Parasite Rex

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This is an oldie but a goodie.

Parasite Rex is a broad overview, not just of its titular subject, but also of the ways that the notion of the parasite is evolving, and how it should be understood by people. It traces the genealogy of the study of parasitism from the origins of the word in Greek all the way to the 19th century disdain of such creatures as degenerate life forms and evolutionary dead ends that depend utterly upon their host and gave rise to the moral stigma associated with being called a parasite.

Zimmer’s project is to demonstrate just how complex and well-adapted parasites are as lifeforms, and the ways in which they play an important part in balancing their various ecosystems. Of course, the term parasite is a broad one; it can range from anything from a single celled organism to a large animal like a cuckoo that lays its eggs in the nests of other birds.

Parasites are, to put it simply, organisms that are adapted to survive and reproduce at the partial expense of other creatures. Their playground is not the savannahs, hills and jungles of your typical animal, but the bodies of other organisms. In that respect they are as beautifully adapted to these environments as the gazelle is to the Serengeti.

The bodies of organisms are treacherous places that have evolved immune responses to foreign invaders. In that respect, parasites are resourceful creatures that constantly innovate (via evolutionary adaptations) creative responses to thrive amidst it, ranging from hiding in plain sight within red blood cells, or constantly changing forms so that T-cells can’t keep track of them.

Having infested their hapless hosts, parasites need to ensure they are able to propagate to the next stage of their life cycles. And it is in this where parasites get much of their well-deserved reputation as nature’s horrors – employing all sorts of creative but ghoulish ways to make their hosts serve their ends – from Sacculina turning male crabs into hapless castrated zombies, to toxoplasma gondii making rats more reckless to ensure they are eaten by cats, hence allowing the parasite to settle into its true feline home. Sometimes these adaptations allow the host to live relatively normal lives, albeit as unwitting Typhoid Marys; in other cases, the death of the host is the prerequisite of the flowering of the parasite into its succeeding life stage.

But despite these macabre innovations, Carl Zimmer gives parasites their due as vital players in the diversity of life. Parasites may have played a role in accelerating the evolution of sexual reproduction, energy intensive as it might be, as a means of allowing animals to generate enough species diversity to throw off the pernicious effects of parasites.

And parasites play a bigger role in ecosystems than might first appear. Consider the relationship between a predator and prey. The usual narrative is that predators keep populations in check and increase the health of the herd, because usually the weakest prey is the meal of the predator. But perhaps this salutary vision is just an illusion, and it is the parasite that weakens the host to allow it to be captured by the predator, which is its next presumptive host. Parasites, though ghoulish at times, may be the signifiers of healthy, robust ecosystems.

Even human evolution has been shaped in large part because of the existence of parasites. We’ve evolved various responses to common parasites, so much so that in our modern industrialised society, the eradication of such parasites has indirectly led to the rise in new autoimmune diseases such as colitis, as well as an increase in allergies.

Zimmer writes in a dense but approachable style, peppering the narrative with interesting stories and examples of parasites and their behaviors, painting an erudite picture of how we should think about the broader role that parasites play in the web of life. Written in the early 2000s as it is, perhaps some of the facts and hypotheses described have been validated or disproven, but ultimately, Parasite Rex still remains a comprehensive and engaging starter guide on how we should think about parasites.

I give this: 4 out of 5 guinea worms

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This Is What Inequality Looks Like

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While undoubtedly timely and important, This Is What Inequality Looks Like is written in such an unfocused, roundabout way that the message is diluted amidst the discursive dead-ends and pensive paeans.

Inequality is a reality in Singapore, but far from the popular narrative that no one in Singapore is poor and therefore there is no problem, inequality is a problem when it arises from the narrow meritocratic processes of the state and is codified into shamefulness by the state’s attitude towards it, as well as the sentiment that because they did not conform to a narrow and technocratic definition of merit, they are differentially deserving when it comes to receiving the rewards of the system.

The poor are people too, with their own aspirations, fears, and need for dignity, and the way the system is arranged against them to continually reinforce their so-called inadequacies through that differential, problem-centric, means-tested assistance, can one blame them for resenting it as it wears down their psyches?

Is it enough to tell them to have fewer kids, or not to have the flatscreen TV that they probably scrounged off a Salvation Army thrift store that is the only thing that provides them entertainment throughout the day, or to tell them that cold showers are good for you? When Singaporeans say these things, even in jest, they are merely reinforcing the notion that these people somehow deserve less, that their poor decision making puts them at fault, that since they own a TV they must be ok, then mentally regard the problem as an illusion of socialistic entitlement, mark it as resolved, and go into full-blown haranguing mode when others point out that their internalised narrative of Singapore-as-success-story leaves out the ways that it has failed some of its people. It creates a sense of us-vs-them, and wears down bonds of social trust.

When people read or hear about the acts of love, kindness and devotion that the poor have for each other as they face the adversities inherent in a hand-to-mouth existence, they nod smilingly to themselves, serene in the sentiment that poverty is ennobling, and can bring out the best in people. But this, too often, translates into believing that the kids will be alright. But the structural conditions of inequality that reverberate across generations remain. Those kids won’t be alright – the conditions they grow up in will more likely than not consign them into the ever-propagating cycle of poverty.

