Category Archives: Diary

Myth, Hype And Nonsense: Days Before ‘Doomsday’


NASA has released a video intended to put the world’s mind at rest about Dec. 21, 2012 — the much hyped end-date of the Mayan “Long Count” calendar. Titled “Why the World Didn’t End Yesterday,” the video does a sound debunking of the misinformation being bandied about by doomsayers trying to make a fast buck out of people’s fears.

But why did the space agency bother releasing a video intended for Dec. 22 (i.e. one day after “doomsday”) a week early?

The ever watchful Alan Boyle at NBC News’ Cosmic Log questioned NASA on this oddity and received a, well, very rational answer. Kinda.

“The teaser for the video explains everything: ‘NASA is so confident that the world is not coming to an end on Dec. 21, that they have already released a video for the day after,'” Tony Philips, writer and editor for the excellent NASA Science and websites, told Boyle.

Philips attributed the video as his idea, adding: “I felt it was a lighter and more creative way to approach the topic than some of the other treatments we’ve seen. Some people have been confused by it, but not all. The unorthodox approach is definitely a conversation-starter, which was our goal all along.” (emphasis added)

While this may seem to make sense, I was left banging my head on the desk. I keep hearing confused voices: “If NASA was that confident that the world wasn’t coming to an end on Dec. 21, why didn’t they release a Dec. 22 video on… Dec. 22? Does NASA know something we don’t?”

Handling The End Of The World

Until now, NASA has handled the “Mayan doomsday” nonsense excellently. The agency first went on the record denouncing various doomsday scenarios during the sinister marketing ploys employed by the production company of the movie doomsday-disaster movie “2012” in 2009. Since then they have knocked down each flawed cosmological theory in turn.

WIDE ANGLE: What Is The Mayan Doomsday?

David Morrison, NASA scientist based at NASA Ames, has been combating the doomsday misinformation for many years via questions submitted to his “Ask an Astrobiologist” website (an excellent summary of the questions fielded by Morrison can be found here). Morrison attributes the public’s fear of this doomsday to “cosmophobia” — a growing trend that’s based on people’s fear of the cosmic unknown.

Doomsday scenarios such as a marauding Planet X (or Nibiru), killer solar flare, weird galactic alignments and polar/geomagnetic shifts fall firmly in under “cosmophobia,” and doomsayers that stand to make money out of doomsday books and website advertising use this phenomenon to great effect.

Also, the idea that there is some kind of grand conspiracy (i.e., the government or some secret society has some privileged information about the end of the world) is another strong factor. To many, NASA debunking various doomsday scenarios from their ivory towers of science is “proof” that something weird is going on. To those people, no amount of debunking or logic will stop them believing in doom and gloom, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Google: “Mayan + Doomsday”

Since I began debunking the “Mayan doomsday” in 2008, I’ve not only acquired a fascination for archaeology and the ancient Mayan culture, I’ve also been confounded by the psychology behind society’s fascination with the end of the word. Every day, through Google Alerts, I receive tidbits of news from around the globe about tales of doom and gloom and how people are “prepping” for the “Mayan prophesy.”

WIDE ANGLE: Who Are the Mayans?

Today, I’ve read about how a Chinese businessman has been building expensive spherical doomsday shelters; guides on how to discuss doomsday fears with your kids; news about an obscure region of France that is rumored to be “protected” from impending doom (there’s a Turkish refuge too); and warnings about disturbances in a Chicago school district, to name just a handful of strange goings on around the world.

But what about the Mayan descendents currently living in Central America? Well, they’re bewildered. They’re approaching Dec. 21 with positivity, because this is a time of celebration and renewal for the Maya culture — not a time of dread, fear and foreboding. It seems the Western “messianic thinking” is in full flow — a marketing fallacy indeed!

“For us, this Dec. 21 is the end of a great era and also the beginning of a new era. We renew our beliefs. We renew a host of things that surround us,” said José Manrique Esquivel, a descendent of the ancient Maya. Esquivel blames a few profiteering individuals for misrepresenting his culture, turning this highly spiritual event into a doomsday circus. Sounds familiar, right?

