Home > Uncategorized > End of the decade? Yes, it is.

End of the decade? Yes, it is.

December 31, 2009

Now that 2009 is about to become 2010, we’re seeing the usual complaint from the pedants: “The decade began in 2001, not 2000, because there was no Year 0!  It isn’t the end of the decade for another year!”  I used to be one of those pedants myself.  But then — sometime between 10 and 15 years ago — I realized some things.

For one thing, yes, there was no Year 0, but then, there wasn’ t a Year 1 either.  Nor was there a Year 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, etc.  The dating scheme we use today wasn’t invented until the year we call AD 525 (by a guy named Dionysius Exiguus), and was only gradually accepted by Western nations over the next several centuries.  There’s no evidence that even the Church of Rome used the Anno Domini scheme prior to the 10th century.  So there was no actual “starting point” for our calendar.  It was invented halfway through a decade and a quarter of the way through a century and wasn’t uniformly adopted at any given time.  The “Year 1” is just as imaginary a construct as the “Year 0” would be, so it really doesn’t make any difference which one you start with.

For another thing, the back-projected “Year 1” doesn’t correspond to any actual event.  Ol’ D. Ziggy was trying to base it on the incarnation of Christ, but we now know his historical calculations were wrong; evidence in the Gospels places Christ’s birth sometime between 18-4 BC.  (Not to mention that it’s unclear whether he meant it to correspond to Christ’s conception or his birth.)  So the starting point for our calendar is basically arbitrary.

For another thing, the Anno Domini system is hardly the only calendar in the world.  There’s the Muslim calendar, the Hindu calendar, the Chinese calendar, the Mayan calendar, all sorts of alternatives.

Ultimately, time is a continuum, and any system we invent to break it down into segments is arbitrary.  There is no “right” time to define as the beginning of our era or of any subdivision thereof.  It’s all made up anyway, so one start date for the decade is as arbitrary as any other.

Besides… ten years ago, when 1999 gave way to 2000, the whole world came together to celebrate the event.  It was a remarkable occurrence, a time when more human beings focused on a single optimistic thought than at any other time in our history.  That seems naive in retrospect, sadly, but it was still a moment that the majority of humanity chose to define as the dawn of a new millennium.  A year later, when 2000 gave way to 2001, it was just an ordinary New Year’s Day, except for a small minority of calendrical pedants that nobody really noticed.

So the people have spoken.  A calendar has no independent cosmic meaning or existence; it’s merely a social construct that human beings observe by consensus to facilitate their communication of chronological relationships to one another.  And since it exists only as a social consensus, it should be defined by how the majority of society agrees to use it.  And as far as the vast majority of human beings is concerned, the millennium, the century, and the decade began on January 1, 2000.  And thus, today, December 31, 2009, is the last day of that decade.

And why not?  The change from 1999 to 2000 clearly has more psychological significance than 2000 to 2001.  The change from 2009 to 2010 isn’t quite as monumental, but it’s still more psychologically significant than 2010 to 2011.  In vernacular, we define decades on the basis of the tens column: the twenties, the thirties, the forties, the fifties, etc.  Implicit in that is the assumption that a decade begins in a year ending in 0.   That’s standard, everyday usage, and actual usage in the here and now should trump arbitrary arguments based on an alleged “Year 1” that never actually happened.

So yes, this is the last day of the decade, and a new decade begins tomorrow.  That’s the consensus of the society we live in, it’s consistent with everyday usage, and the only arguments to the contrary are based on historically and cosmologically naive premises.  That’s why I’m not a “Year 1” pedant anymore.  Any calendar we use is merely a product of human imagination, a convenient fiction.  Why argue over whether one fiction is less fictional than a slightly different alternative?  If this is how most people already define it, there’s no point in arguing.

So happy new decade, everyone.  At least, everyone who uses the Gregorian calendar.  For the rest of you, happy next day.

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  1. December 31, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    But you forgot the most basic of math concepts: We use a Base-Ten system. The number ten completes the set. 2010 is the last year in the first decade of the 21st century.

