August 27, 2013

A Sea of Troubles

I've been working on a story, so my blogging has fallen a bit behind, but a couple of items on ocean acidification caught my eye. For those not as obsessed with climate change as I am, here are two key points to understand. First, the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have risen by a quarter over the last 100 years, going from 290 to over 400 parts per million. (I think that's right. Maybe it's a third. I never could get that straight.) Second, the ocean absorbs a good chunk of that carbon dioxide, but not without a cost to that benefit, especially if you are one of the bazillions of critters swimming around in a shell.

Increased levels of carbon dioxide are lowering the ph level of seawater. Lower ph levels mean the seawater is more acidic. If you are wearing a shell made out of calcium carbonate, that is very bad news. Acid dissolves calcium carbonate. This affects a wide range of sea life, from coral reefs to starfishes to molluscs to any one of 5,000 species of marine phytoplankton that form the foundation of the oceanic food chain, and oh, by the way, produce half the oxygen on the planet. This is not good news for them or for us.

But wait, it gets better. Turns out all this carbon dioxide in the ocean disrupts another of those cycles of nature that make up the checks and balances of climate. The oceans produce something called marine sulfur component dimethylsulphide (DMS). When this stuff hits the atmosphere, it reacts with oxygen to form sulfuric acid, which can form new aerosol particles that impact cloud albedo and, hence, cool Earth's surface.

Well, guess what? Acidic oceans produce less of this DMS stuff.  This means that any cooling effect from ocean-derived sulfuric acid in the atmosphere is lessened. That means the affects of global warming are not slowed down as much as they could be. More global warming means less DMS which means more global warming.

The effects of global warming in the ocean are like a time bomb waiting to go off. It takes centuries to get there and more centuries to unwind the changes. So even if we reduced carbon emissions to near zero levels -- and we all know that ain't gonna happen, not even close -- we will be feeling the effects of current levels of carbon dioxide for centuries to come. How's that for a legacy?

August 19, 2013

The Shoe Box

Leaving work and walking to my car, I hear a distant rumble in the night sky. At first I thought it might be thunder. Then I realize it is the fireworks show they put on at the local ball park after the game is over. The combination of the warm night air and the distant murmur of the fireworks transports me back in time to a place where the sound of fireworks meant something quite different.

First, let's set the stage. Think about the last time you went to see fireworks. The air fills with rockets and Roman candles, fountains and mines creating stars and comets and cascading showers of sparks that sizzle and whistle or end in a loud boom reverberating across the sky. Then comes the finale, an orgiastic explosion of light and sound that overwhelms the senses.

I want you to close your eyes and hear that finale in your mind's ear ... an incredibly rapid concatenation of explosions, one after the other, faster than you can count. Imagine it goes on for a couple of minutes with ear-shattering intensity, right over your head. Got it? Now imagine that instead of firecrackers, you are hearing 500 and 750 pound bombs, over a hundred of them, blanketing an area a third of mile wide by sightly over a half-mile long. Good morning, Vietnam!

We called them Arc Lights, based on the code name given by the military for such flights. As a radio operator, I would warn of impending B-52 strikes with the coded phrase, "Heavy Artillery Warning." Yeah, like that fooled anybody.

The use of such aerial bombardments began in World War I, but really came into its own in World War II. That said, it may surprise you to learn, as it did me, that more bombs were dropped by the United States during Vietnam than during all of World War II, including both the European and the Japanese fronts. Of course, the Vietnam War lasted much longer than our involvement in World War II, which accounts for some of the disparity. Still, that's a lot of ordinance.

In a final attempt to leverage the North Vietnamese into signing the Paris Peace Accords, the United States dropped 15,247 tons of ordnance during an 8-day stretch in December 1972. Mostly, though, the B-52 dropped their bombs on the jungle, hoping to disrupt infiltration routes. Joseph Conrad has a scene in "Heart of Darkness" where a French man-o-war sits off the African coast, her 8-inch guns firing round after round: "In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent." Most of the B-52 strikes had about the same effect.

That doesn't mean you weren't in some serious shit if you were unlucky enough to be in the vicinity. I talked to a guy who was under attack at a night defensive position, and they called in a B-52 strike nearby, only the triangulation was just a tad off. Next thing my guy knew, there were whole trees raining down from the sky in front of his position. Nothing above ground level survives a B-52 strike. Nothing.

I once saw a B-52 strike go in ... from a distance, mind you. The strike I saw gave truth to the name some gave to the B-52's: The silent death. Flying at 30,000 feet they were invisible and made no noise, although I once did see one flying high in the night sky, reflecting a sun that had long-since set but whose rays could still be reflected from such a high altitude.


On the day I saw a strike go in, I was standing just looking out over the jungle canopy from higher ground, where exactly I couldn't tell you. Without warning, a brown rectangle of dust and dirt -- we called such areas of impact the shoe box, because that's what it looked like, a brown shoe box -- rose suddenly from the ground. Ultimately, it would reach a height thousands of feet in the air.

For a moment, there was complete silence as I watched the shoe box grow higher. Then came wave after wave of rapid-fire concussive bursts, sounding just like a fireworks finale, except this was the grand finale for any living thing caught in the shoe box.