One More Week Of Silliness

So, we have just one more week of the doomsday silliness, but there are many people who are genuinely concerned about this Friday. For those, the “what if?” factor is strong. But this “what if?” has been fabricated by a few profit-making schemers — not by the Mayans who never predicted doomsday. In fact, they didn’t even allude to it. It’s a scam, a con, a hoax. Nothing more, nothing less. Hell, the Dec. 21 “end date” isn’t even set in stone! There’s some ambiguity as to when the Long Count calendar even ends.

WIDE ANGLE: Doomsday Realities

Sadly, the human mind has a tendency to attach some prophesy or superstition to coincidental dates. The logic goes like this: Dec. 21, 2012 is the darkest day of the year (for the Northern Hemisphere — it’s the winter solstice), it may as well be the Apocalypse too.

And so, back to NASA’s new video. Although I admire the effort, releasing a Dec. 22 video early does little to calm the individuals who hold a genuine concern for Dec. 21. ‘What if’ NASA is covering something up? ‘What if’ they released that video a week early because they know they wont get a chance to air it on Saturday? You don’t have to take my word for it, you just have to scroll through the 2000+ comments on the video’s YouTube page to see a few people are asking these questions. Sure, the majority of people “get it,” but those aren’t the people who we should be concerned about.

Celebrate, Don’t Fear, The Maya

Thankfully, NASA and the science media has generally done a fantastic job in confronting the “stupid-science” of the smorgasbord of doomsday scenarios that won’t happen on Dec. 21. So NASA, please don’t go getting all creative with doomsday now, right when you’re on the finishing straight. The unorthodox approach may be a “conversation starter,” but there’s already plenty of conversations going on without the tricks.

As for the Maya culture, their ancient civilization and modern day descendents, I propose a toast (on Dec. 21) for an amazing calendar system. The Long Count not only represents an ingenious means of documenting time, it is a testament to the timeless fascination we have with a culture we are only just beginning to learn about. The Long Count is the last breath of the ancient Maya, so I suggest we celebrate — and not fear — this momentous day.


Fotopedia Launches China iPad App on iPad-in-China Day

Just in time for the new iPad’s arrival in China, Fotopedia, which publishes iOS-based photo and travel apps, has introduced a new iPad app geared toward China.

The free app, called Fotopedia China, features high-res photos of various provinces, regions and cities throughout the nation, as well as descriptive captions, maps, Wikipedia entries and recommendations for other destinations.

Like another one of my favorite apps, Here on Earth, Fotopedia’s app is part travel porn and part travel planning. In addition to the 5,000 crowdsourced photos currently available within the app, users have the ability to add, with one click, images and stories to a “My Trips” folder. Through a new partnership with Expedia, users can actually book travel — and not just put photos in a daydream folder.

Based on some light browsing through Fotopedia China, the Expedia integration doesn’t feel totally seamless right now, popping up as full pages in between photos and taking you out of Fotopedia entirely when you click on an Expedia ad. If you’ve already got the Expedia app on your device, you’ll be directed to that app, and if not, you’re prompted to download the app.

But for users so inspired by Victoria Peak in Hong Kong, Temple of Heaven in Beijing or the Huangpu River in Shanghai that an immediate booking is in order, the detour to a travel site could be a coup.

The China app marks the 11th iOS app for Fotopedia, which was created in 2008 by five former Apple employees under a company named Fotonauts Inc. Jean-Marie Hullot, the company’s founder and CEO, says its 10 previous apps have been downloaded more than 12 million times, with more than 20 percent of app downloads coming from China, followed by the U.S. The iPad audience, in particular, is growing, with 30 percent of users now checking out Fotopedia from the tablet device.

“China is our No. 1 market; over the past 18 months, it’s the market that’s growing the fastest,” Hullot said. “So we’re excited to finally bring an app about China to that market.”

Han Han sues Fang Zhouzi for claiming his books were ghost-written ‎

Fang Zhouzi, who is known as the “science cop” for exposing pseudoscience and academic fraud, said the suit against him by the young Chinese writer Han Han will not stop him continuing his analysis of Han’s work.

“Suing me is his right, but it will also attract more attention,” Fang told China Daily on Sunday. “It’s not bad to make more people know the truth.”

Earlier on Sunday, Lu Jinbo, Han Han’s publisher, said Han is making a formal accusation against Fang and asking for 100,000 yuan ($15,800) in compensation.

