The Long, Strange Tale of California’s Surf Nazis

When I set out to become a surfer, I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into.


San Francisco — The first time I saw a swastika in the wild, I happened to be carrying a surfboard. The year was 1989. I’d just come home from college hungry to claim the California identity that felt like my birthright. I could not have told you what that identity was except that its highest form appeared to be something like a blue-eyed, blond surfer with a golden tan, preternaturally skilled at riding the waves of his native beach.

I was a pink-skinned redhead who’d grown up too far inland to learn the way you’re supposed to — as a kid, at the surf spot down the block. My mom and dad were more about left-wing politics than California identity, and my years at Berkeley High School involved more protest marches than beach parties.

On the upside, I had a cool surfer uncle who’d ridden all the most famous waves in Hawaii and California. I’d always wanted to be like him, and he’d obliged with a couple of lessons in my teens. My uncle taught me the lingo, too, and gave me confidence that surfing could be mine. Around the time I graduated from college, he bought me a pointy little surfboard with two fins.

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To get started, I drove from Berkeley to Santa Cruz, the hippie town where locals once sued Huntington Beach over the trademark Surf City U.S.A. I parked near a sea cliff where beautiful youth strolled sunny sidewalks radiating physical well-being and belonging. Looking out over the waves, I watched somebody soar across a blue sparkling wall of water. I wanted all of it, always and forever — freedom in the Pacific, daily contact with infinity. Pulling on my wet suit, I started down concrete steps toward the sea and saw that swastika spray-painted next to the phrase, “Kooks go home.”

I remembered that swastika last month when video surfaced of high school water-polo players in affluent Garden Grove, Calif., making the Nazi sieg-heil salute and chanting an obscure Nazi marching song. This kind of idiocy has been on the rise since last year.

Anti-Defamation League statistics show anti-Semitic attacks in California up 27 percent between 2017 and 2018. Last March, in the still-wealthier-and-whiter town of Newport Beach, Calif., students arranged plastic red cups in a swastika for a drinking game, then photographed one another gleefully sieg-heiling as if that were just totally hilarious.

In April, a young man with an assault rifle marched into a Southern California synagogue, shouted anti-Semitic insanity and proved his heroic masculine bravery by murdering an unarmed 60-year-old woman. In early June, 12 miles from my own childhood home, some creep built a 10-foot-wide concrete swastika in his front yard.

Among the many disturbing things about my personal swastika memory is that I recall feeling less horrified and disgusted than intimidated. I knew exactly what a swastika signified. My grandfather flew bombing raids over Nazi Germany, and I grew up across the street from an elderly couple who’d survived the Holocaust.

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But, perhaps because I was a straight white male from a nominally Christian household, I was more bothered by the word “kook,” surfer parlance for unskilled outsider — as in, me. At the time, the term “surf Nazi” often got applied to any surfer ferociously committed to the sport and territorial about his local waves. Viewed through that lens, I read the combination of swastika and “kook” like a skull-and-crossbones on a clubhouse door upon which I planned to knock loud and hard.

Surfing brought a ridiculous amount of joy to my life, still does. For 30 years, I’ve enjoyed the satori-like flow-state that comes with gliding on a pulse of wave energy, watching bottlenose dolphins silhouetted black by the setting sun as it melts red into the blue horizon. I’ve built my work schedule around being free whenever the draining tide and long-period swell line up with easterly wind. I’ve written a book about surfing, lived in the Surfer magazine house in Hawaii, binged on surf movies and chased waves in Iceland, the Galápagos, West Africa and elsewhere.

As a passionate student of surf culture and history, though, I’ve also seen a lot more swastikas. The first commercially made surfboards sold in California, in the 1930s, had swastikas burned into their tails and were marketed as the Swastika model by Pacific System Homes of Los Angeles. The 1959 edition of “Search for Surf,” a series of surf movies by Greg Noll, included Californian surfers in Nazi storm trooper uniforms riding Flexi-Flyers in a storm drain while friends held up a Third Reich flag. Ed Roth, the artist and custom-car visionary known as Big Daddy, sold plastic Nazi storm trooper helmets to surfers in the mid-1960s and told Time magazine, “That Hitler really did a helluva public relations job for me.”


Then there was Miki Dora, king of Malibu and still the greatest culture hero in all of California surfing — our very own Elvis, the last word in coastal cool. Handsome and criminally dishonest, Dora built his reputation in the 1950s and ’60s on genuine athletic brilliance, expensive cars and clothes, and vicious elitism. When the movie “Gidget” came out, also in 1959, telling the story of a cute girl taking up surfing at Malibu, hordes of beginners descended on Dora’s favorite break. Dora, who was known for spray-painting swastikas on his surfboards, pioneered the concept of localism — the idea that waves belong to surfers who grow up near them and that interlopers deserve violence.

The term “surf Nazi” was so commonplace in the 1970s and ’80s that the B-movie “Surf Nazis Must Die,” set in the dystopic aftermath of an apocalyptic California earthquake, told the story of followers of the “Führer of the New Beach” murdering a hardworking black man, and the victim’s elderly mother avenging his death by hunting them all down.

I’ve heard all the predictable excuses for this stuff, like that the swastika was an ancient Sanskrit symbol not associated with Nazis when Pacific System Homes built its surfboards. Of course, Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” published in 1925, described a Nazi flag with the hooked cross representing “the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man.”

Hitler became chancellor in 1933. That same year, the country’s sterilization laws sought to purify the “white race” through forced sterilization of social undesirables. Two years later, the swastika appeared on the German national flag. In Southern California, those flags soon showed up at rallies of the German-American Bund, an openly anti-Semitic pro-Nazi group that held youth camps in Los Angeles parks teaching Aryan supremacy and the sieg-heil salute. Pacific Home Systems didn’t give up the Swastika model until 1938, after Germany invaded Austria.

In “The History of Surfing” by Matt Warshaw, Noll, the legendary big-wave rider and filmmaker behind the “Search for Surf” films, shrugged off accusations of latent Nazi sympathy by saying, “We’d paint a swastika on something for no other reason than to piss people off. Which it did. So next time we’d paint two swastikas, just to piss ’em off more.”


Putting a swastika on something to anger people means you know that it angers them and very likely why. Allied troops liberated Auschwitz 14 years before Noll made his film. Southern California was full of veterans who’d seen death camps with their own eyes, as well as Jewish families who’d lost relatives and families of all kinds whose sons died in the fight. Angering those people for kicks meant that the slaughter of six million Jews didn’t strike you as a big deal.

As for Dora and the Malibu crew, according to Matt Warshaw, they eventually figured out that Kathy Kohner, the real-life inspiration for the character Gidget, was Jewish. Her father, Frederick Kohner, fled Nazi Germany for California and, when his daughter took up surfing, wrote the novel that became the film. A member of the Malibu crew responded to the news about the Kohners’ ethnicity by planting a burning cross in their driveway.

According to the book “All for a Few Perfect Waves: The Audacious Life and Legend of Rebel Surfer Miki Dora,” by David Rensin, Dora often used racial slurs and advised acquaintances to put all their money in gold before Mexicans and blacks poured over the borders and ruined the economy. While serving prison time, Dora (who had been convicted of both check and credit-card fraud) wrote to a friend that he loved American Nazis. Dora eventually relocated to apartheid-era South Africa.

The famed surfboard designer Dale Velzy told Mr. Rensin that he recalled Dora boasting, in that period: “I have a black man who wakes me up in the morning, gives me my orange juice, gives me my robe, carries my board to the beach. Everybody ought to live in Africa. I have a coolie for everything I do. Everyone should own a coolie.” In a later letter, as the anti-apartheid movement grew, Dora wrote that black South Africans were “flesh-eaters,” adding, “Give these guys the rights and you’ll get white-man jerky for export.”


Nat Young, world surfing champion in 1966 and 1970, knew Dora. As Young told an interviewer: “Dora’s take is push the black man under. He’s a supreme racist, always has been. When I was younger, I believed it was all just in mirth, that he was just jivin’ it all; but no, he believes absolutely in white supremacy.”

So it doesn’t take much imagination to recognize the blue-eyed, blond surfer ideal for what it is: a white racial fantasy rooted, like most such tropes, in spurious claims of authentic connection to land. Indigenous wave-riding cultures are known to have emerged in several places around the world, including Peru, Polynesia and West Africa. Not one is in Europe. California, furthermore, was one of the most densely populated places in North America when Spaniards came in the 18th century, and was part of Spain and Mexico for nearly 80 years before the United States claimed it in the Mexican-American War. Before the 1848 Gold Rush, out of a total California population of about 150,000, there were perhaps 1,000 Anglos in the entire state.

