Mouse with human brain speaks out

In the previous post, I described the one known mouse with a human brain. He’s named Clyven, and you can talk to him on the website of the hospital where research led to his creation. Or go direct to his page, here.

Well, imagine my surprise when Clyven himself posted a comment on that post. He was, as usual, brief and to the point:

Clyven's comment.jpg

Of course I rang Clyven up, and found him unengaged and ready to talk. He did not seem to remember our previous conversation but when I raised the subject of Christine O’Donnell, he became more animated. Here’s that portion of the brief interview:

ME: Clyven, I’d like to hear what you have to say about Ms. O’Donnell.
CLYVEN: I’m ever so pleased Christine O’Donnell spoke about me on the O’Reilly Factor back in 2007.
ME: What do you think of what she said?
CLYVEN: Aspiring Senator O’Donnell could perhaps learn a thing or two from a mouse with human cognition.
ME: And Christine O’Donnell as a person, how did she strike you?
CLYVEN: She’s funny. I think she is a witch!
ME: What are your political principles, Clyven?
CLYVEN: You should check out the main RYT Hospital web site for that:
ME: A very politic answer, Clyven! Thank you for talking to us.

Clyven is a mouse of few words, which makes those few even more important. His gratitude for Ms. O’Donnell’s mentioning him on O’Reilly’s show may indicate that he would like to play a part on a wider stage himself. He is a native-born American, of American parents, but his crucial role in advanced biomedical research may rule out a run for office. A panel discussion, perhaps, with the two Delaware senatorial candidates? I can only hope that those whose job it is to plan such events and bring new points of view to the public, will be contacting him as soon as they’ve read this post.

O’Reilly, are you listening?

The Palm PDA as pioneer e-book reader, and Ernest Shackleton, and war

Before the Kindle, Nook, and iPad, there was the Palm

I got my Palm some years ago, to help out my fibromyalgia-diminished memory. It was like a proto-tablet, on which I could take notes, write, outline, draw and paint well enough to illustrate notes, and keep a calendar and to-do list. There were all sorts of games for it, and apps to change the look of the interface. The one feature I thought I’d never use was the ability to read entire books on that tiny screen.

But it came loaded with a mystery by a popular author and, compulsive reader that I am, I took a look at it and found it quite easy to read. Fonts and font size were adjustable and later I got a third-party app that enabled me to change the background color to one my eyes found more comfortable. I’ve been reading on my Palm ever since.

It’s a small device, about the size of a pack of cards, and with an upgraded memory card it can easily hold 50 or 75 books in addition to all the other stuff. iSiloX, companion app to one of the readers, would convert text files to Palm format (.pdb), so all of Project Gutenberg was mine.

Like most people, I don’t find it pleasant to read text continuously on the computer screen for an hour, and I would never have printed out these copyright-free books, but to have them available to read any time I wanted on the Palm—that worked for me. Is it easier to concentrate my visual attention on the small screen than on the large one? I don’t know what the reason is, but reading the Palm is more comfortable for long periods whether by daylight or in a dark room.

Shackleton Palm.jpg

Some of what I’ve been reading in the wee hours

Although I’ve bought a few e-books and issues of sf magazines for the Palm, mostly I have read my way through free downloads, 19th and early 20th C. works from Jack London’s social fiction and reflections on his own alcoholism, to Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader essays. I’ve found several good reads among women writers including novels like Wives and Daughters (1865), and North and South (1854), by Elizabeth Gaskell, and excellent short stories by Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Mary Austin, and Katherine Mansfield. The Woman Who Did (1895) by Grant Allen, is about a “New Woman” who dared to live her life as she wished, having an affair but refusing to marry the man, raising the child, with tragic results. Then there’s the wide range of popular adventure fiction, of which I’ve enjoyed works by such out-of-fashion writers as H. Rider Haggard, P. C. Wren, and Ouida, with titles like The Snake and the Sword, and Under Two Flags (both stories of the French Foreign Legion). All these have been enjoyable to read in themselves, and of course provide fascinating windows into life and attitudes, with the same sort of caveats that attach to judging our times by our popular fiction.

I’ve got some familiar big-C Classics on the Palm too, like Fagles’s recent translation of the Odyssey (a purchased e-book, I have it in print as well), Northanger Abbey and Tom Jones (haven’t been able to finish either one of these), a couple of Anthony Trollope novels (more readable, enjoyed The Warden), and a bunch of poetry. There’s a goodly selection of older sf to be found online as text files, and even some new sf books that have been made freely available by authors such as Cory Doctorow.

Views of Antarctic heroism, and of the world before ours

Just now my 2 am reading is Sir Ernest Shackleton’s South, his account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914–17)—often known as the “ill-fated” Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Their sturdy ship was trapped in pack ice for nearly a year, then crushed by the movement of the ice; the men lived on ice floes for some time since the current was taking them closer to land, but when the floes broke up under their feet, they took to 3 small open boats…and on it goes. The privation endured, the courage and resourcefulness shown, are astonishing. One aspect of human beings at their best.

