Cereal Was Almost the Death of Me

This year, 2017, marks the 120th year that Grape Nuts cereal has been in existence. Generations have been raised on it, and as the 1921 ad would suggest, it seems to help little bodies grow big and strong. As the Post company says, “There’s a Reason” for the cereal’s success.

However, through some weird quirk, some random juxtaposition of breath and nerves, a single, tiny particle of this delicious blend of barley and wheat almost killed me.

Or so it seemed at the time.

I consider Grape Nuts part of a paleo diet, of sorts. As cereals go, it’s primitive. It is merely ground bits of grain that never needed to be squeezed into flakes, or coated with sugar or artificial flavorings. For me, it’s like getting back to the basics of breakfast, or in this particular case, an evening snack.

On the night of my close call, while my wife was watching TV, I settled into my home office to edit my newest book while I snacked on a demi-bowl of Grape Nuts, wet with skim milk.

No doubt your parents lectured you repeatedly about the dangers of talking with food in your mouth. Well, in adherence to my parent’s scolding, I was not talking when it happened. I was quietly reading, and breathing.

And then, in an instant, I could not breathe, at all. I could not speak or yell out. I could not swear, or call for help. No air could enter or leave my lungs.

As I looked to the doorway, terrified, half hoping for my guardian angel to appear and magically save me, I realized that if I didn’t do something, quick, I would die. I was most unexpectedly suffocating.

I stood up, planning to head to the bathroom out of some strange thought that it might be my salvation, or at least an easier place to clean up the vomitus mess or whatever else follows death by asphyxiation. And as I reached the door frame a scant twelve feet away from where I’d been sitting, I could feel myself becoming faint.

This could not be happening. What an inglorious way to die.

With all the fortitude I could muster, I was determined to make it into the bathroom before I passed out. A second later, I was bent over a sink, supporting my upper body with my hands, trying with all my might to pull air into my lungs.

Finally, I found that with almost superhuman effort I could squeeze a little air through whatever was blocking its flow. The result was a high pitched nonhuman sounding squeal, a falsetto screech higher than even a little girl can produce. Physicians call it stridor, which sounds like this.

But at least it was something. Again and again I managed to suck in just enough air to keep me alive, one loud screech after another.

In the meanwhile, my greatly concerned wife was asking, “Are you OK, are you OK?”

No, I was not at all OK, but I could not communicate that fact, other than to make that hellish shriek. But with each shriek a few more oxygen molecules entered my oxygen-starved lungs.

And as the fog of impending collapse slowly began to clear, I was finally able to cough.

After that cough, there lay in the sink a tiny granule of cereal, presumably the little spec that landed in a sensitive spot in my larynx or “voice box”, triggering the spasm which tightly closed my vocal cords. With the cords, or more properly “vocal folds”, closed, air cannot enter the lungs. 

Under normal conditions, a person can hold their breath for two to three minutes without losing consciousness. But as I later analyzed what had happened, I realized that the particle of cereal was most likely sucked into my airway when I was just beginning to inhale, at the bottom of my “tidal volume.” So my lungs were not full of air.

Logically, when involuntarily holding your breath with lungs only partially inflated, the 2-3 minute rule may not apply. So, there was a chance that I was about to lose consciousness from hypoxia.

As I later discovered, laryngeal spasm is short-lived, and resolves within a few minutes, leaving the terrified victim shocked but relieved to be able to breathe again.

The aftermath of this incident was that I now realize how little we appreciate the simple act of breathing. For our entire lives we never think about it. It just happens.

Until it doesn’t.

 

I still enjoy my Grape Nuts, and highly recommend it to anyone looking for the simple pleasures of life. But at the same time, I’m now a little more careful when I’m eating, especially if my attention is directed towards something else. Multitasking while eating can be scary.

 

Living Off Universal Energy. Really?

By stuart Burns from Erith, England (_MG_7185 Uploaded by snowmanradio), via Wikimedia Commons

I thought I was misreading the title of the news article. I adjusted my glasses, then looked again.

Sure enough, the news headlines this past week actually reported on a young couple, reportedly a Breatharian couple, who claimed they had no need for food. They lived off of Universal energy, whatever that is. Most amazingly, the news-hungry press actually reported the story, obviously without a bit of fact checking.

As a physiologist, I know that is a patently ridiculous claim. It is impossible for humans to survive without eating. And as a science fiction author, I know it is not even good science fiction. The best science fiction maintains at least a little scientific accuracy.

