Monthly Archives: October 2014

Book Review: Cholera The Biography

Book Cover

Cholera : The Biography

History is much more than naming Kings, Presidents, and Generals. In “Cholera : The Biography” Christopher Hamlin looks at the ‘life’ of the disease that came to be known as Cholera and along the way manages to show us the development of medical science over the last two hundred years. Before Cholera there was cholera, western medicines name for the “stomach flu”, a 24 hour bout of diarrhea. In 1817 British physicians serving in colonial India noticed a new cholera. It came on with a feeling of unease then came violent vomiting and diarrhea, muscle cramps, the patient’s skin became bluish and their heartbeat unsteady and, in most cases, they died, all with within a single day.

Western medicine, essentially the same medicine practiced by Hippocrates and Galen in ancient Greece, saw disease as the imbalance of the bodies “humors” brought on by foul odors, a change in the air, or sin. Vomiting and diarrhea were good things, the body trying to restore balance. Cholera in India was obviously a result of “filth”, a catchall term for “not like us”. As cholera came closer to Paris and London, it became clear, to the physicians of Paris and London, that the cause was less “filth” and more the judgement of God.

Hamlin covers the changing attitudes toward cholera, the evolving and devolving of cholera treatment by physicians as they groped for treatments and causes and fought to maintain their status and egos. He also looks at the range of government responses to the epidemics, dancing between protecting population and protecting trade.

Cholera was the subject of what was possibly the first “disease biography”, Norman Longmate’s “King Cholera : The Biography of a Disease”, in 1966 and has been featured in other medical histories since then. I now understand why. It spans, and may have helped initiate, the scientific revolution in medical science. At the time Longmate wrote his work Cholera was seen as defeated. We had treatments, we knew the cause of it, we had preventive measures that worked. However the physicians of 1817 also knew that disease was brought on by foul odors, a change in the air, or, possibly, sin. Advances in medical science since the 1960s have changed our medical understanding as much as it changed between 1817 and 1960.

Hamlin’s writing is often fun to read, as when he is explaining how the authorities believed that since “a feeling of unease” was the first symptom reported they believed that a “feeling of unease” may be the cause of cholera. “Worry about fear (or fear of worry) was often at the heart of these {governments}efforts. You might make hysteria a crime, as McGrew notes of Russia, but any attempt to stop it would cause it.” A little science background helps but is not really necessary. At times having a strong stomach helps, there is much discussion of fecal-oral transmission and, obviously, diarrhea.

I learned quite a bit about the advancement of science in the 19th and 20th centuries from this book. Even better I came to understand the present day better after Hamlin compared the debate over the causes of cholera to the climate change debate. Neither side is likely to be convinced until the other essentially proves a negative. “Cholera : The Biography” is perhaps the most enlightening history I have read in the last year and with Ebola in the news seeing how difficult it is to quarantine a disease and how economics and ego can put ahead of public health is cause for concern.

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Book Review: How to Lie with Statistics

Book cover

How to Lie With Statistics

For a book to remain in print for fifty years it must be good. This one was originally published in 1954 and, as far as I can tell, has been in print ever since. A book less than 150 pages long, generously seeded with amusing cartoons is not what you would expect to find on a graduate school reading list but that is exactly where I learned about this one. Darrell Huff and illustrator Irving Geis produced a little marvel with their book “How to Lie with Statistics”. As Huff points out early in the book a cat-burglar who writes a how-to memoir in prison does not do it for other cat-burglars. They already know how to burgle. The intended audience is people who do not want to be burgled, or, in the case of this book, lied to.

Huff is careful to spread the blame for lying statistics widely, overeager researchers, poor information gathering by statisticians, advertising people willing to apply lipstick of any color to their pig, journalists looking for a marketable story. The fact that most of these lies are “true” is not ignored. For me the most memorable story he uses to make this clear is the restaurateur who explains his rabbit-burger is 50% rabbit, he mixes it in a 1 to 1 ratio with horse-meat. One rabbit to one horse.

After nine chapters of explaining how easy it is for statistics, charts, graphs, and percentages to lie the last chapter makes a serious attempt to explaining how we can avoid being lied to by asking a few simple questions like, who says so, how does he know, what’s missing, and does it make sense. As Huff points out it is important to be able to detect these lies, not just because of misleading advertisements but because we have elections every few years.

As an amateur historian who is just a few years younger than this book I have to admit I enjoyed the window into the past that the many cartoons offered. Yes, we really dressed and smoked like that. The books age was a little disconcerting when Huff dissected an article about the income of the “average” Yale graduate. Going to Yale hardly seemed worth the $25,000 income it offered until I ran it through an inflation calculator, then it made sense. This book is one of the most informative and fun books I have read in a long, long time. It was informative not because I know nothing about statistics, I do, it was informative because neither of the classes I have taken on statistics covered how easy it is to miss-use or misunderstand exactly what it is the numbers say. If you do not like being lied to, consider reading this book.

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Book Review: “Of all the gin joints : stumbling through Hollywood history

"Of all the gin Joints"

“Of all the gin Joints”: stumbling through Hollywood history”

When I asked to review Mark Bailey and Edward Hemingway’s book “Of all the gin joints : stumbling through Hollywood history” for LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program I needed a light, entertaining read. Bailey’s book is exactly that, it is a collection of stories of alcohol inspired bad behavior among Hollywood’s biggest names mixed with the background of some of their favorite “watering holes” Divided into four eras, silent cinema, the studio’s, post-war, and “modern” by which they mean 1960 to 1979 there is a lot of overlap and many names keep reappearing. It was revealing to see that a silent screen actress used the same hangover remedy they featured in the movie “Flight”, an 8-ball of cocaine. This was a fun book that is easy to read a bit at a time.

There were many illustrations, caricatures of the celebrities and drawings of the bars, restaurants, and hotels mentioned and, as the cover claims, over forty drink recipes are included. This is where I was disappointed with the book. I would have rather seen photos of the old buildings than drawings but I understand the expense in licensing and printing photos. However whoever did the layout of the drink recipe needs to take a class in technical writing. At least that is where I learned not to use a background that interferes with reading the printing. With the red and white striped background the white letters is very hard to make out when the print is small, as when there are fractions in the recipe.

It was a fun book to read although I have to agree with the authors that he silent era seemed the most fun. That era of sex and pranks gave way to generations of nasty violent drunks that were more disappointing than entertaining.

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