Tuesday, September 22, 2020

A Phone in the River

September 9th, and an idle glance at the Assabet River from the south side of the Rail Trail bridge brought into view a cellphone on the bottom of the river, face up, in about a foot of water. Next day, still there. Next week, still there. While clearly visible from the bridge, getting to it would not be not simple. A person would have to enter the river on the north side, walk across about 60 feet of algae-slick rocky bottom, and then back. Clearly, the owner decided this was a lost cause. In all probability the phone is will still be there until the next serious high water moves it downriver.

Can a cell phone be rescued from a brief immersion in water? Yes. Newer models are water resistant. Recommendations in general are to get the phone out of the water as fast as possible. If it was on, turn it off. If it was off, do NOT turn it on. Wipe the externals dry. If possible to open it up, remove the battery and SIM card. Dry the inside. Next, there are emergency kits specific for rescuing wet phones – basically a plastic bag with packets of desiccant, to draw out the water. Takes about 24 hours. Prices are in range of $5 to 20. These work far better than burying the phone in dry rice. Don’t try drying the phone faster with a hair dryer! High temperatures can permanently damage cell phones. [And a little surprise: first generation 5G phones downgrade to 4G within minutes when the temperature gets much about 85 degrees Fahrenheit because the phones generate too much heat to safely stay in 5G mode.] Now, back to our phone-in-the-river, and let’s see if we can imagine various scenarios.

Oops. Perhaps the phone owner saw some photogenic wildlife in the river and wanted a photo. Animal sightings in or near this stretch of river have included beaver, muskrat, great blue heron, and snapping turtle, also the less photogenic fish, snakes and frogs.

Click to enlarge
“Oops.” Via use of a camera with a telephoto lens it was possible to make out the phone maker and model – a Samsung Galaxy 5 – introduced in spring 2014. This model met IP-67 water resistance standards, meaning that it should not be damaged by immersion in water up to one meter deep for less than 30 minutes.  Even at launch, the phone was criticized for clunky appearance and software, and too many unnecessary features, such as heart rate monitor. Samsung released the next model Galaxy 6 a year later. If this particular phone had become the hand-me-down to a child that was unhappy with being stuck with an outdated phone, it may have ‘accidently’ fallen into the river in a plot to get a better phone.

Distraction. Distracted walking is a thing. People have become so engrossed with what is on the small screen, or talking, or texting, that they have walked into lampposts, Honolulu passed a law making it illegal to look at a phone while crossing the street. London and other cities have experimented with padded lampposts. Vehicle/pedestrian accidents are increasing, and the pedestrians are increasingly at fault. (This is not to say that distracted driving is not contributing to more accidents, too.) Perhaps a person managed to walk into the side of the bridge and dropped their phone.

Ire: Two people walking, one intent on whatever is on the phone, while the other is trying to start an important conversation. In this scenario, the (one-sided) conversation could be along the lines of “What do you think? Hey, I’m talking to you! This is really important!! How can that phone be more important than what I am trying to tell you!” Splash.

Anger. This time, an imagined two-sided conversation. “I don’t want to date you anymore.” How can you say that when we are perfect together?” “I’m not happy with you anymore. Sometimes you say bad things about me in front of our friends.” “But you know I’m just joking.” “It doesn’t feel like joking.” “I’ll stop.” “You say that, but you don’t” “But I really, really love you.” “It’s too late for that.” “Yeah, well, remember those photos I took of you last week? On this phone? If you break up with me I’m going to put those on Facebook!” Grab. Splash.

UPDATE: After submitting this to the newspaper, a visit to the bridge discovered that someone had thrown a rock into the river that came to rest on top of the phone. The edge of the phone is still visible.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Vitamin K

How to write about a vitamin when deficiency is rare and there are apparently no benefits from taking it as a dietary supplement? Keep it short.