Put another way, nothing about either the sport of wave-riding or California itself is intrinsically white, much less blond.

Then there’s the story of how both came to be viewed that way. While other territories of the Western United States displaced indigenous people, California politicians openly discussed outright extermination. Between 1850 and 1861, the California government spent an estimated $1.5 million reimbursing bounty hunters and militias for deliberate mass murder of Native Californians.

The first California Legislative Assembly, in 1850, effectively established California as a kind of white ethno-state with laws legalizing enslavement of Native Californian children and barring people of color from voting. Other laws prohibited nonwhites from testifying against whites in courts of law. This effectively immunized whites from prosecution for violence against people of color.

During the Civil War, California was so lousy with Confederate sympathizers that the Union Army garrisoned troops in Los Angeles to guard against insurrection. In the early 20th century, when immigration from eastern and southern Europe stoked Anglo-American anxiety over racial purity, California became a leader in the so-called eugenics movement aimed at preserving white identity through forced sterilization of social undesirables. Thirty-two states enacted compulsory sterilization laws, but California enforced its own with such enthusiasm that it ultimately sterilized approximately 20,000 people, one- third of the national total.


In 1934, a California eugenics promoter named Charles M. Goethe returned from Nazi Germany to tell a colleague, “Your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program.” Germany’s racial-hygiene laws were based on a Model Compulsory Sterilization Law developed in the United States.

Forced sterilization continued in California until at least 1973, when a Latina named Dolores Madrigal, who had given birth at the University of Southern California medical center, walked out with a tubal ligation she didn’t want from an obstetrics ward in which the head physician had been heard to say, according to the testimony of a hospital technician, that “poor minority women in L.A. County were having too many babies, that it was a strain on society and that it was good that they be sterilized.” (The head physician has denied any wrongdoing.)

Today, I don’t know how to think about my youthful yearning to become the great blue-eyed, blond surfer. One view, I suppose, would be to say that racial and political biases and power relations can ride seemingly innocuous notions into one’s unconscious mind, then infect one’s worldview in ways that come to seem natural.

That sea wall swastika in Santa Cruz, after all, wasn’t just a skull-and-crossbones any more than the genocidal racism it represented was a German import. Like Noll’s and Dora’s swastikas, and also the more recent swastikas and sieg-heils and Confederate flags throughout California, it was, rather, pus from a boil festering since the Anglo-American invasion of this glorious place. My reading of that swastika as no more than a toothless warning — like my confidence that it would not apply to me for long — was an act of historical ignorance and naked racial privilege.

I’d like to say that everything has changed and that my mind is now pure. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until last year that I began to wonder why so few African-American men surf my local break. That thought came up only because I heard about a nonprofit called Brown Girl Surf and realized I’d met exactly one African-American female surfer ever — in Australia, of all places, where we’d both gone for a literary conference.

My first glimmers of an answer came a few months ago, when I happened across a book called “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” by Richard Rothstein. The many factors include, of course, redlining that made it impossible for African-Americans to buy homes on the California coast, plus white delusions about black bodies leading to Jim Crow segregation of swimming pools and the outright lack of swimming pools in black neighborhoods. The Southern California town of Manhattan Beach, childhood home of one of my closest surf buddies, used taxpayer money in 1924 to claim eminent domain over beach-side homes of taxpaying African-American residents in order to evict them and make the area whiter.

For 20 years, while driving from San Francisco to my favorite surf spot, I’ve passed through a mid-20th-century subdivision called Westlake, on the coast. Not until a few weeks ago did I learn that Westlake homes were developed and sold in the 1950s with the following clause in their covenant: “The real property above described, or any portion thereof, shall never be occupied, used or resided on by any person not of the white or Caucasian race, except in the capacity of a servant or domestic employed thereon as such by a white Caucasian owner, tenant or occupant.”

Few of us consider ourselves evil, fewer still truly are, but that’s beside the point. Murderous hatred and delusional bias hide and self-replicate inside our cultural forms, inside our language. A hundred and fifty years of white people like myself have helped make white-supremacist racism as Californian as panning for gold and hanging ten. Allowing ourselves to see this doesn’t make us good people, but it’s a baby step toward breaking the cycle.

‘He brought me a tissue when I was ill’: the moment readers realized their cat loves them

Research shows cats really do love their owners. We asked
readers to share the time they first felt a genuine, reciprocal
bond with their pet

By Hannah J Davies

Cats, it turns out, love humans more than we thought. According to research from Oregon State University published this week, felines form close emotional attachments to people who look after them – much like babies and dogs do. Many cat owners will know this already, of course, so we asked Guardian readers to tell us about the moment they realised their pets really loved them.

For one Twitter user, Fletch Williams, it was when her cat “brought me a tissue when I was sick in bed. Something he did only a few times, and never when I was well.” Elizabeth Booth, 60, from Kettering, Northamptonshire, says her black-and-white cat, Billy, would “stroke my hand with his paw while he lay outstretched next to me on the sofa”.

Many readers say their cats helped them through heartbreak or grief. “My boyfriend broke up with me when I was 16,” says Ludovica from Italy. “My cat came to me while I was crying alone in the house. She licked the tears on my face and then curled up on my lap. I really appreciated it.”


Cats also have an uncanny ability to sense when people are unwell. When Mali Fard from Quebec went into hospital with a heart condition, she says her cat, Gruntie-Pooh, “wouldn’t eat and only slept on the T-shirt I left for her”. Similarly, Carys from Northampton didn’t expect her pet to be quite so clingy when she returned from a week in hospital, but “to my surprise, she followed me around for a good week after I came home … she seemed protective of me, almost aware I was fragile. Either that or she wasn’t fed enough in my absence.” Matthew from Surrey got his ginger cat, Harry, from Battersea, south London. “About a week after we got him, I came home from work. The second I put the key into the lock, I heard him calling for me. Once through the door he leapt enthusiastically from the sofa and ran to my feet, head-butting my shoes and rubbing against my legs. I wondered if he wanted food, but he wasn’t interested when I shook a pouch of Whiskas, he just wanted me! Yes, I thought, this cat loves me very much.”

Some people, however, aren’t quite as convinced that their cats could ever truly love them. Among them is a Twitter user, Trudy Saunders, whose pet “just sits in perpetual judgment of me. Paws crossed over each other and head upright like a disapproving Victorian aunt”.


Why Are Rich People So Mean?

Call it ‘Rich Asshole Syndrome’—the tendency to distance yourself

from people with whom you have a large wealth differential.

By Christopher Ryan

In 2007, Gary Rivlin wrote a New York Times feature profile of highly successful people in Silicon Valley. One of them, Hal Steger, lived with his wife in a million-dollar house overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Their net worth was about $3.5 million. Assuming a reasonable return of 5 percent, Steger and his wife were positioned to cash out, invest their capital, and glide through the rest of their lives on a passive income of around $175,000 per year after glorious year. Instead, Rivlin wrote, “Most mornings, [Steger] can be found at his desk by 7. He typically works 12 hours a day and logs an extra 10 hours over the weekend.” Steger, 51 at the time, was aware of the irony (sort of): “I know people looking in from the outside will ask why someone like me keeps working so hard,” he told Rivlin. “But a few million doesn’t go as far as it used to.”

Steger was presumably referring to the corrosive effects of inflation on the currency, but he appeared to be unaware of how wealth was affecting his own psyche. “Silicon Valley is thick with those who might be called working-class millionaires,” wrote Rivlin, “nose-to-the-grindstone people like Mr. Steger who, much to their surprise, are still working as hard as ever even as they find themselves among the fortunate few. But many such accomplished and ambitious members of the digital elite still do not think of themselves as particularly fortunate, in part because they are surrounded by people with more wealth—often a lot more.”


After interviewing a sample of executives for his piece, Rivlin concluded that “those with a few million dollars often see their accumulated wealth as puny, a reflection of their modest status in the new Gilded Age, when hundreds of thousands of people have accumulated much vaster fortunes.” Gary Kremen was another glaring example. With a net worth of around $10 million as the founder of, Kremen understood the trap he was in: “Everyone around here looks at the people above them,” he said. “You’re nobody here at $10 million.” If you’re nobody with $10 million, what’s it cost to be somebody?

