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.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

"Why is this bird different from all other birds?" Hummingbirds represent an evolutionary expansion into a niche frequented by flower-pollenating moths and butterflies. Downsizing and an elongated beak and tongue combination allows these birds to feed on flower nectar. The adaptation initially took place in tropical climates where the ability to retain body heat – typically a function of larger body size – was not critical.

More than 300 hummingbird species inhabit the Central American tropics. Only 16 frequent the U.S., and of these only one species - the ruby-throated hummingbird - migrates east of the Mississippi River. The rest go west. The risks of a longer eastward migration are offset by having a monopoly on the hummingbird niche once they arrive.

Painting of a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Ruby-throated hummingbirds winter in Mexico, then migrate as far north as Canada in the spring. Their journey begins with gorging on insects until body weight is almost doubled, then launching into a night-long flight from the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico to the U.S. Gulf Coast. The fuel for this comes from gorging on small insects and flower nectar. Once over land again, they revert to daylight eating every 10-15 minutes, consuming more than half their body weight over the course of each day.

In eastern Massachusetts these birds are in residence from May through September. The slightly larger, less brightly colored females arrive a week or two after the males. Males do not help with nest construction, egg incubation or feeding. Hummingbirds do not flock. A yard with multiple feeders can be host to several birds at the same time – a “charm” of hummingbirds – but in reality, what is seen is a temporary truce around a shared resource. Each bird, sated, goes back to its own territory.

Females lay two eggs. Nests are the size of a ping-pong ball, eggs the size of a coffee bean. Gestation is two weeks. Chicks are ready to leave the nest three weeks after hatching. Fledgling survival to adulthood is high compared to other species, and lifespan about five years if the fledglings survive the first migration. By comparison, a nesting pair of golden-crowned kinglets (a small, Maine-dwelling bird twice the weight of a hummingbird) will hatch two broods over the course of a summer, each numbering 8-10 fledglings, yet only one or two survive to the following year’s breeding season.

Hummingbirds are omnivores - they get carbohydrate calories from flowers - but all of their protein, fat, vitamins and minerals from eating gnat-sized insects. Sugar-water feeders supplement the energy needs also met by flower nectar. A well-managed feeder should attract visitors from May to September. For a natural alternative, plant monarda, honeysuckle, trumpet vine, and other hummingbird-friendly perennials. Do not use pesticides, as these will kill the small bugs hummingbirds also need to consume. Feeders do not deter hummingbirds from the urge to migrate south in the fall. 

Ruby-throated hummingbirds have some interesting dependencies on other species. Males arrive in the northeast before most of the flowers have opened. Instead of relying on nectar, the birds also feed on tree sap from holes drilled in trees by yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Females construct nests incorporating spiderweb silk.

Part of mural on the building at the corner of  Parker 
& Waltham Streets = male, broad-billed hummingbird.
In addition to small size and hover capacity hummingbirds employ an unusual energy conservation strategy - extreme body temperature modulation. During cool summer nights these birds allow their body temperature to drop from 105 to about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Resting heart rate drops from 500 to 50 beats per minute (rate while flying can exceed 1,000). Without this trick of lowering energy expenditure via torpor they risk overnight starvation. Muscles are rewarmed in the morning by shivering.

Maynard is blessed with a hummingbird mural on the south side of the building at the corner of Waltham and Parker Streets. The bird in question is a male, broad-billed hummingbird, a species that winters in central Mexico but migrates as far north as southern Arizona during breeding season.   

A version of this column was published in 2012

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Alcohol: What is Moderation?

“Correlation does not imply causation.” Simply put, for two variables if both change, one cannot simply conclude that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the two. Back in the late 1980s, alcohol, and more specifically, red wine, got a health claims boost from the “French Paradox,” an observation that the French, while known for consuming a butter- and cheese-containing diet high in saturated fats, had a lower than expected incidence of heart disease. This branched into two sets of putative health claims: A) That moderate consumption of alcohol was healthier than not drinking any; and B) that chemicals in red wine had a health benefit separate from the alcohol content.
For alcohol beverages, "Proof" is
2X percent. 'Hard liquor' products
tend to be 80 to 100 proof, labeled as
such, whereas wine and beer are labeled
percent alcohol content.

The observation about alcohol in any form, i.e., wine, beer, spirits, got support from what is described as a “J-shaped curve”, meaning that the relationship between alcohol and cardiovascular or all-cause mortality was not a straight line – with more drinking linked to more deaths – but rather a curved line the lowest risk at a modest alcohol intake, higher risk at zero alcohol intake, and ever-increasingly higher risk at higher and higher intakes (visually, the line resembles an aslant letter “J”). The “sweet spot” (lowest risk) looked to be around one-half to one drink per day.

Red wine contains proanthocyanidins, large molecules that contribute to the astringency of wine. Red wine also contains resveratrol, a small molecule upon which huge health claims were heaped. All sorts of health claims were made for resveratrol dietary supplements, even though the ingredient in question was being extracted from Japanese knotweed rather than grapes. Whilst positive results were demonstrated in animal models, in the end, human trials showed no benefits for lifespan, anti-cancer, anti-dementia, and so on. There was a lot of hullabaloo about resveratrol-like compounds as drugs, but that petered out. The proanthocyanidin story was latched onto by proponents of other natural sources of these compounds, leading to some positive-finding research and a lot of market hype for dark chocolate, blueberries, purple grape juice, and so on. Research on this is still a work-in-progress. Newest thinking is that while proanthocyanidins have antioxidant activity, this is not the mechanism of action.

