Thursday, March 31, 2022

Books Read - Q1 2022

Read six books this quarter.

[Previously: Q1 2021, Q2 2021, Q3 2021, and Q4 2021 book reviews; our 2020 Book Review Compendium, 2019 book compendium, 2018 book compendium, and pre-2018 book compendium.]

  • Higher Calling (3/5) This is about bicycle stage racing and climbing mountains on road bikes. When you ride a bike for exercise, climbing hills is what makes the workout. "One of the training techniques I've found effective - I mean ridiculously effective, more effective than anything else I can think of, even high-intensity hill reps - is stairwell run-ups holding your breath. [...] What you can do in a stairwell that you can't easily do anywhere else is you can measure very precisely what the elevation gain is, by measuring the steps and counting them. And when you train for it, when you hyperventilate and run up stairwells, you can get good at it." On the sovereign landlocked microstate principality in the Pyrenees: "There is not a single centimetre of flat road in Andorra, in the Pyrenees between Spain and France. I know because I checked. I went looking in 2015, on assignment for Strava to recce the course of that year's Vuelta a Espana Stage 11, and I didn't find one bit. The mountain principality is tiny, and is caught in a long steep valley between high rocks which, if you follow it from the capital, Andorra La Vella, at the Spanish end, takes you up over the highest road in the Pyrenees, the 2,408 metre Port d'Envalira, and down to another valley and the ski resort of Pas de la Casa." "Andorra is an awful lot of uphill even if you stick to the valleys; if you branch out, you pass green terraces of land, beautiful, well-kept houses and gardens, sunflowers lashed upside down to barns to dry out, and deep dark forests on beautiful, tortuous roads that rise and fall at sometimes eye-watering gradients. Branching out is all that Stage 11 of the Vuelta does." On the origin of these mountain roads: they "owe their development to a long history of paranoia, distrust, and violence. The first famous military crossing of the Alps is undoubtedly Hannibal's, but the mystery of which pass the Carthaginian warrior took on his march towards Rome in 218 BC has puzzled people since ancient times, with heavyweights like Napoleon Bonaparte (who was sometimes called the 'Modern Hannibal,' as well as 'the Horse Thief of Berlin,' 'the Nightmare of Europe,' and 'Old Puss in Boots' among many less flattering things) and Julius Caesar, both well practiced in taking armies over mountains, weighing in with opinions. There are enough clues in accounts contemporary or near contemporary to Hannibal's life to narrow down the selection" to the Montgenevre and the Mont Cenis passes. The Alps are full of defensive fortifications, including an Alpine Extension of the Maginot Line: "the last chapter in France's long history of recurrent paranoia, enmity, and conflict with Italy in these mountains". He says, "I discovered the bunkers over years of cycling the high roads of the southern Alps. The further I went, the more I realized how numerous they are and how they litter the landscape. They helped me realise, after stumbling across a few bunkers and then researching their history, just how much these mountains are a military conundrum as well as a sporting playground. Whereas a road wraps like a ribbon around the contours of a hill, the bunkers are arranged according to other principles. Looking for them means approaching the terrain more laterally, thinking of axes and channels, weak points and redoubts, and sightlines to the passes, and when you come across one it is like an ambush. You are cycling along enjoying the view or concentrating on the climb and then, suddenly, you glimpse an incongruous shape. Above you, always above, a series of soft, regular curves on the prow of a hill (the rounded corners were designed not to cast stark shadows for observers looking from afar). A presence betrayed. And then you realise you are under surveillance across time."
  • Walk on Water: The Miracle of Saving Children's Lives (4.5/5) By Michael Ruhlman, author of previously reviewed The Making of a Chef (5/5), The Soul of a Chef (4/5), Wooden Boats (4/5), and House (3/5). This time, he wrote about pediatric heart surgeons (repairing congenital heart defects) at the Cleveland Clinic. "The clinic's chief surgeon, Roger Mee, has the world's best success rate for the arterial switch operation. While some centers report mortality rates as high as 50 percent for this operation, most manage to keep mortality to between 5 and 10 percent, or somewhat higher for complex varieties. The very best centers have a 1 to 3 percent mortality. But Dr. Mee's centers performed 270 arterial switches for simple transposition over the past seventeen years and have lost just one patient during that time; he is noted throughout the world for his acumen generally, and for his expertise in this procedure in particular." The theme that connects the chef, wooden boat, and surgery books is his fascination with people of exceptional skill."I wrote about people at work; work was important. But not just any work or anyone at work: I tried to concentrate on those few who were considered by their peers to be among the very best in their professions. I'd developed at cooking school