Sunday, December 30, 2012

The End of the End

As 2012 putters out with the world still intact, I think it is worth looking back at a previous End that failed to materialize to see how the survivors dealt with their ongoing existence. I’ll leave out the purely religious Ends since these raise issues beyond the eschatological. The Heaven’s Gate cult might qualify since the members planned to escape by joining the aliens on the passing Hale-Bopp comet on March 26 1997 – which is sort-of nonreligious – but, since there were no survivors among the comet-boarders, they didn’t have much to say.

There was a strangely similar bunch of folks more than 40 years earlier, however, who did survive a predicted End. The group’s pronouncements fascinated psychologist Leon Festinger when he first heard them, so a few of his researchers infiltrated the group and provided him with the details he later used in his classic book When Prophecy Fails. The group leader, Marian Keech, had experimented with “automatic writing.” This technique involves writing without letting your conscious mind guide your hand; it is used by some spiritualists to receive otherworldly information and was used by WB Yeats to inform A Vision, his peculiar prose work on occult matters. Keech, however, didn’t receive messages from spirits; her revelations came from living beings on the planet Clarion. They warned her of a great flood that would strike the world on December 21, 1954, but said they would arrive in a flying saucer and save her followers at midnight. There was a catch: no metal objects allowed. The members removed all watches and jewelry, snipped zippers off their clothes and cut the metal eyelets out of their shoes. Festinger describes the scene as they waited eagerly for the saucer on the evening of the 20th.

Midnight came and went without a flood or a flying saucer. Not one to despair, Keech received another message from Clarion and jotted it down with automatic writing. Her little group had “spread so much light” that the End was canceled, she announced, so there was no need to evacuate. She and her followers had saved us. The group began a media campaign to spread the word about what they had accomplished. Only two of her (legitimate) members were disappointed enough to leave the group. Keech continued to channel messages from aliens until her death in Arizona in 1992.

This was an admirable solution to the problem faced by Keech.  Surely someone out there today is insisting he or she (and followers) appeased the Mayan gods and thereby saved us all from destruction on the 21st just past. Perhaps they did. At the very least, they deserve their own reality TV show for it.

The Saucers Aren’t Always So Benevolent

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Retirement Plan B

The world didn’t end on the 21st of December, which was a major disappointment to some folks. “It was my only retirement plan,” one friend grumbled.

Well, don’t despair. There is always another catastrophe around the corner. There is a one-in-1,000,000 chance of a civilization-destroying asteroid hitting the earth within the next 100 years. Many lotteries have far worse odds. There is a 1-in-50,000 chance every single year of a super-volcanic eruption on the scale of Toba, which nearly wiped out humanity in its prehistory. There are several technologies (not all of them military) that potentially could end civilization, though it is harder to put odds on these than on natural events. The possibilities for destruction are endless. The risk of each one individually might be low for any given year, but all together the risks add up. Besides, there is bound to be some ancient calendar somewhere that bodes ill for 2013 if we only examine it closely; maybe that one has it right. So cheer up.

Of course, there is always global warming to worry us, and that threat won’t simply vanish the way the Mayan Apocalypse did. The Wire recently noted, “The really inconvenient truth: We’re toast.” The author was referring to the less-often-mentioned scientific consensus about global warming: because of lag times in climate response to CO2 levels (mostly due to ocean temperatures), changes already are locked in place. Cutting current emissions back to 2000 levels and capping them (however advisable and laudable for the longer-term effects) would not slow warming noticeably in the lifetime of anyone alive today, much less stop it. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration claims that warming is irreversible for the next millennium. Even James Lovelock, British chemist and climate activist with the IPCC, remarked about the chance of changing the trajectory in the 21st century, “Not a hope in hell.” With regard to the UK’s contribution, he no doubt made his colleagues cringe by saying, “Everyone could burn coal all day and drive around in 4x4s and it would not make a scrap of difference.” Apparently, it’s time to start building Dutch-style sea walls as ice melts and oceans rise. True, none of this need end civilization directly, but related economic and demographic dislocations are imaginable which could do it. It’s not as satisfyingly simple an end as an asteroid strike or the pole-shift depicted in the movie 2012, but it’s something.

Still, the more I write of the time frames of all these threats, the more advisable it seems to prepare an alternate retirement plan.

While that last thought is a downer, I’m just as happy the world didn’t end of the 21st anyway. 17 guests at my house on the 25th arrived and departed at various times between 3PM and 3AM. (Actually, a few stayed over, but they turned in by 3.) Two were family and the rest were friends. It was a pleasant party with good conversation, and I wouldn’t want to have missed it. I think it would be cool if the world doesn’t end before our next get-together, too.

