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.

Timequakes

“There is a planet in the Solar System where the people are so stupid they didn’t catch on for a million years that there was another half to their planet.” – Kilgore Trout

The timequakes keep happening to me in my reading and viewing.

I finished Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. which is a tough book to categorize. It is labeled as a novel and there are some parts credited to Kilgore Trout that are stories or fragments of stories. But Kurt enters frequently as himself adding passages that are autobiographical. It is a bit of a memoir, but since he treats fictional author Trout as a real person that he interacted with in life, the line is blurry.

“And so it goes…”

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. published this in 1997 and it is his last “novel.” He died in 2007. Vonnegut described the book as a “stew” and it is that. Less of a novel and more of him summarizing a novel he had been trying to put together for years.

All that makes it sound like the book is a mess, but it’s not. I enjoyed it. Not as much as his other novels but three-star Vonnegut is still more enjoyable than a lot of other writing.

“And so it goes…”

What is a timequake? It is a repetition of actions. A quake in the continuum of Time.

The timequake in the book has quaked citizens of the year 2001 back in time to 1991. This global time travel is Einsteinian in that everyone is forced to repeat every action they undertook during that time. Kilgore Trout writes all over again every story he wrote the first time

So, in this story, Vonnegut is pondering free will, which after the timequake does not exist. Maybe it didn’t exist before. Vonnegut has explored determinism in earlier works.

“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.”

Kilgore Trout is a fictional character created by Vonnegut who is an unsuccessful author of paperback science fiction novels. We are told here that Trout died in 2001, at the Xanadu retreat in Rhode Island. Perhaps Kurt knew that his own end was near or was just thinking and preparing for it.

He said that he wasn’t happy with the first version of this book and so he went back and rewrote it and included more of his personal thoughts, anecdotes about his family and death. The deaths of Trout and also loved ones, and the last words of people.

He also brings in lots of depression and sadness that comes from observing our own bad choices and those of other people. There might be some relief after the timequake because then we would know that there was no free will. You can’t blame yourself for what happens if you don’t have the tree will to make those decisions. Can you?

“I didn’t need a timequake to teach me being alive was a crock of shit. I already knew that from my childhood and crucifixes and history books.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake

Vonnegut has played with time before. People famously became “unstuck” in time in Slaughterhouse-Five, and here people have to watch loved ones die again. A drunk driver will again get drunk and cause a fatal accident.

When the timequake ended you might think people were happy, but no. Now they have control, free will, and it’s all up to them to screw up on their own.

“And so it goes…”

Kilgore Trout is not as sad or apathetic as others and he keeps telling people “You were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do.”

“My wife thinks I think I’m such hot stuff. She’s wrong. I don’t think I’m such hot stuff.
My hero George Bernard Shaw, socialist, and shrewd and funny playwright, said in his eighties that if he was considered smart, he sure pitied people who were considered dumb. He said that, having lived as long as he had, he was at last sufficiently wise to serve as a reasonably competent office boy.
That’s how I feel.”

* All quotations are Kurt Vonnegut

Time Travel, Pascal and Novel Synchronicities

Time travel has been moving in and out of my life this summer. There were two books I read and one series I watched that had me thinking again about this topic. Time travel has long been an interest of mine.  I posted here two days ago about the right to be forgotten online and rereading it this morning I see a connection in that revisionist history to time traveling to change the past.

I kept a journal in college that I filled with quotations that caught my fancy. There were many from the literature courses I took as an English major, but there were also ones from history and philosophy classes. One that has stuck with me over these many years is “You can’t change anything without changing everything” which I credited to Blaise Pascal.

Pascal
Pascal

Blaise Pascal was a 17th-century French scientist, author, and Christian philosopher who is best known for his work, “Pensées” or “Thoughts.”

The book is a classic but, probably like my own book that will be a classic one day, it was first published posthumously.

Pensées is an edited compilation of the notes that he had made for a book he planned to write. Scholars call that unfinished book “Apology for the Christian Religion.” The religion doesn’t much appeal to me and though I looked into the book in college, I’m sure I never actually read it.

I looked back into Pensées this summer because I wanted to find context for that quotation. I couldn’t find it. I found lots of other Pascal quotes I know and appreciate:
“The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.”
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

But I didn’t find the quote I was looking for. An online search for it showed those words being used by people but the only credit I could find was to William James.