    It’s simple Math. 😀

    • December 31, 2009 at 1:12 pm

      Actually there is no number ten in base-ten arithmetic, not as an elementary entity. “The set” consists of the digits 0 through 9. The number ten is represented by 1 0, starting a new “set” in the tens column and starting over with 0 in the ones column. So if anything, you’ve got it backward. Base-ten numbering conventions are consistent with the pattern we actually use: beginning with 0 and ending with 9.

      Besides, a calendar isn’t an abstract mathematical concept, but an everyday tool of society. Thus, actual usage should trump abstract theoretical arguments. Though in this case, the theoretical argument actually supports the everyday usage. Thank you for giving me an additional argument in support of my point. 😉

  2. Nathan
    December 31, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Can you post this everywhere on the internet where some guy has posted “Well, actually, the decade ends next year…”?

    It’s not as if anyone sits around and says, “y’know, Empire Strikes Back was my favorite movie of the 1970s.”

  3. Paul
    December 31, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    I can’t believe we are doing this AGAIN!!! Media spokesmen must think the rest of the world are idiots–when in reality, we know it is the media that is ALWAYS in error! The comments that “And as far as the vast majority of human beings is concerned, the millennium, the century, and the decade began on January 1, 2000.” is most ridiculous. Since when did the minority (not the majority as incorrectly indicated in this statement) determine what the rest of us will adhere to? Since the REAL millennium started on January 1, 2001–and the REAL decade ends on December 31, 2010 (one year from today), the world fully recognizes the error that is being conveyed and understands that there is not only an error by the media but stupidity as well. When will the media EVER START to get it right? It appears that the answer to that question is “NEVER”!

    • December 31, 2009 at 8:48 pm

      I’ve gone back and forth on whether to approve the above comment since I don’t think the hostile tone is called for. It’s surprising how emotional some people get over something as superficial and arbitrary as a calendar. There’s nothing “real” about a calendar. As far as the universe is concerned, time is continuous and no moment stands out as a beginning or a dividing point or anything. A calendar is merely a human-created way of describing time based on a set of agreed-upon reference points. It’s a strange thing to get up in arms about. There are many different calendars in use today, and there have been many more in the past. The calendar we use has been amended many times in its lifetime. There is no absolute “right” way in which it works — just the currently accepted set of conventions.

      And as I said, there were huge global celebrations of the millennium on 12/31/99 and 01/01/00. There was nothing comparable a year later. So the statement that the majority of people believe the millennium began in 2001 simply doesn’t fit the facts.

      Nor does the reference to “media spokesman.” I’m nobody’s spokesman. I’m a freelance author posting on my personal blog.

      So please, folks, can we keep it civil?

  4. Anonymous
    February 3, 2010 at 1:52 am

    There are a few problems with accepting the xxx0-xxx9 scheme for decades. If 10-19 AD is a decade (the 10s) then the “decade” before that would be 1-9 AD, 9 YEARS. How can you possibly support going against what the very definition of what a decade is just to accomodate the idiots who created the mess in the first place by labeling decades 20s, 30s, 40s, etc.? Unless you want to include 1 BC and 1 AD in the 1st decades AD and BC, respectively, as years zeros (1 BC would be equivalent to 0 AD and 1 AD would be equivalent to 0 BC) and have overlapping decades? If that’s the case, however, it needs to become official, so that we stop referring 1901-2000 as the 20th century and replace that instead with 1900-1999, which leads to my second point, the fact that you can’t currently split ordinal centuries into 10 decades following your scheme, because ordinal centuries run from xxx1-xxx0. This only causes confusion among the ignorant and those not so capable of a clear thought process. If you want decades to run from xxx0-xxx9, fine. The only thing that I will not support is an inconsistent system, which is what we have with the assertion that decades should be considered as xxx0-xxx9.

    I’ve seen people incorrectly refer to the 20th century (1901-2000) as the 1900s, which it’s not and I even saw someone refer to 2000-2009 as the 210th (2001-2010) decade, which is not. I don’t know how you could be so fond of supporting ignorance. To me, that is unacceptable. In addition, when someone refers to something happening at the end of the next decade, what does that mean? Does that include 2010 or not? Things like these are not meant to be arbitrary. All I’m saying is currently we have a mixed system, and we need to decide whether we want to go with the xxx0-xxx9 scheme or the xxx1-xxx0 for decades, centuries AND millenniums, but we can’t have both, as that clearly leads to widespread confusion. BTW, as a sidenote, I’d like to note that organizations such as NASA and other organizations that have been long keeping records in terms of decades report data in the xxx1-xxx0 scheme, in case you thing that no one refers to the decade as 2001-2010. If you do a Google search on that, it tends to be professional and government organizations that denote decades the way they were meant to be denoted. The xxx0-xxx9 issue is largely the fault of the media/business/artist types.

