December 21, 2012 The Mayan Apocalypse

We are privileged to live in an age of great learning and wisdom. The internet brings us the sum total of human knowledge, with but a few keystrokes. Social media has right-sized the planet to a single community where we all discuss the Code of Hammurabi, the collected works of Shakespeare and the vicissitudes of interplanetary physics.

Naah. Just kidding. We live in as nonsensical an age as any other. One of the sillier bits of pop culture foolishness of the recent past, may be when the world came to an end. Eight years ago today. December 21, 2012.

It was the Mayan Apocalypse. A day of giant solar flares, when the planets aligned to cause massive tidal catastrophe and Earth collided with the imaginary planet Nibiru. Over in China, Lu Zhenghai even built himself an Ark. Sort of.

If only I’d been smart enough back then, to sell survival kits.

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Lu Zhenghai’s ark, 2012. H/T Huffpo

End-of-the-world scenarios are nothing new. In 1806, the “Prophet Hen of Leeds” was laying eggs, inscribed with the message “Christ is coming”. It was the end of times. The Judgement Day cometh.

The story, as told in the book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” written by Scottish author Charles Mackay in 1841, tells the story of a “panic[ked] terror”, when a “great number of visitors” traveled from far and near, to peer at the chicken Nostradamus.

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Turns out that Mary Bateman, the bird’s owner and a serial fraudster, was writing these messages with some kind of “corrosive ink”, maybe an acid, and reinserting them into the poor chicken. The “Yorkshire Witch” met her end on a gibbet, hanged for the poisoned pudding she gave that couple to relieve their chest pain, but I digress.

If you were around in 1986, you may remember the great excitement surrounding the return of Halley’s Comet. The celestial body comes around but once every 76 years and, the time before that, it was the end of the world. In 1910, the New York Times reported the discovery of the deadly poison cyanogen, in the comet’s tail. French astronomer Camille Flammarion predicted the gas would “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”

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French postcard, 1910

Hucksters sold comet pills. Doomsayers claimed that massive tides would cause the Pacific to empty, into the Atlantic. Finally, the end of days arrived. May 20, 1910. And then it went. There was no end of the world though, tragically, 16-year-old Amy Hopkins fell to her death from a rooftop, while awaiting the appearance, of the comet.

The world has seen no fewer than 207 End-of-the-World predictions over the last 2,000 years, if Wikipedia is to be believed. Polls conducted in 2012 across twenty nations revealed percentages from 6% in France to 22% in the United States and Turkey, believing the world would come to an end, in their lifetimes.

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5,000 years ago, the Mayan civilization of modern-day Mexico and Central America developed a sophisticated calendar, working with a base numerical system of 20.

It was three calendars, really. The “Long Count” was mainly used for historical purposes, able to specify any date within a 2,880,000 day cycle. The Haab was a civil calendar, consisting of 18 months of 20 days, and an “Uayeb” of five days. The Tzolkin was the “divine” calendar, used mainly for ceremonial and religious purposes. Consisting of 20 periods of 13 days, the Tzolkin goes through a complete cycle every 260 days. The significance of this cycle is unknown, though it may be connected with the 263-day orbit of Venus. There is no year in the Haab or Tzolkin calendars, though the two can be combined to specify a particular day within a 52-year cycle.

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Get it? No, neither do I. Suffice it to say that the world of the Mayan Gods lasted 5,125 years and 133 days, a period of time known as 13 b’ak’tun.

The last Long Count began in August 3114 BC.  Counting forward, scholars decided on December 21, 2012, as the end of the cycle.

Calamity. An estimated 2 percent of the American public believed the end of the world, was nigh. Online searches went up for one-way flights to Turkey and the South of France, both rumored to be safe havens from the apocalypse.

They should have asked a Mayan, who may have been amused by all these crazy Gringos. The world wasn’t coming to an end. The calendar just rolls over and begins again at “Zero”, like those old odometers that only went up to 100,000 miles.

What a party that could have been. The “New Year” to end all New Years. Only comes around once every 5,125 years, & 133 days.

Happy 14 b’ak’tun.

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February 4, 2012 Have a Nice Day

From Betty Boop to the hula hoop, popular culture is always primed and ready to dive into the latest fad.

140px-Silver_Star_medalEstablished by act of Congress on July 9, 1918, the Silver Star is the third-highest decoration is the system of military honors, awarded to members of US armed services for valor in combat against an enemy of the United States.  A search of public records reveals a long list of recipients of the Silver Star including the name “Ball, Harvey A. HQ, 45th Infantry Division, G.O. No. 281”.

Harvey Ball earned the silver star medal “for Conspicuous Gallantry in Action” in 1945, during the battle for Okinawa. He went on to serve most of his life in the United States Army Reserve, retiring in 1979 with the rank of Colonel.

Harvey Ross Ball worked for a sign painter while attending Worcester South High School, and went on to study fine arts at the Worcester Art Museum School.2981c

After the war, Ball came home to Worcester and worked for a local advertising firm, later opening his own ad agency, Harvey Ball Advertising, in 1959.

