My next public speaking appearance is coming up!
At the end of April we made another trip down to southern California to catch the tail end of the wildflower superbloom. We knew that the best part of the bloom had passed, because we had already seen lots of it a month ago, but thought that there might still be some color, especially at the higher elevations. Driving south, we chose to take a route down the eastern side of the Salinas and Central Valleys. It was a beautiful part of the drive, very much off the beaten path and blessedly peaceful and quiet.
Looking west, we could see how the marine layer had settled into the Salinas Valley, and the Santa Lucia Mountains beyond.
We did see flowers, but the marvel of the weekend wasn't of the natural variety. We went into the Tehachapi Mountains and took a detour off the main highway to check out the Tehachapi Loop. The Loop is one of the marvels of railroad engineering (no pun intended).
On this trip I had only one lens with me, the 70-200 mm zoom. I had set myself the challenge of taking a road trip with just the one lens, knowing full well that I didn't have the proper equipment for any sort of wide-angle perspectives. It was fun learning how to work within the narrow parameters I had set for myself. However, it meant that I didn't have the ability to capture the entire diameter of the Tehachapi Loop, so I had to photograph it in pieces. Between 30 and 35 trains go through the Loop every day, and we were lucky enough to see one go down and one go up.
Here's the tail end of a train going up (clockwise) through the Loop. The two locomotives are pushing the train.
Meanwhile, here's the front of the same train, being pulled by three orange locomotives:
Loops like this one in the Tehachapi Mountains were invented to solve a problem facing railroads. Trains are a popular way to transport a lot of cargo over long distances, and are pretty efficient over flat terrain. However, mountain ranges are large obstacles, as trains can't go up or down steep grades. When railroad designers are planning rail routes, there are four options for crossing mountains:
- Blast a tunnel through the mountains
- Find a path that meanders through the lower elevations and doesn't get very steep
- Construct a loop!
I know that tunneling through mountains can be extremely expensive, perhaps prohibitively so. A long, meandering track that avoids the high passes can also be expensive to build, and would necessitate acquiring more land through eminent domain. Trains can't make sharp turns, which means that switchbacks would be impractical. That leaves the loop.
The actual spiral part of the Tehachapi Loop is is 1.17 km (=0.73 miles) long. Any train that is longer than 1200 meters (4000 feet) will cross over itself as it travels through the Loop. The elevation difference between the two tracks where they cross is 23 meters (77 feet). The Loop allows trains to gain or lose that elevation in a very short period of time (~5 minutes for the second train we watched) and relatively little track. It's a nifty invention!
Here's the video of a train going up through the Tehachapi Loop:
This whole train thing was so much fun to learn about, and to watch in action. I usually save my 'oohs' and 'aahs' for natural phenomena, but I was excited about this Loop. Maybe this is the time to discuss invention and teleology.
Innovation and invention occur in both the natural world and the human-constructed world. The main difference is that humans design and build things to solve some problem that exists--in other words, an object designed by people has a defined purpose. Think, I need something to scoop with, so I will hollow out a flat piece of wood and invent a thing that will some day be called a spoon. Whoever invented the spoon did so to carry out a specific function.
In the natural world, however, inventions don't happen because of some forecast need. Organisms have characteristics, some of which confer a slight advantage in survival and/or reproduction and are thus favored by natural selection. Incremental improvements sometimes occur, only because individuals with a minor change in some characteristic happen to leave more offspring than individuals without it. Over many generations, characteristics can change quite dramatically, but it is important to remember that the change is very slow. We must also remember that natural selection does not have foresight. Evolution doesn't operate so that organisms will be 'better' at some point in the future. Organisms evolve to survive in the conditions in which they live, not the conditions that their descendants may face some day.
In his book Climbing Mount Improbable, Richard Dawkins uses the term 'designoid' for biological organisms and their evolved phenotypes, to dissuade teleological thinking. This made-up word illustrates the notion that organisms may appear to be designed for their lifestyles and habitats, but the '-oid' suffix means 'sort of, but not really'. It is not by sheer chance that organisms appear to be suited for their environments, but neither is it by design. Natural selection does not aim towards an endpoint, or perfect goal. Populations continue to evolve at different rates, according to how quickly their environment is changing. But there is no forecasting involved.
