Stuck with whatever sticks

It’s tempting to imagine the future being radically different and constructed in some logical fashion, the truth is that a lot of what will be around will be, like a lot is right now, just things that are not optimal but would be monstrously impractical to change.

Sometimes one gets the feeling that with the advent of our well-connected and niceness-preferring world it has become too late to change some things — you can’t gestate some project of your own in a land isolated from the rest of the world only to unleash it in rampaging hordes of idea-spreading morons that lay first claim on something that hasn’t been codified before, and you can’t sail forth anymore, tell people what their land’s called now, and shoot all that oppose you. (Well, some would disagree.)

The immediate example of something arbitrary that sticks would be the current universal count of years — but there are of course people that see something special in that guesstimate of the birth of a self-claimed messiah in Judea of old, or in some other more local date, and I myself can’t think of any particular year on our wiggly gradient to better days that would merit being year zero.

(Not that the current BCE/CE count has a year zero — another reason to cuss that 6th-century monk who devised it — which leads to certain problems with the counting of millennia, as you no doubt were reminded again and again some ten years ago, unless you were one of those accurate folks, bless you, that were doing the reminding.)

And switching the arbitrary start-point would play incredible havoc with all records and with all public life even if there weren’t such dedicated cross-eyed opponents to such a thing, so no go. (Besides: what to start with? Newton? Neil Armstrong? Or if you want to avoid the “minus years” confusion, put the startpoint to “earliest civilized essential X” — and witness the immediate discovery of something older.)

Nah, the best example of something (in my opinion) suboptimal that sticks is the decimal system. My matematical gripe with it (and as you know, mathematical types don’t deal with actual dirty numerals that much; it’s a this and b that all the way) is that ten is divisible with only 2 and 5; but (for example) 12 is divided by 2, 3, 4 and 6. The results of this are not intuitively obvious, but this means (as an example) that fractions in base ten are a horrible mess; those in base twelve are much nicer. Elementary mathematics (and that’s what’s really widely used by everyone, outside applications like computers and cellphones where the maths is “buried inside”) would be much easier in base twelve. As there is no magic or any special reason (except the accident of ten fingers) to keep the decimal system, we would be much better off with a dozenal one. And even ten fingers — well, you have ten fingers and two wrists, right? That’s twelve.

But base twelve in widespread use — never going to happen. The transition would be monstrous, the cost beyond all calculation, the confusion unspeakable and unthinkable, and the widespread lynchings of mathematicians on whom this all would be blamed would be rather distruptive to calm academic life. Not going to happen: we have something arbitrary and suboptimal, and we’re stuck with it, as with the current count of time, and the QWERTY keyboard, and the (to me anyway) unaesthetic Egypto-Babylonian mess of having the day arbitrarily divided into 24 units divided into 60 sub-units divided into 60 sub-sub-units, which then divide into decimal parts. It’s madness; but we’re stuck with it.

(Then again, the French Revolution tried to fix some of these things — but apart from all ethical concerns, force works only if you apply it long enough to make the changes stick, and then Napoleon came along and all the reforms fell apart. One wishes the Americans would have cried out “Decimal units of time! We support our French brethren! We shall adapt that and spread it around the world!” — but no, hours and feet and similar mad arbitrary things persist. And it’s not the arbitrariness that irritates — it’s the bother and inelegance of such a cobbled-together system. For further thought, see the British system of coins before 1971. It’s bad planning to make elementary units more complex than they need to be.)

(Well, base ten will stick, unless some bottleneck happens: We’d only need someone mathematically inclined as the supreme dictator of all mankind for a while — wait, that’s usually a bad idea. Strong leaders with Opinions tend to go all Saparmurat Niyazov, which is funny only from the outside. “Ha ha; our leader made a giant golden statue of himself and we have no food. Ha ha.”)

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