An Extra Day and a Hot Mess

Sometime around the year 1235, Johannes de Sacrobosco, a monk and astronomer teaching at the University of Paris, published his Du Computo Ecclesiastico, an in-depth study of the hot mess that is the history of the calendar in all its various imaginings and recalculations through the years.

Though I haven’t read it, the history rumor mill suggests the book is pretty scholarly. Sacrobosco definitely had a lot of things to say about the way the passage of time should be measured, including a few suggestions for reckoning the Julian calendar to solar and lunar observations and calculations. By his day, the equinoxes and solstices had already experienced a pretty significant backwards slippage in time.

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Julius Caesar wishing February had been a little bit longer, because March wasn’t looking so good for him. Vincenzo Camuccini / Public domain

The book also includes a story about how the calendar ended up in such a terrible fix in the first place, like that time the month of February became comically short because Augustus Caesar decided to borrow a day for his own namesake month of August so that it would be every bit as long as the previous month named for his dad.

February is comically short, not only because it usually has twenty-eight days instead of the more traditional thirty or thirty-one, but because it follows January, which at least in my corner of the world is the longest darn month of the year. It’s bleak and cold and filled with the junk you put off during the holidays. Oh, and it follows the holiday season, which is as fun as January isn’t.

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Any month that starts off with a groundhog is pretty okay in my book. Picture by hatlerbratton, via Pixabay

Like it has most years I can remember, February has kind of flown by comparison. This shortest month comes with a furry mascot, a celebration of love, Girl Scout cookies, the start of baseball spring training, and slightly brighter days. Mine probably went especially fast, too, because it included a book launch and the corresponding flurry of activity. My calendar has actually been kind of a hot mess.

But as “not as awful as January” as February is, it does kind of get the shaft, even in leap years like this one. Had I been in Sacrobosco’s place writing a treatise on the convoluted history and problem of calendars (which I assure you no one would call a pretty scholarly work), I also would have included that story about Augustus Caesar lopping off February’s end, because it’s a pretty great one. Of course, it wouldn’t have been true if I’d written it, either.

It turns out there’s plenty of evidence that the calendar’s multitude of problematic and somewhat sporadically assigned month lengths predated both Augustus and Julius. The latter did do his level best to fix it, consulting with the astronomer Sosigenes from Egypt to come up with a 365-day year that corrected with a leap day every fourth year.

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Pope Gregory XII, a man whose calendar was not a hot mess. Justus van Gent / Public domain

Not bad. But it didn’t fix the problem indefinitely and it wasn’t until three hundred fifty years after Sacrobosco’s book that Pope Gregory XII made a really good change to the plan. That’s when it was decided that the calendar everyone would use (except for those who didn’t feel like it) would include 365 days, with a leap year every fourth year, except for a century year, unless it could be evenly divided by four hundred.

Simple, no?

But it has more or less worked since then with a large chunk of the world buying in to its use, or at least more or less understanding it so that business can be conducted with relative ease all 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds of the year.

It’s still not perfect and will need more corrective action over the course of millennia. Evidently the rotation of the earth isn’t even entirely consistent, making our measurement of time a little less precise than we’d probably like to think. But there are astronomers who regularly work on that problem and keep us all on track by occasionally adding an extra one-Mississippi to the clock. I imagine most of us aren’t much bothered.

In fact, other than the approximately 4.2 million “leaplings” world wide who will be celebrating their birthday this Saturday or the hopelessly romantic ladies who will be exploiting a silly tradition and proposing to their fellas, a lot of us probably barely even notice February 29th when it rolls around.

Unless you’re like me and your calendar is a little bit of a hot mess. Personally, I plan to make good use of this February’s extra day.

Considering Poll Dancing*

In 1936, Alf Landon did not become the president of the United States. Instead, Franklin Roosevelt handily won a second term. That surprised a few people. Mostly, it surprised the folks conducting polling for the Literary Digest, which had become accustomed, over the course of the previous five presidential elections, to getting it right.

One person that wasn’t surprised was journalist and ad executive George H. Gallup. He’d conducted a poll of his own, sampling a mere 50,000 likely voters while the Literary Digest received responses from 2.3 million of its subscribers.

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George H. Gallup. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In today’s culture surrounded by incessant talk of bias and misrepresentation of data, it might be fairly obvious the Literary Journal failed to take some things into account. It was certainly obvious to Gallup, who insisted that a large number of respondents didn’t matter nearly as much as making sure the collected sample was representative of a wide range of demographics. His rival pollsters (though they weren’t yet called that), were listening only to the folks who gravitated to their publication.