Shackleton replica boat in pack ice.jpg

Replica of one of the expedition’s open boats, among pack ice.

And here too, are found glimpses of how differently some things were perceived.

Shackleton’s ship the Endurance left England just after the outbreak of what was to become World War I; at the time many thought it would be over by Christmas. I just read the part where Shackleton and a few companions reach South Georgia Island, having left the rest of the company slowly starving on Elephant Island, while they cross 800 miles of ocean in a small boat in order to send back a rescue ship. They are forced to land on the opposite side of the island from Stromness Whaling Station, and Shackleton takes the two fittest men on a 36-hour trek over glaciers and rocky peaks, without a map, to reach “civilization”.

The first thing Shackleton says to the whaling station manager, after introducing himself, is “Tell me, when was the war over?” It is May, 1916, and he cannot conceive that the war might still continue. The manager replies, “The war is not over. Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.” Later, after arranging for the other two men on South Georgia to be picked up, Shackleton and a companion hear details of the war. “We were like men arisen from the dead to a world gone mad,” he says.

I’ve often read of how shocked and demoralized people of the time were by this unprecedented industrialized war that dragged on and on, by the use of poison gas, machine guns, long-range artillery, and planes, and by battles such as the Somme, in which over one million men (on both sides) were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, over a 4 and 1/2 month period. British casualties on the Somme (in these same three categories) were 80% during that time; by November, 80% of the original men in a division were gone save for those lightly wounded who returned. The total advance of the Allied lines was 8 miles.

But this scene, in which men in such an isolated and inhospitable place learn all at once of the war, has a different imaginative impact. After all, the late 20th-century reader may be appalled by the Somme, but knows already of things as bad or worse: the Holocaust, Rwanda, visions of nuclear war. To imagine Shackleton learning about his time’s Great War suddenly, in one conversation, is to experience a little of how it was for those of his time.

Many well-educated young men with literary leanings joined up in 1914, and some of them wrote poetry while in camps and trenches. The early World War I poetry is of a high idealistic tenor probably not equalled by any war poetry since, because that war changed reality for everyone then and since. Never again, I hope, can anyone write something like this, about dead soldiers:

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

First stanza of 1914 III: The Dead by Rupert Brooke.

As I recall, Brooke died just as his attitude toward the war began to shift from public-school “play the game” patriotism to something more hopeless and grim. But many another British war-poet showed this change of reality that took place for his generation and those to come, including us. Things were never the same. Though it is long, I’ll reprint here one such poem:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. —
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The poem is Dulce et Decorum est, by Wilfred Owen, written in 1915.

Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori (Latin) means “It’s sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”. This famous quotation from Horace would have been extremely familiar to public-school boys, in that time when education always included the Latin language and literature as well as some indoctrination about the Empire. In 1913, the first line, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, was inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (Wikipedia), and the text and the sentiment were used to encourage enlistment and support of the war.

Indeed, Ernest Shackleton and his men (not one perished, incredibly) did emerge from the ice-bound wilderness “like men arisen from the dead” into a world forever changed.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed (1918).jpg

Detail from John Singer Sargent, Gassed (1918). This painting hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London; the canvas is over seven feet high and twenty feet long. It depicts soldiers blinded by gas being led in lines back to the hospital tents and the dressing stations; the men lie on the ground all about the tents waiting for treatment. (Source)

More about hydraulic mining, including some corrections

In an earlier post, about a walk along the Gin LinTrail, an area still scarred by hydraulic mining, I made errors that have been pointed out to me by a commenter on that post. I’ve made brief corrections to parts of my text in the original post, but will sort things out at more length here. On a couple of points, one trivial and the other important, I do differ with the commenter.

One error arose from my ignorance of the geological nature of the area where the hydraulic mining was done and the source of the gold. The commenter’s reference to Tertiary gravel deposits being the location of the gold was new to me, so I looked it up and learned a lot about the Northern California (and, I assume, extreme southern Oregon) hydraulic gold-mining industry.

The gold mined by hydraulic mining in Northern California was found accumulated in ancient “riverbed deposits, now elevated above modern rivers”. These deposits are 40 million years old, or older. So the hydraulickers, as they were sometimes called, were following a very old plane of deposited material across a large area which has since been raised, and also cut into, by modern geological forces such as uplift and water flow. The map below, from the UCSB Dept. of Geography, shows the location of those ancient rivers and their modern counterparts in one region of Northern California.

Map of ancient Northern California rivers which deposited gold and were mined by hydraulic miners.

