Graeme Wood


Jersey Gore

Originally appeared in The Daily.
For today’s summer vacationers, the Jersey Shore presents few dangers worse than bad calzone, unwanted encounters with reality TV stars, and venereal disease. But the beach bums of yesteryear faced a danger much more terrifying, and not curable with a dose of Imodium or penicillin. It measured about 10 feet long, stalked swimmers along a 125-mile stretch of coastline, and feasted on human flesh throughout the summer of 1916. No one can be sure, but most scientists now think the culprit was one or several great white or bull sharks. Read the rest of this entry »

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Wojtek, Soldier Bear

Originally appeared in The Daily.

In November 1947, after five years of service, the Polish army discharged a soldier by the name of Wojtek at the rank of corporal. Wojtek’s record had its moments of distinction, including heroism under fire in the brutal battle against the Nazis at Monte Cassino, Italy. But overall, it was blemished with insubordination, including drunkenness, theft of women’s clothing, and attempted murder. For another soldier, these crimes would have meant a court-martial, but the army let them slide, because Corporal Wojtek was a 500-pound brown bear.
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In Brutal African War, Chimps the Big Winners

A dispatch from the Central African Republic for Sphere.

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The Ethics of a Psychologist

In 2002, Seligman spent three hours at Naval Base San Diego, lecturing on torture and interrogation. But his lectures, he protests, were flipped on their head: he told the group of military men and women how to resist torture and interrogation by an unscrupulous foe. According to Mayer, the military used his insights to learn to induce in victims a condition of “learned helplessness” — a type of forlorn passivity that Seligman first observed in randomly electrocuted dogs 40 years ago. He hasn’t collaborated with that group since the lecture, he says, and he strongly condemns torture. “My career has been devoted to finding out how to overcome learned helplessness, not how to produce it.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Consider the Burger

A little over a century ago, the New York street food of choice was the oyster, which grew so abundantly that rich and poor alike ate them in vast quantities. That period feels distant and fantastic, partly because oysters are now a luxury food, and partly because it’s hard to imagine a national cuisine not dominated by the hamburger.

The signature American sandwich has always been an unapologetically demotic food — at least until recently — but Ozersky’s cultural history emphasizes three principal phases in our collective consumption: first, its murky origins in “hamburger steak,” first served in the U.S. but associated with immigrants from the port city of Hamburg; second, the early days of White Castle in the 1920s, when the preparation of burgers became a science and an art; and finally the postwar McDonald’s era, when a ruthless entrepreneur named Ray Kroc took the fast-food model and made it franchisable nationwide, and then worldwide.

The burger is, Ozersky notes, an irreducible food, a “gastronomic endpoint, like sashimi or a baked potato.” Yet somehow, with each phase, innovations prevailed. White Castle figured out that it could cook faster and more evenly and use griddle space more efficiently if it served square burgers, not round ones, and poked a hole in the center. McDonald’s embraced the all-Styrofoam-and-paper service area, streamlining itself into absurd profitability. And Dave Thomas, the genius behind Wendy’s, invented the drive-through window, capitalizing on the sandwich’s key virtue — its portability. You can eat a hamburger as you drive (try that with an oyster).

The Hamburger is short but comprehensive, heavy with interesting detail about the habits of American diners and restaurateurs. (It would be better if it were even leaner; the gratuitous lessons in pop sociology should be trimmed first.) One serious omission, though, is a realistic discussion of the scale of the industry it describes, which we all know is staggeringly large, but it is in fact even larger than most appreciate. The amount of beef McDonald’s alone uses in a year is so great that if the cows supplying its restaurants were all in one herd, and were being killed Blackfoot-style by stampeding them off a cliff 20 feet wide, McDonald’s gauchos would have to be rushing the herd off that cliff from dawn to dusk, every day of the year, to satisfy demand. The pop and sizzle of hamburgers conceal the frantic moos of an unfathomable number of animals, and it would be nice to have some acknowledgment of their sacrifice.

Originally appeared at

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Steak Without Cow

PETA’s million-dollar prize is an occasion for irony — delicious or repulsive, depending on one’s perspective. About a decade ago, an urban legend claimed that the government had barred Kentucky Fried Chicken from calling its food “chicken,” because it used genetically modified Frankenbirds, brainless and grown in jars, that bore no resemblance to chicken or poultry of any kind. That supposedly explained the rebranding of Kentucky Fried Chicken as “KFC” — a government demand for truth in advertising. Needless to say, this idiotic myth contained not even a grain of truth. KFC continued to use real chickens, and to abuse them wantonly in the production process. PETA noticed and launched a campaign, “Kentucky Fried Cruelty,” to draw attention to KFC’s brutal methods. Now PETA’s prize suggests the organization wishes the urban legend had been true from the start. One looks forward to clever PETA graphics featuring Colonel Sanders in a lab-coat, instead of bloodstained and sporting devil-horns. Read the rest of this entry »

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On Wings of Amateurs

The splendid Effect Measure, a relentless tracker of avian influenza news, explains the paper’s relevance to public health. If diseases are human-borne, we have to watch human movement patterns (spraying planes before they touch down in New Zealand, vaccinating pilgrims before they join the scrums in Mecca); if they are bird-borne, we have to figure out where these ailing avians are going, and why. The birds in question here are leaf-warblers and thrushes who start off in Siberia and head toward South Asia. Some end up confused and end up in Europe, instead, where they die. The paper suggests that a longtime hypothesis — that birds end up in the wrong place because they get blown off-course — isn’t right. According to decades of reports by birdwatchers across Europe, the fat birds go off-course just as regularly as the skinny ones (who would presumably be more affected by winds). The paper says the lost birds have a genetically warped sense of direction: it tells them how far to go, but steers them wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

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One of J. M. Coetzee’s characters says the history of zoos is an extension of the history of warfare. The first zoos erected fences less to protect man from beast than to protect beast from man. Zoo-goers viewed the animals as POWs in a long inter-species war, on display to be jeered and attacked as representatives of the enemy. This hostility survives today in the sick exhibition of Knut, the cute bear-orphan who has been the object of exploitation for the first fifteen months of what one hopes will be a short life. Read the rest of this entry »

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