Nice to be known for something

The Supreme Court, the FBI, and lots of toilet paper. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

I couldn't help myself. I saw the headline on my feed:

"Supreme embarrassment: The flush heard around the country."

I'll wait here while you press play below. (Here’s the link in case you haven’t enabled images.)

Most conjecture seems to be that it was one of the justices using the john.

But, who can know? A lawyer? A clerk? Someone else in their homes, since the arguments were all being done remotely?

Anyway, I’m amused to think about the attorney making an argument at the time.

His name is Roman Martinez, of the law firm Latham and Watkins. He went to top schools and clerked for then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit and Chief Justice Roberts on the Supreme Court.

Great pedigree. Lots of accomplishments. But now he'll be known to many as the lawyer who was arguing before the court when the toilet flushed.

Nice to be known for something, I guess. And I know a segue when I see one.

The toilet paper investigation

History once turned on toilet paper. Many decades ago, in 1941, a young lawyer got a job at the Federal Trade Commission.

He was assigned to figure out whether a toilet paper brand called "Red Cross" had an unfair advantage because consumers assumed it was related to charity.

After extensive research, his report revealed that most consumers: (a) do use toilet paper, but (b) do not like being asked about it.

The lawyer's name was W. Mark Felt. He was bored to tears, so he quit the FTC, joined the FBI, and rose to become the #2 official in the bureau. Along the way he became a bit of a career mentor to a young Navy who was getting out of the military, considering law school, and trying to decide on a next step.

Just don’t get caught in your own career version of a toilet paper investigation, Felt warned.

The Navy officer, named Bob Woodward, listened. He chose journalism instead, and ultimately landed at the Washington Post. And he cajoled Felt, the bored FTC lawyer turned FBI official, into becoming his secret Watergate source, Deep Throat.

The Sitzbath

In the early 1960s, an ad man turned inventor named Arnold Cohen wanted to develop an invention to help his father who ... how to put this ... had a medical condition that made it painful to use toilet paper.

I love the euphemism Cohen used in his patent application: "Hygienic apparatus." Basically, it was a bidet.

Realizing there are more people in the world than just his father who use toilets, he decided to try to build a company around it: the American Bidet Company. Its mission was “changing the habits of a nation, weaning us off the Charmin,” and its marquis product was called the Sitzbath.

It did change the habits of a nation, only not the U.S. While the Sitzbath fell flat here, it eventually inspired a Japanese product called a “Washlet” (I think there was a licensing deal), which The Atlantic describes as "a multifunction, control-panel-driven bidet-toilet hybrid that was enthusiastically adopted by Japanese households."

Cohen later said he thought the problem in the U.S. had been about marketing.

“Advertising was a next-to-impossible challenge,” he said. “Nobody wants to hear about Tushy Washing 101.”


I was tempted to round this out with LBJ. You might recall he was known for making aides follow him to the bathroom in the White House. He also reportedly cheated death during World War II by making a detour to the bathroom, and thus missing an assignment to fly as an observer on what turned out to be a doomed airplane.

But, we’re in a different kind of war now, with a different kind of hero. So, meet Jose de los Rios, who gets a lot of ribbing for his job from his neighbors, since he works at a giant toilet paper factory in Pennsylvania.

“We're making more Charmin and more Bounty than we've ever made before," de los Rios told NPR.

If you're wondering how you run an enormous factory in the middle of a global pandemic, the answer is to stagger shift changes, limit the degree to which employees move around, and require them "to sit one to a table in the break rooms."

"I got to learn a new word: de-densifying," de los Rios said. "We're social creatures. And we work closely together in a manufacturing environment. So having to stand 6 feet apart and raise your voice a little bit to be able to talk to someone in the same room is awkward."

A quick follow up on yesterday’s newsletter…

Someone once said that the definition of mixed feelings is watching your mother-in-law drive over a cliff in your new Ferrari.

Apparently it's a joke, but I’ve never understood it at all. Of course, that might be because my mother-in-law is a truly amazing, wonderful woman. She's also a loyal reader. (Hi Grandma!).

That said, I do know what it’s like to have mixed feelings.

Take yesterday’s newsletter, for example, when I mined the depths of my angst, stared at it all through the prism of the emails I get from readers each day, and wrote a very simple message about not blaming yourself for all the insanity now embracing the world.

It's clear it connected with people, which makes me happy—but also sad that so many people found a reason to connect with it in the first place.

Hence, the change in gears, and 1,000 words about toilets and toilet paper. I felt like we needed a break. At least, I did.

Welcome to my brain. Thanks for being here.

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7 other things worth your time

  • The creator of the dystopian Black Mirror TV series says he’s not writing any new episodes, because we’re already in a dystopia. “I don’t know what stomach there would be for stories about societies falling apart.” (Radio Times)

  • Eerie emptiness of ERs worries doctors: Where are the heart attacks and strokes? (NPR)

  • Walmart is piloting a pricier 2-hour ‘Express’ grocery delivery service (TechCrunch)

  • New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the country will not have open borders with the rest of the world for “a long time to come.” (BBC)

  • Trump now says Covid-19 is “worse than Pearl Harbor," and an "attack" that China should've stopped "at the source." (Business Insider)

  • Most new hospitalizations of patients with Covid-19 in New York are older or non-essential workers who have been staying home (and likely don't know where they got exposed). (NBC New York)

  • In the next round of small business relief legislation, companies might have more time to spend the money, and be able to use less of it for salaries and more for “expenses like rent.” (Politico)

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