Could it be fantasy? Maybe, but the story was reported as being true, with no hint of tongue-in-cheek.

However, it did remind me of a revelation of sorts from a few months ago, coming to me in a split second after a quick glance to the side of the road. What attracted my attention as I passed by at 55 miles per hour was a gorgeous white egret, like the one pictured, foraging for frogs and tadpoles in a ditch recently filled to overflowing with water from several days of downpours.

And then it struck me: wouldn’t it be nice if things did not have to die so that other things can live?

Now that’s a fantasy for you. Of course life is predicated upon death. Big animals eat smaller and weaker animals. Physicality cannot exist without death; you cannot live in the body unless something else dies. That’s life, pure and simple. It sucks to be the little guy.

But what about after life? Well, at the risk of turning in my scientific credentials, I will admit I do believe in an after-life, Heaven if you will, for reasons which I will not go into here. But it struck me in that brief moment of observing a beautiful bird, that only in a spiritual realm could energy exist without the simultaneous extinguishment of life.

To my way of thinking, that may be the single greatest distinction between the spiritual realm and the physical realm.

So thank-you Breatharian couple, practitioners of Inedia, for helping me remember my roadside revelation. Perhaps there is a place in some alien realm where beautiful birds, and beautiful frogs, and even humans can coexist without one eating the other. Maybe there is some parallel universe where our laws of physics don’t apply.

Perhaps we will someday discover that parallel universe, and call it Heaven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DNA: A Matter of Trust

In combat, we trust our buddies with our lives. We have their back and they have ours. When submitting to surgery, we trust the medical team with our lives, and usually that trust is not betrayed. But should we be willing to trust strangers with our very essence, our DNA?

Recently I was trying to solve a plot problem in the science fiction thriller, Triangle. The storyline relied on a particular individual being singled out by the government for monitoring, not for what he had done, but for who he was.

After finishing the novel, I went back to tie up loose ends in the plot. One such loose end involved a question: How could the government know that this one person out of millions had an unrecognized super power? He was a main character in the book and so I could not ignore that question. Certainly it helps the reader suspend disbelief if the plot elements are plausible, at least superficially.

I did not have to puzzle over that question very long before an advertisement for Ancestry DNA popped up on my computer screen.

That was it!

And so the following text flowed quickly.

The characters in this conversation are Sally Simpkin  (AKA Pippi Longstocking) and Joshua Nilsson, identified below by their initials. She was trying to explain to Nilsson why she and her employers had been monitoring him.

SS: “[The government] detected that you had a high probability of having certain prescient capabilities.”
JN: “Forgive me for being a bit skeptical. Why can’t you tell me [how]?”
SS: “I’m not even cleared to know the process. I just took the assignment. It had something to do with a DNA sample you submitted.”
JN: “DNA? The only DNA I’ve submitted was for genealogy research.”

Triangle was published on May 21, 2017. On May 25, the following BBC headline appeared in my browser.

Ancestry.com denies exploiting users’ DNA. “A leading genealogy service, Ancestry.com, has denied exploiting users’ DNA following criticism of its terms and conditions.”

So, is this author also prescient like Nilsson? Or is this blogger merely a bit jaded.

Genealogy services have a difficult time competing in the world market. After all, there are only so many retired folks trying to trace their family history and solidify their genetic place in the world before their demise. Speaking for myself, I started my genealogy research years ago, picking it up from my grandmothers who told tales of Civil War Colonels and Carpet Bagger treachery, and murder. In fact, I’ve posted on this blog before about some of my discoveries.

With the advent of computers and the availability of free records from the Mormon Church, the ease of doing genealogical research exploded. Some of the software and services were either free or inexpensive. Of course, “free” doesn’t do much for a service provider’s cash flow. So, into each CEO’s mind comes, sooner or later, thoughts of monetization. How could Facebook’s Zuckerberg and others turn a free service into something that can make them gazillions? In the case of genealogy services, they started by charging a monthly access fee, and in one case, by enticing viewers to keep paying fees by waving images of fig leaves to attract their attention. That was a strange but brilliant ploy that worked very well on this researcher.

The next step in monetization is now universal: sell ads to companies who want access to the growing body of amateur genealogists. The final ploy, and by far the most ethically troubling, is selling information about users of computer services. First there were those pesky cookies, but now there is blood, or saliva more exactly.