Now, you may be thinking, “Fuck those guys and the private jets they rode in on.” Fair enough. But here’s the thing: those guys are already fucked. Really. They worked like hell to get where they are—and they’ve got access to more wealth than 99.999 percent of the human beings who have ever lived—but they’re still not where they think they need to be. Without a fundamental change in the way they approach their lives, they’ll never reach their ever-receding goals. And if the futility of their situation ever dawns on them like a dark sunrise, they’re unlikely to receive a lot of sympathy from their friends and family.
What if most rich assholes are made, not born? What if the cold-heartedness so often associated with the upper crust—let’s call it Rich Asshole Syndrome—isn’t the result of having been raised by a parade of resentful nannies, too many sailing lessons, or repeated caviar overdoses, but the compounded disappointment of being lucky but still feeling unfulfilled? We’re told that those with the most toys are winning, that money represents points on the scoreboard of life. But what if that tired story is just another facet of a scam in which we’re all getting ripped off?

The Spanish word aislar means both “to insulate” and “to isolate,” which is what most of us do when we get more money. We buy a car so we can stop taking the bus. We move out of the apartment with all those noisy neighbors into a house behind a wall. We stay in expensive, quiet hotels rather than the funky guest houses we used to frequent. We use money to insulate ourselves from the risk, noise, inconvenience. But the insulation comes at the price of isolation. Our comfort requires that we cut ourselves off from chance encounters, new music, unfamiliar laughter, fresh air, and random interaction with strangers. Researchers have concluded again and again that the single most reliable predictor of happiness is feeling embedded in a community. In the 1920s, around five percent of Americans lived alone. Today, more than a quarter do—the highest levels ever, according to the Census Bureau. Meanwhile, the use of antidepressants has increased over 400 percent in just the past twenty years and abuse of pain medication is a growing epidemic. Correlation doesn’t prove causation, but those trends aren’t unrelated. Maybe it’s time to ask some impertinent questions about formerly unquestionable aspirations, such as comfort, wealth, and power.

I was in India the first time it occurred to me that I, too, was a rich asshole. I’d been traveling for a couple of months, ignoring the beggars as best I could. Having lived in New York, I was accustomed to averting my attention from desperate adults and psychotics, but I was having trouble getting used to the groups of children who would gather right next to my table at street-level restaurants, staring hungrily at the food on my plate. Eventually, a waiter would come and shoo them away, but they’d just run out to the street and watch from there—waiting for me to leave the waiter’s protection, hoping I’d bring some scraps with me.

In New York, I’d developed psychological defenses against the desperation I saw in the streets. I told myself that there were social services for homeless people, that they would just use my money to buy drugs or booze, that they’d probably brought their situation on themselves. But none of that worked with these Indian kids. There were no shelters waiting to receive them. I saw them sleeping in the streets at night, huddled together for warmth, like puppies. They weren’t going to spend my money unwisely. They weren’t even asking for money. They were just staring at my food like the starving creatures they were. And their emaciated bodies were brutally clear proof that they weren’t faking their hunger.

A few times, I bought a dozen samosas and handed them out, but the food was gone in an instant, and I was left with an even bigger crowd of kids (and, often, adults) surrounding me with their hands out, touching me, seeking my eyes, pleading. I knew the numbers. With what I’d spent on my one-way ticket from New York to New Delhi, I could have pulled a few families out of the debt that would hold them down for generations. With what I’d spent in New York restaurants the year before, I could have put a few of those kids through school. Hell, with what I’d budgeted for a year of traveling in Asia, I probably could have built a school.I wish I could tell you I did some of that, but I didn’t. Instead, I developed the psychological scar tissue necessary to ignore the situation. I learned to stop thinking about things I could have done, but knew I wouldn’t. I stopped making facial expressions that suggested I had any capacity for compassion. I learned to step over bodies in the street—dead or sleeping—without looking down. I learned to do these things because I had to—or so I told myself. Textbook RAS.Research conducted at the University of Toronto by Stéphane Côté and colleagues confirms that the rich are less generous than the poor, but their findings suggest it’s more complicated than simply wealth making people stingy. Rather, it’s the distance created by wealth differentials that seems to break the natural flow of human kindness. Côté found that “higher-income individuals are only less generous if they reside in a highly unequal area or when inequality is experimentally portrayed as relatively high.” Rich people were as generous as anyone else when inequality was low. The rich are less generous when inequality is extreme, a finding that challenges the idea that higher-income individuals are just more selfish. If the person who needs help doesn’t seem that different from us, we’ll probably help them out. But if they seem too far away (culturally, economically) we’re less likely to lend a hand.The social distance separating rich and poor, like so many of the other distances that separate us from each other, only entered human experience after the advent of agriculture and the hierarchical civilizations that followed, which is why it’s so psychologically difficult to twist your soul into a shape that allows you to ignore starving children standing close enough to smell your plate of curry. You’ve got to silence the inner voice calling for justice and for fairness. But we silence this ancient, insistent voice at great cost to our own psychological well-being.


A wealthy friend of mine recently told me, “You get successful by saying ‘yes,’ but you need to say ‘no’ a lot to stay successful.” If you’re perceived to be wealthier than those around you, you’ll have to say “no” a lot. You’ll be constantly approached with requests, offers, pitches, and pleas—whether you’re in a Starbucks in Silicon Valley or the back streets of Calcutta. Refusing sincere requests for help doesn’t come naturally to our species. Neuroscientists Jorge Moll, Jordan Grafman, and Frank Krueger of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) have used fMRI machines to demonstrate that altruism is deeply embedded in human nature. Their work suggests that the deep satisfaction most people derive from altruistic behavior is not due to a benevolent cultural overlay, but from the evolved architecture of the human brain.When volunteers in their studies placed the interests of others before their own, a primitive part of the brain normally associated with food or sex was activated. When researchers measured vagal tone (an indicator of feeling safe and calm) in 74 preschoolers, they found that children who’d donated tokens to help sick kids had much better readings than those who’d kept all their tokens for themselves. Jonas Miller, the lead investigator, said that the findings suggested “we might be wired from a young age to derive a sense of safety from providing care for others.” But Miller and his colleagues also found that whatever innate predisposition our species has toward charity is influenced by social cues. Children from wealthier families shared fewer tokens than the children from less well-off families.
Psychologists Dacher Keltner
and Paul Piff monitored intersections with four-way stop signs and found that people in expensive cars were four times more likely to cut in front of other drivers, compared to folks in more modest vehicles. When the researchers posed as pedestrians waiting to cross a street, all the drivers in cheap cars respected their right of way, while those in expensive cars drove right on by 46.2 percent of the time, even when they’d made eye contact with the pedestrians waiting to cross. Other studies by the same team showed that wealthier subjects were more likely to cheat at an array of tasks and games. For example, Keltner reported that wealthier subjects were far more likely to claim they’d won a computer game—even though the game was rigged so that winning was impossible. Wealthy subjects were more likely to lie in negotiations and excuse unethical behavior at work, like lying to clients in order to make more money. When Keltner and Piff left a jar of candy in the entrance to their lab with a sign saying whatever was left over would be given to kids at a nearby school, they found that wealthier people stole more candy from the babies.

Researchers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute surveyed 43,000 people and found that the rich were far more likely to walk out of a store with merchandise they hadn’t paid for than were poorer people. Findings like this (and the behavior of drivers at intersections) could reflect the fact that wealthy people worry less about potential legal repercussions. If you know you can afford bail and a good lawyer, running a red light now and then or swiping a Snickers bar may seem less risky. But the selfishness goes deeper than such considerations. A coalition of nonprofit organizations called the Independent Sector found that, on average, people with incomes below $25,000 per year typically gave away a little over 4 percent of their income, while those earning more than $150,000 donated only 2.7 percent (despite tax benefits the rich can get from charitable giving that are unavailable to someone making much less).There is reason to believe that blindness to the suffering of others is a psychological adaptation to the discomfort caused by extreme wealth disparities. Michael W. Kraus and colleagues found that people of higher socio-economic status were actually less able to read emotions in other people’s faces. It wasn’t that they cared less what those faces were communicating; they were simply blind to the cues. And Keely Muscatell, a neuroscientist at UCLA, found that wealthy people’s brains showed far less activity than the brains of poor people when they looked at photos of children with cancer.Books such as Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work and The Psychopath Test argue that many traits characteristic of psychopaths are celebrated in business: ruthlessness, a convenient absence of social conscience, a single-minded focus on “success.” But while psychopaths may be ideally suited to some of the most lucrative professions, I’m arguing something different here. It’s not just that heartless people are more likely to become rich. I’m saying that being rich tends to corrode whatever heart you’ve got left. I’m suggesting, in other words, that it’s likely the wealthy subjects who participated in Muscatell’s study learned to be less unsettled by the photos of sick kids by the experience of being rich—much as I learned to ignore starving children in Rajastan so I could comfortably continue my vacation.In an essay called “Extreme Wealth is Bad for Everyone—Especially the Wealthy,” Michael Lewis observed, “It is beginning to seem that the problem isn’t that the kind of people who wind up on the pleasant side of inequality suffer from some moral disability that gives them a market edge. The problem is caused by the inequality itself: It triggers a chemical reaction in the privileged few. It tilts their brains. It causes them to be less likely to care about anyone but themselves or to experience the moral sentiments needed to be a decent citizen.”Ultimately, diminished empathy is self-destructive. It leads to social isolation, which is strongly associated with sharply increased health risks, including stroke, heart disease, depression, and dementia.In one of my favorite studies, Keltner and Piff decided to tweak a game of Monopoly. The psychologists rigged the game so that one player had huge advantages over the other from the start. They ran the study with over a hundred pairs of subjects, all of whom were brought into the lab where a coin was flipped to determine who’d be “rich” and “poor” in the game. The randomly chosen “rich” player started out with twice as much money, collected twice as much every time they went around the board, and got to roll two dice instead of one. None of these advantages was hidden from the players. Both were well aware of how unfair the situation was. But still, the “winning” players showed the tell-tale symptoms of Rich Asshole Syndrome. They were far more likely to display dominant behaviors like smacking the board with their piece, loudly celebrating their superior skill, even eating more pretzels from a bowl positioned nearby.


