Tag Archives: The Atlantic

Swabbing Filthy Surfaces for Tomorrow’s Cures

I don’t know about you, but the last two winters where I live have been plagued by extreme flu seasons, with scores of friends and coworkers complaining about getting sicker than they had in ages. Now that it’s summer, I don’t want to think about the hacking and nose-blowing of winter, but a lot of people have started asking an important question: are pathogens getting stronger?

Statistically, we know that many infections have become resistant to drugs. Between overused antibiotics and America’s obsession with antibacterial hand gel, we have created an evolutionary arms races that’s produced super bugs and drug-resistant strains. Some experts fear that resistant infections could kill 10 million people a year by 2050. Fortunately, scientists are out there fortifying our defenses. At The AtlanticMaryn McKenna writes about the scientist who revived a largely abandoned technique: collecting germs from filthy places. Gathering samples from everything from train station handrails to dog dishes to the bottom of peoples’ shoes, Adam Roberts believes that the answers to our global resistance problem lies not simply in gene-research, but in what’s called the natural microbial world, which is were our first antibiotics came from.

He decided to start where pharmaceutical chemistry had left off decades earlier: in the messy real-world settings where bacteria duke it out. He launched his campaign, called Swab and Send, in February 2015. For £5, participants got a sample tube, a mailing envelope, and an explanation of what Roberts wanted them to look for: a spot in the environment where bacteria were likely to be competing for nutrition and room to reproduce. He asked them to use their imagination. The less sanitary, the better.

In a departure from the first antibiotic searches, Roberts does not ask his sample-collectors to focus on soil. Instead he wants them to search in places his predecessors may have overlooked. “There’s such a rich microbial environment everywhere around us,” he says. “Every single place is a niche, where bacteria will have evolved and adapted independently. Soil may have evolved biological warfare, if you like, completely differently than a marine environment, or a muddy environment, or contaminated pond water. There’s a possibility of different chemistry everywhere.”

The Swab and Send campaign fired people’s enthusiasm: Within two months, Roberts received more than £1,000, and hundreds of swabs. Small checks continue to arrive by mail. (The price of participation has gone up, to £30 for five swabs.) Elementary schools invite Roberts to make presentations, and he gives the kids swabs to take home. He has taken sample tubes to parties and to newsrooms. He has two swabs that were swiped across desks in the Houses of Parliament.

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The Flavor of Childhood: Sweet Medicine

Even if you were more partial to the taste of purple Dimetapp cough syrup or the fake banana flavor of some prescription whose name I can no longer remember, you know the flavor of pediatric amoxicillin. Everyone loved that pink medicine. Its chalky, anonymous fruit flavor has generated loving blog posts and subreddits of impressive lengths. One writer loved it so much as a kid she went on a quest to taste it one more time. At The Atlantic, Julie Beck searches for that peculiar pink flavor of childhood to learn where it came from and how taste shapes a child’s experience of illness.

Taste is a factor in children’s medicine in a way that it’s just not for adults, who are prescribed pills for most things. And children often need the extra enticement of a familiar flavor to be coaxed into taking their medicine. But flavor used to be considered a more integral part of medicine for all ages—more than just something added to make it palatable.

Under the humoral theory of medicine, Berenstein says, “tastes themselves were correlated with the body’s humors.” So if someone’s four humors—black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm—were seen to be out of balance, they’d likely be advised to avoid certain tastes, and eat more of others. A melancholic person, for example, might want to avoid vinegar (sour—just like them), and eat more sugar to balance themselves out. “It wasn’t about a spoonful of sugar making the medicine go down,” Berenstein says. “A spoonful of sugar was the medicine.”

And for bitter herbal preparations that served as medicine, Greene adds, the bitter taste was “proof of efficacy”: If it tastes gross, it must be working. But in the 20th and 21st centuries, the Western understanding of medicine came to focus on active ingredients. What Greene calls “the sensuous dimensions of medicine” got “systematically written out of the stories we tell ourselves about pharmaceuticals and the way they work.” But medicines “nonetheless have physical properties,” he says, “and those physical properties certainly influence our experience of them.”

