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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Monday, December 28, 2009

Happy last few days of the second last year of the first decade of the new millennium

In a few days we will reach the end of the "noughties". No doubt about that. 1980 was not part of the 1970s, for example. 1990 was not part of the 1980s. (The '60s were an aberration - depending on where you live, they started in about 1966 and ended at some point between 1974 and 1979.)

Anyway, we are seeing lists everywhere of "best of the noughties", "key events of the noughties", etc., and this is perfectly accurate. It's also accurate to talk about "best of the past decade" ... in the same sense that if we were back in, say, 1995 we could accurately talk about "best of the past decade" ... meaning the years 1986-95 inclusive. A decade is simply a period of ten years.

What we can't say, though, is "best of the first decade of the new millennium" or "best of the first decade of the new century". For better or worse, the twenty-first century and the third millennium AD (or CE) did not begin until 1 January 2001. That's because we use a calendar that goes straight from 1 BC (or BCE) to 1 AD. There is no "Year Zero" in between. Thus, the first ten years AD on the calendar don't end until the end of 10 AD. Again, the first hundred years AD don't end until the end of 100 AD. And the first thousand years don't end until the end of 1000 AD. The twentieth century began on 1 January 1901 and the twenty-first century began on 1 January 2001.

Thus, the first decade of the new century and millenium also began on 1 January 2001 ... and it still has more than a year to run.

This isn't very difficult to understand once it's explained, and it does make some difference to the world. The symbolic importance of various dates could be lost if we didn't apply the calendar correctly. Two examples are very obvious to me: first, the federation of the Commonwealth of Australia took place on 1 January 1901, and hence on the first day of the twentieth century. I'd hate to erase the date's calendar significance unnecessarily. Second, the movie and book of 2001: A Space Odyssey are set in the first (not second) year of the new millennium. There could be many other such examples, and I don't see the point of messing around with this kind of symbolism, just because the big media corporations couldn't wait an extra year to hold a grand New Millennium party ten years ago. I mean, look folks ... the concept is just not that difficult.

It's also annoying being thought of as pedantic and elitist - even somehow undemocratic - if you try to explain it. But all that said, I well recall the famous and apposite lines from William Blake:

You throw the sand against the wind
And the wind blows it back again.

Blake pretty much sums it up. So, let's agree on this much: it's the end of the noughties, whatever else it is. Sigh. Anyone want to make a list?


Pete Schult said...

Well, you could say we use the astronomers' calendar, which does have a year 0 (aka 1 BC), so it is legitimate to say that centuries, decades, and millennia do begin in the zero years.

Peter Hollo said...

I tend to think that all that is still nonsense :) You're still simply preferencing one "millennium", "century" or "decade" over another - and to me, one that has no significance or meaning (regardless of chosen dates for federation or Arthur C Clarke novel titles... After all, his sequel was 2010!)

I mean, of course 2000 was the beginning of a millennium - it was the first of a thousand years which will have a 2 in the 10^3 column. As far as I'm concerned that's the meaningful millennium, especially considering the fact that there was no 1AD in any meaningful sense - we're not counting from anytime in particular in history.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, of course, Peter. But likewise 1971 was the start of a new millennium - the one that started after the previous thousand years ended. So was 1492. So was 1896. It's the same of every year. But we don't celebrate every year as the start of a "new millenium". The sense in which each of those years actually was the start of a new millennium isn't what is meant when we argue about whether 1000 was the last year of the first millennium or the first year of the second millennium.

Obviously, it's all arbitrary anyway ... and even moreso since we now know the Jewish apocalyptic prophet whose birth it is based on was not born in the year 1 CE. Indeed, it may have been "prophets" - the New Testament books were written long after whatever underlying substratum of events took place, and "Jesus" may even be a composite figure.

And as I say, the media and the general populace now seem to want to celebrate 000's rolling over, like on a car's odometer, so it's pretty futile to argue about how the calendar works. Hence my quote from Blake.

RichardW said...

To some extent I'm playing devil's advocate here, as I don't much care one way or the other. But I can't resist arguing...

The starting point of the year numbering system is arbitrary, so the division into millennia, centuries and decades has no practical significance. As you say, it's a matter of symbolism. For the obvious reasons most people find the years ending in 0 more symbolic as starting years than the years ending in 1, and I think it's perfectly reasonable for them to choose to celebrate the 0 years. I don't think it has much to do with big corporations. This is something which comes naturally to most people, including me. It would seem rather strange to me to abandon such obvious symbolism for the sake of strict logical accuracy based on an unimportant historical detail (whether the first year AD was numbered 0 or 1).

Moreover, I would suggest that, since these periods are essentially arbitrary, we can define them however we like, as long as our meaning is not too far removed from the usual meaning of the word. We can, if we wish, define a millennium for calendar purposes as a period of a thousand years from n000 to n999. That means treating the first calendar millennium as a special case, beginning in year 1 and having only 999 years. But we can have special cases if we like. This is partly analogous to the situation with weeks, which we generally consider to run from Monday (or more traditionally Sunday). When someone talks about the second week of the year they are usually referring not to the period from 8th to 14th January but to the second complete calendar week (or possibly even the first complete calendar week, the very first calendar week having been incomplete).

Greg Egan said...

Russell, I really don't think this is an objective mathematical issue in the way you're presenting it.