After 15 minutes, the experimenters asked the subjects to discuss their experience of playing the game. When the rich players talked about why they’d won, they focused on their brilliant strategies rather than the fact that the whole game was rigged to make it nearly impossible for them to lose. “What we’ve been finding across dozens of studies and thousands of participants across this country,” said Piff, “is that as a person’s levels of wealth increase, their feelings of compassion and empathy go down, and their feelings of entitlement, of deservingness, and their ideology of self-interest increases.”

Of course, there are exceptions to these tendencies. Plenty of wealthy people have the wisdom to navigate the difficult currents their good fortune generates without succumbing to RAS—but such people are rare, and they tend to come from humble origins. Perhaps an understanding of the debilitating effects of wealth explains why some who have built large fortunes are vowing not to pass their wealth to their children. Several billionaires, including Chuck Feeney, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett have pledged to give away all or most of their money before they die. Buffet has famously said that he intends to leave his kids “enough to do anything, but not enough to do nothing.” The same impulse is expressed among those lower on the millionaire totem pole. According to an article on, Craig Wolfe, the owner of CelebriDucks, the largest custom collectible rubber duck manufacturer, intends to leave the millions he’s made to charity, which is amazing—but nowhere near as amazing as the fact that someone made millions of dollars selling collectible rubber ducks.Do you know someone who suffers from RAS? There may be help for them. UC Berkeley researcher Robb Willer and his team conducted studies in which participants were given cash and instructed to play games of various complexity that would benefit “the public good.”Participants who showed the greatest generosity benefited from more respect and cooperation from their peers and had more social influence. “The findings suggest that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated,” Willer said. “But those who behave generously with others are held in high esteem by their peers and thus rise in status.” Keltner and Piff have seen the same thing: “We’ve been finding in our own laboratory research that small psychological interventions, small changes to people’s values, small nudges in certain directions, can restore levels of egalitarianism and empathy,” said Piff. “For instance, reminding people of the benefits of cooperation, or the advantages of community, cause wealthier individuals to be just as egalitarian as poor people.” In one study, they showed subjects a short video—just 46 seconds long—about childhood poverty. They then checked the subjects’ willingness to help a stranger presented to them in the lab who appeared to be in distress. An hour after watching the video, rich people were as willing to lend a hand as were poor subjects. Piff believes these results suggest that “these differences are not innate or categorical, but are malleable to slight changes in people’s values, and little nudges of compassion and bumps of empathy.”


Piff’s findings align with the lessons passed along by thousands of generations of our foraging ancestors, whose survival depended on developing social webs of mutual aid. Selfishness, they understood, leads only to death: first social and ultimately biological. While the neo-Hobbesians struggle to explain how human altruism can exist, other scientists question their premise, asking if there’s any functional utility to selfishness. “Given how much is to be gained through generosity,” says Robb Willer, “social scientists increasingly wonder less why people are ever generous and more why they are ever selfish.”Decades of “greed is good” messaging has sought to remove a sense of shame from being a beneficiary of outrageous extremes of wealth inequality. Still, the shame lingers, because the messaging runs up against one of our species’ deepest innate values. Institutions seeking to justify a fundamentally anti-human economic system constantly rebroadcast the message that winning the money game will bring satisfaction and happiness. But we’ve got around 300,000 years of ancestral experience telling us it just isn’t so. Selfishness may be essential to civilization, but that only raises the question of whether a civilization so out of step with our evolved nature makes sense for the human beings within it.

Long Live the Resting Bitch Face

Plastic surgeons say women are asking for procedures that
will make them look more ‘approachable.’ But… why?

By Katle Way

The ‘resting bitch face’ is the stuff that wine mom memes are made of in the best way possible—it’s an involuntary non-expression that projects disinterest, disdain, and “I want to speak to the manager” vibes all in one, otherwise known as “many people’s normal face” and “the expression of anyone who has the audacity to be anything other than blandly chipper in public.”

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That’s why it’s disheartening to learn that women are apparently turning to cosmetic surgeons to soften their resting bitch faces. One doctor told the NY Post that he receives “several” requests a week for a series of procedures, including hyaluronic acid fillers and Botox injections focused mostly on the “jowl area” and lips, intended to make women look more “approachable” and less angry. Another surgeon attributed the trend in these lower-face procedures to the influence of the Kardashians.

Both patients and surgeons pointed to perception problems as the most likely deciding factor for most of the women who want to punch up their dour facial features. “If you always look dumpy, or unfriendly… people are going to react to you differently,” Dr. David Shafer told the NY Post. “I was like, ‘Oh great, I look mad in the middle of the party,’” Hope Davis told the NY Post in reference to her decision to visit Dr. Shafer and get de-RBFed (a technical term).

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Is the resting bitch face a gendered concept with misogynistic connotations? Sure. I’ve personally never heard of a man having resting bitch face. Is it also nature’s perfect weapon against strangers who need directions and men who think it’s cool to hit on someone at the grocery store? Absolutely. Women’s words and actions are already critiqued and surveilled on a constant basis, so if the facial expression they naturally wear functions as any kind of defense, it should actually be defended at all costs.

Davis later said she was internally happier with her externally happier appearance, which is nice for her, I guess. But it would be way nicer if we lived in a world where a woman who isn’t permanently smiling was viewed as a regular person instead of a problem in need of a solution.

Until then, it’s a genuine bummer to see some women turning in their Get-Out-of-Jail-Free cards from annoying interactions in order to appease the people who had a problem with their faces in the first place, who are, by definition, the assholes here.

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The Rise of the Zombie Mall

Hundreds of big retail centers have
gone under, but the shop-til-you drop
lifestyle isn’t dead yet

By Stephie Grob Plante

Who wants to sit in that desolate-looking spot?” Frank Lloyd Wright carped of the atrium inside the first enclosed shopping mall, the Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota.

But 75,000 people rushed there the day it opened in October 1956 and marveled at the 72 stores on two floors, the 800,000 square feet of retail, the 5,200-space parking lot, the 70-degree controlled climate. The Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen, already acclaimed for building the nation’s largest open-air shopping center, had birthed a new phase of American culture.


Over the next 40 years, another 1,500 enclosed malls would dot the landscape, from suburb to shining suburb, insinuating themselves into everyday life so profoundly that just “going to the mall” became a pastime. Hundreds of malls, meanwhile, have closed and been demolished or converted, overtaken by a renewed emphasis on walkable neighborhoods and challenged by that overwhelming force of 21st-century living: online shopping.

But rumors of the shopping mall’s death may be premature, if the mega-mall opening this October is any indication. The $5 billion, three-million-square-foot American Dream complex in northern New Jersey houses a theme park, a water park, a ski and snowboard park, an ice rink, an aquarium, a movie theater and a Ferris wheel. Oh, and stores. Hundreds of luxury and designer stores.


The original developer, Mills Corporation, conceived of the American Dream when Amazon Prime didn’t even exist. The project has faced 16 years of trouble, including a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of Mills Corp. The company reportedly paid $165 million plus interest to settle the case, and sold the project. A second developer stopped construction when a major lender broke a financing deal. The Triple Five Group—which built the Mall of America in Minnesota in 1992—rescued the project in 2011, but continued to battle environmentalists, neighbors and advocates of vigorous downtowns. Economists voiced skepticism. “I don’t know which is worse—if it fails or if it succeeds,” Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, told New York Magazine in 2011. “If it fails, New Jersey is going to be out of $350 million in taxpayer subsidies. And if it succeeds, it will be the worst traffic, and it will destroy shopping areas in cities and malls all over the state.”

