or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Times

Calendars are nothing but trouble. Look at how long it took humanity to square away all the fractions of days and make a 365.2425-day year come out right. (I once read an entire book about it, but I don't remember the title: it might have been this one.) Heck, just look how hard it is to design a simple, readable large-print calendar on a business-card-sized surface.

The calendrical problem of reducing the day, month and year to numerals is one that continues to bedevil North Americans. My Finnish co-worker insists that day-month-year is the only logical way to do it--that's how Europeans uniformly do it--and I can't really disagree with her: if everyone agrees that the numbers run from the smallest unit of time to the largest, then we'll always get it right. The trouble is that in English, when speaking the date, we generally put the month first: "October 4th, 2007", which would reduce to "10/4/07", which of course means April 10th to many other people. The English-language method makes sense: it's not stupid or illogical, but an artifact of how we speak. (Some canonical dates are spoken small-to-large: "The Fourth of July", for instance, or "Cinco de Mayo". Those are the exception. Canada Day is "July 1st", not "The First of July".)

"Forward" and "back", when applied to a calendar, can cause no end of confusion. If you have an event planned for November 25th and then say, "We're moving the date forward"...well, which direction does that mean? Does "forward" mean "closer to me"? It certainly could: when you're standing on November 25th and looking down the road at a week or two hence, "forward" could easily look like "taking a couple of steps towards me". Or does it mean "further along the timeline which a calendar represents", and therefore "further away from me"? Either interpretation is logical, and yet they mean opposite things.

"Previous" and "next", when applied to time, seem to create the same difficulty. Blogs always arrange their entries in chronological order, with the newest entry on top. This only makes sense: when you go to the blog, you don't want to scroll all the way to the bottom of what could be an enormous list of postings just to read what's new. (I've done 724 postings in 32 months: would you want to work your way to the bottom of that?)

On The Consumerist. when you reach the bottom of the page, you get to the next entries--the older ones, the ones that naturally follow if the blog were one long list instead of being divided into pages--by clicking the button that reads "next". When you reach the bottom of that page, you can return to the entries you've previously read by clicking the "prev" button, or get to the next page of things you haven't read yet by clicking "next". Perfectly logical.

On Pharyngula, when you get to the bottom of the page, you can see the previous--which is to say older, or previously posted--entries by clicking the "previous" button. When you get to the bottom of that page, you can see even older entries by clicking "previous" again, which takes you to entries previous to the ones you've just been reading, or you can go to calendrically later entries by clicking the "next" button, the ones that are next along the timeline. Perfectly logical.

And so we have two perfectly logical ways of doing something, and they're absolutely opposite to one another, and I can never remember which blog uses which method, so if I haven't read a particular blog in a while, I always seem to guess wrong and end up going where I've already been.* It's a small thing, but it's annoying.

You want to know why we can't solve the big problems like global warming and war? Because we can't even solve the little problems like what two words mean.

*<There are other ways around the problem. I Can Has Cheezburger?, the best lolcats site, simply numbers all the pages in reverse chronological order, and the bottom of each page lets you go to one of a few other pages, to the next page, or to the last page, so you can work your way back from the beginning. Boingboing, the "Directory of Wonderful Things", puts a number of the day's posts on one page, lets you click a button reading "Continue Reading Older Posts", which puts all of that day's posts on one page, and then finally gives you the options of reading "A Day Earlier" and "A Day Later", labelled with the actual dates. That seems perfect to me.


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