Gallup called the election of 1936 correctly and went on to develop the Gallup International Association, a world-wide collection of polling organizations, and later his own analytics company based in Washington, D.C. called Gallup, Inc. His name now represents the gold standard of scientific polls, and more often than not, they serve as pretty good predictors.

Of course, polls can still be wrong. The wording of questions can subtly introduce unintended bias, the timing of polls and the news cycle can interfere with results, or basic human nature can influence respondents to be less than forthcoming. But even knowing this can sometimes happen, I think opinion polls can still perform an important service in politics, in advertising, and in publishing.

 

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There will always be people (like me) who won’t answer their phones.

I am not, nor have I ever been, a professional pollster, and though I did fairly well in a statistics class in college, I’m probably not the person you want to call on to analyze your data. But I do have a question for you.

Some of you have been reading this blog for a long time, but others have discovered this little corner of the Internet more recently. For the benefit of those who don’t know much about me, let me first give you a little bit of background:

I am a writer of historical fiction who, at the advice of a friend, started writing this silly little history blog almost seven years ago. Much to my surprise and delight, some people kind of liked it and so once my first novel was under contract with a small press, I self-published a collection of some favorite posts from the first five years of the blog, as both a way to celebrate the silliness I seem to get away with in this space and also promote my forthcoming novel.

Then, like so many rotten small presses evidently do, my publisher essentially vanished, temporarily holding hostage the rights to my first novel. It’s a sad story you can read about (here) if you really want to. That’s when I decided to self-publish a companion novel to the first. It’s called Gentleman of Misfortune and I think it’s a pretty good book that you would like.

In less than a year my rights to the first book will return to me and I will finally share with the world another story that I am proud of and that I think you will like.

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I don’t have cover art for the new book yet, but as the two novels are closely related, it will be something that jives with this.

This novel also had a title I liked very much and that I had a very good reason for wanting. As publishers will sometimes do, mine disagreed with me. After much deliberation, we came to a compromise and found a title we could both live with. So, here’s my question, in the form of a terribly informal, nonscientific poll:

Not knowing anything about the book outside of the fact that it’s a historical thriller closely related to Gentleman of Misfortune (I realize you may or may not have read it), which title do you find more compelling?

1. Smoke Rose to Heaven

2. Burned Over

If you have read Gentleman of Misfortune and the accompanying author’s note, or my other book Launching Sheep & Other Stories, which includes a preview of this finally forthcoming novel, then you probably can figure out which title is my original and which one is the compromise with a rotten publisher.

If that’s the case, please don’t let that influence your choice. I really am fond of each title. I’m just realizing that as this book returns to me, I once again have the freedom to choose and I’d love your (now hopelessly biased) opinion. You can either hop over to my Facebook page (here) and participate in the poll, or drop your choice in the comments below. If you feel really strongly one way or the other, you can even do both.

I know this poll wouldn’t hold up to the standards of George H. Gallup, and I might end up with the wrong title for the book, the one that means I’ll sell a handful of copies instead of the millions that will land me on the New York Times bestseller list. But that’s okay. I’d love your opinion anyway. Thanks!

*If you clicked on this post expecting an insightful consideration of POLE dancing, try this link instead. 😉

 

So Cold: The Secret to My Success

Occasionally someone will ask—either at a reading event or in casual conversation—whether I find it difficult to work at home. They wonder if I get distracted by the dishes or the errands or the dirty socks my children have inevitably left stuffed behind the couch cushions.

Of course, I have to admit that sometimes I do. Sitting behind a computer screen with no one to talk to except the dog (a good listener) and the chorus of characters (not great listeners) competing for attention in my head can get a little tiresome. Then the household stuff calls to me. It’s a convenient distraction—one I can always justify because those things need to get taken care of, too.

I generally reply that I get by because I’m list-maker and dedicated time manager, and I am, but I also have a special, motivational weapon in my arsenal, especially this time of year.

I’m cold.

Like seriously cold. All. The. Time.

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One study suggests that a third of all couples argue over the temperature setting in their homes, and 40% of women admit to secretly turning up the heat when their significant other isn’t looking. photo credit: EE Image Database Woman giving the thumbs-up sign and pointing to a thermostat on the wall in her home via photopin (license)

People have been finding clever ways to keep our environments warm pretty much since the invention of people, when cave men and cave women argued about how much to build up the campfire.

