The movie 2012 opens Friday, predicated on the notion that on December 21, 2012, as the most recent Mayan long-form calendar cycle (5,125.366 years) comes to an end, along with a unique planetary/solar alignment and a high level of solar activity, the world will cataclysmicly end one era and enter another. With earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and all sorts of devastating destruction in the process.
The movie is not the only source of prophetic notions of doom, or at least cataclysmic change, that are gaining increasing play and attention as 2012 approaches. There are books, websites, and even several other movies scheduled for release on the subject with all kinds of angles, from secular and New Age to religious and indigenous folk legend.
Now, even if it were true that the Mayans had predicted some apocalyptic ending of the world at the end of their long calendar cycle (they had several calendars and ways of marking time; that was just one of them), it's a bit odd that we'd grab onto that one particular prophesy and belief system of theirs. After all, the Mayans also believed in human sacrifice, and we don't exactly leap on board that train in attempting to maintain civic and theological order.
But according to Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI), the truth is, the Mayans didn't have any apocalyptic predictions for 2012. "There is NOTHING in ancient Maya records that predicts the end of the world; no apocalypse, no destruction, no cosmic clashes. Nothing," she says.
But, wait. What about Quetzacoatal returning and all that? Big sigh from the folks at FAMSI. In a fascinating paper available from the FAMSI website, Dr. Mark Van Stone, who has studied the Mayan culture for over a decade (and can read and write in Mayan hieroglyphs) provides an illuminating and entertaining cataloging of why all the doomsayers are off the mark and includes some great photo exhibits regarding the astronomical events scheduled for 12/21/12. Here's a sample, from his "9 Reasons Why The Mayan Prophecies Should Be Read Very Critically":
Though Aztec, Mixtec, and Maya sources provide us a number of narratives, different versions disagree. For example: the Aztec predict that this Creation will end on a 4-Movement day in a 2-Reed year, if it ends at all. The next possible Aztec end-date will be in 2027. Maya literature does not explicitly predict any end at all, and their so-called "end date" in 2012 is a 4-Ajaw [4-Flower in Aztec cycle] not 4-Movement. Mixtec Creation stories mention 2-Deer in 13-Rabbit, and other dates.
So perhaps in on the 2-Deer day in the 13-Rabbit year, under a 4-Flower Moon, we might have cause to worry -- except that it seems the Mayans never corrected written mistakes (the original, and literal, "carved in stone" approach). And the Aztec official responsible for a lot of how that culture's history was written apparently had a bit of a Machiavellian propaganda minister's streak in him. Which is to say, even what they did say should be taken with a handful of archeological salt.
December 21, 2012 is still a significant day for the Mayans. It's the equivalent of our Gregorian Calendar's December 31, 1999; the turning over of a new millennium and era of timekeeping. So it would be a big celebration. But that's about it. Of course, there were also a slew of predictions about disaster and doom surrounding our own "end of a cycle" mark at the end of 1999. None of which came true, as you may recall.
So why are we so drawn to these apocalyptic notions and prophecies of doom, gloom, and destruction (even if it eventually leads to a shining new era for the select few who are chosen or manage to survive)?
The answer apparently dates back to the very earliest days of human existence. "Apocalypticism," as it is academically known, arises from a deep evolutionary sense or need for social justice, according to Allen Kerkeslager, an associate professor in Religions of the Ancient World at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
"The sense of social justice, fairness in dealing with each other, and a felt need to cooperate with each other was already in place long before our hominid ancestors reached the cognitive ability to reflect on it," Professor Kerkeslager says.
As long as humans lived in the relatively egalitarian hunting and gathering societies that dominated up until about 10,000 years ago, that need was sufficiently met and enforced, because the survival of the group depended on cooperation. But when humans moved into more agrarian societies with land ownership, where a more hierarchical structure evolved, disparities increased. So those who had less had to come up with a way to explain the differences and satisfy their need for an eventual leveling of the scales. Apocalypticism, according to Kerkeslager, fulfilled that need and gave people a way of still believing that the gods were good and fair, even in an unfair world.
"Typically," he explains, "[apocalypticism] involves claims to prophetic authority among the leaders of the movement, an emphasis on visions and other forms of direct experience with the gods, and prophecies of a future transformation of the world that will bring relief to the afflicted members of the apocalyptic group and destruction on their enemies."
Not surprisingly, the phenomenon typically springs up among groups who find themselves in the minority, threatened, or repressed unfairly--at least, in their own view of the world. The Christian Book of Revelation came about under perceived Roman repression of the fledgling faith. The Anabaptists of the 1500s came out of a society stressed by economic disparity between rich and poor. Native American cultures developed apocalyptic narratives in the 1880s and 1890s, when those cultures were in danger of annihilation.