If It’s Not One Darn Thing It’s Another

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Feeding Time

Beginnings and endings always grab our attention more than the middles where most of life plays out. Classic publisher’s advice (origin uncertain):  “The first three lines of the first page are when you win or lose a reader.” Classic producers’ advice (origin also uncertain): “You’ve got to have a good Third Act.”

The first three lines in all of literature were etched on clay in Sumer, in present day southern Iraq, sometime after 3000 BC. We don’t know what they were, but they must have been pretty good because the Sumerian authors kept at it, and neighboring peoples soon adopted their cuneiform script. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing arose soon afterward, apparently independently; written Chinese appeared a bit later, also apparently independently.

We don’t know the origins of the Sumerians themselves. Sumerian is a language isolate, unrelated to any other known language. Several (conflicting) hypotheses of relationships to other languages have been offered, but none has found widespread scholarly support. There might be a clue in their word for themselves, which literally means “black-headed folk.” In southern Mesopotamia? You might as well try to distinguish yourself by saying “We’re the guys who have ten toes.” It seems likely they migrated from somewhere where some people didn’t have black hair. Guesses have ranged from the Caucasus to the Indus Valley. Whatever the case may be, once settled by the Persian Gulf they developed a remarkable urban culture and got the whole of human history started.

If the friends of mine who are throwing an end-of-the-world party are right (the Mayan Apocalypse and all that), human history will end tomorrow. I suspect they’ll be stuck with the job (bummer) of cleaning up after the party on Saturday, but I suppose one never can be 100% sure about that. Will Durant: “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”

Few people take the apocalypse seriously, but I can’t help noticing a tone of growing pessimism about the future in everyday casual conversation. I sense a conviction that, while the world may not end with a bang tomorrow and while Apple may have yet more gee-wiz gadgets to offer us, civilization nonetheless is grinding down as demographic, economic, and environmental realities slowly catch up with us. Oh, to be sure, there always have been people convinced that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. The following poem dates at least to 1910 but might be older:

My grandpa notes the world's worn cogs
And says we are going to the dogs!
His grandpa in his house of logs
Swore things were going to the dogs.
His dad among the Flemish bogs
Vowed things were going to the dogs.
The cave man in his queer skin togs
Said things were going to the dogs.
But this is what I wish to state
The dogs have had an awful wait.

Yet, the Zeitgeist really was more confident when I was a kid. Even though the existing social conditions by and large were far worse than today, we had high expectations. We were going to end poverty, end injustice, colonize space, and (my generation’s lagniappe) usher in an era of peace and love – in our lifetimes. Really. I don’t hear much talk like that anymore. At least it’s not mainstream opinion. In part, this has to do with an economy seemingly permanently jammed in first gear (in many Western countries anyway), but it goes deeper than that. It extends to personal expectations, too – even to romance. While relationships always have been tough (Sumerian proverb: “Marriage for pleasure, divorce to regain it”), we didn’t assume formerly that the odds were against us. Now (correctly) we do.

Does the first civilization have anything to tell us about the current one and the patience of dogs? Yes. After a period of heroic poetry and mythological literature, a literary genre called Lamentation developed in Sumer. It was what it sounds like. We read in these poems about defeat in war, about the end of law and order, about the drying of rivers and canals, and about how a shekel of silver can buy only half a sila of grain. Sumer was going to the dogs. To be sure, The Lamentation on the Destruction of Nippur ends with a call for hope and change (translation by Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer):

A day when man not abuses man, the son fears his father…
A day when there is no strife between the weak and strong, when kindness prevails…
A day when all suffering will be gone from the land, light will pervade it,
A day when black darkness will be expelled from the land, and all living creatures will rejoice.

That didn’t happen, of course. Instead, more Lamentations followed. Then they stopped, because so did Sumer. When was the last time you met a Sumerian? The Sumerians were crushed by the Akkadians to the north and vanished as a people.

So, civilization didn’t end. It flourished. But Sumer ended. At least in a local context, the pessimists of the day had a point.

Modern civilization in a grand sense is likely to continue as well in some form. However, it’s worth paying attention to the warnings of our Cassandras. (We tend to forget that, in the Greek myths, Cassandra was right.) It’s entirely possible that, at least in our corner of the world, we soon could be dog food after all.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Nothing To Be Saturnine About

It’s that time of year again when folks celebrate whatchamacallit. Much of the worry over nomenclature seems silly to me. Call December Twenty-something Christmas with the Christians, Soyal with the Zuni, or Yule with the Wiccans. Fine by me. Though I’m about as secular-minded a fellow as you’re likely to find, I personally don’t care whether displays in public parks have religious themes, or, if so, which ones. (In an American legal context, there is a constitutional issue regarding the use of tax money for the purpose, but the public purse is not the sole source of cash.) I don’t care whether a tree is called a Christmas tree or a holiday tree or just an evergreen. 

