The day before the end of the Gregorian year

Things are done differently in different parts of the world. Here in the U.S., there is discussion of trying John Walker for treason and executing him. In Sweden earlier this month, four people were convicted of treason (the first such conviction anyone could remember); they’re being fined up to about $370 each.

Their crime was throwing a strawberry cream cake at King Carl Gustav. They were 16 and 17 years old.

In the village of Newark, New York, two 18-year-olds face a year in jail and a $1000 fine. The crime they are accused of is “liberating” garden gnomes. Yes, they are allegedly members of the dreaded global Garden Gnome Liberation Front.

A photo in the New York Times of a legislative aide in India showed him holding hands with two taller men, their fingers intertwined. The caption indicated the taller men were taking the aide to jail. The hand holding looked a lot nicer than handcuffs.

When we were in South Africa a few years ago, we stayed in hotels of the same chain in Johannesburg and Cape Town. In Johannesburg, the hotel was surrounded by a 20-foot-high security fence. The armed guard at the gate carefully examined our driver’s papers before allowing us into the compound. Several guards tried to discourage us from going for a walk outside the secured area.

In Cape Town, the same chain’s hotel had neither a fence nor guards. The front desk personnel seemed a little surprised that we wanted to walk instead of taking the hotel’s courtesy van, but they were happy to provide directions and were in no way discouraging.

We found neither neighborhood threatening, but the additional security in Johannesburg didn’t make us feel more secure. On the contrary, the complete LACK of security in Cape Town was more comforting.

When I arrived back at Newark Airport on Friday night, people were still being told to remove their shoes and have them x-rayed before being allowed to pass to the gate area. At my departure airport, however, where many people were wearing large, heavy boots, no one examined anyone’s shoes.

In Madagascar in June, five of the airports we used had no security whatsoever (at the sixth it was do-it-yourself). As at the Cape Town hotel, we found that comforting rather than frightening. If they aren’t concerned, why should we be?

According to Peter Tyson in “The Eighth Continent,” the rural residents of Madagascar use interesting terms to tell time. What we call noon, they call “over the ridge of the roof,” a reference to the sun’s position in the sky. Our midnight is their nearly identical “halving of the night,” but we have no equivalent for their description of 4:30 in the afternoon as “the cow newly calved comes home.”

The book lists descriptive terms for roughly every quarter-hour period between approximately 6 and 7 (both am and pm), but it lists no term for 1 am or 10 am. There appears to be no term for 11 am or pm either. And why should there be? Today there are clocks in Madagascar, but there is nothing natural about the division of a day into 24 hours, nor the division of those hours into minutes, nor the division of the minutes into seconds.

A day is a natural phenomenon. So is a year. So is the 29.5-day period of a lunar month. The seven-day week, however, seems to come from the biblical concept of divine creation. Nevertheless, it is found worldwide. There may be no rural Malagasy term for 11 pm, but they have names for each of the seven days of a week.

Similarly, Christmas is celebrated around the world, and not just by Christians. A train crash last week in Muslim Indonesia had a high death toll in part because so many people were traveling for Christmas. In Kabul last week, reportedly for the first time since the Taliban took power, Christmas trees were being sold on the streets.

Of course, a holiday on December 25 long predates Christianity. The ancient Romans celebrated it as “natalis invicti solis,” the birthday of the unconquerable sun; some Christians later changed it from “sun” to “son.” The 12-day celebration is even older, dating to the Mesopotamian New Year holiday. The ancient Persian holiday of Sacaea was also celebrated on what we’d call December 25.

Today, the 30th of December of 2001, is the 9th of Dey of 1380 in a more-recent Persian calendar, one reportedly used in Afghanistan. It is either the 14th or 15th of Shawwal of 1422 in the Islamic calendar, depending on whether you go by calculation or observation. According to the Jewish calendar (where the New Year comes in the seventh month), it’s the 15th of Tevet of 5762 — until sundown. In the Chinese calendar, it’s the 16th day of the 11th month of the 18th year of the 78th cycle. According to the old Julian calendar, it’s December 17.

In New York, at midnight tomorrow night, it will be the end of Rudolph Giuliani’s term as mayor. As he promised he would, he came up before the end of his term with a deal covering two new baseball stadiums.

They would cost $1.6 billion. The teams would supposedly pay half the costs, but the $23 million a year they would contribute would be in lieu of taxes. The new ballparks would each seat about 10,000 fewer fans than the current ones. The teams are not worried about lost revenues, however, because they would have new high-priced luxury “suites” and “club” seats.

The replacement stadium for the Mets would be built in the parking area of the current Shea Stadium. The replacement for the Yankees would be built in what is now a park, assuming the state grants permission to destroy that green space. Both would be farther from existing subways, but part of the arrangement would have the city making transportation improvements. The new mayor is not bound by Rudy’s deal.

The transfer of mayoral power will take place in front of the estimated half-million celebrants in Times Square. Some 7,000 New York City police have been assigned to the area. They will be using, among other tools, radiation detectors to help spot nuclear weapons. I wish I were kidding about that.

Times Square, like other Manhattan “squares,” exists because Broadway doesn’t follow the normal street grid. South of Times Square, where Broadway meets Sixth Avenue, it creates Herald Square, home of Macy’s, the world’s largest department store.

On Thursday in Herald Square, during the afternoon rush hour, the police asked the driver of an illegally positioned van to move it. It lurched into a crowd of pedestrians before smashing into a bus. Seven people were killed. The driver said the van accelerated on its own.

The victims’ families suffered losses no less than those of the families of the September 11 victims, but no special charitable funds have yet been created to help them. The government is not expected to pay them up to $4.5 million each in compensation, as it is doing for the September 11 victims’ families.

An insurance company that lost many of its employees on September 11 thought it was being nice when it announced last week that it would maintain health coverage for its victims’ families for three years. It has been chided for being stingy.

There are people with no health insurance whatsoever. There are people with no homes. There are people with no food. There are many people with many needs.

The New Year is traditionally a time for making resolutions. It is also traditional not to keep them. But it is not yet the New Year.

As I’ve mentioned before, here in the United States, the government helps you make charitable donations by allowing them to be deducted from your income before calculating your taxes. As I write this, there is more than a day left to have your contributions count against your 2001 income.

Please don’t just resolve; please do. Thanks!

TTFN, Mark

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