Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Biotin - a Not-Exciting B Vitamin

Biotin – one of the thirteen vitamins needed for humans to be heathy – gets no respect. No one won a Nobel Prize for elucidating the mysteries of biotin. Perhaps that is because it is near-impossible to be deficient for this vitamin, plus evidence is weak for any confirmed benefit when used as dietary supplement.

Per Wikipedia article “Vitamin,” the golden age of vitamin discovery was 1910 to 1940, with vitamin B12 as an outlier, in 1948. Early on, discoveries were back and forth between fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and water-soluble, named as B and C. “Vitamin B” actually turned out to be a whole bunch of vitamins. The discovery timeline finished with B5 (pantothenic acid), B6, B7 (biotin), B9 (folate) and B12.

The present-day “B” numeration for vitamins is missing numbers. B4 and B8 turned out to be compounds that are not essential, as they are synthesized in the body. B10 (also called “Bx”) was assigned to para-aminobenzoic acid, a substance found in some foods, and convertible to folate by plants and bacteria. It turned out to not be essential for animals. Known also by its acronym “PABA,” this compound was commonly used as a sunscreen chemical stating in the 1970s, because it absorbs ultraviolet light. However, in 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration designated PABA as NOT Generally Recognized as Safe and Effective, because it can trigger allergic reactions, and is suspected of being promoter of skin cancer.

B11, another discarded number, was initially applied to a compound that turned out to be a derivative of folate, hence not a vitamin in its own right. In fact, many vitamins are actually a family of chemically related and sometimes metabolically convertible compounds, referred to as “vitamers.” For example, food-derived folates can be chemically different from each other, and from folic acid, the form used in dietary supplements, but all can be converted to the biologically active tetrahydrofolic acid. “Vitamin E” consists of eight vitamers, of varying levels of potency.

Biotin was “discovered,” meaning identified as a food-sourced compound essential in the diet, in a round-about way. In 1916, a diet high in raw egg whites was proven to cause toxic symptoms in humans and test animals. This included hair loss, skin problems and neurological dysfunction – all reversed when the diet was changed. Was this a toxin that could be inactivated by heat? Research groups working independently in several countries isolated the egg factor in the 1930s. As it turns out, raw and partially cooked egg white did not contain a toxin, but rather contained a heat-inactivated protein, avidin, that irreversibly bound itself to a compound given the names “biotin, vitamin H” and “cofactor-R.” Biotin became the agreed upon name in 1940.    

Chemical structure of biotin
Biotin’s main function is as a cofactor to several carboxylase enzymes involved in the synthesis of fatty acids and glucose. Deficiency is rare for two reasons: biotin is contained in a wide range of foods, and because biocytin, the major metabolic breakdown product, is recycled into biotin rather than being excreted in urine. For humans, 30 micrograms a day appears to be a safely sufficient amount. According to the Global Fortification Data Exchange, biotin deficiency is so rare that no countries require that foods be fortified.

Biotin is sold in the United States as a dietary supplement, with vaguely worded claims that it will improve hair, fingernail and skin health. The rationale behind this is that deficiency symptoms include brittle and thin fingernails, hair loss and skin rash. While biotin has been proven to improve hoof health in horses and cattle, the evidence that it can have any effects in humans who are not biotin deficient is weak. For fingernails, there were a few clinical trials conducted without placebo controls, published more than 30 years ago. For hair, not even that much in the way of scientific evidence. And yet, it is sold in amounts more than 100 times the requirement.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Discarded Masks and Other Trash

Discarded mask
This column is directed to all you people who litter. Not, you, the readers, because anyone who gets the Beacon-Villager is too civic-minded to litter, but the other “you”, who live in Maynard, or perhaps are just traveling through, and contribute, and contribute, and contribute to the mess recently unveiled by melting snow.

