Christine O’Donnell, religion, and the human brain

Poor would-be senator Christine O’Donnell has been ridiculed for her comment about mice with human brains:

O’DONNELL: … these groups admitted that the report that said, “Hey, yay, we cloned a monkey. Now we’re using this to start cloning humans.” We have to keep…

O’REILLY: Let them admit anything they want. But they won’t do that here in the United States unless all craziness is going on.

O’DONNELL: They are — they are doing that here in the United States. American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains. So they’re already into this experiment.

From transcript of O’Reilly show, Friday, November 16, 2007.

Why would Ms. O’Donnell (or someone who informed her) believe this?

Reports of mouse-brain research have been greatly exaggerated

It doesn’t take much to find some of the “evidence” that may have convinced her or her informant. As others have noted, there have been experiments in which human cells were injected into embryo mice, and became part of their brains. A bit different than “cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains”, but all rumors have to start somewhere.

Bad reporting may be to blame: here’s the headline and first line of the 2005 article on the National Geographic site:

NatGeo article on mice.jpg


In case that last line is too small to read, it says “Researchers in California have created living mice with functioning human stem cells in their brains.”

Earlier that same year (2005) another article on the NatGeo site briefly referred to the same research (before it had occurred) this way “And at Stanford University in California an experiment might be done later this year to create mice with human brains.” The title of this misleading article was Animal-Human Hybrids Spark Controversy. Yes, plenty of controversy, but in the article no hybridization is being talked about, only the use of stem cells to demonstrate their potential to be re-purposed. In biology, a hybrid is the offspring of two plants or animals of different species or varieties, such as a mule (a hybrid of a donkey and a horse), and that is the popular understanding as well. Few would consider a mouse with a few cells of human origin, all functioning as mouse cells, to be a hybrid.

mouse with human headSM.jpg

Christine, you need a smart friend; meet Clyven the mouse

But wait, it’s not all down to irresponsible journalism; perhaps Ms. O’Donnell got her information from this page, on the site of the prestigious RYT Hospital, about “Clyven: The World’s First Transgenic Mouse with Human Intelligence” :


Here’s the explanatory text from that page.

Margaret A. Keyes, M.D., Ph.D., is a researcher in genetic medicine and Professor of Cell Biology and Genetics at RYT Hospital-Dwayne Medical Center. She is exploring the use of embryonic stem cells as a means to cure neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

By implanting human brain cells (grown from a human embryo’s stem cells) into a mouse engineered to have Alzheimer’s, Dr. Keyes inadvertently made a remarkable and startling discovery: she not only cured the mouse’s Alzheimer’s Disease, but the animal soon developed the relative intelligence of a human being.

After extensive consideration by RYT Hospital’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), it was decided that this mouse would be placed under a new study led by Dr. Keyes’ lab.

As part of this new facility (pictured to the right), Clyven is placed inside a light-sensitive box with electrodes attached to him. He is able to communicate and interact with people via this neuro interface. He is able to communicate and interact with people via this neuro interface. [sic] To hear a live audio feed of Clyven inside his box, please click here.

© RYT Hospital-Dwayne Medical Center

Evidently RYT Hospital has a very understanding Ethics Committee; they approve of confining an animal with a human brain in a little box and punching his head full of electrodes. But Clyven is not bored—in fact, you are invited to chat with him or play a game against him.

Chat with Clyven.jpg

Unfortunately, Clyven’s conversation is limited and repetitious—maybe he himself wrote that quoted passage above, that has the repeated sentence. My best conversation with him was this one,

ME: Hi Clyven.
ME: Do you know that a tea party candidate is talking about you?
MOUSE: That’s pretty silly.
ME: Yes.
MOUSE: Tell me more.
ME: I don’t want you to know how dumb people can get.
MOUSE: I’m sorry. I hope to get smarter as time goes on. Please be patient with me. I will be receiving additional neurological treatments next week.

On the other hand, don’t let him persuade you to bet money on that CheezeMaze contest, he’ll beat you paws down.

