As I, cough, cough, mentioned last time, I, hack, live in the leafy Washington suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland.
Our little town calls itself “Azalea City,” which you’d believe if you stopped by in springtime. And year ’round, gasp, we live beneath a canopy of big, beautiful trees, including, snort, thousands and thousands of killer white oaks and chestnut oaks, some dating to President Arthur’s administration of the 1880s.
OK, “killer oaks” is a stretch. They do drop acorns with bombardier accuracy, but only occasionally do their venerable trunks and branches fall on our houses and cars and citizens.
But they’re a menace nonetheless, at just the wrong times.
In the days when most folks took the streetcar, rode bicycles, or even walked into town, they came just to sit under those trees and breathe in the fresh air in our relatively high ground above the odoriferous big city. Nowadays, people mostly drive in or take the bus. When it’s hot — and we’ve had 40 days of Farenheit 90°+ (32° Celsius) readings with high humidity just since April — air-quality levels have been dreadful.
And if scientists at Texas A&M University are right, those oak trees, of all things, are contributing to all the hacking and wheezing on Code Orange and Code Red air-quality days.
Now you and I have always praised our trees for their environmental contributions. Good trees!! After all, as About.com’s Steve Nix points out, a mature tree produces as much oxygen in a season as 10 people inhale in a year. Good oxygen, too, right?
But apparently that’s not all that oak trees pump into the air.
According to Texas A&M atmospheric chemist Renyi Zhang and chemistry department head Simon North, just when things get smoggiest and steamiest, oaks emit a toxic hydrocarbon that stunts their own growth and contributes to global climate change. That’s the current, politically correct alternative to the dicier “global warming.”
The National Science Foundation has given professors Zhang and North a $300,000 grant to study the release into the atmosphere of the hydrocarbon compound isoprene — C5H8 for you chem. majors — on the smoggiest days of the year.
Release, I point out again, not by smelly cars, stinky smokestack industries, or primping people applying hair spray, but by mighty oaks.
According to Professor Zhang, trees release isoprene when they “respire.” Breathe, in other words. Like us, a big-old oak really huffs and puffs, though inconspicuously, on hot, humid days when pollution fouls the air.
Here’s what’s going on. Pay attention, class:
The oak gives off isoprene, which then, after a number of chemical reactions, increases the amount of ozone in the air.
That, too, sounds like a good thing. Normally, ozone drifts up — way up — to form a thick layer, high in the atmosphere, that blocks harmful ultraviolet radiation.
But as Professor Zhang explains, isoprene-generated ozone at tree level traps infrared radiation shimmering off the hot earth and makes things even more miserable.
It’s, ta-da, the “Greenhouse effect” in miniature: raising temperatures that, when widespread enough, lead to global, uh, climate change.
To quote Zhang exactly — without understanding most of it — “Although near-ground ozone has some beneficial effects, providing excited oxygen atoms needed to free OH radicals that help to bind other chemicals like sulfur and cleanse them from the atmosphere, excess ozone proves harmful to the health of humans and plants.”
In short, too much ozone at ground level can slowly kill trees. And fewer trees mean more CO2 in the air, trapping still more heat and further raising the planet’s temperature.
Zhang and North will study the extent of isoprene contamination in a perfect location. Not my backyard, but in Houston, not too far down the traffic-snarled highway from their campus in College Station, Texas. Houston is rife with smoggy freeways and live oak trees.
Not alive oak. Live oak. It’s a variety of oak.
The chemists hope to find ways to abate the trees’ onslaught of isoprene as at least a small contribution toward easing air pollution. For you chemistry buffs again, they’ll test using chemical ionization and laser-induced fluorescence.
“If we can fully understand the critical steps in the [isoprene-to-ozone] reaction,” Renyi Zhang says, “maybe we can determine where best to intervene in the process to keep both our oak trees and ourselves healthier.”
Where best? I’m sure our mayor would be thrilled if Zhang and North kicked the isoprene out of Takoma Park.
Oinking on the Rails
Washington is at war, and I’m not talking about Iraq or Afghanistan.
It’s a battle between civilization and seat hogs.
Our Metro subway cars are already running at or beyond capacity at rush hour, with a forecast of “unmanageable” levels of “saturation” on the system by 2020. Metro recently added a new set of rail cars, but they’re long on overhead straps for standees, and short on seats.
So places to rest our weary bottoms are at a premium, which makes the behavior of seat hogs all the more infuriating.
These are the folks who blithely lay a purse, briefcase, newspaper, umbrella, bagged lunch, or unknown but worrisome object on the unoccupied half of their seats. Some of them deliberately slide a skosh past the middle of the seat, leaving space that only a stick figure could occupy. Or stretch out across the entire seat, propping their feet against the armrest. And when the car is lightly occupied, a whole lot of people claim the aisle half of the seat in obvious hopes of discouraging those who might covet the vacant window location.
All the while, seat hogs nonchalantly bury their heads in a book, doze or pretend to, or glare menacingly — daring you to claim the empty spot.
