Burn My New State Flag – I Don’t Care

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I’ve decided to invent a new series of non-controversial flags for all 50 states of the United States of America.

I began with a plain white flag. Not much to be controversial about there. (By the way, I was not the first to think of that.)

Then I proposed adding to each state flag the two letter state identifier used for our postal system. We’ve been using those for decades, so again, no controversy.

For instance, the Florida flag would be white with FL in the middle of it. If the state is really proud of itself, it could be a big, bold FL. If they’re a little embarrassed by, oh I don’t know, crime rates, hate crimes, voter apathy, or whatever, they could use smaller letters, and maybe not bolded. The voters could decide.

But voters would not get a choice on the overall design. Two white letters on a pure white background – that is the state flag formula.

Of course I tried this idea out on a focus group made up of mixed gender identity, mixed ethnic, educational level, and mixed financial levels. I even took care to keep the test group evenly divided among political parties.

And that’s when the trouble began.

Unfortunately there were many, many complaints, but I’ll only mention some of the more interesting ones; all based oddly enough on the Periodic Table of the Elements.

Take my state of Florida or example. FL stands for Florida of course, but the “F” in it represents the element Fluorine, a chemical which I believe has strengthened my teeth since childhood. But some believe it is a toxic chemical dumped into our water supply by all levels of government, (county, city, state and federal) to poison Americans. [Google it. I will not provide a link to those websites.] I’m highly skeptical of that notion, but I wouldn’t want to offend them by forcing them to look at “Fl”uorine on their flag.

And then there’s Florida’s neighboring state, Alabama. AL can stand for Alabama, but it also is the symbol for aluminum. Aluminum is cheap and not very strong. Some Alabamians don’t like that word association, even though it’s been on their U.S. mail since 1963.

AR for Arkansas also means Argon, a narcotic gas. Some didn’t want to be associated with stoners.

GA for Georgia is also gallium. Gallium melts at approximately body temperature, which was too troublesome of an association for those who are still pained by Sherman’s March to the Sea through Georgia. A melting-in-the heat mineral connotes weakness, which Georgians certainly don’t want their flag suggesting.

The most memorable scene in "Gone With the Wind" was the recreation of Confederate Gen. John B. Hood's destruction of his own munitions train. The scene was filmed on a studio lot in Los Angeles in December 1938.
A frame from “Gone With the Wind” published at http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2014/08/31/The-burning-of-Atlanta-seared-into-America-s-memory/stories/201408310090

CA for California, also stands for calcium, a component of lime, which is basically crushed limestone. Water and carbon dioxide react to form acidic water that dissolves limestone. With an atmospheric carbon dioxide rise and global warming, some apparently fear that acid rain will dissolve their state, leaving nothing but caverns leading straight to geological fault lines. Even though I don’t think there’s an awful lot of  limestone in California (certainly not like Florida), some just don’t concern themselves with the facts. Apparently, for them this fear is too horrendous to contemplate, so CA is out as far as a state flag goes.

MT stands for Montana, or Meitnerium. I must admit I wouldn’t have thought of that one, but apparently some apologist did. I was quite surprised to find out that Meitnerium was created by Germans after a week of bombardment of bismuth with iron. The notion of Germans bombarding anything with iron for a week was simply too painful for those who had survived the Nazi bombardment of Russia and Poland. Apparently some take the analogy very seriously. The MT flag had to go.

Louisiana, or LA, is also Lanthanum, which in Greek means “escapes notice”. It is soft enough to be cut with a knife. It was reported that students from the LSU Chemistry Department strongly objected to being compared to a soft, highly reactive, and hardly noticed element. I guess I can see their point.

PA or “Protactinium” sounded like an interesting element synonymous with Pennsylvania. That is until someone pointed out the following from the Los Alamos Periodic Table of the Elements. “Because of its scarcity, high radioactivity and high toxicity, there are currently no practical uses for protactinium other than that of basic scientific research, and for this purpose, protactinium is generally extracted from spent nuclear fuel.” OK, I get it. There is basically nothing in that sentence that would be a point of pride for Pennsylvanians.

Why does this have to be so hard?