Now that I've belabored that point to death, let's return to the Tehachapi Loop. It is both a very simple and very effective concept--that traveling in a spiral is an easy way to gain or lose altitude--but for some reason watching a train go through a loop and cross over itself was really cool. The Loop used to be open to passenger rail traffic via Amtrak, but regular passenger service over the Tehachapis ended decades ago. Every once in a while, though, Amtrak's Coast Starlight train is diverted to the Loop due to maintenance or construction along the normal route. I thought it would be fun to catch one of those trains to go through the Loop, until I realized that from the inside of the train it would just be like going through a tunnel. Passenger trains aren't long enough to cross over themselves where the Loop's rails cross, so there wouldn't be much to see. Oh well. I got to see two trains cross over themselves from the overlook, and that was super fun! Sometimes, being on the outside looking in is the perspective you want to have.
A week ago today, on Valentine's Day, I accompanied two students from the Natural History Club to Seacliff State Beach. Catie and Ryan, on behalf of the NHC, want to take charge of a now-empty glass display case at the visitor center and turn it into an exhibit of some sort. I became an official faculty sponsor of the NHC this semester. During the meeting as we were filling out the paperwork, I had to undergo an initiation rite: the club officers told me I had to present my 5 best bird calls. This is easy enough to do when I'm relaxed at home watching birds, but having to do it on the spot with no warning effectively drove everything I knew about birds right out of my head. Fortunately I was able to pull myself together and give them a California quail, a golden-crowned sparrow, a flicker, a chickadee, and an Anna's hummingbird. The easiest one, the acorn woodpecker ('waka-waka-waka') never even occurred to me.
A few months ago, Joseph, the head interpretive ranger at Seacliff, showed me the display case and asked if I knew of a group of students who would like to do something with it. I told him I'd ask the NHC if they'd be interested in taking on a project like this. It would be good outreach for the club and get their name and branding out into the greater community. Fortunately they jumped at the chance, and Catie and Ryan volunteered to come to Seacliff with me to meet Joseph and discuss his and their plans for the case.
Shortly after our arrival at the visitor center, a woman burst through the door and said, "We can't get out! A tree fell across the road!" And sure enough, a tree had indeed fallen across the road:
Catie, Ryan, and I figured it would be a while before the road was cleared and we could leave, so we might as well take a walk on the beach. It had been a very stormy week, with wind, heavy rain, and even snow in the area. Down at sea level we were fortunate to escape much of the really bad stuff, but the pounding rain and big swell had done some erosion damage to the shoreline and moved tons of sand down the coast, resulting in steep beaches. This is a normal phenomenon that happens during winter storms, but the extent of the sand removal was unusual even for winter.
For one thing, this structure was partially exposed:
We didn't know what this thing was. There were other parts of it poking out of the sand, too. When we got back to the visitor center Joseph told us that this object is part of the original seawall, dating to the 1920s. It was allowed to crumble into disrepair and be reclaimed by the beach, and only rarely ever sees the light of day.
We saw other interesting things on the beach, too. Dead birds are interesting, right? Of course they are!
The removal of so much sand from the beach bared a lot of rocks that had been buried underneath. Many of them were fossil rocks! Catie was pretty excited about them. And she certainly was right, because aren't these super cool?
In addition to things long dead (fossils) and recently dead (murre), we found the results of recent spawning. The Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii) is a small schooling fish with a wide geographic distribution in the North Pacific. It had been an important fishery species but in the 1990s the fishery collapsed. Since then, with managed fishing, the species has been making a slow recovery.
Herring may spawn throughout the year, but the major spawning events occur at the beginning of the calendar year, when adults venture to shallow water in protected bays and estuaries. Females prefer to lay their eggs on eelgrass and other vegetation near the shore. According to The Lost Anchovy, the herring had been spawning in various locations in San Francisco Bay throughout January 2019.
We saw several clusters of what I think are herring eggs washed up on the beach at Seacliff. Some of the clusters were still wet, but without access to my dissecting scope I couldn't determine whether they were alive. Probably not. Herring eggs are heavily preyed on by birds, so in retrospect it was surprisingly to see so many that hadn't been eaten.