This time of year always has been a festive season on account of the winter solstice (in the Northern hemisphere, of course). Since prehistory it has been as good a reason to festivate as any. The solstice was December 25 in the Julian calendar as adopted by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. The 25th also was the Roman sun cult holiday Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (day of the birth of the unconquerable sun). The Nicean Council settled on December 25 for Christmas in 325 AD. On the slightly inaccurate Julian calendar, the solstice drifted 14 days between 46 BC and 1582 AD. When the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1582, it didn’t cut two weeks from that year in order to reset the calendar to 46 BC. It reset to 325 AD so that the solstice fell on December 21. Whether one reason was to separate Christmas a little from the solstice is anyone’s guess. (The Gregorian calendar tweaks the Julian by eliminating the leap day from any century year not evenly divisible by 400, so that 2000 was a leap year but 2100 won’t be; this makes the calendar accurate to within one day per 3300 years.)

The Puritans waged the first war on Christmas in North America; they banned the holiday because it had pagan origins. They were right… and wrong. Many of the holiday traditions do have pagan precursors, such as the gift-giving and the Yule log. The Christmas tree could be argued either way. Pagan Germano-Celts used evergreen wreaths at the solstice and they were seriously into their sacred groves, but if they decorated indoor evergreen trees they didn't record the practice anywhere. The trees are first mentioned in print in the 16th century in Germany and the Baltic. One can't help suspecting, though, that the real gripe the Puritans had was that someone might have fun.

The most commonly noted precursor to Christmas is the Roman Saturnalia, which involved an exchange of presents and lasted from December 17 to December 23 on the Julian calendar in a run-up to the solstice. You’ve got to give the Romans credit for knowing how to party. The satirist Lucian (c. 150 AD) describes some of the other activities. He puts this dialogue in the mouth of Cronos (aka Saturn) in whose honor the festival is held:

During my week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.”

I expect the usual motley assortment of guests at my house on the 25th (pretty much the same crew as Thanksgiving, plus a few). I don’t think they’ll hold back on anything on Lucian’s list except maybe the naked singing. But you never know.

Eartha Kitt Santa Baby (1953)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Valley of the Dolls

Last night’s interleague roller derby match between The Corporal Punishers of the Jerzey Derby Brigade and the Happy Valley Dolls of SCAR (State College Area Rollers) took place on the Punishers’ home track in Morristown, NJ. The bout originally had been planned for last month, but a little incident called Hurricane Sandy knocked out power to much of Morristown and made many roads impassable, so the match was rescheduled. About the only good thing to come from that storm was this late-season bout. It was a spirited and knock-about contest from start to finish.

I last saw SCAR skate several months ago when they defeated Skyland in a double-header bout, and knew they would be hard competition for MorristownThe Punishers and the Dolls are both experienced teams, with no obvious great advantage or weakness on either side. This rough equality was evident in the first half. #80 Kyssing Kaos scored the first points for the Dolls in the opening jam. #1203 Hits Spaniola put the Punishers on the Board in the third. For the first 25 minutes of the 30-minute first-half, the scores were rarely more than two points apart, with the lead teetering back and forth between the two teams. The blocking was especially fierce and well-organized on both sides, with hits and pile-ups of a sort one rarely sees this early in a game. The Punishers frequently rushed the start of jams by creating a no-pack (this releases the jammers), showing confidence in their jammers to use the full two-minutes of a jam effectively. The Dolls countered by forming formidable walls of blockers, and frequently taking down Punisher jammers, with #69 Danni Savage hitting particularly hard. Doom Hilda marshaled the Punisher blockers.

Outstanding jammers for the Dolls were Kyssing Kaos and Queen Guillotine. One strength of the Punishers is a depth of competent jammers. Heinz Catchup had an especially good night, but Hits Spaniola, Maggie Kyllanfall, Brass Muscles, CaliforniKate, and Doom Hilda all added points at critical moments. The break for the Punishers came in the last minutes of the first half when penalty calls against the Dolls allowed them to rack up points in power jams. Heinz Catchup scored four grand slams (if I counted correctly), raising the Punishers’ lead to 81-51 at the end of the first half.

Twenty minutes (and five Irish bagpipers) later, the second half began. The Punishers built on their lead, again assisted by the penalty box. (All aggressive skaters spend time in the penalty box, but sometimes the temporary loss of a key skater is decisive.) The Dolls responded by stiffening an already tough defense, taking down Beast Witherspoon repeatedly in one power jam, though this didn’t stop her from pushing through the pack and scoring points. The packs were a very rough-and-tumble place to be for skaters of both teams, with pile-ups and downed skaters common. Heinz Catchup and Maggie Kyllanfall both managed to scoot through some very unlikely holes in the pack, however. The Dolls continued to add points throughout the second half, but they weren’t enough to keep up; the Punishers had the momentum and built a strong lead into a commanding one. In the final jam of the bout, Doom Hilda took lead jammer position; both she and Queen Guillotine racked up points, but Doom expanded the Punishers’ already insurmountable lead.

