5th Thursday Update

March 31, 2016

 


Getting through sick days

Whatever it was that hit me last Thursday (some kind of head cold, with sneezing and sinus pain but no coughing) made me feel bad, but in a moderate way. I felt feverish and weak. I wasn't incapacitated (I went to work on Friday, although looking back on it I shouldn't have), but I felt incapable of any exercise more strenuous than walking. Saturday was my worst day; I spent most of it lying in bed (although I did get go out for a walk eventually).

It's hard to know what to do with yourself on sick days, when you have Type 2 diabetes. When the body is fighting off some invasive bug, this produces an inflammatory response, which increases insulin resistance, and therefore tends to drive blood sugar up. The timing is unfortunate, because it occurs when two other factors are also driving up your blood sugar: physical inactivity and a craving for "comfort foods" (which are easy on the stomach because there's not much in them to digest besides carbs).

I don't know what to recommend other than to keep an eye on the situation, expect your blood sugar to go up, but try not to let it get too far out of control. (My fasting tests were going over 110, but not over 120, and my post-prandial tests weren't bad.) Also, do what you can to stay active to whatever degree is practical. Often, when you're feeling too weak to run, you can still go for a walk (even a hilly one) and end up feeling refreshed rather than wiped out.

Today was the first time this week I felt strong enough to go for a run rather than a walk, and I decided to take advantage of the late sunset to go for a trail run in the state park. I chose a route which gave me easy options to shorten the distance if I turned out not to be as ready for this as I hoped I was. When you start a trail run, it's often impossible to tell how ready for it you are, and how great the risk is that you'll suddenly run out of energy when you're a long distance from your car. This is especially worrisome when you've been ill, and this is a recovery run. So, although I was aiming to make this run at least 7 miles long, I had plans in mind for abbreviating it as much as I needed to.

Fortunately, my strength held out. It was a very tough run -- with lots of hill-climbing -- but after a weak of feeling below par, it was invigorating to be out there in the wooded hills.

My benign feeling lasted until I heard a blood-curdling howling noise. At first I thought it was a person making the noise, as a joke, but the loudness seemed a little bit beyond human vocal capacity. And then, suddenly, it was chorus of howls -- a pack of animals that I couldn't see, clearly in the meadow to the right of me somewhere, but blocked from my view by a line of trees. The howling was amazingly loud, and it was also moving at top speed, I could tell that the animals were running south (which was bringing them closer to me). I certainly hadn't been setting any speed records on the trail up to that point, but my desire to put some distance between myself and this unseen wolf-pack inspired me to speed up considerably.

I jumped at a noise close behind me, but it was a mountain-biker overtaking me. He was coming from the direction of the howling, so I figured he'd seen something. I asked him what that incredible noise was.

"Bunch of coyotes," he said. "They caught something." He pointed them out to me through a gap in the trees -- about ten of them, gathered around the crime scene. I couldn't see what they'd caught, but I'd just seen several deer in that location.

I guess I was aware that a coyote was spotted in the park now and again, but I didn't think there was a whole tribe of them, engaged in communal hunting. Were these things a danger to humans?

Googling the issue brought me to various web sites, all claiming that coyote attacks on humans are very rare and I shouldn't worry about it. One site went so far as to claim that I'm likelier to be killed by a golf ball or a champagne cork than by a coyote (but I'm skeptical of that claim, especially as it was on Humane Society site that also thinks I'm crazy to be afraid of pit bulls). I was advised not to run away from coyotes because that makes them see me as prey. Apparently I should stand still and make a lot of unpleasant noise. Okay, got it: next time it happens, I'll pretend to be running for President, and make a stump speech. I certainly don't lack for suitable role-models.

Somewhat chastened by my brush with nature at its least sentimental, I continued my run, choosing the route back to my car that took me as furthest from the meadow that the coyotes were in. I finished up with a distance of 7.9 miles, feeling tired but not exhausted, and convinced that my recovery run had done me much more harm than good. I didn't get sick out on the trail, I didn't sprain an ankle, and I didn't get eaten. A deer would call that a good day.