It’s surprising we haven’t heard more about this RYT Hospital, with the amazingly advanced and useful research that is being done there. Elsewhere on the site, you can read about a new drug, Revitalex


about successful gene therapy for back pain, and about “NanoDocs”, nanobots that circulate throughout the body repairing tissues.

medical nanites.jpg

Okay, so it’s not a real site but the project of an artist named Virgil Wong. He’s a painter, film-maker, and head of web design for two real hospitals.

Still, can’t you see how anybody might be taken in by the slick style, and accept that there really is a mouse with human intelligence, and nanobots that can tidy up your blood vessels?

No? You say anyone beyond the stage of believing in the Tooth Fairy should have seen through this? and through the distorted reports of growing human brains in mice?

I think so too.

Wherever Christine O’Donnell may have gotten her “information” about mice with human brains, the real problem is minds like hers that are unprepared to question things that most of us would find outlandish. They also believe that Obama is Hitler, Stalin, and a Kenyan anti-colonialist, all at the same time! which would explain why, as I have heard on good authority, Obama has three heads, a fact cleverly concealed by camera angles and good tailoring.

Newt, Eastern.jpg

Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), Red Eft Stage. Etymological note: Notophthalamus from the Greek noto (a mark) and ophthalmus (eye), presumably in reference to the eye spots on the sides and back; viridescens from the Latin, (slightly green) referring to the greenish color of the adults. Source.

One born every minute? or are they made?

Where do these credulous people come from? I don’t mean people like Newt Gingrich, who will repeat anything—no matter how preposterous—if it seems advantageous. No, demagogues use untruths consciously, with calculated intent. The power of the demagogue depends upon there being enough people who cannot distinguish between the likely, the possible, and the absurd, and therefore won’t laugh him off his soapbox. And where do they come from?

The beginning preparation for most credulous people of otherwise normal intelligence is, I think, being raised with a huge area of life and thought which is categorically excluded from rational examination. Now, every culture and sub-culture has some areas like that, because they are essential as part of the group’s self-definition. In this Land of the Unquestioned reside things like appropriate behavior (manners), kinship rules, dress codes, what we eat and how we cook it, all that sort of thing. That’s why our way of life seems so logical and natural, and other groups’ ways seem bizarre and senseless.

No problem when it’s a question of the relative merits of haggis or corn on the cob, but in the area of exclusion there are more significant topics also, such as attitudes to the “Other” (women, outsiders, those in your own group who don’t conform), and toward violence. That’s the cultural “Don’t think about these things” list. Then there’s religion and its list.

Religion is the really big no-fly zone for human reason. It covers a much wider area of life than ordinary cultural indoctrination, often upon a foundation of dogmatic zeal which asserts sole possession of truth, and enforces details of the dogma with extreme fervor.

Totalitarianism and extremist religions share two fundamental principles: there is only one true way, and everyone must be forced to acknowledge it. It is not enough for the non-believer to refrain from critical expression and deviant action: he or she must be made to believe. Hence the show trials held by the Soviets, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the Inquisition, in which tortured inmates confess their nonexistent sins; hence the death penalty for apostasy in Islam, and the roasting alive of unrepentant Christians by the Romans and doggedly heathen Native Americans by the Christians. The Other must be brought within the fold or die, and it should be done in a public and painful way to present a compelling example to everyone else.

Children are born enquirers (non-believers), and about the age of three they start to ask “Why?” about everything, with irritating persistence. Give an answer and they ask for more details or ask “Why?” again. (Offer a non-answer like “I don’t know” or “Be quiet” and they repeat the original question or say nothing; curiosity discouraged begins to shut down.) Their brains are making and pruning connexions, they’re constructing an internal model of the world, and they want and need to know more and to discuss their own thoughts. They are also learning how to learn, how to figure things out.

A child who gets yelled at for asking about talking snakes, or smacked for asking why the God of Love is such a bloody-handed war-approving tyrant in the Old Testament (see note 1), will learn to accept what he or she is told and not think about it. The lesson is to avoid questioning—especially the things in life that seem illogical, cruel, unfair, out of sync with reality. And that “respect for authority” (actually, it is only respect for power and avoidance of punishment) carries over into other parts of life. The more intensely the “No Questions Zone” is defended, the more timid the young mind’s reason becomes.