It is our self-contradictory system, one that promotes selfish and capitalistic self-reliance even as it exhorts us to come together as one Singapore, that propagates the psychosocial conditions of inequality. The individual social worker, compassionate and filled with the desire to help, is still part of a system that regimentalises assistance in a way that strips it of dignity. Some of these would-be recipients see the emptiness inherent in this, because individual kindnesses aren’t backed by commensurate institutional compassion. It is understandable why they would not be inclined to take the dole, to retain whatever shreds of dignity they have.

I think that the book does not intend to strip the poor of all culpability or responsibility for their own poverty, to reify them as blameless victims of institutional heartlessness. Certainly there are the lazy and inept among us. But I do think that what it is saying is that there are certain structural conditions that aggravate the problem by pushing the concept of differential deservedness based on how well you can navigate the narrow meritocratic pathways to success. When people don’t fit into that mould, or they fall off the wayside, they are much more vulnerable to the effects of that inequality, and their children suffer the consequences. And is it necessarily better to build filters into the system to weed out the bad eggs from receiving government dole, or to make the assistance more universal in order to try to ameliorate these underappreciated systemic effects of structural inequality?

While I think I got most of that from the book, I do feel that the essays could have been much sharper. In wilfully abandoning the academic mode for these essays, Prof Teo unfortunately swings to the other end of the spectrum, dealing out meandering essays that at times read like streams of consciousness. In it, she tries very hard to situate herself into the narrative, talking about her fieldwork, of how she has become aware of the differential frames that people accord to her because of her status as opposed to a poor person. While I think this is important to a degree, she tends to overdo it in a way that comes dangerously close to platitudinous.

It’s not really a surprise, then, that I happen to think that the essay on Differentiated Deservedness, which was consciously written in a more structurally coherent and academic register, was the best of the essays in terms of clarity and message. Followed closely by the last two essays on Airing Dirty Laundry and Now What, because of a clear call to action, and a brave and surprisingly convincing reckoning of the reasons why Singaporeans seem to resent it so much when people point out the flaws in our system, and attempt to shut down discourse by accusing reformers of copying other countries like Sweden.

It is here where, I think, the book comes into its own, after the earlier, somewhat over-introspective essays – inequality is not just a problem with the unequal, but for everyone; part of a larger dysfunction in society that values people largely as economic resources, and loses sight of the bigger picture of the state as a system for human betterment. In changing, we do not desire, or need, to turn into another Sweden, because that would be counterproductive – what she says we must do is to become a better version of ourselves – to look at inequality for what it is and to refuse to bend to its logic.

I give this book: 3.5/5 flatscreen TVs

 

Season of the Witch

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Of the many historical narratives I’ve read, Season of the Witch is perhaps the most compulsively readable. More than just a dispassionate historical account, it seethes with the energy of San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s and is suffused by the evidence of the author’s own passion for his hometown, one whose tumult in the 1960s and 1970s served as a crucible to create its unique character and legacy.

Season of the Witch is a people’s history of San Francisco, told vibrantly through the ages through the quotes, written records, and oral accounts of the city’s many larger-than-life figures. San Francisco, more than any other city in the US, seemed to act as a haven for the dispossessed, the outcasts, and the dreamers, and it was replete with many community heroes – lawyers, doctors and public servants – who used their powers to help them.

In the 1960s, the city’s famed progressivism made it a beacon of hope for thousands of America’s lost children as they flocked to Haight-Ashbury in and after the Summer of Love, and it was up to San Franciscan heroes – faced by a callous municipal government – to help them as they came in their thousands, needing shelter, medical attention, and spiritual succour.

San Francisco became a haven for gays and lesbians long before it was even remotely kosher in the eyes of the rest of the nation or the world, who would band together with other communities and rights groups in the city to create a formidable progressive political movement – one that would eventually cascade throughout America in a rainbow wave.

But San Francisco could sometimes be too open, especially to dangerous ideas and people. The city was wracked by waves of terror during the racially motivated Zebra murders in the 1970s, bringing the city almost to its breaking point, as black and white started to eye each other with fear and distrust. Truly bizarre cults and movements arose, from the infamous SLA that brainwashed newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, to Jim Jones’ People’s Temple cult that ended in such horrific tragedy in Jonestown.

These events reverberated up and down the city and even affected City Hall, implicating even heroic and well-respected figures as George Moscone, Willie Brown, and Harvey Milk, all of whom were overly cozy with Jones because of his ability to come off as a bleeding-heart liberal, espousing at face value the principles of diversity and acceptance.

The tumult between the city’s liberal bona fides and the vestiges of its conservative Irish roots came to a head in the infamous episode when Dan White took a gun to Moscone and Milk, killing them both, and then escaped a long prison sentence, largely by dint of his aura of white-bread wholesomeness.