 


The puns just keep coming!

Prostate cancer is a bad-news/good-news issue. The bad news is that it's extremely common. The good news is that the most common forms of it are slow-growing and show up late in life; therefore, even if you develop it and can't get rid of it, it probably won't kill you; you'll most likely die of something else first. Doctors say that most men die with prostate cancer, but few men die from prostate cancer.

As it happens, one of the risk factors for prostate cancer is infrequent ejaculation. A study was published on March 29 in European Urology which explains the details. But what I noticed was the way Medscape chose to announce the publication: "A study on ejaculation and prostate cancer risk, which made a big splash at last year's annual meeting of the American Urological Association (AUA)...".

Okay, Medscape: we saw what you did there.

 


Global warming & Diabetes

Mort Sahl used to define a liberal newspaper as one which would cover a nuclear apocalypse with the headline "World Ends; Women, Minorities Hardest Hit". A lot of medical publications would say the same of diabetes patients. Whatever calamity you're discussing, it's worse for people with diabetes, or more likely to occur in people with diabetes. Any sort of problem you can name (heart disease, cancer, dementia, drunk-dialing your boss for a full an frank exchange of views) is supposedly more likely to happen, or more difficult to survive, if you have diabetes.

Well, now it appears that global warming will be harder on diabetes patients -- because regulation of body temperature is impaired in diabetes patients!

You can read the details here, but my biggest global-warming concern is how difficult it's going to be for me to uproot myself from California, which (due to a terrible decline in average rainfall in recent years) is about to become an even more hellishly expensive place than it is now. It already seems as if most of the northern part of the state is only affordable for tech billionaires, but pretty soon we're going to have to build desalination plants just to meet basic water needs, and I hate to think what that's going to cost.

An important (but easily overlooked) aspect of my diabetes-management program is the set of conveniences and advantages that comes with living where I do. The climate is mild (snow and ice are rare), and I live a short distance from where I work, and also a very short distance from outdoor locations where I like to exercise. Much of the year, I have the option of doing a hike or trail-run in the state park in the evening after work. In other words, I have facilities for making regular exercise practical and pleasant for me. A lot of people aren't so lucky. If I have to leave California, I may behave to find out how much harder this can be.

 


Just in time for April Fool's Day!

Here's the latest theory that explains it all...


Our food is too clean! This weakens the immune system, which needs to be challenged and revved up by routine exposure to filth! This somehow leads to the intestinal wall becoming more permeable than it ought to be, which in turn causes a wide variety of health problems, because reasons.

Doctors say that "leaky gut syndrome" is vaguely defined, blamed for an implausible number of illnesses, and not backed up by evidence.

But if you want to believe it, I won't stop you!

 


3rd Thursday Update

March 17, 2016

 


Saint Patrick's Day

Being an Irish musician, I was, of course, playing downtown after work, so I didn't get home early enough to write much tonight. I'll do what I can while I'm able to stay awake.

I know it's only a coincidence, but it's nice that Saint Patrick's Day occurs during that brief period when this part of California looks green enough to pass for Ireland, if a movie director wanted to shoot some exteriors here for a film supposedly set in the Emerald Isle. Yesterday, I took advantage of the time change and the extra daylight to go for an evening walk and take a look at all the growth that the recent rains have promoted.

I also saw a rather massive hawk, which landed on a telephone line just over my head.

The hawk swooped down, caught a rat, flew back up, and settled back on his perch. Then he tore apart the rat and devoured it front of me.

I never wanted to be a rat, but now I really hate the thought of it. Let's hope this reincarnation thing is just as silly an idea as it appears!

 


Exercise as a prescription drug

The Canadian Medical Association Journal has noticed that exercise is an effective but under-utilized therapy: "Exercise is beneficial for many chronic conditions and can offer benefits that are comparable to pharmacologic interventions, yet exercise is underprescribed." To address this problem, the CMAJ has published a guideline for physicians, explaining to them how to prescribe exercise as a therapy for various specific conditions.