An observant walk through the streets of Maynard will spy empty miniature alcohol bottles – also known as nips, testers, shooters, minis and airplane bottles – with a distribution mostly not too far from the liquor store where they were purchased. From talking to store owners, buyers are typically adults who buy several of these small plastic bottles at a time, and need to be deterred from starting to drink before they are out of the store. Why not just buy a pint, or a fifth? A good guess is that people who are not supposed to be drinking where they live want something easy to conceal, something that can be drained and dropped, or else tossed out a car window. A saving grace is that these now-plastic bottles do not contribute to the broken glass problem.

Dog poop on snow may vanish from sight, but this does not mean that it has been transported to the ‘multiverse’ [Look it up.] More annoying than the melt-revealed pet deposits are the little bags, top-tied, and left alongside the rail trail. Sometimes these are carefully placed by one of the milestones, or on a boulder, as if the dog owner intends that they will retrieve these bags on their return walk home. They don’t. The rule: “You own the dog, you own the poop.”   

Weekly trash walks along the Maynard portion of
the Rail Trail fill several five gallon buckets. 
NOTE: Nearest Burger King is in Husdon.
Cigarette butt littering has declined for several reasons, the largest being that the percentage of American adults who smoke has declined from 21 percent fifteen years ago to 14 percent now. At $3.51 per pack, Massachusetts has the fourth-highest state tax on cigarettes in the nation (trailing NY, CT and RI), so that even people who smoke on a daily basis smoke fewer cigarettes. Moving to Virginia would mean $.30 per pack.  

For the many people who live near town-owned woodlands and drag Christmas trees into the woods - don't. I have seen paths at the end of dead-end streets with the entrances bracketed by decaying tree corpses ranging from freshly green (some still draped in tinsel) to years-old skeletonized remains. This is not returning your tree to nature. It is littering, plain and simple, and creating a fire hazard too.  

Back to alcohol – this time beer cans. Bud Light is the most common find. This preference was confirmed in a survey of 1,032 teenage drinkers, reported in the science journal Alcoholism in 2013. Almost 30% reported they had consumed Bud Light within the past 30 days. Close behind is Coors Light (which seems redundant). Please! If you are going to drink beer and litter, drink a beer that tastes like beer.

Discarded mask
New to the problem are face masks. Why people discard facemasks on streets and sidewalks is a mystery, but it happens. And who in their right mind wants to pick up a used facemask? For this, and for trash patrol in general, a five-gallon plastic bucket and one of those three-foot long graspers with the handle at one end and a rubber-clad pincer at the other, is the perfect tool. A recent science journal article published by researchers in Denmark estimated that worldwide, people are discarding 3,000,000 masks per minute. Most of these are designed to be short-term use disposable (as opposed to cloth), and contain plastic micro-fibers. If not properly disposed of in trash that will end up in sanitary landfill, degrading masks will contribute to microplastic contamination of fresh and salt water.

Mark trash-patrols the rail trail. Not owning a dog, it’s an excuse to go for a walk.  

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Before Europeans Arrived... and After

On March 25, at 7:00 p.m., the Maynard Public Library will present a Zoomed talk titled: “Before the Europeans Arrived… and After.” Registration (required) at This is the second in a monthly series of history lectures produced by the Sesquicentennial Steering Committee as part of Maynard’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of its creation on April 19, 1871. The April talk will be “How Maynard Became Maynard.” A new history book “MAYNARD MASSACHUSETTS: A Brief History” is for sale for $21.99 at 6 Bridges Gallery, 63 Nason Street, THUR-SAT, 12-5.  

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the native inhabitants of what is now central Massachusetts, from around Concord to west to Springfield, plus a northern portion of both Connecticut and Rhode Island, were the ‘Nipmuc’ estimated at 8,000 people. Nipmuc has many alternative spellings, such as Nipmug, Neetmock and Nipnet, all generally accepted as translating to “fresh water people.” The Nipmuc had trade alliances with neighboring groups: Pequot to the south, Wampanoag to the southeast, Masachuset to the east, Pennacook to the north and Pocumtuc to the west. All of these groups spoke dialects of the Algonquin language. The Nipmuc grew corn and other crops, hunted deer, and in the spring enjoyed the bounty of herring, alewives and shad swimming upriver to spawn. Berries and nuts were gathered in their seasons.