All in all it was a great afternoon for Catie, Ryan, and me. We hadn't planned on getting stuck behind a fallen tree, but if you're going to get stuck behind a fallen tree there are many worse places than a state park in California. None of us had to get back to campus at any particular time so we were free to meander as the fancy struck us. While we were at it we also did a mini beach clean-up, picking up as much trash as we could. That is always a depressing endeavor, but every piece picked up is one piece removed from the environment, and that can't be a bad thing. Some leavings were never meant to wind up on the beach.
In the wee hours of Sunday 12 August 2018, the F/V Pacific Quest ran aground near Terrace Point. Over the next 24 hours she broke apart and began leaking diesel fuel into Monterey Bay. Fortunately most of the diesel was removed from the wreck, but the boat itself continued to disintegrate, with a lot of the debris washing up on the nearby shoreline. Due to the wreck's position on the beach, clean-up crews have access to it only at low tide. We are now getting into a period of neap tides, limiting the time that people and equipment can be safely deployed on the beach. The good news is that after a delay yesterday due to an electrical problem, the removal of the Pacific Quest itself has begun.
The real deconstruction of the boat started during the evening low tide on 15 August. It was supposed to start on the morning low tide, but there was a problem with the equipment and the crew spent the day waiting for and installing parts. The salvage crew used a crane to lower a small excavator onto the beach, which gathered debris into a large pile. The excavator was also used to smash the remains of the boat into smaller pieces, so the crane could hoist them up the cliff. My husband walked down to the lab and took some video of the action:
I was at the lab on the morning of 16 August and took some pictures, too. The coastal access pathway is blocked around the area where the salvagers are working, so I could get only so close. Plus, the lighting conditions were about as bad as daylight can be, for taking photos: I was shooting directly into a bright morning sun, with a lot of fog in the air. As a result these photos aren't great, or even good, but they give a sense of what was going on at the time.
This picture of the crane was taken before any actual clean-up activity had started. The crane is positioned near the edge of the cliff on the coastal access trail. In this photo it is swiveled 180° away from the cliff.
While the crane was being fired up and moved into working position, two guys were on the beach using an excavator on the beach remove debris from the deck of the F/V Pacific Quest into a pile on the beach itself:
Then salvage workers attached a piece of debris to the line that was lowered by the crane:
And the crane began to lift up the chunk of debris:
And finally the piece of wreckage was taken off the beach:
I imagine the same sequence of events was repeated many times that morning, as often as the tide would allow. I hope the salvage guys are also picking up the flotsam that was carried to other beaches. The work will be limited by the tides. Fortunately we're into neap tides now, which is a mixed blessing. The highs and lows won't be as extreme as they were a week ago, resulting in less time that the crew can work on the beach (bad) as well as tides that are less likely to wash flotsam off the beach and back into the water (good).
The last I heard, the clean-up at the Terrace Point site was supposed to be completed by Saturday. That's tomorrow. Today (Friday 17 August) I went out to the point and had a nice chat with the security guy, who updated me on the progress. He said the crew removed the rest of the boat and a fuel tank yesterday. And the site of the original wreck is now clear of large pieces of boat:
There is one more fuel tank on the other side of that point, which the salvage crew will work on removing this evening at 20:00h when the tide will be low again. There are also people picking up debris on the Natural Bridges side of the point.
It isn't easy, working in these conditions, and once the immediate hazard of additional fuel discharge was abated the clean-up seems to have made slow but steady progress. Most of the flotsam is already gone, except for the inevitable little pieces that will get missed in this initial burst of clean-up activity. This Sunday, a week after the initial shipwreck, a visitor to the beach will not know that anything of interest happened here. Those of us who live and work and study here will remember, though.
This morning I went out on what will probably be my last low tide of the season. We don't get any good (i.e., below 0 feet and during daylight hours) until November, so it's time to hang up the hip boots for a few months and work on other things. I had planned to go to Natural Bridges even before the shipwreck incident, and since the wreck is right next to Natural Bridges I thought it would be good to check on how much debris is washing up at a site I visit frequently.
I'm sure that most people are familiar with the phrase "flotsam and jetsam", referring to pieces of miscellaneous stuff. I had to look up the terms to remember the difference between them. Flotsam is the stuff that floats on the water and gets washed up when a ship or boat wrecks, while jetsam is the stuff that is deliberately thrown overboard to reduce weight (say, to increase speed). What I would be seeing today is flotsam.
