July 26, 2013

The Blue Wave of Death

Somewhere along the line in Vietnam, I heard a guy say, "Dead is as old as you can get." It's not like we sat around obsessing about dying, but the topic would come up, often after a particularly nasty rocket or mortar attack. The idea of reaching a ripe old age was not something we worried about. No young person ever does. But when you get to my age, the topic assumes a degree of relevance.

Like most, I hope to die in my sleep. But how, exactly, does one die a peaceful death? Turns out science really doesn't really understand much about how an organism ... well, dies. They know a lot about how individual cells die, but the process by which death moves through the entire body is still something of a mystery. Enter the lowly worm.

Scientists at the University College London have reported that when a worm dies, a wave of blue fluorescence spreads rapidly along the intestinal gut. Doesn't matter how old the worm is. Doesn't matter if it is a peaceful or violent death. The same blue wave is detected in a "striking and rapid burst" at death.

This blue wave of death -- the authors call it a death wave that accompanies the cell death cascade ... ouch! -- is composed of anthranilic acid glucosyl esters derived from tryptophan. Don't ask what that means, because I haven't got a clue, although I have heard of tryptophan. I recall hearing about how that's the stuff that makes you so sleepy after that big Thanksgiving turkey dinner. Hmm.

Not to worry. It turns out he linkage between tryptophan and post-turkey dinner drowsiness has been disproven, but tryptophan is a key ingredient of serotonin, a brain chemical that promotes feelings of feelings of calm, relaxation ... and sleepiness. So now I have this image of the death of a worm as a beautiful blue wave of calm and peaceful feelings carrying it out on the last tide. I could live with that.

If this much care is taken with worms, can we expect anything less? I hope not. It may be that death does have mercy after all.

The Last Wave

July 23, 2013


So a year or two back, my grandson Christopher and I loaded up some brush and headed for the landfill. We arrived at the check-in point, but instead of being waved through I was asked to present my driver's license and then ordered to drive back around and through the the entry gate again. I was then told to proceed to a waiting area where someone would assist me. About five minutes later, a county truck pulled up in a cloud of dust and a hearty hi-ho Silverado. A man dressed in jeans and a county work-shirt stepped out. He was holding a clipboard. A man with a clipboard is a man who means business.

In his other hand he held a device that he identified as a Geiger counter. The landfill has radiation detectors at the entry point -- presumably to detect illicit medical waste -- and my load had triggered an alert. I notice then that the form was some kind of log mandated by Homeland Security. Wonderful. I'm gong to be on the landfill terrorist watch list.

I explain that my load is just tree branches and brush. I open the back of the Sorento, and the guy sweeps the interior. Nothing. Then he walks by me. The needle jumps up, and he jumps back. Even standing several feet away from me, the counter is showing radiation. I try to approach and he waves me back, telling me that he can't get any closer than he is. I'm thinking, shit, what about Christopher, who has been with me all morning? What the heck is going on here?

Suddenly, the light bulb goes off. A couple of days before, I had been to my cardiologist for a nuclear stress test. This is where they insert an IV, run radioactive dye through it, and then strap a bunch of electrodes on you and put you on a treadmill until you either reach a heart rate over 120 or have cardiac arrest, whichever comes first.

What I didn't understand was how long it takes for the radiation to clear my system. Even two weeks after the initial alert and I went back to the landfill with another load, I still triggered the landfill's radiation detectors. By now, me and Geiger counter guy were on a first name basis. He explained that a lot of truckers of a certain age, shall we say, trigger the alert for the same reason that I did.

All this came to mind yesterday, when I had another nuclear stress test. I found several sources on the Internet questioning the safety of this procedure. I remember as a child I was given radiation therapy to shrink my adenoids, using a procedure you don't want to hear about. The effects of radiation were not as well understood then as they are now. I can tell you that my right ear drum was burnt like toast, something I found out after surgery to repair it.

Risk is a part of life. So is dying. The efforts to forestall the latter can sometimes increase the former. The older you get, the more of these trade-offs you encounter. Modern medicine is getting better every day, but there is still a long way to go before we get to the level envisioned in Star Trek, where Bones can wave a gadget over you and cure a rainy day.

For now, I'm doing what I can to maintain. It's not about living forever. It's about being as healthy, mentally and physically, as deep into the curve as you are able. So, I exercise regularly and eat a reasonably sensible diet. I take the stairs, use a push mower, and walk when I play golf. I eat a bit less and almost never take seconds unless it's Thanksgiving.

None of this will forestall the inevitable ... just delay it a bit. I've already lived longer than my father did, something that may not have happened if I hadn't made some changes. As I used to say in an old blog, it's something to think about.

