Saturday, March 07, 2015

There's Gold in Them Thar Programs

Last night was the season five finale of the Gold Rush, which I confess is one of the few television programs that I have been watching routinely near their airing schedule (the other is The Simpsons, which is a father-son bonding experience). Now, writing in a blog mostly about science that you watch something on the Discovery Channel is a bit of a bold act, given its many panderings.  The network annually features Shark Week, that has been roundly criticized for its sensationalized portrayal of these magnificent creatures.  It also features shows which purport to show individuals routinely engaged in felonies and in one case claiming to document a violent subculture in a pacifist religious community, the Amish.  I grew up near the Amish Country of Pennsylvania; if anything like that ever existed the Philadelphia papers would have had a field day.  Gold Rush itself, and a second gold show which I've developed a fondness for, Bering Sea Gold, has shortcomings that are obvious and painful.  So why am I hooked?

The overarching reason I watch the show is how I started, which is all about where I was almost exactly three years ago: lying in a rehabilitation facility bed with a badly swollen left knee.  On a ski trip, my femur and tibia had come to blows, and one of those almost always wins.  I wish a tibial plateau fracture was a fault line I could point to somewhere in a faraway land, but unfortunately in my case it required a number of screws to repair (and being a novice to these things, I was shocked how big the screws are; I was thinking more watch sizes). 

I tried to do a certain amount of work and reading while I was laid up, but when one has inactivity forced upon oneself it can get old in a hurry.  And inactivity was very much forced; for the first few days I required assistance to get out of bed for any reason, and a wheelchair to get even a few steps.  The one bit of personal pharmacology I discovered through this experience is that I am mostly insensitive to opioids. Since NSAIDs weren't an option due to having had surgery, since they reduce clotting, that really only leaves acetaminophen, which the medical staff gave me as much as they dared.  I do still have a fully functioning liver, so they didn't overshoot, but that still meant that trying to exercise the leg was exquisitely painful.

However, exercise is critical in such a recovery, to ensure that no unfortunate adhesions develop and that fluid doesn't stagnate in the injured area.  In addition to visits to the physical therapy room, where a wonderful staff worked with me (and the far more seriously afflicted, elderly population that constituted most of the clientele for this facility), that is accomplished through a device called a range-of-motion machine.  Said device mechanically moves one's leg through a series of motions.  Ideally, at each extreme of a cycle, pulling your leg near full extension or pushing the knee up towards your chest, is at the limit of your pain tolerance, as the goal is to get back to normal range-of-motion. While a few times I was exhausted enough to fall asleep with the thing running, in general you are too uncomfortable to do much of anything, with a rhythmic induction of significant pain at both extremes of the cycle.  

So the TV was a bit of an ineffective escape, particularly at night when my family had left.  Their visits were a treat, though school was in session and ordinary life had to continue, so they were intermittent.  Best of all, when I met with the medical director on my first full day she asked me what my life activities were like and which I hoped to recover.  When I mentioned my joy at walking with Miss Amanda, the good doctor surprised me with the news that she was welcome to visit, so long as she stayed within my private room (technically it was semi-private, but the second bed was never occupied) and wasn't noisy.  I realize there are perfectly good reasons to exclude dogs and other pets from medical facilities, but I will also testify from that experience that there are very good psychological ones to allow them. 

However, basic cable is truly a wasteland much of the day.  It was always a question of cycling through the channels (the channel changer simply could increment or decrement) and finding something tolerable.  Sometimes the schedule would be lucky and I'd find an agreeable comedy, but mostly I was restless.  I did get briefly caught up in "reality" shows that follow the auctions of storage lockers (Storage Wars and some other one I've forgotten); the idea of finding hidden treasures is hard to resist. And, as with most such shows, the regular bidders have outsize personalities (at least on TV) which are easy to get caught up in.

But the ultimate treasure shows I stumbled upon were Gold Rush and Bering Sea Gold, and these had much stronger personal resonances.  My original foray into science was a childhood rock collection, and discovering a truly great geology exhibit at science museums still gives me a gigantic thrill.  On some of our grand family trips, we would make side trips to satisfy my rock hounding or to see some of the great mining sites of the U.S., such as Bingham Canyon Utah and the great Mesabi Iron Range taconite operations near Duluth Minnesota.  Zim's "Rocks and Minerals" was read until the pages fell off, and then I got another copy. I don't have a formal bucket list, but it would certainly be rich in great geologic features I haven't yet visited.  On cruises to the Caribbean my family enjoys the sand and sun; I don't mind those but I find the geology of the region fascinating, with essentially every stage of vulcanism represented across the West Indies, from the active volcano on Montserrat (viewed safely from offshore) to the caldera of St. Lucia to the near atoll structure of Grand Cayman.

