Proof: The Science of Booze.

Adam Rogers’ book Proof: The Science of Booze delivers handsomely on its title: It’s a book about adult beverages, and it will make you want to go drink some, but it also gives quite a bit of information on the (light) science involved in the production of and flavors behind those libations, especially distilled spirits. While some of the stories around booze manufacturing get too bogged down in operational details, there are also magnificent anecdotes within the book, including the best mystery you’ll ever read where the culprit is a fungus.

Rogers divides the book into eight chapters, each revolving around some essential element of alcohol production – yeast, sugar, fermentation, distillation, aging – or its consumption – smell/taste, body and brain, and the hangover. That gives him the latitude to talk about just about anything he wants that’s related to the manufacture of sauce and suds, including but hardly limited to some deep dives on what we do and don’t know about the science of such beverages.

Alcoholic beverages, especially distilled spirits – often called “hard liquors,” produced by putting some alcohol-containing mixture through a still, leading to whiskey (from fermented grain mash, like that created in beer production), brandy (typically from wine), rum (from fermented molasses or sugar cane), vodka (usually potatoes), and so on – have dozens or even hundreds of aromatic and flavor compounds, some of which still aren’t identified, that give them their distinctive tastes and smells. When you sip an aged spirit, often whiskey but applicable to rum and brandy as well, you may pick up “notes” much like you’d identify in good wines or coffees; those notes are specific chemicals or combinations of chemicals formed during the aging process, sometimes on their own and sometimes due to the interactions between the spirit and the wooden (sometimes charred wooden) casks in which they’re housed.

Rogers explores this angle, and many others, with visits to artisanal producers of these various beverages, moving his writing lens from wide shot to close-up and back, extrapolating from individual producers’ experiences to discuss larger points that he can back up (sometimes) with science. He talks about the obsessions distillers have with the shapes of their stills, even trying to reproduce flaws in old stills when it comes time to replace them with new ones. He talks to a barrel maker – apparently this is about as dying as a dying art can be without being, you know, dead – about the specifics of manufacture and the demands of clients. He gets into the lactones formed during the aging of whiskey in wood barrels, a subject so critical it’s even been the topic of academic research. He also compares production of alcoholic beverages from eastern and western cultures; where Europeans relied heavily on Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Japanese beverages such as sake and shōchū come from a mold called koji (Aspergillus oryzae).

Speaking of molds and fungi, the best passage in Proof is, by far, the mystery of the whiskey fungus, practically a detective story about one man’s quest to identify a specific organism growing on buildings near a particular whiskey distillery. The distilling term “angel’s share” refers to the portion of a distilled spirit lost to evaporation during the aging process, usually water but sometimes a mixture of water and ethanol, the latter of which attracts certain fungi that will be found growing on surfaces where the evaporated alcohol may condense. The story Rogers tells is told in greater scientific detail in this free Mycologia journal article – you probably still have that back issue at home – which describes the mycologists’ development of a new genus to encompass these molds, including Baudoinia compniacensis, now identified as the “angel’s share fungus.” Rogers infuses the story with a bit more drama than the journal piece does, of course.

Rogers even gets involved in the debate over wine ratings, where the American Association of Wine Economists (led in part by the perfectly-named economist Richard Quandt) is among the leaders in arguing that the judgment of wine experts like Robert Parker is too subjective to have any value. Quandt and Orley Ashenfelter, who also appears in Ian Ayres’ book Super Crunchers, are in effect the leading sabermetricians of oenology, whereas Parker is … I don’t know, Old Scout or something. Quandt even wrote his own manifesto comparable to Percentage Baseball or early Bill James Abstracts, called “On Wine Bullshit“. Rogers takes a somewhat middle road here, pointing out that truly objective wine measures are impossible until we’ve identified all of the molecules responsible for their flavors and aromas, but I thought he sided with the quants – as will many of you, I’d wager.

As only a casual drinker but one who greatly enjoys a well-aged rum and a well-mixed cocktail, I found Proof (which I listened to as an audiobook) both entertaining and informative, aside from the occasional tangent into manufacturing minutiae. I wish he’d spent a little more time on spirits beyond whiskey, but brandy gets a fair shake and I may merely be expressing my pro-rum bias. If you tipple, you’ll enjoy this book.

The Golden Ticket.

Lance Fortnow wrote a piece for Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery in 2009 on the state of the P vs NP problem, one of the most important unsolved problems in both mathematics and computer science. That article led to the short (~175 page) book The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible, which I recently read in its Kindle edition (it’s also on iBooks); Fortnow does a solid job of making an abstruse problem accessible to a wider audience, even engaging in some flights of fancy describing a world in which P equals NP … which is almost certainly not true (but we haven’t proven that yet either!).

P vs NP, which was first posed by Kurt Gödel in 1956, is one of the seven Millennium Problems posed by the Clay Mathematics Institute in 2000; solve one and you get a million bucks. One of them, proving the Poincaré Conjecture (which relates to the shape of the universe), was solved in 2010. But if you solve P vs NP affirmatively, you can probably solve the remaining five and collect a cool $6 million for your problems. You’ll find a box of materials under your desk.