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Deporting Billions of Tax Dollars, Farm Work, Good People, and Affordable Food Right Out of America

Between fickle crops, unpredictable weather and the cost of equipment, farming is tough uncertain work. The growing number of deportations thanks to the Trump administration’s fixation on undocumented immigrants has now destabilized the agricultural work force. At The Atlantic, Michael Frank looks at New York’s Hudson Valley to examine the ways deportations will effect America’s farm economy and food system, from taxes to tax-paying citizens to the price of produce.

“My ancestors are Irish and they were called all sorts of names,” Pete, a 58-year-old farmer, told me. He said the country has swung back around to how it was a century ago. “Now people say Hispanics are taking their jobs,” Pete said. “Come on. You can’t get a kid who can flip a burger to come here and do this job for $15 an hour. If we had a workforce that was willing to do this work, I’d hire them, but we don’t.” A 2014 American Farm Bureau study backs that up: It shows that unemployed Americans regularly shun farm work, even preferring to stay unemployed.

Which is one reason why Pete told me he’s anticipating a rough year: He’s not sure he’ll have the hands to do the work on his berry, apple, and vegetable crops. “Word of mouth used to bring guys to the farm during the harvest, but now I don’t know,” he said. He wouldn’t agree to let me use his name because he said even talking to a reporter had him worried about repercussions from zealous ICE agents. (While we were talking, Pete’s wife yelled at him to hang up the phone. He didn’t.) Pete pointed to an ICE arrest of five farmworkers in western New York who did not have criminal records. He said it’s just that kind of unpredictability that adds another layer of uncertainty to a business already fraught with pressures farmers cannot control—like the weather or consumer appetites.

Pete points out that the undocumented community is a net contributor to taxes. It’s true: A recent report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that undocumented immigrants contribute billions of dollars to state and local taxes across the country. Deporting them, Pete added, will only hurt Americans. “If they just stopped contributing to the workforce, we’d have a major crisis,” he said. “Pretending [deportation] fixes the system that’s broken only means less food; it doesn’t fix how this works.”

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This week, we’re sharing stories from Renee Montagne, Nina Martin, Alex Tizon, Mary Mann, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, and Andy Newman.

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Not Really A Distant Aunt: My Family’s Slave

In this poignant, posthumous feature at The Atlantic, Alex Tizon tells the story of his family’s slave, Lola. An utusan (“person who takes commands”), Lola was given as a gift from his grandfather to his mother in 1943, when Lola was 18 years old. Lola worked, unpaid, for Tizon and his family for 56 years. During a turbulent childhood where his parents were out of the house for days at a time, Lola was a constant source of love and devotion for Alex and his three siblings. In this moving piece, Tizon attempts to understand his parents’ point of view and motivations, and reconcile himself with Lola’s life of servitude.

We landed in Los Angeles on May 12, 1964, all our belongings in cardboard boxes tied with rope. Lola had been with my mother for 21 years by then. In many ways she was more of a parent to me than either my mother or my father. Hers was the first face I saw in the morning and the last one I saw at night. As a baby, I uttered Lola’s name (which I first pronounced “Oh-ah”) long before I learned to say “Mom” or “Dad.” As a toddler, I refused to go to sleep unless Lola was holding me, or at least nearby.

Mom would come home and upbraid Lola for not cleaning the house well enough or for forgetting to bring in the mail. “Didn’t I tell you I want the letters here when I come home?” she would say in Tagalog, her voice venomous. “It’s not hard naman! An idiot could remember.” Then my father would arrive and take his turn. When Dad raised his voice, everyone in the house shrank. Sometimes my parents would team up until Lola broke down crying, almost as though that was their goal.

It confused me: My parents were good to my siblings and me, and we loved them. But they’d be affectionate to us kids one moment and vile to Lola the next. I was 11 or 12 when I began to see Lola’s situation clearly. By then Arthur, eight years my senior, had been seething for a long time. He was the one who introduced the word slave into my understanding of what Lola was. Before he said it I’d thought of her as just an unfortunate member of the household. I hated when my parents yelled at her, but it hadn’t occurred to me that they—and the whole arrangement—could be immoral.