I also loved seeing construction as a kid, and had books and books on construction equipment, probably beginning with the magical Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.  My paternal grandfather had been in construction, but he died several years before I arrived, but Dad could still thrill me with a few tales -- such as seeing the face of a tunnel still being bored on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  I remember my local mall as a hole in the ground and seeing stages of the  Commodore Barry Bridge as we went by it on the way to the airport.  I had a large collection of toy earthmovers, which we used in a huge pile of sand Dad kept in the driveway for garden projects. I'm still a pedant in that subject, getting very irritated at captions that label loaders as bulldozers. I've never actually operated any such equipment, but certainly would love to give it a go sometime.

The original season of Gold Rush, which I got from Netflix some time after I returned home (changing DVDs was out-of-the-question for a while during my recovery) followed a group of unemployed Oregonians who had banded together and someone gotten the capital to rent a large amount of mining equipment and set off with their families to a gold mining claim in Alaska.  This is one of the many shortcomings in the show; the financial aspects are only touched on, and especially left blank is what, if any, assistance the show offers.  The amount of gold mined in a week or season is prominently featured, but only vague references to running costs are ever given.  Again, this is entertainment first and documentary a distant second.

Only one member of that Hoffman Crew had any prior gold mining experience, some of them were machinists or heavy equipment operators.  Families came along; it was pioneering the frontier all over again.  However, things often went south.  The camp's water supply was of dubious quality, and the families were sent home after one child had (but recovered from) a seizure.  In an early episode, a cable snapped while hauling gear; the miners seemed to regard the cable with some wariness but certainly didn't treat it with the respect such a potentially lethal object deserves.  Getting the heavy equipment to the claim required a perilous fording of a river.  

The gold being mined on these programs is placer gold, pieces of varying sizes which have been eroded out of rock in the mountains and carried by water downstream.  Separation methods rely on the great density of gold; flowing water washes over devices called sluices which contain various physical traps for the gold, which is often miniscule flakes and nearly never nuggets of any size.  The initial box yields "concentrate", which then is more carefully washed a successively smaller devices until the gold is nearly pure.  The final step, shown only occasionally, is to melt the gold within a furnace so that the remaining impurities float to the surface.  

Gold Rush follows miners who are pulling placer gold out of dry land, from sedimentary layers in Alaska or the Yukon.  The heavy gold can be found in the bottom-most layers of sediment close to the solid bedrock, often under many feet of  "overburden".  Much of this overburden is permafrost, and it makes great TV to see this material go from unbreakable solids to a muddy morass.  A briefly-lived similar show (Jungle Gold) followed two inept miners in West Africa, mining for similar deposits.  Bering Sea Gold shows miners going after the final stage of erosion: gold which has washed into the ocean is vacuumed or scooped off the seafloor by divers, a very perilous endeavour.

Being an entertainment program, Gold Rush has focused greatly on the personalities of those involved. The original crew had a few eccentricities, but they really struck it rich when the miners sought out an experienced neighbor to give advice and loan spare parts (these operations seem to never stock spare parts, despite the fact they are far away from any easy commercial supply).  The neighbor, John Schnabel, was a semi-retired miner in his late 80's, friendly, folksy and very experienced, living out on his closed mine.  Another character, Dakota Fred, is brought in when the claim owner decides the Hoffman Crew is just too inept; badly mined ground is less valuable than untouched ground (I've sometimes wondered how rich their siltation ponds are in gold, given some of the problems with gold recovery documented on the show). So there is juicy conflict between the originals and the hired expert.  

How much of this is staged?  One can't help but think quite a bit of it. A person kicked off the Hoffman Crew in the first season alleged that much of the dialog is staged and that he was assigned a role to play.   Indeed, why do these miners let the crews film when it so clearly a hindrance?  The lure of the fame might explain this in part, but again, that question of how independent the TV group is from the miners.  The only time the program actually shows interference, it is when the very well equipped medical team for the film crew has assisted with serious injuries.  I've especially wondered the few times official inspectors of one sort or another have shown up; did the crew decide to liven things up by dropping a dime?