It was so sad. I'm not naive enough to have thought there would be no debris, but I wasn't sure what to expect--big pieces? small pieces? identifiable pieces? At this point I hadn't checked on the status of the boat yet and didn't know how much of it was still grounded off Terrace Point.
The first thing I saw was something (I don't know what) that had been dragged up the beach. It looks like a piece of equipment tangled up in a big piece of fabric, maybe a t-shirt? More than one t-shirt?
The first recognizable thing I saw was, oddly, a bulb of garlic. I don't know why it was surprising. Obviously, people who spend a lot of time on boats eat on boats, and some of the flotsam from any shipwreck is going to be food, right? Another food item that washed up was a vacuum-sealed package labeled "Emergency Ration".
Another everyday household (boathold?) item was a tube of sunscreen. I also saw a few plastic utensils, which may or may not have been from the shipwreck. Unfortunately there's always some plastic detritus on all of our beaches these days, a legacy from decades of single-use plastics being literally thrown to the wind to end up as garbage in the oceans and elsewhere. Hard to believe that "out of sight, out of mind" used to be the universal prevailing outlook, isn't it? Here in California and elsewhere there is much greater awareness in recent years that plastic in the environment never really goes away. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller particles, which can enter the food chain at lower and lower trophic levels. That's a whole other story to talk about. Maybe some day I'll be brave enough to tackle it.
Stuff from the wreckage was strewn across all of the intertidal benches and pocket beaches at Natural Bridges. This is looking towards Terrace Point, where remnants of the boat are stuck in the ground:
When I was watching the crews pumping fuel off the wrecked boat yesterday, I saw two survival suits washing around in the surf, and wondered where they would end up. I saw one of them this morning, along with two life vests.
And a respirator:
And an entire boat. This is the inflatable Zodiac that had been tied to the roof of the cabin of the F/V Pacific Quest.
I don't know what Marine Compound is, but a bottle of it washed up, along with what looks like a piece of insulation:
And of course there was styrofoam. Styrofoam is insidious stuff, because it doesn't remain intact long enough to be removed as big pieces, but instead immediately starts breaking down into small bits that will soon enough become the nurdles that are such a problem for marine life.
Already the pieces of plastic and styrofoam were getting smaller. I don't know what the blue stuff is; another form of styrofoam, maybe?
Not all of the flotsam has washed onto the beaches and rocks. There is still a significant amount floating in the water, to be transported to other sites near and far. There's even flotsam in the tidepools. Wood, fiberglass, and plastic are all included.
After leaving the intertidal I went to the marine lab to see what things looked like from the cliff about the wreck. The entire front part of the boat is now gone, and the only part remaining is the aft end containing the two heavy engines.
From the cliff you can better see how widely dispersed the flotsam is. It isn't concentrated in any particular area but is everywhere, in pieces small and large.
There is some good news. All of the fuel was removed from the boat so there's no further danger of additional chemical pollution into Monterey Bay. The salvage crew did remove some of the debris from the immediate area around the wreck, and tomorrow the engine will be removed by crane up the cliff. It's going to be an impressive and LOUD undertaking, starting very early in the morning.
Taking the long view, this is one of a great many acute insults to the marine environment. The ocean is resilient to some extent, but our actions are causing changes that affect the entire biosphere. I'm having a hard time finding a silver lining in this shipwreck. I certainly never wanted to bear witness to an environmental disaster on any scale. And while in the grand scheme of things this is a small localized event, it feels pretty momentous to me.
I'll leave you with this more positive photo. Flotsam aside, it was a beautiful morning.
Very early in the morning of Sunday 12 August 2018, the F/V Pacific Quest ran aground near Long Marine Lab. I found out about it because the lab facilities manager sent out a global e-mail telling us that a boat had wrecked and telling us that the seawater pumps had been turned off just in case the boat leaked any fuel or oil. The e-mail came through at about 06:00h. By the time I got to the lab at 10:30 the pumps had been turned back on. After I made sure all of my animals were okay, I moseyed over to the cliff to see what I could see.
The tide was coming in, to a high of 5 feet at 12:42h. The captain had dropped an anchor before leaving the boat after it got stuck on the reef ledge, which kept it from drifting away and becoming a hazard to other vessels on the water. The rising tide had lifted the boat from the ledge to land between the ledge and a small rock island. The swells picked up the boat, but the hull had been damaged and she was taking on water. The captain was the only person on the boat, so there was no loss of human life in this incident.
