June 18, 2014
Guest: Geoff Dyer
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of the largest warships in the world, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, was ordered into the Persian Gulf a few days ago as President Obama considers possible airstrikes against forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Our guest, writer Geoff Dyer, spent two weeks aboard the aircraft carrier two years ago, researching his book "Another Great At Sea," which has just been published. After living among the 5,000 servicemen and women on the vessel, Dyer came away with observations both trivial and telling. Men wear tiny mustaches you'd hardly see anywhere else. A single screw dropped on the flight deck can be deadly, and working toilets really matter. Dyer is a British writer who's authored four novels, three essay-collections and seven previous works of nonfiction. He received the E.M. Forster award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a National Book Critic's Circle award. Dyer spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Well, Geoff Dyer, welcome to FRESH AIR. I wonder, what was your first thought when you heard that the George H.W. Bush had been dispatched to the Persian Gulf for possible military action?
GEOFF DYER: Well, to be absolutely honest, I wished that I were, that I'd been on the carrier now, rather than when I was there two years ago. I think probably, a lot of the crew who were on the deployment that I was on, I think they probably felt the same way because, you know, this is what their lives have been, have been geared towards. An actual, you know, full on combat mission.
DAVIES: You of course had many conversations when you were on the ship, far more than you could include in the book. And I'm wondering if from those conversations, do you think there is a different tone or feeling on the vessel if they're engaged in actual airstrikes, as opposed to the missions they were flying when you were there?
DYER: Yeah. But just to be clear about that, when I was there, they were flying missions the whole time. These were missions over Iraq. And they were kind of reconnaissance or kind of backup missions. I think they were mainly protecting sort of convoys, supply things like this. So planes were all taking off, fully laden with ordinance. So in a sense, objectively it might have looked rather similar. But I think there's a different mood when, you know, when you know that there's a very good chance that you're going to be - that all this capacity for violence, which has been stacked up on that aircraft carrier, is going to be unleashed for real. Having said that, one of the crucial things, I think, not just about life on a carrier, but about military life generally, a lot of time is taken up with practicing, rehearsing, maneuvers, exercises, all of this kind of stuff. And you'll remember when 9/11 happened, that was in the midst of a time of maneuvers. And there was that kind of conversation, you know, is this still a game, or is it real-world? And the idea of all this practicing, I think, which is taken very, very seriously is to ensure that when the time comes, that you're going to move into full on sort of combat operations, the transition is as seamless, as invisible as possible. So everything that they're going to go on to do in the coming days, they will have practiced, rehearsed and gone through hundreds of times before.
DAVIES: I know you spoke to some of the pilots. Did any of them talk to you about what it feels like to be on an actual military engagement, as opposed to one in which there's little chance of conflict?
DYER: Yeah. One of the pilots I spoke to was very frank about this, saying that, you know, he had flown a lot of missions. And that although there are all of these rehearsals and all this kind of stuff, knowing that you're being, you're being shot at is an entirely different experience. For which, it turns out no amount of training can properly prepare you. People were often talking about, you know, this is where the rubber meets the road. And I heard that a lot when I was on the ship. However, the phase we're moving into now really is the phase when the rubber is meeting the road, when all of the things that they've been practicing really have to work at maximum efficiency.
DAVIES: We're speaking with writer Geoff Dyer. His book about his two weeks on an aircraft carrier is called "Another Great Day At Sea." Now, you didn't join this aircraft carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush, in a port. You want to tell us about your flight in?
DYER: Yeah, that's right. So we flew onto the carrier on a Greyhound, this very, very noisy hulking, propeller plane. And, you know, we took off as normal. And we're all sitting backwards, I should say. And then after about 40 minutes, we started descending. And on that first attempt at landing on the carrier, we missed all three of the arresting wires. So we surged upwards again and went around. And then we came back down again, and this time we came to a very abrupt stop. We hit the deck. And within, I mean, in under two seconds, we'd come to a halt.
DAVIES: And of course you were introduced to the flight deck of the carrier. And of course the flight deck is what distinguishes a carrier from any other vessel. I mean, this is a vessel that, that shoots planes into the air and catches them as they come out of the sky. And you spent some time learning about how all that works. First of all, describe the people that work on the flight deck, what they wear, what they look like.
