Friday, December 15, 2006

Just Do It

[The subsidized apartment building I live in is called The Union Hotel. It's run by DESC, Seattle's Downtown Emergency Service Center. All the residents have been homeless. I write a column for the monthly building newsletter. The column is called Out of My Mind. I'm posting them here, properly dated, because I can. -- wes]

I love solstices, I love solstice times, and I love solstice related facts!

Here’s a fun solstice fact. Your Union Calendar says winter solstice happens this year on Dec. 22! That’s misleading!

You would think the Union Hotel Calendar would tell you when the winter solstice is going to happen at the Union Hotel. But our calendar is geared to Greenwich Mean Time. The winter solstice in fact happens about 20 minutes past midnight, just barely into December 22, IN LONDON. But Seattle clocks are eight hours behind London’s, so here it happens at 4PM plus about twenty, THE PREVIOUS DAY! Isn’t that interesting?

OK, so maybe that doesn’t shake everybody’s tree. I’ll try to make it up to you by telling a fun solstice-related story of prolonged bureaucratic stupidity. I’m speaking of course of the Swedish switch from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar.

As you know, the winter solstice always happens about the same time every year. This is no accident. Astronomers and mathematicians put in endless sixteen hour days for 16 centuries, just so you and I could have a modern Gregorian Calendar that keeps solstices from wandering, instead of a crummy old-fashioned Julian calendar that lets solstices drift backwards by three days every 400 years.

The Gregorian calendar was the Metric System of its day. Cool countries switched to it. Spain switched to it right away in 1582. Transylvania switched in 1590. Norway switched in 1700. Sweden HAD to be as cool as Norway. But it would not be.

Like the United States, which has been switching to Metric since the seventies, Sweden decided that switching all at once would hurt too much, so they decided to do it piecemeal.

Doing it piecemeal meant skipping leap days every four years for decades, so that for half a century Sweden would be in synch with no one. Not with the cool countries, like Norway, that had the guts to switch all at once, and not with the uncool countries, that hadn’t switched at all.

But it gets worse. After they put this plan into motion they promptly forgot about it, and didn’t follow through on it. So Sweden not only was out of synch with the rest of the world for years, but at the end of it they still had to get in synch the hard way, all at once, just like everyone else.