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Very proud of all three of my kids, for different reasons.

From youngest to oldest:

♥ Linnea is on her way for a week in Europe, namely Scotland and Ireland. She did all her packing by herself, and didn't freak out at the last minute. I hope she has a wonderful trip.

♥ I signed Perry up for 3/4 of a session at one of the local boathouses (NOT the one he usually rows with) for land workouts. It's been incredibly hard, if there is something I find fault with his current coach, it's that the kids aren't, imo, in as peak shape as they should be. Perry has been running, lifting, and erging at an intensity he'd never done before. He's doing ok. Last week, they erged a half marathon, 21km. That's about 90 minutes on the erg.

♥ AC. She got herself a internship -granted, unpaid- at Fred Hutch, one of the top cancer research institutions in the world.
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The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson.

This one has been on my to-read for a while. I'd of course heard about John Snow, and knew the story of the Broad Street pump, but the book came highly recommended and I hoped it would have further insights into epidemiology, a fave subject of mine. Unfortunately, not.

8/9ths of the book was pretty good and on-topic. The hagiography of cities and city dwellers at the end was less than awesome, especially in the parts were it was not related to epidemic and disease. That all felt like a moralistic finger wagging, barely redeemed by the subsequent commentary on potential terrorism in cities etc.

The first part of the book, the part dealing the actual cholera epidemic, was good. Less detailed in even the basic science than I'd hoped, but an engaging interesting read.

I had hoped that there would be more emphasis on epidemics and how they spread through human populations, but the author choose instead to spend a lot of time describing the miasma theory of disease.

Overall, the book was good, but lightweight. A good read on wikipedia and following some links on their sources would have given the same information, without some of the more annoying parts.

So a tepid "yeah, if you have nothing else" from me.


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The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

All you really need to know? Get this book. Read it.

Needless to say, however, you guys aren't getting off that easy. I'm writing the full review anyhow. Seriously, though, this is probably one of the best, if not the best, non fiction book I've ever read. It wasn't perfect, but it was excellent.

I've had this book on my list for a while, but my list of "books to read" is now inaccessible to me thanks to the selling out of my library system. I was looking for a good non-fiction book to listen to and just checking out the shelves at the library when I saw it. Perfect. Reasonably long, I'd been meaning to read it for a while, and by all accounts a good book. Perfect indeed.

Dr Mukherjee writes about cancer, about people with cancer, about people who treat and fight and strive to understand cancer, and about the people who fund the latter. The title of the book, while it could sound like just a clever thing, rings true: it is a biography of cancer, because cancer is intertwined quite tightly with, well, humanity.

And the humanity of cancer and the people involved with it at every level is where this book shines. Dr Mukherjee has a very light touch with emotions, he can convey pain and despair without any maudlin tendencies, only resorting once to a cheap tear jerker comment (though let me tell you... by the time he made that comment, I behaved as Pavlov's dogs would expect me to, and started to sob. It was a false alert, thank goodness, but that is when I realized how deeply he'd made me care.)

Anyhow.

The book talks about all aspects of cancer. Where it came from. The historical treatments... or lack thereof. Of leukemia, and breast cancer, and lung cancer. And smoking.

Sidney Farber's crusade, his single minded mission to cure childhood leukemia is detailed. Because he started, others were able to continue and ultimately take a disease that killed almost 100% of its victims to one that kids can, mostly, deal with, treat, recover from. He did that by, really, starting doctors down the path of chemotherapy, and then working on the policies that would allow others to continue work. Farber's story is a phenomenal one, and Dr Mukherjee does an excellent job of interweaving his story with the story or cancer, and the progress being made against the disease.

And that, btw, is one of the most elegantly done things in the book: Dr Mukherjee tells quite a few stories of people, and he touches on each as needed. Carla Reed, one of his patients. Sidney Farber. Mary Lasker. His own story is also told, though so lightly that I was left wanting more about his own personal journey. However, his writing on the people who make cancer their day to day lives, as researchers, doctors, or patients, is sensitive and profound.

I don't often cry while reading or listening to non-fiction. I did during this book, many times. Not as much at personal stories, but at the gut wrenching ups and downs that human interaction with cancer seems to produce. Research gone nowhere, a dead patient, policy mistakes that kill, treatment that fails despite initial effort. But also, at the victories. Dr Drucker's comment that by helping find the cure to CML, he's actually upped the prevalence of that cancer. Because people are living with it, normal lifespans. I sobbed.

Dr Mukherjee talks, as I said, about the history of cancer and its treatment, about how in the mid-part of the 20th century, many of the battles being fought were not just the scientific ones, but the political and policy ones. The creation of the NCI, and its work is discussed at length, as well as the creation, and the forces behind the American Cancer Association.

Also detailed in clear steps is the discovery that smoking causes cancer. This broke my heart a bit, to be honest. My dad, really, did not have to die of cancer. The data was there, but he was too hooked to evaluate it logically and it killed him.

A word on the writing itself. The author does tend towards the verbose, but! Even then, the writing was beautiful. Each word felt carefully chosen, but in place for the specific nuance it would impart.

My favourite part of the book, though perhaps the one that got the least in-depth treatment, was the part about the more recent research, medications, and the few decisive scientific victories. The biology of cancer is touched upon, though I'd have loved more detail. However, Dr Mukherjee manages to follow threads of discoveries to their ends, describing, for example, the ins and outs of the cure of chronic myeloid leukemia, without it feeling like he's telling one story after another. The sections feed on each other, and the concepts he delves into (for example, tumour suppressor genes) are revisited in the next ones, so while our understanding of basic cancer biology is never assumed, which is good because it isn't knowledge most of us have on our fingertips, the necessary information is given in detail, and repeated enough to where it doesn't need to be repeated. Which felt like gentle and respectful teaching of difficult concepts to an audience whose level he could not assume. He was thus able, imo, to impart reasonably complex information without ever sounding condescending, without ever talking down at us, because he had laid the groundwork for us to follow his reasoning.

The problems I found with this book....

Like most authors at this point in history, Dr Mukherjee could have used a good editor. I listened to the book on CD, 16 CDs, and there were some repetitions, and some areas that could have been glossed over. He's a bit long winded -ok, fine, verbose- at times, and with that amount of subject matter to cover, this eventually takes a toll.

I get, as I said above, that cancer policy is a major part of the story of cancer, both the medical policy and the political policy. While understanding that, it still seems that a lot of time was devoted to the details of the policy path of cancer, some of which were rather uninteresting and felt almost useless. I'm not talking about science or even medical treatment policy here (for example, while long and sometimes boring, the discussion on radical mastectomy was necessary), but political and lobbying efforts, which, really, YAWN for the most part.

The result, in my opinion of the focus on policy was that there was a short-changing on the science (isn't it always that way?) Dr Mukherjee does talk about many of the breakthrough cancer discoveries of the last century or so, but in very little scientific detail. I'd have preferred more information on that, and less following-the-money.

I could go on and on and not be done. It's a good book, perhaps one of the best I've ever read. I listened on CD, I'm going to be buying the hard copy because it's a book I want to own, to be able to re-visit and reread.

I can't get beyond the fact that this book felt deeply human. That I felt it touched on the very parts of what make us human. I can't quite express it, I don't appear to have quite the words, but reading this book made me acutely aware of our shared humanity. It's cancer's story, but it's also our story, interwoven and entwined, and perhaps the most important part I took away from this book is that this is just the beginning of the story. Cancer's story is our story, and like our story, it is nowhere near being done.
nwhiker: (heart)
The $1,000 Genome: The Revolution in DNA Sequencing and the New Era of Personalized Medicine by Kevin Davies.

First, a total OT: I named a character in my book Kevin Davies. It was really jarring to see the name on a book on CD.

Next. A quick review.

I'm listening on CD, so I can't skim, which probably colours this book for me. I read the summary, and thought it was going to be a bit focused on the movers and shakers of the pay-to-play genetics world, but it's, about 1/3 of the way in, only about them. I'm not really interested in the personalities of the people who founded Navigenics or the revoltingly cutesily named "23 and Me" which makes me want to hurl, I'm interested in the science behind those, and that science, despite Davies having a PhD in genetic, and being an editor at some major scientific journals, is just not there. So blah.

Also. The book was published in 2010 and it's already outdated. I'll be returning it to the library today.

A book I did finish that was also not great, though a bit better: Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives by Michael Specter. Another book I was expecting great things from, but the author is a bit of a crank, imo, who wanted to make sure he was fair and balanced and criticized right wing denialism as well as the left wing version, and he ended up sounding petulant at times. In addition, he never really delved into the why this was happening (Paul Offit, in one of this vaccination/autism books does a much better job, as does Seth Mnookin in vaccine book). Specter seems to think that Vioxx explains ALL the big pharma mistrust in this country, and really, it doesn't. (Plus, eh, Vioxx was a pretty horrid thing, and I don't quite see how denialism plays into it) There is something else going on, deep in the American psyche, and while others have tried to get there, and come tantalizingly close, Specter doesn't even get that far. He just rants, and not very well, about it.

In addition I found his writing to be sub-standard, and the whole book felt rather "all over the place".

Still in need of a good book to listen to on CD in the car. I'm waiting on my next Pratchett book (it'll be a while), and I'd like a science non-fiction break, but good non fiction that can be listened to in the car is harder to find than one would think.
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The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe.

Us, viruses -vrii?- and how we met and interacted over the years. Who kills who. Who might kill who. And who do we figure out who will kill next.

The good...

It's a short, interesting read. It does get repetitive (see below) but covers quite a bit of ground. The subject matter is interesting as well, and the author clearly knows what he is talking about and what he wants to impart. He does that well, without sounding alarmist and OMG! The end of the world!

He also outlines some concrete steps that can be taken. I disagree with him (see below) that google is going to be our salvation, but he does have some ideas of what needs to be done to allow us to head off the next pandemic.

The neutral...

The science. The good point is also the bad point, so I shoved it in neutral.

If someone had very little biology background -and by that I mean even less than the general culture gives us- this book would still be understandable. The science is merely hinted at, and never complex. This, in turn, creates a problem in that it both leaves and impression of superficiality, but also some things just don't make sense, or are so simplified that you almost want to say "why did you bother including that at all?" I think most people could have handled more than was given, and that would have allowed for a more interesting read.

The bad...

Look, I'm sure Dr Wolfe is brilliant. That's pretty clear. We really don't need it repeated about a zillion times. I did this! I got this award! I'm so awesome they gave me money for this! I founded this! I created this! These researchers are The! Best! and they took me under their wings! Looke me! Looke me! At first it was fine, but after a while, it got old, kinda like reading the long winded cv of someone applying for a Nobel Prize. (Which, yeah, I know, but that'll give the idea...)

A lot of repitition. It's almost as if he didn't have any sexy pandemics that killed loads of people to discuss so he went over a few points more than once. I think we heard of the hunter/butcher/blood contact/virus jump thing at least four or five times.

A few things never felt like they were taken to their logical conclusion. He went on at length about the early 20th century origins of HIV/AIDS as a mosaic virus, and it's not-very-well-documented early spread, but I feel he really just abandoned it there. I mean, I get that it was infecting people in Africa for a long time, but it didn't become a real pandemic until much later, and I feel that wasn't documented.

The guy is clearly a primatologist, and very focused on the diseases that jumped from monkeys/apes to men. End result is that I feel he rather missed the boat on flu (birds and swine) and he never mentioned, for example, Hanta virus, or even, to be best of my recollection the freaking plague. Yes, I know he was virus intensive, but still the Black Death merited some attention as an epidemic that came from the animal world and spread to us. Or at least a mention.

Did google pay him? I'm guessing he got some venture capital from google, because the last part of the book was a paean to goodle and OMG, google, and google is going to save the world! Over and freaking over. He also attributed to google things that were not done by google, and that's a bit irksome. There is also a strong implication that this all should be left to the private sector, and I disagree with that for more than one reason.

See the comment about google above? Well, he had zero issues with google talking search data and using it to determine flu penetration maps. That's fine but... well, I'd have at least expected a little sop about privacy, ya know? It's ok when it's the flu, and while I know that searches aren't private blah blah blah, I think the privacy angle should have been explored. Repeat this comment with Facebook and twitter. Basically, his idea is that searches and social media are going to be doing disease monitoring (real time! faster and better than CDC!), which might be great, but the privacy angle needed to be addressed, because when it's not flu but syphilis, that could be more of an issue.

Overall..

I had the book on CD and in book format, something I've learned to do since the CD quality has been piss poor recently (I'm guessing they're going more and more to digital, which sucks since I no longer have access to my library digital and ebook because of privacy concerns). Anyhow, I'm not sure I'd have been able to read the whole book. It was fine on CD, but the redundancy and the slightly self-important style are harder to take on paper. FWIW.

It's a reasonably quick read on an interesting topic. I'm not sure I'd strongly recommend it but if you've read nothing else on the subject, it's certainly an ok book to get the breadth of possibilities of what a global pandemic could mean.
nwhiker: (Default)
Completely inaccurate, but funny: "When you get older, your atomic bonds loosen somewhat."
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Yes, yet another anti-vaccine-denialist book. These books fascinate me in a way a train wreck does: they're books about teh stupid winning over science, a facet of American obscurantism. Sickening, but I have to read. I boggle at the ability to deny the facts... or perhaps the inability to look at the science and see it for what it is. I marvel at the selfishness of the anti-vaxxers and the conviction that their kids are special and somehow should be given without giving anything in return.

This one is Paul Offit's Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All

It's a very good book. I previously reviewed Seth Mnookin's The Panic Virus, and the two books go over the same story, in different manners.

Mnookin highlights, and very well, the human cost of not vaccinating. He tells it like it is, describes, for example, in significant detail, how pertussis kills. This is what it means to not vaccinate.

Offit's book is different. He is very careful not to sugar coat the dangers of vaccines, talks clearly about vaccine injuries, and what the vaccine court does and why. He talks about some of the deadly mistakes that were made. But he's also very clear, imo, that if you look at the whole picture, it's positive. Lives are saved.

One of the things he mentions, but doesn't dwell on enough, is the rotavirus crisis. Nutshell? Rotavirus vaccine released, fifteeen case reports of intussusception show up in the VAERS database. CDC immediately suspended use of the vaccine, they confirm the association, the vaccine is discontinued. This is how it's supposed to work. The risk was very low, but there, and in the US where only 60 die per year of rotavirus, it made no sense. Something Offit didn't go into, and I wish he had, was how the odds balance in the Third World, where 2000 kids die every day of rotavirus. Anyhow, the system worked as it should have in the US.

The other item in the book that stuck me was how open Dr Offit is to people advocating for safer vaccines. I'm not talking about Ms Indigo Mom Jenny McCarthy there, but John Salamone. He was the person who made the change from live oral polio vaccine to inactivated virus vaccine happen. (Both exist, one is cheaper). This is positive advocacy, vs screaming "Green our vaccines!" when, really, that isn't a problem.

He's much kinder, imo, toward Dr Bob (Sears) than Dr Sears deserves, and much kinder than Mnookin is in his book. Offit does, however, make is clear that Sears's opinions have no grounding in science, and that his "modified schedule" is actually harmful.

My favourite chapter is the one called Tragedy of the Commons. Here is the Wikipedia entry on the 1968 essay about how a rational choice can become an irrational one. Excerpt: The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen. Offit applies the same observations to vaccine refusal. If you pick up the book at Barnes and Noble, pages 144-147 succinctly summarise a good portion of the situation.

Of course, btw, everything is carefully documented.

I'll leave you with Dr Offit's final paragraphs. They're a wee bit emotional for my taste, but I understand the sentiment well, and it does sum up my feeling about vaccination, and universal health care too, actually. (Some day I'll talk about why I thing most of Europe ended up with universal health care and we didn't.)

Any spelling errors are mine, of course.


Following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, there was a moment when we all stood still and looked at each other. No longer individuals, were were part of a whole. Personal interests were irrelevant. We were united in our grief. One.

Then the moment was gone, dissolved in a cloud of lawsuits, finger-pointing, partisanship, and blame. But, although fleeting, it had been there. And if we can recapture it -recapture the feeling that we are all in this together, all part of a large immunological cooperative- the growing tragedy of children dying from preventable infections can be avoided. We can do this. It's in us: the better angels of our nature.
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Thanks to M for the rec on Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, by Paul Offit.

I don't have the book on hand, alas. I had to return it before leaving to BR, about 75% read, but I was able to pick it up at the library there, right off the shelf, so I finished it there.

To make where I'm coming from clear: vaccinations work and people who don't vax are selfish, deluded, and probably ignorant. I made a serious mistake in not vaxing for chicken pox and my children paid for it. In the US we have the illusion of safety because "those diseases don't exist anymore" and people think they can get away with relying on others to take on the small risk of vaccines and selfishly yet have their children protected by others. This my bias and it will be obvious in this book review.

The other bias I have: I've seen kids with autism. I am lucky enough not to have one. I'm not, and will never, make light of that problem. I understand the feeling of helplessness facing that diagnosis, the desire for a cure.

I've been following the "vaccines cause autism" debate for many years: it started up vocally at about the time AC was a baby, and as a result I've paid attention. I'd heard about most of the cases/ideas/etc talked about in the book, but one by one, and without the continuity of the book. Reading it in order, one by one, was compelling.

Offit brings to the light the appalling science that was used to rope desperate parents in, to give them someone to blame, to give them hope of a cure. His writing is clear and to the point, and he manages to make the science easy to understand. He's rational and doesn't engage in name calling... I mean, he doesn't have to: the science speaks for itself.

There is a much too short discussion of the scientific method and how it's used, and how hard it is to explain it to the general public. This alone is worth reading the book for: understanding how science works will allow someone to understand why it is so easy for quacks to proclaim just about anything, and how hard it is for scientists to respond in the media.

One fascinating chapter was about how thimerosal ended up being removed from kid's vaccine's. There was no real reason for it, and no change in autism diagnosis numbers after the removal, but it served as a red herring, and because of the lack of understanding of scientific method (and stupidity on the part of the media), it led some people to think that 'aha! there must have been something there'.

Offit clearly shows the conflicts of interest of the anti-vax leaders, their lack of understanding of the data, or their total willingness to lie about it. Those people have long countered with doctors/CDC/NIH in the pocket of the phamaceutical industry meme, of course, but they are much more implicated than the opposite and while scientists and doctors most often disclose relationships, the anti-vax leaders make money, and pocket money off their inane rants, and do not publicise the fact.

If you have any interest in autism and the supposed vaccine connection, this is a good book: it streamlines all the bits of reports and news that have come out during the last decade and organises them.

My one gripe with the book is that it's much too kind to that idiotic piece of crap that is Jenny McCarthy and her moronic "Green our Vaccines" shit. I won't link. I avoid the term "stupid bitch" to refer to women, because I don't like the word bitch used about women, but if one women deserves the moniker, it's her. She's ignorant and flaunts it, and because of her celebrity and her partner's (Jim Carrey. A luminary, have no doubt) she is listened to, and does serious damage.

Anti-vaxers and their autism connection have about, in my mind, the same credibility is young-earthers, and "Intelligent" Design proponents. And this books shows, clearly, concisely why, in a calm, rational, and beautifully well argued manner.

One of my favourite bloggers, Orac of Respectful Insolence, did a much better review, well worth reading.
nwhiker: (Default)
Thanks to M for the rec on Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, by Paul Offit.

I don't have the book on hand, alas. I had to return it before leaving to BR, about 75% read, but I was able to pick it up at the library there, right off the shelf, so I finished it there.

To make where I'm coming from clear: vaccinations work and people who don't vax are selfish, deluded, and probably ignorant. I made a serious mistake in not vaxing for chicken pox and my children paid for it. In the US we have the illusion of safety because "those diseases don't exist anymore" and people think they can get away with relying on others to take on the small risk of vaccines and selfishly yet have their children protected by others. This my bias and it will be obvious in this book review.

The other bias I have: I've seen kids with autism. I am lucky enough not to have one. I'm not, and will never, make light of that problem. I understand the feeling of helplessness facing that diagnosis, the desire for a cure.

I've been following the "vaccines cause autism" debate for many years: it started up vocally at about the time AC was a baby, and as a result I've paid attention. I'd heard about most of the cases/ideas/etc talked about in the book, but one by one, and without the continuity of the book. Reading it in order, one by one, was compelling.

Offit brings to the light the appalling science that was used to rope desperate parents in, to give them someone to blame, to give them hope of a cure. His writing is clear and to the point, and he manages to make the science easy to understand. He's rational and doesn't engage in name calling... I mean, he doesn't have to: the science speaks for itself.

There is a much too short discussion of the scientific method and how it's used, and how hard it is to explain it to the general public. This alone is worth reading the book for: understanding how science works will allow someone to understand why it is so easy for quacks to proclaim just about anything, and how hard it is for scientists to respond in the media.

One fascinating chapter was about how thimerosal ended up being removed from kid's vaccine's. There was no real reason for it, and no change in autism diagnosis numbers after the removal, but it served as a red herring, and because of the lack of understanding of scientific method (and stupidity on the part of the media), it led some people to think that 'aha! there must have been something there'.

Offit clearly shows the conflicts of interest of the anti-vax leaders, their lack of understanding of the data, or their total willingness to lie about it. Those people have long countered with doctors/CDC/NIH in the pocket of the phamaceutical industry meme, of course, but they are much more implicated than the opposite and while scientists and doctors most often disclose relationships, the anti-vax leaders make money, and pocket money off their inane rants, and do not publicise the fact.

If you have any interest in autism and the supposed vaccine connection, this is a good book: it streamlines all the bits of reports and news that have come out during the last decade and organises them.

My one gripe with the book is that it's much too kind to that idiotic piece of crap that is Jenny McCarthy and her moronic "Green our Vaccines" shit. I won't link. I avoid the term "stupid bitch" to refer to women, because I don't like the word bitch used about women, but if one women deserves the moniker, it's her. She's ignorant and flaunts it, and because of her celebrity and her partner's (Jim Carrey. A luminary, have no doubt) she is listened to, and does serious damage.

Anti-vaxers and their autism connection have about, in my mind, the same credibility is young-earthers, and "Intelligent" Design proponents. And this books shows, clearly, concisely why, in a calm, rational, and beautifully well argued manner.

One of my favourite bloggers, Orac of Respectful Insolence, did a much better review, well worth reading.

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