Back to alcohol. Clearly, there are non-benign consequences of excessive drinking, defined both as a high average per week and occasions of binge drinking, the latter defined as five or more drinks for men and for or more for women. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that alcohol consumption accounts for approximately 100,000 deaths annually in the United States. That includes motor vehicle fatalities, drownings, suicides and homicides, liver cirrhosis and at least seven types of cancer. Excessive drinking also contributes to non-fatal negative consequences (injuries, arrests, home violence…). As to the alcohol “J-shaped curve,” it turns out that in many cultures, when compared to not drinking at all, modest amounts of alcohol consumption tends to be associated with many risk-lowering behaviors, such as less absence of obesity, more exercise, better diet and being non-users of tobacco. Non-drinkers can also have mental and physical illnesses that led them to never starting to drink in the first place, or else are non-drinkers now because of past illness. Either way, their non-drinking could contribute to the higher incidence of disease and death of non-drinkers that had nothing to do with any purported benefits of modest drinking.   

All this leads up to the fact that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a document that is updated every five years, is about to revise downward the definition of moderate consumption of alcohol. Below, a summary of the proposed guidelines for consumption of alcohol-containing beverages. It remains to be seen whether lobbying by the alcoholic beverages industry will lead to a restoration of the current definition of moderation – for men – as up to two drinks per day, of if this downward revision will stick. Draft wording: A) Do not begin to drink alcohol or purposefully continue to drink because you think it will make you healthier; b) If you drink alcohol, at all levels of consumption, drinking less is generally better for health than drinking more; and C) For those who drink alcohol, recommended limits are up to one drink per day for both women and men.

Different countries, different definitions of ‘moderation.’ Back in the 1950s, France recommended that people limit themselves to no more than one bottle per day. Currently no more than two drinks a day for both men and women, recently changed from three and two.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

An Absence of Yard Sales

A bicycle race peleton in 'yard sale' mode
A bicycle race peloton in 'yard sale' mode

COVID-19 has changed our lives in many ways, including a dearth of yard sales. The evidence is an absence of signage stapled to telephone poles. Even if held outside, the thought of people gathering, people touching stuff, people touching money, and then the sellers having to handle everything that did not sell, is a strong disinclination. Maybe next year.

In the U.S., the origins of yard sales and garage sales date to the 1950s and 1960s, when American movement from cities to newly built suburbs meant that people had yards and garages, while their prosperity meant that they had a surplus of material possessions. Rather than just discard all that stuff, a Saturday morning with laden tables in the driveway and larger items displayed on the grass cleared clutter from the house and made pocket money for the family.  However, the term ‘yard sale’ has a much, much older history.

Back in the 16th century, “romage” (French) meant to arrange cargo in a ship so that it was stowed closely and securely. Romage came to apply to ships’ goods that were damaged in voyage and thus no longer wanted by the owners, or just unclaimed at the end of the voyage, unloaded, and sold at a shipyard sale. Romage in time took on a near-opposite definition of searching a ship’s cargo carefully and thoroughly, as in a search for smuggled goods. Romage also became “rummage”: “To hastily search for something in a confined space and among many items by carelessly turning things over or pushing things aside.” As in rummaging in a purse to find a ringing cell phone. By the late 1800s, a church or charitable organization would accept donated goods to pile on tables, so that buyer could rummage through to find what they wanted. And voila! – we have both (ship)yard sale and rummage sale.

Traditionally, here in Massachusetts, yard sale season was Memorial Day to Labor Day, but there has been some stretch at both ends. And while typically a solo venture, there have been innovations. Garage Sale Day, created in 2001, occurs on the second Saturday in August. “The World’s Longest Yard Sale” takes place every August along 630 miles of Highway 127, spanning five states. A yard sale as plot device has anchored several movies: “The Yardsale, Yard Sale” and “Everything Must Go.” And who can forget the scene in “Waiting to Exhale” when Bernadine (Angela Bassett) has just learned that her husband of 11 years is leaving her for another woman, and she first burns all his clothes, and then sells all of his worldly possessions for one dollar each at a vindictive yard sale.

Snow skier in mid-tumble. Internet down-
load. Click on image to enlarge.
‘Yard sale’ has an entirely different, although distantly visually related, definition for skiers and bicyclists. For both sports, gravity is your friend until it is your enemy. For skiers, a classic yard sale leaves you and your equipment scattered across the snow – you here, poles there, hat gone astray, and always the possibility that one of your skis will decide continue the descent without you.

Bicyclists have the option of a solo or group yard sale. Alone, you are swooping down a steep road into a banked right-hand turn at a PAY ATTENTION forty mile per hour. Under the shade of an oak tree, not seen until too late, is a scattering of acorns, some whole, some car-flattened. Given that your tire is only one inch wide, not much is needed to turn your line of descent into jittery panic. With luck (skill?) you lay the bike down to the right and accept a shredding of bike shorts and significant road rash, knee to hip. Alternatively, you and the bike part company, you in a bloody heap, the bike in pieces scattered roadside. Yard sale!

