Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently tweeted about the silliness of New Year's Day falling when it does:

It really is totally arbitrary, and it would make much more sense to have it at some astronomically significant time, such as the fall equinox, when it's a happy time with harvests coming in. Or the solstice, when we can look forward to every day getting longer. The Romans originally celebrated it in March, closer to the Spring Equinox, but Julius Caesar moved it to Jan. 1, simply to line up with the terms of the consuls. (On that basis, America should be celebrating it on Jan. 20, inauguration day.) In fact, it bounced around and was celebrated in Britain and the American colonies in March until 1752.

It's just one of those arbitrary things that if we thought about, we might want to change. There are other things that we should change because they're not harmonized; in today’s world, they cause nothing but trouble and expense. Perhaps this year we should resolve to fix them all.

Why do some drive left and some drive right?

Pearl River Bridge That's a lot of bridge to get from one side to the other. (Photo: NL Architects)

For Hong Kong, NL Architects has designed a crazy bridge connecting the island — where they drive on the left as they do in the United Kingdom — to the mainland, where they drive on the right like most of the world. You go up and over and suddenly you're on the other side of the road, with your steering wheel on the wrong side of the car.

In Sweden about 50 years ago, they just switched from left to right to simplify border crossings with other Scandinavian countries. Adam Roberts of the Economist describes how 83 percent of the population voted against the change in a referendum, but in 1967, they did it anyway on H-Day, for Hogertrafik or Right Day. Overnight, 360,000 road signs were changed and the next day it was over. Within a few weeks the complaints stopped as everyone got used to it. The accident rate actually dropped. Adam Roberts says there are lessons to be learned:

In a shrinking world, what other sorts of H day — harmonizing habits — are overdue? Anyone who has struggled to recharge a laptop or phone abroad knows the stupidity of having 15 slightly different types of plugs and sockets. The same goes for different ways of measuring: Let’s all agree to go metric.

Why do some measure metric and some measure in feet and inches?

tape measure My tape measure has to be fat to carry both scales. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

He's absolutely right about that. We should all be metric, and pretty much would be if not for Ronald Reagan. The Carter administration had pushed through the Metric Conversion Act, but as John Bemelmans Marciano notes in an article on a website appropriately titled What it means to be an American:

Americans were perhaps never more anxious than in the 1970s, and the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 is partial proof of that. American society turned unusually introspective in those post-Watergate days, even leading us to elect Jimmy Carter, the president who told Americans about their shortcomings like no other. Ronald Reagan’s election sprang from a more familiar American attitude — that our problems were caused not by questioning our core values, but by drifting away from them. And it was Reagan’s axing of the U.S. Metric Board during his 1982 budget cuts that was seen as the deathblow to American metrication.

Sounds very much like today, where the new president and Congress like talking about core values and the American way. But who knows, the president-elect is a builder and probably has knocked up against the problems of working in two countries with two different measurement systems.

Why do some use 24-hour time and some 12?

Sandford Fleming Sandford Fleming tells the time. (Photo: Canada Archives)

Then of course there's time, covered in an earlier MNN post: It's time we fixed the way we tell time. It’s crazy, the confusion caused by the way different countries write dates, why some use a.m. and p.m. and others use the 24-hour clock, not to mention why our time zones fall where they do. We should all be on the same time for scheduling things and use Universal time and local solar time so that whereever you are, noon is noon, a real local time. (It’s 16:21 by the clock, but in Toronto, where I'm writing this, it’s 16:35 by the sun. In Detroit, further west but in the same time zone, it's 16:49 solar time.) And if you have strong feelings about this topic, read more on TreeHugger: It's time to get rid of time zones and go local.

Why do we dial 911 and Europeans dial 112?

rotary phone Remember rotary phones? On the wall? (Photo: AT&T)

There are all kinds of idiotic international variances. Take the phone: We dial 911 here for emergencies, Britain went with 999 (as stupid as it gets when chosen in the dial phone era because it takes too long), but the European Union has a nice low number: 112. There's a real history to why this happens, going back to the invention of the rotary dial.

Really, our dates, times, measurements and even our smartphone plugs are all so arbitrary. Perhaps our resolution this year should be to have a world-wide H-Day where we all agree to the smartest most sensible system for all these disparate and various scales.

Now if I can only convert this out of Docx format so that it will go into HTML…

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.