Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Great Discoveries in Medicine by Bynum (eds)

When William and Helen agreed to edit Great Discoveries in Medicine, one can imagine that they wondered how to maintain the reader's interest in 70 essays on topics like cell theory, immunology, defibrillators, polio, quinine,  and pap smears. They accomplished this by enlisting experts in each of the areas, going so far as the get the Nobel laureate responsible for the cure of peptic ulcers to write about his research. The result is 70 essays, lavishly illustrated, that each proclaim that this discovery is the greatest ever. Wonderful reading from start to finish.

This British-produced volume takes a more international purview than I imagine would have been if it had been produced in the United States. The pictures are as well chosen with medical illustration supplemented with popular culture items such as historical posters from public health campaigns. If anything is missing, I'd suggest the public health triumph for clean water could have had it's own section. I've heard that clean water might have saved more lives than all the other discoveries in this book.

In addition the the science history, there are also small talk nuggets like "skirts were shorten to avoid picking up germs" and almost one million hip replacements performed in 2010. A recommended read for science teachers, doctors or anyone with an interest in Science.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

1493 by Charles C Mann ****

Over the last quarter of a century, there has been a trend among historians and history writers to move away from power and politics in favor of economics, environment and everyday people. Part of this has been the effort for history to be more inclusive (versus just old white guys), but part has also been a demand on the part of the readers for a more human story.

I trace this back to the serious historical project that started with History of Private Life, Volume I (1987) and continuing with several volumes on private transactions that were preserved in the historical record ... archeology, court cases, wills, etc. This opened up everyday life as a subject for serious study, but did not really have the human element to entice the general public.

However Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (1995) had a more human focus and a clearly inclusive point of view. This is a book that can and should be read by everyone covering the twin topics or feminism and technology. It also set the precedent for histories cover broad expanses of time.

This was followed by Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (2005) which covered all history from the point of view of environment and ecology. Also a book that every educated person should have on their must read list. The subtext in this one is that race and culture means nothing compared to local environment and natural resources. This ties in nicely with 1493 which posits that since Columbus there are no local environments or natural resources.

This year we have two new additions to this genre: Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011). Again we have a complete history of the world; this time the focus is on economics - especially money. This book is more specialized and probably mostly interested to those who have taken more than two Economics courses.

Thus we come to1493 - an economic and environmental history of the last 500 years. This book tends to be a collection of long essays on different topics (silver, tobacco, rubber, African settlements in the Americas, early trade between China and Manila, etc.) There is a unifying thread about how the world has become homogenized by international commerce. The overall effect is still a collection of essays, some very interesting and others not.

If you enjoy your history without power and politics and with inclusion of women and minorities, any of these will make for fine reading.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

One Summer by David Baldacci ****

What is that drives successful artists to want to do something different. While a few comedy stars want to be seen as serious actors, this seems to be most prevalent for writers. Some writers use pseudonyms when they indulge this fantasy, but others use the same name, even at the risk of confusing their readers. In What is that One Summer, David Baldacci, the best selling thriller author, only partially risks this confusion in his romance about a family torn apart by sickness and death.

In a plot that will be familiar to romance readers: Jack Armstrong is terminally ill (of a forever unnamed malady), until Christmas eve, when his wife dies in a tragic accident and he miraculously recovers. The story is filled out with three children, a vindictive mother-in-law, and, of course, new loves.

For Baldacci's fans, Jack Armstrong - the Army Ranger - comes most convincingly to life when he is in rehab (much like boot camp), and when he get into fights - one on two or two on five - never a fair fight and never close. As they say, your DNA never changes.

Pleasant light summer reading - heavy-handed sentimentality with a mixture of macho violence by one of the best in the field.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber *****

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber is an effort to correct update 5,000 years of economic history, starting with ubiquitous history of money taught in EVERY Economics course. You remember this: What are the three functions of money?
  1.  Medium of exchange (versus barter)
  2. Unit of accounting
  3. Store of value  
 Let's review them in reverse order. Store of value? A cursory review of economic history, especially periods of inflation, reminds the honest reader that money is only occasionally a short-term store of value, at best. Unit of accounting? This one is for real. Even during the dark ages in Europe, when there was no money in circulation, accounts were still kept in Roman currency, even though it had not existed for centuries. So maybe this function really has nothing to do with money after all.

Finally, medium of exchange? This is the first major eye opener in a fabulous book written by an historical anthropologist: Barter is a straw argument ... apparently never used by any society in the last 5,000 years ... ever! Since the use of money historically is extremely rare, most trade is done as an exchange of favors using human currency - and communism: from each according to abilities and to each according to needs. Families still operate in this tradition cash-less way.

OK, if money is not what has been taught since Adam Smith, what has been the central vehicle of economic activity? DEBT. So now it is revealed, the title "Debt," really signifies all economic activity over all history.

This book is not for the fainthearted - 400 pages of closely spaced, tiny type, but it delivers insights and revelations on economic history. For instance, what happened to all that gold and silver the Spanish and Portuguese extracted from the Americas? Well over 90% went to China and India. Many gold plate Buddhas, originated in Inca mines and were shipped half-way around the world in exchange for spices and cloth. Cloth? Yes! Before the British empire and mills, India exported cloth to Europe, not the other way around.

Virtual money or cashless transactions (credit cards, etc.) is not an innovation of the 21st century, but something that has been used extensively over history. In fact it was only during two imperial/empire periods (800 BCE - 600 CE) and (1450 -1971) that cash money was used.

Anyone with a serious interest in the economy and/or economics should read this.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Imagine by Jonah Lehrer *****

If you read one non-fiction book this year ... this should be it. Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer explains creativity in ways useful to artists, scientists, and parents. Creativity is the mystery behind progress and happiness. With non-humans using tools, computers winning chess tournaments, and insects, plants, birds, mammals, and everything in between, communicating in complex ways, creativity might be the final human advantage.

   As in traditional in books on creativity, the author starts with a problem requiring some insight or creativity for its solution, in this case: "matchstick" math. How do you make this mathematically true?
   Is is not surprising that this problem is accompanied with the traditional discussion of creativity with the traditional paeans to relaxation, free association, and the benefits of ADHD. After, praying at the alter of chaos, the author discloses the solution for the slower readers.
   At this point, Imagine uncovers such "think out of the box" creativity discussions to be the superficial hoaxes they have always been. The real personality for creativity is not the manic ADHD, but the more complex bipolar, manic-depressive.
   Productive creativity is so much more than just the initial epiphany. This must be followed by the work of refinement, editing, improving, and finishing. With examples as diverse as poetry by W.H. Auden and movies by Pixar, the author elucidates and supports the ignored side of creativity: "ART IS WORK."
  It is this work that keeps processing a problem even after it is "solved," the process that transforms draft in art, prototype into product, and good into great.
  Beyond this yin and yang of creativity, the author also updates the subject from the traditional domain of individuals to the modern environment of groups.
  While the book covers much that has been written about so much that it is close to cliche in business books ... 3M Corporation, Steve Jobs ... much is new and insightful. If you read one non-fiction book this year ... this should be it.