The future of enclosed malls is uncertain enough, and they’ve been around long enough, that symptoms of nostalgia are cropping up more and more in the mainstream. The latest season of the hit show “Stranger Things” features a neon-lit 1980s mall, enabling a new generation to see how teens at the height of the craze hung out—under skylights, on elevators, around fountains full of pennies.

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“Don’t romanticize it,” warns Lizabeth Cohen, a Harvard professor of American studies who has written about the rise of shopping malls. Developers built them in white suburbs, far removed from cities and public transportation routes, fashioning castles of commerce for the white middle class. The mallification of America continued through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s (19 malls opened in 1990 alone). But by the turn of the millennium the Congress for the New Urbanism was worrying aloud about “greyfields”—shuttered indoor malls that fell to an oversaturated market. In 2000, began memorializing the fallen.

The Great Recession of 2008 didn’t touch A-grade luxury centers, but it pulverized other tiers of malls. Green Street Advisors, a California-based real estate research firm, says the country’s 37 top-performing malls account for nearly 30 percent of mall value nationwide.


Yet Americans still go to the mall, spending some $2.5 trillion in 2014, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. A 2018 study from the group—which is, admittedly, paid to promote brick-and-mortar retail—found that three-quarters of teens still prefer physical stores to shopping online. Certainly malls are changing, as the nation does. Paco Underhill, a market researcher and founder of the consulting company Envirosell, points to La Gran Plaza in Fort Worth, Texas, which slumped to 10 percent occupancy before reinventing itself as a Hispanic-themed mall, in a region where 23 percent of the population speaks Spanish.

Underhill once called the early years of this century the “postmall world,” but he now refers not to malls but to “alls,” extravagant facilities that offer almost everything. Life in 2019 moves at the speed of a tap, immeasurably faster than our traffic-beleaguered roads. Why travel among home, job and fun when you can move to a mall and never leave?

infographic on malls
(Image: Randall L. Schieber; Source: Data on mall reuse from Ellen Dunham-Jones)

The idea is not so different from Victor Gruen’s original vision of all-in-one shopping, which was inspired partly by cozy European town squares. He might like the variety of experiences available to visitors at the massive American Dream, but it’s safe to say he would hate the parking lots, and the impact on downtowns. Gruen had wanted malls to blend in with their surrounding communities; instead, oceans of asphalt isolated them. “I would like to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for all,” the so-called father of the mall said in 1978, two years before his death. “I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments.”


Everest is Melting, Revealing Tons of Garbage and Human Bodies


“The world’s highest garbage dump” is throwing up trash and corpses that lay buried for decades as commercial mountaineering meets climate change.

by Omkar Khandekar

Mingma David Sherpa saw a dead body the very first time he climbed the Everest in 2010.


Mingma, around 20 at the time, knew that the route to the top was dotted with over 200 corpses. Climbers often used them as markers for distance and altitude. For example, he knew that when he saw “Green Boots”—the corpse of an Indian climber identified by the colour of his neon-green footwear—he’d entered the “Death Zone,” 8,000 metres above sea level.

“I felt bad,” Mingma recalls of the experience of passing body after body, all frozen in a moment of tragedy. “I was crossing several people who were clearly in distress but couldn’t be rescued.”


In 2015, Mingma collaborated with an Australian TV producer to form a pro-bono rescue team. The producer financed Mingma to hire additional Sherpas (a Nepalese ethnic community who’re employed as mountain guides) and equipment to conduct rescues. In return, the TV crew filmed the operation and turned it into a documentary.

Mingma’s team rescued and retrieved bodies of 52 people from Everest and its neighbour Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world. But they weren’t just battling hostile terrain. There was the ever-present threat of man-made climate change. Only the previous year, unseasonably warm weather had caused an avalanche at the Khumbu glacier en route to Everest, killing 16 people.


“You can’t predict what could happen anymore,” says Mingma. “Sometimes, there’s too much snow [in the mountains], sometimes less.”

What that means is that dead bodies, some who’ve been lost for years, have started emerging from the ice. And along with the bodies, tons of garbage—cans, bottles, discarded climbing gear and human waste—are defrosting along the route used by mountaineers over decades. Over 5,000 kilograms of that is human waste at the base camp.


A five-year study by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) found that the glaciers in Hindu Kush and the Himalayas are melting rapidly and threatened to shrink to nearly a third of their size if CO2 emissions are not controlled.


In 2019, Everest saw its highest ever number of fatalities (12) after a traffic jam of climbers got stuck in a storm. This viral image captured the nearly 200 climbers stuck in a “traffic jam” at the peak. Nepalese Government, which had issued a record 383 climbing permits for Everest, was panned for recklessly monetising such a fragile ecosystem. But for a country whose per capita GDP is only USD $835—nearly 1/70th of the US—increased traffic on the mountain is in the national interest. Everest expeditions helped it earn Rs 442 million Nepalese rupees (nearly USD $4 million) this year alone.

It’s a Catch-22 situation, however. Many feel that the responsibility for cleaning up lies as much with the private stakeholders and civil society. Ang Tshering Sherpa, whose four generations of family have been living off leading Everest expeditions, says clean-ups aren’t just good for the environment, they also make business sense.

“If we have to grow the business, we have to be responsible for the environment,” says the 73-year-old.

“My great-grandfather used to lead expeditions since the 1920s. But the first big clean-up operation was done only in 1996 by Nepal Mountaineering Association. I was involved in it with around 40 other sherpas. We brought back around seven tons of garbage.


This clean-up was privately funded and required thousands of dollars. With government-funded efforts not yet on the cards, such operations can only be replicated sporadically.

Since 2008, Ang Tshering’s travel agency, Asian Trekking Pvt Ltd, has dedicated 20 percent of its profits to annual clean-ups. The agency’s “Eco Expeditions” have since collected over 20.2 tons of garbage accumulated above Everest’s base camp. It also also retrieved seven bodies from above 8400 metres. “To remove from such height isn’t easy,” adds Tshering. “The frozen body of an average person can weigh up to 160 kg due to the ice around it. But the sherpas do it for the environment.


Goaded by several such volunteer efforts, the Nepalese government in 2014 introduced a rule that each trekking group is to deposit $4,000 before ascent. The deposit is refundable and processed after climbers return with 8 kilograms of garbage each. To control the problem of human faeces, they implore climbers to collect everything in bags and dispose it all after descent. Tshering Tenzing Sherpa, coordinator with the NGO Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC), says this has proven to be an effective measure.

Earlier this year, the SPCC was contracted by the government to lead a clean-up operation. In spring 2019, when the Everest trial was opened to mountaineers, a team of eight scoured the mountains and returned with 10.5 tons of garbage and seven bodies. Tshering Tenzing says he plans to continue the operations at least another five more years.


But despite of these efforts, there are still about 30 tons of trash left on the mountain, according to an estimate by the Everest Summiteers Association. Last month, the government banned the use of single-use plastic in the Everest region. To reduce the number of deaths, they are also planning to restrict permits to those who have climbed at least one 6,500 metre peak in Nepal before they attempt Everest.

For all such measures, the most effective solution is education, environmental awareness and sustained effort, says Tshering Tenzing. “Everest is Nepal’s mother. We need to save her.”


In search of the ‘white jaguar’: Archaeologists travel deep into the jungle to find a lost Maya city

By Lizzie Wade

CHIAPAS STATE IN MEXICO—About 7 hours by kayak up the Tzendales River, our GPS receiver falls overboard and vanishes in the deep blue water. We are on the fourth day of an expedition deep into the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, one of Mexico’s largest, most remote protected areas. On the side of the GPS was an SOS button that we could press to contact emergency services or even summon a rescue helicopter. Now, traveling up a river no one else has navigated for at least 10 years, our small group of archaeologists, guides, and observers is cut off.

But maybe that’s fitting, as we are seeking a lost city. Called Sac Balam, it was founded more than 400 years ago by the Lacandon Maya, one of several Indigenous groups in southern Mexico and Central America who resisted Spanish colonial rule for centuries.

It wasn’t the kind of Maya city tourists flock to today. Sac Balam didn’t have majestic stone temples, elaborate tombs, or intricate sculptures. In fact, it was probably so unassuming that its ruins might elude an untrained eye. But hundreds of Lacandon once lived there, hidden from Spanish eyes and free to continue a way of life their ancestors had practiced for centuries: planting corn and beans, raising turkeys, weaving strong thatched roofs to resist the tropical rain, and leaving offerings to their gods in nearby caves. The Lacandon had looked at this impenetrable, remote jungle and had seen safety.