July 21, 2013


It's 4 a.m. You are in a shallow fox hole just deep enough to keep your head below the sight-line as you half-sit, half-lie, with your rifle resting on the edge. Behind you is the wire, which marks the perimeter of the base camp. Ahead of you, across a couple of hundred yards of cleared ground lies the tree line, which marks the perimeter of the unknown.

The heat, the darkness, and the silence close in around you, a smothering weight of sensory deprivation that soon has your mind playing tricks with itself. You raise a hand and hold it a foot from your eyes. Nothing. Just true darkness. Dawn's early light is still a long hour away. And a lot can happen in an hour.

A soft pop is followed by a spluttering arc of illumination. The flare casts an uneven greenish light over the landscape, shadows dancing under the flickering light. You jump from vigilance to hyper-vigilance. Your eyes scan the open ground looking for movement, real or imagined. Too soon, the light from the illumination flare gutters out. Darkness settles back around you. The watching and waiting go on.

In my time, I have come to understand that certain events act as a flare in the night, illuminating the darkling plain upon which we struggle to live our lives. In those moments when the darkness lifts, we catch fleeting glimpses of hidden motives, unseen actors. A different truth emerges from the shadows playing across our eyes. Knowledge is gained. And sometimes innocence is lost.

July 3, 2013


I worked most of my adult life as an employee of the Department of Agriculture. In 1968, a friend of mine got me a job there right out of college. A few months later, I was drafted. When I got out two years later there there was a recession on, but I was guaranteed a job back at Ag, which I promptly took.

I worked about 10 years in a very large agency, where I was initially assigned to the Records Management Office, where we organized the files of documents created during the course of official business. This was in the day when everything was on paper and the sheer volume of material generated was enormous. But we knew where everything was, unlike today's e-mail dominated world.

Partly because I had just been in the Army and had a Secret clearance and mostly because no one else wanted to do it, they made me the Classified Material Control Officer (CMCO), a job that required a Top Secret Cosmic clearance. (The Cosmic part referred to access to NATO material.) I obtained the clearance despite listing the wrong place of birth on the forms. Kind of makes you wonder, doesn't it?

The job required reading classified State Department cables and re-directing them to the appropriate interested parties within the Agency. USDA had vast international operations -- in most countries we handed out more money than did the Defense Department -- so any cable traffic pertaining to our commercial interests abroad crossed my desk. I'd love to tell you about it, but then you would have to be bored to death.

Fast forward to the last few years of my career. I was working in a different agency within USDA and had stumbled into a new career as a web applications designer. It was the mid-90s, and computers and the Internet were coming into their own. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time -- a newly formed office with a lot of horsepower and a boss who gave me free rein -- and I was able to work mostly on designing web-based data entry and retrieval systems, the kind that are commonplace today but were still something of a novelty in those days. Eventually I became part of the regular computer staff, which was where I finished out my career.

I retired not too long after 9/11. Things were changing. The grown-ups in the computer facility were nervous about the three servers I had running in my office.  Cowboys like me were being roped in with security clearances and tighter access to servers. I could see the writing on the wall and was happy to leave the coming brave new world to the next crew.

Which brings us finally to the main topic of this post, the rash of security violations that have shaken the intelligence community, our allies, and ordinary citizens concerned about their privacy. The two most spectacular examples -- Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden -- are the result of changes that occurred during the years I worked in the government: the paperless office, the rise in contracting out, and the after-effects of 9/11.

What Manning and Snowden did would have been impossible back when I first started working in the government. Paper records take up a lot of space, and it requires boxes and a truck if you are going to move significant quantities. The documents that Manning and Snowden stole would have required a tractor trailer to haul away in paper form. As electronic records, a CD was all that was needed.

Contracting out began under the Reagan years. The theory was that contractors were a short-term resource that could be hired more cheaply because they received no health care or pension benefits and could be let go without all the  red tape involved in firing a career employee. But as Bob Dylan pointed out, "When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose."

Contractors went from job to job, their allegiance owed not to the government but to the firm that hired them. Those of us who chose to make a career out of Federal service had a lot to lose. We were in it for the duration. This was how were were going to raise our families, send our kids to college, and support ourselves in our old age.

As Federal employees, we signed an oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic ... faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter." For most of us, those weren't just words on a piece of paper. We knew we were following in the footsteps of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, who pledged "their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor."

One of he more surprising things that came out of the Snowden affair is the extent to which intelligence operations are contracted out. According to one source I found, "As of last October [2102], nearly five million people held government security clearances. Of that, 1.4 million held top-secret clearances. More than a third of those with top-secret clearances are contractors."

And all those clearances add up to a bucket of spit when you have a guy like Snowden, who purposely sought out the job at Booz-Allen-Hamilton so he could have access to the information he had already decided to make public. The insider is always the biggest threat, but security clearances are not the ultimate defense. Being vested in the system, having a career as opposed to a job, swearing allegiance to the Constitution as opposed to going to the highest bidder ... that's what breeds loyalty.