”Pay streaks”, some ado about a phrase

With regard to the term “pay streaks”, of which the commenter said “A pay streak is a modern term used to describe a gold deposit that has formed in an existing waterway”, this term does in fact date back to the days of hydraulic mining and was used as I used it. For example, here is a passage from Hydraulic and placer mining by Eugene Benjamin Wilson (Wiley, 1918), page 8 (Google Books):

Pay Streak Quotation.jpg

It is easy to see how confusion may have arisen about this term’s early use, because of the change in meaning of another word: “placer”. Like other writers of his time and before, Wilson’s definition of “placer” is much more inclusive than what seems to be common usage today. We think of placer as meaning something deposited recently (in geological terms)

Placer definition.jpg

But Wilson and others of his era used it to refer not only to deposits in current rivers, but also to those made millions of years ago on riverbeds now under many feet of overburden.

placer quotation.jpg

(above, from Wilson page 11; below, from page 9) and

ancient&modern placers.jpg

His use of the the term “pay streaks” is in the half of his book about placer mining. For him, hydraulic mining is a method and placer describes a type of gold deposit including both recent and ancient riverbeds.

placer & hydraulic.jpg

(Wilson, page 152)

Another authoritative writer, Waldemar Lindgren, used “placer” in the same way (and “pay streak” also). In 1911 the U.S. Geological Survey published his opus, The Tertiary Gravels of the Sierra Nevada of California, as no. 73 in its series of Professional Papers. He says,

The occurrence of gold in paying quantities in the Tertiary gravels of the Sierra Nevada is limited almost entirely to the gravels in which quartz and metamorphic rocks form the principal components. …


It has become almost an axiom among miners that the gold is concentrated on the bedrock and all efforts in placer mining are generally directed toward finding the bedrock in order to pursue mining operations there. It is well known to all drift miners, however, that the gold is not equally distributed on the bedrock in the channels. The richest part forms a streak of irregular width referred to in the English colonies as the “run of gold” and in the United States as the “pay streak” or “pay lead.”
(Lindgren, p. 65-66)

Environmental effects of hydraulic mining

I blamed hydraulic mining for the unvegetated areas we saw along the Gin Lin Trail. The commenter blamed it upon poor soil in the areas of these ancient rivers, which he said was typical and something he has often observed. He said, “the deeper they were worked, the better the vegetation has recovered”.

The best description I found, in researching the revegetation of hydraulic mining sites, was this by Randall Rohe:

quote Rohe.jpg

(Source: Green versus gold: sources in California’s environmental history, by Carolyn Merchant. From the chapter by Randall Rohe, “Mining’s Impact on the land”, p. 128. Google books.)

So, all things being equal, the bottoms of hydraulic mining pits are most likely to revegetate quickly, while the slopes may remain bare for decades or centuries. However in some places the mining may result in contaminating the pit-bottom with minerals that are toxic to plants, such as seems to be the case here.


The photo above shows a pool of water devoid of any plants in or around it other than algae, in the area of the Malakoff Diggins—California’s largest hydraulic mine. (Source. Following photos are also of Malakoff Diggins.)



Minerals exposed by hydraulic mining can leach out and, if toxic, make plant growth impossible. Here is a view of what appears to be an exposed peak of some mineral:


The steep slopes in themselves, of course, also resist plant growth.

Malakoff UCSB.jpg


As far as the differences in soil quality, comparing ground above the ancient riverbeds (which would probably be what’s on the top area of the cliffs shown) versus that exposed by water cannons like this



who can say? Are the bottoms of mining pits often more lushly vegetated because water collects there (as long as no toxic minerals accumulate)? Do different species, of different habits, grow in the pits as opposed to at the tops, and so growth appears different? My guess would be that it varies greatly according to specific location. Perhaps someone can point me to comparative photos or soil studies.

For the people downstream of these mines, the major consideration was what it did to their own locale. All the material washed away by the powerful streams of water—strong enough to hold a fifty-pound boulder in the air—went downstream sooner or later. Often the debris included boulders, cobbles, gravel, as well as finer material.

“The historian Hubert Howe Bancroft stated that an eight-inch Monitor [patented nozzle] could throw 185,000 cubic feet of water in an hour with a velocity of 150 feet per second.” (Source)

“A conservative estimate places the amount of debris dumped into tributaries of the Sacramento at 1.3 billion cubic yards.” (p. 132, article by Rohe in Green versus Gold previously cited). The total amount of material removed to build the Panama Canal (including both the French and the American work) was 268,000,000 cubic yards: only one-fifth the amount that was sent down the tributaries of the Sacramento.

The massive volume of debris that resulted from hydraulic mining clogged streams and rivers from the foothill outlets to the mouth of San Francisco Bay, obstructing navigable rivers and reducing their ability to carry flood waters. The lighter silt and sands, the “slickins”, spread over the river-side farms of the Sacramento Valley and ruined many farmers. These downstream impacts of the industry eventually brought on a series of local, then federal, lawsuits, and a series of debates in the California Legislature on how (or if) the problem would be solved. The end of debate came in 1884, when federal circuit judge Lorenzo Sawyer issued an injunction against the industry discharging its debris.


Many of the streams are turned out of their original channels, either directly for mining purposes, or in consequence of the great masses of soil and gravel that come down from the gold-washing above. Thousands of acres of fine land along their banks are ruined forever by the deposits of this character. A farmer may have his whole estate turned into a barren waste by a flood of sand and gravel from some hydraulic mining up stream; more, if a fine orchard or garden stands in the way of the working of a rich gulch or bank, orchard or garden must go. Then the tornout, dug- out, washed to pieces and then washed over side- hills, masses that have been or are being subjected to the hydraulics of the miners, are the very devil’s chaos indeed. The country is full of them among the mining districts of the Sierra Nevada, and they are truly a terrible blot upon the face of Nature. (Samuel Bowles, 1868.