Curiosity is inborn, but logic is learned. When children are exposed to illogical conclusions, such as “You got a cold right after you ate that ice cream, so no more ice cream” or “I know the Bible is the Word of God because the preacher says so and the Bible says to follow what the preacher says” they won’t learn the basic rules of logic that help humans sort true from false, as well as “probably true” from “probably false”. Ignorance of logic is of course a good thing for those enforcing a monolithic belief system.

Our country’s culture has an equivocal position on learning. Along with its tradition of independence and individualism, the US also has a strong anti-intellectual tradition, because of its religious foundations and the pragmatic demands of survival on successive frontiers from New England to the Pacific coast. When book-larnin’ is seen as irrelevant, perhaps un-masculine, some will make a positive virtue of ignorance. Also, study is hard, ignorance is effortless. Entropy prevails.

Logic and critical thinking are not enough. In order to winnow the wheat from the chaff reliably, it’s necessary to have some actual knowledge. When a statement is made, the hearers check it against their relevant knowledge base. This process is usually instant and automatic. The new information may directly conflict with existing knowledge, or it may just appear quite unlikely based on what is already known. A certain stock of knowledge, reliable because it has been tested or was provided by a trusted authority, is needed to get through life. Yet even some of this knowledge may be false—blondes are dumb, bankers are trustworthy, a barking dog never bites—and individuals must also possess the willingness to re-examine beliefs based on new experience. Except in the No Thinking Zone, where the only safe course is to agree with authority and otherwise keep your mouth shut.

When politics is the subject, then history must have special prominence among relevant areas of knowledge. Just like more workaday fields of endeavor, political systems embody responses to real needs and problems. If I were re-designing the internal combustion engine, I would first need to know why each part had been designed as it was; what earlier mechanisms were tried for mixing the fuel or timing the ignition, and what were their flaws?

It is history which answers these questions in politics, and must be consulted before tinkering or throwing away parts. For example, decades of controversy about the constitutional provision in the First Amendment usually referred to as “separation of church and state” have distorted public understanding of the law’s intent by framing it as a dispute between agnostics or atheists, vs. religious people. In fact it was enacted to defend all religions from government, and from a preference being shown for a single church, as well as to protect government (or non-religious persons) from religion. And the history of state-established religions illustrates the many repressions and disenfranchisements which are imposed upon members of the non-official religions, even including banishment and death. Only modern ignorance permits the discussion of this subject to be framed entirely as a conflict between religion and irreligion. [Christine O’Donnell, in a recent debate, was ignorant of the provision entirely. After the phrase “Government shall make no law respecting establishment of religion” was quoted to her, she asked “That is in the First Amendment?” Yes, it is, though the exact words are “Congress shall make no…”.]

Logic, general knowledge, critical thinking, history: how is the American public doing on these?

37% of Americans believe that houses can be haunted, and 25% believe in astrology, i.e. that the position of the stars and planets can affect people’s lives.

Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity, only about 10% know what radiation is, and 20% think the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science abandoned by the 17th century.

50% of our fellow citizens believe in alien abductions, though happily only 7% say they or someone they know has been abducted.

39% of Americans could not name any of the freedoms in the First Amendment.

14 percent of Americans say President Barack Obama may be the Antichrist (24 percent of Republicans believe this). Almost 20% believe he is a Muslim. Does that add up to 34% or is there some overlap?

Two-thirds of 1,000 American adults polled couldn’t name a single current justice of the Supreme Court. In the same survey, more than a third did not know the century in which the American Revolution took place, and half of respondents believed that either the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation or the War of 1812 occurred before the American Revolution.

And 21% believe in witchcraft, so O’Donnell’s “I’m not a witch” ad did have its audience.

When you look through these and other poll results it seems that at least 10% to 25% of Americans believe in just about any unproven concept you can imagine. A larger percentage is very ignorant of history and public affairs.

If you’re reading this, and have been apathetic about getting to the polls, you better think again.