Still, the quote is important to me. It is why I try not to have regrets for the choices I have made. I don’t mean clearly bad choices, foolish like buying a loser stock or eating two more slices of pizza. I mean not regretting things that in my timeline would change everything – that decision to go to a certain college; moving to a new home; taking a new job; choosing a spouse. Changing any of those things changes an almost infinite number of subsequent events in ways good or bad that we can never predict.

Changing the past is a major plot driver in time-travel fiction. Overwhelmingly, changing the past changes the future (or the time traveler’s present) in ways that were unintended and generally bad.

Maybe the line of Pascal’s that connected with me this time around is “You always admire what you really don’t understand.” I don’t understand much of the science of studying time (I’m not sure scientists really understand it either.) but I am fascinated by it.  I’m convinced we need and want to time travel and so it appears in many books, movies and on TV.

Albert Einstein said that “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

The big book I read this summer is Stephen King’s 11/22/63. which had been recommended by several friends who know I like time travel books.

I am a slower reader these days, or rather, I read in shorter blocks of time. I no longer spend an entire afternoon in a chair reading. I am more likely to read for twenty minutes before falling asleep or even more likely to listen to an audiobook while driving or walking.

I wish I had the audiobook for this 800+ page novel because it took me two renewals from the library to finish. But I’m glad that I read it.

You can tell from the title that this concerns the assassination on November 22, 1963 in Dallas of President Kennedy. King is certainly not the first or last person to think about what if he could have been saved. Other common revisions to our timeline are history-changing things like killing Hitler.

I like that the novel does not rely on any sci-fi technology for the protagonist to travel back in time. I also like the idea that each time he (or anyone) goes back and changes anything, it leaves a mark. Also that each trip back resets the timeline and whatever you might have changed the last time is back to what it was before.

In King’s version, the past is obdurate, stubbornly refusing to change. Time even makes attempts to stop the protagonist from making changes. It is said that history does not repeat but it rhymes. (A line often credited to Mark Twain but probably not of his invention.) King seems to follow that idea.

The plot center on Jake Epping, a 35-year-old high school English teacher in Maine, who is given the time travel secret by Al, who runs the local diner. That diner is a time portal to 1958 and only to one day in that year. When you return through the portal, only a few minutes in the present of June 2011 have passed. Al is dying and wants Jake to continue his mission to go back to 1958 and work his way to that day in 1963, and along the way determine if  Lee Harvey Oswald was really the lone shooter. And then stop him. Al is convinced this will change the world in many positive ways.

I won’t give spoilers about the success of that mission, which Jake does accept after a few shorter time excursions that do seem to work.

There is a mini-series on Hulu of the novel. I watched it. It makes a lot of changes to King’s story, but if you’re unwilling to read that big book, maybe you can watch the series.

As I said, these what-if scenarios occur in both our own lives and in the lives of characters in fiction. What if America and the Allies had not won World War II? That is one that played out in Philip K. Dick’s novel (and a Netflix adaptation still running) The Man in the High Castle.

And on a far less serious journey, I was charmed by Michael J. Fox’s movie time traveling back and forth to the future.

One thing I observe is that both in fiction and science traveling to the future seems less possible than traveling to the past.

Then more recently, a friend recommended that I read Recursion by Blake Crouch. This novel is also about revising timelines, this time with some heavy-duty technology.

In Crouch’s version of time, memory makes reality.  The time-traveling journeys here rely on the traveler’s memories of event. The changes cause what is known in that world as FMS – False Memory Syndrome. FMS is not the author’s invention. Though the term is not officially recognized as a psychiatric illness, the premise that memories can be altered by outside influences is accepted by scientists – though it is not caused by time travel. FMS haunts people with memories of a life they never lived.

At first, the successful tests of their technology seem innocent. Who wouldn’t want to re-experience sweet memories of first love or the birth of a child? Who wouldn’t want the chance to change something bad that happened, like an accident that killed someone you love?

What makes the FMS in the novel different is that friends and family of the afflicted also remember portions of the false lives.

These kinds of alternate-reality or revisionist histories can be very appealing because they play on our own desires to be able to somehow safely correct the past.

Despite my interest in time travel, I have not been invited to a time travelers’ party.   The few purported “real”  tales of a “time traveler” that I have read are not very satisfying. I don’t believe that Yoda was a time traveler.

