Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Death by Exercise

Sudden cardiac death – as in the college-age basketball player or the hyper-fit triathlon participant – tends to make the news. As it should. Newsworthy death while exercising provides every non-exerciser with rationale for not exercising. “See” they say, “this person was an avid runner [cyclist, swimmer] and dropped dead at 40.” The contrarian point being that the endurance sports that are supposed to protect against heart disease sometimes appear to do just the opposite.

There is a wisp of truth to this observation. Estimates are that just under one person per 100,000 participating in a marathon, or 1.5/100,000 participating in a triathlon will die during or immediately after the event. Figure a collective three million participants in these types of races and that comes to maybe 30 to 40 deaths per year. There are fuzzier estimates of perhaps one sudden death per every million exercise events for other forms of vigorous exercise. So, the true answer is yes, exercise can kill the physically fit, but no, not a risk factor worth avoiding exercise entirely.

Internet image portraying a man having a heart attack while exercising.
There is more truth in the observation that exertion by the physically unfit can result in fatal cardiovascular events. The classic case is the middle-aged office worker who drops dead shoveling snow while attempting to clear the driveway and get to work. Contributing factors include the fact that blood pressure peaks in the morning a few hours after waking up, and the fact that exertion in cold weather constricts arteries, further adding to heart stress. Snow removal related heart attacks frequently occur in women and men with no known pre-existing heart disease.

Exercise can also result in accidental death. In the U.S., walking, running, bicycling, swimming, boating and winter sports add up to about 10,000 deaths per year. Subtract half who are either children or are adults under the influence of alcohol (as in walking or riding a bike home from a bar, at night), and it’s still a big number. But the total pales compared to the 2,800,000 total deaths per year, of which many are premature cardiovascular deaths brought on by a lifetime of inactivity.

The good news is that benefits from even modest amounts of exercise are becoming clearer. The American Heart Association recommends adults get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, but notes that even a few minutes per day was better than nothing! Studies have reported the greatest improvement for modest exercise compared to no exercise at all, and diminishing but still cumulative returns for progressively more exercise. A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that endurance fitness was a better predictor of good cardiovascular biomarkers (cholesterol, etc.) than strength.

The theory that aside from injuries, over-doing exercise may cause more harm than good has been disproven. A science journal article reviewed studies of longevity of elite athletes. Athletes from endurance sports had 3-6 year longer life spans than the general population. The authors cautioned that elite athletes may by genetically different from the population as a whole, with both their abilities and lifespan being consequences of their genes rather than one causing the other. A review article encompassing 48 published studies confirmed that people doing as much as 7-14 hours per week of moderate to vigorous exercise were had a 15 percent lower mortality risk than those doing only 1-2 hours per week, with no hint that the benefit fades toward the high end.  

There is a non-fatal problem with exercise – it is potentially addictive. As one well-known fitness expert author put it, “…people reduce their lives to fitness routines, training as many as 40 hours a week. That the effort may wreck marriages and compromise immune systems isn’t even relevant. To these people – demographically a diverse lot – exercise is addictive. The more the body gets, the more it wants. In return, the drug of exercise infuses the swimmer, cyclist and runner with two powerful illusions: that he/she is escaping the horrible, and progressing toward the divine.”

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Overtourism (Walden Pond, MA, USA)

“Overtourism,” a relatively new word, is the perceived overcrowding from an excess of tourists, to the detriment of the local population, the tourists, and/or local ecology. According to Wikipedia, it is now the most commonly used expression to describe the negative impacts ascribed to tourism. The quality of life of local citizens is affected, but there is also a negative impact on the quality of the visitor experience. Ask anyone who lives in or has visited such popular locations such as the French Quarter of New Orleans, or Venice, Italy, during the tourist season.

Locals are crushed by crowding. Moving about by car, or even on foot, becomes difficult. Any variety in shopping opportunity is crowded out by souvenir shops selling t-shirts and coffee mugs, and by fast-food restaurants. The tourist experience is also degraded by the crowding. Long lines plague getting to the attractions, and even walking across a plaza or down a market street becomes a shuffling daymare. Littering, water- and air-pollution become problems when local government infrastructure cannot keep up with demand.     

Can overtourism be overcome? A quote attributed to Yankees baseball player Yogi Berra, but actually much older, is: “Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.” Popularity can wane once the reputation for an unspoiled and authentic experience is lost, but not if the core attraction is famous enough. Neither scores of tour buses (Chichen Itza, Mexico), nor cruise ships by the dozens (Barcelona, Spain), nor New York City by the tens of millions, have diminished the tourists’ desire to visit these locations.