“Peloton” is a French word for a pack of riders in a bicycle race. Riders take turns at the front of the pack, where the air resistance is highest, allowing their teammates a rest. In famous, multi-day races such as the Tour de France, teams of nine riders compete. The team leaders are coddled along in the peloton until it is time to break out to the front. Zipping along at 25 miles per hour, scant inches from surrounding riders takes skill, and even with skill, there are multi-bike crack-ups, leaving riders and bikes scattered roadside. Yard sale!!

“Free” is often the weekends’ finale to yard sales: Saturday for selling, Sunday for adding a “FREE” sign to what is left, Monday for seeing if what’s left will fit in the trash can. “Freeboxing” refers to a community-established location – say, for example, boxes on a table at a senior center – where people can leave things for others to take. For the electronically inclined, Craigslist Free is another way find takers of what you no longer need. Or you can pay the “GOT JUNK” people to haul it away.  

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Maynard in Wikipedia

For those without access to personal computers, Wikipedia (launched January 2001) is a free, online encyclopedia. The English version has more than six million articles. Articles are created and changed (added to, subtracted from) by volunteer editors. With certain restrictions, anyone can edit any article. All that keeps this from becoming chaos is that when editors either in good faith or maliciously edit articles with not-true content, other editors reverse those edits (sooner or later). High profile articles often have a cadre of watchers who, when they log into Wikipedia, see articles they have chosen to watch if those articles have been edited since the last time they were online. There can be heated debates on the truth and verifiability of content. These take place on the Talk pages of articles – sort of a behind-the-scenes view.

Welcome to MAYNARD sign, near golf course.
Maynard, Massachusetts, population approximately 10,500 and clearly not a ‘famous’ town (say, compared to Concord), has a surprisingly large number of Wikipedia articles that in some way pertain. There are the expected: Maynard, Massachusetts; Maynard High School (Massachusetts); Maynard Public Library; Amory Maynard; Assabet River; Assabet River Rail Trail and Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge. There are locations a bit more obscure, yet articles in their own stead: Glenwood Cemetery (Maynard, Massachusetts); Presidential Village, Maynard, Massachusetts; Assabet Woolen Mill and WAVM. The Massachusetts State Police article mentions that the main Massachusetts State Police Crime Lab is located in Maynard.

Old Marlboro Road is an article because Thoreau wrote a poem by that name. It was incorporated into his lengthy essay “Walking,” published posthumously in 1862. In September 1851 he and a friend had walked through what was then Assabet Village, in part on the old Marlborough road, on his way from Concord to Boon Pond.

The reason that the town’s article is “Maynard, Massachusetts” rather than just “Maynard” is that there are articles for towns of the same name in Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio. Similarly, Maynard High School (Arkansas) is an article, and there are several Glenwood Cemetery articles.

As for businesses once or currently located in Maynard, Digital Equipment Corporation is an article, as are almost every computer model it made. Other businesses no longer in existence or moved away include H.H. Scott, Inc.; 38 Studios, Iron Lore Entertainment and Monster.com. Still located in Maynard are Stratus Technologies, Powell Flutes, AquaBounty Technologies, The Paper Store and Wildlife Acoustics.

Amory Maynard
Lastly, there is a list of 15 “Notable people.” Wikipedia defines “Notable” as meaning a person who has a Wikipedia article about them. What defines their association with Maynard comes from having lived here before, during or after becoming famous, or else having a significant career here. Two of these, Tantamous and Luke Brooks, predate the creation of the Town of Maynard. Amory Maynard is whom the town is named after. That occurred while he was still alive. Given that in 1871 his woolen mill employed most of the people in what was about to become a new town, the decision to name the town after him was ‘unanimous.’

Hermon Hosmer Scott and Ken Olsen are listed because of the Maynard companies they founded, respectively, H.H. Scott, Inc. and Digital Equipment Corporation. Julie Berry and William G. Tapply (are/were, respectively) authors who lived here for a time. Waino Kauppi was a renowned cornet player, John, “Red” Flaherty a baseball umpire, and Frank Murray a college football coach. Leo Mullen was CEO of Delta Airlines. Elizabeth Updike Cobblah is an artist and art teacher, Michael Goulian an airshow performer, Herb Greene a professional photographer and Jarrod Shoemaker a professional triathlete. Fifteen is a nice number, but it does not approach the 98 (!) listed for Concord.    

Wikipedia has an article quality ranking system. From the top down, Featured article, Good article, B-class, C-class, Start, Stub and not rated. The rating for Maynard, Massachusetts is B-class, there are a couple of C-class in the above mentions, and the rest are Start, Stub, or no one ever bothered to rate. The Stubs and Starts, especially, need work, so if any readers are either experienced Wikipedia editors or are willing to learn, these would make great summer projects.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

H.H. Scott, Inc., Maynard "Hi-Fi" company

Ken Olsen was not the only Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate who graced Maynard with a technology company in 1957. Hermon Hosmer Scott, 17 years Olsen’s senior, had received his Bachelor of Science degree in Course 6: Electrical Engineering, in 1930, and a Master of Science degree the next year. Scott went on to earn a doctorate degree from Lowell Technological Institute, and to have a long and glorious career in the field of consumer high fidelity and stereo equipment development, including amplifiers, preamplifiers, FM radio receivers, turntables and speakers. In addition, he patented technology that made possible the invention of television.