Have I ever met a time traveler? Unfortunately, no, as Stephen Hawking asked, “Where are they?’  My answer is that if they have come back to out time from a future time, they cannot interact at all with us. They can make no changes. They are simply observers.

As Pascal said back in time, “Il n’est pas certain que tout soit incertain.” Luckily, my wife taught French, so I know that means “It is not certain that everything is uncertain.” Was he thinking about Time?

Has all this reading and watching changed my beliefs about Time? Perhaps yesterday (or tomorrow) never was.

I just started reading Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. The choice was not intentional. I had the book on reserve and it just became available. A coincidence. Unless there is no such thing as a coincidence.

It’s not a time travel novel but it is an alternate history. In the novel, Franklin D. Roosevelt loses the 1940 presidential election to that aviator hero Charles A. Lindbergh. Historically, Lindbergh was a fanatical rabid isolationist who wanted to avoid war. In the novel, negotiates an “understanding” with Adolf Hitler. His administration also embarks on an agenda of making America great again which includes anti-Semitism.

Roth based his novel on the views of real-life Lindbergh who was a spokesman for the America First Committee.  That was a pro-German propaganda group, which opposed American aid to Britain in its war against Germany. Lindbergh was no fan of FDR and he resigned his commission in the United States Army Air Forces in 1941 after President Roosevelt publicly rebuked him for his views. FDR said privately that ” I am absolutely convinced Lindbergh is a Nazi.”

As in other novels, the setting is Roth’s hometown of Newark, New Jersey. I was also born in Newark and grew up nearby – a connection with Roth that started me reading his books.

This novel is also being adapted for a forthcoming mini-series on HBO that was filmed this year in New Jersey.  I’ll read the book first. No audiobook, so give me some time and I’ll report back.

Your Right to Be Forgotten

painting
   The Past (forgotten-swallowed) by Alfred Kubin, 1901, via wikiart.org, Public Domain

I don’t think the vast majority of us want to be forgotten.

We do a lot of things to try to be remembered: take photos; post things on the Internet; have a headstone with our name. But there is this idea that what we do online never goes away, and some people would like that part of their life to be forgotten.

The Internet is forever. Maybe. Many people have posted things they regret. They delete it but somehow it still exists. Celebrities and politicians have learned that by the time you delete that stupid tweet the damage is done and other people have already copied and taken screenshots of it.

For younger people who have grown up with the internet and social media, the possibility of stupid/embarrassing/incriminating content is much higher since the filters in their brains had not matured.

A friend who deleted her Facebook profile recently discovered that friends were getting friend requests from her and that in a search her Facebook profile link still shows up.

Plus, there is “public information” about you online: phone numbers, addresses where you have lived and currently live, that DUI you got, and that political candidate donation you made.

Do we have a right to be forgotten online?

The “right to be forgotten” is something that is taken more seriously outside the U.S. It has been put into practice in the European Union.

It’s not an easy issue to decide. Your first thought might be that, of course, we should have the right to delete our own posts online. And what about content about us posted by others? There are immediate collisions between the right to freedom of expression and how it crosses with the right to privacy. Do you want politicians to be able to scrub their online history of things they said and regret,  or views they once had and have altered? Would a right to be forgotten diminish the quality of the Internet through censorship and revisionist history?

That is the focus of a Radiolab episode that looks at a group of journalists who are experimenting with being forgotten. They are unpublishing content – articles, photographs, names, entire articles – on a monthly basis.

As the Radiolab website says, this is a story about “time and memory; mistakes and second chances; and society as we know it.”

Time Perception

Clock-pendulum
seconds ticking away

Where did the weekend go? I looked here and it was Sunday night. No posts on Friday or Saturday. No drafts. Nothing in the queue.

It was not a overly busy weekend, but I did go out Friday night, and Saturday was an all day film conference. And then today I fixed the pump on the dishwasher (just clogged), went with a friend to a movie, and then had dinner, sat on the couch and looked at my laptop. Here I am.

Something happened to my perception of time this weekend. I have read that fear can make time seem to slow down. Is that a defense mechanism or it just that a fearful situation makes each moment unbearably long.

So would positive emotions make time speed up? Maybe, but stress is a negative emotion and it can speed up our perception of time.

So, I looked for some research and it seems that humans have no actual sensory instrument for receiving information about time. I mean we our brain is able to process time, and we have some kind of internal body clock.