For some companies, it is not enough to know what users search for. There is now a market for information about who you are, your very genetic essence, which is hidden even to you. But some companies like 23andme, Ancestry, MyHeritage, GPS Origins, Living DNA, and Family Tree DNA, let you take a peek into your genes, for a price.

The ironic thing is, this most personal information is not only freely given, but people actually pay the DNA harvesters to harvest their most sacred self. And of course, once that has been done, your genetic-identity can be sold (read the fine pint). While we are urged to protect ourselves from identity theft, isn’t it odd that we are at the same time being enticed into giving away our most precious identity of all, our DNA? And we seem to be doing so gladly, blithely unaware of the implications for us and our progeny.

But don’t let the natural skeptic in me show through too strongly. I do, after all, have faith that everything we’re being asked to store in the “cloud” is actually as secure as cloud storage facilities (whatever those are) claim. And I’m sure the secrets buried deep in our genes are forever kept private, and safe from hackers.

But then, there is that troubling Orwellian Consent Form.

Oh well, Sally Simpkin’s monitoring assignment in Triangle is purely fictional. Surely, no government would really have an interest in our genes.

Or would it?

 

 

 

U.S. Navy Diving and Aviation Safety

Blood pressure is not the only silent medical killer. Hypoxia is also, and unlike chronically elevated blood pressure, it cripples within minutes, or seconds.

Hypoxia, a condition defined by lower than normal inspired oxygen levels, has killed divers during rebreather malfunctions, and it has killed pilots and passengers, as in the 1999 case of loss of cabin pressure in a Lear Jet that killed professional golfer Payne Stewart and his entourage and aircrew. Based on Air Traffic Control transcripts, that fatal decompression occurred somewhere between an altitude of 23,000 feet and 36,500 ft.

In most aircraft hypoxia incidents, onset is rapid, and no publically releasable record is left behind. The following recording is an exception, an audio recording of an hypoxia emergency during a Kalitta Air cargo flight.

Due to the seriousness of hypoxia in flight, military aircrew have to take recurrent hypoxia recognition training, often in a hypobaric (low pressure) chamber.

As the following video shows, hypoxia has the potential for quickly disabling you in the case of an airliner cabin depressurization.

Aircrew who must repeatedly take hypoxia recognition training are aware that such training comes with some element of risk. Rapid exposure to high altitude can produce painful and potentially dangerous decompression sickness (DCS) due to the formation of bubbles within the body’s blood vessels.

In a seminal Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU) report published in 1991, LCDR Bruce Slobodnik, LCDR Marie Wallick and LCDR Jim Chimiak, M.D. noted that the incidence of decompression sickness in altitude chamber runs from 1986 through 1989 was 0.16%, including both aviation physiology trainees and medical attendants at the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute. Navy-wide the DCS incidence “for all students participating in aviation physiology training for 1988 was 0.15%”. If you were one of the 1 and a half students out of a thousand being treated for painful decompression sickness, you would treasure a way to receive the same hypoxia recognition training without risk of DCS.

With that in mind, and being aware of some preliminary studies (1-3), NEDU researchers performed a double blind study on twelve naïve subjects. A double-blind experimental design, where neither subject nor investigator knows which gas mixture is being provided for the test, is important in medical research to minimize investigator and subject bias. Slobodnik was a designated Naval Aerospace Physiologist, Wallick was a Navy Research Psychologist, and Chimiak was a Research Medical Officer. (Chimiak is currently the Medical Director at Divers Alert Network.)

Three hypoxic gas mixtures were tested (6.2% O2, 7.0% and 7.85% O2) for a planned total of 36 exposures. (Only 35 were completed due to non-test related problems in one subject.) Not surprisingly, average subject performance in a muscle-eye coordination test (two-dimensional compensatory tracking test) declined at the lower oxygen concentrations. [At the time of the testing (1990), the tracking test was a candidate for the Unified Triservice Cognitive Performance Assessment Battery (UTC-PAB)].

As a result of this 1990-1991 testing (4), NEDU proved a way of repeatedly inducing hypoxia without a vacuum chamber, and without the risk of DCS.

The Navy Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory built on that foundational research to build a device that safely produces hypoxia recognition training for aircrew. That device, a Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device is shown in this Navy photo.

