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One Bad Trip

Nerd Nite's Top Ten Reasons Not to Be an Explorer

Some days, when I'm squashed in the subway with the entire population of New York City (how do 8 million people fit in a single subway car?), or I've stared at a computer screen for so long that I try to right-click on my toothbrush, I think about explorers.


The kind of explorers who are far away from subways and cities and people in general. The kind of explorers who are close to Nature, not just to Central Park. In fact, the kind of explorers whom Nature tries to kill-and not via a pollen overdose. We're talking raging cataracts, oversized carnivores, avalanches. Overcome those and you are a badass par excellence. Right-click on that, fool! At least, those were my daydreams before I started reading explorers' memoirs. Sure, they made astounding scientific discoveries, experienced natural beauties never before seen by humankind, and gained lifelong bragging rights back at the club. But these gains came at fearsome costs. Like drinking water contaminated by camel dung for years on end (Charles Doughty). Or fearing that a snake would bite you right in the imperial homeland every time you went into the bush to move your bowels (Graham Greene). Or having the adorable baby gorilla snuggling inside of your parka move its bowels all over you, twenty-four hours a day, as you attempt to bring it to safety (Redmond O'Hanlon). Basically, a lot of bad things involving excrement happen to explorers. But lest you think my fears of exploration are a bunch of B.S., I present a list of the top ten reasons not to be an explorer, drawn from Sir Apsley Cherry-Garrard's 1922 memoir, The Worst Journey in the World. Sir Cherry-Garrard ("Cherry" to his friends and also to me, his imaginary friend) was an Oxford grad wondering what to do with his life when he heard about Robert Scott's plan to be the first to reach the South Pole. One of the only civilians permitted to volunteer for the expedition (perhaps because of his generous donation to it), the 24-year-old Cherry found himself en route to Antarctica in 1910. His memoir, written with the help of George Bernard Shaw, contains plenty of horrible-sounding details. Here are the ones most likely to persuade you that you're better off wielding a Metrocard instead of an ice ax.

1. It's Awful Even Before You Get There
Cherry and the rest of the expedition headed south in a rickety, second-hand wooden steamship rechristened the Terra Nova. Although I imagine the expedition crew had fears about how she would perform in the ice, the Terra Nova behaved perfectly once she reached Antarctica. The problem was the five-month voyage there, which included a number of storms, tons of coal washed overboard, and a fire. The Terra Nova was a small ship, crammed with supplies, irritated men, and even more irritated ponies and sled dogs. To save room and funds, Scott decreased the number of sailors, meaning that even officers like Cherry had to spend hours a day shoveling coal in the burning-hot engine room and laboring at the pumps, which ensured the ship's constant leaking didn't flood the hold-although maybe a leak is a good thing when you're also worrying about your ship catching fire?

2. Your Body Just Isn't Cut Out for This
Before his trip, Cherry was a sheltered, upper-class young man not especially given to sporting activities that didn't involve killing foxes. His voyage on the Terra Nova did give him some time to harden up, but there was one major physical failing that no boat could fix: his extremely poor eyesight. The Antarctic cold instantly coated his glasses in ice and fog, rendering him almost blind whenever he went outside.

The cold led to other problems, too. Frostbite was frequent. The expedition's gloves were bulky, making delicate work impossible. Anything from the adjustment of a harness strap to the deployment of a scientific instrument would require bare hands and very good timing. At times, Cherry was seized with such uncontrollable shivering that all of his teeth were "split to pieces" from chattering. He assures the reader that it didn't hurt very much, since the cold had killed the nerves some time before.

3. The Local Cuisine Is Terrible
Once the expedition reached the site chosen for their home base, they unpacked all manner of canned goods (including Heinz baked beans) and some handy shotguns, which supplied everyone with (allegedly) delicious fresh seal meat. Ah, to be an explorer in the days before endangered species.

By contrast, the food taken along for any trips away from home base was monotonous, unpalatable, and insufficient. In an attempt to reduce weight on the sledges that carried supplies, Scott carefully calculated and packed a daily ration for each man consisting mainly of butter, crackers, cocoa, and tea. These rations proved problematic in several ways. Working with tiny Primus stoves in cramped tents, the man in charge of cooking for the day generally decided to eschew such luxuries as multiple courses and threw everything into the same pot. Yummy cracker butter tea chocolate paste! Plus, while travelling, the explorers slept in reindeer-skin sleeping bags, whose hair shed and ended up everywhere, especially in the cooking pot. More crucially, Scott's caloric calculations had assumed that the sledges would be pulled by the expedition's dogs, ponies, or motors. The motorized sledges broke after travelling only 50 miles, the ponies were incapable of pulling much weight (in part because they were refusing to eat their own travel rations, blocks of compressed hay), and there weren't enough dogs to go around, so the men ended up pulling 700-pound sledges, harnessed in malnourished teams.

