December 21, 2011

365, err, 366 days and counting

This is it, people: The bona fide, for-real, I-mean-it-this-time Big One.

Today is December 21, 2011: exactly one year until the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar. This calendar starts measuring time at a mythical creation date of August 11, 3114 BC, upon the completion of 13 b'ak'tuns (1 b'ak'tun = 144,000 days, or roughly 394 years). Another 13 b'ak'tuns will be completed on December 21, 2012.

This is the date that has caused so much hysteria amongst the lunatic fringe and on late-night talk radio, such that it is popularly taken to be an end-of-the-world candidate (the premise of the Roland Emmerich explosion-fest 2012). In reality, it's just another example of fin-de-siecle hype of the same kind that plagued us a decade ago when the Western calendar rolled over to 2000. Somewhere out there, gullible people will believe that the Mayans had special insight into the future that other cultures (who managed not to go extinct) do not, or that freaky things happen every time someone's historic calendar resets to 0.

In 1982, a planetary alignment was supposed to trigger the "Jupiter Effect," in which the combined gravitational pull of the rest of the solar system was purportedly going to trigger earthquakes and other catastrophes. Apart from schoolkids running around at recess screaming "Doomsday!!!" nothing happened. In 1988, Edgar Whisenant published a book titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. When the Rapture failed to arrive on schedule, he followed it up with an updated 89 Reasons a year later, before fading into well-deserved obscurity. On New Year's Day, 2000, the Y2K bug was going to end civilization when all the computers were terminally confused by the two-digit date "00" and turned into bricks. Since the Millennium bug was caused by a known engineering oversight, it was easily prevented, and actual computer errors amounted to a minor inconvenience. Planet X was going to speed past Earth in 2004 and cause all sorts of mayhem. Not only did Planet X fail to appear, but it failed to exist. Harold Camping predicted the end of the world for September 1994, May 21 and October 21, 2011, with predictable results.

As for December 21, 2012, this, too, shall pass unremarkably. In the meantime, however, get ready to be inundated with all the mass panic you can stomach.

I wonder whether the Mayan calendar accounted for leap years? I'd hate for the world to end a day prematurely.

December 18, 2011

All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome

A lightning review of Under the Dome by Stephen King (New York: Gallery–Simon & Shuster, 2009). Trade paperback, 1074 pp.

Chester's Mill is a quaint little Maine town of 2,000 people just north of Castle Rock. Without warning, an impenetrable and invisible dome suddenly descends upon the town, trapping the locals inside (and causing the deaths of several). The dome admits air and water, but nothing else: food supplies are limited, and the only electricity comes from propane-powered generators. The crisis leaves used-car dealer and Second Selectman "Big Jim" Rennie without significant opposition in the town, and he makes a power play to consolidate his control, stacking the police force with his cronies, and hoarding what remains of the propane for the meth lab he runs behind the Christian radio station.

Meanwhile, the military is trying to solve the dome problem. They appoint Iraq veteran and fry cook Dale "Barbie" Barbara as their liaison, and put him in charge of Chester's Mill. He is also tasked with finding the source of the dome. Rennie, with his influence threatened by Barbie, frames him for a string of murders actually committed by himself and his son, Junior.

Under the Dome has Stephen King's usual archetypes, including the likeable take-charge everyman, corrupt officials, and well-rounded local colour. And with local druggies stockpiling weapons and explosives, you know that it will inevitably end poorly for the town. All in all, the novel is a worthy read from King, and not dissimilar to his early epic The Stand. However, the payoff at the end doesn't quite measure up to the 1,100-page buildup.

Incidentally, someone (connected to King, his publisher, or otherwise, I don't know) has put together a typical small-town Web site for Chester's Mill and some of the local businesses from the novel. Nice attention to detail, guys!

December 09, 2011

Earnestly contending for the doctrine of the omniimpotence of God

(Or, reason #2,827 why Molinism sucks.)

I saw this article from William Lane Craig excerpted first on Triablogue last week. In the intervening week, it's made the rounds around to the usual suspects in the blogosphere as well. So, as usual, I'm a little late to the game. Nonetheless.

Craig is a Molinist. Molinism is a philosophical attempt to reconcile the biblical truths of divine sovereignty and human moral agency. Not only is this an unnecessary exercise, it seems to me—if I believe in scriptural inerrancy, then I am bound to accept both, given that both are taught unambiguously in the Bible—but it simply isn't a very good one. Molinism claims that God knows what choices free creatures would make in any set of circumstances, and so, out of all the possible worlds, he created the one in which everyone freely made the moral choices that he wanted them to. Put another way: God (being a gentleman who would never barge in) must not affect the will of the creature directly, but he will herd the creature into the necessary circumstances to obtain the desired free-will choices.

That's some "freedom."

December 08, 2011

Nyuk nyuk nyet


December 06, 2011

The night Santa went crazy

Happy St. Nicholas Day.

St. Nicholas of Myra is the prototype St. Nick: a Byzantine bishop of the fourth century renowned for his generosity. In particular, he is known for his gift to the three daughters of a pious Christian man: impoverished, they were about to resort to prostitution to make ends meet. Nicholas, anonymously and under cover of night, threw three bags of gold through the family's window, one for each daughter to use as a dowry.

Acording to another, less well-known tradition, Nicholas was present at the Council of Nicæa, in AD 325. The council had met to deliberate the theology of Arius, an Egyptian heretic who taught that Christ was not equal in substance to the Father. Arius himself was present at the Council to defend his views. Supposedly, Nicholas—an ardent defender of the orthodox position that Christ was the eternal Son of God, of the same substance as the Father—became increasingly incensed as Arius continued to expound upon his heresy. Finally, he lost it completely and slapped Arius across the face.

For this offense to the dignity of Church proceedings—and for hulking out in front of Emperor Constantine, to boot—Nicholas was stripped of his rank and thrown in jail. Legend says he received a vision of Mary and Jesus, who vindicated him and restored to him the symbols of his office. When Constantine heard of this miracle, he formally reinstated him as bishop as well. Because of this, and other supposed miracles attributed to St. Nicholas of Myra, the traditional liturgical calendar celebrates his feast day today, December 6.

So, have a happy Slug a Heretic Day.