The bout ended 247-114 in favor of the Punishers. Queen Guillotine was chosen MVP for the Dolls and Doom Hilda for Morristown.

All in all, it was lively match. While it’s always fun to see the home team win, the bout clearly could have been very different had the penalties been reversed and momentum shifted the other way. I’m sure the Happy Valley Dolls are aiming at that different outcome in 2013. I plan to be rinkside.

Monday, December 3, 2012


The US birthrate was in the news last week. It has fallen to 63.2 per 1000 women, which equates to a fertility rate (the average number of lifetime births per woman) of 1.9, which is the lowest since national records have been kept and about half the rate of the peak year 1957. A fertility rate of 2.1 is replacement level, so at the current rate the national population would decline were it not for immigration.

The US is not alone. Several countries with advanced economies have rates that are even lower (e.g. Canada 1.5, Italy 1.4, Japan 1.3, among others), though global population goes on burgeoning thanks to continuing high birthrates in the countries that can least afford them.

There are economic consequences that worry policymakers. Even with immigration, the decline in the US birthrate and the steady drop in adult workforce participation (presently 63.8% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, down from 66.6% a decade ago) bode ill for federal and state budgets, all of which count on wildly unrealistic expectations of growth in the number and incomes of employed taxpayers to meet entitlement and pension commitments.

Editorials last week proffered several explanations for the decline, with the ongoing economic malaise in the US always figuring prominently. The problem with that explanation is that the decline in the birthrate started decades ago. It has persisted through good times and bad. While the dip below 2.0 this year was attention-getting, it wasn’t any deviation from the long term trend. Nonetheless, I’m sure economic factors play a part, but they play a part that won’t change much even if GDP perks up. The fact is that raising kids in the US is insanely expensive, and it’s getting worse. According to the USDA (I don’t know why the Department of Agriculture tracks this, but it does), the average cost of a child born in 2011 (in constant dollars) is $235,000 for the first 17 years, which means before college. Upper income households will spend $390,000. And what of college or other higher education? In real terms it costs triple what it did 50 years ago.

There is another reason for the change, though, that might be even more important. The average age of first marriage is the highest on record (27 for women, 29 for men) – and that is for those who get married at all. The majority of adults are presently unmarried. Over half of adults under 35 never have been married and half of those express no interest in ever becoming so. Marriage is not a prerequisite for having kids, of course; more than a third of births in the US are to single moms after all, which actually is a low fraction compared to some European countries. However, the added difficulties of raising kids alone surely discourage having a lot of them. Furthermore, those married couples tend not to remain couples, often breaking up before starting a family.

I certainly saw some of this at my Thanksgiving table (admittedly an unscientific sample). As I mentioned in an earlier blog, all of the dozen, ranging from young adults to 81, were single: never-married, divorced, or widowed. Four of them were parents, but all of their kids together were outnumbered by those over the age of 35 present at the table. Only one person of any age was altogether positive about a previous marriage or primary relationship. All the others had disaster stories of varying scariness, often laced with negative self-judgments. One fellow remarked, “Guys are such idiots,” referring to his own folly in romantic matters. A lady guest (who hadn’t heard him) not more than 10 minutes later said, “women are such dopes,” while discussing a philandering ex-beau.

Nor is this just an American phenomenon. In a story about virtual reality games, for instance, one fellow commented to Japanese 2channel, “I don’t like real women. They're too picky nowadays. I'd much rather have a virtual girlfriend." A female Tokyo fashion editor agreed in gender-reversed fashion to The Guardian: "Maybe we're just advanced human beings. Maybe we’ve learned how to service ourselves.”

There always has been a battle of the sexes. It always has been a staple of popular culture. (Let’s leave the likes of Aristophanes and Shakespeare aside, though it would be easy enough to go there.) It’s hard to find a more mutually sadistic couple than Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946), for example, as they relentlessly get at each other for unspecified past wrongs. Yet I can’t help noticing a change in tone which kicked in after the ‘70s: a rising expectation that that romance means letting oneself in for emotional abuse – e.g. Joan Jett I Hate Myself for Loving You. Clearly, everyone doesn’t feel this way or there wouldn’t be a next generation, but I really do hear a lot along this line from both sexes.

Perhaps there is something positive to this rising cynicism, if cynicism is what it is. It really is better to be single than to be with the wrong person, and smashing our rose-colored glasses might help us distinguish the wrong ones. If another consequence is giving politicians fewer taxpayer pockets to raid, perhaps that is for the best, too. They might have to consider spending within our means, though that may be too much for which to hope.

The Offspring’s Global Hit in the 90s Apparently Struck a Chord