Of course, this is far from an easy question to solve. P and NP are two classes of problems in computer science, and while it seems probable that they are not equivalent, no one’s been able to prove that yet. P is the set of all problems that can be quickly (in deterministic polynomial time – so, like, before the heat death of the universe) solved by an efficient algorithm; NP is the set of all problems whose solutions, once found, can be quickly verified by an efficient algorithm. For example, factoring a huge composite number is in NP: There is no known efficient algorithm to factor a large number, but once we’ve found two factors, a computer can quickly verify that the solution is correct. The “traveling salesman problem” is also in NP; it’s considered NP-complete, meaning that it is in NP and in NP-hard, the set of all problems which are at least as hard as the hardest problems in NP. We can find good solutions to many NP-hard problems using heuristics, but we do not have efficient algorithms to find the optimal solution to such a problem.

If P does in fact equal NP, then we can find efficient algorithms for all problems in NP, even those problems that are NP-complete, and Fortnow details all of these consequences, both positive and negative. One major negative consequence, and one in which Fortnow spends a significant amount of time, would be the effective death of most current systems of cryptography, including public-key cryptography and one-way hashing functions. (In fact, the existence of one-way functions as a mathematical truth is still an unsolved problem; if they exist, then P does not equal NP.) But the positive consequences are rather enormous; Fortnow gives numerous examples, the most striking one is the potential for quickly developing individualized medicines to treat cancer and other diseases where protein structure prediction is an obstacle in quickly crafting effective treatments. He also works in a baseball story, where the game has been dramatically changed across the board by the discovery that P=NP – from better scheduling to accurate ball/strike calls (but only in the minors) to the 2022 prohibition of the use of computers in the dugout. It’s Shangri-La territory, but serves to underscore the value of an affirmative proof: If we can solve NP problems in deterministic polynomial time (as opposed to nondeterministic polynomial time, where NP gets its name), our ability to tease relationships out of huge databases and find solutions to seemingly intractable logical and mathematical problems is far greater than we realized.

Of course, P probably doesn’t equal NP, because that would just be too easy. That doesn’t mean that NP-complete problems are lost causes, but that those who work in those areas – operations research, medicine, cryptography, and so on – have to use other methods to find solutions that are merely good rather than optimal. Those methods include using heuristics that simplify the problem, approximating solutions, and solving a different but related problem that’s in P. If Fortnow falls short at all in this book, it’s in devoting so much more time to the brigadoon where P=NP and less to the likely real world quandary of solving NP-complete problems in a universe where P≠NP. He also gives over a chapter to the still theoretical promise of quantum computing, including its applications to cryptography (significant) and teleportation (come on), but it seems like a digression from the core question in The Golden Ticket. We don’t know if P equals NP, but as Fortnow reiterates in the conclusion, even thinking about the question and possible approaches to proving it in either direction affect work in various fields that underpin most of our current technological infrastructure. If you’ve ever bought anything online, or even logged into web-based email, you’ve used a bit of technology that only works because, as of right now, we can’t prove that P=NP. For a very fundamental question, the P vs NP problem is scarcely known, and Fortnow does a strong job of presenting it in a way that many more readers can understand it.

If this sounds like it’s up your alley or you’ve already read it, I also suggest John Derbyshire’s Prime Obsession, about the Riemann Hypothesis, another of the Clay Millennium Institute’s six as-yet unsolved problems.

Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity.

I knew David Foster Wallace was brilliant when I read Infinite Jest, a wildly imaginative, sprawling novel that showcased DFW’s prodigious vocabulary as well as his deep knowledge of a variety of seemingly unrelated subjects. Even with that background, I was flabbergasted by Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, in which DFW delves into abstract set theory and other similarly abstruse topics from the history of math, explaining much of it lucidly and with humor until he gets too close to the finish to avoid relying on the reader to understand more of set theory than most readers will.

The book is less an explanation of the number infinity – which isn’t a single number, at least not in the sense that 1 or 5 or π or √2 – than the history of mathematicians’ attempts to deal with it. DFW starts with the Greeks, where most math stories begin anyway, even though the Greeks didn’t like or accept infinity or zero or the irrationals. (Zero came from Indian mathematicians, and reached Europe by way of Arab mathematicians quite a bit later.) The Greeks encountered questions around infinity, particularly in the famous paradoxes of Zeno, who liked to play semantic games around what we now refer to as convergent series – a sum of a series of terms that never ends but that approaches a specific limit as the number of terms grows. (In a related note, DFW fails to answer the question of how Zeno never got punched in the face for coming up with these paradoxes.) This discomfort with infinity continued through the writings of Aristotle and the Catholic Church’s influence over all manner of academic research, which included the idea that infinity was the sole province of God rather than of man, meaning we never got anywhere with infinity until the end of the Dark Ages and the separation of mathematics and religion during the Renaissance.

