What Will Mary Roach Write About Next?

First, dead bodies. Then, the human soul. Most recently, sex.

Those are the topics on which American author and columnist Mary Roach has written. Hilariously so, I should add. I wonder what she’ll write about next.

She began her career as a freelance writer while working a “half-time” (as her bio states; I wonder if that means “part-time?”) public relations gig at the San Francisco Zoological Society. This included writing press releases addressing peculiar issues such as elephant wart removal surgery and cheetah-sucking fleas. Now what writer wouldn’t want that kind of experience?

This paved the way for her research-driven style, though she admits, “I don’t have a science degree and must fake my way through interviews with experts I can’t understand.” Awesome.

A skeptical, evidence-driven journalist at heart, she researches her topics thoroughly, to the point of tracking down and contacting the authors of the scientific studies she reads. Sometimes, if possible, she’ll attempt to be a subject in these studies herself, so she can write about the experience first-hand.

Roach’s approach distills complex topics with a healthy dose of skepticism and a hearty dollop of humor. I caught myself laughing out loud a few times while reading her books. Few books do that to me.

Few also make me queasy enough to lose my appetite, as her book on cadavers did. I think I lost a few pounds while reading Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Call me a wuss, but visualizing the liquefication of human organs from a rotting corpse into the ground, such that the resulting dirt turns to putrid mud, has a way of making my mashed potatoes and gravy less appetizing.

Just to share the horrific hilarity, let me quote a few passages. Here’s one from Stiff:

Bloat is most noticeable in the abdomen, [adjunct research professor of forensic anthropology at University of Tennessee] Arpad [Vass] is saying, where the largest numbers of bacteria are, but it happens in other bacterial hot spots, most notably the mouth and genitalia. “In the male, the penis and especially the testicles can become very large.”

“Like how large?” (Forgive me.)

“I don’t know. Large.”

“Softball large? Watermelon large?”

“Okay, softball.” Arpad Vass is a man with infinite reserves of patience, but we are scraping the bottom of the tank.

Now here’s one from Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. It would seem that Roach has a fascination for death. While Stiff covers what happens to the body upon death, Spook covers the mind/soul/consciousness.

Theorists like [Duke University School of Medicine professor Gerry] Nahum think of the consciousness as information content. And information, to a quantum physicist anyway, has an accepted energy equivalent. And thus a (very very very light) weight. “The change in the heat that has to be liberated per bit of information lost is about three times ten to the minus-twenty-one joules,” Nahum says.

I must have made some sort of face. “I’m making this as simple as I can,” Nahum says. When you’re as brainy as Gerry Nahum is, you lose sight of just how ignorant the rest of us are. Earlier on in our talk, he prefaced the line, “Quite a few people look at microtubules as what can be considered almost like an abacus for molecular calculation at a subcellular level” with the phrase “As I’m sure you’re aware.”

Here’s an excerpt from her latest book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, which is about the history of the scientific study of sex, as I’m sure you’re aware.

The human vagina is accustomed to visitors. Even the language of anatomy imbues the organ with an innlike hospitality, the entrance to the structure being named the “vaginal vestibule.” Take off your coat and stay awhile. Gynecologist Robert Latou Dickinson, circa 1910, documented its wondrously accommodating nature, using his fingers as a measuring tool. The volume of the virgin vagina is “one finger”; the married woman rates “two full fingers.” Once babies start coming, it’s “three fingers” and up, all the way to Subject No. 163, whose vestibule (and parlor) appear in a pen-and-ink rendering in Dickinson’s Atlas of Human Sex Anatomy with the doctor’s entire hand submerged.

Scientific, yet hilarious. No doubt, readers yearning for more substantial fare will be turned off by Roach’s light-hearted tone, but that’s why I love it. Her books are learning made fun.

So what will she write about next?

First, she wrote about death and the body. Then she followed it up with death and the mind/soul/consciousness, which seemed the perfect sequel. It was as if some of her notes from Stiff begged for further examination. When she did, Spook was born.

With Bonk, she changed direction. After such macabre topics, I don’t blame her. I can imagine her husband saying, “You’ve changed, Mary. Your libido has totally gone kaput since all that research about the dead.” So to spice things up, she decided to research sex. ‘Tis only fair.