It raised the level of rivers in some cases above the level of nearby towns, changed river-courses, silted up fish spawning gravels, reduced open water areas and increased tidal flats in San Francisco Bay and environs, and led to increasingly serious floods.

An invisible hazard accompanied the debris and silt-laden water: mercury. The gold-bearing material was sent down thousands of feet of sluices which were lined with mercury in order to snag particles of gold as they tumbled through. Mercury is very persistent in the environment. An estimated 2500 – 10,000 metric tons (2755 to 11,000 tons) entered the Bay. “Currently San Francisco Bay is listed under Clean Water Act Section 303(d) as impaired for mercury contamination, and many Bay-caught sport fish exceed the EPA human health criterion of 0.3 mg methylmercury/kg fish tissue” (Source). About 261 million cubic yards of sediment still remain in the northern part of San Francisco Bay.

When all is said and done

I went past the subject of the original commentator’s remarks (about seeing better vegetation in the bottoms of mining pits than on the presumably undisturbed top ground), to recapitulate some of the horrors of hydraulic mining, and that was not so I could bash him with matters not part of our differences, but because we must still fight against similarly great environmental damage from other mining practices. Strip mining, destruction of mountain tops, chemical “fracking” of strata to get at natural gas deposits, the list goes on and on.

Close to home, hydraulic mining’s little brother has come to visit. The recent moratorium on dredging in California has sent hundreds of miners with gas-powered dredges up to Southern Oregon, to suck up the banks and bottoms of streams in a small scale version of hydraulic mining. Small scale, but then our rivers and creeks are smaller too. The damage to the “stream banks and nursery gravels”, as one local gold panner wrote, is severe. “If you did a bio-survey of say, one cubic foot of stream gravel passed through a internal combustion driven pump, the numbers of ruptured organisms and caddis-fly eggs, water-beetle eggs, dragonfly larva, newt and salamander eggs would stagger one’s imagination. Just check a sluiced site for life forms sometime; see if you can find any. …The dredger’s assertion that their comparative damage is lesser than that of the major extractors doesn’t mitigate their injury.” (Pers. comm., Dan Barker, 2010).

No glaciers on the news

Last night I wanted to see footage on television of the huge island of ice that has broken off of the Petermann glacier in Greenland. It’s the biggest such event in the Arctic for 50 years, launching a massive iceberg that has four times the area of Manhattan and is 600 feet thick. “The so-called “ice island” covers a hundred square miles (260 square kilometers) and holds enough water to keep U.S. public tap water flowing for 120 days.”

I thought that some enterprising Greenlander, perhaps from the Greenland Ice Patrol which monitors ice movement for shipping safety, would surely have gotten aloft and sent us all some live footage showing the area, but apparently not. Merging two clichés, one about cable tv and the other about big-box stores, I thought: “500 channels, but never what you want”.

Online, of course, there are photos like these from NASA.


Real color photo from NASA. I added the orange line around the breakaway ice island. Source.


False color photo from NASA. Source.

And I did find about two seconds of overhead video on YouTube. It’s about 20 seconds into the video, and most of the rest is talking heads taking sides on whether the event is connected to global warming/climate change. Maybe yes, maybe no, does it really matter if each individual event can be connected? Good for politicians and talk-shows.

In the Antarctic, however, there seems to be quite a clear pattern. Nearly all of the world’s glacier ice, 91%, is located there. An international scientific partnership including the US Geological Survey (and the British Antarctic Survey, with the assistance of the Scott Polar Research Institute and Germany’s Bundesamt fűr Kartographie und Geodäsie) has found that

every ice front in the southern part of the Antarctic Peninsula has been retreating overall from 1947 to 2009, with the most dramatic changes occurring since 1990. The USGS previously documented that the majority of ice fronts on the entire Peninsula have also retreated during the late 20th century and into the early 21st century.

The ice shelves are attached to the continent and already floating, holding in place the Antarctic ice sheet that covers about 98 percent of the Antarctic continent. As the ice shelves break off, it is easier for outlet glaciers and ice streams from the ice sheet to flow into the sea. The transition of that ice from land to the ocean is what raises sea level. [report dated 2/22/10]

Since 1950, total Antarctic ice loss exceeds 9,652 square miles. Temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have risen faster than in any other area in the southern hemisphere – a rise that translates to more than five degrees Fahrenheit since the middle of the last century.


This image shows ice-front retreat in part of the southern Antarctic Peninsula from 1947 to 2009. Distance bar may be hard to read: it’s 50 miles in 10 miles increments. USGS scientists are studying coastal and glacier change along the entire Antarctic coastline. The southern portion of the Antarctic Peninsula is one area studied as part of this project, and is summarized in the USGS report, “Coastal-Change and Glaciological Map of the Palmer Land Area, Antarctica: 1947–2009” (map I–2600–C). (Credit: Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey). Source.

