Sunlit Water

February 29, 2008

Leaping Calendars

Filed under: Culture — by teofilo @ 12:01 pm

Today, as I’m sure you’re all aware, is Leap Day.  As such, this is a perfect opportunity to talk about a subject I recently had reason to look into a bit, namely the transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in early-modern Europe.

It’s widely known that the main difference between the two calendars is that in the Julian calendar every year divisible by 4 is a leap year, while in the Gregorian years divisible by 100 but not by 400 are not (so, for example, 2000 was a leap year but 2100 will not be).  This brings the Gregorian calendar significantly closer to the true length of the solar year, which is slightly less than 365.25 days.

What’s less well-known is that the primary reason for the change was not to bring the calendar back into alignment with the sun but to fix the date of Easter as close as possible to the date that had been set at the Council of Nicaea in 325.  The date of Easter was calculated based on a combination of the phase of the moon with the date of the vernal equinox, which the Julian calendar set on March 21.  Unfortunately, since the calendar was not perfectly aligned with the lunar year, March 21 began to drift further and further from the actual vernal equinox, bringing the calculated date of Easter further and further from where it had been placed at Nicaea.

By the sixteenth century the calendar was off by a full ten days, and the Council of Trent in 1563 decided that it needed to be fixed, not just by bringing it back in line but by changing it to more closely approximate the solar year so that it wouldn’t get as far off again.  The scheme that was adopted was developed by Aloysius Lilius and popularized by Christopher Clavius.  It involved skipping ten days to counteract the drift so far and replacing the old leap-year rule with the new one.  On February 24, 1582, Pope Gregory XIII issued the bull Inter gravissimas, which decreed that October 4, 1582, would be followed immediately by October 15, and that henceforth the new leap year rule would be used.

Note, however, that Gregory was a pope, not a king.  His authority outside of his own dominions, the Papal States, extended only to religious matters, and moreover was only recognized in Catholic countries.  He didn’t have the authority even in those countries to change the civil calendar, which was under the control of the civil authorities.  It therefore took a long time for the Gregorian calendar to be adopted throughout Europe.  It was only adopted on the date specified in the bull in Spain, Portugal, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and most of the states of Italy (including, of course, the Papal States).  France adopted it in December 1582, as did the Dutch provinces of Holland and Zeeland, the first Protestant states to do so.

Other Protestant countries resisted the change for a long time, while other Catholic countries fell into line quickly.  The Catholic parts of Germany and Switzerland adopted the new calendar in 1583, as did Hungary in 1587.  The remaining Dutch provinces, along with Norway, Denmark, and the Protestant parts of Germany, made the change in 1700.

Sweden also made the decision to change in 1700, but unlike all the other countries it decided to make the change gradually rather than all at once, by skipping all the leap days from 1700 through 1740.  This enormously confusing and poorly administered transition was abandoned in 1712, but instead of adopting the normal Gregorian calendar then the Swedes went back to the Julian calendar, which they kept until finally switching to the Gregorian in 1753.

Joining Sweden in bringing up the tail end of adoption of the new calendar in western Europe was Great Britain, which made the switch in 1752.  At the same time the British switched the beginning of the civil year from March 25, which it had been since the Middle Ages, to January 1, a change that most other European countries had made even before adopting the Gregorian calendar.

The last countries in Europe to change to the new calendars were those in eastern Europe that were dominated by the Eastern Orthodox churches (all of which except the Finnish Orthodox Church still use some form of the Julian calendar for liturgical purposes).  The civil authorities in these countries, including Russia, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania, finally made the change in the early twentieth century, generally in the context of the massive political upheavals in eastern Europe at that time.

The Gregorian calendar is now so widely accepted and obviously superior to the Julian that we barely even think about it, but it actually took a very long time to be widely accepted.  This was largely because it originated during a time when Europe was in throes of intense political and religious conflict, and even something as simple and beneficial as a calendar reform was vigorously resisted by the opponents of the side that introduced it.  Something to ponder on this special day.

February 28, 2008

Special Interests

Filed under: Blogs,Nature — by teofilo @ 12:41 pm

What’s up with this?  Did Yglesias sell out to the Pliosaur Lobby or something?

February 24, 2008

Not A Euphemism

Filed under: Dating,Land,Nature,Personal — by teofilo @ 6:52 pm

I went on a nice date this afternoon.  There were volcanoes.