DYER: Yeah. So there are a lot of planes on the carrier. There may be a total of 66. And throughout the day, planes are launching and are landing. And of course when they take off, they're catapulted into the, into the sky. And it's an amazing spectacle for several reasons. First of all because the forces at work to get these planes in the air are just incredible, so it's really impressive like that. But I think one of the most, the thing that I kept noticing in different ways was this combination of some of the most advanced technology on earth, you know, the most complicated, efficient fighter planes ever. And of course there's all of the kind of electronic and avionic backup that enables these planes to take off and land again on this constantly moving runway. But all the time that would be going on in tandem with very, very basic, hard manual work. There are these different teams doing various jobs on the flight deck. Each team is represented and distinguished by a particular colored jersey. And when I, when I landed on this amazing high-tech environment, I was very struck by these guys wearing brown shirts. And they'd be standing there with these enormous chains around their shoulders. And it was a weird thing. On the one hand, it all looked very sci-fi, very science fiction because it was so technologically advanced. On the other hand, you know, it seemed to me these guys looked like they were operating a medieval siege machine, something like that. And their job was to, you know, to tie the planes down after they - after they'd landed. And this happened over and over again.
DAVIES: Let's talk just a moment about some of the dangers involved in bringing in a jet, trying to land on, you know, a flight deck that may be pitching and heaving with the sea. There are these arresting wires, which are supposed to catch the plane. First of all, just tell us, what are some of the challenges and dangers this presents for pilots?
DYER: Yeah, when I was on the carrier, we were in the middle of the Arabian Gulf. The sea was flat as a pancake. The sky was blue. There was very little wind. To that extent, it was probably the safest conditions in which to land a plane. But of course you don't have to think very long before you can start adding all sorts of variables. If there's a swell, the back of the, you know, the carrier is going up and down and that increases the chances of the pilot flying into the back of the carrier. It gets still more difficult of course if it's at night. Then of course you're relying on lights much more. And one of the pilots actually said, and he was a very sort of cocky, swaggering, "Top Gun" kind of guy. And he was saying sometimes when he lands at night, he sits there bathed in sweat, with his legs trembling uncontrollably because it's still, it's still incredibly dangerous. One thing that was really surprising to me, I assumed that when planes came in to land, it would be the same as happens with a passenger plane. That is to say, you come in more and more slowly, just above stalling speed, and then you hit the deck. What I hadn't realized, in case the plane misses the three arresting wires, in which case it has to take off and go around again, as it's coming into the, to the aircraft carrier, it accelerates to full power again. So that if it misses it can take off into the sky. What that means is that if the hook of the plane catches the arresting wire, the plane is in a state, if you like, of maximum determination, not to be arrested. And the arresting wire is equally determined to make sure it does stop. So there you've got this absolute sort of collision of forces at work.
DAVIES: And what dangers does this present to the crew on the flight deck?
DYER: Yeah. There's an amazing amount of footage on YouTube of, of aircraft carrier accidents. And although the technology has improved massively, in essential it's pretty, pretty much the same as stuff that was going on in the Second World War. So there's all sorts of things. The most basic one the plane can slam into the back of the carrier because it's come in too low. It can veer off to the left. I guess that's to port and end up in the sea. Or worse still, it can, it can crash into the island, where all of the kind of control rooms are to the right. Something that can happen occasionally, the arresting wire can break. And actually there's, in which case it comes sort of whipping back. And there's amazing footage of this arresting wire breaking. It comes lashing back and this guy in a yellow shirt jumps over it as though skipping rope, jumping rope. And then it sort of lashes back again. He jumps clear of it twice. If he didn't, it would have taken his legs off. And then there's any number of things that can go wrong. I heard stories of one of the, one of the flight checkers getting sucked into the jet intake of a plane. Then there's the other end of things. The force from the engine blowing somebody, somebody who foolishly stepped behind a plane, blowing them against and over what they call, I think, the jet blast deflector shield. There's so many things that can go wrong. And I think it's one of the flight controllers said to me that, you know, it's, they've worked hard over the years to render it the safest, most dangerous place on earth.