First, the name. Seventy to one hundred years ago, when vitamins were being isolated as naturally occurring chemical compounds and confirmed as being essential to health, the naming was by alphabetical lettering: A, B, C, D, E…  “B” later turned out to be several water-soluble vitamins, hence B1 through B12 (with 4, 8, 10 and 11 later losing their vitamin status, much like Pluto no longer being a planet). The current list skips from E to K because compounds tentatively assigned letters F–J were either reclassified over time as part of the B set, or not being essential. The Danish scientists who isolated the substance also wanted to use “K” because it signifies “koagulation,” (in English, “coagulation”).

What does vitamin K do? Nearly 20 enzymes (functional proteins) are designated as “Gla proteins” because they are initially synthesized with some glutamate amino acids which are then converted to gamma-carboxyglutamate (Gla) amino acids by the action of vitamin K. When the vitamin is not in sufficient quantity the amino acids in these proteins are under-carboxylated. Sufficient vitamin K means the enzymes are adequately carboxylated, and therefore able to bind calcium. Let’s cut to the chase. With vitamin K, blot clots. Without vitamin K, no clots. Gla proteins are also involved in bone health and some other stuff no one has figured out yet.

In the 1920s, animal studies with fat-free diets led to uncontrolled bleeding, reversible after fat was restored to the diet. The addition of purified fat and cholesterol to the diet did not work, suggesting there was a vital substance needed in only small amounts. Meanwhile, dairy farmers saw incidences of uncontrolled bleeding when cows were fed moldy silage made from sweet clover. The cause was a fungal fermentation metabolite of coumarin, a compound found in many plants. “Warfarin”, a coumarin metabolite, was developed as an effective and widely used rat poison – when mixed with food, the rats that eat the food die from internal bleeding.    

The histories converged. Vitamin K was confirmed as a clotting co-factor. Warfarin inhibited the process. In 1951 a person who attempted suicide with rat poison was successfully treated with intravenous vitamin K. The actual mechanism was not discovered until 1978, when it was shown that warfarin blocks an enzyme that recycles vitamin K after it had donated a carboxyl molecule.  The next step – a large step – was to see if small doses of this rat poison on a daily basis could inhibit unwanted coagulation, such as occurs in deep vein thrombosis in the legs, a condition potentially fatal if clots dislodge and travel to the heart and lungs. It worked. Warfarin became both a rat poison and a prescription drug, and remains so to this day. In this context, vitamin K – oral or injected – is a drug used to reverse accidental or deliberate overdosing with warfarin.  

The other major medical use is to prevent infant bleeding that may occur days to months after birth. Vitamin K is poorly transported across the placenta during pregnancy, so supplementing the pregnant mother-to-be is not effective. Breast milk is not a good source. Infants are given a one-time injection, or else several months of weekly oral treatment, as a precaution.

How much is needed to stay healthy? The U.S. National Institutes of Health thinks an Adequate Intake is 90 and 120 micrograms per day, respectively, for women and men. The European Union posits that 70 micrograms per day is enough for all adults. Any diet that contains sufficient amounts of leafy greens (spinach, lettuce) and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussel sprouts…) should deliver enough. Most of the dietary supplement products in the U.S. are 100 micrograms, although a few are as high as 500. In this range there is no concern for side effects for taking too much.  

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Rail Trail: Two Year Anniversary

ARRT Ribbon cutting ceremony, August 10, 2018
Recently, the north end of the Assabet River Rail Trail, encompassing Acton and Maynard, reached its two-year anniversary. A ribbon-cutting ceremony had been held on August 10, 2018, at the Acton terminus. This represented the end of two years of construction, as the ground-breaking ceremony had been in Maynard, July 2016. The south end, spanning Marlborough and part of Hudson, had been completed years earlier. The gap in the middle, Stow and part of Hudson, may be years away. In the interim it is possible to do two miles west from the Maynard/Stow border on a privately owned dirt road, to Sudbury Road in Stow, then two miles on roads – Sudbury Road and Route 62 – to reconnect with the south section of the trail, in Hudson. From there, it is 5.8 miles of paved trail to Marlborough.