“Do you know anybody treated the way she’s treated?,” Arthur said. “Who lives the way she lives?” He summed up Lola’s reality: Wasn’t paid. Toiled every day. Was tongue-lashed for sitting too long or falling asleep too early. Was struck for talking back. Wore hand-me-downs. Ate scraps and leftovers by herself in the kitchen. Rarely left the house. Had no friends or hobbies outside the family. Had no private quarters. (Her designated place to sleep in each house we lived in was always whatever was left—a couch or storage area or corner in my sisters’ bedroom. She often slept among piles of laundry.)

The woman who used to hum Tagalog melodies as she rocked me to sleep, and when I got older would dress and feed me and walk me to school in the mornings and pick me up in the afternoons. Once, when I was sick for a long time and too weak to eat, she chewed my food for me and put the small pieces in my mouth to swallow. One summer when I had plaster casts on both legs (I had problem joints), she bathed me with a washcloth, brought medicine in the middle of the night, and helped me through months of rehabilitation. I was cranky through it all. She didn’t complain or lose patience, ever.

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Playing Football to the Beat of Their Own, Literal Drummer

football players on the field line up to play

Gallaudet University — named for Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who helped create American Sign Language — was the first institution of higher education for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. And like any good American institution of higher education, it has a football team — except players and coaches communicate via sign language and the vibrations of an enormous bass drum. In The AtlanticMatthew Davis takes us to Gallaudet’s homecoming game (they won!), and unpacks the tensions that arise when a school tries to cater to deaf and mainstream students, as Gallaudet increasingly has to do.

In 2000, hearing students were admitted for the first time. Today, a rising percentage of Gallaudet’s students come from mainstream backgrounds, a percentage that likely needs to keep rising in order for the school to survive.

This is not without controversy, especially as it relates to students with cochlear implants, students like Reds. Cochlear implantation is an invasive surgery that places an implant into the cochlea, the spiral within the inner ear that contains the primary organ for hearing. A processor close to the outer ear sends electronic sounds to the cochlear implant, which directly stimulates the hearing nerve. What you think of this surgery depends, in part, on how you view deafness—as an identity trait or a problem to be solved. Many in the Gallaudet community see deafness as an identity trait, and they see American Sign Language as the primary expression of that identity. So do some in the hearing community. One hearing mother of a player on the football team told me she never considered implanting her son because it would be like changing his race. The argument, then, of who is deaf and how this deafness is expressed cuts to the core of language, identity, and biology and has deeply affected the Gallaudet community.

In the end, though, football brings them together — a quintessentially American form of bonding.

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How President Trump Made Himself a Head Writer at SNL

Like the old blues lyric says, I’m laughing just to keep from crying. In the age of Trump, comedy has become one of America’s most biting forms of social critique, and Alec Baldwin’s searing depiction of Donald Trump is one of the best. In The Atlantic, Chris Jones shadows Baldwin on the SNL set as the 58-year-old actor turns our dark reality into what might be his most-lasting role yet.

He hadn’t rehearsed much. He had watched Trump on TV with the sound off, hunting for tics and physical cues (Baldwin still does this, recently adding Trump’s habitual neck stretch to his repertoire), but mostly he’d just hoped lightning would strike. Now he stood in the shadows, terrified that he didn’t have it—he worried out loud that he didn’t have it—trying to remind himself that, if nothing else, he needed to look as though he were “trying to suck the wallpaper off the wall.” That “nasty scar” of a mouth was Baldwin’s only certainty: “a puckering butthole,” he calls it, dropping into his Trump voice to describe his vision of it. Then he heard Michael Che, playing debate moderator Lester Holt, summon him to the stage: “He’s the man to blame for the bottom half of all his kids’ faces. It’s Republican nominee Donald Trump.”

Baldwin walked out onto the stage and, as if by dark magic, there he was: not Trump, exactly, but some nightmarish goof on Trump, a distillation of everything gross about him, boiled clean of any remnant that could be mistaken for competence or redemption. Unlike Fey’s pitch-perfect echo of Palin, Baldwin’s Trump isn’t an impersonation. He saves his more accurate work for Tony Bennett, for Robert De Niro, for Al Pacino—for men he loves and admires. Those are mischiefs, born of appreciation. His Trump is mimicry, born of disgust. Even after so many successful appearances—even after his and Trump’s visages have become so closely associated that a newspaper in the Dominican Republic ran a photograph of his Trump instead of the real one—Baldwin can still seem as though he doesn’t have the stomach to inhabit Trump fully. “Push, push, push,” he says in his makeup chair, his lips once again threatening to burst from his distorted face. “It’s exhausting. I’m hoping I can come up with someone else I can imitate. Pence?” In the meantime, he will keep his Trump at a remove, almost like an abstract painting, not of Trump the man but of Trump’s withered soul.