Han later confirmed on his blog that he will launch a lawsuit against Fang.

The move is the latest development in a heated dispute that started in early January when a well-known Chinese blogger claimed Han’s works were actually ghostwritten and his intellectual image was carefully sculpted by his father Han Renjun and publisher Lu Jinbo.

On Jan 16, Han Han responded to the blogger’s accusation by offering 20 million yuan to anyone who could prove his works were ghostwritten.

Fang then entered the fray, claiming Han has deleted all his articles from December 2006 to September 2007 from his blog.

“Offering money to look for evidence, while at the same time destroying the proof, shows his claims of innocence lack sincerity,” Fang said in his micro blog.

Han responded by saying that the articles were deleted in 2008 at the request of his publishing house.

He also said he and his father grew up in two different times and it was impossible for them to have the same writing style.

Han’s publisher, Lu, said the writer has the more than 1,000 manuscript pages as evidence.

“I don’t think the resulting court decision, even if it goes in my favor, will affect the conclusion of my analysis of Han’s works,” Fang said in a statement published on his blog.

“My analysis, queries and criticism of Han Han’s articles accord with the freedom of speech and academic criticism, and are irrelevant to the infringement of his reputation.”

Fang said his lawyer will act for him in court and he will not attend.

Han, who failed his college entrance exam, rose to fame in a high-school writing competition in Shanghai in 1999. His rebellious streak and satirical writing proved popular with the younger generation.

Han was unavailable for comment on Sunday.

Crash raises doubts about China’s fast rail plans

BEIJING — Doubts about China’s breakneck plans to expand high-speed rail across the country have been underscored by a bullet train wreck that killed at least 35 people.

Railways Minister Sheng Guangzu has already apologized to the victims of Saturday’s crash, and their families. A train rammed into the back of another one that stalled after being hit by lightning in China’s deadliest rail accident since 2008. Six carriages derailed and four fell about 65 to 100 feet from a viaduct.

The Railway Ministry and government officials haven’t explained why the second train was not warned there was a stalled train in its path.

The accident is the latest blow to China’s bullet train ambitions. Designed to show off the country’s rising wealth and technological prowess, the national prestige attached to the high-speed rail project is on a par with China’s space program.

Beijing plans to expand the high-speed rail network — already the world’s biggest — to link far-flung regions and is also trying to sell its trains to Latin America and the Middle East.

Last month, it launched to great fanfare the Beijing to Shanghai high-speed line, whose trains can travel at a top speed of 186 miles (300 kilometers) per hour. The speed was cut from the originally planned 217 mph (350 kph) after questions were raised about safety.

In less than four weeks of operation, power outages and other malfunctions have plagued the showcase 820-mile (1,318-kilometer) line. The Railways Ministry previously apologized for the problems and said that summer thunderstorms and winds were the cause in some cases.

Official plans call for China’s bullet train network to expand to 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers) of track this year and 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) by 2020.

China’s trains are based on Japanese, French and German technology, but the manufacturers are trying to sell to Latin America and the Middle East. That has prompted complaints that Beijing is violating the spirit of licenses with foreign providers by reselling technology that was meant to be used only in China.

Saturday’s accident involved the first-generation bullet trains, which were launched in 2007 and have a top speed of 155 miles (250 kilometers) per hour — slower than the new Beijing to Shanghai trains.

The Ministry of Railways said in a statement on its website Monday that the accident had killed 36 people and injured 192.

The crash happened when a bullet train traveling south from the Zhejiang provincial capital of Hangzhou lost power in a lightning strike, stalled and was hit from behind by a second train in Wenzhou city.

Three top officials at the Shanghai Railway Bureau were sacked after the accident, and state-controlled media have raised questions, especially as rail travel moves hundreds of millions of people a year.

In an editorial entitled ‘Train crash lesson for railway progress,’ the Global Times said the accident should be “a bloody lesson for the entire railway industry in China.”

The newspaper said the collision casts doubt on China’s high-speed railway expansion plans because the country “lacks experience” as it seeks to join the top ranks of railway engineering.

It said China’s high-speed railway has become “the newest target of public criticism,” adding the accident should lead to “safer, not slower, railway transportation.”