A recent walk on the Acton/Maynard portion, 3.4 miles in length, found the asphalt in almost entirely excellent condition – no surprise. There is one crack developing about 50 yards west of Florida Road and a series of small cracks about 50 yards east of Ice House Landing which may in time need preventive maintenance, i.e., crack filling. Paved trails typically last for 15-20 years before repaving needs to be considered. Given that the south end was completed in 2005, those towns may be coming up on some seriously expensive maintenance.

Questionnaires sent to trail managers by the Rails-to-Trails conservancy in 1996, 2005 and again in 2015 led to reports on how trails are being maintained and what organizations are paying for that work. See https://www.railstotrails.org/resourcehandler.ashx?id=6336 for the most recent report. A salient fact: Per that report, the cost of maintaining an asphalt-paved trail averaged $1,971 per mile per year. This encompassed work done by town employees and a value put on volunteer labor; collectively, the 2015 report tallied this as about 13.5 hours of labor per trail mile per year. The Assabet River Rail Trail organization, incorporated in 1995, had provided volunteer efforts involving trail clearing to create a walkable path before the paving began. Volunteer work continues on the paved trail.

ARRT trash bin near Cumberland
Farms, maintained by volunteers
The nature of work – town-paid and volunteered – includes litter removal, repairing vandalism and removing trash dumping (old car tires, etc.), mowing plant growth bordering trails and combating invasive plant species. Trees fall on trails, or else are standing dead trees threatening to do so. Drainage ditches bordering trails need to be kept clear of plant debris or else their function is compromised. Some towns will operate leaf blowers in the fall, and snow plowing in winter. Maynard and Acton have decided to not clear snow from the trail. Towns may choose to plow trail parking lots, thus providing parking for people who want to ski, snowshoe or hike. There are also information kiosks, benches, signage and in Maynard a couple of trash receptacles, all of which also require maintenance.

The 2015 report also noted, surprisingly, that 60% of the returned questionnaires did not confirm a written maintenance plan. While personal injury lawsuits are very rare, the report went on to suggest that towns should have a process to regularly inspect trails, correct unsafe conditions, and keep records. Signage of rules and regulations and hours of operation need to be posted at trailheads and other access locations. Not everyone is aware that ARRT’s signs include “Maximum Speed: 15 mph” and “Give an audible warning before passing,” but the signs are there. Guidelines for what organized volunteer groups can and cannot do need to be established, for example using herbicides.

Part of the rail trail guidelines sign

As for what was observed during the recent walk-through, there was remarkably little litter along the trail, with the exception of downtown Maynard, and only a few instances of graffiti. Kiosks were empty or near-empty of content. Maynard’s Department of Public Works mows the trail’s shoulders; Acton’s does not. In both towns, there are dozens of standing dead trees that will in time fall on the trail. Toward the westernmost end of the trail, a fallen tree has broken a wooden railing. Several of the trees that were planted as part of the trail landscaping in 2018 have died. Consideration should be given to combating invasive plant species such as Oriental bittersweet, Japanese knotweed, garlic mustard, and purple loosestrife, the last beginning to appear in the wetter sections of drainage ditches.

When tested on August 25th, the button on the pedestrian crossing light on the east side of Florida Road did not work, and same for south side of the Main Street crosswalk. Buttons and lights on both sides of the Route 117, Summer Street and Acton Street crossings were working.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Mourning Doves

Mourning dove (internet download)
Recently, our backyard revealed a ‘puddle’ of feathers about a yard across. Best guess is that a hawk had caught and killed a mourning dove, and then proceeded to pluck feathers before flying away with the carcass.