a fascination with people who were exceptionally skilled at what they did, had discovered that people who pursue perfection, date-on-a-dime clarity, and impossible high standards are the most compelling human beings alive..." "Interventional cardiologists are the thinking man's surgeons, insist the interventional cardiologists, doing the same work as the surgeons with none of the mess or long healing time. The surgeons for their part, roll their eyes and look pityingly at the interventional cardiologists - wanna-be surgeons all, they intone. Interventional cardiology is elegant on the outside and ugly on the inside, Mee has often said. Surgery is ugly on the outside but elegant on the inside." "The heart-lung machine is the pediatric heart surgeon's primary tool." "Congenital heart disease is really well tolerated in utero. Prostaglandins keep the baby in that fetal state after it's begun to breathe oxygen." This caught my attention: as Dr. Mee changes into his operating uniform,  "he'll reach into his jacket pocket and retrieve another square of Nicorette, which he'll grind away at all morning long." Ruhlman didn't set out with this angle in mind, but what he ended up concluding was that some surgeons (and centers) are vastly better at repairing congenital heart defects than others, and that this difference is partly a function of the volume of procedures conducted. There is a conflict of interest problem between the parents and the cardiologists who initially see the babies. Surgery is lucrative, and "most cardiologists refer their patients within their systems regardless of those systems' results." So, Ruhlman is part of our stable of high performing writers like John McPhee, doctors trust nicotine as a cognitive enhancer when babies' lives are in the balance, and parents of babies with CHD need to be high agency and not passively take the first recommendation because the variance of outcome is enormous (~10^2).
  • Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America (3/5) Another by Michael Ruhlman; we read this because he wrote it, not out of any urgent interest in the grocery business. (Although Pocahontas thinks that food prices are rising because of collusion in the fractured, brutally competitive, almost perfectly competitive grocery business and not because of all the money that the regime has printed.) Grocery stores all have the same layout: "[T]he perimeter of a grocery store is composed primarily of things that go bad quickly. This is what you want. Foods that go bad quickly do so in part because they are rich in volatile nutrients and are not processed. What food companies began doing in the nineteenth century, but explosively so following World War II, was remove those nutritious elements from food that cause it to go bad, and also add preservatives, so that the food could sit on a room temperature shelf indefinitely." "Roller mills, which separated the germ from the rest of the grain as the miller crushed wheat into flour, came into widespread use toward the end of the nineteenth century. This resulted in flour that lacked the nutritious fatty acids in the germ and thus would not become rancid. Long before anyone understood the notion of vitamin deficiencies, this stripped-down form of wheat became a staple of the Western diet." Also: "[I]f it is a superlative organic, non-GMO product, [grocery store buyer] worries that they will get bought up by a multinational that will drive the quality down..." "We're still a nation of meat eaters, but our consumption of beef has dropped considerably. In the seventies, Heinen's was averaging forty-seven cattle per week per store. Today, they need about fifteen per week per store - a decline of more than two-thirds. There are sixty packers in the United States that slaughter cattle for our beef hunger, but four of them control 80 percent of the market: Tyson, Cargill, National, and JBS USA, a subsidiary of Brazil-based JBS, the biggest meat purveyor in the world." "[T]hey could buy five thousand acres in Idaho, two hundred miles west of Jackson Hole, for what it would cost to buy five acres near that tony city." "Continued growth of the hydroponic industry is all but assured as technology improves and demand for high-quality produce year-round increases. Hydroponic greenhouse growing has many advantages over traditional agriculture; I don't see how it can fail to expand. It's the most water-efficient method of growing, as the water can be recirculated." "[O]ur governmental health agencies make it difficult for chefs to practice many ancient preservation techniques because food safety requirements rely almost exclusively on keeping food really cold. At low temperatures, fermentation (the bacterial activity that preserves food and makes it so tasty) happens very slowly if at all."