The authors point out that "like medication and surgery, exercise is not a single entity and must be tailored to the condition. Exercise must be appropriately implemented to achieve outcomes that are consistent with those reported in intervention trials." The authors examine various conditions which exercise can help with, including arthritis of the hip and knee, low back pain, heart failure, coronary heart disease, obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and Type 2 diabetes.

Skipping ahead to the section on Type 2 diabetes, we find the authors saying that aerobic exercise, progressive resistance training, or a combination of the two all have similar effectiveness as a therapy, so the choice of exercise program can be determined by what sort of exercise the patient prefers, or is capable of. "Comorbidities" (other health problems existing alongside Type 2 diabetes) have to be taken into account: a patient who is frail or prone to falling would be better off lifting dumb-bells at the gym, rather than running on a park trail. Also, it is important to do a certain minimum amount of exercise (in terms of time elapsed, in the case of aerobic exercise, or in terms of intensity reached, in the case of resistance training). "There is a dose–response relation, with better outcomes associated with an exercise duration greater than 150 minutes per week and higher intensity resistance training."

The authors suggest a very organized and very supervised exercise program, with highly specific guidelines about measuring (and progressively increasing) exercise intensity to ensure that the patient's physical adaptation to it does not make it too easy.

The elaborateness of the exercise guidelines presented, and the seemingly high cost of paying someone to monitor all this, makes me wonder how likely it is that doctors can be persuaded to write more prescriptions for exercise. Why bother writing a prescription, if the patient can't afford to act on it? If the health care system has not been set up to support that sort of thing, we probably won't see much of a change even if doctors do start prescribing exercise in this highly specific way. (And, for all I know, the practical problems I'm thinking of don't apply in Canada -- we Americas tend to forget what a backward country we are in this regard.)

In America, at least, it will probably be necessary for most patients to implement their own exercise program, monitoring its effectiveness in their own way, and finding a way to carry it out that they can actually afford. One of the best things about exercise as a medical treatment is that, when money is tight, you can usually find a way to do it cheaply. I don't think it's ever really cost-free (have you priced exercise clothes lately, or tried to exercise in clothes not designed for that?), but where there's a will, there's a way.

 


2nd Thursday Update

March 10, 2016


The El Nino weather continues -- lots and lots of rain.

Over the years I have become increasingly unwilling to run in the rain. As a result, for the last several days I've had to do one gym workout after another, and that's not such a great plan, either: something about indoor exercise makes me feel like a hamster, especially if I do it several times in one week. Today I decided that I'd had enough: I would force myself to go outside and run at least 5 miles, despite the wet weather. Having made the decision, I found that it wasn't really that bad -- especially after my clothes were soaked through, and it was no longer possible to get any wetter than I already was. Another plus: the hot shower afterwards feels especially nice under the circumstances. But now I'm feeling a little drained from the loss of body heat. I hope I haven't made myself vulnerable to some virus passing through the office!

 


Obvious scams (and subtle ones)

Historically, any new communication technology goes through two phases. During the brief initial phase, the focus is on finding new methods of delivering pornography. Then, the technology settles down into a long period of maturity in which most of the activity is driven by scam artists annoying, exploiting, and defrauding the general public. We like to pretend that the new medium is all about loftier goals (education, social connection, a better-informed citizenry, laughing-baby footage), but what really gets the creative juices of tech users flowing is the chance to make money by exploiting the vulnerability, and especially the gullibility, of strangers.

If it sounds as if I'm overstating the role of the bad guys in communication technology, allow me to remind you that about 90% of
e-mail traffic is "UBE" (Unsolicited Bulk E-mail -- "spam" to you and me). Your internet service provider filters out as much of it as possible, but a lot of it still gets through. Legitimate messages, exchanged by people who know one another or are willingly doing business, represent an exceedingly small fraction of the message traffic. Most spam is blocked before you get a chance to see it in your inbox, so be grateful that you're only seeing the tip of the spam iceberg -- even though it actually represents most of what is flowing through the wires.