Mourning doves – older names turtle dove and Carolina turtledove – are a common bird across America, with a population estimated at 300 to 400 million birds. Doves are a light grey and brown in color, with only subtle differences in appearance for males and females. Mated pairs are monogamous. Two eggs are laid per nesting cycle. A pair will raise several broods each year. Both parents participate in nest building, egg incubation and feeding the chicks (also referred to as squab). Although doves feed on seeds and grains, very young chicks are not fed seeds, but rather a protein- and fat-rich secretion from the parent birds’ crop, called “crop milk.” [The crop is a pouch just below the throat. Many species of birds can fill this with food to digest later or else regurgitate into their chicks’ mouths.]  As chicks get larger, seeds the parents have swallowed into their crop are combined with crop milk. With such a rich diet, chick fledge – are able to fly – within two weeks from hatching. The parents will continue to feed them for an additional week or two, but will have also laid eggs for the next brood.

In captivity, lifespan can approach 20 years. This, plus all the fecundity would cover the countryside knee-deep in mourning doves, except that predators find them easy to catch. In the wild, average lifespan is less than two years. Ravens and crows take chicks from nests, fledged chicks are easily caught by many predators, and adults end up in the food chain because they are ground feeders. Prior to European colonization, the major predators of adult dove were hawks and falcons, attacking from above. Add to that cats (pet and feral), and the life of a dove can be brutally short.  

Feathered evidence of a hawk kill
The predator that left us the feathered evidence was most likely a Cooper’s hawk. This is a relatively small but very agile hawk that preys primarily on birds. Red-tailed hawks are larger, but a bit too slow to be bird predators, preferring instead rabbits and squirrels. The other possible culprits would have been peregrine falcon, or sharp-shinned hawk, but these are relatively rare in eastern Massachusetts. In addition to doves, Cooper’s hawks will also prey on robins, starlings and sparrows – also ground feeders. Attacked birds are taken either on the ground or while trying to take off. One estimate has each hawk killing on average two birds a day.

In describing mourning doves, John J. Audubon wrote “Whenever it starts from a tree or the ground, on being unexpectedly approached, its wings produce a whistling noise, heard at a considerable distance.” This is an example of “sonation,” defined as sounds produced by birds, using mechanisms other than the vocal organ. Humans make sounds by means other than voice: we snap our fingers, clap our hands, slap our thighs, stomp our feet and click our heels. For some bird species the sound making is voluntary, typically related to males claiming territory or their mating display. The male palm cockatoo of New Guinea uses a claw-held stick to drum on a hollow tree he has selected as a possible nest site. The female, attracted by the noise, checks out the real estate.

For mourning doves, the taking off sound is involuntary but mallable. Birds often form flocks to increase collective vigilance, thus allowing early detection of predators. This benefit of sociality relies on rapid transfer of information. For many species, an alarm call, but for pigeons and doves, one of the flight feathers on each wing is modified so that on take-off, with the wings fully extended for extra lift, the modified feather rapidly flutters against the next feather during the wings’ downstroke, making an easily heard noise. This noise is present whenever mourning doves take off, but if the cause is alarm from detecting a predator, wings beat faster and the pitch is higher. Taped recordings of regular and alarmed take-offs confirm that other doves respond more to the sound of alarmed take-offs.

Is this altruism or self-interest? Assuming this evolved under predation by hawks, one bird taking off from a group on the ground may just be making itself the best target. But if all the birds take off, the visual complexity of the group may cause the attacking hawk to lose sight of an individual bird, and perhaps even miss all of them. Once in the air, mourning doves can reach speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour. Bye Bye Birdie.   

For mourning doves, much like robins, migration is optional. Given enough food, males of both species will remain behind, forming loose flocks of 10-30 birds. Their reason for not leaving is to have dibs on the best territory when the females return in the spring. Robins will find and plunder berries such as winterberry and Asian bittersweet. Mourning doves will seek out remnant grains in farm fields and cluster under birdfeeders to benefit from what perching birds have spilled to the ground.