070216-N-6247M-009 Whidbey Island, Wash. (Feb 16, 2007) Ð Lt. Cmdr. James McAllister, from San Diego, Calif. sits in the simulator during a test flight using the new Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device (ROBD). The ROBD is a portable device that delivers a mixture of air, nitrogen and oxygen to aircrew, simulating any desired altitude. Combined with a flight simulator the ultimate effect replicates an altitude induced hypoxia event. McAllister is the Director of the Aviation Survival Training Center at Whidbey Island. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Bruce McVicar (RELEASED)
Whidbey Island, Wash. (Feb 16, 2007) Lt. Cmdr. James McAllister, from San Diego, Calif. sits in the simulator during a test flight using the Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device (ROBD). The ROBD is a portable device that delivers a mixture of air, nitrogen and oxygen to aircrew, simulating any desired altitude. Combined with a flight simulator the ultimate effect replicates an altitude induced hypoxia event. McAllister is the Director of the Aviation Survival Training Center at Whidbey Island. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Bruce McVicar.

Although NEDU is best known for its pioneering work in deep sea and combat diving, it continues to provide support for the Air Force, Army and Marines in both altitude studies of life-saving equipment, and aircrew life support systems. Remarkably, the deepest diving complex in the world, certified for human occupancy, also has one of the highest altitude capabilities. It was certified to an altitude of 150,000 feet, and gets tested on occasion to altitudes near 100,000 feet. At 100,000 feet, there is only 1% of the oxygen available at sea level. Exposure to that altitude without a pressure suit and helmet would lead to almost instantaneous unconsciousness.

OSF FL 900
A test run to over 90,000 feet simulated altitude.

Separator small

  1. Herron DM. Hypobaric training of flight personnel without compromising quality of life. AGARD Conference Proceedings No. 396, p. 47-1-47-7.
  2. Collins WE, Mertens HW. Age, alcohol, and simulated altitude: effects on performance and Breathalyzer scores. Aviat. Space Environ Med, 1988; 59:1026-33.
  3. Baumgardner FW, Ernsting J, Holden R, Storm WF. Responses to hypoxia imposed by two methods. Preprints of the 1980 Annual Scientific Meeting of the Aerospace Medical Association, Anaheim, CA, p: 123.
  4. Slobodnik B, Wallick MT, Chimiak, JM. Effectiveness of oxygen-nitrogen gas mixtures in inducing hypoxia at 1 ATA. Navy Experimental Diving Unit Technical Report 04-91, June 1981.

 

A Geometric Mind

211px-Gestalt_in_the_Eye
By Impronta – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

I challenge you to describe the following images in terms of simple geometric shapes: shapes such as rectangles and circles, and flat surfaces called planes.

If you see one of those shapes in the image, then mentally note it.

You may not be able to completely define the image with those simple shapes, but at least note those parts of the image where you can see a plane, or a rectangle, or a circle.

The shapes are not likely to be seen dead on; they may be seen at an oblique angle.

Color is an interesting variable in the images, but it is not the primary focus of this exercise. The ability to use geometrical shapes is the point of this post.

The first such shape is Figure 1.

Temps0600-3blank1
Copyright John R. Clarke.

 

The next shape is Figure 2. Do you see a lighted plane on the left partially obscured by an extruded rectangle, otherwise known as a rectangular prism or cuboid?

Temps2000-2blank1_inverted

 

Figure 3. Yet another image, somewhat similar to Figure 2:

Temps0600-3blank1_inverted

 

And a fourth image, Figure 4.

Temps2000-2blank1
Copyright John R. Clarke.

 

Now, lets try some variations on the theme.

Temps0600-3blank1Temps0600-3blank1_inverted

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Temps2000-2blank1

Temps2000-2blank1_inverted

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The four images immediately above are identical to the first four images, but by seeing them in this order you may detect that there are only two unique images.

The images on the right are simply the images on the left rotated 180°; that is, they are turned upside down.

And yet most people identify an entirely different geometry, depending on which way the images are rotated.

So, seeing is believing …

… or is it?

Separator small

I do not know if this visual phenomenon has a name or not: I accidentally discovered it when looking at images to post on a laboratory wall. One figure looked unfamiliar; I was confused by it, until I happened to rotate it.

As the French say, voila. It was an optical illusion caused by our brain’s tendency to look for familiar shapes in unfamiliar and potentially confusing images.

There is a literature on the illusions of inverted images where images have been digitally manipulated (sometimes called the Thatcher Effect), but the images above have not been altered in any way.