There is scant evidence of residency in what is now Maynard. The land was hilly, and not well suited for agriculture. The Assabet River was fast-moving in the spring, then very shallow in the summer and fall, and so less conducive to year-round fishing compared to the Sudbury and Concord Rivers.

Wherever Europeans arrived in what became New England, within a generation entire cultures and populations were wiped out. The initial causes have historically been attributed to a litany of diseases including smallpox, plague, yellow fever, measles, influenza, scarlet fever… Leptospira, a bacterium, has been tentatively identified as the cause of the first, worst epidemic of 1616-19. Infection and death swept through villages so quickly that the living did not have time to bury the dead. The natives referred to the event as “The Great Dying.” English settlers described finding empty villages with bones scattered on the ground. There were epidemics from other diseases in 1631-33, 1645, 1650-52 and 1670. King James I is quoted as saying “There hath, by God’s visitation, reigned a wonderful plague, the utter destruction, devastation, and depopulation of that whole territory…” Pre-contact with Europeans, the eastern Algonquin region that extended from Delaware to Maine numbered 100,000 to 150,000 people. One hundred years later it was one-twentieth that.

As a result, the Puritans who made up the “Great Migration” from England, 1620-1640, found this to be ‘empty’ land that had until recent years been partially cleared and farmed. This was easily returned to productive farmland – a process of combining the native crops of corn, beans and squash, with European wheat and an assortment of edible domesticated animals (cattle, hogs, sheep, goats and chickens). With crops suitable for winter storage plus domesticated animals to eat, the colonists did not have to rely so heavily on hunting, nor practice the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the natives. Instead, they owned and farmed in place.

Transfer of land from natives to English settlers was a combination of sale, forced sale, encroachment and outright taking. From the colonial side, the Governor and General Court of the Colony of Massachusetts would grant a group a right to settle an area of land. The grantees were obliged to pursue obtaining a deed of sale from Native Americans and occupy the land. In 1635, Concord was approved, with an area of 36 square miles. The purchase was competed in 1637. The widow of Sachem Nanapashement, Tahattawan, Wibbacowett and others accepted payment from Simon Willard, John Jones and others. Payment included 'wampum', steel tools and clothing. Many years later, two Native Americans – Peter Jethro and Jehojakin – having witnessed the sale, provided testimony that it had been a fair bargain.

In 1638, Sudbury was granted a right to create a town of 25 square miles. The deed of purchase was registered in 1648. A subsequent expansion to the west in 1649 was referred to as “the two-mile grant.” This reached to the Assabet River, thus including land that in 1871 became the south side of Maynard. While granted and divided into 130 acre lots, much of this was not occupied at that time.

A forced transfer of land of what became Maynard was between Tantamous, also called “Old Jethro” (father of Peter Jethro), who lived at Nobscot, now the Framingham/Sudbury border. In 1651, Tantamous was forced to surrender claim to 1,000 acres west of the Sudbury grant to Hermon Garrett, of Concord, in a court dispute over payment for the purchase of two horses. Separately, a Pompositticut Plantation, west of Concord – later to become Stow – was surveyed circa 1660 (described as “meane land”) and granted, but as not permanently settled at that time, the grant later rescinded.

All this granting and purchasing crashed to an end with King Philip’s War of 1675-76. Metacom, also known as Metacomet, and by the English name Philip, was a Wampanoag chief. Attempts to maintain a truce between the Wampanoag and the English colonists were frayed by colonial expansion and scattered acts of violence on both sides. In the summer of 1675, the actions of the native Americans coalesced into concerted attacks on towns across the Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, New Haven and Connecticut colonies. Locally, history has it that Metacom’s supporters met atop Pompositticut Hill – now Summer Hill – to decide whether to attack Concord or Sudbury (the answer: Sudbury).