Not far away geographically or chemically from PA is MD, or Mendelevium. That element is named after Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian Chemist who apparently invented the (or maybe “a”) Periodic Table. He is certainly a noteworthy man to help us remember the state of Maryland (MD), but ever since Vladimir Putin went on the offense in Eastern Europe, no state wants to be associated with anything Russian. I can understand that.

Then there is Indiana, or Indium. Now who could find anything to complain about either Indiana or Indium? Well, lo and behold, someone read that Indium gives out a high-pitched “cry” when bent, somewhat like a little girl I suppose. That20140530_125613 discovery immediately condemned it as being sexist, mocking our youngest young ladies.

Really? This is getting ridiculous.

There were a few flags that were not deemed objectionable by anyone. For example, MN stands for Minnesota, or Manganese, as in deep-sea manganese nodules. No one objected to MN, so Minnesota, I guess your flag stands. The same went for SC, South Carolina, or Scandium; no objection. Then there was CO for Colorado, or Cobalt, and MO for Missouri or Molybdenum.

Ironically, people have been writing these state initials on their stationary for years and no one objected. However place the same initials on a state flag and someone gets offended; which is a fact that puzzles me. You see no one salutes a state flag. No one pledges allegiance to it. It has no power, no meaning. If you don’t like my flag, make up your own!

To be fair and all-inclusive, I thought about alternative flag designs that might appease everyone. Suppose we just number the states in the order in which they entered the union (ratified the Constitution). The first four would be Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Georgia. But of course some highly competitive New Yorkers might be miffed that Georgia, a Southern State, entered the Union before New York did. And we can’t have any New Yorkers miffed.

So then I considered a random number generator. Your state might be State 87.42 and the adjoining state might be 91.82. That was a fine idea until I considered that the same problematic scientists who fussed over their concerns with a Periodic Table of the States would question how truly random was the random number generator.

It exhausts me to think of the possibilities.

So, if I was King for a Day I would simply say this is how it will be: All states will have white flags with two letter state identifiers. If someone doesn’t like it, then burn it, deface it, walk on it; I don’t care. It has no meaning except to let people know what state they’re in. And if that’s a problem, if people really don’t know what state they’re in, then using my powers as King for a Day I’d give everyone a free GPS.

Now, does that make everyone happy?

 

Of Mussels and Whales

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Cuvier’s Beaked Whale. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

It was a coincidence forty years in the making. I was recently at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, talking to Scripps professor and physician Paul Ponganis about deep diving whales. He told me about the recent discovery that Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, an elusive whale species, had been found to be the deepest diving of all whales.

How deep I asked? One whale dived to 9,816 feet, about 3000 meters. At that depth, water pressure exerts a force of about 4400 pounds per square inch (psi), equal to the weight of a Mercedes E63 sedan pressing on each square inch of the whale’s ample body surface. That is a seriously high pressure, a fact that I knew well since I had once created that much pressure, and more, in a small volume of sea water in a pressure vessel at the Florida State University.

Early in my science career I published my work on the effect of deep ocean pressure on intertidal bivalves, a mussel (Modiolus demissus) being among them. I found that if you removed the hearts of such molluscs (or mollusks) and suspended them in sea water, they would continue to beat. Furthermore, those excised hearts would beat when subjected to 5000 psi of hydrostatic pressure. As if that wasn’t surprising enough, the slight genetic differences between Atlantic subspecies and Gulf Coast subspecies of mussels resulted in the isolated hearts responding slightly differently to high pressure.

 

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If you’ve eaten live raw oysters, a cousin to mussels, you’ve eaten beating hearts like the one in this photo. (Click to enlarge. Photo credit: rzottoli, Salt Marshes in Maine, at HTTP:// wordpress.Com )
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The mussel Modiolus demissus in their natural habitat at low tide (Photo credit: rzottoli, Salt Marshes in Maine, at HTTP:// wordpress.Com )

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That was a remarkable finding I thought since none of those mussels had ever been exposed to high pressure; ever as in for millions of years. (This study occurred long before the discovery of deep sea vents and the almost miraculous growths of deep sea clams.)