The pace of the narrative picks up at that point thanks to the explosion of advances in math and related areas of science. The empirical foundation that limited mathematical explorations until the 1600s is tossed aside in favor of more abstract thinking, with appearances by Kepler, Newton, and my homeboy Galileo, as trigonometry and eventually calculus displace geometry as the central philosophy guiding mathematical thinking and what we now think of as number theory. DFW presents an extraordinarily clear explanation of calculus, especially the infitesimals that underpin differentiation and integration and, as the name implies, connect it to the main topic of the book. The goal here is to get to Georg Cantor, the brilliant and mentally ill mathematician whose work remains the foundation of modern set theory and who was the first to recognize that there are different degrees of infinity (ℵ0 and ℵ1, at the least) but died unable to prove that those two infinities had no other infinities between them.

DFW’s writing is clear and witty thoughout the book, with many examples drawn from a former professor of his that help elucidate many of the more recondite concepts around infinity. His explanations of one-to-one mapping and Cantor’s diagonalization method of proving that real numbers are nondenumerable are outstanding, especially the latter, which I knew was true but still wanted to disbelieve because it just sounds impossible. Unfortunately, in the last 40-50 pages of the book, DFW gets so far down the set theory rabbit-hole that I found it increasingly hard to follow, such as discussions of ordinality versus cardinality and power sets of power sets. I got off the math train in college after multivariate calculus with vectors, in part because continuing meant pushing into more abstract areas – linear algebra was the next course, which starts the shift from empirical math to abstract – but that left me a little lost as Everything and More slid into Cantor’s work on the various infinities and work on numerability of sets.

Cantor’s transfinite numbers are the real goal of the narrative here, rather than what I would call the lay opinion of ∞ (what Cantor referred to as “absolute infinity”). A transfinite number is infinite in that it is greater than all of the finite numbers, but has some properties in common with the finites. If you’re familiar with the ℵ0 I mentioned above – the first transfinite cardinal number, corresponding to the number of members (cardinality) of the set of natural numbers (non-negative integers). Cantor’s continuum hypothesis, which appeared first on the famous list of unsolved math problems David Hilbert presented in 1900, posited that there was no set with cardinality (number of members) between the natural numbers and the real numbers (the cardinality of which Cantor designated as ℵ1). The hypothesis itself may be unprovable, at least within the confines of Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory … which DFW mentions but doesn’t explain, concluding instead with the explanation that later work by Kurt Gödel (the incompleteness guy) and Paul Cohen (who proved that the hypothesis and the ZFC’s axiom of choice were independent) set the question aside without really solving it. At least, I think that’s what he said, because I was just barely treading water by the final page. Which also made me wonder if all of these reviewers quoted as giving the book raves actually finished and understood the whole thing; I imagine the number of people who have sufficient math background to follow DFW down to the bitter end is pretty small.

Apropos of nothing else, the biggest laugh I got from the book was when DFW referred to a mathematician as a world-class pleonast, which is the pot writing a three-page letter to the editor about the mote in the kettle’s eye.

Next up: Ned Beauman’s 2012 novel The Teleportation Accident, recommended by a fellow bibliophile I met in New York in August.

The Golden Ratio.

Some recent ESPN links: Analyses of the Jays/Astros ten-player trade and the Brett Myers trade, as well as a big post on players I’ve scouted in the AZL over the last week, including Jorge Soler. The Conversation under the Myers piece has been rather bizarre, as a few (presumably male) readers are saying I shouldn’t have brought up Myers’ 2006 arrest on domestic violence charges. Needless to say, I think these complaints are spurious.

I’m a big fan of mainstream books about mathematics, most of which would probably be best classified as “history of math” even if they’re discussing a currently unsolved problem, such as John Derbyshire’s excellent book on the Riemann Hypothesis, Prime Obsession. (And yes, I’m aware of Derbyshire’s political writing, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Riemann book is very well done.) Mario Livio’s book The Golden Ratio: The Story of φ, the World’s Most Astonishing Number was on my wish list for a long time because it seemed like a perfect blend of the academic and applied branches of mathematics, as the irrational number φ appears in numerous places in nature and (I thought) art. Unfortunately, Livio’s book spends more time talking about where φ is not than about where it is, making this more of a book of mythbusting than of math.

Livio does provide a solid introduction to φ, an irrational number equal to (1 + √5)/2 = 1.6180339887… that has several interesting properties, including:

* φ2 is equal to φ + 1, or 2.6180339887…
* 1/φ is equal to φ – 1, or 0.6180339887…
* If you take any line segment AB and place a point C on it such that the ratio of the longer half to the shorter half is equal to the ratio of the entire segment to the longer half, the ratio in question will be equal to φ
* The ratio between consecutive terms in the Fibonacci sequence – the series 0, 1, 1, 2, where each successive term is equal to the sum of the two terms before it, thus continuing with 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, ad infinitum – approaches φ. The ratio between the 17th and 16th terms is already 1.61800328…
* φ is also the result of the peculiar expression

The golden ratio also appears in many polygons and polyhedrons of interest not just to mathematicians but to artists, architects, and even botanists, as it appears in the spacing of leaves around the stems of many plants. But interest in the ratio has spurred no end of specious or outright fictitious claims about its appearance, including an oft-repeated one about its inclusion in the dimensions of the Parthenon (obtained by gaming the measurements to achieve the desired result) and another claiming Leonardo da Vinci used it in the Mona Lisa (similarly bogus). Livio devotes so much of the book to debunking these and other claims that by the time he gets around to discussing the golden ratio’s actual appearances in art, architecture, and nature, he’s devalued his subject by spending too little time explaining where φ is and too much time explaining where it ain’t.