Here’s what I think her next book might be about:

The science of love
Her fourth book could continue with the sex theme and cover what sometimes comes first: the science of love and romance. A lot of chemical reactions and hormones course through your mind when in the throes of love. Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, has even made a name for herself by doing a lot of research in this field.
The science of relationships
Another angle could be the study of human relationships. How and why did we evolve to be social beings? How and why did the US phenomenon of the nuclear family arise, and is it good for us?
The science of child-rearing
I’m guessing there have been studies to determine the most effective parenting techniques. For my parents, it was with swift physical discipline. Nowadays, it is less so. Is that good, bad, or just different?
The science of eating
She could also cover another bodily function: consuming food. It could include research on nutrition, chemically-engineered produce, farm-raised livestock, processed foods, fast food, junk food, and all that lovely stuff. The topic has been done many times over though, so she might need a new angle.
The history of food
Sort of related to the previous point, but a little different. I would love to know who first looked at a cow’s udder and said, “I’m going to drink whatever comes out of that.” How did we come to eat the foods we do? Should we really be vegetarians? Why do I enjoy hot dogs so much, even when I know they are made of lips and assholes?
The history of obesity
I once heard that the rise of obesity in the US coincided with the introduction of artificial sweeteners and, possibly, soda and fast food. I’m not sure if that’s entirely true, but it would be interesting to hear her take on this.
The science of alcohol
In keeping with Roach’s theme of human-related topics, this could cover how alcohol came about. How was it discovered? How did every civilization come up with some form of alcoholic beverage? Are we just beings that innately crave being buzzed? And what’s the evolutionary reason why Asians turn red when drinking it?
The science of drugs
Similar to the previous one, but, you know, about drugs. Or both topics could be covered in one book.
The science of human waste removal
After all these topics on what we consume, how about what we void? Human waste removal has come a long way. From throwing it out your window to aqueducts to automated sewage systems to electronic heated toilets in Japan. Fascinating stuff here.
The science of evolution
I don’t mean starting from fish to reptiles to mammals to hairless apes. But it would be interesting to hear about the latest findings and research history on how scientists concluded that early humans came from Africa and settled throughout the rest of the world. Even the rise of racial differences could be interesting. Or the theory that humans evolved from aquatic apes.

I’m sure if I sat here, I could think of many more. Roach, I’m sure, has a long list already. Or maybe she needs an idea, in which case, I’d like to humbly make these suggestions. All I ask is an autographed copy of the book. Hehe.

Whatever the case, I’m eager for her next book. I will definitely buy it, as I’m sure you’re aware.

Ten New Year’s Resolutions You Never Thought Of

Drum roll please. Here are ten New Year’s resolutions you, being a sane adult of above-average intelligence, never thought of. Which is a good thing.

  1. Adopt a new vice – Why all the bull about trying to stop a vice, like smoking or junk food? Everyone knows you’re not going to do it. Instead, go out and get a new vice. Start snorting Kool-Aid or hijacking school buses full of penguins.
  2. Eat as many weird meats as you can – You can define weird any way you like. Frogs, turtles, snakes, lizards, worms. Nah, those aren’t weird enough. Chicken embryos, fish excrement, maggots, and testicles of just about any animal. That’s more like it.
  3. Read every street sign you see out loud – Whether you’re walking down the street by yourself or on a crowded bus, read those street sounds loud and proud. Articulate each and every one. Some may thank you for the reminder, others will punch you in the face.
  4. Fart downwind – Not as easy as it sounds, especially in a building with no wind. To rectify that situation, keep a handheld fan on your person at all times. Every time you fart, fan it downwind. Fart, fan, fart, fan, fart fan, just like that.
  5. Set the World Record for Most Times Abducted by Aliens – Might be tough to carry this one out. Unless you start carving mountains out of your mashed potatoes or invent warp drive technology or [insert your favorite sci-fi/alien reference here].
  6. Learn to play the accordion – Weird Al Yankovic played one, so why can’t you? The key is to practice, practice, practice. Especially late at night, when you can’t sleep because all the weird meats you’re eating are causing massive downwind farts.
  7. End all discussions with “To be continued…” – Leave everyone hanging. Extra points if you can end on a cliffhanger or an especially important point.
  8. Spit generously – Nothing says “manly” like lodging a good, healthy loogie from the gullet and landing with a satisfying blop. And chicks totally dig it.
  9. Start ending sentences with a preposition – You know you want to. This includes blog posts, of course. Ending with prepositions is where it’s at.
  10. Suck less on a daily average – Since the opposite of suck is blow, then to carry out this resolution, you can thusly and simply, blow more.

