The Ministry of Silly Counts

By Cyberquill 12/28/200917 Comments


The main panel discussion on yesterday’s Meet the Press, titled America–The Next Decade, was premised upon the sentiment that a new decade would officially kick off on January 1, 2010. In fact, we’ve been subjected to quite a lot of end-of-decade talk lately.

I suppose a legitimate argument can be made that a new decade begins at every moment. Hence, the decade that commenced on November 4, 1984, at 7:45:32 a.m. cashed in its chips on November 4, 1994, at precisely 7:45:31 a.m. And this very moment (right now) is the final one of the decade that started exactly ten years minus one moment ago.

Therefore, the decade that began January 1, 2000, at 00:01 a.m. has no choice but to expire December 31, 2009, at 11:59 p.m. The quantum effects of special relativity aside, ten years are ten years–a decade is a decade no matter what point in time the clock was started. A decade always ends ten years to the zeptosecond from the zeptosecond we started counting. And there exists no law against celebrating the end of a previous decade and the beginning of a new one whenever the mood is upon us.

Of course, if everyone launched and feted their own official decades willy-nilly, the attendant lack of consensus would render a title like America–The Next Decade meaningless to those whose personal decades happen to be out of sync with NBC’s decad-ent bookending habits. Luckily, rampant individualism in this area does not obtain. Given that an overwhelming supermajority appears to subscribe to a unified–albeit rather bizarre–method of counting years, the idea that the new decade is only a few days off stirs little controversy, if any.

Call me old-fashioned, but when I count to ten, I go like this:

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.

If I wanted to divide, say, a large pile of marbles into groups of ten, I would certainly not go:

Ten, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine.

Oh no. Buttoned-down dork that I am, I’d properly start with one and wrap up with ten, then move on to the next group of ten, and once again start with one and work my way up to ten. For lack of a better excuse, that’s how my parents taught me to count, and I’ve stuck with the strait-laced sequential method to this day. I always count one to ten. Never ten to nine with one through eight sandwiched in between.

Come to think of it, I’ve never really heard anybody perform a count by starting with the last number in a given series, then jumping to the first, proceeding sequentially from there, and concluding with the penultimate number in that series.

Yet when it comes to defining a set of ten not marbles but years, there seems to be universal agreement on precisely such topsy-turvy enumeration. Every decade officially ends with year nine (e.g., 2009), and the following decade kicks off with year ten (e.g., 2010).

A decade is defined as a period of exactly ten years. The year 1 B.C. was immediately followed by the year 1 A.D. without a year zero in between. Hence, the first decade A.D. necessarily ran from 1 A.D. until and including 10 A.D. It follows that the second decade A.D. commenced with 11 A.D. and ran until and including 20 A.D.

If one keeps counting in units of ten, it is arithmetically impossible to arrive at a decade that begins with a year whose number ends in zero unless one decade in the past 2000 years was only nine years long, in which case it would have fallen short of the accepted definition of decade. Therefore, any claim that the current decade ends December 31, 2009, must be attended by a compelling explanation regarding this mysterious 9-year-long decade.

Bottom line, we habitually celebrate the end of our decades one year earlier than we would if we counted years from one to ten like we count everything else. Strangely, in demarcating our decades, we suddenly become ambassadors to the Ministry of Silly Counts.

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  • Thomas Stazyk

    Concur! I seem to remember the same debate about whether the new millenium started in 2000 or 2001. But I didn’t pay any attention then because I thought the world was going to end when the computers tried to do something with 2000!

    • Cyberquill

      There wasn’t much of a debate going on then. Everyone was so busy celebrating the new millenium, no one noticed it was a year too early. And when it really began on January 1, 2001, the newborn was treated like a one-year old. And now we’re about to bury the current decade alive, with one full year to go.

  • Howard

    I see what you all are saying, but if the world started at year 0, then from 0 to 1 would be counted as “1” … so as follows:

    0>1 = 1
    1>2 = 2
    2>3 = 3
    3>4 = 4
    4>5 = 5
    5>6 = 6
    6>7 = 7
    7>8 = 8
    8>9 = 9
    9>10 = 10

    It just seems that right up to the 11:59 on the ’09 year is correct? I’m just trying to justify both sides of the argument. Neither side matters, because time is just a counting system with meaning attached to it.

    • Cyberquill

      If “the world started at year 0,” your list would apply. However, there is no such thing as a “year zero” in the Gregorian calender, which is the one we’re using, nor in the Julian calendar, which preceded it. The year 1 B.C. was immediately followed by the year 1 A.D. without a year 0 in between.

      Therefore, the 1st decade A.D. began on January, 1, 1. The 100th decade began on January 1, 1001. The 200th decade (= the 2nd millennium) began on January 1, 2001 (and not, as was widely and erroneously celebrated, on January 1, 2000), and the 201th decade will commence no sooner than January 1, 2011.

      I agree that time is just a counting system. But no one started counting time at zero. If we consider our decades, centuries, and millenia to begin with years ending in 0, it means that somewhere down the road we lost an entire year–where did it go?

  • Douglas

    As centuries are counted so, too, should decades. In other words, count from 0 through 9. And the decades are thought of as the 60’s (60-69), 70’s (70-79), etc. So, yes, to me the decade of the Teens starts with 2010.

