep our calendar aligned correctly with the astronomical seasons. The Earth’s orbit around the Sun takes approximately 365.25 days, so without this extra day, our Gregorian calendar would get out of sync.

A leap year is also known as an intercalary year or bissextile year and a year that is not a leap year is a common year.

This is for the Gregorian calendar. It’s a lot more complicated if we get into other calendars. In the lunisolar Hebrew calendar, Adar Aleph, a 13th lunar month, is added seven times every 19 years to the twelve lunar months in its common years to keep its calendar year from drifting through the seasons.  Complicated. In the Bahá’í Calendar, a leap day is added when needed to ensure that the following year begins on the March equinox.

A long time ago, Leap Day was known as “Ladies Day” or “Ladies’ Privilege,” as it was the one day when women were free to propose to men. One tradition today is called Sadie Hawkins Day which sometimes applies to February 29 and allows ladies to ask men for a date or dance.

Two questions that puzzled me about leap years: 1) Why is it called a “leap” year?   2) What happens if your birthday is on February 29 and you only have that birthday every 4 years?

In the Gregorian calendar, a fixed date normally advances one day of the week from one year to the next. January 1 this year was on Wednesday and normally the following year it would be on Thursday.  But in the 12 months following the leap day (March 1 – February 28 of the following year) the day will advance two days due to the extra day. So, next year January 1 and the other days will “leap” over one day in the week. January 1 will leap over Thursday and be on Friday next year.

A person born on February 29 is sometimes called a “leapling” or a “leaper.” In common years, they usually celebrate their birthdays on February 28, but it could be celebrated on March 1 since that is the day after February 28. Though a leaper might claim to be only a quarter of their actual age (by counting only their leap-year birthday anniversaries). For legal purposes, these birthdays depend on how local laws count time intervals.

At the end of 2016, there was a “leap second” added to the year to correct the length of a day into Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). This tiny insertion adjusts because of variations in Earth’s rotational period. Leap seconds are not regular things because variations in the length of the day are not entirely predictable.

And though you won’t hear anything like the madness that surrounded the Y2K bug, leap years can present computing problems if the 366th day or February 29 is not handled correctly.

The State of Surveillance Revisited

camerasA surveillance state is a country where the government engages in pervasive surveillance of large numbers of its citizens and visitors. Do we live in a surveillance state? Some would argue that we do, but it’s not like living in Russia or China. But do YOU live in a state of surveillance?

I wrote about this topic here last year and the topic continues to be in the news. Surveillance is often pushed as necessary to fight terrorism. That’s the big one right now, but it is also touted as a way to prevent crime.

droneIn the worst surveillance states, it is used to control the population, especially when there are protests and social unrest. Even in the best states, surveillance on a massive scale threatens privacy rights, civil and political rights and freedoms.

Thankfully, it seems that the worst of surveillance hasn’t hit America yet because there are legal, constitutional protections.

In 2013, Edward Snowden’s global surveillance disclosure freaked a lot of people out on both sides of the issue – those shocked by what was being done to them and those shocked that the secrets were being made public.

My earlier post had been inspired by an interview with Andrew Ferguson (author of The Rise of Big Data Policing) that points out that Amazon and other companies have “allowed” us to create a surveillance state around our lives and, as Ferguson says, “somehow as consumers we seem okay with giving up this information to a private company.”

That is the part that is really frightening to me. We are creating our own surveillance state. We are giving up our privacy voluntarily  – although companies and the government are quite willing to help.

We should watch what is happening in China as a cautionary story.  Their city surveillance systems scan facial features of people on the streets and match this information against scanned faces of “suspects” in government databases.

China is not unique. Many countries have added thousands of surveillance cameras, especially in urban areas. That includes the U.S.  The ACLU said back in 2017 that we are “in danger of tipping into a genuine surveillance society.”

Clearview has been working with law enforcement agencies to match photos of unknown faces to people’s online social media photos which it is legally collecting…



The Parable of the Elephant

The parable of the elephant (I call it that – it seems to have other names too) is supposed to have originated in the Indian subcontinent a long time ago, but it has been passed down in other forms.  You may have heard it in a classroom used as a teachable moment or parable. I heard it in a workshop presentation.

examining the elephant
Blind monks examining an elephant, an ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724).

One version of the story:

Four blind people come upon an elephant in the forest. But they have never had any experience with an elephant. Each person attempts to determine what is before them.
The first person touches and explores the elephant’s trunk. “It is like a snake.” 

“There is a column,” says the next explorer leaning on the huge leg.
Feeling a bit threatened, the elephant trumpets an alarm. “It’s like a horn.” 
The elephant starts moving away and the fourth person freezes in place. “It’s an earthquake!”

The story is ancient and the first recorded version of the story may be in a Buddhist text (Udana 6.4) dated to about the mid-first millennium BCE.