Overcrowding occurs even on mountains. Nepal refuses to limit the number of permits to attempt Mount Everest, resulting in deaths because climbers run out of oxygen while waiting their turn at the peak. In Switzerland, numbers attempting the Matterhorn are limited. In Australia, climbing of Uluru, formerly known as Ayer’s Rock, will be banned effective October 26, 2019.

Walden Pond beach, Concord, MA
The closest experience residents of Stow and Maynard have to chronic overtourism is in neighboring Concord, both downtown and at Walden Pond. The former accommodates by providing off-street parking, a staffed visitors’ center (with bathrooms), and starting in 2013, a ban on the sale of bottled water. Walden Pond State Reservation now closes access to the park when the parking lot reaches capacity. The path around the pond is managed to minimize soil erosion.

The pond has its own problems. As a kettle pond, Walden Pond does not have streams flowing into it. This means that most of the water in the pond is a result of rain water and snow melt sinking down into the surrounding sand/gravel soil, then subterraneanously filtering into the pond. Historically, this resulted in a nitrogen- and phosphorous-poor body of water that did not support water plant growth. Thoreau’s description in 1854 was of water “so transparent that the bottom can easily be discerned at the depth of 25 or 30 feet.” One of Waldon Pond’s problems today is that of too many people peeing in the pond, contributing nutrients that promote algae and plant growth.

Improved bathroom facilities and signs advising against this practice are helping, but because there is no outflowing stream to remove nutrient-rich algae and surface water plants such as duck weed, the nutrient cycle is vertical: summer’s growth dies in fall, sinks to the bottom, there to decay, and thus releasing nitrogen and phosphorus back into the water. The same vertical problem plagues the Assabet River to a much greater extent, as the dams prevent the river from being flushed clean by winter’s snow melt. Town sewage treatment plants along the Assabet are now required to further restrict nutrient release, but tributaries bring in nutrient-laden sediment, with contributions from farm, lawn, garden and golf course fertilizer treatments.  

Neither Stow nor Maynard have much in the way of tourist attractions. (At apple-picking season, Honey Pot Hill Orchard, Stow, does cause traffic jams.) There have been recent and future changes that bring more visitors to Maynard: designation as a Massachusetts Cultural District, Emerson Hospital’s establishment of an out-patient center at the former Walgreens building, the Assabet River Rail Trail – including the nascent Trail of Flowers project – and the pending operation of two or three marijuana dispensaries. None of this will make Maynard a tourist Mecca. Stow gets it leaf peepers, but the effects are at most seasonal and modest.  

Not Historic Enough

42 Summer Street, Maynard, MA - before demolition.
The yellow, wood-frame building at 42 Summer Street, Maynard, is on the verge of being torn down to be replaced by an apartment building. The existing building is not historic enough to justify any attempt to preserve the exterior while repurposing the interior. In general, “not historic enough” can be applied to much of Maynard’s private residences due to those buildings not being particularly old (by New England standards), never lived in by someone famous, nor designed by a famous architect. The Town of Maynard has established a Demolition Delay Bylaw, at the instigation of the Maynard Historical Commission, to slow or stop demolitions of significant buildings.

Maps from 1875 and 1889 show the Summer Street property with no house on it, owned by Mrs. T. Brooks. Adjacent property shown as owned by T. Brooks. The same map shows L. Brooks and S.P. Brooks owning land across Summer Street, including a cider mill. Those people were Rebecca Brooks, wife of Thomas Brooks, Luke, their son, and Silas, brother of Thomas. The Brooks clan were early settlers and extensive land owners on the north side of what would become Maynard.

The building itself dates to only 1948. The property may have been unattractive to earlier development because it was adjacent to the coal yard and fuel oil tanks owned by the United Co-operative Society. Warren A. Twombly purchased the property for a relocation of the W.A. Twombly Funeral Home, which had been on Main Street, near the Methodist Church. Twombly’s was one of four funeral homes in Maynard, and was in business into the late 1960s. From records in the collection of the Maynard Historical Society, it is apparent that Twombly’s handled many of the burials of people of Finnish descent – at one time a very significant portion of Maynard’s population.

The next occupant of the house was Century 21 Classic Properties, a real estate business owned and operated by Paul Boothroyd. This business was replaced by Call-A-Copy Inc (later renamed CAC Digital Copy & Print Center). Over time, the copying and printing business shrank, to be gradually replaced by Summer Street Fine Consignment, under the same management. The property was purchased in 2018 by James MacDonald, a developer/operator of several apartment buildings scattered about Maynard. The consignment business wound down operations in 2019 as preparations for the demolition took shape.