In 1963, the State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Worcester (now Hanover Insurance) bought out the Guarantee Mutual Company of Ohio.  Employee morale tanked with the new acquisition.  Director of Promotions Joy Young was tasked with solving the problem.  Young hired Harvey Ball as a freelance artist to create a visual icon. A pin to be worn as part of the company’s ‘friendship campaign’.

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Harvey Ball, surrounded by his own creation

First came the silly grin. That part was easy but the pair soon realized, the button could be inverted.  Now we’ve got a “frowny” face and we can’t have that. Ball added eyes, the left drawn just a little smaller than the right, to “humanize” the image.

The work took ten minutes and the artist was paid $45, equivalent to $330 today.  Neither Ball nor State Mutual Felt the need to copyright the graphic.

From Betty Boop to the hula hoop, popular culture is always primed and ready to dive into the latest fad. State Mutual ordered 100 buttons.  It wasn’t long before manufacturers were taking orders for thousands at a time.

Philadelphia brothers Bernard and Murray Spain seized on the image seven years later and produced millions of coffee mugs, t-shirts, watches and bumper stickers, emblazoned with the happy face and the slogan “Have a happy day”.  It was later revised to the ever present, “Have a nice day”.

The image was everywhere, second only to the ubiquitous “Peace Sign”.

Frenchman Franklin Loufrani copyrighted the graphic in France in 1972, using the image in the “good news” section of the newspaper France Soir and developing a line of imprinted novelty items.  Loufrani’s son Nicolas took over the family business and launched the Smiley Company, in 1996.

Unsurprisingly, the younger Loufrani is skeptical of Harvey Ball’s claim to have created such a simple design, pointing to cave paintings found in France dated to 2500BC and a similar graphic used in radio ad campaigns, of the early 1960s.

Of course, that didn’t prevent the company from seeking US trademark rights to the image and kicking off a years-long legal battle with retail giant WalMart, which had been using the happy face in its “Rolling Back Prices” campaign.

The Smiley Company is one of the 100 largest licensing corporations in the world with revenues of $167 million in 2012, holding rights to the Smiley Face in over 100 countries. Notably, the United States is not one of them.

As for Harvey Ball, he didn’t seem to mind that he never copyrighted his Smiley Face.  The artist is gone now but Ball’s son Charles says his father never was a money driven kind of guy. “Hey”, he would say, “I can only eat one steak at a time. drive one car at a time”.

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The Galle Crater, on Mars

In the 2009 film “Watchmen” characters fly to Mars, landing in a crater that looks like a Smiley Face. The red planet really does have such a place.  It’s called the Galle crater.

In June of 2010, Wal-Mart and the Smiley Company settled their 10-year-old legal dispute in Chicago federal court. The terms of the settlement are confidential and the words of the judge as he lowered his gavel, are unknown to this scribe.

I so want to believe the man told all those lawyers, to “have a nice day”.

March 23, 1839 OK

The random and silly teenage fad of the era, went unrecorded. Dad doesn’t mention if the kid was eating goldfish, sagging his toga or doing a Chinese fire drill around the chariot. That particular silliness would wait for another day

Two thousand years before Romulus and Remus founded the Roman Republic, Nomadic bands of hunters and gatherers established the world’s oldest civilization in the fertile valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. They called it “Sumeria”.

wri-lit-pre-islam-03-detail100 years ago, “Sumerologists” labored to learn the customs and ways of this ancient civilization. One such team pieced together a stone tablet and, through years of study, managed to decipher the cuneiform words contained thereon.

Turns out it was a father, 5,000 years ago, bitching about his son. The kid won’t work, he’s disrespectful, and he hangs out with the wrong kind of people. If he isn’t borrowing the chariot, all the kid wants to do is drink wine and lie around the house. These kids today.

The random and silly teenage fad of the era went unrecorded. Dad doesn’t mention if the kid was eating goldfish, sagging his toga or doing a Chinese fire drill around the chariot. That particular silliness would wait for another day, but one thing is certain.  The random enthusiasms peculiar (though not exclusive) to youth, are as old as history itself.chinese-fire-drill

In the 1830s, it was a favorite practice in younger, more educated (and probably bored) circles, to intentionally misspell words, and abbreviate them when talking to one another. As always, holding the key to the code meant the difference between being with the “in crowd”, and everyone else. As teenagers today have their own slang based on distortions of common words: “Awks” means that’s awkward, “YOLO” means You Only Live Once, and “BFF”, means Best friends forever, the in-crowd of the 1830s had a whole vocabulary of abbreviations.

On March 23, 1839, the initials “O.K.” were first published in The Boston Morning Post. This particular abbreviation stood for “Orl Korrekt.”  All correct.  Other popular slang of the era included “KY” for “No use” (“Know Yuse”), “KG” for “No Go” (“Know Go”), and “OW” for all right (“Oll Wright”).martin-van-buren

The expression got a boost in the Presidential election of 1840, during the re-election campaign of democrat Martin van Buren, also known as “Old Kindherhook”, after the village of his birth.

The others dropped from use, probably around the same time that parents figured them out, but OK steadily made its way into the speech of ordinary Americans. I found myself texting it, just the other day.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere, IMHO, for anyone raising a teenager. And for the kid who thinks he/she’s the first in all recorded history, to ever (fill in the blank). LOL.