In the many variations you can find, the people are monks, all men, genderless people (the one I use here), children and even modern-day scientists. Some versions have the elephant’s tusk being like a spear or the leg like a tree trunk. I found an alternate version of the parable with sighted men encountering a large statue in total darkness or being blindfolded as an experiment.

And what is the moral or lesson?

Generally, the moral of the parable is that humans tend to claim absolute truth based on their own limited and subjective experiences.   Further, we also sometimes ignore other people’s equally subjective experiences – all of which might have some validity.

The story is used to illustrate how the “truth” is what we have determined by our own incomplete experience without taking into account other people’s experiences and additional observation and information.

In a more moralistic sense, the story points to approaching new things with greater empathy and putting ourselves “into other people’s shoes.”

In the 19th century, the American poet John Godfrey Saxe created his own version as a poem. That version concludes with an actual moral stated that explains that the elephant is a metaphor for God. The blind men represent religions that disagree on something no one has fully experienced.

I heard this story in a workshop presentation as a way of illustrating systems thinking. That interdisciplinary study looks at interrelated and interdependent parts which can be natural or human-made. Systems are “bounded by space and time, influenced by its environment, defined by its structure and purpose, and expressed through its functioning.”

In the presentation I heard, the story was about networks, the Internet and the World Wide Web.

In that “web of life” way, we know now that changing one part of a system will affect other parts or the whole system, and that a system may be more than the sum of its parts. It can express synergy or emergent behavior. The system could also be a natural environment and the people who live in and near it, such as a wetland.

The more modern uses of the story use it in ways unknown and unintended by the original storytellers, but the moral is broadly the same: we need to seek the truth through the observations of ourselves combined with those of others before we conclude what that truth might be.


The Sad But Romantic Origin of St. Valentine’s Day

hearts pxhere

Valentine’s Day, the day on which we celebrate Romantic (capital R), has a rather sad – though Romantic – origin.

The legend of Valentine is from the time of Emperor Claudius II. He was having problems getting enlistments to his struggling army, so he forbade single men to get married in order to prevent romantic ties from encouraging enlisting in the army.

An early Christian priest, Valentine, saw this as an injustice and so performed secret wedding rituals in defiance of the emperor. When Valentine was discovered, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death by beheading.

While awaiting execution, he fell in love with the daughter of a prison guard, who would visit him. On the day of his death, Valentine left a note for the young woman professing his undying devotion and he signed  it “Love, from your Valentine.”

Father Valentine was made a saint and martyred on February 14 in 269 A.D.

And so began a tradition. Approximately 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged, and that doesn’t include the packaged kids’ valentines for classroom exchanges. That makes Valentine’s Day the second-largest holiday for giving greetings cards after Christmas.

In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France Australia, Denmark, and Italy.

4 Reasons Why I Dislike and Like Lists


I am a list maker. In fact, I make way too many lists. I have multiple TO DO lists of things that I need to do around the house, out in the garden, things I want to blog about, even lists of movies and TV shows that I want to watch.

Though I still make lists on paper, I keep lots of lists on my phone these days: things to buy at the store, restaurants to try in various cities, donations for taxes, sights to see and more. I even have a list of lines or ideas for poems that (embarrassingly) has 300+ items.

Obviously, I like lists. But I also dislike them. For example, that Things To Do Around the House list is a constant reminder of things I have NOT done. There are items on that list that have been there for several years (paint the garage door, caulk and paint the foundation, replace the bathroom window trim, and clean out the basement and garage. (Luckily, I don’t have an attic.) Even the lists of unread books, unwatched movies and places to visit – which are things I enjoy doing – are a reminder of things NOT done.

I also dislike lists that are opinions. The end of the year and January are full of “Best of” lists. They rarely agree with each other. Every critic and person with a blog has the best: films, books, TV shows, foods, websites, beaches, vacation spots, cities…  Pick a category and there is a list for it. I was told that blog posts and articles that start with a number get more views. (Hence this post’s title – let’s see if it works.)

There are some very official lists that are attached to awards. In aggregate, the Golden Globes, Oscars, SAG and New York and Los Angeles Film Critics lists should give you a pretty good sampling of movies to watch. The same goes for some book awards – although the list of best-selling books or biggest moneymaking films generally tells me things to avoid.

So why do I like lists?  Those annoying “best” lists can guide you to some things you might have missed. If five critics all put a book on their best list and it wins the Pulitzer, Booker or some other big award, it’s probably worth checking out.

My personal lists are actually useful because I do forget things more these days. Those shopping lists (food store, Home Depot, clothing) are necessary reminders fo those rare times when I venture into a store or more likely are searching online.  The garden things I never did last spring or summer are still there for this spring and summer. I have started putting some lists on my phone/computer calendar so that they repeat at intervals and send me notifications and emails.

Oh, You’re a Character From That Book

I have had a long fascination with word and name origins. As a soon-to-be first-time grandfather, I have become more interested in baby names.