H.H. Scott, Inc. workers at 111 Powder Mill Road, circa 1960
Click to enlarge. From Maynard Historical Society Archive.
From one source: “The Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame, created in 2000, honors consumer electronics industry leaders who have made fundamental contributions to the products and services that improve consumers' lives and are a vital part of our nation and its economy. Hall of Fame inductees include inventors, executives, engineers, retailers and journalists who are selected annually by an independent panel of industry judges.” For the inaugural year, 50 people were named. Among them, names familiar to all: Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi, Nikola Tesla – and Hermon Hosmer Scott.

Early in his career, Scott worked on providing sound for motion pictures, and then on the broadcasting of music performances – live and recorded as record albums – to home listeners. In 1947 he founded a company he named H.H. Scott, Inc., in Cambridge. The intent was to create “high fidelity,” i.e., “Hi-Fi” equipment for consumers who wanted near-professional quality music at home. This involved developing radio receivers, record album turntables, amplifiers and speakers. The company was successful. H.H. Scott and Fisher Radio were two of the best-known brands in Hi-Fi and stereo sound systems. In late 1957, H.H. Scott built a new state-of-the-art manufacturing and research facility at 111 Powder Mill Road. The company continued to be an innovation leader during the transition from Hi-Fi to stereo, and from vacuum tubes to transistors. However, financial difficulties in 1972 led to the company filing for Chapter XI bankruptcy, and then being acquired in 1973 by Electro Audio Dynamics. Hermon Scott was not longer affiliated with the company. A few years later the company was moved to Woburn, and was subsequently acquired by Emerson Electronics. Emerson still has products branded “HH Scott.”

Advertisement for H.H. Scott stereo system
Hermon Scott lived in Lincoln from 1941 until his death in 1975, age 66. He was survived by his wife, two daughters and two grandchildren. Given MIT education, choice of career in electronics, working in Maynard and living in Lincoln, it is possible that Scott and Ken Olsen knew each other socially. And as they were both in business in Maynard from 1957 onward, their companies were hiring from the same pool of local workers.

A note on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: From the origin in 1865 to present, courses (later departments), were commonly referred to by number, despite having names. The original set was Course 1 (Mechanical Engineering), Course 2 (Civil Engineering). Course 3 (Geology and Mining), Course 4 (Architecture) and Course 5 (Chemistry). Courses 6, 7, and 8 (respectively Metallurgy, Natural History and Physics) were added a few years later. Over time, Course 6 was reassigned to Electrical Engineering (in 1975 belatedly became Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), and Course 7 to Biology. Splits occurred: 7 stayed Biology, but Course 9 is Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and Course 20 is Biological Engineering. To further compound the numerical haze, buildings are referred to by numbers despite having names, and the building numbers have no connection to the course numbers.

As for the fate of Scott’s building on Powder Mill Road, at some point in time it was acquired by Digital Equipment Corporation, and then after DEC was purchased by Compaq, occupied by Stratus Technologies from 1999 to 2015. Stratus departed, to move into Building 5 of the mill complex. The current occupant at Powder Mill is Maynard Storage Solutions, with rentable space ranging from 5x5 to 10x30 feet.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Slavery in Massachusetts, and Afterwards

In this time of national introspection about prejudice against people of color, perhaps this is a time to revisit the history of slavery in colonial New England, and its aftermath. Massachusetts was the first British colony to legalize slavery. The year 1641 saw the passing of the Massachusetts Body of Liberties. This set of 98 rules established rules of law governing how men, women, children and servants had essential rights. Rule 91 stated that there shall never be slavery, serfdom or captivity "... unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us."

And there it was: strangers sold to us could be owned as slaves. And de facto, their children.

Prior to 1641 there had been a handful of slaves owned by colonists. In colonial Massachusetts the real impetus for this part of the Body of Liberties document was wars with Native Americans. The colonists did not want to free their prisoners of war, but could not decide what to do with them. The decision was reached to sell them into slavery in the Caribbean colonies. Returning ships started bring back a few Negro slaves as cargo.

Slavery never took hold in the northern colonies as it did in the southern colonies mostly because there were no labor-intensive cash crops - no tobacco, indigo, rice or cotton. Instead, northern slaves were primarily prestige property for the upper class, especially for wealthy men who did not intend to have themselves or their wives do much physical labor about home and farm.  

These ministers, lawyers, doctors, judges and military officers typically owned one to three slaves. Increase Mather, President of Harvard College, owned slaves, as did his minister son, Cotton Mather, author of Rules for the Society of Negroes, and The Negro Christianized.   

By the numbers: 550 adult slaves in Massachusetts by 1708 grew to 2,720 in the town-by-town slave census conducted in 1754 (an undercount, as children under 16 were not included). This was a bit more than one percent of the total population, but heavily skewed toward higher percentages in Boston and coastal cities. For example, Boston was ten percent Negro in 1754 (counting both slaves and free). In that same census year Concord was recorded as having 15 adult slaves, Sudbury 14, Acton 1 and Stow none. Maynard did not yet exist.

The end of slavery in Massachusetts was hastened by the Revolutionary War. Many Loyalists fled to British-controlled territory, often abandoning their slaves. The Continental Army under the command of George Washington (slave owner), initially opposed enrolling any Negro men, but changed this edict in 1776. Slave owners received a cash compensation for any slave freed to serve in the Army. Massachusetts was the first of the newly forming states to end slavery. With the war still raging, Massachusetts passed a state constitution in 1780. Key wording: "All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness."