Next up: I’m a bit behind here, having already finished Michael Ruhlman’s superb The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America, the book that first established him as one of the best writers on food and cooking today.

Folks, This Ain’t Normal.

I’m not a big fan of polemics in general, since, regardless of subject matter, they all tend to share two traits: They are poorly written and lightly evidenced. Joel Salatin’s Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World fits that description perfectly, with a complete lack of footnotes and scant detail even in anecdotes that should, in theory, help prove his points, and while Salatin is clearly a bright guy, he’s no writer, and whoever edited his book didn’t do him many favors. Yet despite those glaring flaws, and the clear bias with which he writes (one to which I’m sympathetic), there’s still a fair amount of value to be had from reading Folks… because of the questions his arguments on agriculture and our modern, unsustainable food supply will raise in your mind.

Joel Salatin is a self-described “environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer,” as well as a libertarian, a Christian, and to some degree a bit of a chauvinist, so 350 pages of his thoughts will inevitably contain something to aggravate any reader – a tactic, however, that can have the positive effect of causing readers to investigate Salatin’s claims further to try to debunk them. He runs an extensive, traditional farm in rural Virginia called Polyface, pasture-raising livestock; eschewing the use of pesticides, antibiotics, and genetically modified crops; and employing a holistic approach to land management that relies on natural processes and diets to maintain soil quality, limit water usage, and minimize his carbon footprint.

Salatin follows three main tracks, ignoring some of the extraneous rants in the book such as his thoughts on child-rearing, that are relevant to the consumer:

  1. He explains why industrially-produced food is inferior in quality, safety, and environmental impact to food from individual farmers practicing his style of agriculture.
  2. He blames government regulators, generally in cahoots with large-scale industrial food producers, for masking the true costs of industrially-produced food, making it less cost-effective for small-scale farmers to start and grow their businesses, and limiting those local farmers’ access to markets through suffocating regulations. He even saves some ire for the government’s relationship with Big Oil, since cheap fuel distorts the market for local food, to say nothing of cheap fertilizers.
  3. And he ends every chapter with advice to the consumer on how to improve his/her impact on the food supply, including many admonitions to grow as much of your own produce as you can, as well as to raise chickens in your backyard for their eggs*, feeding them kitchen scraps and using their manure for compost.

* One of our daughter’s best friends in kindergarten has chickens in her backyard, and her mom gave us a half-dozen of the eggs last week. I have never come across any egg with shells that strong, and it was the first time I’d ever seen a greenish egg, which apparently means the hen was an Araucana. The yolks were also very well-defined. If my daughter and I weren’t both so allergic to feathers, I’d set up a coop right away.

As I mentioned earlier, however, Folks, This Ain’t Normal ain’t a great read. He backs up virtually none of what he says unless he can discuss a specific experience at Polyface; at one point, he mentions a centrally-planned city in China that grew up practically overnight, with 250,000 people and gardens on nearly every rooftop, but never mentions one minor detail – the city’s name – without which the story is much tougher to verify. You may nod your head at first to his arguments about corrupt regulators, market externalities, nanny-state policies, or the hijacking of the term “organic,” but his arguments consistently lack evidence. I think most of what he says is right – our government is way too involved in the food supply, and our policies on food and oil have led to poor land usage, soil mismanagement, the inevitability of water crises, and substandard products at the grocery store* – but it would be tough for me to carry out any of these arguments myself based solely on his book.

*Another rant: Have you ever had a truly pasture-raised chicken? The chicken breasts are small, while the legs are larger, because the chickens are more active, building muscle in the thighs and drumsticks (well, what eventually become the drumsticks), while burning off the calories that, in a caged bird, would otherwise lead to larger breasts. (Stop snickering.) I happen to prefer dark poultry meat anyway, since it has more fat, leading to better texture and less dryness, but it’s also a lot more natural; industrally-raised birds’ organs can’t keep up with the muscle growth in the breasts, so they must be slaughtered earlier so they don’t die of organ failure. And, as it turns out, pasture-raised cows and chickens produce more healthful milk and eggs than feedlot or caged livestock does, just as compost-raised produce contains more nutrients than fertilizer-raised produce.