Sure, there's an objective fact about consecutive blocks of 1,000 years (or of 100 years, or of 10 years) such that the first year of the first block is the one that our present Western calendar labels "1 AD". But so long as the very few people who need to calculate precise differences between AD and BC dates in a system that lacks a zero can do so, what people label and celebrate as "the start of the second millennium" or "the start of the 21st century" is a social convention that has no practical reason to work smoothly and consistently back to 1 AD.

Your side has lost the battle for deciding that social convention. It will probably help your blood pressure if you just accept that. There's an objective fact that you are entirely correct about, but it's not that people are innumerate and can't follow the reasoning supporting your claim, it's just that they really don't care. They've made a deliberate choice to say that decades, centuries and millennia now start with zeroes.

In popular culture, that convention will dominate. The few historians who have to worry about edge effects at 1 AD will largely be speaking an entirely different, more precise language, which they've always had to do to cope with the "1 BC followed by 1 AD" glitch anyway.

brian t said...

The way I look at it, there are two points I'd make:
- whoever it was who decided how BCE and CE (BC and AD) fit together didn't use a number Zero because he didn't know about the number Zero or how a Zero-based number system works. Surely he would have, had he known? (You know it was a "he", of course.)
- since our calendar is arbitrary, it doesn't matter anyway. It really is all about appearance and symbolism: it couldn't be otherwise, because there is nothing astronomical absolute behind these dates we've settled on.

So, there should be a year Zero, but the fact that there isn't is a meaningless accident that changed the appearance of a meaningless calendar! What exactly are we marking?

Theo Bromine said...

I'm normally a pedant (equipped with the traditional historic internet pedant pendant). But on this issue, I count myself with the odometerists. So what if there was no year "0". As others have pointed out, the ~2000-year-old "event" that the new calendar was supposed to mark was several years off that anyway, not to mention that the calendar is completely retrospective. (Besides, as an electrical engineer I always start counting things at "0" anyway.) More to the point, was the question of which millennium boundary required me (as manager of an IT team) to stay sober, near a telephone, and less than 30 minutes drive from work, on New Year's Eve - it certainly wasn't the "official" turnover of the millennium from 2000-2001.

jeremygbyrne said...

The t-shirt I made and wore for the night of December 31, 2000 said "OK, now it's the 21st Century" on the front. (The back read "So where's my flying car?") But then, I spent years arguing for alternating "he" and "she" instead of "they", so what do I know?

Greg is of course correct that it's all social convention; the Zeitgeist has simply turned its face toward a different Church.

Anyway, surely the most urgent and exasperating issue surrounding what happens on Thursday night is that some people still spell it "Naughties"!

Russell Blackford said...

Sure, Greg, and everyone, but why are people telling me things about my blood pressure? I would have hoped that my tone was gently rueful rather than shrill or something ... and I do actually quote Blake against myself in admission that it's a lost cause.

Mind you, I have a habit of taking up lost causes. I've largely given up on the "he/she" that Jeremy mentioned, partly because "they" as a singular has a pretty long pedigree and partly because I think it's neat just to write "she" whenever I can get away with it.

But I'm continuing to stamp out misuses of the expression "as such" whenever I can, and (despite the words of Blake ringing in my ear) I still resist "sci-fi" for "sf".

Anyhow ... let's all forget about the Gregorian calendar and make our noughties lists. Best ten science fiction movies of the noughties, anyone? Is Avatar on your list or off it?

Greg Egan said...

My top 10 SF, or fantasy, or close-enough-to-SF-or-fantasy movies of the noughties; they're not ranked, the order is arbitrary.

1. Memento
2. Mulholland Drive
3. Inland Empire
4. Pan's Labyrinth
5. Intacto
6. The Prestige
7. Children of Men
8. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
9. The Fellowship of the Ring
10. Donnie Darko

I somehow managed to miss seeing "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", so maybe it would be on this list if I had. I did see "AI", and though it had some strong points it was ultimately just too silly. And I did see "Avatar", which I reviewed here.

Russell Blackford said...

That's a fascinating list, Greg, and I might save myself some effort by basing a post on it. My first reaction was "Aaaarrggghh!" at the number of those that I've never seen. OTOH, I have seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - and, yes, it probably should be on any such list.

I liked Avatar very much, but I agree with you that a lot of it was silly, and that many of the decisions made by the characters are neither logical nor psychologically plausible - which rather spoils things.

I'm still kind of digesting the experience, and even wondering whether to see it again before writing on it. I've only seen the 2-D version and you have me thinking that maybe I should take some trouble to go a cinema with the 3-D.

jeremygbyrne said...

Here's my favourites list, in alphabetical order.

* "Children of Men"
* "Cypher"
* "Hero"
* "The Lord of the Rings" (See what I did there?)
* "Momento"
* "Pan's Labyrinth"
* "Pitch Black"
* "The Prestige"
* "Primer"
* "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi"

Near-misses from this surprisingly good year included "Moon" and "The Time Traveller's Wife"; and "Watchmen" was an extraordinary graphic novel.

Russell Blackford said...

The Prestige - now that was a cool movie.

Greg Egan said...

Somehow I missed even hearing about Primer, but I just looked it up and it sounds intriguing. I'd better add it to my catch-up-on-DVD list.

Greg Egan said...

BTW, for any Australians who haven't seen Pan's Labyrinth, it's showing on SBS this Saturday night (2 January) at 10pm.