Her en(gross)ing new book covers the science of keeping soldiers alive.
Dave GilsonJun. 4, 2016 6:00 AM
Mary Roach's latest book, Grunt, looks at the weird yet deadly serious science of keeping soldiers alive. In a globe-trotting tour of labs, training grounds, and a nuclear sub, Roach explores how fighting men and women sweat, sleep, and poop—as well as the Pentagon's efforts to defeat threats from improvised explosive devices to explosive diarrhea.
"No one wins a medal" for this obscure, often gross, survival research, Roach writes. "And maybe someone should." Like her previous books Gulp and Stiff, Grunt oozes bodily fluids, flippant footnotes, and weapons-grade wordplay. I caught Roach at ease at her home base.
Mother Jones: Given your past subject matter—dead bodies, Elvis' megacolon, sex in space—what brought you to the military?
"Always go to the bathroom before you go into a life-or-death situation."
Mary Roach: I came about it a little indirectly. I was reporting in India on the world's hottest chili pepper and a horrific eating contest where people eat these peppers. I learned that the Indian Defense Ministry had made a nonlethal weapon like tear gas out of the world's hottest chili pepper. So I went over to this military defense lab and interviewed them, and while I was there, I got this idea: "Military science is kind of more esoteric than you might think."
MJ: This military research spans a huge range of topics, from weird stuff like stink bombs to survival stuff that keeps people alive. You mention a Navy researcher who made a breakthrough on the use of rehydration fluids to fight diarrhea, which someone hailed as "perhaps the most important medical advance of this century." Which discoveries made by the military have had wider benefits for all of us?
MR: A lot of the vaccine work and things that are used to combat tropical diseases and illnesses that we don't really think about day to day, like dysentery and diarrhea. Also repellents like permethrin for mosquitos, because we had soldiers in Vietnam getting bitten by creatures they don't normally get bitten by here.
MJ: What seemed like the biggest boondoggle or waste of money?
MR: How about red-orange underwear? At the turn of the last century, there was this idea that the color red would somehow mitigate heat stress and make you better able to cope in tropical environments. There was this bizarre project where hundreds of pairs of red underwear and hats were shipped over to some troops in the Philippines. They used this heavy sort of dungaree cotton to make the underwear, which was really hot and not going to cool you down. And the dye didn't stay. Needless to say, the red underwear didn't keep anyone healthier or cooler.
MJ: Have you picked up any personal survival tips—anything you do to keep from getting sick, or to stay cool or not getting eaten by sharks?
"If you've managed to get out of the submarine, don't hold your breath."
MR: Somebody did this delightful study where they put guys in life rafts off a dock in Florida. They were looking into simple ways to improve survival, like wetting your shirt and putting it back on. Just having a wet shirt conserved body fluids; you're not sweating nearly as much. In terms of repelling sharks, it depends on the kind of shark. But the thing that is reassuring is that for the most part, sharks are pussies, and they want to go after injured or dead prey. There was one study where a swimming rat kicked one in the nose and the shark was like, "I'm out of here!" Also, always go to the bathroom before you go into a life-or-death situation—that's something a Special Operations soldier shared.
MJ: One tip that surprised me was that taking your shirt off when it's hot actually makes things worse.
MR: Please, men, don't take your shirts off! It makes sense; you're getting a direct hit of solar radiation. Wear a loose white shirt, don't take it off. If you get infected with maggots, leave them in. If you're on a sinking submarine…well, that's not really practical.
MJ: Don't hold your breath if you're escaping a submarine!
MR: Don't hold your breath—breathe out. If you've managed to get out of the submarine, and you don't have an escape suit, as you go up, breathe out. It's so counterintuitive; I would want to hold onto my breath. There's a great demonstration they do in submarine school where they take a Mylar bag from a wine box, blow it up, and let it go at the bottom of the training tank. It gets to the surface and it bursts. It's a very graphic and memorable demonstration of why you shouldn't hold your breath.
MJ: Among all the military jobs you observed, was there one where you thought, "that's not for me"?
MR: What's a gig that would really suck? The person who has garbage duty on a submarine—it's kind of treacherous. They turn everything into a slurry, and they put it into canisters that they then shoot down from the bottom of the submarine to make sure that it doesn't get hit by the propellers.
MJ: Was there a job you'd really want to do?
MR: I kind of thought the job of the chef in the insect kitchen at the insectary at Walter Reed Hospital was cool—cooking for insects and their larvae. It's more fun to tell people than to do it, because some of the recipes include things like rabbit turds.
MJ: Did hanging out with soldiers and researchers change any misconceptions you had about the US military?
"If you get infected with maggots, leave them in."