The building, scheduled to be demolished soon, sits on a bit more than half an acre of land that slopes from 190 feet elevation above sea level on the north (street) side to 175 feet on the south side. The shape is odd. To fit in a 24-unit apartment building, the narrow end of the rectangle will face Summer Street, but at an angle. The driveway, on the west side, will run the length of the property, to enter underground parking from the south end. The three-story building will have siding and a peaked roof rather than be brick with a flat roof. The smallest units will be studio apartments of 500 square feet, the largest, duplexes with two bedrooms.     

The Maynard Historical Commission has identified a “List of Historically Significant Properties in Maynard” that encompasses about 60 buildings. The Demolition Delay Bylaw (2017) provides for up to a 12-month delay of the demolition of buildings or the exterior façades of buildings deemed historic. (Interior demolition and subsequent construction not affected.)

Some buildings, while parts are old, have been modified so extensively as to be not historic enough, an example being the Gruber Bros. Furniture building at 117 Main Street. The original building dated to 1868, built by Amory Maynard, called the Riverside Block. It hosted the first town meeting, April 1871. A severe fire in 1934 destroyed the second and third floors; what remained went through several remodelings during the Gruber family tenure. This building is fated to be demolished and replaced by an apartment building with commercial businesses on the first floor.   

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Three History Books

Three history books, in order published: “1421,” by Gavin Menzies (2002), has as its subtitle “The Year China Discovered America.” Second, “1491,” by Charles C. Mann, published 2005, has as its subtitle “New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.” Third, “1493,” same author, published 2011, has as its subtitle “Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.” Each describe the consequences of explorations and colonization between the ‘old world’ of Europe and Asia and the ‘new world’ of North and South America.  

Three hefty-sized history books about discovering the New World
Menzies’ book has to be read as an alternative history. He postulates – on a mountain of flimsy evidence – that the Chinese treasure fleet expeditions went FAR beyond reaching the west coast of Africa. The core truth: under the leadership of Zheng He, the Emperor’s Grand Eunuch, China sent ‘Treasure Fleets’ of trade ships, war ships and support vessels on seven multi-year expeditions to lands bordering the Indian Ocean. The purposes were diplomatic, military and trade. Estimates are that each expedition was staffed by as many as 30,000 people, occupying 100 to 250 ships, some as large as 200 to 400 feet long. (Columbus’ largest  was about 60 feet.)

Upon returning from the sixth expedition of 1421-23, Zheng He found that the Emperor had died, and that his successor had no interest in China’s reign over the sea. The Treasure Fleet journeys were discontinued (one last in 1433), ships destroyed, records of the journeys destroyed. The government’s attention turned toward defending against the Mongols in the north. In effect, China had given up being a sea-going power as too expensive, with little financial benefit and no strategic benefit. Foreign trade was forbidden, not to be restarted until more than 100 years later, when silk and porcelain could be traded for silver mined from the Spanish colonies in South America.     

Menzies controversially proposed that rather than being limited to the Indian Ocean, portions of the Treasure Fleet of 1421-23 rounded the Cape of Good Hope, thus entering the Atlantic Ocean. From there, they explored up and down the east coast of what became the Americas (including the Merrimack River!), as far north as Greenland and far enough south to reach the tip of South America, there to divide again, some going north along the west coast of the Americas, other touching Antarctica before sailing eastward to Australia, thence home. Apparently, the Chinese sailed everywhere – except Europe. All in all, entertaining reading, but not part of accepted history.

Machu Picchu, Peru
Click on photos to enlarge
In “1491,” Mann is in the universe of accepted history. He makes a strong case against the “empty America” image of an American near-pristine wilderness in which small native villages or nomadic tribes were populated by hunter/gatherer peoples lived in harmony with nature, but with a minimal or non-existent sense of history, religion or culture. This ‘Noble Savage’ stereotype colored Henry David Thoreau’s thinking; he wrote of “…in the primitive age of the world, a primitive man.”

In contrast, Mann describes densely populated regions – city-states in the north, Aztec and Inca empires in the south – with extensive agriculture, trade routes, and significant impacts on plant and animal life. Old estimates – that the total population of the New World was fewer than 10 million people – were replaced by Mann and others with estimates ten-fold higher.

Without steel for axes and saws, fire was a predominant tool for managing terrain. Fall-season deliberate burning of prairies, meadows and undergrowth in forests made for the spring grasses preferred by herbivores, which in turn were food for the native peoples. Here in the northeast – deer. Elsewhere in North America, elk and bison. In South America, hillsides became terraced farmland, while in the Amazonian rainforest the land was terraformed via canals and mounds. Aerial photography has revealed what is under ‘pristine’ rainforests.