“There’s a self-centeredness about it,” Metro rider Brooke Timmons told the Washington Post. Ya think?
Most other riders are too timid to do anything. Confronting seat hogs would be stressful enough; sitting next to one whom you’d irritated could be excruciating.
Not for me. I walk right up to the oafs or oafesses and point to the empty seat. I’ve even tapped snoozers on the shoulder before pointing.
They usually harumph, roll their eyes as if I were the thoughtless one, and grudgingly remove the obstacle or slide over. I imagine them saying to themselves, “Oh, well, I got away with it for the first half of the trip.”
I then spend the balance of the ride smiling smugly next to them.
My friends say provoking a seat hog could get me killed. Maybe, but they’d build a monument to me.
Besides, I’ve seen others do braver things, such as wiggling their hindquarters into the slivers of seat space left unguarded by piggy riders. And they’ve lived to tell about it.
In New York City, where one of the world’s most famous subways lurches underground, authorities have threatened to cite selfish seat hogs for disorderly conduct and fine them $50. Judging by the lack of enforcement of no-eating-no-drinking ordinances there and in Washington, I doubt this has closed New York’s budget deficit.
One Manhattan businessman took his point-and-shoot camera and snapped, then posted on Facebook, a photo of a woman who had stretched out her legs to block the unoccupied half of her seat. The photo drew such tumultuous congratulations that the fellow started a whole new Web site, seathog.com, to which angry riders from all over North America now post photos of what the Post calls “territorially insensitive riders.” Several shots on the site show human hogs clogging not just their entire seats, but also a seat or two next to them with bags and packages and wet umbrellas.
So many photos have flooded the site that it now has categories, including, “Defiling Seats,” “Legroom/Armroom Hogs,” “Outrageous Behavior,” and “Smelly or Filthy SeatHogs.”
I find social scientists’ and seat vigilantes’ explanations for such selfish behavior quite interesting. “I suppose people don’t want to give up their private space,” one transportation consultant told the Post.
Private space? I think he’s referring to Americans’ well-known distaste for close encounters with strangers, but what’s private about a subway car?
“Seat hoggers and people being rude in public has kind of reached a boiling point, with the economy bad,” seathog.com’s creator told the newspaper.
I don’t get the connection. Is everything still “the economy, stupid.” Because many of us are struggling, are we not going to put up with seat boars and sows any more?
Once we win the Great Seat Hog War and I’m retired and looking for something to get me out of the house, I’m going to launch a campaign against other displays of — what was that term again? — insensitive ridership on the Metro. Specifically, the cavalier discarding of newspapers onto the floor or stuffing them next to seats, and calling it “recycling.”
I’ll launch that campaign, that is, if I survive my stare-downs with seat hogs.
Attention All Cars
I’ve figured out that there really is a way someone can rob banks and get away with it.
For a while, anyway.
He or she just needs a cool nickname, ending in “Bandit.”
Every day, I read that authorities are searching for a “Grandma Bandit,” a “Geezer Bandit,” a “Tom Thumb Bandit,” “a Billy Goat Bandit,” or other brazen and imaginatively titled robber.
The latest in our area is the notorious “Bouquet Bandit,” who hands over a lovely flower arrangement in which the teller discovers a note demanding cash. In El Paso, Texas, they’re looking for the “Cargo Shorts Bandit.” Across the state in Houston, eyes are peeled for the “Point Blank Bandit.” In and around Ferndale, Michigan, you’ll want to steer clear of the “Bad Breath Bandit” for at least a couple of reasons.
In Los Angeles, the Bank Robbery — and, apparently, Bandit Nickname — Capital of America, all-points-bulletins have been issued for so many robbers with catchy names that it’s necessary to list them alphabetically: the Bad Rug Bandit, the Bedtime Bandit, the Chimney Sweep Bandit, the Dishonest Abe Bandit, the Ex-President Bandit, the Frat Dude Bandit, the Leap Frog Bandits, the Paparazzi Bandit, the Restroom Bandit, the Rorschach Bandit, the Snap Crackle and Pop Bandit, the Starlet Bandits, the Twenty Questions Bandit, the 24-Carat Bandit, and the Upper Lip Bandit.
The F.B.I. must have hired hack detective novelists to dream up these names. What crackling stories they’d write to describe criminals such as L.A.’s “Cyclops Bandit” or the dude whom Denver, Colorado, police dub the “Formerly Known as the Perennial Bandit Bandit.”
By the time his victims yelled out, “Help! Police! It’s the Formerly Known as the Perennial Bandit Bandit!” his getaway car would be peeling rubber.
Thankfully, someone has already been described as the “Midlife Crisis Bandit.” That would have been my nickname had I taken up a life of crime.
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)
Harumph. A huff or grunt or snort of disdain or disagreement.
Nonchalant. Casual, with utter lack of concern.
Odoriferous. Smelly. The root word is “odor.”
Primp. To preen or groom oneself with meticulous care and frequent glances at a mirror.
Skosh. A tiny amount; a smidgen.