The swells were continually breaking over the bow, flooding the cabin and washing flotsam off into the ocean.
A Vessel Assist boat was there when I arrived and was stationed just inside the kelp bed. They put two guys into the water, who swam to the Pacific Quest and attempted to attach a tow line.
Ultimately, however, they decided that conditions were too dangerous for the Vessel Assist boat to tow away the Pacific Quest. The hull had been breached and the boat had taken on a lot of water, making her too heavy to be towed safely. Besides, the Pacific Quest is a 65-foot fishing boat, making her about twice as long as the small Vessel Assist boat. The two guys swam back out to the rescue boat and they drove away.
Meanwhile the tide continued to rise, and the Pacific Quest was clearly floating, albeit listing to port and heavy in the bow. I think that if she hadn't been anchored to the shore she would have floated away. Could she have been safely towed away at this point? I don't know. I do know that no other actions were taken to try to remove her.
I returned in the late afternoon for the high low tide, and it was clear that the boat was resting on the sand between the ledge and the small island. The continued bashing against the rock had put a big dent in the starboard side, no doubt worsening the hull breach.
With the boat stationary on sand, a salvage crew finally started taking action. They removed the remaining debris from the deck, including the fuel tank from the inflatable zodiac, and attached some lines.
Someone had determined that although the hull had been breached the fuel tanks were undamaged and were unlikely to release any diesel fuel or other oil into Monterey Bay. At the end of the day yesterday the plan was for the salvage crew to tie the boat down and keep her from drifting away after the evening high tide, and start pumping off the fuel at low tide this morning. Then the salvagers could work on removing the boat itself. I couldn't figure out exactly how they would remove the boat, but hey, I'm only a marine biologist, not a marine salvager. As long as the fuel tanks didn't rupture, things would be juuuuust fine.
So much for plans. The caretakers reported smelling diesel fumes at 21:30h last night, and shut down the seawater intake pipes. Turns out the boat had broken up during the rising tide, with at least one fuel tank ruptured. Fortunately, if that's a word that can be used in this situation, the shipwreck is downstream from the seawater intake. The pumps were shut down for a few hours this morning and we're on short rations, but there doesn't seem to be a significant amount of diesel in the seawater system.
I was working the low tide this morning and had an appointment afterward, so I didn't get to the lab until about noon. The boat was well and truly broken up by then, into two large pieces and a great many smaller ones. The pieces of wood, plastic, and fiberglass were already dispersing with the currents.
The good news is that the salvage crew had finally started pumping off the fuel remaining on the boat. As of 17:17 today the crew reports that they should be able to offload all of the fuel before the next high tide tonight. With any luck, they'll be able to finish the job and we can carry on as usual without anymore seawater interruptions. At this point I don't know what plans, if any, are in place to remove the boat parts on the beach. The various organizations at the marine lab are parties of interest, but none have the responsibility of cleaning up this mess. We just have to live and work with it.
UPDATE: As of 19:00h on Monday 13 August 2018 all fuel has been pumped out of the Pacific Quest. The major risk of chemical pollution into Monterey Bay has been abated. The next stage of recovery is the retrieval of debris from the beach and ocean.
For several years now I've been lusting for a good compound microscope. I wanted one that I could call my very own, and thus justify allowing people to use it only after they have been trained by ME in how to use it correctly, and I wanted it to have certain features that the old lab scope I'd been using didn't have. Or maybe had but didn't work that well. I never wanted anything especially fancy or high-tech--no USB capability or polarizing light necessary. I knew I wanted a non-standard set of objective lenses (10x, 20x, 40x) so would probably not be able to buy a microscope off the shelf, so to speak. I also wanted to take really good photographs through the scope, using my DSLR. The iPhone-through-the-eyepiece does surprisingly well, but it felt like it was time to grow up and use a real camera to take photomicrographs.
These were the must-have features:
- A 20x objective! Most compound scopes have 4x, 10x, 40x, and 100x objectives. That jump between 10x and 40x is huge, and I got spoiled because the old lab scope has a 20x objective that provides the perfect magnification for my needs. Seriously, that 20x is the Goldilocks of objective lenses!