Mann’s second book explores the consequences of what happened post-Columbus. European diseases killed 90% of indigenous peoples in the Americas. Very few diseases went the other way. “Old World’ diseases such as malaria and yellow fever also killed European immigrants to the Americas. Africans had a genetic resistance to malaria, which led to a preference for African-born slaves over European-born indentured servants or English criminals as plantation labor. Over a period of 400 years, an estimated 10 to 15 million people were enslaved in Africa and shipped to the Americas.

The deliberate or accidental movement of plant and animal species to other countries – importantly corn, potatoes and sweet potatoes from the Americas to elsewhere – led to population explosions in China and Europe. Three American-origin cash crops changed the world: tobacco plants, cocoa (for chocolate) and rubber trees. Rice, sugarcane and bananas were imported to the Americas. Horses and pigs are examples of large European species gone wild, earthworms and honey bees, same, but on a smaller scale. This globalization, sometimes called the “Columbian Exchange,” continues to this day, but now we tend to describe it as invasive species. It still goes in both directions. Across Great Britain, our grey squirrels are displacing the native red squirrels. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Women and World War II

With the advent of World War II, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts established a Massachusetts Women’s Defense Corps (MWDC) in May of 1941, under a Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety. The MWDC worked closely with the Massachusetts State Guard, the U.S. Army, state agencies and local communities. Its function was to assist in training women volunteers in five areas: medical, transportation, communications, canteen, and air raid precautions.

Pin that had belonged to Mrs Louis Boeske.
Women's Defense Corps Pin. “ARP” for
Air Raid Precautions; “PARATUS ET FIDELIS”
 translates as Ready and Faithful
From a start as a Women’s Civilian Defense School in Boston, the organization had quickly grown to having more than one hundred auxiliary defense schools by the end of 1941. Maynard was one. The Maynard Historical Society notes that in November 1941, Maynard women of the MWDC Motor Corps received diplomas from their instructor, Mrs. Frank Sheridan. The following March the women conducted a drill involving a convoy of twelve cars. The women drove to a rendezvous site in Clinton, where their final test was a tire change. Mrs. Louis Boeske was complimented for her speed at this skill. She replied that she had spent many years in and around cars with her husband.

Later during the war, the various states’ organizations were superseded by federal government action. The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was made active duty status on July 1, 1943. The idea behind WAC was that women serving in non-combat roles would free up men for combat assignments, essential because the Army was running out of men to draft. WACs initially served as switchboard operators, clerk/typists, mechanics and in food preparation. In time, other classifications were added, such as transportation, postal clerk and armory staff. WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) were the Navy equivalent, SPARS for the Coast Guard, WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) flying planes, and Marine Corps Women's Reserve. The previously existing Army Nurse Corps dating to 1901, expanded to 60,000 women during World War II. All totaled, more than three hundred thousand women served in the armed forces during World War II. Per the plaques in Memorial Park, this included more than two dozen women from Maynard.

All was not champagne and roses for the women who volunteered for military duty. There was serious backlash. Men in service who had a safe, stateside or behind the lines job did not want to be sent to combat. Mothers, wives and girlfriends did not want their men being sent to combat. Priests and ministers sermonized against women joining the military. There was a slander campaign – much of it initiated by men in uniform – that women who were enrolling were prostitutes, or that they were sexually promiscuous, becoming pregnant, spreading venereal diseases…  Part of the motivation was a fear that if their wives, fiancés or girlfriends joined the army they would be far from home and in the company of other men.

In Massachusetts, soldiers in the Fort Devens area were credited by investigators with originating the rumor that "fantastic" numbers of pregnant women had been sent back to Lovell General Hospital from North Africa. Agents descended on that hospital's records "without prearrangement" and reported, "No record of an overseas pregnancy was found." Another Fort Devens’ rumor was that the venereal disease rate was skyrocketing. Also not true. A third rumor was that women in uniform were officially advised to utilize prophylactics, or even issued same. Agents interviewed hundreds of women and were unable to find even one who had ever been so instructed.

Locally, whether women were in the Massachusetts Women’s Defense Corps or not, enrolled in WAC or not, all were deeply affected by the war. Rationing included gasoline for cars (three gallons per week), also fuel oil for houses, sugar and coffee (one pound per adult every five weeks). Meat, butter and canned goods were in short supply. All new car manufacture ceased February 1942, to not be resumed until the war was over. A national speed limit of 35 miles per hour was imposed to save fuel. All forms of rationing ended in the United States in August 1945. In stark comparison, rationing of many good and foods continued in the United Kingdom until the summer of 1954. George Orwell’s famous novel “1984” was completed in 1948; the title stemming from an inversion of the last two numbers of the year. Food rationing was present in Orwell’s real life and in his novel.