Sunday, December 10, 2017

Carl Sagan and the Pollution of Science

While most scientists do not lie (except when they play poker), they can be easily encouraged to do so with the offer of financial renumeration. We call them 'biostitutes.' They pollute science and do not care (as they turn the key to their new SUV). But we have to live in the wreck of the world which their lies have made.

Carl Sagan (1980) wrote that "science is self-correcting" (contrasting with religious dogma). But this is only sometimes true and only under certain special conditions. Sagan's thesis requires a lack of financial incentive for scientists to lie. Sagan's postulate ('science is self-correcting') is virtually impossible to attain (and is strongly disfavored) in a capitalist society. As such Sagan's 'Rule' is the exception which proves the opposite.

Sagan was afflicted with personal/psychological bias regarding the life experiments conducted on NASA's Viking 1 and 2 landers on Mars in 1976. His apologia for the failure of Viking 1 and 2 to find any present or past evidence of life on Mars, in his book Cosmos ('Blues for a Red Planet') is almost the same 'special pleading' used by the Church to explain away Galileo's discovery with a telescope of moons around Jupiter. The hidden bias in Sagan's special pleading that he knew the only justification for spending $1 billion to put two landers on Mars was the chance of finding signs of life. When Viking 1 and 2 found no signs of life, it was hard for a non-biased observer not to describe the effort as a failure. This is shown simply: if NASA had hard evidence there was no life on Mars, Congress would not have given them $1 billion to put two landers on it. So were Sagan and the JPL liars? Were they 'astrobiostitutes'? No. Just the opposite. They were conducting an experiment which could only be conducted by physically going to Mars. And that does cost a billion dollars.

Percival Lowell and Carl Sagan

"Blues for a Red Planet" tells the strange story of a wealthy Bostonian, Percival Lowell, who had an interest in astronomy, and funded a giant telescope to be built for him in Flagstaff, Arizona around 1910. Through this telescope, Lowell viewed Mars incessantly and was convinced he saw giant man-made canals on it. Nobody could shake Lowell of this conviction, and because he was the richest guy around (and paid everybody), everyone said, 'Whatever you say, Mr. Lowell (you freakin' nut).'

In 1910, the diameter of Mars and its distance from Earth had been calculated to a few percent. A 'canal' of the size and width Lowell drew while looking at Mars would have to be 100 times wider than the Mississippi River. Why did nobody point this out to Lowell? Some did. But most, who were dependent on his patronage, dutifully said, "Yup, Mr. Lowell, that sure looks like a man-made canal to me." [The resolution of Lowell's 24-inch dia. refractor telescope was so poor that it could barely discern a feature on Mars smaller than the British Isles on Earth, let alone the Thames River or London, or a canal along the Thames near London. But Lowell swore he 'saw them.']

Like Lowell, Carl Sagan was like Fox Mulder of the X-Files, burrowed in a cellar office with a poster on the wall which said, "I Want To Believe." For Lowell, it was canals on Mars. For Sagan it was life on Mars -- of any type. Carl Sagan almost religiously hoped to find scientific evidence of life on Mars. His 'telescope' was the $1 billion Viking 1 and 2 landers. But like Lowell should have known in his time (1910), Sagan should have known in his time (1976) that finding any life on Mars was as likely as finding a Suez Canal on Mars. The clue? Atmosphere.

NASA knew in the 1970s that the atmosphere of Mars was ridiculously thin; on Earth it would be called a very good vacuum. Atmospheric pressure on the lowest section of Mars (Hellas Basin) is less than the highest altitude of a jet fighter (10 mbar). The best conditions on the surface of Mars are what you would expect at 60,000 feet of altitude on Earth. Sagan knew all this well before Viking. But like Lowell and Fox Mulder, Sagan wanted to believe. Why?

1. If Viking discovered life on Mars it would be biggest scientific discovery in the history of Homo sapiens.
2. If Viking discovered no signs of life on Mars it could be called a colossal waste of $1 billion dollars and cripple NASA and space exploration in perpetuity.

So when the Viking data came back and said, "No life -- not even a chance." It was a colossal bummer for the Viking team and NASA, as in -- we are so screwed.  Hence the PBS television show 'Cosmos,' which could be called, "Carl Sagan Bitching About Nobody Being Excited That Viking Found No Life On Mars."

If Viking 1 or 2 had found any evidence of life on Mars, the news would have been headline on every newspaper and TV station in the world. It would be much bigger news than Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the Moon in 1969. The NASA-JPL team would all get Nobel Prizes and biographies in Encyclopedia Britannica. But what Sagan forgot is that Viking 1 and 2 didn't find any signs of life on Mars. Finding life on Mars is big news. Not finding it is not big news. But from Carl's disappointment he created Cosmos -- the PBS series -- and from his chagrin did more to popularize basic science than any person. So was Sagan a 'biostitute?' No.

While Carl Sagan financially benefitted from science (he was a professor of science at Cornell), he was not doing science solely for the financial benefits. He did not start looking up at the stars as boy in Brooklyn and say, "I can make some money off of this." And in reality, most biostitutes never start that way either. They usually start quite pure, much like Carl, but upon college gradumacation start to get sucked slowly and relentlessly into the culture of biostitution. Which raises the question: what is a biostitute?

A biostitute is an otherwise competent scientist who steers and shifts and shades their factual data and conclusions so that they 'magically' coincide with the specific wishes and desires of their financial patron -- and suppresses data which their patron might get butt-hurt about (ie. lose money).