Although the colonial militias were supplemented by volunteers from the Praying Villages – places occupied by Native Americans who had converted to Christianity – there was suspicion that Nipmuc were also collaborating with King Philip. This was in part true. Nipmuc understood the threat of colonial expansion. Additionally, Metacom’s Wampanoag warriors were residing in Nipmuc territory much of the summer and fall of 1675. To remove this perceived threat, natives were restricted by the colonists to five of the Praying Villages, and then in October 1675, hundreds were relocated to Deer Island, in Boston Harbor. Winter weather combined with inadequate housing and shortage of food led to more than half dying there. Tantamous and his family either escaped from Deer Island or had avoided being sent there. Although more along the way of being a noncombatant refugee, Tantamous was captured in New Hampshire, marched through Boston with a noose on his neck and hanged in the Boston Common. His family, other than Peter Jethro, were sold into slavery. 

Many of the Nipmuc who survived the war moved north or west, or assimilated into other tribes. In May 1683, the General Court approval of a town name “Stow.” A year later, deeds to this land and the Two-Mile Grant for northwest Sudbury were signed by a dozen or so Native Americans who were among a post-war remnant population. This completed the taking of the land that later became Maynard.

Land taking continued elsewhere. The Hassanamesit Reservation had contained 7,500 acres in 1728 when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts purchased most of the land. The money from the sale was to be held for the Nipmuc in an account at a Boston bank, but it was embezzled by a state official. Today, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts recognizes the present-day Nipmuc as constituting people a group of some 500 members living in and around the City of Worcester, Chaubunagungamaug Reservation (in Thompson, CN) and Hassanamisco Reservation (in Grafton, MA). The reservations are small plots of land used by Nipmuc and other Native Americans for gatherings and celebrations.

Not in the newspaper column: On Monday, January 11, 2021, Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, January 11th, 2021 signed bill number S.2848, calling for the creation of a special commission to study and recommend a new or revised state seal and motto. The commission must complete its work by October 1st of this year, and recommend changes to the seal and motto that will “faithfully reflect and embody the historic and contemporary commitments of the Commonwealth to peace, justice, liberty and equality and to spreading the opportunities and advantages of education.” 

Sword-over-Indian was on various versions of the state seal starting in 1780. The current state seal, which was adopted in 1898, and is present on the state flag, and at every town border as part of the sign showing the name of the town. The seal is considered to be deeply offensive to Native Americans. Advocates for change claim that Massachusetts is "the last U.S. state whose flag includes representations of white supremacy" given that Mississippi replaced its Confederate emblem state flag in January 2021.  

The sword was modeled on Myles Standish’s; known for killing Native Americans. The bow was modeled on a bow taken from a Native American killed in 1665 in Sudbury. The belt was modeled on one belonging to Metacomet (King Philip), killed 1676 in King Philip’s War. The downward pointed arrow held in the left hand signifies a ‘pacified’ Native American. Lastly, the body proportions were taken from a Native American dug up from a grave in Winthrup. 

This website has a separate entry listing Native American websites and literature used to research this article.


Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Native American Websites and Literature

Native American Websites and Literature

National Register of Historic Places Program: National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month Hassanamisco Reservation, Worcester County, Massachusetts

Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness (MCNAA)

Massachusetts Indigenous Legislative Agenda (bills before state legislature) 

A Grammar of the Nipmuck Language, Holly Suzanne Gustafson

Nipmuc Nation

Nipmuc History and links

Contested Places: The History and Meaning of Hassanamisco  by Donna Rae Gould, Ph.D., University of Connecticut, 2010 (PhD thesis)

Colonies and Empires: French Colonial Expansion and Franco-Amerindian Alliances

History of the Town of Concord, Mass. by Lemuel Shattuck, Boston, 1835

Drake, SG. The Book of the Indians, or, Biography and History of the Indians of North America: From its First Discovery to the Year 1841. 

The General Court of Massachusetts passed an Act for the Propagation of the Gospel amongst the Indians (1646). Supported Reverend John Eliot and ‘Praying Indian’ villages

Johnson SF. (1995) Ninnouk (The People): The Algonkian People of New England. Bliss Publishing Company, Marlborough, MA. ISBN 0-9625144-2-X.

Mann CC. (2005).  1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Random House Inc. New York, NY. ISBN 978-1400032051.