MR: I didn't have any conception of this world at all. I didn't realize that almost any of this existed—the Naval Submarine Medical Research Lab, or NAMRU Three or the Walter Reed Entomology Branch. That was all a surprise to me. I had maybe a misconception that everyone in the military was sort of hawkish. But in fact, the people who deal with the aftermath of war, trying to repair people's bodies and minds, they are understandably quite anti-war. They're not big boosters of war, particularly the people I talked to at the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System. Pathologists, people who have a real, day-after-day, graphic presentation of what war does to the body. I wasn't really expecting that.
MJ: One of the interesting things about your book is how much effort the military spends on keeping people alive.
MR: There's a tremendous amount of effort. At the very highest levels, you have to think about,"Why we do want them alive?" So that they can keep going and finish the job. But the people who do the research are not doing it for that reason. They're doing it because they actually care. They know a lot of these people. They were these people.
MJ: Which bodily fluid freaks you out the most?
MR: Let's see, I'm going through all of them in my head, it's lovely! I think saliva, particularly un-stimulated saliva, the mucous-y kind. I find that pretty gross. Then again, it doesn't smell. There was a moment in this book where there was a power outage [at a lab] and in the freezer there were a lot of diarrhea samples that thawed. But taking away smell, I'm going to go with saliva.
MJ: The thing that surprised me the most about this book is that you went to Djibouti to research diarrhea and you didn't make a "booty" joke.
MR: Because I'm so mature and sophisticated that it never even crossed my mind. Something in me just stopped me from going there. That's rare for me. I don't often have that internal gatekeeper.
Lobby groups spent more than $3.2 billion trying to sway federal lawmakers and officials last year. Yet like Washington's solitary UFO lobbyist and fake-meat lobbyist, some would-be influencers are pushing some pretty specific, even obscure, agendas. Here are six of America's most specialized influence groups:
The Balloon Council: "To educate consumers and regulators about the wonders of foil and latex balloons," it spent $80,000 on lobbying in 2014—not adjusted for inflation, of course.
Families Conserving Antiques: Three families who own collections of elephant ivory formed this organization in 2014 to lobby against federal bans on the tusk trade.
US Association of Reptile Keepers: This group of "herp" lovers fighting prohibitions on certain types of pythons has been lying quietly lately—like a snake waiting to strike.
Dollar Coin Alliance: Switching from greenbacks to coins will save America billions of bucks, according to this group backed by vending-machine and copper-mining companies.
Victoria McCullough: This oil heiress and equine philanthropist has spent $135,000 spurring lawmakers to keep American horses off foreign dinner plates.
California Dried Plum Board: Don't you mean "prune"? Yes—but in 2000, the then-California Prune Board successfully lobbied the Food and Drug Administration to let it use the more female-friendly (really, that's what it said) "dried plum."
Yesterday, a video posted by Anonymous announced that the hacktivist entity has declared "total war" on Donald Trump, the possibly computer-semiliterate Republican front runner. This is the shadowy cyberactivists' latest vow to annihilate a formidable enemy—an expanding list of foes that includes terrorist groups, multinational corporations, several countries, and an Australian bowhunter who was killing cats.
So far, the vast majority of Anonymous' targets have survived the much-hyped digital onslaught. As The Hill notes, the newest opening of hostilities with Trump follows a similar declaration last year that "never made much of an impact."
Here are more than 40 targets that Anonymous members—and eager headline writers—have claimed it has "declared war on":
A history of the nickname that's been driving a proud city nuts for more than a century.
Dave GilsonJan. 29, 2016 5:17 PM
When they're not arguing about lettuce in burritos or their love-hate relationship with tech, San Franciscans are duking it out over "Frisco"—the 165-year-old nickname for The City that inspires a remarkable amount of vehemence. For many years, "Don't call it 'Frisco'" was a kind of shibboleth for SF natives. But a backlash to anti-"Frisco" hegemony has been growing, culminating with today's Buzzfeed-sponsoredCall It Frisco Day. In the interests of teaching the controversy, here's a timeline that will provide plenty of ammo for partisans on both sides of the "F word" debate.
The earliest recorded uses of "Frisco" in writing. Folk etymologist Peter Tamony theorized that this syncope was in widespread use during the Gold Rush, having originated as "an Americanization of 'El Fresco,' the name of Mexican gold seekers for the 'refreshing, cool' city to which miners sojourned after long, hot months in the Sierra foothills." (Though he also speculated that it's related to the Old English term frip-socn, meaning "refuge of peace.")
Beloved local eccentric/crank Emperor Joshua Norton I bans use of the word "Frisco." Or not: See below.
Emperor Norton supposedly declared "Frisco" off-limits with this 1872 decree: "Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word 'Frisco,' which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars."
Disappointingly for anti-"Frisco" purists, this decree is likely apocryphal. The earliest citation I could find is in David Warren Ryder's 1939 biography of Norton, which offers no sourcing.
