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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

THE END OF THE WORLD

I believe the world came to an end on April 5, 1761. And if you haven’t heard about it, well your ancestors were just not paying attention. In a world where many still believed in the literal history of a real Adam and a real Eve, a certain William Bell, a trooper in the Life Guards, went about London, England telling anybody and everybody who would listen that doomsday was nigh. And thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people listened and believed him. And what is amazing is that Corporal Bell was right. The world did end on Sunday, April 5, 1761. But Mr. Bell was right for the wrong reasons. And reason made all the difference.February 8, 1761 dawned cold, as was to be expected in a world still in the grip of “The Little Ice Age”. Most winters the Thames still froze over, and the great city was chocking on her own coal smoke to keep warm. The “Picadilly Butchers”, as the members of the Life Guards Household Cavalry were called, were gathering for their Sunday parade, set then, as now, for 11:30 A.M.

Then, from Greenwich below London on the south bank, to Richmond, on the upstream north shore, the entire Thames valley shuddered. In Hampstead and Highgate houses shook. Amongst the ship construction ways in Limehouse the chandler’s tools were vibrated off their frames. In the tiny village of Poplar across from the Isle of Dogs in the great bend of the Thames River, chimneys were shaken apart, their bricks crashing to the ground. In ‘The City’ itself pewter keepsakes slipped off mantles and chairs were upended. It was over in a few seconds. The dust settled. Nerves calmed. Normality returned.On Sunday, March 8, 1761, between five and six on in the morning, the Thames valley shuddered again. This time the shaking was stronger and lasted longer, roiling from north to south and back again. In St. James Park a section of an abandoned canal in the private gardens behind Buckingham House collapsed. Panicked, the richest and poorest citizens of central London ran from their beds, convinced their homes were about to collapse around their heads. Some did. But the most well known collapse in this second earthquake to strike London was a loss of sanity in the person of William Bell, a “Tinned Fruit”, a corporal in the Household Cavalry. He became convinced that the shaking of February 8 (the first Sunday in the month) and March 8 (the first Sunday in that month), would be followed by a truly catastrophic shaker on the first Sunday in March - the fifth. His visions were so intense and detailed, and his passion to tell it so commanding, that he shared his nightmare with any and all who would listen. And it took hold of the city like a fever.Charles Mackay’s excellent book, “Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” (Harmony Books – 1843) records that, “…all the villages within a circuit of twenty miles …(were) crowded with panic-stricken fugitives, who paid exorbitant prices for accommodation to the housekeepers of these secure retreats. Such as could not afford to pay for lodgings at any of those places, remained in London until two or three days before the time, and then encamped in the surrounding fields…and hundreds who had laughed at the prediction a week before, packed up their goods, when they saw others doing so, and hastened away. The river was thought to be a place of great security, and all the merchant-vessels in the port were filled with people, who passed the night between the 4th and 5th on board, expecting every instant to see St. Paul’s totter, and the towers of Westminster Abby rock in the wind and fall amid a cloud of dust.” One enterprising chemist even advertised pills which he claimed to be “good against earthquakes”, although exactly how the pills proposed to save the swallower, was never fully explained.Needless to say, the world did not end on Sunday March 5, 1761, at least not in the way Corporal Bell had anticipated. As Mackay recorded, “The greater part of the fugitives returned on the following day, convinced that the prophet was a false one; but many judged it more prudent to allow a week to elapse before they trusted their dear limbs in London.” Corporal Bell became a man scorned, a repository for all those angry with themselves for having believed his prediction. And although he tried his hand at other doomsday prognostications, Corporal Bell was soon confined for some months in an insane asylum. Edward W. Brayley recorded in his book “Londoninania” (Hurst, Chance and Company – 1829) that Bell “…afterward kept a hosier’s shop in Holborn Hill during many years, and …retired to the neighborhood of Edgeware where he died a few years ago”.Some things did change because of the twin quakes. Due to damage his royal highness George II picked up Buckingham House at a bargain price. He kept the gardens but filled in the collapsed canal and turned it into a Parade for the Household Cavalry. He renamed the residence “The Queen’s House”, but over the years, as additional buildings were added, the old name returned and it became known as “Buckingham Palace”. The channel between the Isle of Dogs and the hamlet of Poplar was bridged at two points and eventually became the East End of London. But something more fundamental had changed with the Earthquakes of 1761, and while the superstitions of William Bell were largely forgotten, another man was inspired to a vision that gave birth to a new world.His name was James Hutton, an ugly little man with a great big brain who was trained as a lawyer, a chemist, a doctor of Medicine, a businessman, and late in his life, a farmer. But the earthquakes of 1761 had awakened his curiosity as to what had caused them. He had already come to the observation that the forces of erosion he saw on his farm, (streams and rivers, wind and rain) must be have been working in the time of Adam and Eve. But how long ago was that? Hutton didn’t know, but he was curious and sure enough of his God given brain to believe that he could understand the process. He allowed the idea to percolate in his mind until 1788, when he went sightseeing with the mathematician John Playfair. And while walking at the cliff edge at Siccar Point in Scotland, Hutton saw a single formation of rock that utterly lifted the veil of superstition from his eyes.There, in front of Hutton, was a bed of schistus, (to the right)thrusting up vertically from below. And sitting directly on top of this was a bed of sandstone, (left side of picture) lying in opposition to the schist. The junction point between the two rocks came to be called an “Angular Unconformity.” They were different kinds of rock and they could not have been formed in the same place or the same time, or even close to each other. Something between them must be missing; that was the unconformity.