It is expected that loss of the floating ice shelves will allow the land-based ice to flow faster toward and into the ocean. If the Greenland Ice Sheet were to melt completely, it is estimated that it would add about 23 feet (7 meters) to current sea level. The West Antarctic Ice sheet is believed to be less stable than that covering East Antarctica, because the ice of East Antarctica lies on rock that is above sea level and is thought unlikely to collapse. But the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is on rock below sea level:

“Not just a bit below sea level, it’s 2,000 meters below sea level,” said David Vaughan, a principal investigator with the British Antarctic Survey. “If there was no ice sheet there, this would be deep ocean, deep like the middle of the Atlantic.”

Some scientists have theorized that this makes the WAIS inherently unstable. If the ice sheet retreats beyond a certain point, a positive feedback mechanism should, they say, lead to runaway retreat that would not stop until most of the ice sheet disappears. [Source.]

The Western Antarctic Ice Sheet contains 13% of all the ice on the Antarctic continent, enough to raise current sea levels around 11 feet (3.3 meters). And when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made its climate change predictions, including the “mid-range projection” (mid-range meaning, not the best-case nor the worst-case scenario) that seas will rise 17 inches (44 centimeters), they did not include what the effects would be, if polar ice sheets began to melt faster than in the decade of 1993-2003. This was done because there wasn’t enough known about ice sheet melting and its change over time. The Antarctic Ice Sheet is 6 miles thick in places, so it’s not easy to know what is going on under it and finding out has only recently seemed important to those who fund such expensive research.

Finally, the aspect that has seemed to many the most frightening about climate change predictions: the unknown potential for interactions between complex systems such as wind currents and ocean currents, which could conceivably multiply foreseen effects. (Or, if we were amazingly lucky, cause them to cancel one another out; but we won’t know until it’s too late to do anything about it.) For example, it’s believed that the melting of Antarctic ice shelves is caused by warmer water flowing up underneath the ice. But this water is not from melting ice; rather it comes from deep within the ocean, and climate change may be making it warmer by one of those unforeseen linkages:

Antarctica is encircled by atmospheric currents that largely insulate it from the rest of Earth’s climate and keep it colder than it otherwise would be. Jenkins’ model showed that these circumpolar currents, sometimes called “Westerlies,” “the Screaming 50s,” or “the Roaring 40s,” actually push surface waters out away from the continent. This results from the Coriolis Force, the byproduct of Earth’s rotation that causes cyclonic systems to turn counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. As surface water is pushed away, warm deep water rises to replace it.

If the atmospheric currents speed up, more water is pulled up. Indeed, observations indicate these atmospheric currents have sped up in recent decades in response to global warming. So increased upwelling seems likely.

[Read more in this article which goes into deeper detail than many accounts of climate research for lay persons. It reports on the 2007 the West Antarctic Links to Sea-Level Estimation (WALSE) international workshop.]

It’s this sort of unforeseen multiplier-effect between two systems (each one of which,by itself, strains our capacity to make accurate mental and statistical models), that makes me think efforts to mitigate, and prepare for, climate change should be at the top of every developed nation’s agenda. Of course it’s not at the top of any nation’s agenda, and won’t be, until the effects are severe—not just “extreme weather” like last week’s flooding and unusual heat waves, but unmistakeable (and irreversible) such as significant rise in sea levels. By then secondary results, such as mass migration of tens of millions trying to flee drought and famine, will be well under way and our primate brains will be where they are most comfortable, dealing with what’s right in front of them. Near-term possibilities are construed concretely, long-term ones abstractly, and the consequences of that upon human action are pretty much as you’d expect. Psychologists even have a name for this, “temporal construal”.

We are told that Homo sapiens mostly evolves culturally now, rather than physically. Yet human cultures in industrial nations are mostly under the control of corporate interests which manufacture and sell us “culture” in a form that serves their ends. Government, also, serves them. If corporations were subject to natural selection we wouldn’t have seen no-strings bailouts for banks and financial institutions, instead there would have been widespread failures. If American culture is poorly adapted for survival in coming conditions, and if the few run it for their short-term gain, then chances for “our” success seem slim. Humans are slippery devils, though, enduring and resourceful. And there are still a few groups of hunter-gatherers and nomads left who may well prove far more resilient than any of our proud nations.

Algae poses threat to humans as well as animals

Health departments have been trying to inform swimmers and pet owners that they should avoid water with visible algae, since ingesting it can cause severe and sudden illness including convulsions or even death. In our state, three dogs died last year after swimming at a reservoir. One died before his owner could even get him to the car, another died on the way to the vet.

Now, a recent report in the ProMED health tracking network calls our attention to human risks that don’t involved either entering or drinking the algae-contaminated water.

One man, whose dog died after a swim in the lake, was hospitalized last week [week of 19 Jul 2010] after he gave the dog a bath. Within days, the 43-year-old man began having trouble walking and lost
feeling in his arms and feet.