The State legislature may not have intended this to mean the end of slavery; draft versions proposed in 1777 and 1778 had been clear that slavery would continue. But the 1780 wording was what became law. The right to vote in state elections was gained a year later, after black businessmen pointed out that “no taxation without representation” applied to them, too. The first United States census, conducted in 1790, reported no slaves in Massachusetts and a population of 5,463 people who were not white, out of a total of 378,787, or 1.4 percent. [Present-day, Black, 7.0 to 9.0 percent (conflicting reports) for the state, under two percent for Maynard, under one percent for Stow.]

Lucy Chester (1774-1849), daughter of Cate and Prince, is
buried in the north Boxborough cemetery. Her parents are
thought to have been buried in a different Boxborough
cemetery, but the markers and records no longer exist.
Free was not equal, neither legally nor economically. Freed slaves often continued to work in the households where they had been owned, basically accepting room and board in return for labor. Their children were unlikely to attend school, and once reaching adolescence, were often indentured until they were 21 years old. The book “Black Walden” describes the lives of former slaves and their children in Concord. Marginalized to poor-quality land in Walden Woods and elsewhere, succumbing to poor nutrition, disease and prejudice, former slaves died, their children too, or else moved to cities where there were larger populations of Black families. By 1880 there were no descendants remaining in Concord from the several score who had lived there as slaves and descendants of slaves. Concord’s “whitewashed” official history had become descriptions of white revolutionaries, authors and abolitionists.

The first mention of an African American living in Maynard is a photo caption in the Maynard Historical Society archive identifying John Adams as a chauffeur for Dr. Frank Rich, circa 1910. There is no mention of whether he lived on the Rich family property or elsewhere, or if he had a family. In Stow, on land that later became part of Boxboro, a woman named Cate was owned from around 1750 to 1772, when at age 31, she was declared free by her owner, Phineas Taylor. Cate married Prince Chester, also a freed slave, from Lexington. Their descendants include Chesters and Hazards, in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Digital Equipment Corporation - All Things DEC

On June 17, 7-8:30 p.m., I will be presenting an on-line talk titled “All Things DEC.” The talk’s description: “Digital Equipment Corporation (digital, DEC) had a glorious arc that started with some rented space in the mill complex in 1957, furnished with office furniture bought on credit from Gruber Bros. Furniture, then rising to make Maynard the "Minicomputer capital of the world," as a multi-billion dollar company second only to IBM. Mark's talk, with many images from the archives of the Maynard Historical Society, will span the origin, rise, peak and decline of DEC. He will touch on the work experience of women at DEC, and the company's commitment to diversity training.” Registration (free) is at the Maynard Public Library website, under Virtual Events. Refreshments will not be served.

With a bit of luck, AltaVista could have been Google.
After ten years of NOT writing about DEC, a company that was headquartered in Maynard for 41 years, and at its peak employed thousands of people in Maynard (a fraction of the 100,000+ employed worldwide), I finally started a series of articles about DEC in November 2019, with an origin story. All this stretched to a tenth article in March 2020, about DEC’s approach to anti-discrimination and diversity training. In between, the columns (all posted at www.maynardlifeoutdoors.com) covered not just the rise, peak and fall, but also DEC’s faltering and flawed efforts to be in the minicomputer business, and then the impact on Maynard once DEC was gone.

DEC’s demise was not unique. The myth is that DEC missed the advent of mini-computers because of president Ken Olsen’s blind spot, but in reality, there were multiple, major, corporate missteps. And not just at DEC. Just in the greater Boston area Data General, Wang Laboratories, Prime Computer, Lotus Development Corporation and Apollo Computer faded, and either folded or were acquired. 

This trend of short corporate lifespan actually continues today and extends beyond tech. An interesting report by Innosight [https://www.innosight.com/insight/creative-destruction/] observed that the average lifespan of large companies has been declining for decades, either because they lose to the competition (Monster, Yahoo) or are acquired by larger companies (Monsanto, Aetna, Time-Warner). Locally, our example is Acacia Communications, headquartered in Maynard’s mill complex (!), which started in 2009 with about the same building space as did DEC back in 1957, expanded, expanded more, went public in 2016 with a valuation of several billion dollars – and then was acquired by Cisco Systems in 2019, a deal that will be completed in 2020. What the future holds for the mill complex’s largest tenant is unknown. Will it grow in place, or will Cisco force a relocation?

For most of its history, Maynard has been a company town, in the sense that its survival and prosperity depended almost entirely on one company. From 1847 to 1950, that was wool. A period of diversification began in 1953 when the empty mill complex was bought and repurposed as Maynard Industry Incorporated, with dozens of industry and office space tenants. DEC started renting space in 1957, expanded over the years, until buying the complex in 1974, reverting Maynard to a one-company town again. DEC closed operations in the mill complex in 1993, then the Parker Street complex and the corporate headquarters on Powdermill Road in the years following. At the mill complex, Wellesley Rosemont (Clock Tower Place; 1998-2015) reverted to the practice of multiple clients, which carried over to current-day, Mill & Main operations. Looking forward, the Town of Maynard hopes to sustain the idea of being a commercially diversified community rather than hitch its wagon to one star. But it would still be helpful if the mill complex was 100 percent rented.   

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Swimming Pools

Using Google Maps aerial view, 141 swimming pools were counted in Maynard, a mix of above-ground (round) and in-ground (not round) pools. Assuming a few were missed, let’s call it 150 swimming pools. Equals 3% of Maynard's 5,000 housing units (includes homes, condos and apartments).