Truth be told, the whole thing was kind of cool.  There is something to the shock-and-awe theory. You listen to all those bombs detonating one right after another in a seemingly never-ending fusilade of death -- like listening to a mini-gun expend from a Cobra gun ship, sounding more like a chain saw than a weapon, the unbroken line of red tracers pissing death from the sky -- and you can't help but be held spellbound at the potency of all that ordnance. But after a few decades, looking back, it is hard to make sense of it all. All that money, all those bombs, all those lives, both civilian and military ... for what?

I keep coming back to Conrad, who captured the futility of it all as he continued on about the French man-o-war: "Pop, would go one of the eight-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding ..."

August 10, 2013

Who Am I? I Really Want To Know

Imagine a child, about seven or eight years old, going with his mother to Boston Children's Hospital. He  has done this many times before, so such a trip is not unusual. This visit is different. He is taken into a room and told to sit in a chair, the kind a dentist might use. The child sits quietly while the doctor prepares his instruments. Now imagine the doctor taking something that looks very much like a very thin knitting needle and inserting it slowly into the child's nostril, pushing it in for what seems to the child to be a very long time. This process is repeated in the second nostril. After a few minutes, the rods are removed. A pat on the head, and off you go.

Sounds like an experiment Dr. Mengele might have conducted in a concentration camp. In fact, it was considered to be cutting edge stuff at the time. The procedure is called Nasopharyngeal Radium Irradiation, or NRI. The rods were tipped with cylinders of radioactive radium sulfate, the purpose of which, in my case, was to shrink adenoidal tissues. In addition to treating anywhere from 0.5 million to 2.5 million children with various ear and nasal conditions, nearly 8,000 military personnel in the Navy and Army Air Force also received this treatment. According to one source, the "procedure was repeated three or four times, at two-week intervals, for a total radiation dosage equivalent to 10,000 dental X-rays."

This was in the late 40s and early 50s, right after the invention of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, when little was understood about the long-term dangers of exposure to high levels of radiation.  To fully understand the insouciance with which researchers undertook to explore the affects of radiation, consider the experiment where dozens of children at the notorious Fernald School in Waltham, Massachusetts, were fed radioactive oatmeal in an experiment sponsored by MIT. The goal of much of this research was to find ways to protect soldiers from the effects of radiation.

My mother told me the reason they used this procedure on children had to do with the polio epidemic, another poorly understood medical phenomenon at the time. The thinking was that surgery may be linked somehow to polio, so doctors looked for ways to treat medical conditions in non-surgical ways. Radiation was known to shrink tissues, so what better way to shrink adenoids that were blocking nasal passages.  Curiously, polio and radiation have been linked together for decades. There are some who believe that the polio epidemic was caused by radiation from nuclear tests in the 1950s and that the Salk vaccine was intended to prevent radiation poisoning as well as polio.

Much of the emphasis on possible side effects of this treatment has been on cancers that might have been caused by the high levels of radiation. How high? A few years back, I had surgery on my right ear. The surgeon was startled to find that my right ear drum was like a piece of burnt toast, no doubt from the NRI procedure. So, yeah, we're talking some serious radiation here.

What isn't discussed much is the impact this radiation could have had on nearby brain structures. If my ear drum was so severely affected, would it not be reasonable to suppose my brain would also be affected. Here's a quote I found in my research: "In the brain…different topographical regions may have varying susceptibility to ionizing radiation. …gamma nerve fibers are more sensitive…reflexes are more radioresistant than motor coordination..indicating that radiation mainly affects the functions of the subcortico-brainstem formations of the brain."

Two important elements of the subcortico brainstem are the hippocampus and the amygdala. The Wikipedia article on the hippocampus notes that this brain structure "plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory." The Wikipedia article on the amygdala notes that it has "a primary role in the processing of memory and emotional reactions."

Where am I going with this? Well, let's just say that as far as I am concerned, this explains a great deal. My inability to recall autobiographical events is well-documented. Just ask my wife. It's important to note that autobiographical memory is just one type of memory. The fact that I might correctly recall the capital of Bolivia with little difficulty has no bearing on my ability to remember what happened, say, in high school. At my recent 50th reunion, there were many there who had vivid and detailed memories from those years, whereas for me it was mostly just a single undifferentiated lump of memory called "high school."

It took me a few decades of adulthood to realize how starkly deficient I was in my ability to recall events in my life. The fact that some of the after-effects of Vietnam no doubt amplified the problem wasn't helpful. It was only after my ear surgery that I began thinking hard about the NRI treatment and wondering about possible damage to brain tissues. The only way to know for sure will be for someone to examine my brain after I die, just as the only conclusive diagnosis for Alzheimer's is post-mortem examination of brain tissues.

Am I saying that the radiation made me who I am? Possibly, but there really is no way to know. I came to see that my year in Vietnam did not transform me so much as take certain existing behaviors and make them dominant among the range of behaviors that made me ... well, me. The radiation treatment may have acted as an eraser, simply wiping away certain vital connections needed to transform short-term memories into long-term memories. The fact that I do have some memories, mostly of the snap-shot variety, makes it hard to define the extent to which I may have been affected, if at all.

