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Commentary: The Mayan Calendar Project

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 12, 2012 - There is a rule of logic called Occam's Razor. Named after 14th century scholar William of Occam, the principle is often misconstrued to mean that the simplest explanation is always the correct one. That formulation is -- well -- simplistic.

What the Razor actually demands is that before one proceeds to a more complex hypothesis, he must first rule out less complicated alternatives. This useful habit of thought results in analytical economy, thus limiting confusion by excluding needless variables from consideration.

The dictum does not preclude complexity, but rather sets standards for it. Before you can attribute the disappearance of your pet canary to avian zoologists from outer space, for instance, you must first eliminate your neighbor's cat as a suspect.

Conspiracy theorists are notorious for getting this idea exactly backward. Confronted with an unexplained phenomenon, they tend to leap to the most complex -- and thus least likely -- solution for the puzzle.

You say the Mayan calendar stops at Dec. 21, 2012? Obviously, that's when the world ends. That particular conclusion requires a hypothetical variable of elephantine proportions -- namely, a primitive civilization that was at once sufficiently prescient to accurately foretell the end of time and yet myopic enough that it failed to notice its own impending demise.

A far simpler explanation is that the construction of the calendar was a government project. After all, a private Mayan citizen trying to hustle a buck in the jungle of the Yucatan Peninsula during the first millennium probably wasn't unduly concerned that Nov. 19, 2008, would fall on a Wednesday. Only the government would fund research like that.

And a government project always entails an auditor. Given those reasonable assumptions, it's easy to see why the calendar stops when it does. Listen:

Auditor: "Good morning. I'm Inspector Moon Zero Bird from the Bureau of Maize Management. Who's in charge here?"

Foreman: "I am, sir. They call me Smoke Monkey."

Auditor: (consulting his clip board) "Let's see here ... Maggot, Mahound, Mole ... oh yes, here it is: Monkey, Smoke -- Foreman First Class. you know, I used to date a chic named Monkey ... cute little redhead, but nuttier than a pecan...

Foreman: "That's my cousin, Bats Monkey."

Auditor: (somewhat flustered) "Um, well, yes. Lovely woman ... send her my regards." (clearing his throat) "Now see here, Monkey, I've been going over these manpower reports and it appears that you and your crew have been missing from the fields for several moons. Is that correct?"

Foreman: "Yes, sir."

Auditor: "Well, maize doesn't grow trees. Didn't you get the memo about the Bureau's new motto, GOYAPEC?"

Foreman: "GOYAPEC?"

Auditor: "Yes. Get Off Your Ass and Plant Extra Corn. It seems the agriculture minister's favorite prophet dreamt of pestilence and now the push is on to harvest a bumper crop. We need every hand in the fields."

Foreman: "But we've been working round the sundial on a special project to construct a calendar. We're making tremendous progress, Mr. Zero Bird."

Auditor: "OK, let's begin at the beginning. Who authorized this project?"

Foreman: "The emperor, himself, sir."

Auditor: "Well, if the big guy wants a calendar, I suppose he shall have one. What's a calendar?"

Foreman: "It's kinda like a map of time."

Auditor: "A ... map ... of ... time ... Are you planning to travel through time, Monkey? Afraid you might get lost?"

Foreman: "No, no sir. The calendar is like a chart that will tell us when it's best to plant crops."

Auditor: "That might be useful. Show me this, um, calendar."

(The men proceed to a large, circular plaque with intricate carvings mounted against a wall.)

Foreman: (beaming) "Here it is."

Auditor: "I see." (pointing to a random spot on the calendar) "What's this?"

Foreman: "May second."

Auditor: "So, there's more than one May?"

Foreman: "No, just one."

Auditor: "Stop blowing smoke, Monkey. The existence of the second May implies the existence of a first May."

Foreman: "No sir. It's not the second May; it's May the second."

Auditor: (irritably) "Listen, I didn't trudge out here in this insufferable heat to play word games with you. If the first May is missing there'll be an investigation and I can assure you that heads will roll ..."

Foreman: "Mr. Zero Bird, you don't understand. May is a month. May the second is a day within it."

Auditor: "The days have names? Around here, they all seem pretty much the same -- unless it rains. Does this thing tell you when it's going to rain?"

Foreman: "I'm afraid not."

Auditor: "Hmm ... I suppose there some things man will never know. But I can report there's only one May on your calendar?"

Foreman: "Only one in each year."

Auditor: "Honestly, man, you'd give a woodpecker a headache. What's a year?"

Foreman: "A complete cycle of the sun -- the growing season and the dormant period that follows it."

Auditor: "Alright, that's enough. I'll be damned if I can figure out how all this is going to help us grow corn but then again, I majored in management. I know how to cover my ass in a memo but anything more technical than tapping a keg is beyond my pay grade. How many of these years do you have plotted out?"

Foreman: "We're working on 2012 right now."

Auditor: "Excellent. And what year are we in at present?"

Foreman: "312."

Auditor: "You've mapped out the next 1,700 growing seasons!!?"

Foreman: "Yes. As I said, we're making tremendous progress."

Auditor: "Look, Smokey, I can see that you really picked up the ball and ran with it on this calendar thing but Mat Head over in production is short-handed. He's got a couple of slaves out on family leave and the weeds are taking over.

"Tell you what let's do: work out year 2012 to, say, the winter solstice then go to lunch. When you guys get back from break, report over to Supply and check out some hoes ..."

Of course, there's a certain ghost-story-around-the-camp-fire charm to supernatural speculation. With the Mayan prophecy now debunked, readers in search of arcane proceedings that yield mysterious results are advised to review the tapes of the Iowa caucuses.


Votes have been counted in the "Name that Mayan" competition to determine which ancient Mayan moniker sounds coolest when translated into modern English. First-place ballots were evenly divided between "Moon Zero Bird" and "Smoke Monkey." "Mat Head" was given honorable mention.]

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.