The telephone is scarcely a new technology, but people are still finding new ways to use it to scam the public. I came home today to find a threatening phone message from an anonymous caller -- a young man who was trying to imitate an American accent and not succeeding (his own accent was hard to identify, but I would have placed him somewhere in the Middle East). The text of the message was: "Regarding an enforcement action executed by the United States Treasury. [A garbled, incomprehensible sentence followed this.] Ignoring this message will be an intentional second attempt to avoid an initial appearance before the magistrate judge or grand jury for a federal criminal offense. The number to reach our department is 202 800 5543. I advise you to cooperate with us and help us to help you."

As Sam Spade said in The Maltese Falcon: the cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter. The threatening language is overplayed. If the United States Treasury were after me, they wouldn't bother sounding melodramatic, because they wouldn't have to. People with real power specialize in quiet menace (as in the case of the gangster who says "nice restaurant you get here... it would be a shame if anything happened to it"). The calling number was unidentified on the Caller ID display (not that it would have proved anything if it had said US TREASURY, because crooks can force Caller ID to show false information). The area code 202 is Washington DC, but overseas crooks are able to use a "spoofing" process to make their call to appear to originate from a more respectable location than the actual one. When I ran an internet search on the number, I found that it was on a list of numbers that had been reported for telephone fraud. Anyway, I hope you won't be surprised to learn that I decided not to return the call to find out exactly how they were planning to cheat me. (But I know people who would have fallen for it completely, and one of them is related to me. Not everyone looks for the warning signs.)

Sometimes a scam, particularly a health scam, is so obvious that falling for it makes you culpable. Everyone is stupid about something, but there is no excuse for certain kinds of stupidity, especially when it puts other people at risk. For example, consider the case of David and Collet Stephan of Alberta, Canada, now on trial for the death of their 19-month old son Ezekiel.

The couple did not believe in science-based medicine; in their view, diseases should not be prevented by vaccination, nor should they be treated by clinically-tested therapies. The internet has fueled a great blossoming of this sort of thinking; people get together on line to promote health-related conspiracy theories and share folk remedies which supposedly work better for not having been validated. The Stephans were apparently part of this culture. When their son developed meningitis, they refused to take him to a doctor, and instead tried out a number of "natural" remedies (one of them was maple syrup, to give you some indication of how deeply they thought this through). They didn't seek help until the child stopped breathing (apparently the boy had been suffering for two weeks while the parents experimented on him with the herbs and spices that had been suggested to them).

I can't see this as an innocent mistake. In fact, I can't see it as anything but homicide, because even if the Stephans really believed what they'd been told about natural remedies, they had no reason to believe it, and no right to believe it under the circumstances. That these remedies were promoted on the internet was not enough to make them credible.

The right of personal belief is not absolute; you have the right to hold a belief, and even the right to die for it, but you don't have the right to make somebody else die for it. Treat yourself with maple syrup if you want to, but take your kid to the doctor. Keeping children alive is just one of those things parents are obligated to do, even if the duty conflicts annoyingly with their hobbies, and the duty applies as much to fools as it does to intelligent people.

However, not all scams are so obvious. During the mature phase of a communication technology, the scams associated with it tend to become increasingly subtle, so that it's difficult to say whether they should be called scams or not. If no money is fraudulently obtained from the target, but personal information is gathered and exploited in ways that people don't expect, do we call that a scam? (I do, but should the law call it a scam, and treat it as such?)

These days a lot of people are installing "health apps" on their computers and smart phones -- programs which help them track their health habits and health data. Many doctors recommend such apps to their patients who have chronic health issues such as diabetes. Such programs gather up quite a lot of personal data about you: your exercise habits, your diet, your blood pressure, your blood-sugar numbers, and so on. And, although you might not realize it, most of these apps then sell that personal information to anyone who happens to want it -- without asking your permission, or even warning you that they're doing it.