In the end, it doesn't matter. This is who I am, or more to the point, who I have become. There is no point in complaining about it. I have learned to live with the good, the bad, and the ugly of me. In fact, some of these perceived weaknesses I have come to see as strengths.My mother once told me I have a knack for seeing things as they are. I think this is in part due to living in the present and not letting the past dictate how I judge the future. And partly as a result of Vietnam and maybe as a result of the NRI treatment, I find it easy to remain relatively calm in a crisis ... most of the time, anyway. We all have our moments.

We are all a cocktail, one part inheritance, two parts experience, shaken and stirred. Maybe I would be who I am if I had never had the NRI treatment. Maybe I would have been very different. Maybe I would have been that guy who remembers the names of every one's kids, their birthdays, and their favorite colors. I don't really need to be that guy, so it's okay. On the other hand, maybe the reason I don't need to be that guy is the NRI treatment. Oy! Either way, as Popeye would say, "I am what I am, and that's all what I am."

August 8, 2013

Future Shock

Do you think your kids will have it better than you? I already know how I would answer that question; I'll save that for the end. Right now I'm interested in your reaction. I'm willing to bet that the first thought that flashed through your mind was somewhere between probably not and a flat-out no.

I first started thinking about this when I began taking the issue of global warming seriously. Leaving aside the whole question of living on a planet that will be altered for centuries to come thanks to climate change driven by the massive use of fossil fuels since the 1870s, consider this. If we are living in an economy where growth has been driven by fossil fuels, then what happens when we start running out of those fossil fuels?

People smarter than I am have been thinking about the future of the global economy for a long time. I recently read an essay posted in John Mauldin's blog arguing that future growth will be much less than the growth we have experienced over the last 50 years -- 1 % versus 3% -- because of the 3-D's: debt, deficits, and demographics. Some see a deeper problem at the root of the changes we are about to see, chief among them Dr. Robert Gordon, a professor of economics at Northwestern University who was profiled in a long article in New York magazine by Benjamin Wallace-Wells.

Gordon makes two fundamental points. First, the days of rapid growth are over. He predicts the economy will grow at half the normal rate due to "the aging of the American population; the stagnation in educational achievement; the fiscal tightening to fix our public and private debt; the costs of health care and energy; the pressures of globalization and growing inequality." It's hard to argue with that laundry list of troubling factors, all of which are compounded in the U.S. by the political gridlock that has afflicted Washington since Obama took office, a gridlock that shows no signs of easing.

Oh, wait, here's the really bad news. Gordon's second point is that the Industrial Revolution is a one-of-a-kind event in history, one for which there will be no second act. "Some things," he says, "can only happen once." It's worth noting that the entire lifespan of American history coincides with the tremendous burst of growth that began in the 1750s. But that was then. In Gordon's opinion, we have seen all the big, new things we are going to see. Mankind's giant leap is over. The future will be mostly tinkering with and amplifying on what we already know.

If that is indeed the case, Wallace-Wells asks, "How much do we owe, culturally and politically, to this singular experience of economic growth, and what will happen if it goes away?" Good question, one for which there are few good answers and lots of bad possibilities. The rise in dystopic fiction may be the subconscious bow wave of the coming new reality of more people chasing after less.

The resistance to Gordon's thinking comes from those who believe that technology still has the capacity to transform the economy. Robotics and 3-D printing are cited as examples, to which I would add bio-engineering.I agree that these three things alone will create a society which will make today's way of living as distant a memory as is the era prior to World War II, when the world was still mostly unplugged.

The problem as I see it is that robotics and 3-D printing are both potential job killers for humans. Sure it's great for the people who build them, but for everyone else, the finished product represents human work no longer to be done by humans. Who needs a parts factories if you can print them on demand? Who needs human workers if you can have a robot do it? As for bioengineering, that's not exactly blue collar work. So what is it going to take to find a good job thirty years from now? Some suggest you'll either need to be doing something that requires hands-on people work like landscaping or you'll need a PhD.

The way I see it, the future our children's children will face will be uniquely different in this respect: mankind will no longer be the sole placeholder at the top of the evolutionary heap. A new generation of laboratory created life forms -- be it robots, cyborgs, or God knows what combination of DNA that someone creates from scratch using spare parts bought from the Internet -- will be seriously competing with us for a place in the sun.

These changes are already here. Like any new technology, it takes a few decades before you really begin to see and understand exactly how society will be transformed. Modern computers have been around since the 50s, but only recently have they transformed the way we live, from smart phones to the Internet.

As I have argued with global warming, the future belongs to those who can most quickly adapt to the new reality, a reality that poses opportunities as well as challenges, if you can figure out how to be in the right place at the right time. Like global warming, the full impact of these emerging technologies is still a few decades away, plenty of time to prepare. My generation still can make a difference, by teaching our children well, by forcing them to look ahead to the world they will have to live in rather than trying to cling to the world we lived in, a world that has already slipped through our fingers.