It is in this sense that Carl Sagan's statement, 'science is self-correcting,' must be appended with its initial clause, "Unlike religious belief, science is self-correcting." If modern capitalism becomes synonymous with the position of religion in the 1600s, then we can say, "Science is not self-correcting." The scientists who work slavishly to ensure that science does not rid itself of empirical errors are called biostitutes. They do this for a check, a job, prestige, a trophy wife, a new SUV, an Asian hooker, or whatever modern capital can offer them. Proof of this is that biostitutes do not publish. They keep their written utterances in the 'grey literature' -- one or several steps below peer-reviewed science.

Q: Why doesn't a biostitute say the Earth is flat?
A: No one has paid them to.

Q: When will a biostitute say the Earth is flat?
A: As soon as someone pays them to.

Percival Lowell's 1910 belief there were no canals on Mars is no different than those who claim there is no man-made global warming on Earth with one exception: Lowell had no skin in the game. Lowell was not trying to pull the wool over peoples' eyes so as to make a buck. Lowell was not suppressing science done by others so as to make a buck (he was already as rich as Midas). Lowell was not trying to deliberately fool the groundlings in the back row (like the Duke and the Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn). Lowell actually believed there were canals on Mars. His posthumous reputation has taken the consequent hit for it (rich guy, built a big telescope, crazy as a bedbug). If the American Petroleum Institute thought increasing global temperatures was good for their stock price they would now be funding the same main-stream climate scientists they are now defunding and defaming. But since AGW will negatively hit oil stock prices, they need Ph.D biostitutes. Thankfully, University geology departments breed them like rabbits. In the meeting hall of every local Biostitute Klavern is a flag with the slogan, "Hey, I gotta feed my family, man."

Apollo 11 and the Two Million Parts

Author Craig Jackson ('Rocket Men') describes the Saturn V rocket and Apollo space capsules as having more than 2 million individual parts; even its contractors and builders could not give an accurate count. Each part was individually fabricated by a collective of 400,000 workers. If any of one the key parts had fatal flaws, Apollo 11 would never survive an Earth-Moon trip. Try and imagine biostitutes designing and building the Saturn V and Apollo 11. Actually, you don't have to. Apollo 1 was designed by biostitutes, which caused astronauts Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee to be fried to a crisp in a capsule test in 1964. This disaster caused NASA to weed out the biostitutes in its contractor-chain. A space craft like Apollo is a one-use device. It either works or it doesn't. It doesn't have to work over and over and over for millions of iterations. But a highway bridge does and a natural environment does and the Earth's environment does. This reveals to us the biostitute's secret:

They get paid in full with no fear of consequence when their lies hurt people.

This is why biostitutes have that name -- "bio" -- meaning living systems, which tend to have long consequence and feedback circles (ie. will catching 20 million cod a year affect the cod stock in 20 years?). By a biostitute's correct calculation, by the time their lie is revealed they will be comfortably retired, in their SUV and Florida vacation home, and legally immune from retribution. This delayed cycle cannot happen on Apollo 11 (if they screw up, the crew dies on national TV).

What Happens When the Client Says, "We Don't Care If it Works."

As any car owner knows, there are a million more ways to make a car not work than work. Neil Armstrong once said of Apollo 11, "This is a great statement about American craftsmanship." He meant that it worked -- as in it didn't blow up and kill him and Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins. But what if biostitutes worked on Apollo 11? What if the contractors and CEOs didn't care if it worked or not? What if everyone was completely unconcerned whether what they built worked or not -- so long as they got paid? That's what Armstrong, Grissom, White et al. were deeply worried about from 1964-1969 [Do these jackasses even care?]. It's one reason why NASA had all the astronauts do repeated 'meet and greets' at all the factories making parts for Apollo -- to remind the contractors that real peoples' lives were at stake if they sloughed off the job or their boss told them to skimp on the details.

Now think of the Earth as Apollo 11 - but 10 billion times larger. Both are space capsules floating in absolute zero. What if biostitutes run the Earth?


Saturday, December 09, 2017

Pingo Was Its Name-O

[pingo: (Inuit = 'conical hill') -- a semi-permanent ice-cored soil mound up to 900 feet high in the Canadian Arctic.]

There was a man who had a farm
On top of a dome of permafrost
And pingo was its name-o.

He had no wood, he had no twigs
Nothing to make a flame-o
And pingo was its name-o.

In summer he ate lots of bugs
Each meal came out the same-o
And pingo was its name-o.

The land was cheap, his meat would keep
No neighbors he could blame-o
and pingo was its name-o.

He had no life, he had no wife
No kids that he could claim-o
and pingo was its name-o.

He sent a letter to his friends
Which said this place is lame-o
and pingo was its name-o.

As he got old, he got less bold
ice-out just went and came-o.
and pingo stayed the same-o.


Monday, December 04, 2017

Are Viruses the same as Lot's Wife?

My 5-pound, 800 page, $200 biology textbook gives scant explanation to exactly how viruses differ from single-celled life. A few simple rules appear:

1. Viruses do not eat.
2. Viruses do not undergo binary fission (which all bacteria do).

It seems that until the very moment a virus encounters the cell wall of a target bacterium, it does nothing. It just sits there; its molecular and atomic structure unchanged from the moment it was 'born.' It doesn't eat, it doesn't starve, it doesn't breathe, it doesn't poop, it doesn't move. At this 'non-activated' state, a virus is indistinguishable from a very complex crystal of clay. But boy, when it makes contact with a target bacterium, it wreaks total havoc. It slyly and ingeniously commands the bacteria's DNA to make 200 copies of the virus and then kill itself.

