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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 1999/01/15

Odometer Dates

A man was sitting in his cabin when he heard a knock on the door. “The borders have been moved,” he was told. “You no longer live in Russia. This is now part of Poland.” “Great!” he replied, “No more Russian winters!”

If there’s one thing that I have figured out about the human mind, it’s that it seems to be involved in a constant quest for meaning. It’s much easier to accept a universe that runs on laws, even those that we haven’t quite figured out yet, than one that is random. Major events shouldn’t be random, they should happen for a reason. This desire for meaning is responsible for so many of the world’s traditions and heritages. Karma provides an explanation for seeming random events. Win the lottery? It’s because you gave a quarter to that spare changer outside of the Safeway. Other traditions go beyond that and give us the feeling of control. A strong belief in a loving God makes the believer feel as though they have an strong ally. David Bowie sings about this in “God Knows I’m Good”:

And a crowd of honest people rushed to help a tired old lady
Who had fainted to the whirling wooden floor
Crying

“God knows I’m good

God knows I’m good

God knows I’m good

Surely God won’t look the other way”

On a more trivial matter, I remember sitting on the couch at my mother’s house, being careful to not sit on the middle cushion, and only drinking the lucky sodas, and having the right stuffed animals with me, only to have my team continue to suck. “What am I doing wrong?” I cried.

The quest for meaning also appears in another form- the quest for structure. While most of our calendar structures occurred out of the need for people to know when to plant crops, they have long since outlived that purpose and taken on a life of their own. Over the last few weeks I have been musing about the nature of the calendar and how it affects the way we think. Specifically I have been thinking about odometer dates.

People love round numbers. My longest drive to see a concert (Las Cruces, NM to Glens Falls, NY) came out of a desire to celebrate my 100th show. There was no way I would have made the effort of driving 2300 miles if that show had been my 73rd or 128th. Even people who hate math celebrate and honk their horns when they see their car’s odometer move from 99,999.9 to 100,000.0 miles. In honor of that effect, I use the term “odometer dates” to refer to times when the calendar hits a round number or otherwise rolls over. I invented this term because of the coincidence of three of these dates. Two of them were public, one of them was private. One of them occurred in the recent past, one occurred in the period of time in which I wrote this column, and one is looming over our heads. I am referring to New Year’s Day, my 30th birthday, and the changing of the millennium.

Unless you want to witness an extended debate about the nature of the holiday that would make your guests prefer to watch Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Years, one should never invite a mystic and a witch to the same New Year’s bash. Mystics have a million different ways to say that models are not the same as the reality that they represent- “The map is not the terrain,” and, “The menu is not the meal,” are two. Magic, on the other hand, is about making a connection between the symbolic and the actual and then manipulating the symbol to create real world changes. While the classic example of that is the voodoo doll, nearly all traditional spells involve this concept – from cave drawing of the animals the tribe wanted to kill, to the power ascribed to knowing a magician’s true name, to the more modern wiccan spell of freezing the photo of an unruly child in honey in order to sweeten its disposition. New Year’s Eve isn’t a mystical night, it’s a magical one. Its power is symbolic; actions taken that night affect what will happen throughout the year. This is why there is pressure to be social – the need to have a date is stronger than that of any night than perhaps Valentine’s Day. It’s why couples talk about ringing in the New Year together. People are unwittingly casting a spell.

One of the illusions of childhood is that there reaches a point in which you are an adult. I have had five of those moments now – being bar mitvahed, turning 18, turning 21, graduating from college, and now turning 30. What I should have realized is that the sheer number of these events points out the uselessness of each one of them. “Am I adult yet? Damn!” “Well surely things must make sense now…. Come on!” “Well what about now?” While, despite what some people told me, being 30 feels no different at all than being 29, there is an advantage to the event (and no, I’m not referring to all of the cool presents I got). While I am little different now than I was a month ago, I am quite a bit different from the 20 year old who was just discovering the concept of live music. Change occurs slowly, way too slowly to notice it when it’s happening. Switching your perspective to a longer time period lets you notice the cumulative effects. Rather than going through day after undifferentiated day, we can think of our lives in terms of years and decades and- if we happen to live in the right time- centuries and millennia.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word “millennium” first appeared in 1638. About a week later, pedants first announced that the next millennium actually would end in 2000, not 1999. The argument makes sense; there is no year 0, thus the first millennium goes from 1 to 1000, the second from 1001 to 2000, etc. However, it remains the stupidest reason that people will use to destroy a really good party. There is no reason to say the millennium does not end in 1999. There is a millennium ending during every second in every day. True, no one particularly cares about the 1000 year period that ends on July 14, 1862 at 2:16 PM, but one did end then. Why then is any particular millennium important? Seeing all of the digits change in a year is a powerful concept. It’s the same magic that makes 30th birthdays seem more important than the day that people are alive for 27 years and 314 days, it’s the same magic that makes the 12 month period from January 1 to December 31 more important than the one starting on August 12. There is a strong force at work when 1999 becomes 2000; when that 1 turns to 2, we will be forced to reflect on the nature of a thousand year period- a much longer period of time than any of us can expect to live let alone remember and comprehend. It’s a natural moment to relax, catch our breath, think about what we have done and what we could do. Sure, things aren’t going to change because our year starts with a 2 any more than moving a national border will make the winters more bearable. As an excuse for a blowout though, it’s completely first rate.

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