Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Book Review: Miracle Cure

Miracle Cure: The Creation of Antibiotics and the Birth of Modern Medicine
William Rosen

Miracle Cure is the last book by the late author of the superb Justinian's Flea. There's a sad irony in the title: Rosen died of cancer after finishing the manuscript. For him, there was no miracle.

But less than eighty years ago, curing pneumonia or typhoid or plague or any of dozens of other bacterial infections would equally have required a miracle. Before then, it's quite likely true that no healer of any stripe had ever cured anyone of any disease whatsoever--except, perhaps, accidentally. If you got sick, you got better on their own. Or you died.

Miracle Cure isn't quite the achievement that Justinian's Flea is. Its scope is narrower. It requires somewhat more in the way of background knowledge. I spotted a few places where the copy editor should have caught a problem. There's a rather large cast of characters, although Rosen is pretty good at giving the major ones a few vivid identifying characteristics.

It's still a darned good read, though. The pacing is excellent--almost novel-like--and the substance fully justifies the title. Rosen puts together a clear, connected narrative that starts with Louis Pasteur and winds its way almost seamlessly to the 21st-century drug-resistant-bacteria crisis. Along the way he makes it breathtakingly clear how massively, how thoroughly, and how phenomenally fast everything about disease changed. In 1942, half the nation's supply of penicillin was used to treat one patient. By 1956,  Aureomycin (a tetracycline version) was making a roughly $40-million-dollar annual profit for its maker . . . and that's just one of dozens of drugs that were on the market.

I'm sorry that William Rosen won't be writing any more books. As valedictions go, though, Miracle Cure is nothing to be ashamed of.

The classic older work in this area is Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters. On cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies is unbeatable.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Book Review: Grocery

Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America
Michael Ruhlman
Sociology, Food

The blurb describes Grocery as a "mix of personal history, social commentary, food rant, and immersive journalism." That's a pretty good capsule description. It leaves out the fact that some of those components are better than others.

The food rant is the worst. It's nothing but a combination of conventional foodie wisdom and personal prejudices. It talks a lot about trends in food, in a way that's very convincing if you ignore that fraction of the American public that doesn't happen to live in Brooklyn. You will not find, for example, any acknowledgment that organic accounts for all of 4% of U.S. food sales. What you will find is Mr. Crankypants-style assertions like "Canola stands for Canadian oil association--that's not food," which blithely disregards the fact that "canola" is in fact nothing more than a conventionally-bred form of the ancient crop traditionally known as rapeseed.

By contrast, the glimpse inside the day-to-day working of a modest-sized regional grocery chain (Heinen's, in the Cleveland area) is fascinating. Ruhlman got a tremendous level of access and cooperation from the Heinen family, and he does a great job of walking us through the things that they deal with. How do you set up the store? How do you compete with bigger chains when everyone has the same corn flakes? How is food buying and food selling changing? To give you an idea of how enticing this is, I now kind of want to go to Cleveland in order to go to a grocery store--specifically, this grocery store.

Finally, Ruhlman also does a wonderful job mixing in his own personal narrative. Chapter 1, entitled "My Father's Grocery-Store Jones," opens like this:
Rip Ruhlman loved to eat, almost more than anything else. We'd be tucking in to the evening's meal when he'd ask, with excitement in his eyes, "What should we have for dinner tomorrow?" Used to drive Mom crazy. And because he loved to eat, my father loved grocery stores.
This touching family story is threaded neatly through the book. It makes up for the boring food rant segments. It makes Grocery more than the sum of its parts. It's about the grocery business, yes, but it's also about what food means to us.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Book Review: Beyond Infinity

Beyond Infinity: An Expedition to the Outer Limits of Mathematics
Eugenia Cheng

This reads like My Big Little Book of Advanced Mathematics. It would be a good introduction for someone who's seriously intimidated by math; it's engagingly written, sprinkled with personal anecdotes and useful analogies. If you're mathematically literate, however, this is at best a quick diversion.

Everything And More covers very much the same territory. It's by David Foster Wallace, so it decidedly does not read like a book for middle schoolers.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Book Review: Scale

Scale: The Universal Laws of Life and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies
Geoffrey West

With a subtitle like that, you expect that "modest" is not going to be what you get. And you don't.