“We weren’t swimming in the lake because it’s disgusting,” said the
victim’s wife, whose husband, is still having trouble with memory loss and fatigue. “Our dog was just covered in that sludge, and my husband washed him.” Washington Examiner, July 30, 2010.

According to one doctor treating the Ohio man, his neurological problems may be permanent. But he’s better off than his dog, who died despite having the algae washed off.

The algae are in the “blue-green algae” family, and are actually not algae but photosynthesizing bacteria, called cyanobacteria. Blooms, or overgrowths, in bodies of water (fresh or saltwater) are encouraged by temperature change and increases in nutrients, often from agricultural runoff into the water. The cyanobacteria, like some algae, make toxins harmful to fish and mammals. Humans have been aware of this mostly through being poisoned by eating shellfish, which concentrate the toxins. The familiar warnings about “red tides” and issuance of “shellfish advisories” result from these conditions.

While it has been known that skin contact with toxic algae could produce illness in humans, the severe results from relatively small exposure—simply washing an algae-slimed dog—seem to be worse than expected.

The lake in Ohio is Grand Lake St. Marys; it’s the largest inland lake in the state by area, but is extremely shallow, with an average depth of only 5 to 7 feet. This shallow lake warms up more, and doesn’t dilute the runoff of agricultural fertilizer and livestock waste as much as if it held more water. Recent algae blooms have killed so many catfish that crews were shovelling up the dead fish. With the lake surrounded by warning signs, the area’s $160 million tourism industry has declined, and a boat race that draws about 30,000 people in late August each year has been cancelled.

Some algae are harmless, but there are many different algae or bacteria that can produce dangerous levels of toxins when they bloom. Some are more harmful than others but it’s foolish to take chances: keep yourself, and children and pets, well away from any water that has a visible algae presence. This can be greenish, reddish, or other colors. Or it can appear as just cloudiness or discoloration in the water, as foam or scum floating on top, as mats on the bottom, or actual filaments or pellets. And don’t let kids or pets wander to areas of a river, stream, or lake that you have not closely checked.

Algae by rocks.jpg


An Ohio factsheet sums up the methods of exposure, and known symptoms:

Skin contact: Contact with the skin may cause rashes, hives, or skin blisters (especially on the lips and under swimsuits).

Breathing of water droplets: Breathing aerosolizing (suspended water droplets-mist) from the lake water-related recreational activities and/or lawn irrigation can cause runny eyes and noses, a sore throat, asthma-like symptoms, or allergic reactions.

Swallowing water: Swallowing HAB-contaminated water can cause:
◦ Acute (immediate), severe diarrhea and vomiting
◦ Liver toxicity (abnormal liver function, abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting)
◦ Kidney toxicity
◦ Neurotoxicity (weakness, salivation, tingly fingers, numbness, dizziness, difficulties breathing, death)   Source.

Splashing of water in eyes, or inhaling droplets of contaminated water, can get the toxin into your system. One of the toxins from cyanobacteria, Saxitoxin is “reportedly one of the most toxic, non-protein substances known. It is known that the LD50 (median lethal dose) in mice is 8 micrograms/kilogram. Based on
a human weighing approx. 70 kg (154 lb), a lethal dose would be a
single dose of 0.2 mg.” [Source, ProMED report.]

How much is two-tenths of a milligram? There are a thousand milligrams in a gram, and a dime or a paper clip each weigh about 1 gram. So an amount of toxin weighing the same as two ten-thousandths of a paper clip may be lethal.

Algae,feet in water.jpg


These “Harmful Algal Blooms” can occur in large or small bodies of water; often, but not always, they are in areas where the waterflow is slow (near shore) or nonexistent (stagnant). Small pools or puddles separate from the main body of water can contain algal growth. Even in tiny amounts the toxins can have devastating and sudden effects of humans or animals.

Eating fish or shellfish from contaminated waters is dangerous too. Cooking does NOT render toxins safe.

Algal blooms can be very transient, appearing and disappearing in a matter of days to weeks. If you spot a possible instance and there are no warning signs, it may not have been found yet. Stay away from the water and call your local or state health department so they can track outbreaks, and put up signs.

For the state of Oregon, current advisories can be found online here. The HAB team can be reached by email at, by phone: 971-673-0440; Toll Free: 877-290-6767; or by fax: 971-673-0457. Other states should have similar programs; your city or county health department ought to be able to tell you more.

Why are these toxic algae blooms becoming more common?

The short answer is, better growing conditions for algae. They thrive in warm water, and temperatures are going up. Nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) from human activities pour into streams, lakes, rivers, and the ocean, and act like Miracle-Gro for the algae. Sources include runoff from fields treated with fertilizer or manure, spraying partially treated sewage sludge, sewage overflows, and runoff from pastures.

What can be done?