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Rolling Down the Highway with the Sum Total of Human Knowledge

Rows of books line the walls of the public library in Stockholm, Sweden

“Project Ocean,” a Google plan to scan every book in the world, might not have succeeded, but in the course of trying, they did scan over 25 million books—which now sit, untouched, on a Google server. The story of the lawsuit, settlement, and ensuing Department of Justice response a fascinating record of the tensions between art, technology, commerce, and copyright. James Somers tells the whole story in The Atlantic.

Every weekday, semi trucks full of books would pull up at designated Google scanning centers. The one ingesting Stanford’s library was on Google’s Mountain View campus, in a converted office building. The books were unloaded from the trucks onto the kind of carts you find in libraries and wheeled up to human operators sitting at one of a few dozen brightly lit scanning stations, arranged in rows about six to eight feet apart.

The stations—which didn’t so much scan as photograph books—had been custom-built by Google from the sheet metal up. Each one could digitize books at a rate of 1,000 pages per hour. The book would lie in a specially designed motorized cradle that would adjust to the spine, locking it in place. Above, there was an array of lights and at least $1,000 worth of optics, including four cameras, two pointed at each half of the book, and a range-finding LIDAR that overlaid a three-dimensional laser grid on the book’s surface to capture the curvature of the paper. The human operator would turn pages by hand—no machine could be as quick and gentle—and fire the cameras by pressing a foot pedal, as though playing at a strange piano.

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Leave Them Alone! A Reading List On Celebrity and Privacy

I read Alana Massey’s essay collection, All The Lives I Want: Essays About My Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangerswith a pencil in hand. I read it behind the counter at work when it was quiet and customer-free. I read it in bed, long after my partner and cat had fallen asleep. I read it in Starbucks when I should’ve been writing but needed inspiration. Massey is a writer I’ve followed since I became interested in journalism. I admired her incisive blend of pop culture and literary criticism. I especially loved when she wrote about religion—Massey spent time at Yale Divinity School—because I went to a conservative Christian college and I was yearning to see how I could translate my weird, vaguely traumatic religious background into beautiful sentences. I bought her book as a reward for myself for meeting a writing deadline.

This reading list is partially inspired by Massey’s excellent writing about the way our society honors and rejects celebrated women—and also about society’s inclination, if not blatant desire, to know every little detail about our favorite celebrities and judge them according to our own arbitrary moral standards. (I’m not immune to this: I spent ten minutes in bed Googling potential paramours of one of my favorite YouTube stars, even though I know it’s none of my damn business.) Why do we feel like we own celebrities—not just their art or their products, but their images and their personal lives? What do celebrities owe us, if anything?

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On Happiness: A Reading List

March 20 is recognized and celebrated around the world as the International Day of Happiness. From a profile of “the happiest man in the world” to a Brit’s account of mindfulness-obsessed Americans, here are seven reads about happiness.

1. “The Happiness Index.” (Gretchen Legler, Orion Magazine, January 2014)

“Can a country that claims in its brand-new constitution that happiness is more important than money survive, let alone thrive, in a global economy that measures everything by the dollar?” Legler considers the tiny, landlocked Kingdom of Bhutan as a model for change for the rest of the world.

2. “The World’s Happiest Man Wishes You Wouldn’t Call Him That.” (Michael Paterniti, GQ, October 2016)

“When you meet a monk on his mountaintop, it’s like taking a drug called Tonsured Tangerine Euphoria or Rainbow Saffron Dreams. When you see the world through his eyes, everything turns lovely colors, and you suddenly find yourself un-encrusted—free of your baggage—suddenly loving everyone and everything. It’s a self-manufactured rave in your head.” Paterniti travels to Nepal to meet Matthieu Ricard—named the “Happiest Man in the World”—to learn the keys of ultimate happiness. Read more…