DAVIES: Right. And we should note that the guy who was sucked into the engine intake survived because it killed the engine itself and he was able to crawl out.
DYER: That's right because he was wearing a helmet that caused the engine to explode when he comes slithering out, admittedly somewhat the worse for wear - the way, you know, exactly the way he had come in. And you can even see him at a press conference a few days later. He's bandaged up like the mummy but he's understandably pretty chipper about the fact that he survived an experience that should, by rights, have killed him.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Geoff Dyer. His book about his experience on an aircraft carrier is called "Another Great Day At Sea." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Geoff Dyer. He has a book about his two weeks aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, an aircraft carrier. It's called "Another Great Day At Sea." You spend a lot of time touring other parts of the ship apart from the flight deck. One of the bigger parts was the hangar bay, what's that?
DYER: Yeah, so the flight deck is on the top of the aircraft carrier. And right below that is this huge, huge kind of industrial space spanning pretty much the whole length of the carrier. And that's where, where the planes are stored, repaired, maintained and got ready. And the activity there is constant because these planes are very, very high maintenance. I guess what I should emphasize is that although the hangar deck is this almost unimaginably vast space, you've got I think, about 70 planes on the, on the carrier. So it's incredibly crowded. I'd rather naÃ¯vely thought that on a carrier, on something, you know, the size of this, I thought there might be tennis courts and everything. Or at the very least a kind of badminton court. But there's not room for any of that stuff.
DAVIES: You described when you were on the flight deck, I mean, kind of the smell and the feel of all of this kind of oil and grease and fuel and just sort of in the air everywhere. And I was struck that when you got back to Bahrain, you found that there was like what, a film of oil and grease over everything you brought aboard?
DYER: Yeah, absolutely. The - and so there we were on this carrier in the middle of the Arabian Gulf. Lovely blue sky, sea air. But it really, you know, when I was first there I was conscious. It smelled like we were, I don't know, in a garage with sort of 50,000 cars jammed in there, each of which has some kind of fuel leak. It's one of these things you adapt very, very quickly. I've been told it was, I had to dress as though I was going to be in an industrial environment. So I could see that certain places were, were very, very greasy and oily, all this kind of stuff. But my computer, my laptop, didn't leave my room. But that was, you know, that had got all kind of this film of oil on it. So in a sense it's not surprising. There was a lot of hard, industrial work going on on that carrier.
DAVIES: You write that the toilets were the single biggest source of grievance aboard the carrier. Why?
DYER: Yeah. The toilets on the George Bush, they were some new - I think it was some new sort of vacuum processing system. And at any one time, it seemed, or quite often, a set of toilets was out of action. And this seemed to really cause a degree of complaint from the crew. And the captain was always keen to emphasize that the problems were caused by people chucking stuff down the toilets, which is what caused blockages. And if it had not been for that, he was, he was convinced that they would've worked properly. And people seemed to throw kind of amazing things down the toilet.
DAVIES: Right. Well, the mother of one of the sailors, I guess, what, wrote something on a blog about this problem, and concern about her son's well-being. And he crafted a response, which is kind of interesting.
DYER: Oh, the captain, yeah the captain wrote a very, very robust response. He was very, very defensive and proud of the toilets.
DAVIES: Well, at the risk of belaboring this, I'll read from the captain's response on this. (Reading) Inappropriate items that have been flushed down the commode and caused clogs during deployments include feminine hygiene products and their applicators, T-shirts, underwear, towels, socks, hard-boiled eggs and eating utensils. There have been - all caps - ZERO clogs caused by toilet paper and human waste. So...
DYER: Yeah, it's - it's quite something...
DAVIES: Negative. There was no problem with the toilets. There were, about 20 percent of the crew was female. What did you observe about the impact of, of integrating the Navy by gender?