Folks, This Ain’t Normal at least encouraged me to continue what I’ve started in our yard, composting and growing regionally and seasonally appropriate crops, and to be smarter about what I buy and where I buy it. Salatin mentioned The Cornucopia Institute, which ranks organic dairies and organic egg producers on how true their claims of organic practices are. (In Arizona, the executive summary is: Organic Valley and Clover = good, Horizon and Shamrock = bad.) They’ve also led the fight on behalf of almond farmers who want to sell raw almonds to the public, winning a lawsuit allowing California almond farmers to challenge a USDA regulation that forbids the sale of almonds that haven’t been treated with a toxic fumigant or at very high heat, a regulation in response to a salmonella outbreak at one of the nation’s largest industrial nut producers. This kind of policy – where the sins of a large corporation lead to regulations with fixed costs that crush smaller producers – is exactly what Salatin targets when he rants about intrusive, anti-farmer regulations. I had never heard of the Cornucopia Institute before picking up his book, or many of the other books he mentions (such as Gene Logsdon’s memorably titled Holy Shit: Managing Manure To Save Mankind), so Salatin’s book did at least achieve one goal – forcing me to reexamine the food my family eats, from how it’s grown to where we get it. But had he researched and supported his book with more hard data or secondary sources, Folks, This Ain’t Normal might have become a classic in its narrow field.

Next up: As I mentioned on Twitter, I’m working my way through Raymond Carver’s short story collection Where I’m Calling From – and yes, I’m aware of the controversy over his editor’s role in changing some of the text.

Empires of Food.

My 2700-word column on the rehab process from Tommy John surgery, with comments from a TJ surgeon, a rehab specialist, and three pitches who had the operation, is now up for Insiders.

The point of Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, by Evan D. G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas, is a good one: Civilizations, like ours today, have risen during times of plenty, periods where favorable weather and trading booms have led to rapid growth of populations and cities, but that they tend to fall, often catastrophically, when the food supply is interrupted. We are nearing the end, they argue, of an unusually good era for agriculture, but a cataclysm approaches as climate change, irresponsible farming techniques, water waste, and profiteering all catch up to us and put our future food security at risk. These are all issues that we as consumers should consider when deciding what to eat and where to get it, but a book that’s full of histrionic statements like “cancerous is exactly the state of our twenty-first-century global food empire,” factual errors, and serious omissions isn’t the way to argue the point.

The point of Empires of Food is to show readers the history of the food supply and how civilizations rose and fell with their sources of food, and in that regard Fraser and Rimas largely succeed in their efforts. They use the story of Francesco Carletti (link in Italian; Carletti’s memoir, My voyage around the world, is available used on amazon), a Florentine merchant whose disastrous eight-year trip around the world brought him into contact with many trading societies of the late 1500s and early 1600s, as the narrative hook to connect the various chapters, each describing a key variable in the construction of “food empires.” Those variables are fundamental to agriculture, husbandry, and food commerce – water, soil, distribution channels, refrigeration – with the final additions of “blood” (not just war, but subjugation and oppression in prime growing areas of the world) and money before their one chapter with an iota of hope, describing movements toward organic farming, slow food, and fair trade. The framework is here for a powerful wakeup call to anyone willing to step back and examine his larder and his table.

Unfortunately, when it comes to connecting problems to prescriptions, the authors fall back on hysteria and run light on facts. You can’t do an entire chapter on the declining quality of soil, including descriptions of the effects that heavy tilling and overfarming have on soil erosion rates, without even a single mention of no-till farming as a potential solution, even a partial one, to the very real problem at hand. Similarly, you can’t talk about nitrogen loss through waste and erosion without discussing the same problem of phosphorus, an absolute gating factor on the amount of life that this planet can sustain. (Untreated sewage dumped into the ocean sends loads of phosphorus to to the bottom of the sea, where it’s of little use to life on land.)

The authors’ sins aren’t limited to science or agriculture. They openly praise Marxism with nary a mention of the food shortages that have plagued every society that implemented (always via political repression) Marxist economic policies, including famines in North Korea and milk rationing for Cubans over the age of eight. Meanwhile, they excoriate capitalism and misstate Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” by accusing him of advocating cost-plus pricing. Rather than point out how government subsidies can distort market decisions, or argue for taxes that reflect the externalities they (correctly) point out are not reflected in free-market prices, they want to throw capitalism overboard and send us back to the Middle Ages. They’re similarly dismissive of comparative advantage without considering its wealth-generating capabilities – if you want to argue that localism trumps comparative advantage, acknowledge the latter’s benefits and explain why the former is in our best collective interests.

There are even the sort of tiny errors that don’t necessarily affect the larger point of the book but serve to undermine the credibility of the text because checking these facts is so easy yet wasn’t done. The authors repeat the dubious story of Roman commanders salting the earth around Carthage (per Wikipedia, which has a solid source for this, “ no ancient sources exist documenting this. The Carthage story is a later invention, probably modelled on the story of Shechem.”) They also mention the million-plus city of “San Jose, Texas,” which is probably news to the residents of the San Jose in California or to the residents of San Antonio, Texas.

The intent of Empires of Food is a good one, I think – raising awareness of the fragility of our current infrastructure for feeding the world. It’s certainly relevant to me out here in Arizona, where we depend on dwindling water resources and import much of our food because the local environment isn’t ideal for agriculture (and a lot of local farms out here are selling out to developers). But it’s relevant to anyone in the U.S. because, even though we’re not necessarily the world’s greatest offenders (China is the real villain of the book, although the authors seem too skittish to say so explicitly), we are in the best position to do something about it. The problem with the book is that it gets sloppy and devolves too often into a polemic rather than sticking to well-argued advocacy.