One final poll result: in 2009, 19% percent of Americans agreed that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees, and 39% said the press has too much freedom.

mr natural.jpg


NOTE 1: I cite only two examples, both from the same holy book, for the sake of brevity, but every religion seems to have its own set of magical events and unquestioned cruelties which must be accepted in order to belong. Belong, get along, go along.

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).

Siskiyou wild plants: horsetail, chokecherry and yarrow, and a detour into the Iliad

Today I’ll start with a genus of plants that is a bit different: it’s a “living fossil” from the Devonian (405 million to 345 million years ago, age of fishes and appearance of amphibians) when some specimens topped 90 feet (30 meters), it does not flower, and it’s found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. And, people both cook it and use it to scour pots. This is the genus Equisetum, commonly called horsetail. It’s a lover of wet places and we found it at the edge of a creek.

Equisetum 2stages.jpg

Above are both stages of growth side by side: the jointed stem somewhat like bamboo, which I plucked from a slope next to the creek, and a smaller stem that has already “leafed out” in radial whorls of needle-like leaves. This picture from Wikipedia shows the leaf whorls well.


The unleafed stems were beautifully colored,

Equisetum StemCLOSE.jpg

and hollow.

Equisetum Hollow.jpg

The stems are said to be “anatomically […] unique among plants”.

Equisetum stem cross-section.jpg

This beautiful microphotograph is of a stained cross-section of stem.

Equisetum species grow from underground rhizomes that are extremely persistent and invasive; think twice before deciding it is the perfect plant for that boggy spot in your yard, because it is likely to be there (and maybe other places too) forever. They’ve been used for all sorts of purposes through history. Many a camper and wildland dweller has scoured pots with the stems, which have a lot of silica in them, and they are “still boiled and then dried in Japan, to be used for the final polishing process on woodcraft to produce a smoother finish than any sandpaper.” The leaves are used as a dye for a soft green color. The young shoots are eaten but require special treatment because they contain the enzyme thiaminase[172], a substance that can rob the body of the vitamin B complex.

Equisetum strobilum forms.jpg

In addition to spreading locally via rhizomes, Equisetum produces spores on terminal cones, shown below.


Photo source.

There are several species found in Oregon, and I think the one we saw and photographed is Equisetum hyemale but I’m not sure. Equisetum, by the way, means “horse-bristle”, as in “scrub-brush”, and hyemale is from hiemis, “winter” (both terms from the Latin). Other common names include scouring rush, pipes (children play with them, as the hollow segments can be taken apart and put back together), and scrub grass.

Downstream from the equisetum, back on the road, we saw next to the narrow concrete bridge a small tree growing in the water

Prunus virginianus tree.jpg

and laden with tresses of white blooms.

Prunus virginianus .jpg

This is choke cherry (Prunus virginiana), a species of “bird cherry”. Fruits are small and sour but very high in antioxidant pigment compounds, like anthocyanins. With a lot of added sugar, they are used to make wines, syrups, jellies, and jams.

Yarrow cultivars are familiar garden plants. Here is the ancestor of those, Achillea millefolium or common yarrow. It’s found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, even in the Himalayas.

Achilleia millefolium flowers.jpg

A closer view of the flowers.

Achillea millefolium flower detail.jpg

The leaves are distinctive, giving rise to the common name plumajillo, or “little feather” in Spanish-speaking New Mexico and southern Colorado, and to the millefolium (thousand-leaf) in its scientific name.

achillea millefolium leaf .jpg

It’s called Achillea after Achilles, Homer’s hero in the Iliad, who was well-trained in healing wounds as well as in causing them. Yarrow has been used for thousands of years to staunch the flow of blood and for other medical purposes, and among its common names are “herbal militaris” or soldier’s herb, nosebleed plant, and soldier’s woundwort. But there doesn’t seem to be any peer-reviewed research into compounds in the plant that may have medicinal properties. One site I visited,, promoted it as an immune stimulant to ward off colds. But then the site’s “fact sheet” also tells us that “Yarrow’s scientific name hints of a legendary use. Achilles’ famous heel is said to have been healed when yarrow was applied to it.” Other than the words “Achilles” and “heel”, everything in this sentence is wrong: Achilles’s mother held her infant by the heel while dipping him in the River Styx to confer invincibility upon him. The water did not touch that part of his body, and eventually the warrior who had survived many wounds was killed by an arrow to the heel, from the bow of Paris.