DYER: Yeah, it had been a long struggle to get women onto the vessels. And it reminded me that, you know, an even longer struggle to get women admitted to my Oxford College. That took about 400 years or something. And it was funny, it was similar in both cases, I think, that once they took this incredibly bold step, the universal reaction was, why didn't we do that 200 years earlier? And one of the guys said yeah, the only difference that having women on board made was that, you know, the carrier smelled a bit better because the guys showered more often. So it was an incredibly, an entirely positive thing. By the time I was on the carrier I was conscious of this, you know, the stories in the news of sexual abuse in the military. And I don't talk about that in the book because nobody I spoke to had any stories like that to tell. And although there's no doubt at all that this is a huge problem in the military, as far as I could tell in many ways, I mean, this carrier seemed like a model of, you know, a really, a really sort of advanced place in terms of, in terms of gender relations. Especially given this is a seven month deployment. And the average age of the crew is probably sort of 19 or 20, something like that. And it's, it was really very, very, very, very impressive actually.
DAVIES: Yeah. You know, you spoke to women who were mechanics and, you know, had other technical jobs, a helicopter pilot...
DYER: Yeah and I spoke to this woman who's call sign was, was Jack's. And, she was, you know, she was flying, she was this woman, I think she was in her late 20's. She was flying, you know, solo F-18 missions. So that is, you know, I feel that's a pretty persuasive answer actually to the sexual politics of the Taliban. But one really sort of extraordinary thing is that of course the captain was in charge of the ship. But then for a while, we had on board the, I forget now the exact rank, something...
DAVIES: The rear admiral.
DYER: Yeah, the rear admiral of the whole of the fleet. And she, she was - her name was Nora Tyson. And so, you know, the highest ranking person on the ship was a woman. She was at that rank in the Navy where the, you know, the militaristic - she was right on the edge of politics actually. She had this lovely sort of down-home manner though. And she was from Kentucky. And I'll always remember, you know, she had this, shall we say, not undemanding job of running the fifth fleet or whatever it was she was doing. And she'd be chatting to me and she'd say I can't do this - yeah, she'd say Geoff, I'd love to talk to you more but I know you've got a really busy day ahead of you. You know, so it was that combination of incredible charm and, you know, of course great responsibility as well.
DAVIES: And what she was telling you was I've got a busy day, I have to get out of here (laughing).
DYER: Well, exactly. But it's always nice when those things are done rather adroitly and charmingly, isn't it? I suppose that's the thing actually. Like many English people, you come to America and you're struck by how friendly everyone is. And then you spend a bit more time in America and you're struck by something else, which is how incredibly polite life is here in America. And that politeness and courtesy which I, you know, it seems distinctly American, that was doing even more work and I think even more of a premium was put on politeness and courtesy. Because of course in a crowded environment like that, where people are, you know, inevitably going to be tired and there's going to be tensions and all of this kind of stuff, courtesy, politeness, consideration, that can do a lot of the work which used to be done back in the days of Captain Bligh and The Bounty, which used to be just the, you know, the preserve of a sort of iron, iron discipline.
GROSS: Geoff Dyer will continue his conversation with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Dyer's new book is called "Another Great Day At Sea: Life Aboard The USS George H.W. Bush." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Geoff Dyer, the author of a new book about life on one of the largest warships in the world, the nuclear powered aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush. A few days ago the ship was ordered to the Persian Gulf as President Obama considers the possibility of airstrikes against ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Dyer briefly lived on board the George H. W. Bush two years ago. His new book is called "Another Great Day at Sea."
DAVIES: You were on the carrier for two weeks with this crew of 5,000 who were there together for seven months at sea. You know, 20 percent are women. The rest are men. What did you observe about romantic and sexual impulses and relations?
DYER: Yeah. And the other thing that we should, you know, repeat is that, you know, the average age is in the late teens or early twenties. So I guess the boat must be a kind of hotbed of crushes and infatuations. How could it not be. But behavior on the ship is governed by very, very strict rules about contact between people. So, for example, one of the few places where you can go for sort of downtime - the library. You expect the library to be quiet but there was always a kind of a sorcery film blooming away, and there were lots of notices there stipulating exactly how close to each other people could sit while watching a DVD. You weren't allowed to lean against each other. So all of that kind of stuff was very, very strictly controlled. But of course it seems to me that the more strictly you control it, then, probably, the more powerfully you're in the grip of the crush that you're having on someone or other. And also people are working very, very hard, so I think - one of the things I noticed is that I was about to leave the carrier and I was going to be flying on a plane with a woman that I had had lunch with four or five times, and it was - she was wearing civilian clothes - a sort of T-shirt and cargo pants, and her hair was down. It was - I sort of - I saw her in that way, in a way that I've never even noticed while we were having dinner and she was just dressed in her normal fatigues or whatever.