In ancient Rome, some buildings evidently used systems of pipes to force hot air from pockets of empty space beneath a fire into walls as a clever method of using radiant heat to warm up a room.

After a few dark and chilly centuries when heating returned to a more primitive style, other solutions began to emerge. In 13th century Europe, the Cistercian Order of monks began using diverted and heated river water to warm their monasteries. Better stoves and chimneys were developed through the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. Then Benjamin Franklin invented his (appropriately named) Franklin Stove in 1741, which proved to be a somewhat effective way to force warmth and smoke into a room in greater amounts than your average fireplace.

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My dog’s favorite solar powered heating system.

Over the next hundred years or so, Scotsman James Watt came up with a steam-driven heating system, Russian Franz San Galli invented the radiator, and American professor Warren Johnson patented the first thermostat, because he was tired of classrooms that were either too hot or too cold. I think we’ve all been there.

Just a few short years later in 1919, Alice H. Parker patented the first central heating system that used natural gas. An African American woman enduring harsh New Jersey winters, Parker said she developed the idea that formed an important basis for the convenient and safer heating systems of today because she was cold and her fireplace just wasn’t cutting it. I hear that.

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Dressed for a day at the office.

According to a 2015 Dutch study, most women probably do. On average, the researchers found, ladies tend to be comfortable with a warmer ambient temperature than their gentleman counterparts do. The findings (which surprised absolutely no one who has ever attempted to share a home with a member of the opposite sex), sparked a discussion of whether office thermostats are sexist. Or something like that.

The idea was that back in the day when offices contained mostly men in three-piece suits, temperature levels were set for the comfort of those men. Today, as offices tend to contain more equal numbers of men and women, the temperatures remain set for ideal manly comfort standards. There’s a fancy formula engineers use to determine the optimal level of temperature comfort as determined by humidity, air temperature, and mean metabolic rates, etc. The problem, according to the study, is that the formula overestimates the amount of heat produced by a resting woman.

The differences have been attributed to estrogen production and muscle mass to fat ratios, which tend to be different between men and women. I don’t know that I would go so far to call the thermostat a source of inherent workplace sexism, but the struggle is real, and lots of women throughout the workforce carry an extra sweater to the office.

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The secret to my success: a closed door and a space heater.

As someone who works primarily at home, I use the problem to my advantage, because I am the lone female living with three males. Through the winter, my house is always at least 2 (or 3 or 4) degrees colder than I’d like it to be. Yes, when my sons head off to school and my husband to work, I could turn up the thermostat and no one would complain.

Instead, I walk down the stairs and through a long hallway to my hidey hole office in the basement where I close the door and turn on my own personal space heater, before sitting down to work. Pretty soon, the dishes and the errands and the dirty socks begin to call to me, when the words don’t want to flow and the character voices have gone silent. When that happens, all I have to do is step outside of my office into my cold, cold house. I don’t stay there for long.

The World’s Favorite Sociopath: A Goal for 2019

In 1877 a young would-be physician walked into the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and met an attending physician who seemed already to know everything there was to know about him just by making a few astute observations. Dr. Joseph Bell had a habit of showing off his highly refined detective skills in order to impress upon his students the importance of taking a careful survey of a patient before launching into treatment.

sociopathThis so impressed medical student and writer Arthur Conan Doyle that when he published A Study in Scarlet, his first detective novel, nearly a decade later, Dr. Joseph Bell’s mad skills of observation showed up in the habits of a brilliant consultant named Sherlock Holmes.

When asked about his inspiration for his beloved consulting detective, Conan Doyle always answered that the character was drawn from Joseph Bell, himself a famous surgeon and forensic scientist known for drawing large conclusions from minute evidence. The two had worked closely together for a few years, as Conan Doyle clerked for Bell, a kind of Dr. Watson to his Sherlock. It probably makes sense that Bell might show up in his student’s work.

I recently became re-introduced to Sherlock Holmes when my oldest son discovered him. My son cut his teeth on the BBC show Sherlock in which the modern-day Holmes is brilliantly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, but then he made this mama proud by plowing his way through Arthur Conan Doyle’s original works as well.

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The game is afoot!

