Numinations — February, 1999

The Duct Tape Solution to Y–nK

© 1999, by Gary D. Campbell

Transition into a new millenium does catch our attention. The two big issues are the Y2K problem and when we should actually celebrate the passage of 2,000 years. Both involve the sudden appearance of zeros. The duct tape approach to fixing problems is much like debugging computer programs. It is therefore apropos to most of the Y2K problems (either as a cause, or for finding a solution, take your choice). I’ve been told that duct tape is really quite awful for fixing ducts. In fact, most of us have never needed to fix a duct, but we all have a roll of duct tape, and probably use it more than once a year to fix some kind of problem. The best (and not always the most expensive) solution to fixing a problem is to buy or design a brand new solution to it. It is always with the hope that we can fix a problem cheaply for the present that we go the duct tape route.

I’ve tried, and I simply can’t get my “Numinator” around Y2K problems. My opinion is that all the problems that remain in computer code when the year rolls over from 99 to 00 will cause fewer direct effects on the economy or people’s personal lives than the O. J. Simpson trials, Clinton’s impeachment, or the Superbowl. However, there may be indirect effects due to the irrational actions that seem to accompany people’s anticipation of the unknown. There ought to be ways to protect against, or profit from, these actions, but I can’t convince myself that the risk or reward would be worth very much, so I’ve pretty much given up on the subject. I expect it to play out about the same as the various predictions of doom and Armageddon that have occurred in the past. The date passes, nothing happens, and everyone forgets that yet another prophesy has failed to materialize. People love prophesy. Only one in a thousand has to come true for us to give a little credence to each new one that comes along. This says a lot more about our psychology than it does about the validity of prophesy.

However, what does seem worth “Numinating” about is how we count the years. We use numbers for several different purposes. Counting and measuring are two of the most basic. Two others that spring to mind are ordering and positioning. Ordering is simply an extension of counting, and positioning is an extension of both ordering and measurement.

Counting was probably why numbers were invented in the first place. Counting involves the cardinal numbers, one, two, three, and so forth. Initially, there is no need for the number zero. When we count things, we start with one, and order isn’t important. The result is the number reached when all of the things have been counted exactly once. For a long time it might have been pretty important to be able to say things like, “there are ten people here, we need to go pick ten apples so that each person gets one apple.” Sooner or later, however, someone is going to compare a group of ten people to a pile of apples and say, “there are ten people here and nine (or eleven) apples in that pile.” They are then on the doorstep of integer arithmetic. They have the opportunity to generalize being so many short or long of the number exactly needed. When differences are considered, we need negative numbers and zero. After addition and subtraction, the usefulness of numbers increases with the invention of multiplication, and it increases still further with division, which brings along with it the concept of fractions.

Order is a fundamental part of our psychology. “We are Number One!” Ever heard that before? “You first” or “me first” are always decision points for us. Who comes in first, second, or third is reported all the time. These are ordinal numbers; they are used to order things.

Counting is the simplest kind of measurement. It measures things that come in wholes, things that when split lose all or some of their important qualities. Other things may be split or divided to a considerable extent and still retain all of the qualities that define them. These things are not counted, they are measured. There is a real difference here that can confuse us unless we give it some thought, or better yet, some Numination. Unlike counting, where the first number is one, when we measure something, we always start with zero. We move from zero until we reach the first unit of measurement, then to the second unit, and so on. When we were just counting things, we didn’t need units. Cardinality, all by itself, may be an attribute of something. For example, ten is the same attribute for a pile of apples as it is for a group of people. Ten, however, is not the same attribute for weight as it is for time. Weight and time are measured. Ten is meaningless in both cases unless we specify units such as pounds for weight or seconds for time. And, when we do, ten of one has no relation to ten of the other, unless we put them together as complex units, such as pounds per second.

Positioning involves measuring something that has an inherent order, such as position on a line (or a date in time). We assign the number zero to one end of the line, and count the units of measurement to the other end to give it a number. Now we find that the first interval is the one between zero and one, the second is between one and two, and so on. The “cardinal” number of the interval is the integer part of any measurement within that interval. The first interval must therefore be numbered zero. This may be stretching the concept of cardinality, but it does not violate it. Assigning the cardinal number one to any point before the first unit was complete, would violate the concept. You have to reach your first birthday – only then are you one year old.

One way to clearly see the difference between the cardinal and ordinal number of something is to consider centuries. Years that begin with 19xx are typically part of the 20th century. A date from history, such as 1776, was part of the 18th century. Now, if we were measuring miles on an odometer, there would be no question that the odometer would start at zero, the first mile would be complete when the odometer rolls over from 0.9 to 1.0, and the 2000th mile would be complete when it rolls over from 1999.9 to 2000.0. Properly, the year “zero” should be like the mile we travel when the odometer goes from 0.0 to 0.9. That’s a clean solution. A duct tape solution is where you say that all the years that begin with 19xx, except 1900, are part of the 20th century (and so forth). This exception came about by allowing years to follow a different rule than numbering decades, centuries, and millenia. The cardinal number of a year was paired with its ordinal number, as if years were something you only named, but didn’t measure.

The arrival of the third millenium will no doubt be celebrated when those zeros roll into view. This will occur at midnight, on the last day of the year 1999. Perhaps this celebration will help remove the duct tape that some still consider proper, from the way we count our years. Most of those doing the celebrating will have no idea that they are simply following the conventional logic of counting. They won’t realize that a duct tape solution, imposed centuries ago, implied that years ending in 00 are supposed to be part of the previous century, rather than the next.

Now, expanding this Numination further into the realm of duct tape fixes, I propose that we altogether do away with our current (two) methods of numbering years. The first, that of numbering years with only two digits, got us our Y2K problem. The second is calling next year the “year 2000” in the first place. For most of the world, 2000 is not a particularly meaningful number, and that’s why it is now politically correct to call it the year 2000 CE (for Common Era). My proposal is to use three digits for the current year (next year would roll over from 999 to 000). Unlike a hundred year cycle, a thousand year cycle would be sufficient to rewrite all contracts, re-measure all land and territory, and exceed the lifespan of any entity or person. Three digits, can be made to reach five hundred years into the past and five hundred years into the future. Anything about to pass more than five hundred years into the past would become legally invalid, and would pass into the realm of ancient history. At that point it would be dated with six digits. There would be no need for BC, AD, BCE, or CE.

A six-digit date would be given to any event that happened during the era of man. We are currently positioned at year 249,999 (according to current scientific estimates, plus a slight bias to line up those last three digits). However, instead of writing all six digits (unless the last three are known to be perfectly accurate), we would simply round the current year to 250K.

Finally, a twelve-digit date would be given to cosmic events, such as when the sun and earth were formed, or when the dinosaurs became extinct. On this time line (allowing for plenty of cosmological slack), let’s call this the year 100,000,249,999. That puts the absolute beginning of time about 80 to 90 billion years earlier than any event so far conceived by our science. Again, instead of writing all twelve digits, we would simply write the first six and tack on the suffix M (for million), or only the first three and tack on the suffix G (to indicate billion). Thus, according to most cosmologists, the universe began in the year 85G (15 billion years ago). The dinosaurs died out in the year 99,933M (about 67 million years ago).

And now you have the solution to the Y-nK problem (and, yes, I realize it’s pure duct tape).

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