DAVIES: So the impact was to make people seem somewhat more androgynous?
DYER: I don't know about androgynous, but it was - let's say everything about the environment was to cauterize the romantic aspect of life on board, I think. And I went on a patrol with two guys, and their job was partly just to make sure that nobody had snuck off into what they call sneak spots. And actually, the thing was, is as well - although they would look for couples who were making out. But actually, also, I think people were looking for sneak spots, you can imagine, just so they could get a bit of time on their own.
DAVIES: You went to a promotion ceremony that brought tears to your eyes - Clinton Stonewall III. Tell us why
DYER: (Laughing) Well, there was this - I was lucky enough - there was this wonderful day when they had a kind of - it was a holiday. Flight operations were suspended, and they had this thing called a steel beach party right by the flight deck, which is normally so busy with activity, where most of the crew are not allowed. Only people who are essential to the launch and recovery of planes were allowed out there. So flight operations were suspended, and it becomes a party with no booze, of course, but with - it's a big barbecue. Everyone's eating steaks, and there's DJs and line dancing and all this kind of stuff. And in the course of that wonderful party, I was introduced to somebody who's name was Clinton Stonewall III from Birmingham, Alabama. And I thought, at the time, wow, how much - how much more history can you cram into a one-line explanation of who you are and where you're from. Anyway, he was dressed conspicuously smartly on a day when everyone, else including - I should add - the admiral and the captain were just wearing T-shirts and shorts. He was dressed very smartly because he was being promoted later in the day. And because it was a holiday day an the flight deck - there was no operations - his promotion ceremony took place on the flight deck. And it was an enormous privilege of mine to witness the ceremony when his old bars were taken off and the new ones were put on him. And then they asked him if he'd say a few words, and he gave - he just gave this incredible sort of Henry V Agincourt speech, which was easily the best speech I think I've ever heard. And it was incredibly moving and incredibly funny, all at the same time.
DAVIES: Give us a sense of it.
DYER: Yeah. So Clinton Stonewall III gives this wonderful speech, and this is just a short expert from it. (Reading) You know it's not an AV clip here. It's camaraderie. It's the pride that we instill in each other, and that pride goes a long way. I've been doing it now for 21 years, and I tell you what - I think each and every one of you - hey, I love that shirt there by the way, he said seeing a message stenciled on the yellow jersey of one of the guys in attendance. No weapon formed against us shall prosper. No weapon formed against us shall prosper. The guy wearing the jersey then turned his back so that Stonewall could read out loud what was written on the back. Believe that. Yeah, believe that. Because it's not business, ladies and gentlemen, it's personal. You know that. I didn't put out to sea with 5,000 business associates. I put out to sea with family members. And everything we do, whether it's up here on the flight deck, on the second deck or the seventh back - I tell you right now - whether it's getting these catapults ready, serving in the meal line - whatever it is you're doing, its all for me. You got my back and I got yours. I tell you right now, Arleigh Burke was quoted as saying, loyalty up and loyalty down. If you expect loyalty from your subordinates, then you better show loyalty in return - which means if you're a leader out here, you need also to be a servant. The bottom's a reflection of the top. If you don't look good, I don't look good. I think the Vidal Sassoon had it right when he came out with that. Stonewall had to pause here to let a wave of laughter die down. And if I'm looking good here today, he said, it's because of you. It's because of you.
DAVIES: And then when you shook his hand you...
DYER: Oh, yeah. So, at the end of this speech - and there's a - he sort of goes into this great call-and-response thing at the end. He says, how do you feel and they say good. And then he says, how do you good feel? - good. And various people went up and they shook his hand and thumped him on the back. And I went up to him 'cause, you know, it was pretty amazing, and I shook his hand. I couldn't meet him in the eye, though, because, you know, I just had tears streaming down my face. It was - it was so wonderful. It was a magnificent moment.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Geoff Dyer. His book is "Another Great Day At Sea." We'll talk more after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Geoff Dyer. His book about spending two weeks aboard an aircraft carrier, the USS George H. W. Bush, is called, "Another Great Day At Sea." One night, when you were in your room, you were awakened by a call on the ship's PA system of a man overboard. Describe what followed.