To make a brief foray into Bering Sea Gold, the peril level on that program is much greater.  There is no overburden to speak of, since the sea washes that away, but most of the crews are dredging by diving down with giant suction tubes in near freezing water.  Sluices sometimes dump rocks on the divers below, air lines freeze with breath moisture or pumps fail. Storms toss tiny dredging boats. In the ultimate insanity, the version subtitled "Under the Ice" involves these miners diving from holes cut in the sea ice in the early spring, adding many new perils, such as air lines tangling on underwater stalactites.

I won't give a blow-by-blow of each season; much of it is variations on the same theme.  Miners make mistakes and have triumphs; equipment fails and plucky mechanics make bush fixes.  The hired gun back-stabs the Hoffman Crew by outbidding them for their own claim.  The young grandson (Parker) of the venerable John Schnabel restarts the old mine and then goes off to the Yukon to seek his fortune.  A colorful, highly profane mining veteran ("gold mining legend", in the overblown narration of the program) named Tony Beets tutors first the Hoffmans and then Parker Schnabel, and this season dismantles, moves and reassembles a gigantic floating dredge. Most of the mine bosses are highly flawed in their management styles: problems are solved by simply working harder. Viewing time is often padded by the annoying trope of breathlessly previewing what will be seen, seeing something, and then reminding the viewer of what they just saw.

These miners are not exactly big data adherents; most of the operations are run by gut and instinct, with about the only data coming from infrequent drilling to ascertain very local gold concentrations.  In the first season, a sophisticated device for the final cleanup was discarded after failing to work -- but also after the crew repeatedly failed to read the directions or properly set up the device! But other times miner use remarkably cutting-edge technology; one recent episode saw the hire of consultants who used a combination of an imaging quadcopter drone and a draggable ground-penetrating radar unit to identify probable gold collecting zones in a narrow mountain valley.

The world of Gold Rush often seems very remote from my own; it is in a far-off land for starters. The fact that these operations are destroying wild lands is something the program never explicitly mentions, but is often on my mind.  Once, an environmental inspector flagged an operation for an improper settling pond, but for sure these operations are contributing to silting of streams and subsequent damage to trout and salmon fisheries. These are wild lands, though rarely are these seen on the program.  It could be worse: when beginning a disastrous attempt to mine in Guyana, the Hoffman Crew saw established miners there using a time-tested method for recovering fine gold: capturing it with mercury to form amalgam, then vaporizing the mercury to leave only gold.  Very effective, but playing around with mercury in such unsophisticated settings is a recipe for health and environmental tragedy.

Gold is strange stuff.  Industrially, it is used very rarely, partly due to its price. Jewelry accounts for only a small fraction of annual output. Gold is valuable mostly because our human society has decided it is valuable.  So all this human peril and environmental destruction serves only to produce a metal that is likely to be then placed in deep underground vaults.

However, it is this extraction of value from the ground that has a final resonance with me, as that is in a nutshell what I have been spending the last few years doing.  Our methods are very different, we need only small samples of soil requiring no giant earth movers (though I lust for some of that permafrost, a time capsule of microbial spores).  We also spend countless hours and dollars converting that soil into something of value, though we perform that transformation in urban laboratories far from the frontier.  Some of the old strain names even have a bit of gold in them -- there's Streptomyces aureofasciens for example.  Most importantly, what we aim for is to change lives by delivering medications which cure or ameliorate serious medical problems.  But both the teams profiled on Gold Rush and the company that employs me are seeking their fortune in extracting from the Earth's crust that which society finds valuable. 


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Interesting analogy Keith - reminds me of the Hegel quote, 'Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion'. Why did these intrepid folks risk so much for the possibility of gain?

They just wanted to, and wanted to very much.

Recently had the chance to visit the Prado as well as the Royal Palace in Madrid, and saw some remarkable works of art considered masterpieces. The 16th century was a different time and place, and yet humans still struggled for the same things, and of course a main driver was this same arbitrary element - gold.

It's a sobering thought that as humans we all pursue the fulfillment of our own hierarchy of values, and money/wealth/assets is somewhere on that list, some higher than others. (It puts my annual salary review into perspective, for sure!)