Eventually my research transitioned from invertebrates to humans. Humans, like intertidal mussels and clams, are not normally exposed to high pressure. But like my unwilling invertebrate test subjects, sometimes humans do get exposed to high pressure, willingly. But not so much of it. Deep sea divers do quite well at 1000 feet sea water (fsw), manage fairly well at 1500 fsw, but don’t fare well at all at 2000 fsw. That depth seems to be the human pressure tolerance limit due to the high pressure nervous syndrome, or HPNS. At those pressures, cell membranes seem to change their physical state, becoming less fluid or “oily” and more solid like wax. Cells don’t work normally when the very membranes surrounding them are altered by pressure.

The Beaked Whale is genetically much more similar to man than are mussels. Therefore, man is far more likely to benefit by learning how Cetaceans like whales tolerate huge pressure changes, than we are to benefit from the study of deep diving (albeit forced diving) clams and mussels.

As I talked to Dr. Ponganis it was obvious to him, I suspect, that I was excited about learning more about how these animals function so beautifully at extreme depths. But to do that, you have to collect tissue samples for study and analysis in a laboratory. The only problem is, collecting useful tissue samples from living whales without hurting them may be a bridge too far. Humans rarely even see Beaked Whales, and if the Cetaceans wash up on shore, dead, their tissues have already been degraded by post-mortem decomposition, and are no longer useful for scientific study.

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MIT’s RoboTuna; ca. 1994. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Potentially, here is a job for underwater Cetacean-like robots that when released in a likely Beaked Whale environment, can locate them, dive with them, and perhaps even earn their trust. And when the whale beasts least expect it, those robotic Judases could snatch a little biopsy material.

If only it were that easy.

Considering how difficult it would be to acquire living tissue samples, would it be worth the effort? Well, if man is ever to dive deeper than 1500 to 2000 feet without the protection of submarines, we must learn how, from either the mussels or the whales. My bet is on the whales. Unlike mussels, the whales dive deep for a living, to catch their preferred prey, squid and deep sea fish.

 

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What are arguably the first studies of the effects of high pressure on intertidal bivalves (mussels and clams) can be found here and here. Moving up the phylogenetic scale, Yoram Grossman and Joan Kendig published high pressure work on lobster neurons in 1990, and rat brain slices in 1991. I made the leap from mussels to humans by conducting a respiratory study on Navy divers at pressures of 46 atmospheres (1500 feet sea water), published in 1982. For a more recent review of high pressure biology applied to animals and man, see the 2010 book entitled Comparative High Pressure Biology. My theoretical musings about the mathematics of high pressure effects on living cells can be found here.

With time, these studies, and more, will add to our understanding of mammalian pressure tolerance. However, it may well take another generation or two of such scientific effort before we understand how the Beaked Whales make their record-breaking dives, and survive.

 

 

 

I am Neanderthal, Pt. 3

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Neanderthal. Image credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

I feel like a seeded watermelon.

Ever since I was created by the curiosity of government and university scientists, I have lived through no efforts of my own. I have the largesse of the U.S. government to thank for that. You see, they paid for the research that created me.

And now, I contribute nothing to society. I pay no taxes, work no jobs. The only decisions I’m allowed to make are restricted to which television program to watch, or which book I want to read. (In case you wondered, I’m not a slow reader. I read quite well, thank-you.)

I live basically in a zoo, except I am the only specimen there, and the zoo keepers all wear lab coats. I suppose the lab coats are designed to protect them were I to spit on them or throw excrement.

I admit, as a child I used to act out with what you consider primitive behavior, throwing feces to vent my anger. I do have tough skin, but no child wants to be continuously poked and needled and questioned. Would you?

But I’ve outgrown that. I’ve learned that when it suits me I can produce a terrifying stare or a teeth-bared snarl that scares the crap out of the more timid researchers. Ah yes, I do enjoy having fun at their expense. It’s about the only thing they can’t control in my otherwise manufactured and manipulated world.

And of course they don’t dare punish or threaten me, because I am, after all,  the rarest person in the universe, the only living Neanderthal.

But about that watermelon?

