Calendar critics say we ought to date around
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As we all know, New Year's Day fell on a Sunday this year.
And if Richard Henry and Steve Hanke had their way, it would fall on Sunday next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, instead of the Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday sequence we'll face under the 430-year-old Gregorian calendar that we now use.
Mr. Henry, an astrophysicist, and Mr. Hanke, an economist, are the latest in a long line of calendar reform advocates. Yes, the Johns Hopkins University professors say, we may be used to "30 days hath September, April, June and November" and having our birthdays fall on different days each year, but does it really make sense?
In their scheme, each quarter would consist of two 30-day months and one 31-day month, for a 364-day year. There would no longer be an extra day in February in leap years, as there is this year, but to keep the calendar aligned with the seasons, every fifth or sixth year, they would throw in an extra week at the end of December. (See a PG graphic of the Hanke-Henry permanent calendar.)
Over the past several decades, there have been many attempts to reform the annual calendar, none of which has made much headway.
The last serious assault was the World Calendar proposed in the 1950s by the United Nations.
Like the Hanke-Henry Calendar, the World Calendar would have had 364 days with equal quarters, but would have added one extra unnamed day a year, or two in leap years.
That ran afoul of Jewish and Christian leaders, who said the extra days would interfere with the required seven-day cycle between sabbaths, which was enough for the Eisenhower administration to shy away from the proposal.
The same problem had derailed an earlier attempt by George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak Co., to implement a calendar of 13 months of 28 days each. He, too, needed an extra day or two each year, and ran into the same religious opposition.
By periodically adding an extra week instead of extra days, the Johns Hopkins professors say their plan avoids that pitfall.
Mr. Henry, who normally studies ultraviolet background radiation in the universe, got involved in calendar reform about seven years ago, when he was revising his annual lecture class.
"Because of the calendar," he said, "I had to move each lecture by one day, and as I was doing this I made the dreadful mistake of thinking, 'Is this really necessary?' I quickly discovered this is totally unnecessary, but the answer had to be calendar reform, and if that isn't a waste of time, nothing is."
Despite his skepticism, his original plan got a huge burst of publicity, including interviews with German TV crews and Australian reporters.
This time around, he has been joined by Mr. Hanke, an economist, who has added a whole set of financial reasons why redoing the calendar would make sense.
Because the existing calendar is so complicated, Mr. Hanke said, lenders often use artificial time periods known as "day count conventions" to calculate interest on bonds.
One typical convention is pretending that the year is composed of 360 days with 30-day months, which means that some bonds pay three days of interest between Feb. 28 and March 1, rather than the one that actually occurs.
"I did a rough calculation once that if you looked at international and domestic bonds, these conventions meant you were talking about probable errors of about $130 billion a year," Mr. Hanke said. "This is not peanuts."
Some might wonder whether the entire calendar needs to be changed to fix problems like that one.
That's one reason Stephen Abbott, a freelance writer and public relations consultant in New Hampshire, has proposed a "gentler" revision that he calls the 30X11 calendar.
In his version, there would be 11 months of 30 days, which could start in any given year, and then December would have 35 or 36 days, depending on whether it was a Leap Year.
Unlike the Hanke-Henry plan, Abbott's dates wouldn't occur on the same day each year, but because the 30X11 is closer to the current calendar and yet makes it more rational, he thinks it has a better chance of being accepted.
"It's not a life changer for the world, but if it makes things a little bit easier, I think it's worth it," he said.
Does he think calendar reform is right around the corner?
"I'm hopeful, but I believe the chances are fairly dim," he said. "People don't like change, and frankly, a lot of the calendar reforms that are out there are pretty radical."
Rick McCarty agrees.
Mr. McCarty, a philosophy professor at East Carolina University who maintains a website on calendar reform, said "people continue to be interested in making a better calendar in the same way they want to make a better mousetrap."
But he said changing the calendar "doesn't matter to most people, unless you're somebody who is involved in one of these institutions that has to do the annual rescheduling."
Johns Hopkins' Mr. Hanke said he doesn't have a battle plan for implementing his calendar.
"You can't think of this like a Soviet-era economic planner," he said. "We've put it out there. We've followed the five p's -- prior preparation prevents poor performance -- and now we'll let it spontaneously take hold, and we think it has a good chance because it doesn't have this Sabbath problem."
Mr. McCarty doesn't know if he buys that assessment, but he does believe that some kind of calendar reform will eventually take place.
"I think it's more likely that several generations from now, we'll have calendars that no longer have months but where the weeks will be numbered, so you will know that your birthday is in week 24, or you may go to the supermarket shelf and see on a milk carton that it will expire in week 23, and at that point people will start to pick up on that and it will be adopted."
As with many other changes in modern society, incremental business practices may lead the way, he said.
"I think nobody today can make a calendar reform in the sweeping way that Julius Caesar or Pope Gregory did. The only person who is remotely able to do that now is Bill Gates. If Microsoft's calendar changed, I guess we'd all follow along."
For more information: http://personal.ecu.edu/mccartyr/calendar-reform.html.
First Published January 9, 2012 12:00 am