Newman MT. Aboriginal new world epidemiology and medical care, and the impact of Old World disease imports. Am J Phys Anthropol. 1976 Nov;45(3 pt. 2):667-72. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.1330450333. PMID: 793420.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Raccoons in Suburbia

Something about the face makes raccoons
preternaturally cute. It does not mean 
that they make good pets. 
Raccoons are native to North America, successfully introduced to Germany and other European countries, Japan, and parts of what has been the Soviet Union. The foreign releases were a mix of freed pets and deliberate introductions in attempts to create a source for the animal fur industry.

Adults typically weigh 15-25 pounds, but males can top 40 pounds. Each spring, two to five young, known as "kits", are born. Male have no role in raising kits. The kits stay within the den until about two months old. They spend the rest of summer and fall, learning from their mother how to find foods and shelter. Female kits may overwinter with their mother, but male kits will scatter and den alone. There is high first-year mortality (common in many wildlife species). Those that survive their first year can live three to six years. Once past the first year there is not much to fear in the way of predators. Locally, maybe coyotes. Massachusetts has a four-month hunting season (October through January), but that is not a major factor. Nor is trapping, as the wholesale value of even the best pelts brings no more than $10. Ebay offers tanned pelts at $20-40.

The historical habitats for raccoons were southeastern forests, but the species adapted to mountainous areas, plains, marshlands, and in our present era are comfortable in suburban and densely urban areas. Population densities can exceed 300 animals per square mile. In New York city, raccoons live in the parks and use building fire escapes in search of pigeon nests. Their diet is omnivorous. With access to ponds and streams, that includes crayfish, frogs, mussels, turtles and their eggs. Raccoons raid bird nests, consuming eggs and nestlings. They also feed on fruit, berries, nuts, and seeds. In suburban and urban settings, raccoon will forage in garbage cans and inadequately secured compost piles, also eat food and drink water left outside for cats or dogs. They will raid chicken coops for eggs, chicks and adult chickens.

The most important sense for raccoons is touch, followed by smell. Their front paws are exceptionally sensitive, which allows for successful foraging at night, by touch, at waters’ edge, for crayfish, frogs and turtles. Raccoons are smart enough to open many types of simple latches, even turn doorknobs, and persistent enough to dig under or chew through inadequately built chicken coops.    

Raccoons are active year-round and do not hibernate, although during very cold weather, may doze in a den for several days at a time, a condition referred to as ‘winter rest.” Unlike woodchucks and chipmunks, this is not true hibernation, as body temperature is not lowered.

Raccoons (and skunks) are primarily nocturnal, but being out and about during daylight hours and/or an apparent lack of fear of humans does not mean that the animal is necessarily diseased. Instead, living urban means they have gotten used to the smell and sight of us. However, given that both of these species are prone to contracting rabies, recommendations are to not approach any animal, day or night, appearing sick or healthy. The biggest problem with suburban and urban raccoons is not the occasional tipped over garbage can, but their predilection to invading attic spaces for winter or kit-rearing dens. Expensive, professional animal removal services will be needed. Small openings made by birds and squirrels can be enlarged by raccoons for their own use.  

Rascal the Raccoon from Japanese animation. 
Raccoons do have five toes on each foot, but
there is no human-like opposable 'thumb'.
The aforementioned introduction into Japan has a circuitous history. In 1963, Sterling North published “Rascal”, a children’s book about his true experiences in taking a young raccoon as a pet, and then in time having to release it to the wild. Disney made the story into a movie in 1969. Eight years later, a Japanese animated cartoon series “Rascal the Raccoon” followed the same story line – a boy attempted to domesticate a young raccoon, but in time recognized that his efforts were futile and decided to release Rascal back into the wild. Popularity of the series led to thousands of young raccoons imported into Japan as pets. And then released. Today, raccoons are ubiquitous, cause millions of dollars of crop damage every year, eat koi from fish ponds, and affect native species.

Present era, 40+ years after the TV show, it is possible to buy stuffed animal versions of Rascal.