Slyly? Ingeniously? How could an inanimate clay crystal be sly and ingenious? 

Easy. The virus (once in the cell wall), snips the bacteria's chromosomal DNA and inserts a bit of 'pirate code' into the bacterial DNA.* The bacterial DNA dutifully follows the pirated instruction sequence, one command at a time, until it's too late to stop. Upon completing the inserted pirate code, the bacteria DNA instructs itself to commit suicide, but not before making 200 or so copies of the invading virus. The cell walls explode (by command from the pirate code) and the 200 viruses fly free to continue the cycle.

Why Do Bacteria Eat?

Bacteria reproduce by splitting in half. Let's say a very simple bacteria (E. coli) contains 1 trillion atoms, when it splits each one contains 500 billion. If they split, 250 billion. And if they split, then 125 billion. In a few hours of splitting you run out of atoms! To correct this deficiency, bacteria eat things, ie. they import stuff ('food') into their cell walls to replace what was lost by splitting in two. Do bacteria eat to reproduce or reproduce because they eat? It doesn't really matter -- except they do -- and viruses don't.

Why Don't Viruses Attack Each Other? 

Think of two naked guys trying to steal each others' clothes.

Complexity from Simplicity vs. Simplicity from Complexity:

Bacteria generate complexity from simplicity (their 'food' is either sunshine and CO2 or heat + hydrogen sulfide). They create enormous complexity from the simplest raw materials. Viruses create simplicity from complexity. They attack bacteria and 'trick' the bacteria's DNA to commit suicide and produce a few hundred virus 'objects' + cellular rubble.

But Isn't This A Distinction Without A Difference?

As in, doesn't a human, eating a deer, turn a 'live deer' into just a bunch of meat and cells? Hasn't the deer been reduced from complexity to simplicity?

Good question, which is why the term 'parasite' is not very useful at any level of life. All life (except chlorophyll algae and plants) are to some extent 'parasites' (except if you call trees 'parasitic' upon sunlight). However, viruses create a very large and fundamental distinction. Viruses are not just that guy who didn't put his $10 into the check at the restaurant -- they are the guy who stole your wallet and all your money and then ate you. Viruses are nasty at an exponential level:

They make you willingly commit suicide with your own gun. 

But don't Angler fish use deception to the extreme, like tricking a little fish to thinking its fleshly lure is a worm? 

Good point. Snapping turtles do that too (with their tongues). But viruses take sensory deception to a 1,000-fold level. To understand this level-change, it's important to switch to computer language. The exact operation viruses perform on bacteria is like a computer virus inserting a 20-line piece of code into your computer's OS which says, "erase hard drive, then continue at line 2145." This is much different from a little fish drawn to near an Angler fishes' lure. This is more like an enzyme in the fishes' brain telling it to swim as fast as it can into a rock. The difference is important. A little fish fooled by an Angler fish's lure is still behaving normally -- a fish whose enzymes start turning its brains into a discombobulated pile of slop is not. But that is exactly what viruses do to the 'brain' of the bacteria -- the pirate DNA tells the bacterial DNA to turn itself into a pile of slop -- and it faithfully does it. And just before the bacterial DNA turns itself into slop, the inserted viral DNA code says, "On the way out, can you make a few hundred copies of me?"

Why Haven't Viruses Completely Destroyed All Life?

Good question. A true and competent generalist virus could (or should) be able to invade all living cells and trick their DNA into making copies of the virus and destroying themselves. They have tried ... Lord they have tried (just ask influenza in 1919). A plausible answer might be if we compare viruses to cowbirds, which never make nests but put their eggs in other birds' nests. Well ... if cowbirds won, there would not be any nests to put their eggs in and they would go extinct. Similarly, a "Viral Earth" would quickly grind to a halt since there would be no DNA left for the viruses to attack.

Are Viruses Better Described as Inorganic Crystals?

I favor this simply because viruses do not eat and do not reproduce. In the absence of viruses, bacteria would prosper quite happily for billions of years. In the absence of bacteria (or somatic cells), viruses would immediately go extinct. Rather than being life, viruses might be called adjuncts to life. But there is a clear distinction between viruses and true mineral molecules (like clay). Clay minerals will exist on a planet if there was or was never life. Viruses cannot eat clay -- they can't and don't eat anything. Without more complex DNA to pirate and subvert, viruses cannot exist.

But Don't Viruses Mutate and Evolve Much Like Life?

Correct. This is a key distinguisher between viruses and super-exotic clay crystals. Viruses contain DNA and they do mutate in the same fashion as life (incorrect copying + natural selection = evolution). We know this because influenza viruses can 'outfox' cell defenses almost as soon a new rampart is thrown upward. A working definition of a virus could be:

Virus (n.): A very small, non-heterotrophic, non-reproductive form of DNA and protein which follows Darwinian rules of mutation and selection pressure. 


* Computer viruses re-write tiny sections of a computer's Operating System (OS) but leave 99.999 percent of the OS intact. A computer virus can be just a few lines of code; a computer OS comprises millions of lines of code. Without an OS, a computer virus has nothing to 'act upon.' Before bacteria, what did viruses have to 'act upon'? Think of a computer virus specifically written for a Commodore VIC-20 computer (c. 1986). Its 'code' might be still floating around in 2017, but what can it act upon?