This unpleasant situation was recently brought to light by a study conducted by Sarah Blenner and others, reported this week in JAMA. The study identified 271 Android apps for diabetes management, and randomly selected 75 of them for study. It was found that 81% of them had no privacy policy that users could review before downloading the app (in other words, there were no limitations on what could be done with personal medical data), and of those that had a policy, about half reserved the right to share personal data. Only four of the apps asked users for permission before sharing personal data.

What are the consequences for users of these apps? It might seem as if the only consequence will be that you'll be targeted for diabetes-related advertising (it's usually marketers who buy this kind of data). Web-browsers will show you a lot of "focused" advertising that's all about diabetes and treatments for it, and you'll also get a lot of e-mails touting diabetes drugs (one study in 2010 claimed that over 80% of spam messages relate to pharmaceuticals; that seems like a high estimate, but I certainly get my share).

Although I'm not currently using any health apps, I am already the target of diabetes-focused marketing because of writing this blog. It seems to me that my readership really isn't that big, but even so, I'm certainly on the radar screen of a lot of people promoting various drugs (and "alternative" treatments -- although so far nobody has tried to sell me on maple syrup). Seemingly I have nothing to lose, by downloading a health app, that I haven't lost already. But to me there is something awfully creepy about the whole enterprise of selling people's personal health information (usually without their permission) under the guise of helping them manage their health. And I'm not sure that the appearance of doing no serious harm is not misleading.

No doubt it is true that the people buying this personal information are mostly advertisers trying to fine-tune their marketing efforts to close in on the right audience. In most cases, there is nothing "personal" about the way this personal information is actually being used. Still, there is no guarantee that the information won't be used in a way which will ultimately be costly to the users of the apps.

In the twists and turns of the endless battle over health policy in America (the policy of the government and the policy of health-insurance providers), there is no knowing what personal information which seems harmless this year will become a dangerous secret next year. Whatever slim protections Americans now have from being branded with a "pre-existing condition" are fragile indeed; one of the political parties is determined to eliminate these and other protections, and has a good shot at winning the presidency later this year. Who knows how personal data might be used against us later, when policies change? Under the circumstances, it hardly seems like a safe thing to be sharing one's medical data with anyone who wants to get hold of it.

So, I would argue that health apps which share the user's personal information without permission do qualify as a scam. If the maker of such an app were to be prosecuted for fraud, to set an example for the others, I think it would be a positive development. And it would be richly deserved. Some things (such as using maple syrup to treat a toddler with meningitis) are just so obviously wrong that it doesn't really matter, at least to me, whether there is a specific law forbidding it. Some things just aren't done.

 


Fitness, not weight, predicts later T2 risk

A Swedish study has found that poor physical fitness (low aerobic capacity and muscle strength) during youth leads to a tripled risk of Type 2 diabetes later in life. Surprisingly, this effect is independent of body mass index. It isn't just weight gain that puts you at risk -- lack of exercise is enough to do it, even if your weight remains normal.

So there you are: I've given you some practical information which it is probably far too late for you to act on. I'm always happy to share facts that none of us can do anything about!

However, I think this might be worth mentioning all the same, if only because it reinforces the idea that exercise is an important factor in relation to glucose management.

 


Prediabetes is ignored by most doctors

A rather startling study from the University of Florida finds that the early stage of Type 2 diabetes known euphemistically as "prediabetes" is not taken seriously by most physicians. Of patients whose test results meet the diagnostic criteria for prediabetes, 77% aren't treated for it (with drugs, or with prescribed lifestyle changes) and in fact most of these patients are not even told they have it.

It's unclear what is causing physicians to adopt this attitude, but it sure doesn't seem like a good idea. Do they think normalizing your blood sugar gets easier if you don't go to work on it until it's totally out of control?

I suspect there is some kind of disincentive in the system which makes doctors think that addressing prediabetes as a serious issue is going to be more trouble than it's worth. If so, that disincentive needs to be got rid of.

 


1st Thursday Update

March 3, 2016

 


Drilling down

Most of science -- health-relate science, anyway -- is about drilling down to finer and finer details.

