Book Review: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson


Author: Steven Johnson
Title: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
Narrator: Alan Sklar
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: [United States] : Tantor Media, Inc., 2006
Summary/Review:

This book explores the ideas of urbanism, epidemiology, and social networks through the lens of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in the Soho district of London.  Dr. John Snow, with the help of Reverend Henry Whitehead, created a map of where people infected with cholera lived and drew their water to trace the infection to a water pump on Broad Street.  That Snow and Whitehead knew the neighborhood and its people well proved advantageous in creating the connections needed to document the spread of disease. Snow also had to fight an uphill battle against the prevailing scientific belief that diseases like cholera were spread through the air, known as the miasma theory.

Johnson details how the evolutionary response to putrefaction and vile odors made such beliefs plausible, but practices such as “cleaning up” the city by deliberately washing waste into the water inadvertently caused infections to increase.  Johnson also depicts the urban environment as a unique battleground for humans and microorganisms.  All in all this is a fascinating account of an historic account, with broader implications for how we live today and into the future.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Arm by Jeff Passan


Author: Jeff Passan
TitleThe Arm
Narrator: Kevin Peirce
Publication Info: [Ashland, Oregon] : Blackstone Audio, Inc. : Harper Audio, [2016]
Summary/Review:

The subtitle of this book is Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports and “mystery” is an important word.  No one knows for sure why some pitchers can gain incredible endurance and others are prone to injury.  Practices for building arm strength and preventing injury are built more on guesswork than science.  And while new surgical procedures have allowed some pitchers to return to successful careers, they are no panacea. At the heart of The Arm is the fact that throwing an orb overhand a 100+ times in succession is an unnatural action, and the mystery is that anyone manages to do it without injury rather than why some pitchers can’t avoid injury.

At the heart of this book, Passan provides eyewitness documentation of two contemporary pitchers – Todd Coffey and Daniel Hudson – as they undergo Tommy John surgery and attempt to return to pitching at the top level in Major League Baseball.  In between there stories, Passan interviews various baseball legends: Sandy Koufax, whose Hall of Fame career was cut short in the days before surgeries that could’ve extended the life of his arm; Nolan Ryan, the opposite extreme, a pitcher known for his remarkable longevity despite refusing surgeries; and of course, Tommy John, whose eponymous surgery changed baseball. The career of orthopedist Frank Jobe, who humbly named ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction for his patient rather than himself, is also documented.

Outside of Major League Baseball, Passan investigates the increasing pressure in youth sports to specialize in one sport early and for coaches to overuse their young players’ arms in games.  Tommy John surgery is skyrocketing among adolescents.  An exploitative youth sports industry has also emerged that encourages young athletes and their families to pay to participate in showcases on the hopes of attracting attention of Major League scouts.  Passan also visits Japan where the traditionalist view of “pitch until your arm falls off” in high school baseball is just beginning to be challenged by the younger generation.

The mystery of the arm is not resolved in this book, but Passan does an excellent job documenting what we know about pitching and exposing a seedy underside of our national pastime

Recommended booksWherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball by R. A. Dickey and You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting
Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending February 17


A bumper crop of erudition for your ears this week.

The Memory Palace :: Hercules

With Washington’s Birthday coming up, a reminder that our first President held people in bondage because he enjoyed what their labor provided without having to pay for them.  The story of Hercules, a talented chef, who successfully escaped slavery.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Killer Viruses and One Man’s Mission to Stop Them

The story of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and the efforts of Dr. Maurice Hilleman to create vaccines to prevent later outbreaks.

The Nation Start Making Sense :: Elizabeth Warren on Monopoly Power

Elizabeth Warren wants to make fighting monopolies part of the Democrats agenda again. Also, the truth behind Warren Buffett, and white working class Trump voter.

The Truth :: Nuclear Winter

 A spooky story set in an outdated nuclear missile silo.  Don’t worry, it’s fictional!

Afropop Worldwide :: Africa and the Blues

A fascinating look into musicologist Gerhard Kubik’s research into the traits of blues music that connect with the music of different regions of Africa.  Read more here: http://afropop.org/articles/africa-and-the-blues-an-interview-with-gerhard-kubik

StoryCorps :: In the Neighborhood

The story of the multi-talented François Clemmons, most famous for playing Officer Clemmons on Mister Rogers Neighborhood, his friendship with Fred Rogers, and their quietly bold statement for civil rights and equality.

 

 

Podcast of the Week: “The Fix” – Radiolab


I started listening to podcasts regularly a decade or so ago. I have a running list of podcasts I regularly listen on the Panorama of the Mountains home page and I’ve written about them many times before.  At the time I started subscribing, I thought podcasts were the next big thing and I was just a follower.  But apparently I’m more of a trailblazer than I realize.  A recent article by Matt Baume relates “Only about half of Americans have ever heard of podcasts, according to the Pew Research Center, and only 17 percent have ever listened to one.”

Since I already try to recommend a new song every week I figured I’ll add a new feature where I recommend a podcast episode I think deserves wider listenership.

For the debut POTW post, here’s the most recent of of one of Baume’s favorite (and my favorite) podcasts of the WNYC radio program Radiolab.  The Fix explores addiction and the possibility that it could be treated successfully with medication. The most fascinating part of the show for me is the suggestion that throughout human evolution, the people who responded most to the reward receptors in their brain were the fittest, but in the modern world are the most susceptible to addiction.

If you’re listening to a good podcast, let me know in the comments.

Book Review: Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks


Musicophilia (2007) by Oliver Sacks tells the stories of people with neurological conditions that involve music, and a study of the human brain and music in general.  The book relies largely on case studies of Sacks’ patients and others in the annals of medical literature, and more uniquely on Sacks’ own experiences.  Cases include people who have musical hallucinations more powerful and persistent than the ordinary earworm,  people with physical and neurological disorders who excel at music, and the unique role of music in therapy.

I found the book repetitive both within itself and to the previous Sacks’ book I’ve read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  It’s as if Sacks just keeps piling on examples of the same or similar disorders without really coming to a conclusion or a big picture.  I guess I expected more from this book, and Sacks certainly has fascinating stories to share, but I think he needs a ghost writer.

Musicophilia unabridged library edition by Oliver Sacks. Books on Tape (2007), Audio CD

Book Review: Simplexity by Jeffrey Kluger


Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple) (2008) by Jeffrey Kluger is my first foray into reviewing a Advance Reading Copy of a book by of the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.  Or maybe not since I saw this book last week in the window at Harvard Book Store.  At any rate, this is a brand new book and it’s a popular science exploration of the idea of complexity and simplicity or how simple things can more complicated than they seem, and complex things more simple.

Kluger refers to the work that’s being done in the study of complexity at places like the Santa Fe Institute.  Then he dedicates each chapter to the concept of simplexity in every day life in areas such as markets, crowd psychology, social structure, business, death, sports, fear, childhood development, liguistics, technology, public health, and the arts.  Particularly nice is his appreciation that hard-working blue color labor is overworked and underpaid. It’s hard to say whether or not Kluger sticks with his thesis, or just writes about a bunch of interesting things but either way it is a fun, breezy read that provokes thoughts and ideas.

I was struck by how many books I’ve read recently shared some basic concepts with this book.  I suppose at the very least Simplexity can be a good summary of a lot of recent literature, but better than that it can be a jumping off point to reading these other books.  Unfortunately, Simplexity does not have a bibliography (or even an index!) so here related books I’d reccomend, some of which were mentioned in the text:

Books I’ve read previously by this author:

Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple) by Jeffrey Kluger. Hyperion (2008), Hardcover, 336 pages

Book Review: Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers


Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers (2003) by Mary Roach is a quirky book that takes on a quirky topic: what exactly happens to those bodies donated to science. In a series of chapters of investigative journalism laced with sometimes funny, sometimes annoying wisecracks Roach finds out exactly what happens to those cadaver.

A main purpose of course is for practicing surgery whether medical students in training or experienced surgeons learning a new procedure. Roach explores how doctors distance themselves from the humanity of their expired study object as well as how they often use parts rather than the whole of the cadaver. In a historic chapter Roach recounts the uneasy history of body snatching for human dissection study.

Even grosser is the study of human decay for criminal investigations. A pathologist actually allows cadavers to decay under natural but controlled conditions to learn what decay can tell investigators solving crimes. Dead bodies also tell a lot about the limits of the human body as they are used as crash test dummies for motor vehicle safety. Sometimes the human parts are attached to prosthetic parts to help isolate certain parts of the body (as well as prop them up in a car seat). On a similar vein, the examination of bodies for blast damage, burns and other damage can tell an investigator a lot about what causes aircraft disasters.

Bodies are used for weapons testing and crucifixion experiments, and then the weird stuff starts. Some bodies are brain dead — legally dead — but their hearts are beating and the organs are still alive. Medical professionals have to defy logic and harvest organs from an apparently living body. Weirder still are experiments leading to human head transplantation and medicinal cannibalism, a topic lest said the better. Should you want to let your body decay and become compost you’ll find it harder than you imagine. But green mortuaries are working on improving that for you.

Needless to say, very rarely to those donating their bodies understand what will happen to their remains and their surviving families are rarely informed (nor interested in finding out). All in all an illuminating book and one that despite all the flinching it causes makes me want to donate my body to science. I’m not going to need it anyway.

Book Review: The Secret Family


The Secret Family: Twenty-four Hours inside the Mysterious Worlds of Our Minds and Bodies by David Bodanis spends one day in the life of a typical suburban family – mother, father, teenage daughter, 10-year old son, and baby. The family wakes up, eats breakfast, putter around the house, visit the mall, return home and go to bed. Bodanis focuses on all the details of well, just about everything. Much of this is microscopic — what microbes are crawling around the shafts of our eyebrows, what poison gases are welling up under the sink, what the hell are they putting in our food (big thing with Bodanis that gets huge gross-out points), and what germs are floating around the shopping mall. Bodanis also focuses on our human behavior, the things we do without even realizing it, and what qualities are predictors for that behavior. Technology, how it works, and how we work with it is also one of the many things explicated. Often Bodanis brings in brilliant if esoteric historical connections that are reminiscent of James Burke’s Connections. Each page is filled with fascinating details and this book is well worth the read for a quick insight into everyday life.

Book Review: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat


The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks is a collection of clinical case studies about people with neurological disorders. My one quibble with this book is Sacks’ writing style. He makes every patient speak like the same person in kind of Mayberry “gosh, golly” tone and frustratingly often makes references to chapters later in the book.

That being said, this book is a fascinating study of the things the brain can and cannot do and how that can shape a person’s perception of the world. Examples include:

  • The titular man who mistook his wife for a hat who cannot perceive objects in his immediate vicinity and be able to pick out features but not identify the whole.
  • A former sailor whose memories are frozen in 1945, unable to remember things that happen to him even a few moments later.
  • A woman unable to have awareness of her own body, or a loss of proprioception.
  • A man who cannot recognize his own leg as being part of his body and thus considers it a severed leg laying in his bed (and he falls out of bed each time he tries to throw away the “severed” leg).
  • Similarly, a blind woman with cerebral palsy has an agnosia that makes her think her hands are worthless lumps of clay. Sacks is able to nudge her into using her hands and eventually she becomes a sculptor.
  • A man whose sense of balance is disrupted by Parkinson’s disease and thus he always leans to one side and is not even aware of it. He develops his own special eyeglasses with a spirit level that he can see to adjust how he stands and walks.
  • A woman with visual hemi-inattention who is unable to see anything on her left, or for that matter be aware that there is a left. She has to rotate all the way around in her chair to even see all the food on her plate.
  • Witty Ticcy Ray, a man with Tourette’s who finds that Haldol treatment helps him manage a job during the work week but choses to not take medication on the weekends since it hampers his spontaneity and creativity.
  • A woman who constantly hears the music of her Irish childhood playing loudly, and other cases of people with a radio in their head.
  • A man who killed his girlfriend under the influence of PCP, has no memory of the event, an organic amnesia. After a severe head energy all the memories of the murder return in vivid detail.
  • The visions of Hildegard of Bingen and migraine hallucinations.
  • The son of a Metropolitan Opera Singer is a musical savant, able to recall Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians by heart even though he could not read.
  • Savant twins able to perform mental calculations of numbers and calendar dates with a special attention to numbers that are prime.
  • An autistic man able to draw images with great detail to the particulars.

The book is over 20 years old and seems a bit dated (especially in terms of language we’d consider insensitive today, even if they were medical terms), but I enjoyed learning about the losses and gains that can happen within the brain.

Not scared enough?


One of the things that push my buttons most when following the news is fearmongering. So you won’t be surprised how peeved I am by the following headline.

U.S. not scared enough of bird flu, Senate told” — By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor. Copyright 2007 Reuters.

I think the last thing that the news media and the government need to be telling our citizens is that they are not scared enough. Improve public health efforts and preventitive means? Yes. Develop preparedness plans to counteract possible outbreaks? Yes. Making people worry? No! Scaring people about one potential disease is counterproductive. We’ve seen in the past few years people stocking up on Cipro that they don’t need and making runs on flu shots that should be reserved for the elderly, children, and other high risk groups. Not to mention that diseases that are already among us are ignored as attention and funds are misappropriated to the scary disease du jour.

I read a good book last year on this trend called False Alarm: The Truth about the Epidemic of Fear by Dr Marc K. Siegel which I reccomend for those interested in reason over fear.