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Plate Tectonics on Mars -- a Make or Break for Life?

Olympus Mons, Mars. 70,000 ft. tall.

By Douglas Watts

SUMMARY: Most recent (2017) data indicates that while Mars had some plate tectonics around 3.5 billion years ago, it has not had any since then. While the jury is still out on whether Mars ever had or still has life, evidence seems unequivocal that Mars has not had plate tectonics like Earth for the past 3.5 billion years. Mars' crust seems to be as frozen-in-place as the Moon (and has been for 3.5 GY). Venus still has active volcanism; Earth still has active volcanism and plate tectonics. Mars does not.

For Mars, two separate issues are invoked (life; plate tectonics). Are they connected? Like Venus, Mars today has 'nowhere to go' -- its atmosphere and surface rock are in chemical, pressure and temperature equilibrium [Venus can't get cooler; Mars can't get warmer]. For Venus and Mars to be terraformed to Earth-like conditions, Venus must lose 80 percent of its atmosphere. Mars must increase its atmosphere proportionally (from 6 mbar to 700-1000 mbar). Absent giant asteroid collisions or displacements of orbital distance from the Sun, Venus and Mars appear stuck forever in their present atmospheric density, temperature and chemistry equilibria. These conditions prohibit all known life.

Two Mars features (Olympus Mons; Valles Marineris) strongly suggest the crust of Mars has been locked in place for 3+ billion years. If Olympus Mons (a classic 'hot spot' mantle volcano) was at the position of Hawaii, it would have travelled 1,500+ miles in the last 100 million years (ie. similar to Hawaii to Midway). It hasn't moved a foot. Craters on the caldera show this.

The lack of crustal movement on Mars for + 3GY is not per se prohibitive of life. But it does suggest Mars has very little heat in its crust and upper mantle. And unlike Venus, Mars is not suffering from a super-abundance of heat. On a Mars summer day (when temps. are near 70 F), at sundown it drops to -94 F. This is lower than the lowest temperature ever measured on Earth outside the Antarctic Ice Plateau (Snag, Yukon Territory, Canada at -81 F). On a cold winter night on Mars the temperature hits -216 F (the freezing point of carbon dioxide is -113 F). On a hot summer night at Mars' equator the temperature is lower than almost anywhere ever recorded on Earth.

While Mars and Earth are sometimes considered 'similar' planets -- Mars is actually more like the Moon. It's just too small to be like Earth. Mars has 1/2 the diameter of Earth, 1/6th the volume, and 1/9th the mass. Six Mars (by volume) can fit in Earth; nine Mars by mass. The ratio of surface area to volume on Mars is twice that of Earth. This means that Mars' internal heat leaks out to space twice as fast as Earth. This is a nasty conundrum since Mars started 4.5 GY ago with 11 percent of the original heat of the Earth but has been losing its heat into space twice as fast [think of a balloon or a bucket; one is 6X smaller than the other but losing its water twice as fast; which will empty faster over 4 billion years?]

The Universe is a Really, Really, Cold, Dark and Empty Place.

If you set your 'Star Trek' transporter at random, your chances of being transported to a place not at absolute zero and less than a million billion miles from the nearest warm spot would be like winning Powerball two weeks in a row. The weird thing about temperature is that its low point is bounded (absolute zero); its high point has no proportional boundaries (how about 10 million degrees !!!). Earth (and liquid water) is at the low end of the scale.

Planets have a tough time. They coalesce at 1-3,000 F but then start cooling off, like horseshoes taken out of a blacksmith's foundry. The outside atmosphere is not 40 F, but absolute zero. Radioactive decay (Uranium and Thorium) gives them some 'built-in' heat which is very slowly given off (half life of U-238 = 4.5 GY). But Mars has only 1/6th to 1/9th the 'bank account' of U/Th as Earth and sheds the heat from its U/Th bank account twice as fast. So how do planets create (and hold) their natal heat?

Tides. Jupiter's inner moon, Io, is the most volcanically active planetoid in the Solar System. Its heat source is from being pulled and tugged relentlessly by Jupiter (and its sister moons around Jupiter). Tidal friction is enough to cause a planetoid to swell, shrink and grind against itself every few days, weeks and months and generate heat friction sufficient to melt rock and make volcanoes. Venus is not as tidally heated as Io, but its ambient temp. (900F) is so high its rocks are ready to flow like thick honey with just a polite suggestion. Why is Mercury not like this? It has no atmosphere and no green house gasses to trap and keep its heat. Any potter understands it is not enough to get a temperature up to 1200 F for a few minutes; to make rock melt and flow the melting temperature must be kept up for long periods (this is called 'heat work'). This is sort of like microwaving a turkey so its skin is charred but its center is still frozen; and why in the Arctic there is 1,000 feet of permafrost below 10 feet of thawed soil on the surface. The heat-budgets (and heat budget histories) of planets and planetoids are not well understood. Since the initial seismograph on Viking 1 failed in 1976, there is still no useful seismology for Mars.

Sagan and the Drake Equation

The inference that 'some' planets in Milky Way 'must' support life (by random chance) is easily testable via exercises such as Powerball drawings. Odds of winning Powerball this week are ~ 1: 292 million. In Fall 2017, there were 21 Powerball drawings in a row without a winner. The minimum time for planets to form and cool enough to support life is at the 1-2 GY scale. At Powerball odds, a galaxy like the Milky Way could stochastically go billions of years without hitting a "Powerball winner," ie. a planet supporting life of any type (and especially, complex multicellular life).