DYER: So there I am. I'm - just got to sleep, and then I'm woken up by an announcement, man overboard, man overboard. And the thing is, about the carrier, there are endless rehearsals, and tests and stuff like that. So my first assumption was this was yet another drill or practice. And I didn't really know what to do. Nobody had warned me about what to do in these circumstances. So when somebody came thumping on my door and I opened it, and I said, is this a practice? He said, no this is for real. And since I was accounted for, the easiest thing - 'cause I didn't have any clothes on - I just sort of stayed in my room. And then, over the main circuit, the person would say, man overboard, time plus two. That would be two minutes. And this announcement continued - time plus three, time plus four - every minute. And as it was updated like that, I think after about eight or nine minutes, there was a list of six or seven names of people who hadn't gone to their muster stations. They read out these lists of names saying, you know, will you report to wherever it is that the particular people had to report? And then, gradually, what happened is the list got longer. And then it began shrinking until it shrank down to just three people and then to just one person who was unaccounted for. And then, eventually, that person was accounted for. And the captain came on the main circuit and said, you know, anyone who's throwing stuff off this ship needs to stop right now. And it turns out - so everyone was accounted for, and I think the accounting for everyone on board took about 15 minutes. But apparently these man overboard alerts are not as uncommon as one might think. It's pretty rare for somebody to actually go overboard, but it's not uncommon for something to be thrown overboard, which the people on lookout see. And that triggers the whole man overboard alert procedure.
DAVIES: So what you were hearing was they were trying to get an accounting of every person on the ship. But at the same time, was a rescue vehicle launched?
DYER: Oh, I'm pretty sure it would have been. And I think the rescue vehicle picked up a float coat, as they call it, what we would call a light jacket. So I guess that's the thing that had either been thrown overboard deliberately or had accidentally got thrown overboard.
DAVIES: You said you had trouble sleeping after that, a couple of nights.
DYER: Yeah because it's - you know, you're in the middle of the ocean. And it seemed - you know, it's a really terrible thing to happen. That, you know - and there's that sense of loneliness. And then, you know, the next day at breakfast, I was asking people about this. And they were saying, you know, there are occasional suicides where somebody will, you know - somebody will have wrapped themselves in those chains that I described a little while ago and jump overboard.
DAVIES: You visited the ship's medic. What kinds of injuries and illnesses were there on there?
DYER: Yeah. So when I visited the ship's medic, she was saying that quite often they're dealing with the kind of injuries and mishaps that you might get in any industrial environment. Most of the stuff was like that as opposed to big accidents. But what you don't get in a normal, industrial environment is this huge risk of infection spreading. Apparently, when they'd just got out of Bahrain, this incredible sort of gastric problem swept through the carrier - the Bahrain bug, as they called it. And a load of people went down with diarrhea. So combination of that and the problems with the toilets - I was very, very relieved not to have been on board at that particular point. But you know, they managed to nip that epidemic in the bud, apparently with a - by resort to a very, very simple maneuver - making sure - stopping the sailors serving themselves, holding the spoons themselves, that they serve the food with.
DAVIES: They turned the spoons around in the mess line so that only the kitchen help could handle it. And therefore, you weren't spreading the infection.
DYER: Exactly like that. But as you can imagine, you know, in an environment like that, 5,000 people in incredibly close confines, any kind of disease that gets on board is going to spread incredibly quickly.
DAVIES: You know, you were so moved by the promotion ceremony you saw. And there were a number of times when you were impressed with the crew's commitment to each other - people on the flight deck, on the ordinance team, the mechanics. But I also know that you had an ensign who was with you everywhere. And I was wondering if there were places you wanted to go or people you wanted to talk to that were off limits and if you feel like you got, I don't know, a managed impression of the ship.
