Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Gene: An Intimate History

The Gene is the engrossing, insightful, educational, suspenseful, thought-provoking, disturbing, unnerving, even chilling history of genetics.  Un-put-down-able. This is a book I may read twice. You should read it at least once (at least IMHO).

This book is bursting with information about the evolution of genetics from the seeds of Darwin and Mendel up to 2015, told in a clear, understandable, exciting way. It reminded me why I almost majored in genetics. The descriptions of dogged efforts to move one painstaking step forward over the course of a decade(!) make me relieved I chose a field with more immediate gratifications.

The book juxtaposes the spectacular advances of science with social and moral issues such as eugenics.  By coolly pointing out the ramifications of each step along the way, he induces a sense of wonder but also foreboding. For instance, the description of the American eugenics movement makes current US politics - with a sociopathic racist running for President with the support of a disturbing proportion of the population - even more terrifying. Of course, given the American eugenics sterilization schemes of the 1920s, Mukerjee might not be here to sound the alarm; his family had the wrong skin colour and a familial history of schizophrenia. By the way, Mukerjee scrupulously omits explicit mention of this fact. 

Mukerjee has a scintillating writing style. His vivid descriptions of the people involved and the evocative settings where major advances took place bring the book to life and made me marvel at his command of the language. He considers why different words were chosen and the implications of those choices. What a treat to find such scientific insight and writing skill in one person. I must confess I had to consult a dictionary a few times, and not just for scientific or medical terms. But when I found the word, it was clear it wasn’t there to show off, but to deliver exactly the right nuance of meaning.

There were several themes in this book that will keep me thinking for a while. You might see some of them turning up in future posts.

P. S. For past book reviews check here. If you like this book I think you'd like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Curiosity.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Three Psychological Thrillers

Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review section, recently wrote "In my future life, I will spend entire weekends lying in a hammock by some idyllic lakeside, cooly reading thriller after thriller".  Pamela, for me, the future is here. The idyllic lake is Six Mile Lake in the Muskokas north of Toronto, the hammock is from Lee Valley and the thrillers are many and varied. I've recommended many thrillers that I've enjoyed in past book reviews (you can find the complete list of my book reviews here).

It seems like yesterday, but the blockbuster psychological thriller Gone Girl erupted onto the scene fully six years ago with the movie following a couple of years later. The Girl on the Train followed three years later, was again a blockbuster success with a similar formula, and is soon to be a movie. This year's contribution to the genre is I Let You Go. How much do you want to bet there's a movie coming about this too?

I would recommend all these books for lakeside hammock reading. They all have engrossing plots guaranteed to keep you from snoozing off in that oh-so-comfy hammock!

For past reviews of other books, check the list of my reviews here.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Panama Papers - the back story

A deluge of 40 years' worth of records - emails, account records, spreadsheets - about offshore companies from around the globe, leaked by an anonymous John Doe. They described the financial machinations, some legal some not, orchestrated by Mossack Fonesta, a law firm in Panama. Mossack Fonesta set up secretive offshore companies in a system that at the very least represented aggressive tax sheltering just within the law, to shadow companies to hide the fruits of crime and corruption.

The leak comprised 11.5 million documents including 4.8M emails, 2M PDFs, and 1M images. 2.6 terabytes* of data in all. Put that up against a newspaper industry ravaged by the onslaught of online advertising with investigative journalism resources in radical decline because of those financial pressures. In such an environment, how could one possibly investigate these documents fully?

Gerard Ryle
The German newspaper German Süddeutsche Zeitung initially received all this material. Faced with a task far beyond their own resources, they contacted International Consortium of Investigative Journalists for help. What happened next is a remarkable story.  At the recent TED Summit Gerald Ryle, head of the ICIJ, told us that story. A marvel of collaboration unfolded. The handful of journalists at the ICIJ were joined by 350 journalists from over 100 media companies in 80 different countries who brought 'native eyes to bear on native names'. The data was stored in a huge database and sophisticated software helped uncover links and cross references, based on nationality, industry, or themes such as sports or blood diamonds. Nobody met in person and communication was through online encrypted messages. It was a monumental task and 'a milestone in the use of data journalism software tools and mobile collaboration'**.

What makes this story even more remarkable is the fact this disparate group of media players, whose corporate DNA was based on 'getting the scoop', did this work in total secrecy. The worked for over a year, without pay, without breaking ranks. Ryle described the constant persuasion required to maintain secrecy. As Ryle put it, "the greatest noise had to be preceded by the greatest silence"As other events were unfolding - in Brazil or around FIFA for instance - whose coverage could have been bolstered by reference to the Panama Papers, journalists begged to release the news. But the confidentiality agreements held. The news was published simultaneously in 76 countries on April 3 2016, along with many of the original documents. We all know the story of the fallout of these papers, up to the resignation of Iceland's prime minister. The back story is almost as interesting.

It was a wonderful heartwarming story told by a quiet man clearly more comfortable with writing words than in speaking them (watch his talk here). He was encouraged with applause from the audience during several stumbles in his talk; that was a great habit started by the TED Fellows (see more about the TED Fellow here).

* 1 terabyte equals 1,024 gigabytes. That's a lot of data!
** quoted from Wikipedia

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Julia Bracha

Make conflicts less violent; have more women in public life. This was the thought-provoking thesis of Julia Bracha in her TED Summit talk.

Her contention runs like this. Since it's futile to try to eliminate all conflicts, what we should be trying to do is to make them less violent. Nonviolent campaigns have two big advantages.  Fewer people are hurt or killed and less infrastructure is destroyed, infrastructure that might be key to recovery after conflict. They also tend to be more successful. And the best predictor of which tactics will prevail (violent or non-violent) is the ideology regarding women in public life. In her research, movements with women in leadership roles have succeeded more often: 53-27*.

It's not that women are less involved in conflicts. It's that they are talented in exercising power and influence nonviolently in the background. Because men are the public face of resistance, we often miss women's quieter, and highly effective, role in the background. Bracha pointed to influential women like Septima Clark in the US civil rights movement who emphasized literacy and education.

The media often underestimates the influence of women in Arab and Muslim communities. Consider the 1st Intifada, where media coverage focused on rocks being thrown at tanks. However 97% of the activities in that Intifada were non-violent tactics (like strikes for instance), and the women were calling the shots in those efforts.

Bracha's film wonderful Budrus, which I saw and loved at Toronto's Hot Docs Festival (reviewed here) highlighted the efforts of the women of the town of Budrus. Budrus was fighting the Israeli security fence, which was slated to go into Palestinian territory and bulldoze olive trees which were their livelihood. The 15-year-old girl who was an inspiration in the battle ultimately planted herself in front of a bulldozer. With the help of Israeli liberals, the Israelis relented and moved the wall to the boundary between Israeli and Palestinian territory instead of its planned incursion into Palestinian territory.

* not sure of the source of this statistic