I forgot!

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Well, I almost forgot to write my weekly post. My excuse is that Monday is a public holiday and this upset my schedule. Of course this is only an excuse.

It did start me thinking about forgetting things. We have probably all forgotten appointments at one time or another, though with cell phones being ubiquitous and possessing calendars, we probably should never do so in the future. Yeah, right!

A page of a calendar.
A page of a calendar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The reasons why we forget appointments can be myriad, but I’d suggest that at least some of the appointments that we miss are ones that we would prefer to miss, such dentist appointments. I’d guess that we would be much more likely to remember lunch appointments or some other types of appointments that we would enjoy.

Some people seem to forget things that I am unlikely to forget, such as plane flights. It always amazes me that people can turn up for flights at the last minute. I’m usually in the airport, waiting, well before the official check-in time starts.

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It is probably a consequence of our busy lives that we need calendars and other “aide memoires” like shopping lists. One can imagine that in earlier times to-do lists were shorter and the number things that one needed to carry on a normal life was a lot smaller and our memories were able to cope. But then again, that may be an illusion. Was life really simpler in the past?

If you miss an appointment that affects not only you, but the people with whom you have the appointment. The dentist will be looking at an empty chair, and while he may enjoy the break, it will cost him money. That’s why some service providers like dentists may charge you a fee if you forget an appointment. Some places get the receptionist to send you a text the day before as a reminder.

Honthorst, Gerard van - The Dentist - 1622
Honthorst, Gerard van – The Dentist – 1622 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although I’ve suggested above that maybe in simpler times the need for a calendar was less, the need was not non-existent. Farmers, for example, need to know the best time to plant seeds to ensure a good crop.

The Babylonian calendar for example was based on both lunar and solar cycles which would enable the priests to suggest the correct time for planting crops. This calendar has its origins around 2000 BCE according to Wikipedia.

Map showing the Babylonian territory upon Hamm...
Map showing the Babylonian territory upon Hammurabi’s ascension in 1792 BC and upon his death in 1750 BC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Mayan calendar is even older, with roots in the 5th century BCE. The Mayan calendar came to popular attention in 2012, when it was conjectured that the Mayan calendar would end on 21 December 2012, and that this would signal a global catastrophe.

Of course nothing significant happened and the Wikipedia article on the topic explains that the Mayan calendar did not end on that date. Surely very few people seriously thought that it would. Even the ancient Mayans did not predict a calamity at that time, so far as scholars are aware.

Complete Haab cycle. This photo was taken by t...
Complete Haab cycle. This photo was taken by the usuary Theilr and posted in the Flickr site (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Forgetting important dates is a recipe for matrimonial disharmony. There seems to be a gender bias here as most males do not worry too much if you miss a birthday, but it seems more important to females. Whether or not this is real gender difference or merely a societal one, I’m not prepared to guess. Whatever the cause, it is best to remember one’s spouse’s birthday. I personally find it very difficult to remember dates other than the usual wedding anniversary, spouse’s birthday and my children’s birthdays.

There is another sort of forgetting though, one that creeps up on one as time passes. Some of that can be attributed to loss of facilities due to age, but memories do seem to fade regardless of ageing. Even in your twenties your recall of events ten years earlier can be faulty, though for some reason some things can be said to stick in your mind.

Candles spell out the traditional English birt...
Candles spell out the traditional English birthday greeting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s difficult to work out what we have forgotten and what we have simply had no reason to remember. Something may, for some reason or other, trigger a memory, and we say “Oh, I had forgotten that!” when obviously, we hadn’t.

Equally, memories may be replaced by false memories. For instance, for years I believed that I had a memory of an event at a particular place involving my sister’s pushchair. When I visited the place many years later, it was apparent that the event could not have happened as I remember it. The slope of the path, the flower beds were all wrong.

English: Versailles gardens with a fountain Fr...
English: Versailles gardens with a fountain Français : Bassin de Latone, jardin de Versailles. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems to me that memories can be true, or totally false, and that a memory of events may be completely lost, and this would make the study of memory very difficult and that relying on memory for veracity is impossible.

There are people who claim to have memories of a previous life. I don’t believe such claims, as I don’t believe that there is such a thing as reincarnation. If there were such a thing, one wonders why those who remember their previous lives were always important and powerful people in past lives.

Portrait of Marie-Antoinette of Austria
Portrait of Marie-Antoinette of Austria (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But memory loss definitely gets worse as one gets older. Some unfortunate people suffer so badly from memory loss that they cannot recognise their own families and get lost in places with which they were once familiar. As people live for longer this phenomenon is becoming a big problem.

Of course there is research into both ageing and memory, so this situation will hopefully improve, but at the moment, it doesn’t seem attractive to live to 100+ and lose all one’s faculties.