The Dictionary of Americanismssays that "Frisco" is used "throughout California."
The "feverish campaign against 'Frisco'" can be traced back to this year, according to lexicographer Allen Walker Read.
The New York Sun relates a humorous anecdote about a San Franciscan with a complaint:
"Easterners call my city out of its name with malicious purpose, and that none of them have been hanged for it shows that we are forbearing people beyond all others. They call my city"—the speaker choked at the word—"they call it 'Frisco!'…Ding 'em sir, they seem to think they are doing something pleasant and smart; yet every San Franciscan loathes, with a murderous loathing, to hear his city so called."
"No, we don't call it Frisco, that's tenderfoot talk," states an old-timer in an article in The Reader.
"Anyone who goes about the country asserting that his home is in 'Frisco' may at once be set down as an imposter," saysThe Advance.
"There never was and never will be a 'Frisco,'" asserts the San Francisco Call: "Neither before the fire nor since has this shabby abbreviation, born of vulgarity and laziness, ever been tolerated in this neighborhood. Of course, the name is applied in a merely heedless spirit; but to the ears of the true San Franciscan it is offensive."
The federal government decides not to refer to the city by "the flippant 'Frisco'" anymore: "The term 'Frisco' as a name for San Francisco, employed by nonresidents, is objected to by a majority of the citizens of San Francisco and is never used by them. The term has been condemned by the press and civic organizations…" • The Arizona Republicanascribes "Frisco" to telegraph operators and traveling salesmen who condensed "a pretty long name for one who is in a hurry." (It also claims that Los Angeles is known by the shorthand "Loss.") • The San Francisco Chronicle editorializes, "There is only one San Francisco in the country, and to call it 'Frisco' is not only erroneous, but substitutes a rather ordinary name for a very beautiful one."
Poet Berton Braley takes to verse to question San Franciscans' aversion to the term:
Why not call her "Frisco?"
Brethren, what's the harm?
Good old San Francisco
Will not lose her charm,
Just because you name her
With a nic-name brief;
How can "Frisco" shame her,
Pain or cause her grief?
Why not call her "Frisco?"
She'll be still the same
Gay old San Francisco
Under any name.
California Outlookreports: "The influx of eastern visitors who have 'come to see the 'Frisco exposition' is causing the native San Franciscan to boil with wrath." • The same year, a traveler to the city confirms that he was warned "time and again not to refer to it as ''Frisco.'"
"San Francisco is all puffed up with itself," declares the editor of Reedy's Mirror. (What's new?) Also: "Worse than saying 'Earthquake' is to call the city 'Frisco.' The word invites physical assault."
A resident observes, "I think we are comfortably informal—although we do insist on the full name San Francisco rather than Frisco." • An almanac published by the Federal Writers Project offers this advice for tourists:
If you want to be liked in San Francisco,
Remember not to call it "Frisco."
If you'd rather not arouse our ire,
Remember the earthquake was "the fire."
If you want to earn our friendliness, Remember to knock Los Angeles.
Timereports: "Because 'Frisco' is a contraction abhorrent to all San Franciscans, roly-poly Mayor Angelo Rossi sped to Hollywood to take issue with 20th Century-Fox, about to release a picture called Hello, Frisco." Rossi reportedly convinces the movie's producers to promote it as Hello, San Francisco, Hello within city limits.
"If you want to win friends and influence people there, don't call it Frisco," a guide to California advises visitors to the city.
Herb and legend
Legendary San Francisco columnist Herb Caen had an odd relationship with "Frisco." In 1941, he insisted that "It makes you feel good all over once in a while to say 'Frisco' right out loud." Then in 1953 he wrote a book called Don't Call it Frisco. He flipped-flopped a lot. In 1993, the three-dot scribe praised "the F word" as "a salty nickname, redolent of the days when we had a bustling waterfront." Yet in another column that year, Caen observed, "I no longer hear people say either 'Frisco' or, in automatic reproof, 'Don't call it Frisco.' An ominous sign…" But then: "Adolescence is believing that 'Frisco' is a racy nickname for a city; senility is automatically saying 'Don't call it Frisco'; maturity is figuring it doesn't matter all that much…"
Hells Angels Frisco motorcycle club opens. They seem like nice guys. (A knowledgeable source informs me that the club picked "Frisco" because it fit better on the rocker patches on the back of its leather jackets.)
Future San Francisco Chronicle scribe Stanton Delaplane explains to delegates coming to the city for the GOP Convention, "You can call Los Angeles 'L.A.' You can call chicago 'Chi.' But if you call San Francisco 'Frisco,' they cut your Republican buttons off and drum you out of town."
"We wished each other luck," writes overrated khaki-wearer Jack Kerouac in On the Road, "We would meet in Frisco."