AchillesBinding Wound.jpg

Achilles bandaging the wounded Patroclus. From a Greek vase painting. Source.

Paris was not much of a fighter. He mostly stayed with the women and old men observing the ten years’ war from the heights of Troy’s great battlements, so it’s ironic that his blow (even if delivered from a distance) should kill the otherwise invincible champion of combat, Achilles.

Achilles in battle.jpg

Achilles in battle. Source.

Homer doesn’t include the death of Achilles in the Iliad; he ends with a final consequence of Achilles’s wounded pride, fit of rage and refusal to fight, when his friend Patroclus goes out wearing the great warrior’s armor to drive back the attacking Trojans. Patroclus and the Greeks carried the day, indeed seemed about to breach the walls of Troy, but the god Apollo intervened, striking Patroclus so as to daze him, sending his borrowed helmet spinning in the dust; one Trojan wounded him from behind and then Hector, Prince of Troy, delivered the fatal blow. When word of this reached Achilles he put aside his pride under force of a greater rage, and went after Hector like a lioness whose cub’s been killed.

All is not the clashing of bronze and shedding of blood in the Iliad. This is a famously tender moment, famously sad as well, one that is familiar to too many soldier parents.

Astyanax, Hector.jpg

“And tall Hector nodded, his helmet flashing:
… shining Hector reached down for his son—but the boy recoiled,
… screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror—
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight,
and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms…”

Iliad Bk. 6: 556-56, in the very readable translation by Robert Fagles. Source.

The Iliad ends with Hector’s father King Priam of Troy humbly seeking his son’s body for burial. In his boundless desire for vengeance upon his friend’s killer, Achilles has been dragging the body behind his chariot, around and around the city. Yet when the old man, escorted through the enemy lines by a disguised Mercury, kneels before Achilles, kisses his hands, and implores his son’s killer to think of his own faraway father and give up Hector’s body, Achilles weeps with Priam, and relents.

All that was about 1250 BC, yet reading the Iliad we find characters and feelings that match those we can see around us still. The immense destructive power of rage and wounded pride are as great now as then. And the history of the humble yarrow also connects us to people like Achilles and Hector; their eyes saw these flowers, crushed these leaves to keep with them against the likelihood of wound from sword or spear.

Walls of Troy.jpg

Troy, level VI, defensive walls, as excavated by Schliemann. This level is about a hundred years earlier than that believed to have been the city destroyed by war in the Iliad, about 1250 BC. Source.

FDR speaks to us from 1936, and it still applies

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt reflects on the “enemies of peace” with which he struggled in his first term:

“We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

”They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.”

Speech at Madison Square Garden (October 31, 1936)


Roosevelt in 1941, signing the Lend Lease Act. Photo source.

If Babbage HAD built his “Difference Engine”

Here’s a funny comics-version, from 2D goggles. Actually it is about mathematician Ada Byron Lovelace (1815 – 1852), but we all know that women never get top billing!

The comic was made for “Ada Lovelace Day”, to promote a film (to be offered to local stations by PBS) about this remarkable woman, and the film-makers need our help:

letters of support from people who have been influenced in some way by Ada and who are willing to help publicise the film, be a part of the interactive website, perhaps show the film, or contribute in any other way.

Rosemarie says, “I need letters from people stating how important a film like Ada is and how they through their networks can help to publicize the film. It would be great if the women have organizations they work or belong to. If they are software developers or computer experts, this would be great. It would be best if they were Americans, as the NSF (National Science Foundation) is American.”

If you’re not American, letters would still be useful of course! The deadline is the end of October.

Please write to:

Rosemarie Reed
On the Road Productions International, Inc.
310 Greenwich Street, 21F
New York, NY 10013
Or email Rosemarie directly,

After some thought, I decided to write a letter based on my experiences giving books to kids at the food pantry, and the unabated gender gap I see in kids’ interest in science and math. Sure, the older kids are computer users, but computers are fun personal devices; they still display an aversion to math and science, especially the non-biological sciences. A few boys get drawn in by technology, but I don’t see it in girls. [I have a small sample size, I admit, and it is a rural area.]