Having nothing to do of any real value gives me time to think … lots of time. Now, since a part of me is a part of you (genetically that is), I’ve been inclined to wonder why my kind is gone, and you Homo sapiens have become the overlords of the planet, at least for the time being.

And I’ve decided that I am truly a seeded watermelon, and you’re seedless.

The seedless watermelon is very much like the older, and almost extinct seeded variety, but with one subtle difference; it’s infertile. (If this analogy becomes too Freudian for you, just keep your mind on watermelons.) Watermelon is, I sincerely believe, one of God’s gifts to man.

But of course you Homo sapiens weren’t content with that. No, you decided to take advantage of a genetic flaw, a freak watermelon with few if any seeds, that is quite incapable of sustaining itself in the gene pool.

Since spitting out melon seeds is apparently such a difficult proposition for your kind, the seedless variety is overwhelmingly popular. It has crowded out the natural watermelon from grocery stores, so I hear.

Watermelons
Photo Credit: Steve Evans (Watermelons) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve been reading about how, based partially on my IQ test results and other research, scientists have decided we weren’t mentally inferior to you. And for sure, as my own testing by the Army has confirmed, we were far stronger.

So what’s not to love?

OK, we are a little shorter, squattier than Homo saps, and from what I hear tall men have a selective breeding advantage over shorter men. So could it be simply a matter of Neanderthal women preferring to breed with you guys,  the new kids on the block, and not with us more vertically-challenged guys? Could that be why my kin disappeared, and why many of you have Neanderthal genes?

I mean, really, could it be that simple; a matter of sexual attraction? Did short-sighted Neanderthal women breed our unique species out of existence?

Well, who would have thought an infertile and obviously biologically deficient watermelon would have replaced the real thing in popularity?

But it has.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nightmarish Thoughts of Being Eaten

DSCN1233aThere is a downside to situational awareness.

I discovered this fact while 868 miles north of the Arctic circle, 600 miles south of the North Pole. It took place in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, a part of the well-known island Spitsbergen. 

I was helping the Smithsonian Institution train divers in polar diving. My job was to teach them about scuba regulator performance in frigid water.

A fact of life in Ny-Ålesund, the most northern continuously occupied settlement, a research village, is that Polar Bears are always a threat. In fact, one came through town during our visit to Svalbard.  The Greenland sled dogs, tied down outside, were understandably, and quite noisily, upset. The bear walked right past them.

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After the excitement of that nighttime polar bear prowl had begun to wane, the incident remained as a not so subtle reminder during seemingly routine activities. For you see, polar bears are emotionless killers; to them, we are prey. Tracking and eating a human gives it no more pause than us picking blackberries alongside the road. For adult polar bears, humans are simply a conveniently-sized food item, not nearly so fast and wily as their typically more available meals, seals.

Unlike the ploy of divers bumping potentially predatory sharks on the nose to dissuade them from biting, bumps on the nose don’t work with polar bears. Without a gun by your side, a walk in Svalbard is a walk on the wild side, and not in a good way.

2007-03-1505-59-59_0077I was observing and photographing boat-based diving operations from the end of a long pier jutting 375 feet (115 m) into the Kongsfjorden. Normally in March the fjord is ice covered, but the year I was there (2007) there was no ice to be seen except at the nearby glacier.

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I had been standing at the pier’s end for a while taking photographs, and soaking up the polar ambiance, when I looked back and realized that from a safety standpoint, I was vulnerable. That is when situational awareness began to kick in. 

We were in a deserted, industrial portion of the town. The old coal mining operations were shut down long ago. Other than the divers on and in the water, I was the only one around. And I was stuck out on the end of a very long pier, with no means of escape.

If an intruding and hungry bear made its appearance at the land side of the pier, I would be trapped. Although I was dressed for cold, I was not dressed for cold water. That water was, after all, ice water. Polar bears, on the other hand, are excellent swimmers in polar water. So after I’d jumped into the water, which I would have if faced with no alternative, it would have taken the bear only a few furry strokes before he would have me. While he or she would find my body parts chilled on the outside, my internals would still be pleasantly warm as they slid down its gullet.Me cropped

Being a sensible person, I called the boat drivers over and put them on alert; should a polar bear appear at the far, land-side end of the pier, they should pick me up post haste. Otherwise, there would be no way I could safely escape from my vulnerable position. No photograph is worth dying for. 