Sandstone is produced by compressing desert sand under tons of more dessert sand. Any water present will chemically alter the rock, so we know it had to be formed when England was at the same latitude as the Sierra Desert is today, and looked very similar.

Schist is created by lava cooling deep under water, then reheating the rock almost to the melting point and forcing it to cool quickly, but again under pressure. Each of these processes take millions of years by themselves. And the angular junction of the two beds was like the missing pages in a book, missing pages that tell a story of other mountains perhaps rising and wearing down but leaving no record behind; of seas and valleys and millions of years whose record has been destroyed; all lost between the crystals of the schist and the grains of the sandstone.

The Angular Unconformity that Hutton stood over that day hinted at why earthquakes happen in England (above, evidence of the most recent); not because God is seeking to destroy a sinful humanity, but because this is how God made the world, and how he is remaking it, a single grain of sand and a single crystal of schist at a time - the same way he made our brains, and out of the same stuff.


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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bon Voyage, George.

I say this with all compassion and sympathy to our outgoing President: Good riddance. George Bush once said that if he hadn’t been elected President, he wanted to be Commissioner of Baseball. That makes the elections of 2000 and 2004 the two best things to happen to Major League Baseball since Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees.George Bush leaves office as living proof that a desire to be President must be matched with a desire to do something as President. Mr. Bush wanted to be on vacation. When all of the most significant crises of his two administrations happened, he was on vacation: the blunt memo warning that bin Laden wanted to attack America in America was received by him in Texas; the decision to invade Iraq was finalized at a meeting with the Brits in Crawford; Katrina came ashore during August, while George was in Crawford; and the beginning of the economic meltdown was not noted during his annual August clearing of brush in Crawford. Bush gave so much attention to clearing brush (16 months out of his 96 months as President) that after leaving the White House, he chose to move to Houston, not Crawford. I guess he was looking for a change of scenery. And isn’t it interesting that few have bothered to take note of his endless vacations of late. It’s as if we now all feel safer when he’s out of town.As a parting gift George signed a rescue bill providing a $35 billion loan for American auto makers. The loan offer was loaded with requirements, including a ban on executive pay raises, and was dragged out over months by George’s dithering over the method of payment. But this was the same President who signed with amazing alacrity a $750 billion rescue bill for Wall Street banks with almost no restrictions. The result, the Associated Press reported, was that “the banks that are receiving government bailouts paid their top executives nearly $1.6 billion in salaries, bonuses, and other benefits last year. The average amount paid to each of the banks’ top executives was $2.6 million…Lloyd Blankfein (CEO of Goldman Sachs) took home nearly $54 million last year”. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s panic over the financial melt down reminds me of a circus clown attempting to put out a blaze with a bucket of confetti. He can’t be accused of fanning the flames only because his efforts are not that coordinated. But as a fire fighter it can only be said that “Pauly did a heck of a job’.So what will history say about George W. Bush? It can’t be much more insulting than the present has been. The current Iraq Information Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, called George “…a very stupid man.” Chinese President Jiang Zemin called George “Logically unsound, confused and unprincipled, unwise to the extreme”. Al Franken described him as the guy “…who could not find oil in Texas.” Paul Begala compared Bush to McDonald’s; “…prepackaged, filled with empty calories and controlled by corporate interests.” Jay Leno described him as more handsome than Dan Quayle “…but was not as smart.” And surrealistic English comedian Alexai Sayle sought to explain to his audiences why Americans had elected Bush: “Americans have different ways of saying things. They say ‘elevator’, we say lift. They say ‘President’, we say “stupid psychopathic git.”What is truly amazing is that after bungling (by leaving unfinished) a vital war in Afghanistan, and bungling (by starting) an unnecessary war in Iraq, and bungling the rescue of New Orleans, George will probably be best remembered for his bungling of the American economy. Who’d a thunk it? He did this by a blind adherence to the so called “Trickle-down theory of Economics”, which John Galbraith explained as “…if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.” Can you imagine how fat the horse has to be before the birds are well fed? What am I saying? Of course you can imagine it, being yourself a sparrow which has been force fed a diet of horse paddies for the last eight years. And why was George so attached to this particular economic theory? Because “Lassie Fair” economics is just another name for “Don’t bother me, I’m on vacation.”But perhaps the most coherent description of America in the wake of the George W. Bush era is found in the old joke about the young boy who asks his father to describe politics. The father says, “I'm the breadwinner of the family, so let's call me Capitalism. Your Mom, she's the administrator of the money, so we'll call her the Government. We're here to take care of your needs so we'll call you the People. The nanny, we'll consider her the Working Class. We’ll call your baby brother the Future. Now, think about that and see if it all makes sense to you." That night the boy wakes up to hear his baby brother crying with a dirty diaper. He tries to tell his mother but she is asleep, smells of alcohol and won’t wake up. He tries to tell the nanny but her door is locked and the boy hears his father’s voice from inside her room. At the breakfast table the next morning the boy proudly tells his father, “I understand politics now. Capitalism is screwing the Working Class, the Government is asleep, the People are being ignored, and the Future is in deep s--t."Bon voyage, George. Enjoy your retirement. Let’s see if you can tell the difference between it and your eight year vacation.
Will history say that he was worst President in American history? It really doesn't matter. He was the worst American President in our lifetime. What could possibly be worse, for us?

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