Who was Ada Lovelace?

Ada Byron Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron (his only legitimate child); she married a nobleman, and was part of the social whirl of that class, dancing and entertaining. [Photo below from Wikipedia]


Wikipedia tells us that

During a nine-month period in 1842-43, Lovelace translated Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s memoir on Babbage’s newest proposed machine, the Analytical Engine. With the article, she appended a set of notes. The notes are longer than the memoir itself and include (Section G), in complete detail, a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers with the Engine, which would have run correctly had the Analytical Engine ever been built. Based on this work, Lovelace is now widely credited with being the first computer programmer and her method is recognised as the world’s first computer program.
However, biographers debate the extent of her original contributions. Dorothy Stein, author of Ada: A Life and a Legacy, contends that the programs were mostly written by Babbage himself. Babbage wrote the following on the subject, in his Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1846):

I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.

The level of impact of Lovelace on Babbage’s engines is difficult to resolve due to Babbage’s tendency not to acknowledge (either orally or in writing) the influence of other people in his work. However, Lovelace was certainly one of the few people who fully understood Babbage’s ideas and created a program for the Analytical Engine, indeed there are numerous clues that she might also have suggested the usage of punched cards for Babbage’s second machine since her notes in Menabrea’s memoir suggest she deeply understood the Jaquard’s Loom as well as the Analytical Engine. Her prose also acknowledged some possibilities of the machine which Babbage never published, such as speculation that “the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent”.

The Difference Engine becomes reality after 150 years

Babbage never built his mechanical computer, but the London Science Museum did make a working version. It was finished in 1991 for the 200th anniversary of Babbage’s birth.


A view of “some of the number wheels and the sector gears between columns”


Difference Engine model photos source.

Ada Lovelace, “The Right Honourable the Countess of Lovelace”, gave birth to three children (the firstborn was named Byron), and died at 37 of uterine cancer and being bled by her doctors.

Let’s support that film, with letters or emails to demonstrate demand for stations to show it! Here’s the email again,

More about girls being turned off to math and science

Feminist Chemists cites a 2008 study by the American Mathematical Society:

In elementary school, girls do as well as or better in math than boys. In middle school, girls with an inclination for math begin to lose interest and fall behind, mostly due to peer pressure and societal expectations. Throughout middle and high school, social stigma and lack of appropriately challenging educational opportunities for the mathematically precocious becomes a hard reality in most American schools. Consequently, gifted girls, even more so than boys, often camouflage their mathematical talent to fit in well with their peers.

A study published in June by the National Academy of Sciences found

“It’s not an innate difference in math ability between males and females,” says Janet Mertz, a UW-Madison professor of oncology and one of the authors of the article that analyzes and summarizes recent data on math performance at all levels in the United States and internationally. “There are countries where the gender disparity in math performance doesn’t exist at either the average or gifted level. These tend to be the same countries that have the greatest gender equality.”

Gender bias and expectations are not the only thing we have to worry about. It’s not just girls––boys are losing interest too, according to the AMS research:

”The U.S. culture that is discouraging girls is also discouraging boys,” says Janet Mertz, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of oncology and the senior author of the study. “The situation is becoming urgent. The data show that a majority of the top young mathematicians in this country were not born here.”

[NOTE: While Janet Mertz was one of the authors on each study, the PNAS and AMS studies are two different projects. The latter, published Oct. 10 in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, was a comprehensive analysis of decades of data on students identified as having profound ability in math (Science News Oct. 13, 2008). The other study was published June 1, 2009 in the Proceedings of the National Academy. It looked at US and international data on students of all levels of ability, to answer three key questions: “Do gender differences in math performance exist in the general population? Do gender differences exist among the mathematically talented? Do females exist who possess profound mathematical talent? The answers, according to the Wisconsin researchers, are no, no and yes.” (Science News June 2, 2009).