Visions and prophecies have been found in writings dating as far back as 2,000 B.C., according to Kerkeslager, although not all cultures had an equal need for thunder and lightning delivery of justice. In a polytheistic culture like ancient Greece, the need for apocalyptic beliefs was less, because a multitude of warring gods could explain misfortune or disparity. You might simply be the casualty of a power struggle between Hera and Zeus.
But as cultures became monotheistic, the disconnect between a supposedly fair and just God, and an unjust world, became harder to explain away. Hence, Kerkeslager says, apocalyptic notions in the Hebrew Book of Daniel, which was written only three years after a Greek King named Antiochus had begun a brutal repression of the Jews in Jerusalem, including turning the Jewish Temple into a shrine for Zeus. The revolt of Jewish revolutionaries, including the restoration of the temple in 165 B.C. (the same year that the Book of Daniel was written) is the basis for the Jewish holiday of Hannukah. But at the end of the Book of Daniel, the author predicts that an apocalyptic end will come to the repressive Greeks 1,290 days after their desecration of the temple. Unfortunately, as with other apocalyptic prophecies, it didn't happen. So the last line of Daniel changes the date to 1,335 days.
The fact that that date, too, came and went, didn't seem to fluster believers, any more than a failure of the earth to end on January 1, 2000 has stopped people from believing that it might still happen in 2012.
"The stubborn and often surprising ability of apocalyptic groups to ignore or explain away the failures of their prophecies is one of the most well-known features of apocalyptic groups," Kerkeslager says--a phenomenon also known as "motivated reasoning," as I discussed in an earlier piece here.
So with all that knowledge and understanding, can we all breathe easy? Not quite. "The belief in an apocalyptic doomsday is still alive even in the most skeptical societies," Kerkeslager says, "because it is very much a real possibility ... The earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and has sometimes been characterized by global transformations that have indeed had an apocalyptic scope." Some of those events were natural disasters that caused mass extinctions. But many civilizations, he points out, have brought about their own extinction "by practices that exhausted their natural resources and gradually undermined their ability to sustain their own populations." Including, ironically enough, the ancient Mayans.
So perhaps the Mayans did leave us a prophecy or warning worth heeding. Just not the one everyone's talking about. But in director Roland Emmerich's defense, I have to admit that it would be a lot harder to make a blockbuster action-adventure-thriller out of recycling your grocery bags and developing renewable energy sources than something that results in an aircraft carrier on a tidal wave wiping out the White House. Which is something spinners of apocalyptic tales figured out long before there were aircraft carriers, movies, or really cool special effects.
A new anatomical understanding of how movement controls the body’s stress response system
Elite tennis players have an uncanny ability to clear their heads after making errors. They constantly move on and start fresh for the next point. They can’t afford to dwell on mistakes.
Peter Strick is not a professional tennis player. He’s a distinguished professor and chair of the department of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute. He’s the sort of person to dwell on mistakes, however small.
“My kids would tell me, dad, you ought to take up pilates. Do some yoga,” he said. “But I’d say, as far as I’m concerned, there's no scientific evidence that this is going to help me.”
Still, the meticulous skeptic espoused more of a tennis approach to dealing with stressful situations: Just teach yourself to move on. Of course there is evidence that ties practicing yoga to good health, but not the sort that convinced Strick. Studies show correlations between the two, but he needed a physiological mechanism to explain the relationship. Vague conjecture that yoga “decreases stress” wasn’t sufficient. How? Simply by distracting the mind?
City dwellers spend nearly every moment of every day awash in wi-fi signals. Homes, streets, businesses, and office buildings are constantly blasting wireless signals every which way for the benefit of nearby phones, tablets, laptops, wearables, and other connected paraphernalia.
When those devices connect to a router, they send requests for information—a weather forecast, the latest sports scores, a news article—and, in turn, receive that data, all over the air. As it communicates with the devices, the router is also gathering information about how its signals are traveling through the air, and whether they’re being disrupted by obstacles or interference. With that data, the router can make small adjustments to communicate more reliably with the devices it’s connected to.
No one will ever find a closer exoplanet—now the race is on to see if there is life on its surface.
One hundred and one years ago this October, a Scottish astronomer named Robert Innes pointed a camera at a grouping of stars near the Southern Cross, the defining feature of the night skies above his adopted Johannesburg. He was looking for a small companion to Alpha Centauri, our closest neighboring star system.
Hunched over glass photographic plates, Innes teased out a signal. Across five years of images, a small, faint star moved, wiggling on the sky. It shifted just as much as Alpha Centauri, suggesting its fate was intertwined with that binary system. But this small star was closer to the sun than Alpha. Innes suggested calling it Proxima Centauri, using the Latin word for “nearest.”
The dim red star soon entered the collective imagination, inspiring dreams of interstellar travel. Gravity has linked the star to the Alpha Centauri system, but our culture of science and storytelling has linked it to the solar system. Today, that link will grow stronger, when an international team of astronomers announces that this nearest of stars also hosts the closest exoplanet, one that might look a whole lot like Earth.