And no, I am not resolving to do any of these. If you would like to, then, please stand upwind of me.

How to Speed Read

With an easy schedule, I can read about a book a week. I haven’t had an easy schedule in a while unfortunately, but I can still complete a book relatively quickly.

This is because I speed read. Now, I’m no lightning-fast reader. I won’t be winning any speed reading competitions anytime soon. But I’m guessing a book a week is faster than the average reader.

Interested in speed reading too? Speed reading is a “collection of reading methods which attempt to increase rates of reading without greatly reducing comprehension or retention,” according to Wikipedia (and if Wikipedia says it, it must be true, ha ha). There are many speed reading methods out there, such as minimizing distractions, skimming, meta guiding, subvocalization removal, and schematic processing. Let’s go over each one.

Minimizing Distractions
It is easier to comprehend a piece of information if there are few or no distractions around. If you’re at home, turn off the TV, laptop or radio. If you’re commuting to work on a noisy bus or train, try noise cancellation earphones with easy-going music.
This involves scanning a paragraph to get the gist of its meaning. Many authors use filler words and sentences that don’t add to the message. Even words like “a,” “and,” and “the” can be skipped. In other words, don’t read and think about each & every word — glance through the text to pick up just the relevant words. If you get good at this, you can even read by common phrases instead of individual words. This is my preferred method.

There is a technique similar to skimming called the Z method where you read one line, diagonally sweep across the second line backwards to the beginning of the third line, then read the third line. This doesn’t work for me though.

Meta Guiding
Some people find it helpful to use some kind of visual guide, like a finger or pen, to follow the passage of text. By moving the pointer under the sentence you are reading at a brisk pace, you aid your eye in skimming the sentence. I do this when there are distractions I can’t minimize, though I do it more for comprehension and not for speed — meaning I move my finger slowly under the text.
Subvocalization Removal
If you sound out each word in your head as you read, you are subvocalizing. Doing this can slow down your pace. There are techniques to remove this habit, such as chanting a repetitive phrase like “A-E-I-O-U” or counting “1, 2, 3, 4” over & over again as you read. I don’t do this either, though I sometimes subvocalize key words as I’m skimming. Perhaps slows me down, though it doesn’t bother me.
Schematic Processing
This method involves training your mind to read familiar words and concepts more efficiently, while employing specialized study skills for unfamiliar material. I don’t know much about this method, except that it’s based on the work of Malcolm Knowles and his theory of andragogy.

The drawbacks of speed reading are comprehension and lack of sentence appreciation. Comprehension is probably the main detriment for most people. Being an aspiring author, I appreciate a well-constructed sentence. Whenever I’m reading a great author, I will purposefully slow down so I can take in each sentence. However, I have to consciously do this; otherwise I will automatically speed-read my way through the book.

To combat loss of comprehension, I sometimes pause after an important paragraph or chapter and think about it critically. I will visualize the author’s message and find ways to relate it to my life and experiences. Sometimes I’ll conjure up other examples to support the author’s thesis. Other times, I’ll discover conflicts and holes in the author’s argument. In either case, this act of critical thinking significantly aids my comprehension of the material.

So that’s my formula for speed reading and comprehension: minimizing distractions, skimming, and thinking critically about what I am reading.

Do you speed read? If so, how do you do it?

The Inland Empire

When I first heard the acronym “IE” I thought it meant “Internet Explorer.” That’s because I am a web geek and IE in the web world means Internet Explorer.

Now I know better. The initials IE can stand for many things. A web browser that has frequently frustrated many a web developer. A Latin abbreviation for “id est,” which corresponds to “that is” and not “for example.” Or a hot, dry, wasteland of a Californian desert with the occasional pocket of life and delicious food.

Continue reading “The Inland Empire”