You may remember the remarks of Lawrence Summers in 2005 (he was then President of Harvard, and is now an economic adviser to President Obama), to the effect that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. These two studies would support the conclusion that if innate differences do influence women’s lack of success in these fields, the differences are not in mathematical ability. Maybe we should look at “innate differences” in aggressiveness and willingness to withstand unduly competitive or even hostile treatment from colleagues and superiors. Or at insecurity and discomfort, innate or not, which arise in male academics and administrators when females display ability, competence, and promise. A few decades ago women rarely appeared in symphony orchestras unless they played the harp; auditions behind screens changed that! Did our musical ability transform itself overnight? Probably not. ]


[Photo from another good article on the AMS study]

Send an email for Ada and our kids, and consider how you yourself might interact with kids about math and science. Take a trip to the Science Museum if you are fortunate enough to live near one, read a book together, in general don’t act as if math and science are boring geek fare. Even if a lot of it is beyond you, as higher math seems to be beyond me, that doesn’t have to be true for the kids you know. Since I was in college, math has become much more important in biological sciences, ecology, even social sciences like history, so if I were a history major today I would probably need to take at least an introductory statistics class.

We all need to model a respect and interest for learning, to the kids around us. Kids start out as voracious learners: have you tried to learn another language lately? Hard, right? Babies do it, and young kids pick up second languages easily. They’re always learning, not just skills and processes but attitudes too, so let’s not convey bad attitudes about learning, reading, thinking!

Threshing grain at the historic farm


Here’s the old-style threshing of the grain at Hanley Historic Farm, Oregon; the beautiful golden “stooks” of gathered and bundled grain stalks appeared in an earlier post.


These stooks of hand-cut wheat, composed of bundles each tied with a stalk of wheat, sat out for weeks drying, and waiting for the Harvest Day Event on September 4, when the draft horse enthusiasts and old ag machinery collectors would join forces.


First the big placid draft horses made their way down the field, stopping to let workers with hay-rakes pitch (that’s “pitch” as in “pitchfork”) the stooks up onto the wagon, seen in the first picture. Once the wagon’s full, it heads back to the “home” end of the field.


There, the old threshing machine awaits, attended by half a dozen or more other people who will fork the grain from the wagon onto a moving belt.

But first, line up the wagon next to the working area.


Then the horses are unhitched and led away; I thought perhaps this particular team did not like the noise of the machine, which was considerable. In 1900 or whenever this machine was made, a farmer’s team would probably be accustomed to the machine after a couple of acres had been worked, and would wait–––or two wagons could be used, hitching the team to an empty wagon to continue collecting the grain while the full wagon was threshed.


The entire machine is long, with belt-driven parts to move the unthreshed grain into the whirling blades that knock the grain off the stalks. The next step separates grain from chopped straw or chaff.


It may be a machine, but it is fed one fork of grain at a time.


Streams of grain and chaff are blown through long pipes: the chaff into a pile, the grain into heavy cloth bags.


As on every farm in the history of the world, there’s work for kids old enough to know the routine.


The filled bags are hand-sewn shut.


Once these threshing machines came into use, horses provided the power for only some of the work. The thresher itself ran from a steam, or later gasoline, engine powering the main belt. This day, a more modern machine was used for the Power Take-Off (PTO) to the thresher.


Here you can see the power belt, and the chopping teeth that actually do the threshing.


Although the chaff is just being blown onto a pile in the background here, it is not a waste material, but would be used for bedding in stalls during the winter. Mucked-out straw would be used for fertilizing fields or maybe the kitchen garden area. These days, commercially produced wheat straw is used for decorative interior panels, making ethanol, soil amendment, animal feed (treated with urea, and with nutrients added, yuk), paper, and packaging. Many new uses are being examined. And of course, it’s still good for animal bedding.


Our view of early machine threshing on this day didn’t show what hard work it would have been, when many acres of grain had to be gotten in before the weather changed, when teams of horses brought a continuous supply of grain to the people feeding it to the machine, and the labor of bending to sew bags and then tote them away never stopped. But, unlike a lot of physical work in the industrial age, it was not what you did 50 weeks a year. There’s a pride in getting it done


and those too young to take part look on, eager to be old enough.


And when the belt stops moving, the old hands find a spot in the shade.