Until 1695, that is, when the Spanish finally found the city. Less than 20 years later, they forcibly relocated its inhabitants and abandoned the place once and for all. It faded off colonial maps and back into the forest. If found, Sac Balam could offer archaeologists an unparalleled time capsule of Lacandon culture, showing how they preserved their independence as the world changed around them. This summer, I joined a small team led by Brent Woodfill, an archaeologist at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, that was determined to find the lost capital and bring this little-known period of Maya history back to life.

The conquest of Mexico is often portrayed as a monolithic event. In 1521, Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, in what is now Mexico City. The Aztecs controlled territory from the central Mexican highlands down through Oaxaca and the Pacific coast of Chiapas; when Tenochtitlan fell, all of that land—a good portion of what is now Mexico—passed from one empire to another.

The Maya world was different. Covering about 390,000 square kilometers in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras, this region was not ruled by a single emperor. Each Maya city state was largely independent, embedded within a complex web of ever-shifting allies and enemies. (Think ancient Greece, not ancient Rome.) Each one had to be individually brought under Spanish rule, whether by conquest or diplomacy. “Because the Maya are never centralized, it’s very hard to conquer entire areas,” says Maxine Oland, an archaeologist at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst who studies the Colonial period in the Maya world.


What resulted was a patchwork of Spanish-style colonial cities, majority-Maya towns that traded with the Spanish and (by force or by choice) converted to Christianity, and independent Maya capitals such as Sac Balam that resisted colonial rule. In between were vast expanses of forest where Maya people often fled to escape colonial violence and oppression. These different ways of life coexisted, often uneasily, for centuries.

Historical documents record almost nothing about life in the independent Maya capitals. Sac Balam is a particular mystery, because it was founded to stay hidden. The Lacandon originally lived in a city called Lakam Tun, on an island in Lake Miramar, on the western edge of Montes Azules. But after repeated Spanish attacks, they realized that to stay safe and independent, they would have to retreat deep into the jungle. They named their new city Sac Balam, or “the white jaguar,” and lived there, undisturbed, for 109 years. When the Spanish finally discovered and conquered Sac Balam, it was the second-to-last independent Maya capital standing. (The last, Nojpeten, the capital of the Itza Maya in northern Guatemala, fell just 2 years later.)

To understand life in Sac Balam, you need to look at the buildings and artifacts its residents used and left behind, says Josuhé Lozada Toledo, an archaeologist at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in Mexico City. “Sac Balam preserves the story of a community that was erased from history,” he says. Excavating what’s left of its houses, community buildings, ceramics, and religious offerings “would be an act of cultural revindication.”


Lozada Toledo and Woodfill are particularly interested in reconstructing Sac Balam’s trade networks, which Spanish chronicles hint were extensive but invisible to those who ended up writing history. If the Lacandon were trading with other Maya communities for goods such as salt, could they also have traded for machetes and other European objects? Or did they reject those foreign goods entirely?

Excavations elsewhere have shed some surprising light on those questions. In Zacpeten, the independent capital of the Kowoj Maya in northern Guatemala until the first half of the 17th century, Timothy Pugh from Queens College, part of the City University of New York, found three pieces of iron, a musket ball, a tobacco pipe stem—more associated with British pirates than Spanish settlers—and a piece of a cow’s jaw. All seven European objects had been placed in important religious contexts; the cow jaw had even been left on an altar next to an incense burner. Apparently, select European goods had become a vibrant part of Kowoj religious and political symbolism.

Whether the same was true for the Lacandon of Sac Balam remains to be seen. The team that aims to find out consists of three archaeologists: Lozada Toledo, whose tall frame is often pensively folded over a map; Woodfill, a bearded, jovial gringo who lived in Guatemala for almost 10 years and speaks Spanish and the Mayan language Q’eqchi’; and Rubén Núñez Ocampo, a watchful young researcher from INAH in Mérida who specializes in Maya ceramics from just before the Colonial period. Rounding out the group are me and Virginia Coleman, a professional dancer and Woodfill’s wife of just a few weeks. The expedition is the capstone of their honeymoon.

Brent Woodfill, standing in front of the ruins of a 150-year
-old hacienda in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, plans
to return to the area as often as he can.



Others have tried to find the lost city of Sac Balam before. A 1997 expedition, inspired by the historical research of a Belgian priest turned anthropologist named Jan de Vos, ventured into another part of Montes Azules. Over the course of 6 days of hiking, they found a single cluster of ruins near the Chaquistero Mountains. But Woodfill and his Mexican colleagues think that site is likely from the Classic period, hundreds of years before the founding of Sac Balam. Joel Palka, an archaeologist at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, agrees, although he cautions that archaeologists won’t be sure of the ruins’ identity until they are excavated. “We won’t know where the site is until we dig.” Sac Balam remains as mysterious as ever.

On an early summer day, we convene in the city of Comitán and pile into Woodfill’s pickup truck for the long and bumpy drive to Las Guacamayas, an ecolodge close to Montes Azules that will serve as our base for the next 12 days. The following morning, we stop by one of the many small communities founded after the government encouraged Indigenous groups from other parts of Mexico to resettle here as farmers and ranchers. Few are direct descendants of the Lacandon or other Maya groups that originally lived in the region. Still, after decades on the land, they know it as well as anybody alive.

About two dozen men and a handful of women trickle into a meeting in the cinderblock town hall, where the team will formally ask for the community’s permission to study a cluster of Maya ruins nearby. Woodfill learned about the site from the community last year and registered it with INAH. Now, he wants to know whether two colleagues can map it and collect ceramics on the surface, to pin down when it was occupied. (Woodfill asked Science not to name the town because it might tip off looters.) “This part of Chiapas is a void” of archaeological knowledge, Woodfill tells the gathered community members. “Not because there aren’t any sites, but because they haven’t been studied.”

The community is interested in ecotourism, and what the archaeologists learn could help them attract visitors. After 45 minutes of discussion and questions, the members agree to the archaeologists’ request and offer to lead them to the ruins. The site lies in a patch of forest outside town, along a trail of matted leaves and slippery roots, where the guttural chants of howler monkeys echo through the trees.

A local community showed a research
team this Maya hieroglyphic staircase.


About 20 minutes down the trail, we round a bend and come upon a jumble of large rectangular stones, some with clear Maya glyphs carved into them. They are the remains of a hieroglyphic staircase that once led to the top of the palace where the city’s leader would have received his subjects and performed religious rituals. This type of structure is considered a rare jewel of Maya sites. The staircase shows that “this was a powerful place,” Woodfill says.

“This was the palace,” he adds, pointing to the mound of earth behind the staircase remains. The community members show the researchers other features of the site, such as a large vertical stone carved with a portrait and glyphs standing half-buried at the base of a tree. All suggest it was occupied in the Late Classic period (from 600 to 850 C.E., nearly 1000 years before Sac Balam was founded), when nearby city states like Palenque and Yaxchilán were at their height. “This is what archaeological discovery is usually like—local people showing you things they know about,” Woodfill says as he photographs the glyphs on the staircase stones.

Our quest for Sac Balam won’t have that kind of help. Aside from a handful of Maya communities, most people are prohibited from living in the 331,000 hectares of Montes Azules, and the reserve is largely free of roads and even trails. When faced with such huge swaths of inaccessible territory, archaeologists these days often turn to lidar, a laser-based equivalent of radar that lets them strip vegetation out of aerial photographs and expose the sites beneath. A recent lidar survey of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in northern Guatemala—about 160 kilometers to the northeast of Montes Azules—revealed more than 60,000 ancient structures, most unknown to researchers. “The day that someone does lidar [over Montes Azules], they’re going to find hundreds or thousands of sites,” including, most likely, Sac Balam, says Ramón Folch González, an archaeologist who works with Palka at ASU. But Woodfill’s team lacks the funding for such an expensive survey. They have to strap on their boots and explore the old-fashioned way.

After dinner at the ecolodge that night—on the eve of our 6-day quest in the reserve—Lozada Toledo unrolls a homemade map. He’s spent hours poring over documents written by Spanish visitors and inhabitants after it was finally conquered in 1695 and renamed Nuestra Señora de los Dolores. Especially helpful is an account written by Diego de Rivas, a Spanish priest, who in 1698 set out from Nuestra Señora de los Dolores to Lake Petén Itzá in northern Guatemala. It took de Rivas and his men 4 days to walk from the town to the Lacantún River, at which point they continued by boat. If they walked for 8 hours a day, each carrying about 30 kilograms of supplies and traveling in a hilly area with lots of plant cover, they could have covered a little more than 1 kilometer per hour (and slightly less in higher mountains), Lozada Toledo estimated. That would place Sac Balam 34.4 kilometers from the Lacantún River. He had traced an arc of the city’s possible locations, printed in red on the map.