I found that research often looks at emotion and time perception, but one study I found  has been designed to study the time perception of emotional events. Participants watched three emotional films: one eliciting fear, another sadness, and a neutral control film.

This seems all very clinical. Not at all like what I felt this weekend, but I don’t doubt that time perception is dependent on a number of factors, psychological and external.

Einstein

The story is told that Albert Einstein’s secretary was often asked tt explain to reporters and others the meaning of his scientific work and Einstein devised the following explanation for her to give when asked to explain relativity: An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour.

That feels like a better explanation, though it doesn’t explain the why of it.

Wikipedia says that “Time perception is a field of study within psychology, cognitive linguistics and neuroscience that refers to the subjective experience, or sense, of time, which is measured by someone’s own perception of the duration of the indefinite and unfolding of events. The perceived time interval between two successive events is referred to as perceived duration. Though directly experiencing or understanding another person’s perception of time is not possible, such a perception can be objectively studied and inferred through a number of scientific experiments. Time perception is a construction of the sapient brain, but one that is manipulable and distortable under certain circumstances.”

Ah yes, subjective time and objective time.

Maybe this is more like the question of “Where did the time go?” that hits middle-aged and older adults. Does time pass more quickly as we age? Of course not, but it seems that way and that is a time perception that can lead to regrets.

Another study that focused on this aspect concluded that our brain encodes new experiences, but not familiar ones, into memory, and our retrospective judgment of time is based on how many new memories we create over a certain period.

In simpler terms, the more new memories I built this weekend, the longer the weekend will seem in hindsight.

The author of the study dubbed this phenomenon the Holiday Paradox. Our childhoods and young adult years tend to be filled with more fresh experiences, but as we age our lives become more routine. There are fewer unfamiliar moments. This weekend went fast because it wasn’t filled with fresh experiences.

Is that it? I thought the film conference exposed me to new things. I have never taken apart a dishwasher pump before. Not fresh enough? Or was it that my Friday night to tonight was just crowded with one thing that went to another and I didn’t have time off to process the experiences?

My mother would have said when I was a kid that “Time flies when you’re having fun.” She and Einstein had that in common.

 

Time Is An Illusion

Despite the persistent ticking of clocks and our almost constant attention to time, quantum physics says it doesn’t even exist. Theoretical physicist  Carlo Rovelli writes that “There is no time variable in the fundamental equations that describe the world.” At the quantum level, durations are so short that they can’t be divided and there is no such thing as time.

And yet, he has spent most of his life studying time.

Rovelli’s book, The Order of Time, is about the way we experience the passage of time.

One of his premises is that chronology and continuity are stories we tell ourselves. We need these stories to make sense of our existence.

He asks tough – or maybe crazy – questions, such as “Why do we remember the past and not the future?”

These are questions for physicists and philosophers, but not ones most of us consider as we move through a time story from past to future that we think is uniform and universal.

His view is hard to grasp. His universe is made up of countless events. Things that happen and even physical “things” are in a continual state of transformation. No space nor time—only processes that transform physical quantities from one to another.

Time is our measure of change.

Rovelli’s short collection of essays, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, was a bestseller and one of the fastest-selling science books ever.

If all this seems out there, remember that Einstein said that our clock time is an illusion. Time zones – a 20th Century invention – was a business decision, not a fact of the universe. Einstein said that time passes at different rates from place to place. It passes faster at the top of a mountain than at sea level. Perhaps imperceptibly to us, a clock on the floor will move ever so slightly slower than a clock on top of the fireplace mantle.

Time’s passage is a mental process, a story we tell ourselves in the present tense. It’s your own story. It’s our collective story.

But I have trouble accepting all this when explanations keep saying things like “Time runs slower wherever gravity is strongest, and this is because gravity warps or curves spacetime.”  I guess Rovelli has to use the term “time” to explain that there is no time in the way that atheists need to talk about god in order to explain why there is no God.

Benedict Cumberbatch reading the opening of The Order of Time

“I stop and do nothing. Nothing happens. I am thinking about nothing. I listen to the passing of time. This is time, familiar and intimate. We are taken by it.
The rush of seconds, hours, years that hurls us towards life then drags us towards nothingness …
We inhabit time as fish live in water. Our being is being in time.
Its solemn music nurtures us, opens the world to us, troubles us, frightens and lulls us.
The universe unfolds into the future, dragged by time, and exists according to the order of time.”