In most of these reviews, I try to avoid too much recapping of what the book's contents actually are. That's what the back-cover blurb is for. For Scale, however, my reaction only makes sense in the context of Geoffrey West's argument. So, briefly:

  1. It's long been known that larger animals have slower metabolic rates--lower heartbeats, longer lives, and so forth.
  2. Empirically, the relationship between animal size and metabolic rate is a three-quarters power law
  3. Many other biological features also show three-quarter-power scaling, or one-quarter-power scaling, or occasionally one-half-power scaling.
  4. Geoffrey West has come up with a theoretical explanation for this surprising profusion of multiples of 4.
  5. This theory allows him to make testable, quantitative predictions for various biological features, which agree closely with observations.
  6. Cities have some animal-like features, but they also have some differences. For example, the number of patents per capita more than doubles when a city doubles in size.
  7. With some alterations, West's theory can be used to make somewhat looser predictions about cities. 
  8. Companies also can be compared to organisms.
  9. With some further alterations, Wests theory can be used to make somewhat looser yet predictions about companies.
My reaction is: intriguing, but unproven. For one thing, West isn't necessarily the first to have made the connections he makes, although he may well be the first to do so in a formal, testable fashion. For another, his ideas seem quite strongly supported in the biological realm, but increasingly speculative outside it. For a third, some of the non-biological examples smell a bit like fishing. By that I mean that any two quantities that both grow exponentially--say, the adoption of telephones after 1880 and the salaries of baseball free agents after 1980--will have some power-law relationship, and some of these relationships will fit with whatever theory you propose.

That doesn't mean I didn't like the book; I did. It reminds me of Edward O. Wilson's Consilience. (Wilson is a better writer, but West makes his case more convincingly.) There's also a close connection to Edward Glaeser's very good book Triumph of the City, and a more distant one to the outstanding The Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson. 

The connection here, if it wasn't obvious, is that these are all big-picture-thinking books: books that try to perform synthesis on a heroic scale, making sense of many disparate facts under one intellectual umbrella. Scale isn't the best such book I've ever read--I wouldn't recommend it to a reader who doesn't have some tolerance for scientific writing, for example--but it's pretty good. In particular, it's a paean to the value of interdisciplinary thinking, and that's a subject dear to my heart.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Book Review: A Mind at Play

A Mind a Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age
Jimmy Soni, Rob Goodman
Biography, computers

Claude Shannon was the Isaac Newton of information theory--and that's not an exaggeration; he reified and measured the concept of "information" much as Newton made sense of force and acceleration. Unlike Newton, he seems to have been a genuinely playful and sweet-natured man. After revolutionizing communication, he rode unicycles, taught himself to juggle, and built whimsical machines--like the box with the switch on top; when the switch was turned on, a mechanical arm emerged, turned off the switch, and retracted.

A Mind at Play is not a super-dense book, either as biology or as mathematics. Its core is a very nice summary, very light on mathematics, of just what it was that Shannon did. I think the authors missed a couple of tricks for the more knowledgeable reader--the deep connections between information entropy and physical entropy go unacknowledged--but the book is well-written and provides a good, sympathetic character portrait.

Among the good books that overlap with A Mind at Play are:

  • The Innovators, Walter Isaacson
  • The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner
  • The Information, James Gleick (much more technically rich)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Book Review: A Death by Any Other Name

A Death by Any Other Name
Tessa Arlen

I sometimes feel as though I ought to give new authors a chance, and not just stick to my old favorites. In this case, I was swayed by the back-cover quote: "pitch-perfect classic whodunit."

I should have remembered the rules.

A Death by Any Other Name is just plain badly written. It's not entirely Tessa Arlen's fault; there are a lot of problems that would have been caught by any competent copy editor. Consider:
  • "Fraulein" is several times misspelled as "Frauline."
  • A chafing dish is used to warm food. A chaffing dish, if there were such a thing, would have to either convert food to inedible husks, mock it in a good-natured fashion, or confuse its radar.
  • One character--an educated man--says that France has been England's foe "since time in memoriam". The phrase Arlen is looking for is "since time immemorial."
  • Only other servants would have referred to the butler as "Mr. Evans." The family and guests would have called him "Evans." 
Then there's the wooden dialogue. This is supposed to be a man speaking with "simple conviction", having forgotten his "showy manner":
She brought refinement to the dishes she prepared that far outshone anything I have had from French chefs in more prestigious establishments.
Try saying that out loud and sounding natural. There are plenty of other solecisms as well--run-on sentences, misused commas, paragraphs that have unattributed dialog from two different characters, and an implacable devotion to telling what the characters are feeling rather than showing. Nor does Arlen understand that the "action" of a whodunit takes the form of "information is revealed" (either to obscure or to enlighten), so the pacing is nonexistent too.

At this point, one of my regular readers is already mouthing the question: "So why did you keep reading it, then?" The answer is that I still hoped that A Death by Any Other Name might prove to be interesting as a whodunit--that is, as a puzzle, a technical challenge, an ingenious piece of misdirection. Alas, I was disappointed in this as well. The whole of the deductive process displayed boils down to this (SPOILER, if anyone cares):
  1. This piece of paper, which we found quite by accident, has a 7 written in the continental fashion, with a bar through it: 7.
  2. X is French.
  3. Therefore, X is the murderer!
Not only is this feeble, it's not even original.

I'm not happy to have to pan this book. It's the kind of thing I'd like to like, and the publisher is one I'd like to support. But the author didn't do her job, and the editor didn't do theirs.

My usual suspects for whodunits are Steve Hockensmith, Aaron and Charlotte Elkins, and sometimes Anthony Horowitz. If you find any others, let me know.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Book Review: Empire of Things

Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First
Frank Trentmann
Sociology, economics

At the end of Empire of Things you'll find 107 pages of densely-packed, small-print end notes. You'll also find an apologetic note from the author:

. . . these are only the tip of the research iceberg on which this book rests. Readers who wish to delve deeper . . .can browse my 260-page working bibliography at:
This, mind you, after 692 pages of text. These aren't light, fluffy pages, either. It's like you're walking into Dr. Trentmann's Famous Museum of Consumer Facts. Imagine a long room, lined with glass cases, each of which is crammed with exhibits, and where each exhibit has an explanatory plaque which you're expected to read. A semi-random trawl through the book's first half furnishes some examples. Page 175:
In 1800, Paris and London made do with a few thousand oil lamps . . . By 1867 . . . Paris was lit by around 20,0000 gas lamps. By 1907, it had 54,000; London had as many as 77,000 lights . . . each burnt 140 litres of gas a night. When the First World War broke out in 1914, Paris was seventy times brighter than during the 1848 revolution.
Page 212:
A typical local Varieté cinema in 1904 showed moving pictures to around 70,000 viewers a week . . . Lexington, Kentucky had two cinemas for its 25,000 inhabitants . . . By 1914, Britain had 3,800 cinemas. London alone had almost five hundred, with seating for 400,000, more than five times that in music halls . . . 250,000 Londoners went to the cinema, every day. In New York City, the weekly attendance was closer to a million . . .
Page 239:
. . . a factory worker typically earned $590 in 1890 . . . almost a million new homes were constructed in 1925 alone . . . In New York and Philadelphia, 87 per cent and 61 per cent were renting in 1920. In 1930, this was down to 80 per cent and 42 per cent.

Page 326-327:
. . . in the early 1960s, public expenditure was 36 per cent of GDP in France (33 per cent in the UK; 35 per cent in West Germany); by the late 1970s it had reached 46 per cent in all three . . . In the USSR, consumer durables grew at a rate of 8 per cent a year . . . the Hungarian government promised its people 610,000 TVs, 600,000 washing machines and 128,000 fridges within the next three years . . .
It's not that the facts aren't interesting; they are. It's not that Empire of Things is badly written, either, although someone should let Frank Trentmann know that it's no longer a flogging offense to use a contraction now and then. It's just that there's so . . . damn . . . much of it. Even the most dedicated reader isn't going to retain more than a tiny fraction of this information. Empire of Things would have been so much more memorable if it had only concentrated on telling a story. (The second half, which is organized by concept rather than chronologically, is a bit better than the first.) But if there's a theme running through the book, it's one that only really becomes clear in the final 20 pages or so. The book is intriguing in spots, and enlightening in spots, but as a whole it's something of a blur.