The maximum age of the visible Universe is approx. 13.8 GY, with conditions possibly supporting life occuring at its half way point or later. (7 GY). This leaves scant room for the creation of life (most, if not all life had to have developed since 7GY when the Universe cooled down and formed stable galaxies and Sun-type, middle sequence stars). As such, a Sagan-Drake inference that there must be some planets with life somewhere would be a much better bet if the visible Universe was 130, 1300, 13,000 or 130,000 GY, in the same sense that multi-cellular life is much more probable if the Earth's age is 4.5 GY than 1 GY.

But What About Us?

Then how the Hell are we here? Good question. Maybe Earth is the first planet to support life (and multi-cellular life) in the Milky Way. Even in a race where everyone tries to lose, someone has to come in first. To take Darwinism on its face, there is no reason, impetus, cause, direction or desire for what we call *life* to evolve in the first place. Rocks and clay appear quite content just being what they are for billions and billions of years. Just as life has no direction toward complexity, the Universe has no direction toward life.

But What About Antarctic Meteorites?

Of the millions of meteorites which have landed on the Antarctic Ice Plateau in the past 20,000 years from Outer Space, one would think that one of them contained tiny bits of life adapted to live in an environment of ice and very low temperature and would form a 'colony' near the impact site. But none have. If Galactic life is highly fungible (in terms of tolerance to extremes of climate, atmosphere, temperature), then surely Earth's constant bombardment by meteorites over millions of years should have produced one viable 'seed.'

Plate Tectonics: The Forgotten Revolution

It's now hard to recall how bitterly the concept of Plate Tectonics was opposed during the 20th century.  I still have geology textbooks and stacks of professional papers from the 1960s and 1970s which grudgingly concede that plate tectonics 'could' be 'possibly' true (John McPhee's book, 'In Suspect Terrane' interviews one of the last dead-enders). Today, these books read like someone saying that since it has not yet been proven that mice do not spontaneously generate from pile of rags in the cellar, we must assume they might. Thankfully there was Apollo 11. On July 20, 1969, in one hour of specimen collection, Astronaut Neil Armstrong collected 20 pounds of Moon rocks and turned 1 million+ pounds of geology tomes into paper suited only for re-pulping. [Apollo geologist/astronaut Harrison Schmitt said of Armstrong, "Until Apollo 17 we really did not get very much good, solid descriptive work, with one exception -- Neil Armstrong. He was probably the best observer we sent to the Moon; in spite of very limited training, he just had a knack for it."]

It is not coincidental that the plate tectonics revolution of the late 1960s on Earth coincided with humans' first exploration of planets outside Earth. Absent plate tectonics, no sense could be made of the Moon (or Mars or Venus) any more than reaching the Moon via rocket at 25,000 mph could be done if it was still assumed the Earth could be the Center of the Universe and the jury was still out on Kepler and Newton. [cf. Michael Collins, 7/20/1969 to Houston: "The accuracy of the system is phenomenal. Out of a total of nearly 3,000 feet per second, we have velocity errors in our body axis coordinate system of only 1/10th foot per second in each three directions."]

Exoplanets Fuse Harmoniously Geology, Biology and Physics.

For a biologist, studying Venus seems like a giant, expensive waste of time (why not study molten lead?). But for studying the prospect of life on exo-planets, Venus is incredibly important. Venus offers the only example of what can happen when an Earth-sized planet is a bit too close to its star (and how far a 'bit' might be). For geologists, Mars offers a similar and singular example: what happens when a planet never develops plate tectonics, but all other normal activities (mantle hot spots) are intact? I think this is what folks like Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders hoped might eventually happen when they went up into the tin-cans called Apollo 8 and 11. I think they hoped that their explorations would cause the over-specialized branches of geology, astronomy, biology, physics and materials engineering (not to mention computers) to come back together. This is not unheard of. Walking up the Sheepscot River in Palermo, Maine on a rainy cold day in November, I saw a pair of 70-foot pine trees which began as separate trunks join and fused 20 feet up into one trunk, then split off again at 40 feet. It shook me. For those 20 feet, the two pine trees were living and working as one tree.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Bill Townsend -- A Lost Mentor and Friend

Book Review

"Trouble Maker -- The Memoirs of Clinton B. ('Bill') Townsend."
2017. Published by estate of Clinton B. Townsend. Canaan, Maine.
ISBN: 978-1-940244-94-5

December 1, 2017 -- Laura Rose Day just dropped off the 537-page hard-cover copy of Bill Townsend's book, "Trouble Maker," published by his family posthumously. Before I forget too much, reflect too much and cry too much, I wanted to jot down these words from reading it.

Bill's book captures what I think was his mantra, "Be passionate but speak dispassionately." Bill says in the foreword, "These memoirs are largely a record of events, not of personal relationships, although there have been plenty of the latter. No one could have led my life without plenty of social interaction. If leaving out much of that makes the material 'stiff' or boring, so be it." Like the liner notes on the first Boston record ('Listen to the record !'), this command should be appended to every sentence of this review ('Read the Book!').

Bill Townsend was born in 1927; he turned 60 in 1987. I first met Bill briefly in 1991 (when he was 64 and I was 26) but only really knew him beginning in 1997, when he turned 70. Bill died in late 2016 at age 89. From age 63 to 89 Bill did more for conservation than most people accomplish in their entire lives. Sixty-five is when most people retire; for Bill it was the start of his fourth quarter century. Bill only stopped doing conservation litigation until a few months before his passing in home hospice at his dirt-cellared farmhouse in Canaan, Maine.* Bill's brain and soul and spirit never gave out; his ticker and cell structure did. Given a few (uninvented) cell transfusions, Bill would right now be filing a procedural motion to get fish passage at the Frankfort, Maine head-of-tide dam fixed.