4.The Accommodations Totally Suck
Having landed with too little time to attempt to reach the Pole before the arctic winter set in, the expedition built a hut to house themselves while waiting for the spring. There were a whole lot of dudes in not that much space. There were a lot of bunk beds. It looks like the worst summer camp cabin ever. And it's still standing, so you can go visit if you, too, want to be cramped and cold and have seal grease all over everything.

5. You Can't Avoid People
Cherry was stuck in a hut or harnessed to sledges for years on end, and what seems to have been the worst thing about that was how goddamned cheerful everyone was. Cherry collected submissions for a hand-written "newspaper," the South Polar Times! They gave each other birthday parties! There were lectures on photography and Japan! They held sing-alongs every night with the accompaniment of a Pianola! Again, worst summer camp EVER.

6. Animals Are So Much Cuter on YouTube
In order to reach land from the Terra Nova, when it became immovably wedged in pack ice some distance from the shore, the explorers had to unload their supplies and haul them over ice floes. This took several days and was extremely complex, given that the ice was in motion, with cracks opening up underneath their feet. If anyone strayed too close to the edge of a floe, killer whales would ram the underside of the ice, seeking to break pieces from the edge and cause a potential meal to fall into the water. I don't know why no one has made a movie about man-hunting killer whales yet, but it should definitely star Pierce Brosnan along with my sister as the killer whale (joke!).

7. Day Trips Are So Overrated
It wasn't even the trip to the Pole that Cherry called "the worst journey in the world," but rather a 70-mile side jaunt that he and two others made to collect emperor penguin eggs. They were hauling 790 pounds of supplies on two sledges, which sounds bad enough, but the real problem was that emperor penguins like to get freaky in the depths of arctic winter. The team was the first to attempt travelling during the winter, marching in almost absolute darkness with temperatures as low as minus 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Cherry discovered his clothes would freeze into whatever position he assumed when he came out of the tent. Their sleeping bags also froze and had to be defrosted slowly and agonizingly each night by thawing them with their own bodies. It was also too cold for the snow to melt under the runners of the sledges, meaning they couldn't glide, and it felt like the team was pulling them through sand. Cherry explains the overall experience: "I for one had come to that point of suffering at which I did not really care if only I could die without much pain." And that was before a blizzard blew away their tent and ripped the roof off the igloo they had built near the penguins. They spent two days exposed to the elements- huddled in their sleeping bags, without food, singing hymns to one another and waiting to die-before the blizzard stopped and they miraculously found their tent a few hundred yards away.

8. Creeping Thoughts of "It's Not Worth It"
The reason Cherry was traipsing about in the icy dark was recapitulation theory. This theory held that embryos "recapitulate" stages of evolutionary development during their growth and, more specifically, that emperor penguin embryos, hitherto unstudied, might reveal the "missing link" between birds and reptiles. Unfortunately, scientists had figured out the theory was totally bogus by the time Cherry arrived back with the specimens, and he could barely get the London Natural History Museum to accept them at all.

9. Work Just Piles Up While You're Gone
Don't you dread getting back to work from a vacation and having to answer the hundreds of emails clogging your inbox? Cherry didn't have email, but he did have a big, looming project to deal with: World War I. A little more than a year after the members of the expedition arrived back in Britain, war was officially declared, and the survivors interrupted their convalescences to join up. Cherry was eventually assigned the command of a squadron of armed cars in Flanders, although his ill health resulted in his being invalided out of the service in 1916.

10. Someone Always Has It Worse
Despite all the terrible things that happened during his time as an explorer, Cherry couldn't even claim the bragging rights for the worst vacay ever. Those belong to Scott and the three other members of the expedition who made it to the Pole. Their years of planning and suffering were rewarded with the distinction of being the second group there-a Norwegian team had scooped them by more than a month. Then blizzards and accidents slowed their return, leading to the deaths of all four men.


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Ready-to-Wear Gadgets

Imagine a Fashion Week of the future in which runway models strut a different kind of stuff: cell phone dresses, heart-monitoring shirts, solar-paneled bikinis. Backstage, a nervous novice wears the Hug Shirt, with which she can send and receive hugs remotely to calm any last minute jitters before she hits the runway.


These garments are hardly imaginary. They come from an emerging group of designers who take fashion as seriously as technology, an integration that might leave us wondering how our bodies will transform if there are gizmos in our gowns and nanoparticles in our PJs.

Techy fashions come in all different flavors. There are the ones that supersize our abilities. Think superhero suits, or more realistically, think gecko suit. The military's Z-Man Program is developing Geckskin, a fabric modeled after the clinging power of the gecko's feet, which creators hope will help soldiers climb tall structures in a single bound without ropes and ladders.

Other garments monitor vital signs. The NuMetrex bra monitors your heart rate while you work out. Electrodes are knitted into the fabric, sensing your heart rate, and a transmitter inserted into the bra's band sends the information to a monitor wristwatch.

Still others are simply diva-worthy, like the Twitter Dress that singer Imogen Heap debuted at the 2010 Grammys, which streamed tweets on the flared collar.

A quickly growing area of techy fashion is power-generating garments. Through the use of nanotechnology and piezoelectric material, garments can store the energy from the friction created by the body's movement. The stored energy can then be used to power devices. A variation on this theme is solar-powered clothing. Take the Solar Bikini, which for somewhere between $500 and $1,500 can power your iPod. (It may not look like the most comfortable swim gear, but show me a bikini that is!) According to Gizmag, the smart swimsuit (developed by Andrew Schneider) is made with photovoltaic cells that convert solar radiation into electricity. Makes basking in the sun seem slightly less idle. And yes, you can even swim in it.

But "smart clothing" isn't just clever, it can also be friendly. The Hug Shirt, which earned praise from Time magazine as one of the best inventions of 2006, offers remote hugs. So much better than an emoticon. The shirt is essentially a Bluetooth accessory that allows wearers to exchange virtual hugs. Actuators and sensors in the fabric provide the simulated embrace, which is sent from another shirt-wearer who hugs himself to activate the exchange. The sensors deconstruct the hug into pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature, among other things. The data are then transmitted and, with a little imagination and some intricate technology, reconstructed in the other shirt as a hug.

One of my favorite designs is a cell phone dress. The M-Dress, designed by CuteCircuit, is a black silk dress that functions as a cell phone. Here's how it works. First insert a SIM card into a slot under the label so the phone number is the same as your cell phone. The speaker and microphones are embedded in the sleeve. When the dress phone rings you answer it by moving your hand up to your ear. Moving your hand back down ends the call. The gesture recognition software embedded in the dress allows these natural movements to function as "on" and "off" switches.

Although many of these garments are in their infancy, it's not too early to start thinking about their social implications. What happens when gestures normally used as social cues are meant to be ignored by people around you, instead functioning to power barely visible devices? Will we end up fidgeting our way down the streets with our arms waving, seemingly without meaning, the way we now walk around seeming to talk to ourselves? And what do garments like the Hug Shirt do to our sense of physical space and privacy? What if the person whose hug you welcome today becomes the person whose touch you can't stand tomorrow? What measures can the designers implement to prevent unwanted "hugs."

Prototypes of smart clothing are under development in a wide array of industries, but one of the eeriest developments is smart clothing for infants. The Exmobaby Onesie (from Exmovere) is a wearable baby monitor that tracks heart rate, emotional state, and behavior-whatever that means. According to the press release it's a washable conductive fabric-based biosensor pajama created by a biomedical engineering company, and it's the first garment of its kind.

This continuous monitoring in real time will allow for an "emotional umbilical cord" between mother and child. Parents will be able to see icons representing their baby's condition on their smart phones or computer screens.

What all these designs have in common is that they do things that their relatively idle counterparts, hanging lazily on our limbs, don't. And what they do ranges from interacting with the body to interacting with other technology and with the environment. But if we're looking toward a future of multi-tasking muumuus, we face some interesting questions about what happens when tools become part of our second skin. When instead of carrying our technology, we live in it. With gestures powering devices and shirts giving us feedback about our bodies, smart clothes become extensions of both body and mind. Envisioning a future of garments with such rich functionality begs a question: Will the unclothed body ever feel adequate again?


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This American Booze

A half-ounce of Perry's Tot Navy Strength gin, in a short-stemmed glass, sits before me on the bar. It's named for Commodore Matthew Perry, the nineteenth century's "Father of the Steam Navy."


But I'm thinking about another steamboat captain, my ancestor Henry Shreve. In the early 1800s, he helped open up the lower Mississippi River to steamboat traffic by removing snags and improving navigation. (Shreveport, Louisiana is named in his honor.) But it wasn't all smooth sailing. Robert Fulton, widely credited with inventing the first commercially successful steamboat, established a monopoly on steamboat commerce. Shreve set out the break it up. Fulton and Shreve, by my reckoning, were not friends.

Fulton and Commodore Perry, on the hand, were pretty chummy. In 1814, the United States was at war with Great Britain (again), and New York City was understandably nervous about British warships prowling around its harbor. So Fulton took it upon himself to design a 156-foot-long, steam-powered warship-enormous for the time-whose 30 guns could blast those pesky Brits with "red-hot shot." On the committee examining Fulton's design was none other than Commodore Perry, who enthusiastically supported the construction of the vessel, known as "Fulton the First." Of course there was a second ship named Fulton, commissioned in 1837 by-you guessed it-Commodore Perry, who also served as her first captain.

While I don't think my forebear ever met Commodore Perry, I'm going to go out on a limb and say old Henry probably wouldn't be too fond of the guy who custom-built two steamships bearing the name of his nemesis-or the gin bearing the commodore's name for that matter.

Sorry, Henry, but there's a tempting dram before me, and while the past is prologue, what's to come, as they say, is in my discharge. This Shreve-Perry feud I just manufactured belongs to the past. Down the hatch!

Delicious. Fruity and spicy, with a sweet and smooth finish. Impressive, considering Perry's Tot is bottled at "navy strength"-114 proof.

Navy strength gin was born centuries ago, when the British Royal Navy ruled the seas. Officers were paid in alcohol, so the gin was kept under lock and key-right next to the gunpowder. But the navy had figured out that at 114 proof, even if some of that precious gin sloshed onto the gunpowder, it could still be ignited.

Very important, said my host Allen Katz, from behind the bar at the Shanty in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. "Because if you can't fire off your cannonballs, you're screwed."

Attached to the Shanty is the New York Distilling Company, where Katz and his partners Tom and Bill Potter make Perry's Tot and Dorothy Parker, another craft gin. They've only been in business for seven months, and if it seems odd that the first product they brought to market is a 114-proof gin, well, that's kind of the point. "We thought, let's be creative. Let's be purposefully different," said Katz, slightly bookish and sporting a Ned Flanders mustache. "Let's introduce something that reclaims a sense of history, but that most people have not experienced from a modern drinking standpoint."

Katz probably knows as much about modern drinking as anybody in the country. He's a cocktail and spirits educator par excellence, and a frequent presenter at events cocktail nerds flock to, including Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, the New York Wine & Food Festival, and the Manhattan Cocktail Classic.

And he's part of a craft distilling explosion in New York City. Katz ticked off eight distilleries, including his own, that have opened in the past two years. I asked him what was behind the trend, expecting to hear something about tax breaks or economic recovery. Uh uh. I was talking to the Plutarch of potables.

There's a relatively recent historical arc, said Katz, that begins about 35 years ago and traces America's collective awakening about food and drink. In the early 1980s, roughly correlated with the birth of the slow food movement, we started to get interested in the origins and history of our food. (We figured out there were more than two varieties of apple-and they tasted different!) Next, we got interested in wine. (Why should the French have all the fun?) Then we got really excited about craft beer. Then we got really excited about craft beer again.

Gastronomy. Wine. Beer. "All wonderful cultural attributes," said Katz. "None of which have any origin in the United States. So, is there anything of our own heritage that is worldly, that is lasting, that is culturally significant? And I would say there are two things: barbecue of the American South and cocktails."

We didn't create distilling in America, but we can lay claim to the cocktail as an American invention. In his book Imbibe! (required reading for all cocktail nerds), David Wondrich writes that our "facility with mixing drinks was the first legitimate American culinary art." And in the century and a half before Prohibition, we exported it to every corner of the globe. We lost touch with our roots for a while-that's another story-but we're back on track. "There is a movement to reclaim, proudly, a sensibility of American gastronomic heritage around the cocktail," said Katz.

That's a movement we can all get behind.


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