    • February 3, 2010 at 7:49 am

      As I explained above, there never really was a “first decade” or a “second decade.” The calendar we use wasn’t invented until 525 CE and was only gradually adopted over the next thousand years. And its start date was arbitrarily chosen based on inaccurate assumptions. Since the decades you argue about in your first paragraph never actually happened, but are just imaginary dates made up by people centuries later, there isn’t really any “right” or “wrong” way to codify them.

      And it may give certain people a feeling of superiority to dismiss the vast majority of the human species as “idiots” because they don’t conform to some arbitrary way of defining something that’s arbitrary to begin with, but if the overwhelming majority of people on the planet agree to communicate information in a certain way and a few people choose for reasons of irrelevant pedantry to reject it and thus cut themselves out of the communication loop for no reason other than self-aggrandizement, who’s really demonstrating a failure of judgment there? A calendar doesn’t represent any concrete physical reality. Time is a continuous flow whose only starting point was 13.7 billion years ago. Every system for breaking time down into segments and assigning starting points for those segments is purely a cultural construct, a system that a society agrees to use to communicate chronological information among its members. The “right” way to use it is the way that the society as a whole agrees on, because that’s how communication and symbol systems work — by agreeing that a certain symbol has a certain meaning, people gain a way to communicate clearly to one another. The consensus definition of the symbol is what matters, regardless of that symbol’s origin.

      In short, calendars are a form of language. Like other forms of language, they come in many types, each with its own dialects, and they evolve over time. Many of the word usages we accept as correct today are actually grounded in the misuse of earlier forms of the words. For instance, “presently” originally meant “immediately,” but now it’s universally understood to mean “soon.” And the word “ampersand” was literally created by schoolchildren mispronouncing “and, per se, ‘and'” at the end of the alphabet rhyme back when “&” was considered a 27th letter. Mistakes become correct through universal acceptance. The pedants and proscriptivists can rail about it all they want, but they can’t reverse the tide of linguistic evolution. All they’re really doing is embracing an excuse to consider themselves superior to the vast majority of people, to feed their own egos by dismissing others as “idiots” or “ignorant.”

      I used to be one of those people, both with the calendar and with other forms of language. Then I learned more and thought about it more and I realized how silly I was being. It’s smarter to get your own house in order than to make yourself feel superior by tearing others down.

      • Anonymous
        February 3, 2010 at 8:12 pm

        I understand what you’re saying, Christophe, but it’s still not correct. At least you’ve admitted they have made a mistake. I have no problem with moving from one scheme to another if that seems easier to people (I can work with either), but that hasn’t been done yet. With regards to what the first decade is, it does matter. Here’s an example of things I’m trying to avoid: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_decades
        A 9-year period gets called a decade and a 99-year period gets called a century? That’s just ludicrous. If you want to make the first decade end after 9 AD, for example, we either have to accept 1 BC as the equivalent of a “0 AD” and 1 AD as the equivalent of “0 BC” and have overlapping decades (which I have no problem with, I actually think this is the easiest solution) or make 1 BC “0 AD”, 2 BC “0 BC”, 3BC “1 BCA (BC-adjusted), etc. All I’m looking for is a consistent system. It doesn’t matter to me if the world prefers the xxx0-xxx9 scheme over the current scheme. All I’m saying is: do it the right way.

      • February 3, 2010 at 8:36 pm

        “I understand what you’re saying, Christophe, but it’s still not correct.”

        Based on what standard? The whole world celebrated the millennium in 2000. Practically nobody did in 2001. Whatever you arbitrarily label “correct,” that’s what people actually did, and it’s kind of self-deluding to pretend otherwise.

        “At least you’ve admitted they have made a mistake.”