Next up: Nearly done with Charles Bukowski’s bizarre twist on the detective novel, Pulp.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

I mentioned this on Twitter earlier, but The Wire: The Complete Series on DVD is just $73 today on amazon through that link. Disclaimer: I don’t own it, because I’m buying episodes to watch on my iPad (which will cost me more in the long run, actually).

Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (currently just $8 in paperback on amazon) is, by far, the best nonfiction book I’ve read since The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, weaving together a scientific breakthrough, a personal tragedy, and Skloot’s own difficult effort in gathering the information required to write the book into a single compelling narrative that succeeds despite the lack of a definitive resolution or even clear “good” and “bad” sides to the central conflict.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman who died very young of cervical cancer in 1951, after receiving radiation treatments at Johns Hopkins that started too late to save her very aggressive form of the disease. A researcher at the school had been trying for some time to grow a long-lasting culture of human cells without success, but the sample he took from Lacks’ cancer turned out to be, as the book’s title implies, immortal, launching a scientific revolution that is partially responsible for many medical miracles we take for granted today – and a commercial revolution from the sale of these “HeLa” cells that has paid her descendents a grand total of zero dollars.

In 1951, there were no laws on medical privacy nor were there laws or even good guidelines on informing patients about what might happen to tissues or fluids collected from them during treatment; a doctor or hospital could use extra samples for research and the patient wouldn’t even know about it, let alone require compensation. A lengthy medical case decided in 1990, Moore v. Regents of the University of California, would later establish that the patient has no right to financial remuneration from such usage (unless, of course, he established those rights in advance, such as by patenting any unique genes*), but in Lacks’ era there were no such rules, nor even understanding that these biological samples could have substantial financial value. (The researcher in the Moore case, David Golde, comes off as particularly sleazy in Skloot’s retelling. He took his own life in 2004.)

*This part resonated a little more strongly with me, as my daughter and I do share a unique mutation that causes an inborn error of metabolism called 3MCC, in which the third step in the breakdown of the essential amino acid leucine produces the “wrong” waste product. (The disease isn’t unique, but our mutation had not been seen before. We’re special like that.) I’m largely asymptomatic beyond an inability to build muscle mass, but my daughter has been hospitalized once for a metabolic crisis and has now been a vegetarian for almost three years to avoid excessive protein intake. I’m still trying to get an answer from Children’s Hospital in Boston on their policies in this area.

What’s worse in this case, however, is that Lacks’ family – widower, siblings, and children – were completely unaware that her tissues had been taken, were being used in research, or had generated millions of dollars in value for others. The family, still poor, still mostly uneducated, and without health insurance, learned about HeLa in the 1970s, and it created a mixture of emotions ranging from fear to anger to wonder (including whether their mother could “feel” what was being done to these cells) that opens up windows on to racial inequalities, , medical ethics debates, and the conflict between public good and privacy rights.

Skloot herself worked on this book for nearly a decade, largely because the Lacks family, scarred by past media attention and con artists looking to latch on to their plight, resisted her efforts to interview them for the book. She eventually forged a strong friendship with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, a fascinating woman whose emotional growth was probably stunted by losing her mother at such a young age yet who abounds with manic energy that drives her (and Skloot) forward on the research path. Deborah never seems to think of the compensation question, but simply wants to learn about her mother and about what has happened to her cells, perhaps to create a connection that was denied to her when her mother died.

The Lacks family gives the book the narrative structure it needs – the rise of HeLa cells from their origins to a major scientific breakthrough would make for a nice pamphlet, but doesn’t have the drama to drive a work of narrative non-fiction. Following the Lacks family’s struggles from losing Henrietta, from media coverage of the HeLa cells, and from their outrage at how their mother’s cells were used without consent, compensation, or even the correct name (she was often referred to as “Helen Lane” in medical journals), makes the book so powerful. The book requires no knowledge of science beyond a high school biology class, as Skloot provides sufficient explanation of cell structure and replication for anyone to follow along, and her presentation of the ethical issues involved is extremely balanced and surprisingly dispassionate for someone who became very close to the human subjects of her research. As easy as it is to react to the Lacks saga by arguing that her family should at least have been paid after the fact, Skloot points out through her story that it’s not even clear who would pay her (the oncologist who harvested the cells didn’t profit personally from them), and that many of the leaps made through the use of HeLa cells for testing, like Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, relied in no small part on the easy availability of these cells. It’s as complicated as any good story should be, informative, emotionally involving without resorting to sentimentality, and gives you enough of both sides to make you angry and make you question your own outrage as you read.

Five Equations that Changed the World.

My predictions for 2011 went up yesterday. Podcast and chat on Thursday.

Somehow I forgot to review Michael Guillen’s Five Equations that Changed the World
, a very strong look at five equations and the scientists who developed them that’s explained with very little math at all. Guillen’s target is the lay reader, a term which, since I haven’t taken a physics class since 1990, would include me.