- Brightfield, darkfield, and phase-contrast lighting
- A trinocular head so I can attach my DSLR and still have two eyepieces to look through while the camera is mounted
Fortunately, microscopes are not like cars, and it is quite possible to mix and match features to build the exact instrument to suit one's needs. I did some research, decided for real that I DID NOT require either polarizing or differential interference contrast (DIC) lighting, each of which would have raised the cost by quite a bit, and bit the bullet, placing the order in early April. Some of the parts were on backorder, delaying delivery for a few weeks, and the microscope arrived last week.
I didn't have time to do more than open the boxes and see what was inside.
After this quick peek I had to wait over a busy weekend before diving into the boxes yesterday. I didn't want to try to assemble the microscope after a day of teaching, when my brain would be tired. I'm already not the most mechanically inclined person in the world, and knew I needed a fresh brain to tackle this oh-so-crucial job. Monday was the first day that I didn't have stuff scheduled in the morning, so I could devote a few hours to it.
Step 1: Remove plastic wrapping from the body and remove pieces of tape in the order mandated by the directions.
Step 2: Attach the trinocular head.
Step 3: Screw in the objective lenses. As the self-nominated Queen of Cross-threaded Fittings I was especially careful to get these right. One of the things I like about this microscope is that it comes with space for five objective lenses, so if I decide in the future to add a 100x objective or upgrade one of the others, I'll have space to do so.
The microscope went together pretty easily. It feels solid and well built.
Step 4: Find something microscopic to look at!
I picked up a piece of red filamentous alga which I thought would be Antithamnion defectum, made a wet mount, and slid it under the lens. And oh my word, the image is beautiful!
Switched to phase-contrast and was just as impressed:
See how much more definition you get with phase-contrast lighting? One of the reasons I really wanted phase-contrast is that it makes transparent organisms, which white light just passes through, visible.
And the pièce de résistance, a different piece of the same alga viewed in darkfield:
I am going to love playing with this new toy! Tomorrow I'll collect a plankton sample and do some real photomicrography. Stay tuned.
Remember that gull we rescued last week? After my husband took it to Native Animal Rescue here in Santa Cruz it was transferred up to International Bird Rescue's San Francisco Bay Area center in Fairfield. I e-mailed and asked how the gull was doing and whether I'd be able to witness its release back to the ocean. Yesterday I received this response:
The Seymour Marine Discovery Center is currently hosting a satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project. Back in the fall, about 350 UC Santa Cruz students and community volunteers began crocheting creatures real and fanciful with yarn and other materials. Satellite reefs have been built all around the world, in this project that unites mathematics, marine biology, conservation, and a love of working with yarn.
Since this isn't my brainchild I'm not going to go into the background and philosophy of the Crochet Coral Reef project. Instead, I'm just going to show you some photos of the Santa Cruz satellite reef, and encourage you to come see it for yourself. If you happen not to be in the Santa Cruz area, you can click here to find other satellite reefs around the world. You may even want to start your own reef! Note that many satellite reefs are located quite far inland--Colorado, Indiana, Minnesota--so don't let your lack of a nearby ocean keep you from organizing and building your own reef.
Some of the creatures on the reef are made of garbage or plastic, to remind viewers that the world's oceans continue to pay the price for human excesses. This jelly, below, has oral arms made from plastic grocery bags.
And see what familiar object was used for this crab's eyes?
There are multiple species of octopus on this particular reef!
The reef will be on display through October 2017. If you're in the area before then, swing by and check it out!
I have now been concussed for six months. It has been a long half-year. My brain has done a fair bit of recovering, and at least the constant headache is gone. It still hurts when I overexert my brain and I'm still easily overwhelmed by visual and auditory stimuli but overall I feel that I'm getting better.
Over the past week I went through three days of comprehensive neuropsychological testing. The goal of the testing is to determine objectively how well my brain functions in various ways: memory, reasoning, sensory perception. Some of the tests were easy, while others were designed to be difficult or impossible even for people who aren't suffering from a traumatic brain injury.
First day of testing. The test itself began with a simple interview: What hand do I use to throw a ball? open a door? use scissors or a hammer? operate a computer mouse? The technician timed first how long it took to write my name with my dominant hand, and then with my non-dominant hand. The upshot of all this is that I'm mostly right-handed, with some tendencies towards ambidexterity. This didn't tell me anything I didn't already know.