Despite Bill's perpetual suit and tie, he loved blues and rockabilly music. Johnny Cash's song, "I've Been Everywhere, Man ..." could be Bill's. He travelled from Tierra del Fuego to Labrador to stand in an icy river up to his waist, and put a size 12 Adams over trout, char and salmon. One day in 2006 he called me up, out of the blue, said he hired a guide and a boat just to go striper fishing near Lines Island on the lower Kennebec River. I arrived, the boat and guide was there, and we hit it. The stripers snuffed us (I think we caught 3), but Bill's determination never flagged (as a salmon fisherman, Bill well knew that fishless days are the price paid for each strike).

Bill caught lots of trout and salmon and kept them; he shot lots of duck and deer and ate them. He had dogs, cats, horses and cows and a farm and a law office in Skowhegan, Maine, where he (especially as a District Attorney) had to deal with some of the worst behavior of humans. But he took it all somehow in stride and never lost his perspective on the big picture.

At 72 he volunteered to be part of the 'mussel brigade' in 1999 to move freshwater mussels de-watered by removing the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Augusta, Maine. While paid state staffers 'patrolled' in canoes, Bill got into the greasy muck to toss mussels into the river channel from Noble's Gravel Pit. This was 2 years after he had a near fatal heart attack.** Bill led by example; if mussels had to be moved, he was the first out in the goop to chuck the last handful.***

In all of my talks with Bill, often driving to a Maine Council Atlantic Salmon Federation meeting, we never talked 'big picture,' as in, "Bill, what does all of this mean?" Bill was always focussed on getting something done; and what needed to be done to get that thing done and how that could build to something bigger. It is probably a fact that Bill Townsend, as an attorney, firestarter and cheerleader, created more small, non-profit land trusts and conservation groups than any one person in Maine's history.

Like a 100 foot mural by Thomas Hart Benton, Bill's book, "Trouble Maker" is too large to digest in one view, one sitting and certainly in a brief note like this ('Read the Book!'). Each sub-chapter could easily be expanded to a short non-fiction novel in and of itself. Bill knew this while writing at age 88; I assume he hoped others would color in the details which his sketches capture. I was told by LRD that even when Bill was very sick he was adamant about his book not being 'edited.' This is understandable, Bill Townsend was a powerful, expressive and factually-meticulous writer. His style is that of Leopold and Hemingway and many of the best "just the facts, ma'am" writers of that generation.

[To give an idea of Bill's adherence to veracity, his chilling description of prosecuting a case of child rape is told almost solely through the verbatim testimony of the child from the docket record of the Maine Supreme Court.]

So as to reviewing Bill's book, I have to quote Tom Scholz of Boston in 1976 ('Listen to the Record!') and conductor Kent Nagano in 1991 ('The text is the text.'). The good news about Bill's memoir is that it leaves you hungry for a sequel. The bad news is there won't be one -- unless we help write it.

Douglas H. Watts
Dec. 1, 2017

[* I know Bill and Louise Townsend's cellar was dirt-floored because at Bill's 89th birthday party I was down there, shagging a butt, and studying the sulfidic, rusty bedrock which the house was built on back in the early 1800s on Nelson Hill Road in Canaan.]

[** Bill had a near-fatal heart attack in fall 1996 and was in intensive care for a month so. When he got out he had a Van Dyke beard (where the oxygen mask covered his nose, mouth and chin). It looked just like 'Spock's Beard' from Star Trek. I told him it made him look mean and he said, "I like that."]

[*** On August 12, 1999, at the second Edwards Dam drawdown, Bill took a nasty header on a slick rock at Bacons Rips rescuing endangered mussels. He was sore but recovered a day or so later.]

Friday, August 24, 2012

Alewife by Douglas Watts

Ordering info for: Alewife by Douglas Watts (hard copy and ebook).

"Alewife" is a personal, biological and historical account of the alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus), one of the (formerly) most abundant sea-run fish of the U.S. Atlantic seaboard. It is the only full-length treatment of the natural and cultural history of this keystone wildlife species ever written.

"Alewife" tells the story of a fish, the alewife, once ubiquitous to the eastern U.S., which is almost gone due to wholly human causes; and a never-been-told 400 year history of many long forgotten people who labored mightily to bring the alewife back. It tells the story of the fish through its own eyes and life, apart from what it 'can do' for us. It depicts a place where cultural, natural, political and legal forces wildly collide. It's about the fight for, against, and over a dimunitive but once extremely abundant fish that still continues today in state and federal court rooms across the states of the eastern seaboard. It is about what nature in our backyards meant to us in the past, what it means today and what it might mean to us 10, 20 or 50 years from now. It's a story about a lot of disparate people over 400 years and how nature and culture provoked them for good, bad and indifferent. It's not nearly complete, there are many stories still untold, but gives a flavor for the battlefield, the stakes to be lost and gained and hints to where the tipping points have been and still are. It's a hybrid, with all the advantages and disadvantages an unorthodox approach entails. Bridging gaps might be its central theme. I wrote this for an adventurous reader who is not afraid to skip a chapter and then come back to it later. It is intentionally kaleidoscopic; a multi-levelled story. The essays owe much to the series of young adult books, "Tell Me Why," by Arkady Leokum. 