February 22, 2008

No, The Other One

Filed under: Culture — by teofilo @ 9:46 pm

I had to videotape a car inspection today in Las Vegas, NM.  Afterwards I took some pictures.  It’s a fascinating place.

February 20, 2008

The Future

Filed under: Job Search,Personal — by teofilo @ 10:26 pm

Thinking it over, I really don’t think I’m going to move next week.  I’m mostly just feeling frustrated about several aspects of my life right now, and moving away wouldn’t necessarily solve any of my problems.  I figure the best thing to do is probably to stick with my current plan, which is roughly this:

  • Now through May or June: Stay in Albuquerque, at this job and in this apartment (switching to month-to-month when my lease expires at the end of February). I’m going to be traveling a bit in late April, which should be a welcome break, and then my dad’s unveiling is Memorial Day, so it would make sense to stick around here at least until then.
  • Mid-June through late July: The GSD Career Discovery program, assuming I get accepted.  This really seems like the best thing for me to do career-wise at this point, and my mom has offered to pay for it, so I see no reason not to do it.
  • Late July through early August: Birthright.  This seems like the best time to fit this in.
  • Mid-August through summer 2009: I’m not yet sure what to do at this point.  I’ll probably get a job, preferably somewhere other than Albuquerque, for at least part of the time.  An SCA internship might be a cool thing to do as well for a while.  In any case, I will most likely be applying to grad schools during this time as well.
  • Fall 2009: Start grad school.

So that’s the tentative plan, and I think it’ll probably work out pretty well.  It’ll give me a chance to do a variety of things that I’d like to do at some point but probably won’t have time for once I get started on a real career.

February 13, 2008

Brown Sugar

Filed under: Culture — by teofilo @ 9:58 pm

When I was at my mom’s house a couple weeks ago I decided to finally get some of the books I had been meaning to bring over to my apartment. (Taking these books also inspired me to finally update my LibraryThing.) The books I took included some of mine, most of which I’d already read but wanted to have around for various reasons, and some of my dad’s, mostly ones he’d bought in connection with taking and teaching American history courses. I took those books because I’d thought the looked interesting for a while and I figured now would be a good time to read them.

The first one I read, which I finished yesterday, was Slave Women in Caribbean Society, 1650–1838 by Barbara Bush (no, not that one, or that one).  It’s a very focused account of the lives of slave women in the colonial British West Indies, with particular attention to the larger sugar plantations.  The documentation of the lives of both slaves and women in this period is very sparse, and the documentation of the lives of slave women is therefore even sparser, so Bush is forced to wring an enormous amount of analysis out of a very little source material.  She depends primarily on published works from the period in question, mainly polemical accounts by both pro- and anti-slavery writers (mainly pro-slavery, actually, since the planters who wrote these books had more firsthand experience with plantation life than the abolitionists who wrote the anti-slavery ones), with the addition of a few accounts by less invested outsiders such as John Stedman and private journals of less polemical planters such as Matthew Lewis.  She supplements the rather meagre clues she can glean from these sources with the findings of modern quantitative historians who have researched slave life from plantation records and anthropologists who have researched the modern societies of the parts of West Africa whence most of the Caribbean slaves came.

Given how little source material she has to deal with, Bush does quite a good job of reconstructing the lives of slave women and their prominent role in slave society.  She focuses in particular on their contributions to slave resistance in all its forms, from everyday malingering and preservation of African cultural forms to violent rebellion.  Her goal throughout much of this is to rehabilitate the image of the slave woman from the stereotypes, first put forth by the planters themselves and later adopted unthinkingly by many historians, that they were more inclined to assimilate to white society on account of their roles as housekeepers and concubines and therefore less inclined to resistance and more prone to betray slave revolts than men.  Her evidence is pretty convincing, showing, for example, that the vast majority of female slaves were engaged in fieldwork rather than being domestics and that they were generally considered by planters to be difficult to manage and resistant to European cultural influences such as Christianity.

Despite the overall convincing nature of Bush’s argument, the slightness of the evidence on which she bases it leads to some oddness, such as her contention that the notion that slave families were “matrifocal” without strong father figures was both based on misunderstanding of African family traditions and false because there is ample evidence that many slaves did have strong nuclear families.  This sort of thing crops up at several points in the book, generally when two different lines of evidence point in different direction and there isn’t any other evidence to use to determine which is more accurate.  She does properly indicate that much of her arguments are based on informed conjecture and are necessarily tentative due to the nature of the sources, however, so this isn’t a major issue in evaluating the quality of the book overall.