A headline in Life magazine that mentions "Frisco" draws angry letters. Cynthia Woo demands, "What made you think you could get away with 'Frisco'…? No San Franciscan uses or likes the name."
Visiting journalists receive an official city press kit titled "Don't Call It 'Frisco'." (The visitors' bureau still issues this advice.)
Bette Midler plays Bimbo's: "They told me, 'Don't call it Frisco, don't call it Frisco… It'll upset the natives.' Well, FRISCO, FRISCO, FRISCO!" The Los Angeles Times reports that the audience loved it.
A mock trial is held for the F-word. Despite pro-"Frisco" testimony from Peter Tamony, the judge rules against the syncope, arguing that it demeans the city's namesake, St. Francis. (The same judge later heard a moot case on whether there is any there in Oakland.)
Herb Caen observes San Franciscans backsliding: "Two hallowed precepts of my childhood—that you never call it Frisco and that you always call the 1906 earthquake 'The Fire'—seem to have become outmoded. It is now accepted that Frisco suffered a quake in Ought Six…"
Caen covers his bases again: "It's San Francisco…Not Frisco but San Francisco. Caress each Spanish syllable, salute our Italian saint. Don't say Frisco and don't say San-Fran-Cis-Co. That's the way Easterners, like Larry King, pronounce it." He also notes that reminding people to not call it Frisco is "a conditioned reflex that is wearing out."
Writing about the proud use of "Frisco" by black San Franciscans, the SF Weekly's Joe Eskenazi writes that "the only people driven to complain about 'Frisco' appear to be aging Caucasians."
Nearly 80 percent of respondents to the second semiannual unscientific Blue Angels survey say that it is not okay to say "Frisco."
A digital media company valued at $1.5 billion encourages San Franciscans to "reclaim 'Frisco'" to honor "the vital blue collar core of our city" and because it "pisses off tech bros."
The E. coli outbreak at Chipotle puts burrito safety in the spotlight.
Dave GilsonDec. 16, 2015 7:00 AM
This image is for illustration purposes only and does not reflect the proper way to serve or consume a burrito. Especially the Doritos.
As of December 4, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had found 52 cases of people in nine states who had gotten sick after eating at Chipotle Mexican Grill. The outbreak, which involves a strain of E. coli, has hospitalized 20 people and has forced the fast-casual chain to revise its 2016 financial forecast. The illness may or may not be linked to what passes for burritos at Chipotle; so far, the ingredient to blame hasn't been identified.
How many Americans get sick from eating burritos each year? According to the CDC's mouth-wateringly named Foodborne Outbreak Online Database (FOOD), there were four burrito-related outbreaks resulting in 83 illnesses reported last year. That's about 0.5 percent of all cases of foodborne illness recorded by the CDC. In comparison, tacos were linked to eight outbreaks and 73 illnesses in 2014; hamburgers were tied to five outbreaks and 59 illnesses. The burrito's culinary nemesis, the wrap, was connected to two outbreaks claiming 61 victims.
While those numbers are relatively low, there have been big burrito outbreaks in the past. In August 1998, a "burrito associated outbreak" in Hillsborough County, Florida, caused 644 elementary school kids in 66 schools to lose their lunches after eating lunch. (Not to be confused with the Hillsborough County Schools Soft Taco Outbreak of October 1998.) The culprits were identified as frozen beef and bean burritos made in Chicago. That incident was one of 16 gastrointestinal outbreaks "associated with eating burritos" between 1997 and 1998. A 2006 article, titled "Mysterious outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness associated with burritos supplied through school lunch programs," ruled out "mass psychogenic illness" as the cause of these types of unfortunate events.
Burritos often contain common pathways for foodborne illnesses—beef, chicken, and/or lettuce. (This is not a comment on whether a real burrito has lettuce in it; I'm just stating facts.) But burrito-related sicknesses have also been linked to contaminated tortillas. The CDC's data doesn't point to any one filling being more likely to make you sick.
Most burrito-based outbreaks can be traced back to restaurants; schools are the next most common source of bad burritos. (The CDC has recorded two burrito-linked outbreaks at prisons and jails.) Not surprisingly, no state has had as many burrito-related outbreaks as California, home of the galaxy's best burritos.
So if you do get a bad burrito, what's gonna happen? The good news is that you won't die. The CDC has no recorded cases of anyone dying from eating a burrito. But you'll probably feel pretty rotten. The most common cause of burrito-borne illness is Clostridium perfringens, which usually causes stomach cramps and diarrhea for a day, but not vomiting. The type of E. coli behind the Chipotle outbreak is relatively rare, but it's nasty. It can cause cramps, bloody diarrhea, and vomiting, and can lay you low for as long as a week.
Okay, you may now fight over burritos in the comments.