Swimming pool on the Titanic. Filled, would have been seven feet deep. Note
electric light bulbs. Men, women and children had separate hours. The ship
 also had a gymnasium that included rowing machines and stationarybicycles.
The very idea of a privately owned swimming pool is a relatively recent concept. For that matter, recreational swimming is a relatively recent concept. Wealthy people did not own pools, first, because rich people didn’t do that (swim), and second, because there was no pool water filtration technology. The lower classes did start taking trains or buses to beaches. Summers, the Maynard-based Lovell Bus Line (1923-1953) had a route to Revere Beach that was $1.25 round trip.

Municipal pools were built by cities to provide a safe place for people to swim. One account has it that the first public pool in the United States was in Brookline, in 1887. [England had already had pools for decades, and swimming competitions.] By the turn of the century, many U.S. cities had large outdoor and indoor pools. Hotels began to construct pools. The Titanic had a heated, saltwater, swimming pool, 30 x 14 feet, for use by first class passengers only. [It also had a gymnasium with rowing machines and exercise bicycles - separate hours for men and women.]

Not until after World War II did pool technology improve to the point that the middle class could aspire to having a home pool. One interesting catalyst for increased interest in having a pool is that starting for WWII, the U.S. Army and Navy incorporating swimming into basic training. Men were coming home from the war wanting homes, and in many instances, home with pools. A recent article in the New York Times estimated that in 1949, approximately 10,000 American homes had pools, a number that ten years later has grown to 250,000, and by today, more than 10 million. The majority of Maynard’s pools are in post-WWII developments that have larger lot sizes than the old factory-era properties. There are only three (above-ground) pools in the Presidential Village district.     

Bathing attire changed with the times. In England, until around 1900, there were separate beaches for men and women. Against vigorous protests, the practice of men swimming in the nude was banned in 1860. First, it was a requirement for wool shorts, a style that lengthened over time to knee-length. Next, wool shirts became required wear – initially long-sleeved, in time shortening to short-sleeved and then sleeveless. Coloring was mostly black or else horizontally striped. In both England and in the United States, it was illegal for men to expose their chests. Only in the 1930s did men start to go topless!    

Annette Kellermann, famous early
20th century swimmer, in swimsuit
of her own design, novel for the time.
Women’s bathing attire was designed to cover the entire body. During the 1800s, women wore long dresses or bathing gowns made of fabric that did not become transparent when wet, meaning wool or flannel. Design was basically a dress to the knees, over loose-fitting trousers, over leggings. Women would sew weights into the hem of the gowns to prevent their dress from floating up. A radical change took place on the turn of the century. Annette Kellermann, a young Australian woman, had taken up swimming as a child as physical therapy. She became a professional swimmer, doing swimming and high-dive exhibitions, swim races, and appearing in silent films of the era. In The Mermaid (1911), she was the first actress to wear a swimmable mermaid costume – of her own design.

More germane to women’s swimwear in general, Kellermann designed and wore a form-fitting, one-piece swimsuit. In 1907, preparing for a promotional coast swim, Annette Kellerman was arrested at Revere Beach for indecent attire. She argued before the judge that her swimsuit was practical, not provocative. She said that “…swimming in a Victorian swimsuit with its ‘shoes, stockings, bloomers, skirts, corsets and a dinky little cap,’ made as much sense as ‘swimming in lead chains.’” The case was dismissed, and her swimsuit became popular as "the Annette Kellerman". When female swimming was introduced as the 1912 Summer Olympics, all the women were wearing suits similar to Kellermann’s design.

Maynard, MA swimming program, Hansen's Beach, Stow, MA. Photo by
Samuel Micciche, 1954 (courtesy of Maynard Historical Society)
Competitive swimming went through a singular “not invented here” moment in 1844. British swimmers were competing using the breaststroke combined with a frog-like kicking motion. Two Ojibwe Native Americans were brought to London by the Swimming Society. Their swimming style, described as flailing at the water with arms in a windmill-like fashion and violently kicking feet, was much faster than anything the English managed. They were thanked, sent home, and the British continued with the non-splashing breaststroke. Not until decades later did Englishman J. Arthur Trudgen and Australian Frederick Cavill separately observe native swimmers elsewhere in the Americas and in the Pacific islands, and then copied and taught the much faster overhand stroke and flutter kick that came be known as the “Australian crawl.”

Aside from private pools, there was a time when Maynard provided children’s swimming lessons at Hansen's Beach, Lake Boon. Samuel Rosario Micciche (1915-2003), owner of Samuel’s Studio (photography), took several photos at Hansen’s Beach the summer of 1954. These are in the collection of the Maynard Historical society.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Ecological Succession

In 1859, Henry David Thoreau wrote an essay called "The Succession of Forest Trees" in which he described succession in an oak-pine forest. "It has long been known to observers that squirrels bury nuts in the ground, but I am not aware that any one has thus accounted for the regular succession of forests." His essay was more about replacement than succession as that term had come to be used in modern ecological studies. He first observed the obvious – that many tree seeds are designed to be transported by wind, also that the small seeds of wild cherry, wild grape and various berries can be consumed by birds and other animals and defecated elsewhere. (We know that Oriental bittersweet berries are consumed by robins and spread that way.)