The book is in two sections. One section is selected verbatim public domain record excerpts describing the species and its use and abuse by humans in New England from the 1600s to present. Most of these documents were written in quill pen, discovered and hand copied by the author, and have never seen the light of day before. The second section tells, in a personal essay style, the story of the alewife, based mostly on recent efforts in New England to protect and save them. 

The book began several years ago as the historic texts with a short introduction and was originally intended for dissemination to fisheries scientists, environmental regulators and river conservationists as a technical, factual resource. At the instigation of a fellow writer, Kerry Hardy (who wrote the foreword), I loosened up to tell in a first-person voice my many encounters with these critters in the waters of New England since childhood and the obstacles one encounters trying to help them not go extinct. It's a tough racket. These personal stories echo back to the historical texts, which detail how people 50, 100, 200 years ago tried to do the same thing and encountered nearly identical obstacles, albeit time-shifted by a century or three. 

The tone and weight of the text is balanced to make it accessible to an informed and inquisitive lay audience and to a professional scientific audience; and above all, to be fully scientifically sourced. My brother and I's personal travails trying to help alewives survive are deliberately told in a 'camp-fire' fashion and with the level of humor and absurdity the details deserve. 

About the Author

Douglas Watts was born in North Easton, Massachusetts in 1964 a few dozen miles from Cape Cod and the Atlantic Ocean in southeastern Massachusetts and spent most of his childhood up to his waist in ponds and brooks and saltwater. He received his education in journalism and English at the Univ. of Maine at Orono from 1982-1986. In 1986 he began work as a full-time newspaper and magazine reporter, editor and photographer in Maine and Massachusetts for a variety of small and large newspapers and then as a conservation writer for the Maine Sportsman magazine, the Atlantic Salmon Journal, Wild Steelhead & Salmon, and Corporate Challenge News. Since 1999 he has worked full-time as a professional consultant for numerous New England conservation groups, doing ecological and legal research on the history and health of New England's coastal river ecosystems. This historic research forms the bulk and inspiration of "Alewife." Since 1998, he has been a plaintiff and/or principal researcher in numerous legal cases in Maine and Massachusetts regarding restoring native sea-run fish to rivers of the northeastern U.S. His historic research has been used and cited by the United States Supreme Court in a landmark 2006 Clean Water Act case, S.D. Warren v. Maine BEP, and by the National Academy of Science in its 2004 monograph on the status of native Atlantic salmon in the United States. His advocacy on behalf of the American eel is featured in a Sept. 2010 National Geographic story by writer and artist James Prosek and his book on the same topic, "Eels," (Harper Collins 2010). He was a consultant and subject in the 2003 film "Troubled Waters: the Dilemma of Dams" by Beth and George Gage, featured at the Telluride Film Festival and Maine Film Festival.  

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Hunt-Libby Special Project No. 1 by Sonny Probe

Hunt-Libby Special Project No. 1
An Opera in Four Acts by Sonny Probe

I. Act One  

Their Assault on Our Assault on Their Liberties

1. Bay of Pigs Veterans Clandestine Radio Goo Goo.
2. Launch of  the Prostitute Yachts in Baltimore Harbor.
3. Sirhan B. Sirhan, James Earl Ray and Pete Cosey.
4. To Put it Bluntly, How to Screw Our Political Enemies.

II. Act Two

A Firm but Measured Response Involving Burglary

5. Cuban Exiles Wtd, Mad Sklz w/ Lck Pks gd.
6. He's Dr. Feel Ding.
7. Watergate Break-In Memorial Day Bake No. 1. 
8. Watergate Break-In Flag Day Bake No. 2.

Intermission w/ Complimentary Pinot Noir, Deviled Eggs
and Consensual Pocket Litter Exchange.

III. Act Three 

Yeah, We Jam on Wednesdays at this D.C. Modified Limited Hangout.

9. John W. Dean Karaoke Night.
10. Jeb Stuart Magruder Home Organ Samba Freak-Out.
11. Facing the Constituents at Home on Rat Poison.
12. CREEP Political Memorandum No. 18.
13. John and Joni Mitchell Up In A Tree.

IV. Act Four 

Cleaning Up Behind the Elephant.

14. The Sam Ervin Galatians Mahlerian Aria.
15. Edmund Sixtus Muskie Goes All Frank Marino.
16. Impeach Earl Warren !!!
17. Flying Mr. Johnson Into Space.

Deux ex Machina, Global Licensing Claim/Disclaimer
and Location of Fire Exits and Restrooms.

Hunt-Liddy Special Project No. 1, the revenue generating and trademarked subsidiary product component wholly owned by the license holder (see Tab A, fn. 1), by which you have now irrevocably agreed to abide by reading this word, not that one, but this one, hah! made you read it, has created the attached 'original work' ('original work') so as to create an wholly spurious but facially justiciable claim on all of the thoughts, words and feelings of the Dramatis Personae and any rights held by their heirs and assigns and you too. Alea iacta est

Operational Objectives: Emplaced tactical tangents will first create a verifiable cover as 'screenwriters' for an 'opera' titled 'Hunt-Liddy Special Project No. 1' through various 'underground' network dissemination channels and establish social and cultural  infrastructural oxyrhynchus where necessary to secure entrenchment. No ants will be stepped on. If cover is compromised, embedded operatives  will deploy Operation Beetle where they turn into beetles and crawl into an asphalt street to get squashed like bugs. If no large trucks come by, operatives will apply Operation Hydrofluoric Acid Facial Scrub and Sticking Your Head into a Giant Belt Sander Connected to a Blast Furnace Underneath a Nuclear Bomb so as not to compromise mission effectiveness. 