Do mission-driven organizations with tight budgets have any choice but to demand long, unpaid hours of their staffs?
Earlier this year, at the encouragement of President Obama, the Department of Labor finalized the most significant update to the federal rules on overtime in decades. The new rules will more than double the salary threshold for guaranteed overtime pay, from about $23,000 to $47,476. Once the rules go into effect this December, millions of employees who make less than that will be guaranteed overtime pay under the law when they work more than 40 hours a week.
Unsurprisingly, some business lobbies and conservatives disparaged the rule as unduly burdensome. But pushback also came from what might have been an unexpected source: a progressive nonprofit called the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). “Doubling the minimum salary to $47,476 is especially unrealistic for non-profit, cause-oriented organizations,” U.S. PIRG said in a statement. “[T]o cover higher staffing costs forced upon us under the rule, we will be forced to hire fewer staff and limit the hours those staff can work—all while the well-funded special interests that we're up against will simply spend more.”
A recent scholarly paper on “microaggressions” uses them to chart the ascendance of a new moral code in American life.
Last fall at Oberlin College, a talk held as part of Latino Heritage Month was scheduled on the same evening that intramural soccer games were held. As a result, soccer players communicated by email about their respective plans. “Hey, that talk looks pretty great,” a white student wrote to a Hispanic student, “but on the off chance you aren’t going or would rather play futbol instead the club team wants to go!!”
Unbeknownst to the white student, the Hispanic student was offended by the email. And her response signals the rise of a new moral culture America.
When conflicts occur, sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning observe in an insightful new scholarly paper, aggrieved parties can respond in any number of ways. In honor cultures like the Old West or the street gangs of West Side Story, they might engage in a duel or physical fight. In dignity cultures, like the ones that prevailed in Western countries during the 19th and 20th Centuries, “insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery,” they write. “When intolerable conflicts do arise, dignity cultures prescribe direct but non-violent actions.”
This much is obvious: Young people don’t buy homes like they used to.
In the aftermath of the recession and weak recovery, the share of 18- to- 34 year olds—a.k.a.: Millennials—who own a home has fallen to a 30-year low. For the first time on record going back more than a century, young people are now more likely to live with their parents than with a spouse.
It’s become en vogue to argue that young people’s turn against homeownership might be a good thing. After all, houses are not always dependable investment vehicles, a lesson the country learned all too painfully after the Great Recession. Without being anchored to any one city from their mid-20s and into their 30s, young people who don’t own are free to roam about the country in search of the best jobs. What’s more, given the copious advantages of a college degree in this economy, perhaps many young people could be commended for investing in their intelligence, professional networks, and abilities rather than devote that same income to a roof, floor, and furniture.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
A team of doctors across the world is helping the only two medical professionals left in one besieged town in Syria—via cell phone.
Earlier this year, a Syrian American orthopedic surgeon was shopping with his two toddlers at a Walmart in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when he heard the familiar ping of a notification from WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging service: A teenager had been shot in the leg and the bullet had passed straight through his tibia. The fractured bone punctured his skin like a spear. Although it was the surgeon’s day off, he took the call—as an expert in complex bone operations, this was his specialty.
But this was no ordinary case. His patient was over 6,000 miles away, awaiting care in a makeshift medical clinic in Madaya, a town in Syria some 28 miles from Damascus. The clinic is only a 45-minute drive from Damascus Hospital, but it might as well be on the other side of the world. Madaya, a rebel-held town controlled by the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, has been held under siege by Hezbollah, which is fighting on behalf of the Syrian government, since last July. Hezbollah won’t let anything in or out of the town; it was a Hezbollah fighter, locals say, who shot the teenager in the leg.
In his 1945 article “The Economic Organisation of a P.O.W. Camp,” the British economist R.A. Radford recounted his experiences within the informal system of barter among prisoners at Stalag VII-A, a German camp on the outskirts of Munich during the Second World War. Using supplies delivered by the Red Cross, some prisoners moved between different nationalities’ encampments, buying tea for cheap from the French (who tended to prefer coffee) and then selling it to the British (whose affection for tea is a matter of centuries-old lore). Meanwhile, imprisoned Gurkha soldiers from South Asia sought out tins of vegetables and bartered them for corned beef.
Radford’s account, which was compellingly retold by Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan in their recent book The Inner Lives of Markets, explains that, in the absence of paper money, prisoners had to pick another currency to enable their transactions: cigarettes. “A ration of margarine might be bought for seven cigarettes, the equivalent, for instance, of one and a half chocolate bars, and so on,” Fisman and Sullivan write. “For the most part, prices were well known and consistent among the camp’s many huts that acted as local markets.”