The ancient Greeks thought that if you divided a piece of copper into smaller and smaller pieces, you would eventually get down to tiny particles called "atoms" of copper, which couldn't be split apart any further. Well, that's sort of true, except that physicists found out in the 20th century that atoms could be split into smaller components. So the definition of "atom" was slightly revised: the smallest piece of copper you could have that was still copper was an atom, but a copper atom had components in it (protons and such) which were called (for a while) "elementary particles", because it was thought that these had no constituent parts. But then it turned out protons were made of something smaller called quarks. Who knows where this drilling-down process will end?

Health research involves a lot of this kind of drilling-down. At first doctors concentrated on figuring out the role of the various organs within the body. Then they started studying tissues within those organs. Then they started studying the cells that made up those tissues. Then they started studying the smaller constituent parts of a cell. Then they started studying the genes that controlled how those parts of a cell operated. Then they started studying the proteins molecules and DNA molecules that determined gene function.

In terms of diabetes -- a disease relating to regulatory functions within the body -- scientists focused initially on the endocrine glands (such as the pancreas) which release hormones to control bodily functions. For a while the picture looked reasonably simple. The pancreas produces two hormones: insulin (which reduces blood sugar by causing the muscles to drain sugar out of the blood), and glucagon (which increases blood sugar by causing the liver to release stored sugar into the blood). The pancreas is constantly fine-tuning the blood sugar level by adjusting the ratio between insulin released and glucagon released. When blood sugar rises after a meal, the pancreas releases more insulin; when blood sugar drops at 4 AM, the pancreas releases more glucagon.

But wait a minute: how does the pancreas know when to make these adjustments? How does the pancreas even know that blood sugar has gone up, or gone down? Is there a glucose meter embedded in the pancreas, or something?

It has long been suspected that it's actually the brain that monitors blood sugar levels, and tells the pancreas what to do about it. Some researchers at Yale have uncovered some details about how this works, but they had to do a lot of drilling-down to get there.

Within the brain there is core known as the thalamus, and the underside of it is known as the hypothalamus.

The pea-sized pituitary gland hangs down from the bottom of the hypothalamus, but just above that, within the hypothalamus, lies a cluster of even smaller brain structures, each of which is known to be associated with some specific sensation or regulatory function -- such as hunger, shivering, blood pressure control, or temperature control. Within that cluster is a particular structure known as "the ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus" -- or "VMH" to its friends. The VMH is associated specifically with "satiety" -- the feeling of fullness which we feel, or are supposed to feel, after we've had enough to eat. The researchers thought something might be going on within the VMH that was pertinent to diabetes.

Well, it appears that they found what they were looking for. It turns out that the VMH, tiny though it is, plays a very big role in the regulation of blood glucose. The brain cells within the VMH (which, like other brain cells, are covered by creepy-looking branches which serve to exchange signals with neighboring brain cells) have something unusual going on inside. These cells include little potato-shaped structures called mitochondria which the cell uses to process chemical energy. That in itself is not unusual -- mitochondria are standard features of cells all over the body -- but the mitochondria within the VMH are unusual in that they are highly sensitive to changes in blood sugar.


The mitochondria within the VMH respond to the increase in blood sugar after a meal by changing their shape and their chemical functioning; this apparently results in the brain sending regulatory messages to the pancreas ("release more insulin!") and to the human involved ("put down that fork!"). Any failure in this process is, of course, a potential cause of Type 2 diabetes (and any intervention which repairs the process is a potential treatment). The same can be said of obesity as well: failure of the VMH to get its "put down that fork!" message across could easily drive weight gain.

It's obviously too early to guess what the ultimate clinical significance of this research will be, but at least we know how the body figures out whether blood sugar is high or not.

 


Third-hand smoke

I had heard of second-smoke (cigarette smoke inhaled by a non-smoker who happens to be near a smoker), but third-hand smoke was a new one to me when I read about it today. Third-hand smoke, it turns out, is the residue of cigarette smoke clinging to clothing, hair, and various household objects wherever a smoker has been; toxic ingredients in it are absorbed through the skin, or inhaled or ingested (especially by small children, who think all objects belong in the mouth).