Wreath of Oriental bittersweet vines, with berries. In the
spring, returning robins perched on it to eat the berries.
Thoreau also described the less obvious, how, for example, oak seedlings might emerge from the soil after a pine tree forest was cut. Some botanists of his era took the position that acorns could lay dormant in the soil for decades, even centuries, but when the forest trees above them were cut, be viable, triggered by sunlight. Thoreau observed, rather, that even in a mature pine forest, there were oak seedlings amongst the underbrush the result of squirrels burying acorns or else dropped by blue jays and other birds. The same dispersion seen for beech, hickory, chestnut and other nuts.

Ecological succession is the process of change by all species (plants, animals, bacteria) of a community over time. During the first half of the twentieth century, succession theory was dominated by the idea that for a given location there was a convergence toward a climax community regardless of the starting conditions, that, for example, that moist-soil lowlands in eastern Massachusetts would always end up as a forest dominated by sugar maple and beech trees regardless of whether the starting conditions were abandoned farmland, fire, flood or hurricane. Similarly, a drier, hilly terrain would always end up being pine/oak. In this school of thinking, a climax forest was a stable, interrelated community with a near-constant total biomass – trees dying being replaced by the same species.

Current theory allows for more complexity and chance. In these models the finding of certain species being found together is because terrain and climate are beneficial to each species individually without ‘community’ interaction. In both models, prolifically reproducing and fast-growing species will populate a disturbed area first, followed by shade-tolerant, slower growing but more competitively successful species. American beech is an example of an extremely shade-tolerant tree that can abide in the understructure for years until a break occurs in the canopy.    

One point that has become clearer is that it is not just about plants. The local extermination of beaver changed terrain. The return of same created wetlands and flooded ex-forests. The local extermination of deer allowed for lush undergrowth and greater survival of tree seedlings. The present-day surfeit of deer in New England – now at a population higher than before the European colonists arrived – is denuding all the undergrowth. Trees that were part of the North American mosaic got diseases. American chestnut trees are long gone, native dogwood, ash and hemlock are struggling. Invasive species challenge the status quo. Climate change is affecting the entire biome.         

Dandelion: The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) was introduced to
North America be English colonists in the early 1600s as a medicinal plant.
In Maynard and Stow, some of the best evidence for ecological succession is abandoned farmland. Some of this was seized by the U.S. Army via eminent domain during World War II, subsequently allows to go to forest, now the Wildlife Refuge. The trees are all around 70-80 years old. There is not a lot of dead wood on the ground. Same for the Summer Hill forest. The woods traversed by the Assabet River Walk, once pasture, are older. There, there are many downed trees in varying states of decay.   

The greenspace bordering the Assabet River Rail Trail was cleared during construction. Dandelions, an exemplar of windblown propagation, are common, as are other early-growth perennials. Tree seedlings are present. Without maintenance of borders, our trail could become a green-flanked, green-roofed tunnel. An excellent report “Rail Trail Maintenance and Operation: Ensuring the Future of Your Trail – A Survey of 100 Rail Trails” suggests that trails need roughly $1,500 per mile per year in maintenance and operating costs. Maintenance tends to be a combined effort of municipal budgeting and volunteer organizations.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Cultural Council & District

The Maynard Cultural Council channels thousands of dollars of state money every year via grants, to support arts, humanities and science programs benefiting the Maynard community.  The Council – our local arm of the Massachusetts Cultural Council – was also instrumental in applying our cultural district designation, which encompasses and supports cultural, historical and recreational facilities including the Maynard Public Library, Acme Theatre, ArtSpace, art galleries, the Fine Arts Theater and other performance spaces, several live music venues, and access to the Assabet River Rail Trail.

The state program had its beginnings in 1975 as Artist Fellowships, funded by the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities. The organization morphed into the Massachusetts Cultural Council in 1990. Going forward, MCC continued to award fellowships, but also expanded a Local Cultural Council program, which award millions of dollars every year to towns and cities that have their own Cultural Councils.

David Mark selfie with Babe Ruth
Maynard’s Cultural Council, a volunteer organization appointed by the Board of Selectmen, accepts proposals once a year. One of the better-known projects was “Maynard as a Canvas,” which hired mural artists to create murals on both sides of the one-time Murphy & Snyder Printers building at the corner of Parker and Waltham Streets. Two entries were selected as winners from 80-some applicants. Completed in 2018, one side hummingbirds, the other incorporating portraits of Henry David Thoreau and Babe Ruth. Why them? Because both had visited, in 1851 and 1917, respectively.   

March 2017 saw the culmination of a multi-year effort to apply for and achieve state cultural designation. The application process started years earlier, with the formal submittal of the application to the state Cultural Council in early 2016. This designation is seen as a tremendous boost to Maynard’s growing reputation as a cultural destination, a place where residents and visitors alike can stroll from venue to venue, whether their intent is dinner and a movie, a pub crawl, Maynard Fest, or other events. As an annual event, the Council and District join the Town of Maynard in sponsoring ArtWeek, held during the end of April into early May.

This logo can be seen on a sign between Route 27 and the
Assabet River Rail Trail, near the golf course. 
The district designation was initially as “Assabet Village Cultural District,” but in early 2019 was changed to the more easily identified “Maynard Cultural District.” The logo is a triangle, tilted, with the words MAYNARD and DISTRICT bracketing a multi-color script Cultural.  The footprint of the district encompasses Summer Street from Waltham Street Bridge to ArtSpace on the north side (with a bulge to capture the Library), then south on Florida Road and west on Railroad Street to gather in Main Street, the mill pond and the mill complex, and then east along the river to return to Waltham Street. Doing so captures the smaller triangle of Summer, Nason and Main Streets, within a larger triangle of the town’s central business district. Going forward, the Council, District and Town work jointly to enrich Maynard’s art’s experience.