China’s transportation authority ordered local departments at an emergency meeting Sunday to launch thorough safety overhauls to “resolutely curb” severe traffic accidents, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. The order follows a number of recent accidents, including a fire on a long-distance bus on Friday that killed 41 people.

The China Daily said in an editorial that the rapid development of China’s high-speed network has eased travel for passengers, but safety worries could keep them off high-speed trains.

This is because “the higher the speed of the trains, the more sophisticated the technology will be and the greater the risk if there is a failure of any link in the safety chain,” it said.

The paper called for better training of railway employees and efforts to make sure the railways are not vulnerable to extreme weather conditions.

State broadcaster CCTV reported Monday that a 2-year-old girl pulled from one of the derailed carriages 21 hours after the crash had undergone a three-hour operation. It said she had suffered lung, kidney and leg injuries and is now in intensive care. Her parents died in the crash.

In April 2008,a regular-speed train traveling from Beijing to the eastern coastal city of Qingdao derailed and crashed into another train, killing 72 people and injuring 416.

Is the Japanese Earthquake a sign of “2012”?

Strong earthquakes hit the Tohoku Region in the afternoon of March 11, triggering several meter high tsunami waves that caused massive destruction and loss of human lives in areas along the Pacific coast of eastern Japan, especially in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima Prefectures.

The earthquake itself caused major damage in areas close to the epicenter, as well as scattered fires and damage across the Tohoku and eastern Kanto area, although it did not cause widespread damage in any major city as seen in Kobe in 1995. The tsunami, however, caused extensive damage beyond imagination in coastal areas along the Pacific coast of northeastern Honshu.

Two nuclear reactors at the coast of Fukushima Prefecture suffered damage from the earthquake and tsunami. Authorities have issued evacuation orders to people living within 20 kilometers of the first reactor and within 10 kilometers of the second reactor. Prospective travelers to Japan should keep an eye on the evolving matter.

The damage to the nuclear plants is also causing a power shortage in Eastern Japan. As a result, rolling blackouts are carried out in the Greater Tokyo Region from today for an undetermined period of time. Power is switched off for 3-hour periods in rotation between five areas from 6:20am to 10pm. Most of central Tokyo is excluded from the blackouts.

Some areas of Tokyo and the following major tourist destinations will be affected by the rolling blackouts: Yokohama, Kamakura, Hakone, the Fuji Five Lake region, the Izu Peninsula and Nikko.

All major airports (except Sendai Airport) are open and operating. Transportation between Narita Airport and central Tokyo is affected by a reduction and cancellations of train and bus services.

Due to the power shortage, many train lines in the Greater Tokyo Region are operating at reduced frequencies or stop service during certain periods of the day. Some lines are stopped for the entire day.

Most trains in the Tohoku Region remain out of service for an undetermined time.Trains are running normally in the other parts of Japan, including the Kansai Region around Osaka and Kyoto, the Chubu Region around Nagoya (except some parts of Shizuoka and Yamanashi that are also affected by the blackouts), Kyushu, Shikoku, Hokkaido and Okinawa.

For the above reasons, prospective tourists are advised not to visit the Tohoku Region and to reconsider traveling to the Greater Tokyo Region as long as the power blackouts are carried out. Visits to Western Japan should remain little affected by the disaster.

Facebook, Skype keep Japanese citizens in touch

Facebook, Skype, and Twitter are proving to be the best way for people living in Japan to communicate as the nation struggles to deal with the effects of a massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake in northern Japan and subsequent tsunami.  At least 300 people have died in the disaster so far and there are more than 500 people missing.

Telephone networks were extremely congested so carriers like NTT DoCoMo are severely restricting incoming voice calls, particularly in the northeast which was hit by tsunami waves that reached 30 feet (10 meters) in height.  Subscribers say they have been able to  contact friends and family using DoCoMo, but not on other networks.  Residents say they can’t send text messages or make voice calls.  Carriers like Au and Softbank were also affected by the disaster.  NTT DoCoMo restricted its incoming telephone calls by up to 80 percent.

“Facebook and Skype are proving to be the best ways to stay in touch” said Brian Chapman a journalist living in Tokyo.  Chapman said a lot of people forced to spend hours walking home because subways don’t work can be seen talking on their mobile phones, but there are also long lines for every pay phone that functions.