  • Boys Themselves: A Return to Single-Sex Education (3/5) This was Michael Ruhlman's first book. When he was about 30, he took a break from newspaper and magazine writing to write a book about his private, boys high school in Cleveland (University School) and its new headmaster, Richard Hawley. He's there when political correctness is just getting started, and it's a theme throughout the book, which makes it an interesting time capsule of the liberal pieties in the early 90s. The big deal then was "diversity," trying to find black students from Cleveland but especially trying (desperately) to find black teachers. This matches my experience at a private high school during the same era - far from there being "systemic racism," the people running these schools were liberal and would bend over backwards to make their environments less white. The book shows more concern about feminism and less concern about gays than today. (This was also a goofy time when people pretended that upper middle class kids needed to be worried about AIDS.) As Ruhlman describes the 90s, "Books and articles on gender problems accumulated. Gender, once a lowly grammatical term for nouns, had expanded into the realm of biology." Another hot topic was religion. The 1890 prospectus for the school had four principles: "to develop the greatest possible dexterity of mind and body. To impart as much useful knowledge to him as possible. To teach him healthful and manly habits. To aid him in forming an earnest and upright character." But a century later, the elite Cleveland families were not culturally similar enough (thanks to "diversity") to agree on a set of moral goals, let alone these goals. What about the handicapped, for whom physical and mental dexterity might be out of reach? What about the ones who can't learn good? What is a manly habit and who is to say the men should be manly? So the headmaster, who was culturally Christian, and the Religions and Ethics Chair, who was an Episcopal priest, run into a lot of resistance from the students (and faculty) of other faiths. The headmaster points out: "Not too long ago, there would have been great unease in the community if a school leader was thought not to be religious. This suspicion of religion is a late-twentieth-century phenomenon, a product of our age, and I don't think it represents progress." One other fun thing about reading this 25 year old book was looking up the students he mentions or profiles. Take Nick Caserio - "one of the best athletes in the school" - who only got 880 (combined) on the SAT. Even with the headmaster's pull they weren't able to get him into Middlebury, so he went to John Carroll University. Now he's the GM of the Texans football team.
  • WASPS: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy (2/5) We have been interested in the decline of the WASPS - why did northern Europeans lose the country to other ethnic group(s) between CW and WWI? It is an important question because the end of the WASPS meant the end of liberty in the United States, and the beginning of the replacement of a constitutional republic with communism. Unfortunately, this book does not shed any light. It is gossipy, which is not useful, because the 4th/5th/6th generation descendants of founders and fur trading fortunes being dissolute homosexuals was more likely to be a symptom than a cause of the decline. A proper accounting would look at: who displaced them and how they did it. I think the book "Supermob" gives a great account of the tail end of the process, but not the beginning. Similarly, Fussell's Class describes the symptoms of the tail end for the WASPs. I don't think he even realized this. The extortionate income/estate taxes combined with double digit %-inflation meant that the WASP fortunes were close to exhausted at the time of his writing. Rich people normally do own cultural artifacts for multiple generations, but for everything to be threadbare, and to pretend that this was a status statement, I think was a strategic arms limitation strategy among WASPs to control their spending status displays and stretch their fortunes out longer.
  • Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (4/5) Our guest correspondent PdxSag noticed this one on Twitter: "An entire functioning society of autistics!" The Pirahã Indians of the Brazilian Amazon jungle speak a language with "no phatic communication whatsoever. No 'hello', no 'please' or 'thank you' or even 'I'm sorry'; only statements of fact, questions, or commands." Quote: "The Pirahã are supremely gifted in all the ways necessary to ensure their continued survival in the jungle: they know the usefulness and location of all important plants in their area; they understand the behavior of local animals and how to catch and avoid them; and they can walk into the jungle naked, with no tools or weapons, and walk out three days later with baskets of fruit, nuts, and small game." The author is a linguist who was a Christian missionary, sent to try to translate the Bible into Pirahán. Their language lacks words for abstract concepts, or generalizations detached from immediate experience. That means that it doesn't have words for numbers or colors. The Pirahã only speak of things they've seen, or have heard of from a first-hand witness, which meant that the attempt to convert them to Christianity was unsuccessful. Everett eventually concluded that Chomsky's ideas about universal grammar, and the universality of recursion in particular (at least understood in terms of self-embedded structures), are falsified by Pirahã.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A proper accounting would look at: who displaced them and how they did it.

It is a cliche', but, well, the reason is because it has enormous explanatory power.

I submit The Creature from Jekyll Island. May be a future book review?