So, when he recently turned fourteen, we celebrated with a Sherlock Holmes party, complete with a mystery to solve, a deerstalker to wear, and a little brother dressed up as John Watson. He made a good Sherlock, though I’m happy to report he’s a little more socially aware than the character.

Despite Conan Doyle’s repeated claim, there were likely other influences that contributed to the development of Sherlock Holmes as well. Edgar Allan Poe essentially created the detective fiction genre and Conan Doyle had been known to praise his efforts. The contemporary works of Émile Gaboriau also seem to echo at times through the character of Sherlock Holmes. And then there was Joseph Bell’s own claim in a letter to his former student in which he wrote, “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it.”

I don’t blame him one bit for rejecting the honor. Holmes is something of a single-minded sociopath with little use for other people and a significant cocaine addiction. He’s a fascinating character and if I’m ever falsely accused of murder, I’ll want someone just like him on the case. But I wouldn’t want to hang out with him.

Because many of the people I do hang out with regularly are writers, I’m not surprised to read that Conan Doyle’s most famous character was inspired by someone he knew. That kind of goes with the territory when you are friends with a writer.

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Never mess with a writer.

I even once had a professor who boldly confessed that the “friend” character in every novel he’d ever written was almost exactly based on a boy he’d known growing up. I’ve never done anything so blatant. None of my characters has ever been intentionally patterned off someone in my life, but I’m sure if I really thought about it, I could recognize bits of those I know and love within my work.

I suspect that’s true of most fiction writers. Like Conan Doyle’s famous detective, we draw inspiration from a variety of places—ourselves, great books, and yes, occasionally from people we know. I guess that might bother some folks. Maybe it bothers you. It just kind of makes me want to be the type of person who could inspire a great character.

And that sounds like a good goal for 2019.

Happy New Year!

Superglue, Bailing Wire, and Candy Cane Goo

Christmas is almost here and I admit, the season is starting to get the best of me. So . . . please enjoy this throwback post, originally written in December of 2014. And Merry Christmas!

Author Sarah Angleton

If you were to walk into my parents’ house at Christmastime, you would see an artificial Christmas tree strung with lights and topped with the same lighted, multicolored star my parents have had for as long as I can remember. At this point I’m pretty sure the star contains more bailing wire and superglue than original material and still it’s held together mainly by the sheer will of Christmas spirit. Well, that, and maybe a little sticky candy cane goo.

The most precious ornaments are always made with Popsicle sticks put together by little fingers. The most precious ornaments are always made with Popsicle sticks put together by little fingers.

I don’t remember when it happened because I had to have been very small at the time, but the story goes that as the family worked together to decorate the Christmas tree, my eldest brother, who is easily the tallest in the family, was teasing my sister, just two years younger and quite a bit…

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Interview with a Krampus

I don’t know about you, but I definitely have a healthy dose of the Christmas spirit this year. The decorations are up, the lights are lit, and rebellious radio stations are pumping out classic holiday tunes like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Most of my shopping is done, there are way too many cookies in my house, and a candy cane hangs on the star that tops our tree.

Everything is feeling like Christmas, and it’s kind of perfect. Or at least it was, until a more sinister holiday tradition found its way onto my radar. Before we snuggle into our beds to dream of sugarplums, I think it’s time we talk about Krampus.

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I would give these people figgy pudding if they showed up on my doorstep.

Maybe you’ve always been aware of St. Nick’s demon counterpart. I grew up happy, so I didn’t know about him until a few years ago. And I never met him until last night.

The origin of this dark character is a little unclear. The name Krampus probably comes from Krampen, the German word for claw, though similar traditions have come from all over Europe and may predate the sweeter celebrations of Christmas.

He is part goat, part demon, reminiscent of the traditional horned Satan of Christianity, and he comes on Krampusnacht on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day. He comes lugging chains and carrying a bundle of birch branches for swatting naughty children. The truly rotten kiddos, he stuffs in the sack on his back and carries them off, presumably to eat them.

Yikes. Merry Christmas!

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Krampus is useful if you need to keep the kiddos out of the room where the Christmas gifts are hidden.

As you can probably tell, I’m not a big fan of this particular tradition. Honestly, Santa breaking and entering from the rooftop to snack on cookies isn’t high on my list, either, but at least he’s not devouring the children.

But because I, thankfully, didn’t grow up with Krampus in my life, I thought I should learn a bit about him as his popularity resurges throughout Europe and the United States. I went to the one place where I knew he’d be.

Saint Charles, Missouri, not too far from where I live, hosts an annual celebration called Christmas Traditions through several blocks of its charming brick road Main Street that runs alongside the Missouri River.

It’s a great family event, where you can catch a horse-drawn carriage ride, buy chestnuts roasted on an open fire, and listen to roaming packs of Victorian carolers begging for figgy pudding. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, characters of Christmas, including Susie Snowflake, Tiny Tim, and a whole host of traditional Father Christmases from around the world gather along the shop-lined lane and mingle with the crowd, handing out trading cards and holiday cheer.

On Wednesday evenings you can find them, too, but that’s also when the darker side of Christmas comes out to play. That’s when I went looking for Krampus. I had a hard time finding him at first so I asked a kindly old Kris Kringle, who was visibly distressed by the question. “We keep the naughty characters on the north end of the street,” he explained. “I should warn you, they’re a tough bunch, a little rough around the edges.”

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One Christmas tradition I think I could do without.

I thanked him and headed north where I discovered an abominable snowman, the Ice Queen, and Jolakotturinn, an Icelandic mouse demon that also eats people and will now haunt my sugarplum dreams.

At last I spotted the man/goat/demon himself. He was busy wishing people a happy President’s Day, Labor Day, or Columbus Day—anything but Christmas, a holiday he didn’t care to acknowledge. He handed out cards only when children said the magic phrase: “Give me a card, now!” I didn’t actually see him stuff any of them into a bag, but I could tell he was thinking about it. I’d have asked him. I even planned to. But he was a little rough around the edges.

Is Krampus a part of your holiday traditions?

 

Puritans Inhaling Swamp Gas

Sometime in late February of 1639, a man by the name of James Everell, along with two of his Puritan buddies, rowed his boat up the Muddy River of Massachusetts and spotted a weird light in the sky. The light appeared as a large flame, about three yards square, and then began to dart around the sky, taking on a different shape, like that of a swine, presumably still on fire.

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Maybe that fancy, dancy light was just the aliens’ way of inviting the men to a pig roast. photo credit: eric dickman Pig Roast ’05 via photopin (license)

After a few mesmerizing hours of watching the flaming pig streak back and forth across the sky, the three men realized that during that time, they had somehow ended up a mile upstream from where they’d been with no recollection of how they’d gotten there.

But here’s the really strange part. These three pals actually told people they’d watched a flaming pig fly through the night sky. By people, I mean they told John Winthrop, then governor of the Massachusetts Colony and among the puritanest of Puritans. On March 1, 1639 he wrote down the account in his now well-studied diary. It’s clear he found the tale a little odd, but also that he believed the tale-tellers to be credible men who generally made pretty bang-up witnesses.

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John Winthrop. If this man told me he’d been abducted by aliens, I’d probably believe him. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a few possible explanations, then, for what these reliable men saw. First, and obviously most likely, this could be the earliest written account of a North American UFO sighting and alien abduction. Alternatively, these gentlemen could have been boating to a safe distance away from the stocks before overindulging in their puritanical beer. Or of course the whole thing could just be an example of spontaneously igniting swamp gas reflecting off Venus.

Governor Winthrop proposed another explanation nearly five years later when two similar events occurred. During the second of these later events, a voice accompanied the mysterious lights. Winthrop’s most reliable witnesses said they heard the words, “Boy! Boy! Come away! Come away!”

The governor notes fourteen days later, the same voice could be heard again. The reason, he suggests, is that the colony had recently experienced a nearby shipwreck resulting in an explosion. All the victims’ bodies were accounted for except one. Logically, Winthrop theorized the Devil had possessed the body and was now using it, along with a freaky light show, to terrorize the colonists. Hmm. Maybe.

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This guy knows what I’m talking about. photo credit: c r i s They’re Coming To Take Me Away / 135.365 via photopin (license)

Then again, perhaps a bunch of enthusiastic otherworldly visitors were calling to their human would-be abductees as they have so many times in generations since. Personally, I’m a little skeptical, but perhaps you’re not. Perhaps you, or someone whose story you find credible, have experienced something that to the rest of us might seem a little far out there.

If so, then National Alien Abduction Day, observed in the US on March 20 every year for at least the last decade, may be just the day for you. As for me, I think I’ll avoid the swamp gas and the puritanical beer that day. Perhaps I’ll fashion a nice aluminum foil hat, too, just in case.