Maynard’s last Master Plan, issued in 1991, was designed to cover 15 years, i.e., through 2006. After a long ‘oops’ hiatus, Maynard restarted a master plan process winter of 2017, resulting in a 2020 Master Plan that will serve as a roadmap for the next 20 years. This plan is Maynard’s vision for the future and strategic outline for getting there. Per state law requirements, it addresses natural resources, economic development, infrastructure, transportation, historic and cultural resources, open space and recreation, land use, housing, and lastly, provides for a periodically updated action plan to implement all the objectives. The plan calls for promoting a high density, mixed-use core while preserving greenspace as urban tree planting, parks and forests. The Complete Streets Policy that was begun in 2016 will continue to promote a street and sidewalk network for vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. The town encourages housing growth that fits into Maynard’s core walkability and also contributes to Maynard reaching the state goal of ten percent affordable housing. The plan also recognizes the importance of Maynard’s arts, dining and entertainment businesses in making the town an attractive place to live and visit.

Challenges faced by Maynard include an aging infrastructure, potential limits on water supply, need for more services for the fast-growing senior population, a school system with capacity issues and an antiquated fire station. Completion of the 129 Parker Street complex adds to the traffic burden and town services burden.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Assabet River Revisited

Recently, the Assabet River has been deeper than its long-term average for spring the reason being more than average rainfall. April, for that matter most months, averages four inches of rain (or snow equivalent) per month, year-round. Eastern Massachusetts does not have wet and dry seasons typical of some other parts of the country, although in some years there can be lengthy summer droughts. Oddly, after an unseasonably warm and low-snow February and March, this April was one of the coldest on record.    

Kayaker enjoying the rapids between Main Street
and foot bridge, Spring 2014
In the spring the river is exceptionally clear. The bottom is stony, versus how green it will appear in late summer when grown over with water milfoil, filamented algae and other bottom-anchored water plants. Year-round, the water has a low sediment content. This is because the Ben Smith Dam traps all the upstream sediment. A U.S. Geological Survey study completed in 2003 estimated accrued sediment volume at approximately 20,000,000 cubic feet. If ever there was a decision to remove the dam, some form of sediment removal would be required, elsewise vast quantities of sediment would shift down river, increasing the risk of floods in Maynard, Acton and Concord.

This time of the year the river mid-town is also mostly clear of surface plants. By late summer, every rain event that increases volume over the top of the dam brings floating plants like duckweed, watermeal and globs of free-floating algae through the center of town. Upstream of the dam, the near-shore shallows, also currently clear, will be covered by these floaters plus the flat leaves of white and yellow water lilies. Luckily for boaters, most of the river is deep enough to not sustain the surface-leafed, bottom-rooted, water plants.

The kayak and canoe launch dock at Ice House Landing
is back in the water for 2020.
Come winter, the plants will die, returning phosphorus to the bottom sediment. Even though wastewater treatment facilities are enjoined from adding too much new phosphorus to the river, this growth/death process functions as a self-sustaining cyclical phosphorus source, promoting next spring’s growth. Bad now, far, far worse 40 years ago. Ann Zwinger wrote in A Conscious Stillness (1982) "...the reach above the Powder Mill Dam [Acton, next to Route 62] is closed by joint action of the Maynard and Acton boards of health...the river smell is nauseating, reeking like an unpumped-out campground outhouse times ten." The smell emanated from rotting of bacteria, algae and water plants, the consequence of eutrophic growth promoted by the excesses of phosphorus and nitrogen entering the water as either inadequately treated waste water or farm and golf course fertilizer run-off, raw storm sewer discharge, etc.

As for why “Assabet,” once upon a time the Assabet River was known as the Elizabeth River, alternative spellings Assabeth, Asabet, Elizbeth, Elizabet…all thought to be Anglicized versions of a Native American name. One colonial era map had it as the Concord North River, with the Sudbury being the Concord South River. There was a map consensus in 1830 that Elizabeth Brook flowed into the Elizabeth River, but by 1856 it was Assabet Brook flowing into the Assabet River, with the pre-Maynard community identified as Assabet Village. Nowadays it is Elizabeth Brook flowing into the Assabet River.   

Removal of the footbridge, August 2016, in preparation for the new bridge,
installed February 2017 as part of the Assabet River Rail Trail.
The river is 31 miles long, from headwaters in Westborough to its merge with the Sudbury River in Concord to form the Concord River. Seven towns draw their well water from within the Assabet valley watershed and five discharge treated wastewater into the river (Westboro, Marlboro, Hudson, Maynard, Acton). There are six existing, intact, historic mill dams, plus one breached (Damonmill, West Concord) and one flood-destroyed (Papermill, Maynard). And there are two twentieth century flood control dams: George H. Nichols, Westborough, and Tyler, Marlborough. By having limited egress, those function to blunt peak downstream volume during times of heavy rain.

Sadly, in this time when so many people are looking for places to hike, there are few in Maynard or Stow with an actual view of the river. A suggestion: drive west on Concord Road into Acton, south on High Street, veer right onto Old High Street, and park at the trail head. The trail goes west, with water views.