Archive for February, 2010

In 1951 Henritta Lacks’ body died from cancer but some of her cells remain alive today.  Just before Henrietta’s death, a small sample of her tumor was cultured and not only did it remain alive, it began dividing.  It was the first time researchers ever got human cells to survive for long periods outside of a body.  The cells have been used in thousands of experiments.  They have been instrumental in finding a cure for polio, cancer research and many other advances in medicine.  A multimillion dollar industry evolved to sell the cells.

Yet Henrietta Lacks is buried in an unmarked grave.  Her children lack health insurance and live in poverty.  The cells were taken without her consent or even her knowledge.  Henrietta Lacks was a poor, African American, with a limited education.

In her masterful book, Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta and her family.  She also explains the science of the cells and chronicles their history.  Inevitably we see race tensions as a white reporter, Skloot, works to uncover details of the lives of Henrietta and her family.  We see poverty too and how lack of education can limit the ability to even give informed consent.  Ethics of medical research are also explored at length, as are tissue rights.  To contextualize Skloot describes such studies as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

The book does an excellent job at covering a great deal of ground yet being among the most engaging books I have read in years.  This is highly recommended.


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The best of these ten short stories by Paolo Bagigalupi are as good as any science fiction I’ve ever read. In all but one of the stories, Bagigalupi drops the reader into an unfamiliar, future earth but provides plenty of clues for figuring out how the world works.

The Calorie Man and Yellow Card Man both take place in the same world as Bagigalupi’s novel The Windup Girl (reviewed elsewhere in this blog).  They describe a hot world that has mostly burned through its fossil fuel, uses springs to store energy and has major cities under water.  A few calorie companies, giant Monsanto-esque seed companies, control almost all of the world’s food production.  Plagues have devastated almost all other crops.  If you plan to read The Windup Girl, these stories are a good place to start.

In The Pop Squad, people have been given immortality but cannot legally have babies.  Evolution has stopped.  The story explores the implications of this.

In many of the stories, Bagigalupi, describes a dark future but that dark future is very much based on our current trajectory.  These stories are worth reading as a warning and because they are hard to put down.

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Often I use Amazon’s user ratings as a guide for selecting a book.  I just noticed that generally the higher the number a book is in a series, the higher its user ratings.  It occurred to me that this is not surprising because someone who does not like a book in a series, will give it a low rating and probably not continue to read the series.  Of course, the people who continue to read the series are probably fans.

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Here is a series of blog entries, from the NY Times, about a small, private high school’s decision to replace most of it’s library with Kindles and computers.  Many of the bloggers create a false dichotomy between electronic books and physical books.  Of course libraries can have both.

Also, many of the writers argue that reading from a printed page is an immersive experience, whereas reading from a screen is a shallow experience.  Personally when reading something engaging, the medium drops away, unless there are numerous flashing ads on the page.  Occasionally, I’ve missed train stops while engaged in a book by Michael Pollen or a Frank Rich editorial that I’m reading on my tiny Blackberry Screen.  On the highway, I’ve missed exits while listening to Richard K. Morgan’s novel Thirteen.  Likewise, I’ve become lost in music while listening to songs coming out of tinny sounding laptop speakers and sometimes the music seems remote when I’m listening to it on a high fidelity stereo.  For me, it’s not about the medium, whatever Marshall Mcluhan says, it’s about whether my mind is engaged…

Here is one thought related to details in a blog entry:

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum says that it’s easier to follow a footnote to its source in a library than on an electronic reading device.  In a library this is true but on the BART or in a coffee shop or at home, I usually have much more luck with finding source material or background information using an electronic reading device.  In other words, if I want to explore context, the best place may be in a large library but I read everywhere and I do not carry a large library with me everywhere.

Yesterday, for example, at the gym, I was reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  There was a reference to Leonard Hayflick.  Since I was curious, I searched for Hayflick in Wikipedia on my cellphone.  This took a few seconds.  If I had to wait until I went to a library, or even until I got home, I doubt I would have learned anything more about Hayflick.

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In The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a natural history of four meals, author Michael Pollen examines the history of four meals.  His first meal is purchased via a McDonald’s drive through.  His second meal is  purchased at Whole Foods.  For his third meal, Pollen works at sustainable farm.  Finally, for the last supper, Pollen hunts and gathers the food.

In an age when we’re growing ever more distant from sources and destinations of the commodities that enter and exit our lives this is an important book.

If this book is enjoyable, then I highly recommend reading the book Pollen wrote before this, The Botany of Desire: a plant’s eye view of the world, which is also reviewed in this blog.  The section on the potato is in many ways prelude to The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

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An essay in The Case for the Book: past, present and future by Robert Darnton, inspired me to read the part of the U.S. Constitution and reflect on how the framers viewed copyright law.  Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, also known as “The Copyright Clause”, of the Constitution reads:

“To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

At the time (1787) “limited” meant that an author could copyright copy for 14 years and then, only if the author was still alive, the copyright could be extended for an additional 14 years.  Today, most copyrights in the US last for the life of the author plus 70 years.  We know from correspondence between Jefferson and Madison that the framers viewed 28 years as a compromise to give authors their fair due and to allow a work to be used for the common good.  For me, reading about this made me realize just how far our laws have shifted towards protecting private interests and away from the common good.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is, in my opinion, a good but not exceptional crime thriller novel.  Set in Sweden, the main characters, a journalist and a hacker, work to uncover a twisted family history and a corrupt financial empire.  The novel  is an international best seller and is part of the Millennium Trilogy.

Originally published in Swedish, in 2005, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo won the 2006 Glass Key award for best crime novel of the year and the 2008 Boeke Prize.  The Millennium Trilogy has also been adapted into a trilogy of films.

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