There were several different memory tests, all of which I found extremely difficult. For the first test I was shown ~15 word pairs on a computer screen. The computer then showed a series of words and I had to record whether or not they were on the original list. Then I would be shown one of the words from the original 15 pairs and had to choose which word from a list was its pair. These word pairs returned to haunt me several times during the morning. As I worked through the other tests I was interrupted after a 20 minute interval to ask how many of the words I could remember; I was also given a second set of words and told to keep them separate from the first. Then I picked up where I had left off and worked for another 30 minutes before being quizzed on the word list. I was given a word and asked if it was on the first list, the second list, or neither. Yikes!
The tests all started easy and then got progressively more difficult. One of the first tests was shape recognition and matching. I was given a set of identical blocks, each with two solid white faces, two solid red faces, and two half-white and half-red faces divided along the diagonal. Then I had to look at red and white shapes in a notebook and recreate what I saw using the blocks. That was fun.
A slightly different test involved looking at patterns (say, a red triangle within a blue square within a red circle) with a chunk missing and choosing the piece that completes the image. The tricky thing about this test was that the options to choose from were all rotated out of position, so I had to be able to flip them around in my brain to see if they would fit. At first the missing chunks were easy to find, and then the images themselves and the missing pieces got more complicated. I had to guess on many of them.
One of the hardest parts of the day started out pretty innocuously. I was asked to repeat series of numbers (integers from 1-9) after having them read to me. Two numbers, three, four, five, it wasn't too difficult even when the string was ten digits long. Then the test started over, only with me having to repeat the sequences in reverse order. That was easy until the string was about six digits long, then it got exponentially more difficult. I'd repeat the sequence in my head as I heard it (5, 8, 2, 5, 9, 7, 4, 4, 2, 6, for example) but when I had to start from the end and work backwards I'd have no idea what the first numbers (8 and 5) were. For the last part of this test I had to take strings of numbers and recite them back in numerical order. This also started easily but got increasingly more difficult. The really strange thing about all of this was the manner in which my brain failed. The missing numbers simply weren't there. I'd remember the first several digits, then there would be nothing. I could have made up something but it would have been a random guess.
After 20 minutes of this I had to go back to the original memory test and list as many of the words as I could.
There was a section of verbal math problems. You know the type: "Jenny has 14 apples and gives two to each of her three younger brothers. How many apples does she have left?" And: "An item's original price in October is $150.00. In November the store discounts the price on the item by 10%. In December the store adds another discount of 25%. How much does the item cost on December 31?" I had to solve these entirely in my head, without writing anything down. Sounds easy enough, doesn't it? And it would have been, if my brain were working properly.
The other math problems were more fun. I got to dust off my old arithmetic and algebra skills and see if they still worked. How long has it been since you did long division by hand, or divided fractions, or solved problems such as: (x+2)(3x-14)=6? Or multiplied 6932.35 by 217.08? I mean, we can all do that, right? It just takes a little practice to remember how to do it. And I got to use pencil and paper, which helped a lot.
There was a standard vocabulary and spelling test. I think I nailed that part. There was also a list of common knowledge questions:
- Who was the President of the U.S. during the Civil War?
- On which continent would you find the Sahara Desert?
- What is the capital of Italy?
- Who was Catherine the Great?
- At what temperature does water boil?
- What is water made of?
and so on.
The most difficult part of the test was the last bit. This section evaluated my reasoning skills. I was given a keypad with the numbers 1 through 4 and told that I would be shown an image on the computer screen that would hint at one of the numbers. If I keyed in the right answer I'd hear a nice 'ping' and if I got it wrong I'd get a nasty 'blat'. There were seven subtests, each consisting of a series of images. The same reasoning worked for an entire subtest but not necessarily for any subsequent subtests. In other words, once I worked out the reasoning for subset #2, I couldn't automatically assume that it would work for subset #3. And there's no going back, so I didn't get to try multiple reasonings on any of the images I got wrong.
As usual the first subtests were pretty easy. I'd figure out the reasoning for one subtest and apply it for the first entry of the following subtest. If it didn't work I'd have to figure out something else to try. By the last two subtests I was randomly guessing. I couldn't for the life of me figure out what was going on with any of the images. Occasionally I'd get one right, but every time I tried to use the same reasoning on the next image it was wrong. It was extremely frustrating and made my head hurt. A lot. The psychologist told me he knew I was getting frustrated but reassured me that my failures were giving him useful information. I sure hope so.