Lozada Toledo also points to ridge lines shaded onto the map’s topography; a few are close to the arc. Those would be particularly good areas to explore, he says, because Spanish chronicles describe Sac Balam as being on a flat plain at the base of some mountains. Visitors counted 100 houses and three community buildings in the relatively dense town, where turkeys and skinny dogs ran underfoot and people planted a wide variety of crops, including maize, chiles, and various fruit trees, in nearby plots. Every afternoon, semidomesticated scarlet macaws would fly out of the jungle and perch on the town’s rooftops, amazing the Spanish occupiers.

Brent Woodfill, Josuhé Lozada Toledo, and Rubén Núñez Ocampo
(left to right) ponder how to reach possible locations of Sac Balam.



The houses, which were relatively small and made of adobe, have probably vanished. But the stone foundations of the community buildings might still be visible. The archaeologists will also be on the lookout for caves with offerings inside, metal artifacts like machete pieces and nails—evidence of the eventual Spanish occupation and possibly earlier trade with Maya communities more connected to the colonial state—and the ruins of a small church and an earthen fort supposedly built after the town was conquered.

The ruins of Sac Balam will be far less imposing than the hieroglyphic staircase, and far harder to find. Still, Lozada Toledo’s map makes it seem tantalizingly within reach. He points to the ridge lines near the arc. “What do you think?” he asks the four guides who will accompany us. “Could we get there?”

One hour into a hike into the jungle, Isaías Hernández Lara, the head guide, uses a machete to hack a path through vines the diameter of tree branches. Some of the vines ooze red sap, and many are covered in skin-tearing spines. It soon becomes hard to tell which stains on our clothes are sap and which are blood. One vine plunges a thick spine into my inner elbow with the precision of a phlebotomist doing a venipuncture. Thinner vines snare my feet, make me trip, and slow my progress. Water has become a precious resource. I realize I didn’t bring enough.


The archaeologists are doing a little better, but they, too, are stunned by how difficult this pristine jungle is to navigate. (Coleman, the dancer, is the best at following Hernández Lara’s expert movements.) Then, suddenly, an unmapped stream flowing with cool water. It feels like salvation.

On satellite maps, a ridge line is only 2.8 kilometers from the river that snakes near base camp, and we thought we’d be there in a couple of hours. We didn’t even pack lunch. But we’ve walked 4 hours by the time we spot the first sign of foothills. Defeated, we retreat to base camp.

As we wash our battered bodies and filthy clothes in the river, I realize I’ve been asking the wrong question about Sac Balam until now. Throughout months of research, I’ve wondered how the Lacandon resisted conquest for so long. After only a few days in the jungle, I’m realizing that the real question is: How did the Spanish—outsiders struggling with the forest like us—ever find them?

The answer was the same as for the hieroglyphic staircase we “discovered” a few days ago: with help. In 1694, two Spanish priests determined to bring the gospel to Sac Balam met a leader from another Maya group, who agreed to take them to the city. The Lacandon had been trading with but also attacking and raiding Spanish-allied Maya towns for decades, and perhaps the leader had had enough.


Once they finally arrived in Sac Balam, the priests convinced a delegation of 12 Lacandon leaders to travel to Cobán, Guatemala, to meet with authorities from the colonial government and the Catholic Church. But during that visit and the journey back, 10 of the Lacandon leaders fell ill and died. The attempt at diplomacy collapsed, and 1000 Spanish and allied Maya forces invaded the city, occupying it in early 1695 without a battle. It continued to exist as Nuestra Señora de los Dolores until 1712, when the remaining Lacandon inhabitants were forcibly moved to the Pacific coast of Guatemala.

It’s likely many had already fled deeper into the jungle, joining Maya refugee communities that included people from all over southern Mexico. It is their descendants who occupy parts of Montes Azules today. These modern communities are also called the Lacandon, but they speak a different language from what was spoken in Sac Balam and are considered a distinct cultural group, with their roots firmly in the Colonial period.

Sac Balam, or even Nojpeten, was far from the last stronghold of Maya resistance. Rebellions were frequent throughout the Colonial period and continued once Mexico became independent. A sweeping Maya uprising in the 19th century is now called the Caste War. As recently as the 1990s, the Zapatistas, most of them Maya farmers, took over cities here in Chiapas in a Marxist uprising; in 2018 they fielded a presidential candidate. The colonial repression hasn’t ended either. Entire Maya communities were massacred during the Guatemalan Civil War between 1960 and 1996—the long tail of a conquest that has never been complete.

After the failed hike, the team has one more lead to follow. Hernández Lara has heard rumors of Maya ruins at the source of the Tzendales River, one of several waterways that meet near our base camp, so we pack up our camp and set off for 2 days of kayaking against the current. Pairs of scarlet macaws fly overhead, startled iguanas clamber up the riverbank, and an occasional crocodile eyes us from a log. We drag our kayaks over dozens of small waterfalls. Somewhere along the journey, the GPS with the SOS button slips away.

mayan temple

As the sun drops lower in the sky, we tie up the kayaks and make camp. The site is flat, clean of brush, and swarming with so many ticks we dub it Camp Garrapata, Spanish for tick (literally, “claw-feet”). The next day, as the team continues upstream, the satellite imagery Lozada Toledo relied on for his map proves a woefully inadequate simulacrum of the real twists and turns of the river. It narrows to just 2 meters or less and is almost completely overhung by vines and drooping tree branches. But the water is steadily growing clearer and colder, raising our hopes that we might be close to its source.

After 6 hours of slow headway, the river dead ends into a squat hill, more a pile of mud than an actual geological feature. Could this be the source? One of our guides, Cornelio Macz Laj, climbs to the top and returns shaking his head: The river continues on the other side. It is too late to push on, and we turn back downstream.

The reality sinks in: This expedition won’t find Sac Balam. Can it even be found, I wonder? Even if a suggestive cluster of Maya community buildings and a fort popped up on a future lidar map, archaeologists would still have to bushwhack there to excavate them. Who would want to go through all of this again?

“So, for next year,” Woodfill says to Hernández Lara when we’re back at the lodge, joyfully ordering steaks from the restaurant, “do you think you could go out before we get here and make sure the river is cleared?”


“There’s going to be a next year?” I ask, incredulous. My thumbs are rubbed raw from paddling. Our wounds are oozing pus, and we’re all still picking off blood-gorged ticks.

But the archaeologists are already planning their next attempt, based on what they’ve learned this time. If the guides have already macheted through the worst of the overgrowth along the river, the team would have a good chance of reaching the Tzendales River’s source within 2 or 3 days. Bringing a metal detector would quickly reveal any buried colonial artifacts, a hint that Sac Balam might be close by. Or who knows? They might find Classic period sites like the one with the hieroglyphic staircase. The whole area is a blank slate, after all.

Lozada Toledo has pulled out a ruler and is correcting his map, adding detail to the paths of rivers and recalculating travel times. “Since no scientist has been here before, everything is an advance,” he says. “Everything is valuable.” Maybe he overestimated how fast de Rivas and his companions could walk in the jungle. Maybe Sac Balam was much closer to the Lacantún River. Maybe it’s actually much more accessible than he thought.


“This is what I do,” Woodfill says. “I go where no one else is going, and I hack away at it.” The guides have already told him about other ruins they’ve heard rumors about—places they weren’t ready to share until the team built up intimacy and trust. And the people in the town close to the staircase have promised to take him to a nearby cave—which might hold Maya offerings—the next time he’s around. Those connections just don’t happen without an intense, ongoing commitment to a place, no matter how bruised and battered you are when you leave, he says.

Other archaeologists hope Woodfill persists. “There’s so much that could be learned there, if people would just be willing to endure the discomforts and disappointments of working in these areas,” says Prudence Rice, an archaeologist who is now professor emerita at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Sac Balam is still out there, keeping its story safe for anyone intrepid, or stubborn, enough to seek it out.

Science Confirms That Dogs Can Recognize a Bad Person


A cat or a dog? This is one question that has been debated for years. Here’s one more fact about dogs that may change your mind about which pet to get. You trust your dog, but does it trust you? cool stuff, cats, pets, dogs, science, cool stuff, science, dogs, cats, pets, science, science


Boredpanda loves facts — especially facts about animals. A recent study shows that dogs can analyze how reliable a person is and we want to share this information with our readers! Dogs, as real detectives, can explain to us whether or not to trust another person.