        I’ve done nothing of the kind. I’ve only acknowledged that a calendar is an arbitrary concept and can be defined based on many different and changing standards.

        “A 9-year period gets called a decade and a 99-year period gets called a century?”

        Since when? You’re making a totally artificial assumption that I’ve never encountered before. A decade is from a year ending in 0 to a year ending in 9. That’s ten years. A century is from a year ending in 00 to a year ending in 99. That’s a hundred years. You’re trying to claim that a year ending in zero isn’t being counted at all, which is based on a naive assumption that 0 must equal nothing. That’s not the case here. It’s no different from counting from 1 to 10 — in that case, it’s just that the number ending in zero is at the end instead of the beginning. But there’s no reason you can’t count from 10 to 19, or 20 to 29, or even 2000 to 2009. It’s still a ten-year block, and nobody I know of has ever argued otherwise. So I have no idea what you’re even talking about here.

        And we don’t “have to” accept anything about 1 BC or 0 AD or 1 AD. I mean, think about it. Why do we have to? Is some God of Time going to come down and kick you in the teeth if you don’t follow a consistent system? Who cares what we call it? The people who lived in that time sure as hell didn’t call it “1 BC” or anything of the kind. It’s just an artificial label that people in more modern times have made up.

        And if the way people treat the transition from BC to AD contains an inconsistency, so be it. Calendars aren’t perfect. How do people born on February 29th deal with their birthdays? All calendars have glitches. There is no perfectly “right” way to do it, because the astronomical cycles we use as the basis of calendrical subdivisions don’t divide into each other perfectly, and because sometimes people redefine the parameters of a calendar, and because the Earth itself is slowing and we have to splice in leap seconds every now and then. Calendars are always a little messy.

        And really, what difference does it make if there’s a glitch in how we treat the transition from BC to AD? How does that have any effect on our lives in the here and now? It’s a trivial matter of bookkeeping. And only a very small number of people in the world are ever going to care about it anyway, so it’s not like there’s any real chance anyone’s ever going to change it. Just let it go. Don’t worry about it. Save your energy for battles worth fighting.

      • Anonymous
        February 3, 2010 at 8:30 pm

        By the way, Christophe, I know that the Gregorian calendar was thought up in the 500s CE. That’s not the issue. The point of “we don’t know exactly when the year 1 AD was” is irrelevant. That’s not the reason why have a problem with it, nor do I care when Jesus Christ was born. I’m not even a Christian (I’m not claiming that somehow sticking to the current system is going to help us get the accuracy of the dates of events any better). It has to do with: we have systems for a reason and if we are going to follow a system that system should be founded on a logical basis. A system that must inherently have it’s first “decade” be 9 years long, it’s first “century” be 99 years long, and it’s first “millennium” be 999 years long, and at the same time doesn’t even allow you to divide distinct centuries into ten distinct decades which are fully contained by those centuries (which is the whole purpose of a decade, dividing a century into decimal parts) is too illogical for me to support. What you support leads to errors and misunderstandings, even confusion when someone happens to realize that something isn’t quite matching up. The public wants decades to be from xxx0-xxx9? Fine. Just do it the right way. It requires a change in the current system.

      • Anonymous
        February 3, 2010 at 8:35 pm

        And if you don’t want to be bothered with changing the system, don’t get upset when you’re told that in reality, because of the system that we have, the decade doesn’t end until Dec 31, 2001. The word “the” implies you are speaking of a certain tenth division of a century.

      • February 3, 2010 at 8:41 pm

        That’s not “reality.” The calendar has no real existence outside the human mind. It’s not a law of physics. The reality is that time is a continuous flow with no intrinsic dividing points, and it’s downright arrogant to claim that an artificial human construct represents some kind of fundamental reality. And it’s equally arrogant to claim that one artificial human construct is more fundamentally correct than a slightly different artificial human construct.

  5. February 3, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    I’m afraid I have to close this thread to comments, because it’s getting out of hand. As I said above, it startles me that some people get so emotional over something as arbitrary and nitpicky as this. Of all the subjects I’ve talked about on my blog, I never thought this one would spawn a runaway argument, and I have more important things to do than try to participate in or moderate the kind of argument that this is becoming, especially over such a trivial topic.

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