Age and Treachery

It seems that numbers rule our lives. Time, distance, money, and all sorts of things in our experience are quantified in numbers. Existence itself can be described in terms of mathematical functions, which are systems of numbers and their relationship.

There are many numbering systems used for different purposes. Time, for example, is measured in seconds, of which there are sixty to a minute, of which there are sixty to an hour, of which there are twenty-four to a day. After that, it gets a little complicated in that there are seven days to a week, 52.14285 weeks to a year (52.28571 to a leap year), and months which vary in the number of days. In Britain prior to February 15, 1971 (“Decimal Day”) the currency was measured by the pound, consisting of 20 shillings of 12 pence each, or 240 pence. I made it to England once before the switch where the taxman’s take was “one for you, nineteen for me” – shillings, that is.

The number system we use for common applications is, of course, the base-10, or decimal, system. Various explanations of how this came to be include the existence of ten fingers and toes to count with. Whatever its origin, it is ubiquitous; the ten arabic numerals are familiar everywhere. The use of 10 as a base, however, does not have to be. Other systems include the binary system where only 0 and 1 are used (decimal 8 is binary 1000). This system is convenient for digital (whence the name) electronic systems as the state of on-off, positive-negative, north-south polarity, can be easily represented mathematically. Other computer oriented number systems include the octal, which has 8 numerals, and the hexadecimal, which has sixteen, the letters A–F used to represent the six extra numerals. Don’t ask me why these systems work better in those applications. I’m sure some who read this can explain.

The duodecimal system – base 12 – seems like it would be the second most intuitive system. The number twelve keeps popping up inexplicitly in various places throughout history. The ancient Hebrews had twelve tribes; Jesus had twelve apostles. Juries have twelve members. A dozen was and is a common quantity of goods. The time measurements are divisible by twelve. This would include the year, but for those pesky extra five or six days. We normally count the these multiples of twelve with our decimal system, but we could use the duodecimal system, which would add two additional numeral, say “A” for the decimal 10 and “B” for the decimal 11; 10 would come to represent decimal 12. In duodecimal, decimal 22 would be 1A.

Walter Russell Mead, the Bard College professor and editor-at-large of The American Interest, suggests that we begin to use the duodecimal system to express human age. Mead takes the now oft heard assertion that “60 is the new 50”, and so forth, to another level. The decimal 60, really is 50 in duodecimal notation. Mead’s point is that we humans, especially in developed nations such as the U.S., are now living longer, healthier, and more productive lives. “[B] barring accidents or unusual events, people at 60 (old style) can reasonably expect another fifteen years of active life, and quite possibly more. In thinking about where one stands in the arc of life, base twelve actually provides a more accurate measure.” Mead says.

“As people get used to these longer life expectancies and longer periods of preparation at the start of life, we will adjust, but right now our arithmetic is out of touch with our life experience. I notice this as much among college students and people in their twenties and thirties as among aspiring geezers like myself. Lots of young people go through all kinds of angst as their thirtieth birthday approaches because culturally they are conditioned to associate the age of ’30′ with a certain stage of life; by then your career ‘should’ be well launched.

“But in a world in which many people are in college until 22 or 23, then take two to five years to figure out what to do next, and then start professional school (a perfectly sensible and appropriate way for somebody to make life choices in our world today) that milestone birthday of ‘30′ approaches and there isn’t much to show for it.”

Mead wonders if this thinking in duodecimal is a form of denial of reality, and then concludes that it doesn’t have to be. He’s right. In my experience, age and treachery will always overcome youth and enthusiasm.

By the way, the new Dallas is now in its second week. Wanna bet on whether the aged J.R., or the whippersnapper John Ross wins out?

See Mead’s essay here:  On Turning Fifty

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