The study was conducted by Akiko Takaoka of Kyoto University in Japan. The scientist and his colleagues wanted to know if a dog would trust a person who lied to it. The researchers divided the experiment into 3 parts. They wanted to know if the dog could understand whether or not the person was untrustworthy.


The group of scientists claims that the research has a potential implication in dogs’ behavioral studies. The study tells us that dogs prefer this world to be certain, according to John Bradshaw with the University of Bristol.

In the experiment, dog owners would first point to a container with food. The dog would run to it. Then a container without food would be pointed at. The dogs were tricked and approached the container.

It’s been previously known that dogs would run to an object their owner would point at. Thus, dogs are believed to be able to understand human gestures. And if the gestures are inconsistent, the dog can become nervous and stressed.

The third time, the dogs would not follow the pointing hand. They did not believe the liars34 dogs took part in the experiment and they all showed the same results, according to the Animal Cognition Journal. Dogs would use their previous experience to know that a person was unreliable.


Mr. Takaoka plans to continue the experiment with wolves since they are the closest relatives to dogs. The current experiment also proves that dogs are curious about new things.

More research states that dogs also control how other people interact with their owners. In an experiment, dog owners asked people for help. Afterward, the people were trying to give the dogs a treat. And the pets surprised us!

The dogs wouldn’t take a treat from the people who behaved in a bad or rude way toward their owners. They preferred to be fed by those who helped. Even those who did nothing in response to the begging were welcomed. But the rude and aggressive people couldn’t earn the dogs’ trust.


One more study reported by Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews, states that dogs clearly read the communication between their owners and strangers. In the experiment, dog owners asked 2 groups of strangers for a little help. The dogs showed a good understanding of social rules. They avoided the people who mistreated their owners.

It’s been proven before that dogs are able to read our gestures and facial expressions. Now we know more about them and they are much more intelligent than we were led to believe! They can decipher our gestures and can also decide if they want to follow social cues. However, studies show that dogs mostly live in the present without having much consideration for the past or future.

If you mislead your dog, it will not trust or obey you. If your dog doesn’t like your friends, maybe there’s something wrong in your friendships?

How clever is your dog? Share your stories with us in the comments!


The extreme tech that will help people live forever

From cryonic baths to ozone saunas, scientists and
companies are chasing a magic pill that will cure ageing

By Terry Armstrong

Since humans first realized we were doomed to die, we’ve sought immortality – through religion, great works or producing children to carry our selfish genes into the future. And then there are those who believe death is for other people.

According to Orbis Research, consumers spent $43 billion (£33 billion) on anti-ageing products in 2018 – from lactic-acid-based anti-wrinkle creams to collagen peptide tablets and anti-oxidant co-enzyme Q10 pills. Research from Pitchbook estimates that $559 million in venture capital was invested in US anti-ageing companies in 2017. These include California-based BioTime, which is developing treatments using embryonic stem cells to rebuild cell and tissue function; CohBar, working on editing the mitochondrial genome to regulate metabolism and cell death; and Google sister company Calico, which has a $2.5 billion budget for research into solutions for age-related diseases.

“Everyone is searching for a magic pill that will cure ageing,” explains Richard Siow, who heads up ageing research at King’s College London. “The truth is, lifestyle and diet changes are the most realistic way to extend your life. You can’t just adopt these as you get older. You need to start young – we’re ageing from the moment we’re born.”

Of course, diet and exercise alone won’t enable humans to achieve immortality. We profile the scientists and startups trying to hold back time.

Protecting nerve cells

Elysium Health’s supplement Basis contains a chemical called nicotinamide riboside, a form of vitamin B. This converts to an enzyme called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, or NAD+, which has a role in metabolism, cell ageing and protecting nerve cells. Levels of NAD+ diminish significantly over time. Some studies suggest that the drug causes older mice to look and act younger, and can reduce age-related diseases. There have been no conclusive trials in humans, but there are at least 21 trials under way.

Dietary research

Credit: Alessandro Gandolfi

Researcher Kenny Wilson observes fruit flies at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, the world’s oldest independent anti-ageing research laboratory, founded in 1999 in Novato, California. Working with fruit flies, scientists at the institute have identified the FOXO gene, which helps the young adapt to diet changes, but disrupts the metabolism of the elderly – for both fruit flies and humans. Work on the gene may help explain why dietary restriction extends lifespan in several species, including humans.

Cryogenic freezing

Russian transhumanist Alexey Samykin stands in front of two containers storing frozen bodies at one of KrioRus’s two facilities in Moscow. Samykin plans to be a future resident of this chamber – while PayPal founder Peter Thiel and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil are booked into similar US centres. Since the urban myth emerged that Walt Disney’s brain was cryogenically frozen in the hope that one day it could be re-animated, the ideas behind cryonics have gained popular appeal as much as scientific approbation.

Understanding DNA

Credit: Alessandro Gandolfi

Lab technician Steve Hoyland works in the UK’s Biobank DNA store, in Stockport – one of many bio-repositories around the world storing biological samples for use in research, especially genomics. The UK Biobank study is following 500,000 volunteers (aged from 40 to 69 when they enrolled in 2006) for at least 30 years. Similar projects have identified links between parental longevity and children’s risk of age-related disease; described the micro-structural changes in ageing brains; shown that chromosome structure has an impact on lifespan; and identified genes that affect ageing.

Replacing limbs

This 3D printout of a mechanical Gorilla, created by the Italian biomedical engineering company Lizardo Medical, is an example of the advances in prototyping assistive tech for the elderly – from personalized devices for arthritis patients, through walkers and hearing aids, to the AP-GO 3D printed Ape Suits. Lizardo Medical prints off unique orthopaedic and orthodontic implants to support or replace damaged limbs or failing teeth, and can model organs to help surgeons’ preparation ahead of an operation.

Slow tissue ageing

Credit: Alessandro Gandolfi

Japan opened the first cryo-sauna in the late 1970s. Now the Cryomed Clinic in Tokyo is one of hundreds of private clinics worldwide offering cryotherapy. Inspired by ice packs placed on swollen tissue to reduce inflammation, and cryo-surgery – deploying extreme cold to destroy tumors or diseased tissues – a cryo-sauna typically involves a three-minute bath in liquid nitrogen, producing temperatures of below -100°C. The intention is to accelerate the metabolism, strengthen the immune system, and slow tissue ageing.

Ultraviolet Sauna

Credit: Alessandro Gandolfi

The Hocatt Ozone Sauna, invented by the Guangzhou-based South African engineer André Smith, offers Hyperthermic Ozone Carbonic Acid Transdermal Therapy, blasting carbon-dioxide-rich steam into a Turkish-bath-style cubicle to open the pores, before flooding the chamber with ultraviolet light and ozone, an allotrope of the oxygen molecule. Ozone has a long history as an anti-inflammatory and immune system booster. Research suggests it may have anti-ageing properties by reducing free radicals in cell mitochondria.

Preserving stem cells

Credit: Alessandro Gandolfi

The mice storage room at the Leibniz-Fritz Lipmann Institute in Jena, Germany’s first centre for the study of longevity, has played a key role in the identification of a gene switch common to mice and humans that can produce a protein that damages metabolism and ages mice faster – but can be controlled through a restricted diet. Core research at the institute (on mice and fish) focuses on the ageing of stem cells – the basic, unspecified cells present throughout the body that preserve organs and tissue but decline over time.



Meet the Top Gun Pilot Who Chased a UFO in an F/A-18F Super Hornet

A former Navy aviator had no intention of becoming a UFO celebrity.

by Billie Brownstein

WINDHAM, New Hampshire — In 2004, Commander David Fravor, an aviator in the U.S. Navy, saw something in the skies he’d never seen before. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he decided to follow it in his F/A-18 Super Hornet, and he became convinced that the object’s maneuvering could not be explained by the existing capabilities of modern aircraft.

“It was far beyond the technology that we have,” he told VICE News.


For a long time, Fravor, a skeptic of the notion of extraterrestrial visitors, said nothing. But in 2017, he and his co-pilot went public with their stories in the New York Times. The response was immediate: The UFO community saw their accounts as proof of extraterrestrial life, and Fravor became a sort of messiah.

The newfound notoriety made Fravor deeply uncomfortable.

“I’m not that kind of person,” he said. “I underestimated the
power of a New York Times article. I’ll never do that again.”


He also vowed to stay out of the spotlight. But last month, Fravor reluctantly agreed to be a featured speaker at the McMenamins UFO Fest, in McMinnville, Oregon, the world’s premier extraterrestrial expo.

VICE News was there for Fravor’s first public appearance since the article in the Times — and, he swears, his last.

See interview with Top Gun Pilot by clicking on the link below: