He’s been described as a thief, a swindler and a conman, though he prefers to think of himself as an entrepreneur. He sold illegal booze, ratted out his criminal comrades, drugged women in order to sell these as wives to lonely settlers, tried to sell military secrets, committed patent fraud, and fraudulently took over a mine. His name is Mud, Harry Mud. *My name’s …
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Today we’re talking about mud. This ubiquitous combination of water and dirt is useful to science, employed in health and beauty, a little-known component of professional sports, and even eaten. Let’s start with the strangest-sounding use first, the scientific term for which is geophagy. In Haiti, cookies made of mud are eaten and while they are a tradition, they’re not eaten by choice. The mud helps to fill the stomachs of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, especially those in areas like the slum of Cite Soleil. Yellow dirt from the central plateau is mixed with salt and vegetable shortening, spread into discs and allowed to dry in the sun. The mud has long been prized by pregnant women and children here as an antacid and source of calcium, though there’s no science to back that up.
Even before the devastating 2010 earthquake, many Haitians lived with what is called “food insecurity.” Being an island nation, it imports much of its food, and increased prices on basic ingredients, or on the petroleum needed to get it there, meaning less food is available and at higher prices. 80% of people live on less than $2/day, so if two cups of rice costs 70 cents, but a mud cookies is only 5 cents, the choice is obvious, if unpleasant.
The mud cookies are not only food in the slums, but an important part of their economy. Dirt is trucked in from the central town of Hinche to the La Saline market and women –and it’s exclusively women who make the cookies– buy the dirt for about $5 a bag, sometimes on credit. In the nearby slums and shanty towns, the dirt is sifted to remove clumps or rocks, then mixed with shortening and salt. The mud is spread in circles on sheets on the ground to dry, sometimes next to open sewers. On the flipside, if it rains or the scorching sun hides behind the sun, the cookies can’t dry and the women end up owing money they don’t have. The finished cookies are carried in buckets to markets or sold on the streets. The cookies are said to have a smooth consistency, though they suck all of the moisture from your mouth and the taste of dirt lingers for hours. But you’re not as hungry, so you’ve got that going for you.
Assessments of the health effects are mixed. Dirt can contain deadly parasites or toxins, but it can also strengthen the immunity of fetuses in the womb to certain diseases, said Gerald N. Callahan, an immunology professor at Colorado State University. In the best-case scenario, these mud cookies will bolster the weak immune systems of Haitians. With access to medication being very limited, the people of the country need to do all they can to help themselves. At worst, however, eating soil can make somebody even sicker than they already are, since the water used to make the cookies is often contaminated. It’s also hard on the enamel of your teeth.
How did Haiti get the ignominious title of the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, anyway? It was the first Carribbean nation to throw off the literal shackles of the Atlantic slave trade and most neighboring island nations are doing okay for themselves. In the 18th century, Haiti was a French colony of many slaves and few wealthy white plantation owners. That unequal distribution of wealth has continued to this day. Making matters worse, when France vacated the country in 1804, they insisted on being repaid for the value of the lost slaves. And Haiti paid it, though it took 143 years. Meddling from foreign governments *cough* and a succession of corrupt and inept homegrown governments hasn’t helped anything. Then there’s the worsening hurricane seasons brought on by climate change, with 2016’s Hurricane Matthew destroying 90% of homes in some areas. There’s never a bad time to send help to the people of Haiti, which you can do through charities like Feed the Children and Food for the Poor.
You don’t have to be facing Haitian levels of poverty to eat dirt, though. Closer to home, in southern states of the US, people have been eating a particular kind of clay soil for generations. “White dirt,” as it’s sometimes called, is actually a soft, chalky clay called kaolin and is widely used to make porcelain, paper, cosmetics, and paint. The mineral kaolinite is one of the most common in the world, and the best-known deposits are located in the southeastern U.S. A shopping center in Sandersville, Ga., which is known as the “Kaolin Capital of the World.” Mom & pop stores and flea markets sell the dirt in small Ziploc bags. They’re labeled as “novelty items,” but everybody knows what they’re for.
Seeing those bags is what piqued the interest of documentary filmmaker Adam Forrester. “Whether they tell you or not, people are eating it,” says Forrester, who first came across packaged clay in his hometown of Columbus, Ga. His new documentary, Eat White Dirt, takes a closer look at this bizarre, under-the-radar practice. Eating dirt has a unique history. There’s evidence that our ancestors were eating dirt at least 2 million years ago, when Homo sapiens were still Homo habilis.
According to nutritional anthropologist Sera Young at Cornell University, it’s thought that slaves introduced the practice to the U.S. , but this geophagy was practiced independently among Native American populations long before Columbus arrived. Eating dirt can be a component of a disorder known as pica, in which people compulsively crave things that aren’t food. For examples, watch any randomly-selected episode of the show My Strange Addiction. You’ll inevitably see someone eating or drinking something that has never appeared as an ingredient in any cookbook anywhere, like drywall, cat hair, toilet paper, and scotch tape. Young found in her research that while both men and women ate the white dirt, only women seemed to actually crave it. But why? “That’s the million-dollar question,” says Young. “And the most common response is, ‘I don’t know, I just do.’ “
There are some theories. Clay is known to act as a natural filter. That’s why it’s used to clean up oil spills and absorb the reek of the cat little box. Young says it may have a similar effect in the human body, acting as a “mud mask for the gut,…it binds to all these harmful chemicals and exits the body before entering your bloodstream.” Bear in mind that haven’t been any clinical trials using clay as an antidote for poison, and if you’re looking for the next great product to detoxify, let me politely remind you that that is what your liver and kidneys are for. Clay’s ability to bind harmful substances might explain why pregnant women suffer the most intense pica cravings. The immune system is slightly suppressed during pregnancy, protecting the fetus from rejection, but leaving the body vulnerable. Pica sufferers also tend to be concentrated in hot, humid areas, where pathogens multiply and spread more rapidly than in cold, dry climates.
Before you run to the store for some kaolin clay or head to the back yard with a shovel, Paul Schroeder, a geologist specializing in kaolin at the University of Georgia, says while the clay-eating habit may have evolved as a protective measure, it could be harmful to your health. Clay’s amazing binding properties could work too well and absorb nutrients from food that’s being digested, which is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, he says. Plus, you can never be certain what the clay has absorbed while it was still in the ground.
Far from flea market baggies of white clay to mud that is considered more valuable than gold. It’s not in a fancy spa and you definitely won’t get a complimentary mimosa while you’re there. This mud is in Antarctica and it may offer clues to what types of life, if any, could exist on distant planets or moons also blanketed in ice. In the first such study of subglacial sediment, scientists with the British Antarctic Survey and other institutions are studying the mud at the bottom of Lake Hodgson on the Antarctic Peninsula. As if getting there weren’t hard enough, the scientists have to get through 10 to 13 feet (3 to 4 m) of ice. That’s a cake walk compared to the more than 1,600 feet (500 m) of ice that used to cap the lake. The sediments the scientists are studying were deposited when the lake was sealed under the thick ice nearly a hundred thousand years ago.
In the journal Diversity, David Pearce of the University of Northumbria and his colleagues reported that they grew 20 cultures of microbes found in the uppermost layer of the sediment core, proving that there are viable extremophiles, or life that thrives in extreme environments, in the lake. They also found fossilized fragments of DNA from many different types of microbes that seem to have adapted to Antarctica’s extremes over the eons. Understanding how microbes and other forms of life are thriving in the cold, dark, isolated and nutrient-poor places under the frozen continent’s thick ice could help researchers learn about the origins of life on Earth and the possibilities of life on other worlds, such as Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.
Nearly a quarter of the genetic sequences identified in the study did not match with any known sequence, the researchers reported, suggesting a diversity of never-before-seen life forms may lurk beneath Antarctic lakes. Further investigation is needed, but the researchers say many of the species in this isolated ecosystem are likely to be new to science. With continued research, Pearce said, “We can start to build a picture of what limits life in extreme conditions and then start thinking about what might limit life on other planets.” Several teams are racing to obtain pristine samples from Antarctica’s nearly 380 subglacial lakes.
Scientists recently found indications that bacteria live in Lake Whillans, which is buried 2,625 feet (800 m) below the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Russian scientists are currently analyzing water samples collected in early 2013 from Lake Vostok, which is buried under more than 2 miles (3 kilometers) of Antarctic ice and had not been touched for some 14 million years.
On the topic of great minds thinking alike, there were some choice interaction on our social media this week. On a post about Nyepi, the Balinese New Year, which is spent in silent contemplation, Emily Cook-Asaro pointed out that that tradition is similar to the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Under the meme I posted to tease the calender/new year topic, about the months not lining up with the Latin numbers in their names, Jole Jay wrote “Quintilis and Sextilis before they changed their names. It’s January and February which were added last, after Caesar went travelling and saw just how terrible their calendar was. Oh also both Caesar and Augustus took a day off February and added it to ‘their’ months, which is why it only has 28.” Boom, bonus facts! Over in the Brainiac Breakroom, which is and always will be free, Adam from Odd Dad Out podcasts shared a Mental Floss video of things you didn’t know had names, many of which I also named in one of the earliest episodes, and there’s never a bad time for Mental Floss. Thanks as always to our commenters and RT’s like Eric, Richard, and Most Stable Genius. We also have another review that it delights me to share with the class. Skubala76 left five stars and said, “Can’t get enough of this! My brain loves being on facts!” If you want to hear your username on the show, it’s as easy as leaving a review on your podcast app or interacting with our social media.
We consider it a hallmark of American, along with hot dogs and apple pie, which are German and British respectively, but we’ll gloss right over that. Buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks, we’re talking about the value of mud to major league baseball. Quick bonus fact: Jack Norworth, who wrote “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” wouldn’t actually attend a baseball game until three decades after he wrote the song. For major league pitchers, getting a grip is serious business. A grip on the ball, that is. It’s important that they have control of the ball before launching it at another human being at the same speed as a car on the highway. That’s where mud comes in, specifically, Lena Blackburne’s Original Baseball Rubbing Mud.
Wait, wouldn’t putting mud on the ball *make it slippery? Surprisingly, no. Fresh out of the box, baseballs are glossy and slippery, meaning they can leave the pitcher’s hand wrong and go wherever they jolly well please. The mud is used to lightly roughen the leather to give it some texture. But not just any old mud will do. The story of this special mud begins, as so many innovations do, in tragedy. On August 16, 1920, in the fifth inning of a game between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees, Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman struck in the head by a fastball thrown by Yankees’ pitcher Carl Mays, causing a severe brain injury that would kill him that night. To this day, Chapman remains the only Major League Baseball player to die as a result of an incident on the field. His death forced MLB to find ways to make the game safer. Your mind might leap immediately to batting helmets, but theirs didn’t. Various types of protective head gear had been tried, but it take a near-fatal skull fracture during a game in 1937 before players became interested in wearing them. Even then, batting helmets were optional for another twenty years. Another approach could have been a more strictly policing the practice of “head hunting” by pitchers, throwing the ball near, or at, the batter’s head to drive him back from crowding the plate and making the strike zone smaller. But, no, they didn’t go that way either. What the MLB opted for instead as a 1921 rule, that in effect today, that required “the umpire shall inspect the baseballs…. and that they are properly rubbed so that the gloss is removed.”
Making a rule is easy, executing it somewhat less so. Various methods and substances, from shoe polish to tobacco juice, were tried, the most popular of which being rubbing the balls with infield dirt, sometimes mixed with a bit of water. This worked too well, scuffing up the leather in a way could change the flight path of the ball, something pitchers still use when they can get away with it. What they really needed was a consistent way to remove the gloss without darkening the ball too much, without scuffing it up, and without getting gunk stuck in the laces, which would also affect the flight path. Enter Philadelphia Athletics third base coach Russell Aubry “Lena” Blackburne, who was a player himself when Chapman was killed. He was also an avid fisherman who spent his off-seasons fishing in the backwater of the Delaware River near his home in Palmyra, New Jersey. Reasoning that the infield dirt was too abrasive, Blackburne experimented with the ultra-soft mud from the bottom of the Delaware River. The soft, pudding-like consistency of the mud allowed it to work as an ultra-fine grit buffing agent. You only get that consistency in certain parts of the river, where tributaries bring in finer grain sediment. Just as he’d hoped, a tiny bit of mud took the gloss off the balls without staining or damaging them. As a bonus, it didn’t smell like the other things they’d tried. Soon, Blackburne was selling his Original Baseball Rubbing Mud to every American league team, but only the American league. He wouldn’t sell to their rivals, the National league, because he’d been an American League player, though he would relent in the 1950s.
To this day, Major League Baseball still uses this same mud, though the company passed to John Haas, a friend of Blackburne’s, upon his death and has since passed to Haas’s son-in-law Burns Bintliff, and today is run by Burns’ son, Jim. Jim Bintliff keeps the location of the annual July to October mud harvest of about 1,000lbs/454kg a secret. So secret in fact, that he had had two children with his wife before he deemed it safe to tell her where the spot was. He makes about $20,000 a season for the effort. Even though the product is now sold to the public, is also popular with the NFL for adding grip to new footballs, and is used on 200,000 baseballs per season, such a small amount is needed per ball that the MLB only uses two 32oz buckets, which retail for $75ea. Just a dab’ll do ya.
Bonus fact: There’s an old story that the expression derives from Dr. Samuel Mudd, who unwisely took pity on Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Mudd treated the broken ankle Booth suffered in his leap to the stage of Ford’s Theater; for his trouble, he was sentenced to life in a federal prison. But Mudd isn’t being commemorated in “his name is mud.” The phrase first appeared in print in 1820, 45 years before Lincoln’s assassination. It probably originates in another obscure bit of English slang — “mud” was an eighteenth century equivalent of our “dope” or “dolt” and was used through the nineteenth century by union workers as a rough equivalent of “scab.”
Speaking of sports, mud plays a much more visible roll in a race/obstacle course called Tough Mudder. Since its first race in May 2010, over two million people across seven countries have competed, each paying about $200 each for the privilege. It began with an idea by two British students of Harvard Business School, one of whom was a former counter-terrorism officer. The original course, held at Bear Creek Ski Resort in PA, featured military boot camp style obstacles over a miles long course, many of which involve slogging through, you guessed it, mud. The creators began expanding to other cities and franchising the course. As with anything successful, competitors quickly began popping up, so Tough Mudder has had to up the ante to stay competitive. In recent years, to up the ante, electric shocks, tear gas and two fire-based events (one drops participants through a ring of fire, the other forces them to slide through a 5-foot flame into water) have been added.
Before they compete, contestants must sign a waiver that reads in part: “I acknowledge that the TM [Tough Mudder] event is an extreme test of my physical and mental limits that carries with it inherent risks of physical injury. Inherent risks are risks that cannot be eliminated completely (without changing the challenging nature of the TM event) regardless of the care and precautions taken by TM.” It goes on to release Tough Mudder “from any and all claims, actions, suits, demands, losses and other liabilities in relation to any death, physical or mental injury . . . resulting from the inherent risks of the TM event or the ordinary negligence of TM.” Don’t know about you, but I for one dislike the phrase “ordinary negligence” there. I’ve signed indemnities that mention negligence, but “ordinary negligence” makes it sound like they expect as certain amount of half-assedness in the daily operations.
Legalese hasn’t stopped two lawsuits from being filed against the company. A 28 year old MD man died during a 2013 race in West Virginia, while attempting the “Walk the Plank” obstacle, in which competitors climb a wall and drop into a pool. He was submerged for at least five and possibly as long as 15 minutes. The coroner ruled it an accidental drowning, but his family filed a wrongful death suit last year, claiming organizers didn’t provide adequate rescue divers at the event’s deep-water event. And a New York man filed a lawsuit, saying he nearly lost his leg after his right knee was impaled by a jagged piece of metal under a pool of sludge in the “electroshock” portion of a 2013 race.
If the obstacles don’t get you, the mud itself might. Tough Mudder and other adventure races require a lot of space, so they are often staged in rural areas, near or even in livestock pastures. Where there’s animals, there’s poop, and where there’s poop, there can be bacteria and viruses like Campylobacter (C. coli), a virus called norovirus, and even E. coli. And you’re swimming in it. Symptoms may not come on until a few days later and can include diarrhea, nausea, cramps, and fever. After a 2012 Tough Mudder in Nevada, three military personnel were admitted to the Nellis Air Force Base medical center with vomiting and bloody diarrhea. All had fallen face-first in mud on the Tough Mudder course on a nearby cattle ranch a week before. Subsequent investigations linked 22 cases “most likely caused by infection with the fecally transmitted bacterium Campylobacter coli.”
There are things you can do to protect yourself if this grown-up version of a Double Dare Physical Challenge is calling your name: Try to avoid ingesting any mud or surface water during the obstacle run, which is good advice on any day; rinse off as soon as possible after the race; don’t touch your nose, eyes, or mouth and definitely don’t eat until you’ve properly washed with soap and clean water. If you do catch one of these nasty bugs, stay home and rest, drink plenty of water, and eat yogurt with an active culture to help your body get your microbiome back in balance. Also be on the look-out for worsening symptoms, because in extreme cases, certain types of E. coli can cause bloody diarrhea and kidney failure, especially in people with weak immune systems.
Tough Mudder races can also test the mettle of the local emergency rooms. The 2013 race in PA say 38 participants taken to the emergency room at Lehigh Valley Hospital and 100 more were treated on-site. Understandably, this did not sit well with the staff there, like emergency physician Dr. Marna Greenberg. Patients suffered seizures, dehydration and fainting, and Greenberg later co-wrote a study criticizing the extremity of the event. She wants Tough Mudder to work more closely with local hospitals so they’re not blindsided by a sudden influx of patients.
For all the gloom and doom I’ve been spinning around it, Tough Mudder is statistically fairly safe as endurance sports go. Those who participate tend to be in good physical condition and have trained specifically for the event. The obstacles are designed and tested with outside engineers as well as fire and emergency medical professionals. Most injuries are minor, requiring only first aid, and only one death has occurred. For comparison, for every million people who go skiing, there are 54 fatalities.
And that… So who was the ne’er-do-well from the top of the show? Full name Harcourt Fenton Mudd, he was a recurring character from the original Star Trek series. A fun character for writers to play with, Mudd’s antics continued in novels, comics, the animated series that ran for 22 episodes in 1973 and even the home computer game Star Trek: Starfleet Academy in 1997. Remember… Thanks…