The five equations aren’t hard to guess – they are, in the order in which Guillen presents them, Newton’s Universal Law of Gravity, Daniel Bernoulli’s Law of Hydrodynamic Pressure, Faraday’s Law of Electromagnetic Induction, the Second Law of Thermodynamics (discovered by Rudolf Clausius), and, of course, E = mc2, courtesy of Albert Einstein. But rather than just give the reader the equations and their derivations, Guillen crafts a short story around each, with background on each scientist’s life before the discovery*, the process that led to the development of the equation, and a brief epilogue on some major event or subsequent discovery that hinged on the equation itself. (For example, Newton’s law led to the manned mission to the moon, while Einstein’s led, of course, to the atom bomb.)

* So, does a scientist discover an equation, develop it, or something else? He doesn’t invent it, certainly; these are, as far as we know, immutable laws of our universe. I thought about using “unearth” to describe this process, but it seems to mundane, especially for Clausius’ and Einstein’s contributions. I’m open to suggestions here.

Newton’s and Einstein’s stories are rather well-known, I think, so I would say the most interesting sections of the book were the three that those two bookended. Clausius’ story was probably the least familiar to me, as I probably couldn’t have named him if asked. And what made his story interesting was how many other discoveries or developments had to happen along the way for him to be able to articulate his equation – including the invention of the thermometer, the creation of the calorie as both a unit and as a theory for the source of energy, and the life’s work of Julius Robert Mayer, a Bavarian doctor who first expostulated that all the energy in the universe had to add up to the energy that existed at the universe’s start (that is, the First Law of Thermodynamics), only to find himself rejected and ostracized by both the scientific and religious establishments of the time.

The final section of the book, on how Einstein’s theory of relativity led to the development of nuclear weapons, is a bit poignant as Einstein lived to see the destruction and regretted his role in encouraging President Roosevelt to order the development of the bomb. (I would imagine Einstein realized, however, that since the Germans would have eventually developed it themselves, the Manhattan Project was as much as a defensive move as an offensive one, even though it became an offensive weapon when we figured it out first.) Slightly less interesting, to me at least, was the extent of the family squabbles in the section on Bernoulli, where a pattern of fathers becoming jealous of talented sons tended to repeat itself in a way that would probably land them on Maury Povich today.

If you like the sound of this book but want something mathier, check out my review of Prime Obsession, a book about the development of the Riemann Hypothesis, perhaps the leading unsolved problem in mathematics today.


I apologize for the long delay between posts; we moved into our house last week and are finally settled, although far from unpacked.

I tweeted earlier today that I’ll be joining ESPN’s Baseball Today podcast as a co-host three days a week starting in mid-March. And, if you missed it, my preseason ranking of the top 50 prospects for this year’s Rule 4 draft went up last Thursday.

Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim’s Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won aims to be the Freakonomics of sports, a marketing angle made quite clear from the cover quote from Steven Levitt that calls Scorecasting the best book of its kind since Freakonomics, which is funny, since Levitt co-wrote that book. (And one wonders if the authors share an agent or an editor or something else.) My cynicism over the quotes aside, Scorecasting is a fun read, one that does a better job of challenging conventional wisdom than providing hard answers to hard questions, the sort of book that could make an old-school sports fan rethink some of his positions without requiring a background in behavioral economics. If you’re here, however, the odds are good that your mind is already open, in which case Scorecasting is more of an enjoyable lark but might leave you looking for more serious analysis than what the authors offer in a book aimed at the mainstream audience.

Wertheim and Moskowitz attack a number of questions over the course of the book, with the only unifying theme that these are questions that can be examined (if not actually answered) through some very rudimentary statistical analysis. For example, they examine the potential causes of home-field advantage, which is fairly persistent within sports but doesn’t seem to tie to attendance; whether icing the kicker is an effective strategy (I won’t reveal their answer, but have always found the practice unsportsmanlike); or whether momentum exists. The template for each essay – some just two or three pages, others thirty or forty – is standard: Explain the question and the conventional wisdom on the subject, discuss how they operationalized the variables, then present the results in text and graphical format, usually just showing some evidence telling us whether there’s a correlation between the independent and dependent variable. For example, in the momentum chapter (“The Myth of the Hot Hand”), they look at basketball, defining what a “hot” period of time constitutes (one, two, five, and ten-minute samples), then look at point differentials over the one, two, five, and ten minute periods immediately following a “hot” period. It’s not rigorous, but it will likely sway some of your opinions even if it doesn’t convince you.

The best essays in the book combine the Freakonomics-style analysis with interesting stories, like the chapter on the history of trades in the NFL draft (“Off the Chart”), which discusses the famous Mike McCoy chart on how to value draft picks in trade talks. The authors describe the chart’s genesis, early successes, propagation, and loss of usefulness once everyone had it, along with some potential explanations for the psychology behind incorrect valuations of draft picks. (Yet another reason why I’d like to see MLB allow teams to trade draft picks: It’s another way for smart front offices to create value.) Another essay (“Rounding First”) asks why we see more round numbers in seasonal statistics than you’d expect if the results were normally distributed, pointing to psychological and perhaps financial incentives that drive behavior in situations where the leverage (to the player, not the team) is increased.