Scene One opens with a brief mid 1960s Top Secret Comint message regarding Commie Infiltration of 4H clubs in Nebraska not fully unopposed to recreational bunny hangings.

Scene Two scopes out a bold and aggressive attack against enemies at home and abroad. 

Scene Three shifts to a dark cellar DC club in 1968 as MLK and RFK are offed but Blind Willie Johnson is found miraculously alive, with a pen knife.

Scene Four counts the number of footsteps travelled up and down back stairways by couriers to achieve approval of the Enemies List and its operational actuator, Hunt-Libby Special Project No. 1.


Scene Five contains the music offered by a pick-up band in a decrepit Homestead, Florida dive bar at closing where the properly skilled anti-Castro burglars were located and enticed by Hunt to execute Special Project No. 1.

Scene Six is the Cuban-styled song and video game going through the burglars' heads as they ransack Dr. Fielding's psychiatric office in Beverly Hills, CA to find his file on Daniel Ellsberg, who sent the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.

Scene Seven depicts the same Cuban-American burglars, along with CREEP Security Officer James McCord, Jr., planting telephonic bugs in the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel on Memorial Day weekend, 1972.

Scene Eight depicts the burglars' second entry into the Watergate to fix a faulty phone bug on June 17, 1972, getting busted by Watergate Hotel security officer Frank Wills, then getting hauled off, mug-shotted, finger-printed and having their 'pocket litter' examined, which included numerous $100 bills with consecutive serial numbers which the FBI traced to illegal, unreported campaign donations made to the CREEP. 

This is intermission time, so please feel free to go into the lobby, mix and mingle with other generous SeasonSubscribers and enjoy the complimentary white wine and deviled eggs. 


Scene Nine depicts Counsel to the President John W. Dean sitting in and stealing the show with Roger Miller at an invite-only CREEP event the night he realizes he is going to jail no matter what happens, so he might as well grab $4,850 in Hunt-Liddy hush money from his office safe to pay for his honeymoon and leave in its place a personal cheque.

Scene Ten is a rare binaural recording of CREEP chief of staff Jeb Stuart Magruder, feeling musically jealous of John Dean's boffo cameo with Roger Miller, whipping out some edgy home organ Samba riffs on the night he perjured himself to the Watergate Grand Jury. 

Scene Eleven depicts a disturbing hallucinogenic dream that Sen. Edward Gurney (R-FLA) keeps having where he is back in his birth state of Maine giving an incoherent 'JFK' styled stump speech at Carthage Town Hall during Congressional Recess where the 10 elderly Grange members in attendance keep looking like chickens without heads. 

Scene Twelve captures the musical mood when John J. Wilson, attorney for H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, calls U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) "that little Jap" on the steps of Congress. Sen. Inouye has no right arm. He lost it in battle in Italy during World War II. Good times were had by all.


Scene Fourteen is a wiretap obtained by the infamous 'double agent' from a now-legendary late night hootenany at John Mitchell's Manhattan apartment, where over numerous fifths of Dewar's, Mitchell rocks the mike Kingston Trio style at why Dean and Magruder need to stick to the plan, jail or no jail. A young and precocious Lee Atwater walks in halfway through the jam session with an ice bucket and his Gibson Flying V and lays down some 'hippy' guitar licks and goes all Steve Miller and Pharoah Sanders. Mitchell's third and fourth chins nod approvingly.


Scene Fourteen depicts U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin (D-NC) gavelling in and out the Senate Select Watergate Committee Hearings. 

Scene Fifteen is a previously undisclosed closing concert given by U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie to the Senate Select Watergate Committee where he brings out the Vinnie Vincent Invasion and the non-gay guy from Queensryche in an 'All Star Lite Metal Tribute to Roy Orbison and all those Other Old Fuckin' Rockin Dudes' to the Senate podium. During the tap bass solo, Sen Muskie forcefully argues for the President's signature on the U.S. Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, especially Section 401. He also seeks a Congressional Resolution where Geddy Lee is not allowed to say, 'Ladies and Gentlemen, the Professor on the Drums," anywhere in hearing distance of the international boundary of the U.S. and Canada along Lake Huron.

Scene Sixteen is a piano etude written by Hugo Black and performed by U.S. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger in memoriam to the recently deceased Chief Justice Earl Warren at the commencement of oral arguments in United States v. Nixon. 

Scene Seventeen is the Greek Chorus of the Ghosts of Ed White, Roger Chaffee and Gus Grissom discussing with Congress the importance of the future of space travel to the United States as they lie burning to death like baked potatoes in aluminum foil in the Apollo 1 space capsule at Cape Canaveral in a pure oxygen atmosphere while Liddy and Hunt and Colson decided the Real Enemy was Black U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-MI).


The song "Truck Driver Divorce" (Scene 5) was written by Frank Zappa. The song "I Catch Myself Crying" (Scene 9) was written by Roger Miller. Fair use of these two songs is invoked since they are used herein as operatic and satiric vehicles to describe felonious crimes for which the culprits ultimately were convicted in federal court. Whether the real people involved in these felonious convictions actually sang these songs on karaoke night in Washington, D.C. in 1972-1973 has yet to be firmly established but might well could have happened.