Rising temperatures, that’s a big one. Let’s just look at eutrophication or over-nutrification of water, since that’s something where local efforts can have relatively immediate local effects. Obviously, better treatment of sewage (including livestock waste) and reduced use of fertilizers (in agriculture, on golf courses, in parks, and in our own personal yards) are important steps to work on. On July 1st, 16 states will begin enforcing laws that require dishwasher detergents to be almost phosphate-free. That’s a small but significant improvement; the legislator who introduced the bill into the Pennsylvania legislature estimated that 7% to 12% of the phosphorus entering sewage plants came from automatic dishwashing detergents. New guidelines from the federal Clean Water Act to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus have provided more impetus to these particular efforts.

Not so obvious steps:

At least one study found that use of organic fertilizers led to less nitrogen runoff than use of chemical fertilizers.

Remediation of areas where nitrogen is stored in soil, from decades of deposition by one means or another, is possible but expensive and slow.

And years of research is showing us, surprise surprise, that intact aquatic communities slow the trickle-down of nutrient pollution (from, say, creeks to streams to rivers to a lake) and seem to enable a body of water to better resist eutrophication. Dr. David Schindler (Professor of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta) has studied the problem for decades including 37 years of work on Lake 227, a small pristine lake in the Experimental Lakes region of northern Ontario. He says, for example, that overexploitation of piscivorous (fish-eating) fish seems to increase the effects of eutrophication. (His earlier work energized the campaign to reduce phosphorus pollution.)

A study along the Georgia coast suggests that tidal marsh soils protect aquatic ecosystems from eutrophication, caused by the accumulation of nutrients. And they sequester large amounts of carbon, helping us slow down climate change. I would expect similar results with regard to freshwater wetlands and marshes. When I was a zookeeper I worked with mechanical incubators for bird eggs, none of which was as reliable as one of those “bird-brained” hens of whatever species. We are told that the appropriate native herbivores—bison, wildebeest, and so on—produce more meat per acre and do less damage than introduced species like cattle. And now we’re coming around to seeing that oldmothernature is better at water purification than we are, if we leave existing systems intact (but we never do).

Salt Marsh.jpg

Salt Marsh near Dartmouth, Nova Scotia; more good photos of this marsh here.

Electronic IRS filing: endless loop of nothingness

The small nonprofit which I started 20 years ago for conservation-related publishing hasn’t had any inflow of money for years, but I maintain it in case I want to do such work again. Each year I file forms with the IRS saying “no income” and every so often they tell me not to bother filing, then they tell me to start filing again.

Now filing is via “E-postcard” and like many other nonprofits I got a mailing giving me directions, which I followed, last April. And I just got my third notice of failure to file, this one threatening penalties for unpaid tax.

The only proof I have of the e-postcard is a copy of the receipt they sent—via email of course. As I recall, the form was a series of fill-ins with no final complete page that I could have saved. So, unlike a paper form, the E-postcard leaves no tangible proof in the hands of the taxpayer.

The first two “You failed to file your e-postcard” letters asked me for proof that I filed, so I sent them a copy of the email receipt and a letter. This third notice is from the “enforcement division”, includes threats of property seizure and requests a phone number so they can call me.

Like many small nonprofits I have no paid employee who sits in an office waiting to answer the phone, so I have decided to try calling them. Right now I am on hold with the IRS, and have been for 30 minutes, waiting to talk to a trained employee who, if memory serves, cannot be cited as having told me anything. That is, if the advice I get is wrong, or the person fails to record her conversation with me correctly, it will not avail me to say “But Jane Smith of your office told me on July 30 at 8:42 am that she had found my e-postcard and everything was fine.” No, the IRS is not responsible for whatever its agents tell you. Maybe I should just send them a check for some random amount of money and see what happens. Oops, don’t do that: 20 years ago I saw another small nonprofit threatened with a fine for overpayment of taxes.

After 40 minutes a very nice woman has informed me that I called the wrong number; I looked at my printed-out receipt and called the assistance number on that, rather than the number on the forms just received from the IRS. We had a short but cordial conversation and now I am on hold again. The music is the same as on the previous call: loops of a lilting cheery tune of the sort that could be used to extract information from hardened terrorists, if it were played continuously, so I don’t know how long I can hold out before I decide to let them call me.


Cartoon © The New Yorker, Gahan Wilson, used with appreciation but no permission.

I did it! (Maybe) Another polite person (think of the abuse they must endure!) finally came on, and—speaking of the IRS as if he were not part of it, and maybe he isn’t, maybe he’s part of some outsourcing—after checking my information, told me that “This electronic filing is a new requirement that the IRS has instituted for some non-profits, and the IRS has told us that if people call in and tell us that their receipts for the year were less than $25,000 we should just cancel out their case, and tell them that they may file in the future but they don’t need to.” [His words but condensed a little]

We concluded our conversation on a cordial note, but having been through something like this before, I will not rely on his assurance that I need not file in the future. I will file any forms they tell me to file. And probably go through this whole thing again.

Then of course I may get another even more threatening notice next month, as if all this telephone time never happened.

Would it have been any better if I’d had a physical copy of a paper form, instead of an ethereal email receipt for an e-postcard? I can’t say, but at least I would have felt more secure. There’s a disconnect when you don’t know what the person on the other end is looking at, because it is not the original of the paper you hold, but some electronic compilation.