Second day of testing. This was much easier and less taxing, although I don't know how well I did. Once again we started with a memory test. This time I was shown a drawing and asked to copy it on a separate sheet of paper, about the same size as the original. Then the original was taken away and I had to draw the thing from memory. This was much harder than it sounds. As in the memory test on the first day I had to try to draw the diagram from memory at 20 and 30-minute intervals.
There were several sensory perception tests on the second day. I was tested for bilateral sensitivity to touch on the backs of my hands: With my eyes closed I had to say whether or not I felt a touch on my left hand, my right, or both. There was a similar hearing test.
The most fun was a test to see whether or not I could tell if two rhythms were the same or different. I thought this was very interesting, because I realized that if two rhythmic patterns have the same beginning it's not easy to tell if they're different at the end. For example:
| | | ||| | | |
sounds more similar to | | | ||| | ||
than it does to || | ||| | | |
I had to stick my hand into a curtained box, and the tester put a wooden block into it. I had to determine what shape the block was, then use my other hand to point to the correct shape on a card. I did this with both hands.
A related test for shape recognition ended up being a lot harder than I thought it would be. I was blindfolded and a vertical wall was placed in front of me. There were shapes carved into the wall (I couldn't see them, of course) into which wooden blocks would fit. I was given a "tour" of the board with my right hand, and then told to find the blocks on the table in front of me and put each block into its correct shape using only that hand. The shapes I remember are square, circle, oval, star, triangle, large parallelogram, small parallelogram, half-moon, and trapezoid (I think, not sure about that one). I'd be interested to know how other people worked this puzzle. I did it by picking up a block and holding it in my hand, then using my fingers to find the shape on the board. I think some people might determine a shape on the board and then go hunting for the right block. I can't say that my way was the best, but I did eventually get all the blocks matched up correctly. It went faster with my left hand because I already had some familiarity with how the board was laid out. But I thought it would be a cake-walk when I got to use both hands, and it totally wasn't. Maybe it was too much sensory input at one time for my brain to make sense of.
After the board was put away I was allowed to remove the blindfold. Then I had to draw the board, including the shapes in their respective places. I don't think I did very well on this part.
The last test of the day was one of those T/F personality tests. I was instructed to answer the questions as they applied in the last month or so. There were several questions about drugs: Have I ever lost track of time due to drug use? Has my personality changed since I started using drugs? Have I used illicit or illegal drugs in the last six months? Has my drug use affected my relationships with friends and family? It wasn't hard to figure out what those questions were angling for.
Third day of testing. Today was the last day of the neuropsychological workup, and it was the easiest. It started with a casual interview, to provide a description of the accident and my early injuries. Then I took a long version of the T/F personality test. I had to answer only 360 of the 500+ questions, which was good because many of them were very unclear. I was finding it difficult to make sense of statements such as "I always regret never having done such-and-such when someone told me not to." Uhhhh. . .
Then we got the What It All Means debrief. Since I don't have the full written report yet I can't give you the long version, but the take-home message is that: (1) my verbal skills are still really good; (2) my incidental and working memory functions are average, probably less good than they should be; (3) I don't have any major deficits at this point but the ones I do have seem to result from injury to the left side of my brain.
One result I found interesting was this timed finger tapping test I did last week. I had to tap a digital counter with my index finger as many times as possible in 10 seconds. With my right hand I got 57 taps in 10 seconds, and with my left hand I did the same. Apparently right-handed people should be able to tap faster with their right hand. So either I'm sort of ambidextrous and my right hand isn't as dominant as it is in other right-handed people, or my right hand is somewhat impaired and should have tapped more than 57 times in 10 seconds. On the other hand, 57 taps in 10 seconds is pretty high for anybody with either hand. Given other indications of minor injury to the left side of my brain, a minor impairment on the right side of my body makes sense.
In terms of how to assist my brain in its recovery, the psychologist suggested continuing to do what I can, as long as it doesn't cause my head to hurt, then to respect my brain's limits. At this point overdoing it could set me back. In a nutshell, I continue to rest and not overexert myself.
With the analytical part of my left brain not quite up to speed, this afternoon I decided to exercise the artistic right side and made a little drawing: