Since I am an apocalypse monger, but a practical one, I do not worry about alien invasions or the reversal of Earth’s magnetic field, but I do worry about pandemics. This book, Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider, is a recent offering in the pandemic literature that has become popular in the past twenty years. It focuses on the only known pathogen likely to create a future pandemic, the influenza virus, through its greatest past outbreak, the Spanish Flu of 1918. I read books like these partially for history knowledge and partially to understand what to do in a similar future situation, and Pale Rider is useful for both.
I have led a boring life, at least as measured by the topics covered by this book, Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind. Not only have I never taken any psychedelic drug of any type, I have never taken any illegal drug at all. Similarly, I have never had any type of mystical experience whatsoever, though I am certainly open to such a thing and have total confidence that many other people have. Just not me. But here, as in many matters, others go where I have not tread. Pollan, famous mostly for books on food, decided to explore drug-induced alterations of consciousness, and this book is the measured result of his spelunking in the caverns of the mind.
While pretty much everyone in this book who is rich and powerful comes off looking bad, it is less a tale of typical fraud, like a Ponzi scheme, and more a tale of human foibles. These were expertly played on by Elizabeth Holmes, a very young woman of little productive talent and no particular evident intelligence, but with a natural gift for sales and embodying the icy manipulative abilities of the sociopath. Fascinating stuff, all of it, and worth reading just to make sure that you don’t fall into a similar trap in your life. And, more broadly, the arc of Theranos has much to say about supposedly imminent advances in technology, from artificial intelligence to flying autonomous cars.
Koh-i-Noor is not about the diamond, to my disappointment. Oh, sure, it makes an appearance here and there in this book. But very little is actually said here about the diamond itself, probably because the Queen of England hasn’t made it available for analysis and study, and prior generations didn’t record much about its specifics. Rather, this is a book of cultural history revolving around people who have owned the diamond. That’s interesting, in its own way, but not what I was promised.
A few weeks ago, I watched a bad movie on Netflix—The Cloverfield Effect. This near-future science fiction film (distantly related to the original Cloverfield, an updated Godzilla-type movie) revolved around a disastrous attempt to generate unlimited energy in space, needed because the entire world was “two years from running out of all energy.” Yes, that’s really as stupid as it sounds. But Meghan O’Sullivan is here to tell us that just as stupid is the idea that we’re running out of fossil fuels, within any time frame that matters. And she is further here to tell us what that means, for our economy, our global position, and for the future stability of the world, both geopolitically and environmentally.
Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory is a mild corrective to the commonly found anguished certainty that America’s days of innovative scientific greatness are behind us. In its exploration of the might and works of Bell Labs, this book reminds us that genius requires the right cultural environment to flourish, and it addresses whether collective or individual genius is the mainspring of scientific advancement. Ultimately, Gertner’s account gives the obvious answer—scientific advancement stands on a three-legged stool, dependent on all of the broader culture, muscular group effort, and heroic individuals. Ayn Rand would not agree, but then, what did she ever actually accomplish?
This outstanding book, by the anarchist-tending academic James C. Scott, might be (but isn’t) subtitled “Barbarians Are Happier, Fatter and Better Looking.” The author does not believe the myth of the noble savage—but he thinks the savage is, on average, a lot better off than the peasant. Scott’s project is to remold our view of the early days of civilization, erasing the sharp lines usually drawn to separate the first states from the social groups which preceded them, and dismissing the judgment that more organized is always better.
This title story of this book tells of Bob Kearns, tinkering inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, whose patented invention was stolen by Ford and other big automakers. The story was originally a 1993 New Yorker article, but was republished in this book as a tie-in to the 2008 Greg Kinnear movie of the same name. That’s just one story in this fascinating collection, though, which covers topics ranging from Nevada gold mining to the Antikythera Mechanism. The book is quite good—not earthshattering, but interesting, and certainly capable of giving the reader interesting discussion topics so he can avoid politics at the next cocktail party he has to attend.
I’ve always liked food history—maybe because as a small child I spent quite a lot of time reading The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire, a Time-Life cookbook my mother had, and from it learned quite a bit of history. Many, if not most, modern cookbooks contain large sections of history, and many food history books contain a lot of recipes, such as Anne Mendelson’s Milk. So there is significant overlap between the two genres. This book, Cake, by Alysa Levene, falls more into the history category and less into the cookbook category. It offers a largely successful blend of well-written data dump and mild social commentary—satisfying, like a cake!
How We Got To Now is competent enough, but it feels threadbare. It feels like a narrative designed to punctuate a picture show that is missing its pictures. It probably feels that way because it is that way—it was written to accompany a PBS television series (which is flacked on the cover of the book), and, unfortunately, without the moving pictures, the book doesn’t stand on its own very well.