    • Cyberquill

      Makes sense. Problem is, according to your logic the very first decade A.D. would have been the Teens (0-1), except that, as stated above, there was no year zero. So necessarily, our very first decade (a decade, after all, being defined as ten years, not nine) must have run from 1-10, the second decade from 11-20, and so on and so forth.

      Hence, the laws of basic arithmetic preclude us from ever reaching a decade that conforms to the semantically convenient way of defining our decades, unless, of course, at some point in history there was a 9-year-long decade, which made the count permanently shift from 0-9. Which decade was that?

      • dafna

        i hope that some one has purchased peter g. a starbucks gift card for the arbitrary new year so that he can resume blogging. preferably about topics such as procreating ourselves into distinction.

        i thought him the comic relief on another blog until i discovered an immensely talented seemingly angst ridden writer with an obsession for semantics. a veritable quill that could kill if leveled without restraint at fellow bloggers.

        apologies if my post includes bad writing and peacock terms. there are days i can barely form a thought let alone unravel a blog as tightly woven as the cyberquill. i do love trying. please convey my wish for a new entry to peter g.


        • Cyberquill

          A few years ago, someone actually gave me a $10.00 Starbucks gift card. I’ve been carrying in my wallet ever since, apparently hoping it will appreciate in value so that one day I’ll be able to sell it to a museum or something.

          I’ve heard of peacock orchids and split-peacock soup, but never of peacock terms. Being obsessed with semantics, I am, of course, always eager to learn new expressions. Thank you. But next time, please use italics 🙂

  • dafna

    snark, snark, snark, post, post, post, blog, blog blog, 12/28, son’s birthday date of your last blog entry.

    your arbitrary deadline for the next blog entry is 01/19, my birthday. and it’s a milestone sucks to be old age.

    any silly counting methods to make it my age sound younger? maybe if i count in base three, instead of base ten?

    opine away. your rights to opine will be revoked if you are NOT a mathematician, lawyer, politician, doctor, and/or expert on global warming. furthermore should your typos hit critical mass you blog will self destruct in 5, 4, 3…

    • Cyberquill

      My apologies, but I wasn’t aware of delivery deadlines on my own blog. I’ll see if I can whip something up by the 19th. [Update 1/20/10: Oops. No whipping occurred.]

      On account of being neither lawyer, doctor, mathematician, politician, nor expert on anything, I’m currently teetering on the verge of losing not only my rights to opine but also my ability to eat and--more importantly--my Internet connection. So right now I’m a bit distracted by having to figure out a way to generate some sort of income fast, or I’ll be moving under my favorite NYC bridge within the very near future. (I’m torn between Brooklyn and Queensborough. Depends on which one provides free Broadband.) Hence my somewhat diminished focus on regaling my readership of about seven people with angst-ridden monographs.

      If your upcoming milestone birthday ends in a zero, simply read the number backwards. If it ends in five, however, the reverse method only rejuvenates for ages 65 and up.

      Alternatively, you could add up the digits of your age, e.g., 99 = 9 + 9 = 18. That way, you’ll never be older than 18, at least not until you’re 199. (Where I’m from, we call this the Quersumme. I’m sure there’s an English term for that, but I had to hock my dictionary.)

  • Andreas

    Hey, you did it to me again! A post by you showed up in my RSS reader today (1/25) and I clicked through to find… an error page.

    This is getting more mysterious by the day. Clearly, there is a secret sub-blog only for the initiated.

    • Cyberquill

      Correct. There is a secret sub-blog indeed. It’s called trash bin.

      The situation is different than previously in that this time I deliberately posted a new entry and then pulled it, as I adjudged it an unfocused mess of an essay, and I didn’t know how to fix the stupid thing. Maybe I’ll repost it later when I’m in my “screw it” mood.

      I apologize for the inconvenience. I really don’t understand why deleted blog posts don’t simply disappear from other people’s RSS readers.

      • Andreas

        Try something different:

        Break your “essays” into component parts and just write and publish one bit at a time. Easier to read on iPhones, easier to write….

        You wouldn’t want to get a reputation as an RSS tease. You know what the girls say about those….

        • dafna

          forget about small parts, you are OCD compulsive with the words. there is beauty in imperfection -- you have a brilliant mind and a gift with words. learn to live with “inperfection” yours is a recipe for unhappiness.

          p.s. i take offense @ the only five readers comment as i am one of the five, you count me irrelevant. 🙁

          • Cyberquill

            I believe I said seven, not five. Probably three by now.

            Alright, so our motion is this:

            Overlong and unfocused blog posts should be broken into component parts and published one bit at a time.

            Let me introduce our panel:

            To my right is Andreas, arguing in favor of the motion. To my left is Dafna, arguing against it.


            I’ll just repost the darn thing--for if indeed there is “beauty in imperfection” who am I to withhold the literary equivalent of the Taj Mahal from the world?--and then I’ll see if I can cook up more coherent and iPhone-friendly blog entries in the future.

        • Cyberquill

          RSS tease. Ha. Good one. RSS terrorism will be next.

  • Emily

    Concur! I seem to remember the same debate about whether the new millenium started in 2000 or 2001. But I didn’t pay any attention then because I thought the world was going to end when the computers tried to do something with 2000!

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