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Memory is one of the things that makes you you. You can remember many things from your past, and while you can’t completely remember being the person that you were, you can remember some of it. Maybe you can remember what you were feeling at the time, maybe not.

But you believe that the person that you remember was you, in spite of the forgotten things, the things that you remember wrongly, because there is a continuous thread of memory between the person that you remember and you in the here and now.

English: Graphic from the licensing tutorial
English: Graphic from the licensing tutorial (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yet in another sense, that person was not you. His memories only encompass the time up until his now. Your memories of the time from then on are of events that have changed you and your memory of events before that person’s now have also changed, or been lost. How could you be the same person?

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birthday cake
birthday cake (Photo credit: freakgirl)


Today (Sunday 28th July) is my birthday, which naturally had me pondering birthdays in general. In July I have my birthday, my son’s birthday is a few days earlier and my granddaughter’s is next month. It turns out that a friend of a Facebook friend also has her birthday today, on my birthday. Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield was also born on my birthday. And finally, George, the latest addition to the royal family and third heir to the British throne was also born in July, the same month as me and my son.

The maths of birthdays is interesting. If you have 23 randomly selected people then the probability that at least two of them share a birthday is a shade greater than 50% (50.7297%). If you have 53 people the probability goes above 99%. This is known as the Birthday Problem or the Birthday Paradox, though it is not really a paradox, I believe. There are a number of simplification used in calculating the above. For instance, it assumes that all birth dates are equally probable, but they are not, and it also ignores leap days. Also mothers can sometimes, within bounds, select the day that their baby is born, especially for at risk babies and this potentially could cause a skew in the probabilities.

English: The birthday paradox: p(n) represents...
English: The birthday paradox: p(n) represents the probability that in a room with n people, some two (or more) will share the same birthday; q(n) represents the probability that in a room with n people, that at least one person will have the same birthday as a previously selected person. 中文: 生日悖论 2个人生日相同和跟某人生日形同的概率变化 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people have two birthdays. Well, the Queen has a real birthday and an official one, so that celebrations of her birthday would not fall too early in the year, but later, when the weather would hopefully be better. Unfortunately that means that in the Southern Hemisphere her birthday falls in the depths of winter!

2013 VividSydney on Queen's Birthday 10 Jun 2013
2013 VividSydney on Queen’s Birthday 10 Jun 2013 (Photo credit: hto2008)

Our years these days are defined in terms of “CE” or “Common Era” and “BCE” or “Before Common Era”. Older people can remember when it was “Before Christian Era” or even “BC” for “Before Christ” and “AD” for “Anno Domini” or “Year of Our Lord”.

I’m not going to argue whether or not Jesus really existed and whether or not he was divine, but if we assume for a moment that he was born, there is a lot of discussion on what year it was that he was born. Using the gospels and other historical information as a guide, many people believe that he was born 4 to 6 years before start of the Common Era. Or using the terminology, he was born up 6 years “Before Christ”! Humorous, I suppose.

Christ's Birth Orthodox church
Christ’s Birth Orthodox church (Photo credit: baswallet)

Most people view history as continuous and the dates as fixed and well known. That’s not the case of course – the calendar has been revised several times, and  even countries which are Christian may have different calendars. Other religions naturally don’t relate their calendars to the birth of Christ. I believe that some even count backwards.

Calendars have grown out of necessity. Tax collectors in particular love calendars. Calendars are used to keep track of one’s age. Before calendars were widespread years were kept track of by relating births and deaths to important events, like the installation of a particular ruler. For instance, the gospel writer Luke relates Jesus’s birth to a census taken at the time:

<code>In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register. Luke 2 1-3</code>

This shows the way that all dates were reckoned, relative to fairly recent events. The possibilities for error are obvious. Even if the events are written down, going more than a few years into the past involves research and calculation. Such calculations lead to such absurdities as Bishop Ussher’s calculation of the age of the earth as around 6,000 years. Even the dates of events early in the Common Era  can be dubious. This seems strange to citizens of the modern world, who can measure time to the accuracy of the vibration of an atom, and can accurately date events for at least a hundred or more years into the past.

Animated version of the lead isotope isochron ...
Animated version of the lead isotope isochron that Clair Patterson used to determine the age of the solar system and Earth (Patterson, C., 1956, Age of meteorites and the earth: Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 10: 230-237). The animation shows progressive growth over 4550 million years (Myr) of the lead isotope ratios for two stony meteorites (Nuevo Laredo and Forest City) from initial lead isotope ratios matching those of the Canyon Diablo iron meteorite. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One last comment – people who were born in the same year as the Queen, but born after her actual birthday and before her official birthday can claim to be both older and younger than the Queen.

Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Au...
Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Australia, and other Commonwealth realms) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)