Lastly, from James Lipton’s “An Exaltation of Larks”: a group of doves is called a "dule," (pronounced ‘dool’) taken from the French word deuil (mourning), because “The soft, sad ululation of the dove has always evoked the sense of mourning.”

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Science Is Real

Science is real. Science is also slow, and sometimes science takes detours. A May 2018 column was about the rise and fall of vitamin E. Briefly, back in the 1990s, claimed benefits led with reducing risk of cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer, but piled on with claims for results for macular degeneration, pregnancy, dementia and other diseases. With no apparent concerns about safety, there was a race up to mega-dose amounts being widely sold as non-prescription dietary supplements. Then the bad news – results from large, placebo-controlled human trials – started to trickle in. As Thomas Huxley put it, “The great tragedy of science – the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”

Yes, vitamin E was confirmed as an antioxidant, and the oxidation theory of diseases of aging is one of cumulative damage. Healthcare professionals who chose to consume a vitamin E dietary supplement had a 1/3 reduction for risk of cardiovascular disease. Sadly, subsequent years-long clinical trials concluded that there was at best a modest reduced risk of heart attack at low doses, increased risk at high doses, no benefit for risk of stroke, and no improvement in all-cause mortality. With hindsight, in the initial research, health professionals who had decided to consume vitamin E supplements may have made other lifestyle decisions that promoted good health. It is an example of correlation not necessarily reflecting causality. Research for other diseases also had mixed results: nothing for pregnancy, nor hair, nor for topical applications for burns or wound healing; mixed results for cancer. There was a trickle of evidence that amounts over 200 mg/day had negative consequences. Sales of dietary supplement vitamin E declined dramatically.

Niacin is both a vitamin and a prescription medication. As a vitamin, intake recommendations made by several countries are that for adults, intakes of 14–18 mg/day are sufficient to meet the needs of healthy people. When niacin is used as a medicine to treat elevated triglycerides and serum low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C), daily doses range from 500 to 3,000 mg/day. The LDL-C lowering effect was discovered by accident; niacin was being investigated as a treatment for hypertension, and then in 1952 a group of Russian scientists reported cholesterol-lowering as a side effect. Prescription niacin became widely used as a hyperlipidemia treatment drug some 30 years before the approval of the first statin drug in 1987.

All that is well and good and still true, although the advent of statins, which were more effective that niacin and with fewer side effects, reduced niacin prescriptions by 90 percent. Where niacin veered into a science detour was a second purported health benefit. In addition to lowering LDL-C, niacin also raises high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C), often referred to as “good” cholesterol. Population studies showed that people with higher HDL-C were at lower risk for cardiovascular disease. Lifestyle interventions that raised HDL-C, such as exercise or moderate consumption of alcohol, also correlated with lower risk. Collectively, this suggested that HDL-C was a valid biomarker. However (the beautiful hypothesis slain by the ugly fact), niacin in combination with a statin drug proved no better for clinical outcomes than the statin alone, despite having raised HDL-C. Prescription products that had combined niacin with a statin (Simcor, Advicor) were discontinued in 2016.

And now, almost every known drug is being tested for COVID-19 benefits, including known antivirals and repurposed other drugs (and not just drugs – vitamins D and C are being evaluated, too). Hydroxychloroquine – an anti-malarial with other approved treatment indications – has its champions in the COVID-19 arena (“It works on my patients.”), but to date, placebo-controlled clinical trials have shown no evidence that it prevents people from contracting the disease if exposed, no evidence for a faster recovery among those afflicted, and no significant reduction in the percentage of COVID-caused deaths. There are serious adverse reactions (heart, liver, kidney), known to be associated with this drug. There are more trials ongoing, some of which may indicate a benefit, but until there is a clear consensus, doctors are advised to not prescribe this drug for this indication, but because it is approved for other indications, doctors have the option of going “off-label” and prescribing it for COVID, regardless. Again, science is real, science is also slow, and sometimes science takes detours.