This isn’t a very long book, but it’s fairly dense and academic in style, and not really light reading for a popular audience.  It does contain a lot of interesting evidence and analysis that sheds much-needed light on a part of history that has received too little attention, however, and is definitely a worthwhile read for those with a serious interest in the history of slavery and the Caribbean.

February 7, 2008

Changing Plans

Filed under: Job Search,Personal — by teofilo @ 5:13 pm

So I’ve decided that it doesn’t actually make much sense to try to get a new job just now.  Instead, I think I’ll stick with this job for a few more months then do some of the fun young-person stuff that I haven’t really taken the time for since I graduated, then maybe look for a new job to have while I apply to grad schools.  It turns out that instead of renewing my lease (which expires at the end of this month) for another six months I can go month-to-month for slightly higher rent, so I think that’s what I’ll do.  That’ll give me a lot more flexibility in how long I stay here.

The catalyst for this sudden reappraisal of my plans was my mom noticing an ad in the New York Times Education Supplement for this program at Harvard, which I looked into and decided would actually be a pretty good thing for me to do.  One of the things that’s holding me back from completely committing to urban planning as a career is that I don’t really have any experience with what it would actually be like, so I don’t know how much I would end up liking it.  The Harvard program would be a way to find out, at least to some extent.  It’s a little pricey, but not as bad as a lot of summer programs at elite schools (probably because it doesn’t offer credit), and my mom has offered to pay for it.  So I figure I’ll apply for it, and if I get in I’ll go.  It’ll provide a definite end point for my stay here, and a possible entry point for looking for jobs up in that area afterward.

I’m also thinking I’ll probably go on Birthright this summer.  I’ve been resistant to going for a long time, largely for political reasons, but at services last weekend I talked to a girl who went on it recently and from how she described it it didn’t sound so bad.  My mom’s been trying to get me to go for a long time, so it would make her happy if I went.  Plus, free trip.

Once I decided to do those two things, I realized that this is actually an ideal time to do a bunch of cool short-term stuff that I might not get the opportunity to do again.  I’ve thought about maybe doing an archaeological field school or something like that, and I’ve been looking around for other interesting things to do.  I could also just do some traveling on my own, I suppose, but what I’m mostly interested in are opportunities that combine doing something interesting with getting to know a group of people, which I’ve been realizing is a lot harder after college.  If anyone has any suggestions I’d be interested in hearing them.

February 3, 2008


Filed under: Culture — by teofilo @ 7:50 pm

I recently finished reading Alan Taylor’s American Colonies. It’s a good general overview of the colonial history of what would become the United States, and as such covers considerably more ground than a traditional history of colonial America, including New Mexico, Florida, Louisiana, California, Alaska and Hawaii as well as the thirteen British colonies on the Atlantic seaboard that became the original thirteen states, along with chapters on places that didn’t become part of the US but were nonetheless important for the development of the colonies that did (e.g., Canada, Mexico and the West Indies). The organization of the book is broadly chronological, with individual chapters being either geographical or thematic in focus. This results in most time periods being covered several times from different perspectives, which is useful for understanding the development of individual colonies.

I found this an easy read and a good introduction to the parts of colonial history that I didn’t know much about (particularly the eighteenth century). I think I might have enjoyed it more if I had read it before some of the other books that I’ve read recently, since having read more detailed histories of some of the colonies meant I didn’t get much out of the chapters on them. There are also some odd errors that were a bit distracting; for example, while the name of the Spanish settlement of San Agustín is spelled correctly in the account of its founding, when it is discussed in later chapters it is generally spelled “San Agústin” (in one place even “San Augústin”), and while this is presumably a typesetting error rather than anything attributable to the author or editor it is distracting all the same.  Also, Kiowa is not a Uto-Aztecan language.  These and other errors are all very minor and pretty much inevitable in a work of this scale, of course.

One of the best things about this book is its bibliography, which is organized by chapter rather than as an alphabetical list.  This makes it much easier to locate works for further reading on any given topic, and is particularly useful for my purposes.

In sum, this is a very good book, and a solid, accessible introduction to a very complicated subject.  I would recommend it to anyone interested in colonial America who hasn’t read much about the subject and wants a concise, readable summary of recent scholarship in the field.

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