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Nature Is Its Own Secretary

Coverage of the Haiti earthquake from January 12th is everywhere. My weekly morning is spent creating the news for Spokane’s local CBS affiliate. I receive a daily dosage of news at an average of two to three hours a day. An interesting question sparked in the control room during the newscast concerning the history of Haiti’s seismic activty. The Haiti earthquake is the biggest seismic occurance in that region in over 200 years. How do we know this?

Today we’ll talk about the possibilities of technology created over the years by the human race and what exactly it can do for us. Not modern technology, but instead, let’s begin to the days of Aristotle, the original reinassance man (during the classical period).

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “It was recognized as early as 350 BC by the Greek scientist Aristotle that soft ground shakes more than hard rock in an earthquake.”. Later descriptions sprouted over time, but his was the first scientific description besides the idea that angry animals were pounding on their earth with all their might.

Biological creatures since the dawn of time have felt the earth move under their feet. The first recorded mention of this natural phenomenon was from China in 1831 BC. From there, crude contraptions to record and document the events were devised, mostly from Chinese minds. It’s not truly known if the Chang Heng’s seismoscope truly existed. Myth busters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries debated this device and no conclusion was ever drawn. If the original Chinese seismoscope did exist it would have determined the direction of the earthquake within a 400 mile radius.

Over the years, more ingenious devices were invented becoming more scientific to factually detail the seismic activity. The recording of this date is nothing new to history and is something that has been suggested and around for almost 2,000 years. More advanced seismic instruments started popping up around Europe in the 18th century and from there we now have our modern seismograph stations all around the world and based off of the Wiechert inverted-pendulum seismometer. In most cases, these devices are digital and are available in real time. You can read about the history of seismic recorders at the U.S. Geological Survey’s website which provides a treasure trove of knowledge. My way of spending a Wednesday night.

Even though our ability to record history is impressive, we must not forget an original and rather unorthodox method. The natural method. For this, we turn to nature.

Dendrochronology, is the study of tree-rings coined in the early 1900s by A. E. Douglass, an astronomer. From the stories imprinted in the life of a tree, you can learn its experiences. Everything from droughts, fires, sun-spots and most important to today’s conversation: earthquakes. Evidence of this can be found by studying dead red-cedars of the Pacific Northwest and discovering evidence of the Cascadia Earthquake of 1700.

How does this tie to Haiti? The one thing Haiti lacks currently is old growth forest. Or at least growth old enough to demostrate evidence of 200 year old earthquake. 1954 marked a major deforestation effort in order to sustain the need for resources. By 1988, only 2% of the island of Haiti had forest coverage. The trick is finding a tree or at least a remanant of a tree old enough to show evidence of these events. Once this is accomplished, you can determine the event type and the stress on the tree.

To manually record seismic activity 200-years ago, a common instrument used during that time period might have been somewhere between Duca della Torre’s sismografo and James Forbes’s seismometer.

I personally can’t truly determine the capacity of these methods nor the full impact of the earthquake 200 years ago. What I can provide is simple research to deduce the how to the question. How did we know that this is the biggest earthquake in that region in 200 years? Easy. Science!


Failure in Hindsight

“To the regret of all students of Roman history, much is lost of both these long and fascinating accounts of the first hundred years of the empire. (Will the missing pages be discovered one day, hidden away in some ancient attic or in the basement of a ruined monastery? It is every classical scholar’s dream that he will be the one to find them.) – Charles Van Doren, A History of Knowledge

It’s the romantic in me that squeals at this paragraph and patiently awaits a National Treasure sequel. (Don’t judge… I blame my father for this.)

The Life of Socrates According to Plato…

…As well as Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon.