Wait until all our medical records have been digitized by low-wage workers in Nigerian cybercafes recruited by Chinese low-bid companies, that’s really going to be fun! “But our records show that you are dead/a drug abuser/not allergic to anything…”

Ways in which print is superior to digital, part 1

NOTE: Which are better, fish or birds? Silly question, right? We must ask, “better for what?” I’m not maintaining that print is inherently a “better” medium than digital media, nor the reverse. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. We should maintain both.

1. Permanence

Information on the web can vanish overnight. Maybe your webhost suddenly shuts down.

I once hosted a site that talked more about this idea at, but it seems that google nor the wayback machine are able to help me reclaim that page. source


Or someone controlling the content decides on a change…

Last week, President-elect Barack Obama launched a Web site with detailed information about his plans for technology, Iraq, and health care policies.

Now they’re gone. source.


Image source.

In my own computer files I have the complete text of a book published in 1976, which was made available online by the author. It had to be downloaded one chapter at a time, and as I did so I was thinking “Oh this is silly, I can come back to this whenever I want.” But recently when I tried to go back to the link, it was gone, and the text is nowhere to be found as far as Google can tell.

What’s online may be altered too: the writer can undergo a complete turnaround, or merely make edits to what is posted, so that it’s difficult or impossible to recover the original. Rather like the drastic re-writing of history in 1984. With a printed book, such changes are additive rather than subtractive: an author publishes a “revised second edition” for example, but the first edition still exists and can be consulted. This means you can recover specific details lacking in the revised form (citations, turns of phrase, pronouncements, data, whatever it might be), as well as track the writer’s alterations.

As with other differences between print and online material, this lack of permanence shows how what’s considered an advantage can have a flip side, a drawback that is the consequence of a valued feature. Things have the “vices of their virtues”. Something that is easily updated cannot remain constant.

Even if digital data isn’t altered, it may become unreadable. We have found many examples of the earliest known writing, from 4600 years ago. And its glyphs are all visible to the human eye, able to be widely studied via photos so that languages are reconstructed and unknown forms of writing are deciphered. The pre-cuneiform writing below is part of a list of “gifts from the High and Mighty of Adab to the High Priestess, on the occasion of her election to the temple” about 2600 BC. (Wikipedia)


Yet digital records less than a decade old may become unreadable because of physical deterioration or hard to access because of the adoption of new systems and hardware. The Wikipedia article on CDs shows a CD recorded in 2000 which by 2008 had lost part of its data due to physical degradation. And any computer user who is old enough, and is conscientious about making back-ups, probably has a stack of old floppy disks bearing data that didn’t get transferred before the old machine went out the door. If you find a ribbon-bound bundle of letters written in 1810 you can open and read them easily, but your own material stored 8 or 10 years ago on floppies—getting at that will take considerable effort, and each year that goes by will increase the difficulty of finding compatible equipment (as well as the likelihood that the disks themselves may be damaged or degraded).

When works exist only in digital form, there is reason to be concerned about how long they will endure, and be accessible. A shelf of books and movies on DVD may be about as hard to play in 2025 as a box of 8-track tapes is today. Software and hardware will have moved on. Where does that leave an author, if demand doesn’t support a re-issuance in new media? How do you share or re-read a book you liked or found important, when the computers that could read it are all in the landfill? What about historians, will they all have to congregate in museums of carefully-maintained antique computers, trying to coax words from deteriorated storage media? Print books, on the other hand, won’t become obsolete until the human eyeball evolves into something else (a barcode reader?).

So, if you want text or other material to be accessible to you in ten years, or to posterity in a hundred years, print it. On archival-quality paper.

Longlasting media


Above, one tablet of the earliest known dictionary (about 2,300 BC). Source is the fascinating, which has timelines of short articles for various aspects of science, medicine, and technology. Some of their articles (including this one) are based on Wikipedia, but not all. Being able to scan through them by topic is great. “It consists of Sumerian and Akkadian lexical lists ordered by topic. … One bilingual version from Ugarit [RS2.(23)+] is Sumerian/Hurrian rather than Sumerian/Akkadian. Tablets 4 and 5 list naval and terrestrial vehicles, respectively. Tablets 13 to 15 contain a systematic enumeration of animal names, tablet 16 [the one pictured] lists stones and tablet 17 plants. Tablet 22 lists star names.”


Here’s a piece of thin paper 1300 years old: part of the earliest known complete star map, the Dunhuang Star Atlas. It was drawn in China about 650 AD. The paper survived being stored in a cave for an unknown period, and was found in 1907. Image source. More on this and another early Chinese star atlas here.


This book, printed in 1543, is a first edition of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by Nicolaus Copernicus. No data loss in nearly 500 years! Copernicus wrote it in Latin, which was then the international language of science, and is now called a “dead” language because it has no living native speakers. But due to its historical and religious importance, there are far more people alive today who can read Latin than can read 16th century Polish, the language Copernicus grew up speaking.