Julie Beck, a senior editor at The Atlantic, wrote a piece I found about people naming babies after characters from fiction. which was something I never considered when naming my sons, but I did consider in naming pets.

I know several boys who are named Atticus after the beloved father in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus’ halo got a bit tarnished when that prequel/sequel by Harper Lee was published in 2016.

I suspect that the novel got at least a few babies to be named Scout too. I know of Scout LaRue Willis who is the daughter of actors Demi Moore and Bruce Willis. I don’t think Jem was ever a popular name and the same goes for Boo. (Although my son, Drew, was called Boo when he was very young, though it had nothing to do with the novel.)

As Beck points out, “Naming a child after a fictional character is a high-stakes proposition. Like naming a kid for a family member, it can be more meaningful than just picking a name out of a baby book, but it also comes with much more baggage.”

little women
The 4 March girls of Little Women (2019)

She cites a family with three girls named Amy, Meg, and Laurie Jo (AKA Jo). It’s Little Women for sure and perhaps parents and friends might even look to see if the girls pick up any of the characteristics of the characters (who were based on real people). Shouldn’t have gone for another child so that they could have a Beth?

I suspect that if any boys named Atticus end up being lawyers, they will never lack for jokes and jabs at their name. And will people pay attention to Jo (Josephine in the book) for any signs of her being stubborn, hot-tempered or “boyish”?

With yet another film version of Little Women out now and getting Oscar attention, there will probably be some babies named after characters in the book.   Maybe some mother will be nicknamed Marmee. The “boy next door” is Laurie, whose real name is Theodore Laurence. I doubt that any 2020 boys will want to be named Laurie even if their given name is some version of Laurence.

Books, movies, TV shows and celebrities all bring attention to names and sometimes cause a jump in babies getting that name.

Might a Khaleesi baby become a Queen – or a despot?

The article notes examples of babies named Bailey (from a character on the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati)  a Calvin (named for the main character in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes), Jolenes (named after the Dolly Parton song -where Jolene is a husband-stealer) and a bunch of babies who will carry the name of a character from Game of Thrones into the world, such as Khaleesi.

Samantha Stevens
Samantha babies, even if witchy, would be good witches, right?

Samantha was not a popular name until 1964 when the lovable witch of TV’s Bewitched debuted.

And Samantha’s TV daughter was named Tabitha which certainly had not on any top baby names lists before she was “born” in 1966.

I loved that show and I thought Tabitha was a totally invented name. It turns out that it is a girl’s name of Aramaic origin meaning “gazelle.” I knew it as the name of one of Beatrix Potter’s storybook characters who is a cat (Tabitha Twitchet) and it was the name of one of my neighbor’s cats, though we called her Tabby. I suspect the show’s writers made that cat-witch connection. Less likely was that the writers were going for a character in the Bible who was restored to life by Saint Peter. Actors Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick bestowed it upon one of their twin daughters. I don’t know why they picked it. The other twin is Marion.


I will become a grandfather for the first time this spring. Of course, I have gotten tuned in to names for girls though I have no idea what names are being considered (big secret) by her parents. I know it’s an important choice. With my two sons, we went with family-connected first and middle names. That is still a tradition for many parents.

Barbie and Ken
Barbie and Ken out for a drive in their beach cruiser

My mother went with my name Kenneth and my sister’s Karen because she liked having two “K’ initials and also liked the meaning of the names as listed in those baby name books. Kenneth is of Scotch-Irish origin, of which I have not a drop of DNA and it means “born of fire and handsome.” Growing up I knew several other Kenneths and it probably peaked in popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. We had to deal with Ken being the name of Barbie’s (the doll) boyfriend and dream date. More than once, other girls tried to set me up with a Barbara classmate. I’m not sure if Barbie caught on at the same time as a girl’s name.

My youngest son started a website called What’s in a Name? when he was 11 as a contest entry project. It included a section on popular baby names, so we both did a lot of research on the topic back then. I took over the site and revamped it into Why Name It That? and I still try to write weekly entries about interesting names. Besides first names, I am fascinated by origins and etymologies of the names of bands, product names, place names, titles, sports teams and the origins of any words and phrases that catch my interest.

On my names site, one of the most pages is about “sexy” first names. I wonder if parents-to-be are looking there? Certainly, many parents today are looking for names that are distinctive and set their child apart in a good way. Sometimes that is done with a different spelling – Zooey becomes Zoe. Even the ever-popular Michael has many variations: Miska, Mikael, Misha, Mikel, Micha, Miquel, Mikhail, Mikkel, Mischa, Mica, Michon, Meical, Miguel, Mikael, Mikko, Micho, Mihangel, Misi, and Michel all appear on name lists. I even discovered an interesting crossover of first names that are used as street names.

There are many books about names and websites popular with expectant parents searching for a name, and people who want to know what their name means and where it originated.