DYER: Yeah. Certainly when I heard, first of all, that this guy, Ensign Paul Newell, was going to be accompanying me everywhere, I thought, oh, yeah, you know, it's the pigs, man. They're trying to censor me before I've even written anything. And I thought his job was going to be to just, you know, control and prevent me seeing stuff. I think to a degree, of course, you know, people were on their best behavior. I was only there for a short time. But I quickly came to understand that the main reason that Paul Newell was with me - he was, by the way, a great guy. And I really, fantastically enjoyed his company. He made life a lot easier for me. He was there mainly to make sure I didn't hurt myself because there were so many places where you could trip up. But more importantly, the carrier is so big and such a maze - he was there just to make sure - to show me around and make sure I didn't get lost. I'm pretty sure that if it wasn't for him, if I was on my own, I'd still be wandering around that carrier now, trying to find the exit sign, you know?
DAVIES: Well, Geoff Dyer, thanks so much for speaking with us.
DYER: Oh, thank you so much. It's really been a great pleasure.
GROSS: Geoff Dyer is the author of the new book, "Another Great Day At Sea: Life Aboard The USS George H. W. Bush." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also senior reporter for WHYY.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: And now for some news about digital medicine. What if you could swallow a computer the size of a poppy seed, and it could report back exactly if and when you took a medicine while recording how your body responded to the drug? FRESH AIR's tech contributor, Alexis Madrigal, looks at a new technology that does just that, which has already made it past critical trials.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL: It sounds crazy, but the tiny computers exist. It sounds dangerous, but they were approved by the FDA. And the company that makes them, Proteus, has tens of millions of dollars and relationships with some of the biggest drug companies in the world, including Novartis. David O'Reilly is the chief product officer at Proteus. He believes that someday soon, every single pill a doctor prescribes will come with an electronic component embedded right in it that tracks the pill's absorption in your body, working together with a small flexible patch you wear like a Band-Aid and a smart phone.
Proteus wants to ring in a new area of what it calls digital medicine in which your body signs and the medications entering your blood stream can be tracked by computers. Software will search your body's data for patterns in real-time and report that information to your doctors. Let me step back for a minute to explain how it all works. The big challenges to making a computer you can ingest are size, safety, power and communication. It must be tiny, as you're limited both by the size of the throat and the need to keep the amount of foreign material going into one's stomach to a minimum. The Proteus computer isn't much bigger than a grain of sand, and it attaches right to the pill. It also can't be made of anything weird or harmful, so Proteus's ingestible sensor is made only out of metals that people normally eat as part of their daily diets - silicon, copper, magnesium. Power is tricky too. You can't swallow tiny batteries day after day, so the Proteus computer is powered by the same principle that makes a potato battery work - using the liquid in your stomach as the electrolyte that conducts electricity.
And then, there's communication. Most people might imagine that a sensor like this would have to use some kind of wireless radio technology, like Bluetooth for the body, but implanting a radio source in the body with an antenna large enough to transmit to something outside of it might prove a safety risk. So the Proteus system uses a type of technology called volume conduction. Essentially, the computer emits a series of tiny electric pulses, which a patch on the patient's skin picks up. Add it all up, and you have a system that can transmit information from inside the body. Simultaneously, the patch measures your vital signs - heart rate skin conductance, activity levels - almost as if you were an astronaut on a mission. Correlate those two data streams - the one from the pill and the one from the patch - and you get a picture of your body responding to a pharmaceutical.
An app on the patient's smart phone acts as the intelligence of the whole system, communicating locally with the patch and globally through the Internet to servers that help it process the information. Right now, the ingestible sensor itself simply transmits the fact that the pill was ingested along with information about each pill, such as what the drug is, who prescribed it and what pharmacy dispensed it. That's probably why when the FDA approved this initial pill, they commented that the benefits realized by the use of the device system are small. But the little computer, could conceivably do a lot more such as controlling the actually delivery of a drug. Or it could be that when many patients' data is stacked together, new and interesting patterns emerge.
The most immediate application is to track patients with mental illnesses who can be prone to not taking their medications. And a team of psychiatrists at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York, have already published work on using Proteus's system to confirm that schizophrenic and bipolar patients are taking their medications. Of course, with all self-tracking comes privacy considerations. Who gets access to this data? Do patients' relatives? How about their insurers? The Proteus system will highlight the responsibility, or lack thereof, of patients themselves, too.