Third-hand smoke is in the news because of research indicating that it can cause health problems, including Type 2 diabetes. Or rather, it causes insulin resistance, which in turn causes Type 2 diabetes.

I'm not sure this is the biggest health issue we face, but be careful out there! If you're living with a smoker, insist on certain considerate cleanup operations, especially if small children are going to be around.

 


Your leap-year questions answered!

On Monday I had the chance to congratulate a longtime co-worker on reaching his 14th birthday. He was born on February 29th, you see, and most years don't have a February 29th. A year that does have a February 29th is called a leap year. If you're a leap-year baby, born on February 29th, your birthday only comes along once in four years.

The reason for this peculiar practice of making February a day longer in some years is that the length of the day and the length of a year have absolutely no connection to one another, with the result that it is only an approximation to say that a year lasts 365 days.

A day is the amount of time it takes for the earth to rotate. A year is the amount of time it takes for the earth to make one circuit around the sun. We say that it takes the earth 365 days to go around the sun, but it's really about 365.25 days. That is, a year lasts about six hours longer than 365 days. That might not seem like much, but if each year runs six hours overtime, eventually that throws the calendar pretty far out of whack; it only takes a century for Christmas (which is supposed to happen around the winter solstice, when the days are shortest) to drift by 24 days. The Romans were aware of this problem; the "Julian" calendar implemented by Julius Caesar added a leap year (an extra day every four years) to correct for it.

However, the correction wasn't quite right, because the actual length of a year isn't precisely 365 days plus six hours. It's actually 365 days plus 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds. By treating the extra length as if it were a full six hours, the Julian leap-year system slightly over-corrects for the problem. The discrepancy only amounts to 11 minutes and 15 seconds per year, and that was too small an error for Julius Caesar to bother about, but even a small error adds up over the generations. In 128 years, the Julian calendar gets ahead of the orbiting earth by one full day. By the time of Pope Gregory XIII, the calendar had got ahead by about ten days. Something had to be done.

So, in 1582, the Pope introduced our modern "Gregorian" calendar, which set the date back ten days, and arranged for certain leap years to be skipped thereafter, to prevent the calendar from getting ahead of itself once more. Unfortunately, not all countries adopted the Gregorian calendar immediately; the transition was ragged and very slow. The Gregorian calendar wasn't adopted in America until 1752 ("in most areas"), and Greece and Turkey didn't get on board until the 1920s -- by which time there were thirteen days to eradicate, not ten. (This story makes the people of the time sound foolishly stubborn, but think about it: how readily would you agree to move the calendar back ten days on the Pope's say-so?)

Anyway, the result of this sloppy transition has been that, ever since, historians have gone stark raving mad trying to figure out exactly when a recorded event happened. Were the dates in written records meant as Julian dates or Gregorian dates? For example: if the arrest of Guy Fawkes officially happened on "November 5, 1605", does that really mean November 5, or does it mean October 26? It would have saved historians a lot of headaches if Julius Caesar had got the calendar right in the first place.

So which years qualify as leap years now, under the Gregorian calendar? Here are the rules:

For example: the year 2000 was a multiple of four -- and seemingly a leap year for that reason -- but it was also a multiple of 100 -- and seemingly not a leap year for that reason -- but it was also a multiple of 400, so it was a leap year after all.

As for 2016, it's a leap year because it's a multiple of 4; the other rules are irrelevant because it isn't a multiple of 100 or 400.

An interesting aspect of the whole leap-year saga, at least for me, is what it reveals about the conflict between nature as it is and nature as humans want it to be. We find it downright inconsiderate of nature not to make the length of a year a precise multiple of the length of a day, so that we can have a calendar that works the same way, year after year, and never gets out of sync. We're always looking at nature that way: why can't it operate in a manner that suits our convenience? Doesn't nature realize that everything is supposed to be all about us?

 



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