Scorecasting is a text for the mass market, which means fewer numbers and more broad brush strokes in the book. I’m not the first to raise this objection, but the way the authors treat results that are merely indicative as if they’re conclusive is offputting if you realize what they’re doing and misleading if you don’t. For one thing, their analytical methods, while valid, are on the superficial side. For another, they often confuse correlation with causation, and even though I often agreed with their arguments on the causes of the effects they discovered, they meld those opinions with statements of statistical facts in a way that just isn’t warranted. It’s a marketing issue – the book wouldn’t sell if they just presented data paired with a lot of “draw your own conclusions” quotes – but it takes what could have been a serious work and makes it a popular one.

And some of their conclusions just aren’t supported by the analysis, at least when it comes to baseball. They offer throwaway comments on how a salary cap would increase parity in baseball without an ounce of evidence to justify the statements. They claim that PEDs improve baseball performance by showing that players who had been suspended for PED usage were more likely to be promoted to the next level, a lousy proxy for multiple reasons and one that makes their conclusion, “In addition to the science, the data support the claim that steroids work,” ignorant on both sides of its comma. I imagine that the authors glossed over similar controversies in other sports, enough that no matter your game of choice you’ll find something in the book to annoy you.

You should read Scorecasting, though, in spite of its shortcomings. Moneyball was equally flawed, perhaps more so, and yet it launched a quiet revolution not just within the industry but within the fan base, an inflection point that I believe saw a major increase in the number of students of the game who began pursuing and publishing their own analyses, with some even finding themselves entering the industry as a result. I could see Scorecasting as a similar spur to innovation in the analysis of sports, and in the way sports are covered. One thing that Scorecasting does confront, without ever explicitly saying so, is ignorance. If you say “X causes Y,” others will look for a way to verify it, so don’t make the statement without trying to verify it yourself.

Alphabet Juice.

The 2011 organizational rankings are up on for Insiders. The two most upset fan bases are Cleveland, because I ranked them 17th; and the Yankees, because I didn’t rank the Red Sox 30th.

> special
“It’s good that they don’t make many players like Albert Pujols, because if there were more, he wouldn’t be so special, and Albert Pujols is very special.” – Murray Chass, The New York Times. See special.

Roy Blount, Jr., humorist, former sportswriter, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me… panelist, and word-lover, takes aim at etymology and bad writing alike in Alphabet Juice, a book organized like a dictionary and aiming both high and low with its targets. If you like words and get equal joy from a malapropism and an explanation of how livid (which means furious, with a connotation of red-faced) comes from the Latin word meaning “to be bluish,” this is a book for you.

In Alphabet Juice, Blount chooses words with interesting stories or for which he can offer a brief quote (like the one above) or quip or (regrettably) some light verse. The anecdote that constitutes the entry for “TV, on being on” runs from William Ginsburg to Saul Bellow to Designing Women to Kathleen Sullivan to Claude Monet, all inside of four pages. Blount sneaks in some memoir-ish material as well, such as an entry for “Wilt: A Tall Tale,” that starts out with musings on whether Wilt Chamberlain could really have slept with 20,000 women (Wilt: “Well, there was this one birthday party…”) but ends with Blount mediating between an angry Wilt and Blount’s drunken editor.

Some of the entries reveal Blount as a Lynne Truss-ian grammar stickler, a bent of which I approve:

> unique
I have to be firm on this: unique is not to be modified. Adding very or absolutely is like putting a propeller on a rabbit to make him hop better. It won’t work, and he won’t be a rabbit any more.

I’ve always been partial to the analogy that something can be “almost unique” in the way that you can be “almost pregnant.” There is a word for the idea expressed by “almost unique” – unusual. Use it. Please.

Blount’s love of words (aside from a love of language – these are two different afflictions) even brings this fun entry that should appeal to the anagrammists and Scrabblers in the audience:

> transposition game
Rearranging the letters in one word of an existing title or well-known phrase. Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception becomes The Odors of Perception. The Continental Army becomes the continental Mary. I’m told that Burt Bernstein, then a writer at The New Yorker, learned of this game and found himself to be good at it. He hastened to his brother Leonard, who had always been better at everything than Burt, but now, finally, maybe … Burt explained the game. Leonard looked up from whatever major thing he was doing and said: “Icy fingers up and down my penis.”

If there’s a flaw in Alphabet Juice, it’s that it’s a book to be perused rather than read. There’s no narrative, and the themes and jokes to which Blount returns again and again are scattered throughout the book. You could follow his suggestions to see other entries, but would risk never reading everything in the book, a risk I was unwilling to take. I could also have done without the meditations on each individual letter – Blount is supporting an argument he makes that the relation between a word (its sound, that is) and its meaning is not, as some scholars would have it, arbitrary. That’s an interesting debate, but not one Blount is going to solve in 300-word essays on each of the 26 letters of our alphabet.

At heart, though, Alphabet Juice is a vehicle for Blount’s ruminations not just on language but on culture and cultural literacy, on politics (he was apparently not a fan of the most recent President Bush), on music, on food, and so on. If you like his smart-folksy style, you’ll love the book.

P.S. Tender is the Thing.

Next up: Hilary Mantel’s Fludd, which I’m reading at the rate of roughly 15 pages a day because of all the writing.