Tech companies believe personalized data, like this, can make us healthier because software can spot patterns in our behavior that we might miss. Perhaps it could detect that if you don't take a particular medicine, you walk 2000 less steps the next day. Or if you sleep less than six hours in a night, you eat 400 more calories than your daily average. The problem is in creating the data that the software can use to help you tune your behavior. Right now, people rely on their own calorie counting or on imprecise sleep and activity trackers. But smarter, smaller, more automatic sensors could open up our bodies to this kind of quantification. We may not be comfortable with the implications of this new technology, particularly in a world where our data is constantly bought and sold - not to mention monitored by governments. And our bodies may not end up being amenable to this kind of data-driven optimization. But Silicon Valley seems intent on trying, and what once seemed impossible may soon become routine.
GROSS: Alexis Madrigal is a visiting scholar at Berkeley's Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society and a senior editor at the Atlantic, where he edits the tech section of their website. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews reissues of '80s free funk by Ronald Shannon Jackson and The Decoding Society. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Jazz drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson died last October at age 73. In the 1970s, he played in saxophonist Ornette Coleman's electric band "Prime Time." Then Jackson founded his own band the Decoding Society. Two of that group's early releases are now available again as downloads. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says he's been waiting for their return.
(SOUNDBITE OF DECODING SOCIETY SONG, "MAN DANCE")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society with the title track from "Man Dance." It's one of two fine albums the band made in the early '80s now available as downloads from Verve after being out of print for ages. "Man Dance" and its sequel "Barbecue Dog" are prime examples of the '80s' so-called free-funk movement. The spiky Afro-pop guitar, two grumbling electric basses and melodies played in several keys at once are all out of Ornette Coleman's band Prime Time. But the Decoding Society had a lazier lope and wasn't quite so eager to fill all the available space. Compared to Prime Time, it is a pop band - playing short or shortish numbers that spotlight the melody.
(SOUNDBITE OF DECODING SOCIETY SONG, "BARBEQUE DOG")
WHITEHEAD: Ronald Shannon Jackson's "Barbecue Dog" with Vernon Reid on guitar, before he found greater fame with the black rock band "Living Color." Reid is part of the core crew in this six or seven piece outfit, alongside saxophonist Zane Massey and bass guitarist Melvin Gibbs and Bruce Johnson. Shannon Jackson, like other '80s composers, abstracted looping structures from West Africa's intersecting rhythm cycles. His tune "Iola" is built in layers, the bassist play different lines - one twice as long as the other as a horn melody moves in slow-motion over the top. Vernon Reid plays banjo, an African-American instrument rarely heard in creative music because of un-cool associations with minstrelsy and Dixieland. But it's thin, percussive snap cuts through and helps keep the texture transparent.
(SOUNDBITE OF DECODING SOCIETY SONG, "IOLA")
WHITEHEAD: There's a hint of a New Orleans march in Shannon Jackson's drum beat on "Iola." A few modern jazz composers dearly love their marches, including the drummer's old boss, Albert Ayler. Jackson came from Fort Worth and his interest stems from a venerable Texas tradition - playing halftime music at school football games.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED DECODING SOCIETY SONG)
WHITEHEAD: The Decoding Society's music mostly wears very well, though "Barbecued Dog" has a couple of quasi-East Asian numbers that flirt with Hollywood stereotypes. Even so, I like how trumpet and soprano sax mimic Chinese double reeds on "Yugo Boy" with an assist from Vernon Reid's guitar synthesizer. That tune also shows how Jackson's free funk upended a typical jazz bands hierarchy. The rhythm players improvise it well - romping on the groove, while the horns stick to the melody and support.
(SOUNDBITE OF DECODING SOCIETY SONG, "YUGO BOY")
WHITEHEAD: With his Decoding Society, Ronald Shannon Jackson made some kind of universal music - Amero-Afro-Asian-Avant-Pop-March- and Dance music. The albums "Barbecue Dog" and especially "Man Dance" really nail this concept. Later editions of the band didn't always meet that high standard but hitting the jackpot even once in a while is plenty good enough.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED DECODING SOCIETY SONG)
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for "Point of Departure" and "Wondering Sound" and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society's reissues available as downloads.
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