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Being nice fellows, they agreed they would keep an ear out for my shouts. They then returned to their duty of waiting for and recovering the divers.

 

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As the boat eventually sped off with its load of thoroughly chilled divers, I realized that I had been deluding myself all along. At their distance and with the noisy interference of the boat motor, my shouts would have been inaudible. And from their low position on the water, they would have been unable to see what I was so agitated about; until it was too late.

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My return back to the safety of the diving center was a cautious one; with the full realization that I was exposed and vulnerable for the entire route. Fortunately, safety was only a third of a mile away, but that was a long 500 meters, which gave my alert mind plenty of time to focus on walking quietly, and avoiding being eaten.

Nothing focuses the mind like knowing that close by, hidden by piles of snow, could be lurking a camouflaged predator looking for lunch.

 

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This Youtube video shows a Polar Bear searching for food in Ny-Ålesund during the brief Arctic summer.

 

 

The Turtle Who Came to Swim

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An adult member of the Slowsky family.

The recent Comcast Xfinity ad campaign featuring the animatronic tortoises Bill and Karolyn Slowsky reinforces the attitude that turtles, or tortoises to be exact, are slow moving.

Occasionally a surprisingly large turtle lumbers through our yard. Sometimes we spy a baby, or perhaps an adolescent. And true to expectations, they are all painfully slow. Well, let’s face it, they’re carrying a lot of baggage.

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A presumed Suwanee River Cooter Turtle after its swim in our pool.

But one day this past summer I saw a black, turtle-shaped object on the bottom of our pool. It was probably an adolescent, clearly not a full grown adult. At first I thought it had drowned, but that notion was quickly dispelled. It was moving, or more correctly, it was walking, as if it was entirely normal to be walking on the bottom of a pool.

From a distance it looked  like a Box Turtle, and I suspected it had fallen into the unkempt pool while taking a stroll through our yard, just like the baby turtle being held in a 6-year old’s hands.

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Baby turtle pulled from our pool skimmer.

After observing this creature for awhile, I noticed it seemed to be in no distress whatsoever. He would occasionally walk up the sides of the pool, float at the surface taking a breather, and then at the first hint of something new in its environment, would quickly dive to the bottom, stubby arms and legs pumping mightily, seemingly in a near-panic.

What impressed me the most, was the speed with which he could move underwater. You think turtles are slow? Well, think again. The accompanying video will show you otherwise.

A Boy Scout Troop leader and amateur naturist helped me with a partial identification. It was not a Box Turtle at all, but a variety of aquatic turtle curiously named Cooter.  Cooter turtles are aquatic turtles, but are known to travel considerable distances over land when it suits them, to relocate to another body of water. As they lumber over land, like their other turtle kin, they give no indication of their underwater agility.  However, as the video shows, they can be very agile, and comically clumsy in their rush to avoid a potential predator.

After I’d netted the seemingly woe-begotten turtle and moved it to the lawn, I watched it  just long enough to make sure it was alright, and then let it return to its wanderings. It never occurred to me that his visit to our pool may have been deliberate.

If I had detained it longer, and photographed it more carefully, I might have firmly identified it. But it really didn’t matter;  whatever it was, it was soon on its way. 

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Webbed foot of an aquatic turtle.

My original thought that he was not an aquatic turtle but a terrestrial turtle accidentally fallen into the pool came from the observation that he walked on the bottom, like Navy salvage divers, and did not swim. I would have guessed that if he could swim, he would have. But apparently that assumption was wrong. Also, I was expecting an aquatic turtle to have webbed-feet, and this turtle’s feet were only half-webbed, as shown in the photos below. Maybe that’s why it could swim, but preferred to walk. 

 

 

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Although the turtle moved slowly and deliberately both on land and on the pool bottom, when spooked it moved very quickly. They are capable of a speedy get away when they feel threatened near the surface.

I don’t get the feeling that the Slowsky tortoises have that capability. But then, I could be wrong. Maybe I should ask Xfinity.

 

 

 

 

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