Thursday, 25 December 2008

Give us back our Bacchanalia!

What a mess our calendar is! The winter solstice would be the obvious day to celebrate the end of the year and the beginning of the new one, yet it passes with hardly anyone noticing. Instead, the pagan midwinter festival has been taken over by the Christians and moved to the 25th, with the new year starting a week after that and most activity closing down between the two. The attendant excesses of food and drink and family reunion are spread over eight days. Some people seem to like this arrangement, but many hate it. Non-Christians and people without homes or families can find it unbearable, but it is also the peak period for family breakdown.

The obvious solution would be to shift the beginning of the year and the official public holiday to coincide with the solstice, leaving the 25th for Christians. They needn't feel specially attached to that date, as no one knows when Jesus was born, and anyway Christmas is celebrated by Eastern Christians, according to the Julian Calendar, on January 7th. The giving of presents to children was imported from St Nicholas' (Santa Claus) Day, December 6th. A brutal way to make the change would be to chop eleven days out of one year, the way that Pope Gregory did. That was not popular, but a painless way to do it would be to miss out eleven leap years. Too bad for those with leap day birthdays, but they usually celebrate on the 28th anyway.

Of course, having a leap day in February is irrational; it makes the equinoxes and solstices jump to and fro. The right place for it would be at the end of the year (which is where it was when the year began on March 1st). For that matter, since we have uncoupled months from the moon, we might as well have 13 months of 28 days each; the days of the week could be absoultely regular, with every month starting on a Monday, plus an unnamed day at the end of the year (or two in a leap year). Still, calendar reform is terribly contentious, so we'd better stick with the months and leap days as they are.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Time out of joint

Today is the shortest day, so you may wonder why the sun set 2 minutes later than a week ago. On the other hand it rose about 4 minutes later. That's because our clocks do not keep time with the sun; we would need a sundial for that. The day is not exactly 24 hours, partly because the earth moves faster in its orbit when it is closest to the sun in early January, and partly because its axis is tilted. Anyway, sundial noon was at about 11.45 at the beginning of November and is now moving steadily forward, carrying sunrise and sunset with it, to reach about 12.15 in mid-February. Sundial time also moves back and forth in the summer, so our clocks are only right by the sun four times a year.

As for the moon, the Romans cut it out of their calendar more than 2000 years ago, and our "months" are not "moonths" at all. In fact it is one of only two major calendars that do not pay respect to both sun and moon: the other is the Islamic one of 12 lunar months, adding up to about 354⅓ days, so that dates drift round the seasons in a cycle of about 33 years. What a pity the early Christians were so eager to distance themselves from the Jews that they ditched the Jewish/Babylonian calendar, which was one of the first fruits of ancient astronomy. That's why Easter is so difficult to calculate.

It is such fun to keep track of the moon. Back in the 1970s there were lots of wrist-watches that showed its phases. Unfortunately, many of them did not keep time with the moon, which takes about 29½ days to go from new to new. Perhaps that is why people stopped buying them, so that now you need to trawl the internet to find a moon phase watch. I found a lovely one called the Tidemaster. As its name suggests, it can also be used to keep track of the tides. And I've often wondered whether the subtle daily variations of gravity do not affect our bodies...

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Unfair to dogs!

Surprise surprise! Dogs don't like being treated unfairly. A researcher has found that if dogs are not given the reward that they see given to other dogs they stop cooperating. I'm surprised it was thought worth doing the experiment. Unless dogs had minds totally different from ours they were bound to dislike unfairness. The same would surely be true of any social mammal. The technical term invented for this by the way is 'inequity aversion'.

What is astonishing is that so many people think that human society can be run with a level of unfairness beyond anything any other species has experienced. If the gap between the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless is too big, then of course the poor stop cooperating, beyond the bare minimum that they have to do to stay alive. In my lifetime we have gone from the extreme unfairness of the 1930s, through the increasing fairness of the post-war years and on to the record breaking unfairness of the past 30 years. If we do not greatly reduce the inequalities within and between countries, our world will fall apart in a chaos of war and plunder.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Lost years

The experts in Poznan have at last agreed that forests have to be included in the successor to the Kyoto treaty. This could have been decided 30 years ago. In 1978 I wrote an article 'Forestry for Carbon Dioxide Fixation', suggesting a world-wide programme of forest conservation, reforestation, density-based forest management and preservation of timber and wood products in use - using-forests-to-absorb-atmospheric.html In the thirty years since then, there would have been time to save large areas of forest from destruction, and newly planted trees could have fixed billions of tons of carbon.

All things are interlinked, and to save forests we need to reduce the areas needed for producing food. Even before the biofuels nonsense started, we were growing more and more oil-palms on deforested land in order to produce cooking oils, margarine etc. And large areas have been cleared of forests to make room for pasture or for land to produce fodder to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for animal protein to replace plant protein in human diets. Much of this increased food production is unsustainable and is helping to destroy the world's precious topsoil, estimated to be eroding at a rate of about 25 billion tons a year - nearly ten kilos a day for every man woman and child on the planet. Think what you eat!

Sunday, 7 December 2008

More weirdness

So the Bank of England's base rate is back where it started in 1694, at 2%. The only time it's stuck at that level was during the Great Depression and the World War in the 1930s and 40s. Amazing! The banks won't lend money because they lost so much in dodgy lending, so now you lower interest rates so that even more people will be clamouring for loans, but who is going to put their savings into banks, when the interest won't even compensate for inflation?!

Still, let's keep a sense of proportion. We in the rich West are not going to starve, but we are buying up land in poor countries to grow biofuel crops to keep our cars running, when the people in those countries are desperate for food. And that is on top of all the land in the tropics which is producing soya and maize to feed our cows and pigs and chickens. Actually we should farm something cold-blooded and slow moving, such as slugs, which don't waste half of the food they eat keeping warm and moving about. Or we could just eat soya!

Good news at least for gorillas: The U.N. has declared 2009 to be the Year of the Gorilla.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

What a week!

No sooner had one huge news story popped up than along came another. I suppose it's no longer news that the British Government is plunging into a programme of reckless public borrowing to solve a problem created by reckless private borrowing. Nor is there anything really new in sickening violence in Mumbai; we must just hope that governments will not give the terrorists what they want which is more war.

Well, at least the guards have been allowed back into Virunga National Park, though we don't yet know how many gorillas have survived. Charcoal burning is as big a problem as poaching, and with all those refugees desperate for fuel the pressure on the forest will increase.

And Mrs Obama is to have a diamond-encrusted rhodium ring. Why rhodium? Certainly not to give jobs to American workers, as it is being made in Italy. Presumably it is because it is the most expensive silvery metal; platinum would have done as well.

At least there was one unadulterated good news item: Paul McCartney endorsing vegetarianism as a contribution to reducing carbon emissions. The carnivores' spokesmen (all men so far) have leapt into action denying that British cows belch that much methane (it is belches, by the way, not farts); good! So we can forget about destruction of Brazilian rainforest to make room for soya to feed our cattle, and no need to worry about all that grazing land created around the world at the expense of forests!