  • 470 BC. (est.) Socrates is born.
  • 432 BC. Socrates fights in the Battle of Potidaea as a footsoldier (hoplite) at the age of 38. He saves the life of Alcibades near Spartolus while returning from the Potidaea revolt.
  • 424 BC. Socrates fights in the Battle of Delium at the age of 46. Plato, who describes Socrate’s bravery at the Battle of Delium in his Symposium, was born in the same year.
  • 422 BC. Socrates fights in the Battle of Amphipolis at the age of 48. This is supposedly his final battle just in time for the “Peace of Nicias”.
  • 415 BC. Athenian hermai, statues dedicated to Hermes, a god associated with fertility, luck, road and borders, through out the land are vandalized. Alcibades, now General, who Socrates had heroically rescued in the Potidaea revolt, was accused as the mastermind behind the crime.
  • 414 BC. Alcibades defects to Sparta. As it turns out, it wasn’t Alcibades that vandalized the Hermai statues in the first place. It was a young men’s drinking club. Men never change.
  • 410 BC. Socrates, at 60-years old, was abducted by two men in a strange time traveling contraption. He travels to the future to spread his wisdom through out the lands. He be-friends an unlikely fellow: a bad guy, but good guy, Billy the Kid.
  • 406 BC. Socrates, as part of the Prytanes, convinces the rest of his council to allow seperate trials of six Athenian generals accused of failure to rescue their own wounded soldiers and corpses for burial. Even though the Assembly approved their seperate trials, a parliamentary invalidation of the vote went through. Another Assembly vote condemmned their military leaders to execution.
  • 405 BC. During the Battle of Aegospotami, Spartans seize the city of Athens
  • 404 BC. Instead of razing and pillaging the city of Athens, Sparta orders the destruction of their outer city walls as well as the reinstatement of a “ancestral constitution”, ridding of the democratic Assembly that Socrates was a part of. Instead of a democratic and just government, a now corrupt and abusive government resided in Athens. To seize power, some tribes of the “Thirty” (the new council in the new government), executed many wealthy Athenians and seized their properties. Most of the people affected had common ties to Socrates. Socrates who had always been popular with youth even back to the days of the Battle of Delium, was critized and even intimidated by other members of the Thirty to not speak to men under the age of thirty. Many citizens left the city and went to outer regions out of the reach of the corrupt powers of the Thirty, many once again tied to Socrates, especially those who had plans to destroy the new form of government.
  • 403 BC. The “Thirty” is disbanded when a band of warring democrats from Phyle kills two of their members. The democrats replace them with a “Board of Ten”. All of this in the nick of time as well! Socrates was about to be tried with civil disobedience when Socrates refused to go to Salamis to send former Democratic general, Leon, to his execution.
  • 399 BC. A poet named Meletus, charges Socrate with asebeia: impiety and/or disrespect to the gods. The charges are served to Socrates and he ignores his rights of reaction. He rather… entered a plea and then decided to willy nilly stop at a gymnasium to philosophize with some young Athenians about mathematics and knowledge. However, Socrates was more interested in studying ethics and politics, so the idea of him discussing mathematics as a form of ethics or politics makes no sense. Socrates resumed his journey to the king archon’s stoa and he was further accused by Meletus that he corrupted the population of young men with his different ideas on Athenian religion. All of this, according to Meletus, was for the public interest to stop irreverence. The jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death. Instead of an immediate execution, Socrates survived thirty days past his trail. Just before the end, Crito, a friend, exchanged dialogue about his fate and the possibility to escape. However, due to Socrates belief in the system of justice, by escaping he would be guilty of the charges given to him and it would bring harm to his friends, family and his city. On the day of his execution, he drank a cup of Conium maculatum, a variety of hemlock that has a chemical make-up similar to nicotine. It’s effects on the human body causes death by blocking the neuromusclar junction. This causes muscular paralysis which then affects respiratory muscles resulting in the blocking of oxygen to the brain and heart. Socrates was 71-years old-ish.
  • Literacy

    “Literacy did not establish a man’s social or political position. Instead, it was the entree into a powerful minority that controlled most of the business of the state, both public and private. Literacy conferred control over a society’s information systems, and those have always been crucial to a society’s life. They are all the more crucial today. It has been estimated that the information industry represents more than half the gross national product of modern industrial states. Information was a burgeoning business in ancient Mesopotamia. It is the biggest business of all in our time.” – A History of Knowledge by Charles Van Doren

    According to statistics collected by National Center for Education Statistics in 2003, both Spokane and King County population percentage of people lacking basic prose literacy skills are at 8%. Those who were seperated by a language barrier were included in the indirect estimates of these numbers. Their website allows you to change the variables to examine your own state and counties. They also provide a list of quick facts about American literacy in comparison to sex, ethnicity, age and education as well as comparison to other countries.

    Does information provide literacy or does literacy lead the way to information? Do you think information is easily accessible in your community?

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