Books to read in 2012-13

This is for future reference, posted here mostly because I’ve just realised that Facebook‘s timeline is useless at being an archive. These are all books by good writers, and I recommend them to anybody reading this and willing to listen. I will buy them the first chance I get–which, with my access to free money, means whenever the paperback editions come out. And the paperback editions will come out. They will, they will, they will.

[Edit (3/10/12): If you have suggestions, would you leave them in Comments? I have already had somebody tell me about Philip Ball’s The Music Instinct. {Edit: Go here for a less charitable review.}]

1. Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma: How drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients

I read this excerpt from the book in The Guardian. There’s also this TED talk. The book is about the serious malpractice committed in the pharmaceutical industry. Medical researchers are shills in the game. Anything for profit.

In any sensible world, when researchers are conducting trials on a new tablet for a drug company, for example, we’d expect universal contracts, making it clear that all researchers are obliged to publish their results, and that industry sponsors – which have a huge interest in positive results – must have no control over the data. But, despite everything we know about industry-funded research being systematically biased, this does not happen. In fact, the opposite is true: it is entirely normal for researchers and academics conducting industry-funded trials to sign contracts subjecting them to gagging clauses that forbid them to publish, discuss or analyse data from their trials without the permission of the funder./snip/

Missing data poisons the well for everybody. If proper trials are never done, if trials with negative results are withheld, then we simply cannot know the true effects of the treatments we use. Evidence in medicine is not an abstract academic preoccupation. When we are fed bad data, we make the wrong decisions, inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering, and death, on people just like us.


2. David Quammen’s Spillover

Here’s an excerpt also from The Guardian. David Quammen gave a talk at NCBS recently, and was interviewed for Tehelka by a classmate from the Science-Writing workshop. If you have seen the movie Contagion, this subject is already familiar to you. I haven’t seen the movie.

It’s a mildly technical term, zoonosis, unfamiliar to most people, but it helps clarify the biological complexities behind the ominous headlines about swine flu, bird flu, Sars, emerging diseases in general, and the threat of a global pandemic. It’s a word of the future, destined for heavy use in the 21st century.We’re unique in the history of mammals. No other primate has ever weighed upon the planet to anything like the degree we do. In ecological terms, we are almost paradoxical: large-bodied and long-lived but grotesquely abundant. We are an outbreak.


And here’s the thing about outbreaks: they end. In some cases they end after many years, in others they end rather soon. In some cases they end gradually, in others they end with a crash. In certain cases, they end and recur and end again.


3. David Byrne’s How Music Works

Is music universal? Is creativity? Or genius? David Byrne offers an answer that shouldn’t be as surprising as it nevertheless is. The excerpt from he book is at Salon.

I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it’s actually the opposite of conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation, that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen.


Presuming that there is such a thing as “progress” when it comes to music, and that music is “better” now than it used to be, is typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present. It is a myth. Creativity doesn’t “improve.”


It seems that creativity, whether bird song, painting, or songwriting, is as adaptive as anything else. Genius — the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work — seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context. When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well. When the right thing is in the right place, we are moved.


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