After this terrible climax, San Francisco was beaten back on its heels, but in true San Franciscan fashion, it recovered on the strengths of its ethos of acceptance and togetherness in the face of adversity – first through the vicarious euphoria of the 49ers’ celebrated victory against the Goliath-like Dallas Cowboys in the NFL playoffs, then as the city suffered through an AIDs epidemic, when whole communities pitched in to provide comfort and succour to young men who were perishing due to the then-mysterious disease.

Talbot’s narrative brings these events, and the people that lived them, to vivid and pugnacious life; his staccato prose leaping off the page like a broadsheet of the times, spinning a narrative of San Francisco and its heroes as possessing a number of virtues, chief of which is their willingness to embrace difference, a virtue displayed multifold during its many tribulations. Though Talbot has done a very creditable job of showing the many faces of San Francisco’s heroes – from Moscones’ inveterate womanising and the intimations that vote rigging by the People’s Temple helped in his mayoral victories, to concert promoter Bill Graham’s unscrupulous business practices. These are fully-formed people – heroes to some, villains to others; larger-than-life personalities seemingly driven by the city’s boundless aura.

For sure, the actual historical truth of things may not be so beautifully resonant; it is probably more staid, prosaic, and ambiguous. But Talbot has created a beautiful, haunting, unputdownable tale of San Francisco at its worst and best, one that deserves to be included in the hallowed annals of great historical writing.

I give this book: 4.5/5 footballs

 

No Is Not Enough

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What it’s about: Naomi Klein diagnoses the failings of neoliberal capitalism following Trump’s shock ascendancy to the highest office in the land, and gives readers a foundation for how to build a unified resistance based not merely on opposition, but on a foundation of strong, affirmative shared values.

Notes:

  • The world reeled when Trump won, not just because he was a buffoon, but because of what he signified – a herald of an era where branding was king and the tool of neoliberal capitalists to propagate themselves by exploiting the labor of the poor, and for disaster capitalists to profit and flourish from crises, both real and engineered.
  • According to Klein, Trump himself is the epitome of both tendencies. First, his business empire is built upon his Trump branding, a form of rent that he extends to franchisees in return for handsome royalties, which in turn gives him a kind of immunity to his antics – because his crassness is part of that brand, of hedonistic, callous excess turned up to eleven. When Trump acts crass, he is not judged as harshly because he is conforming to that brand – this is, I think, a valuable insight that Klein has given us about why Trump appears so invulnerable to criticism.
  • Second, the incompetence of his presidency has merely led to more shocks – periods of extreme crisis, unrest and instability in the general world order, which are rich seams of opportunity for disaster capitalists to profit from. The incompetence of the federal government in handling these crises is just used as a justification to reduce the size of government, creating a self-fulfilling, self-reinforcing loop of the steady erosion of the public realm, or creates a period where democratic norms are suspended, allowing them to ram through a capitalist wishlist of neoliberal reforms that concentrate wealth ever more in the hands of the rich.
  • Global warming and extreme weather are just one, rather worrying part of this torrent of anthropocentric crisis, one that neoliberals are all too ready to be sanguine about because to stop the tide of global warming would be to cease the culture of unchecked extractionism that drives capitalist growth.
  • Klein tells us that the need for resistance is stronger than ever, but left-leaning coalitions often break apart because they are driven by a multitude of different agendas – feminism, native rights, environmentalism, racial and social justice, LGBTQ rights – and often their marriage to the cause is one of convenience, and has only a tenuous link to the critique of the neoliberal state of affairs. There is no blood-and-soil essentialist tribalism that unifies the disparate threads of the left in pseudo-religious fervor.
  • Ultimately, Klein tells us – to mount an effective resistance and to offer a real, sustainable solution, no is not enough – there needs to be a coherent, singular manifesto that everyone on the left can agree on, a set of shared goals and values based on compromise and mutual respect, a vision and mission to fight for. She offers one such vision – the Leap Manifesto – a mishmash of liberal identity politics and native rights mixed with awareness of the effects of capitalism on the working class – which provides a strong conceptual backing from which to build a new social vision.
  • Klein here once again writes with galvanizing force, synthesising various discursive strands of the new Trumpist reality into a coherent and singular thesis of what Trumpism signifies. It is a taut, powerful and impassioned call for positive action, given life and breath by the righteous outrage generated by the visible incursions of Trumpian depredations into our everyday reality, and the looming threat to the viability of our living planet. While her Leap Manifesto might not be the answer, what she says needs to be done strikes a chord of truth – to combat the a machine built upon essentialist tribalism, the Left must come up with a manifesto of its own, not just in opposition to an enemy, but in fashioning a new and better state of affairs to today’s Trumpist reality.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Trump steaks

What Happened

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What it’s about: Hillary tells us what happened and what could have been.

Notes: 

  • I have to admit, my interest in reading this book was somewhat voyeuristic, the desire to get into the mindspace of a public figure who has been so endlessly analysed and dissected by the media. I wanted to know what she thought about the whole affair, the terrible day that Trump won the presidency, about how she would answer the question: “what happened?” The various stories circulating around that said the work didn’t pull any punches spurred on this avid interest in reading her book.
  • Well, I have to say it’s not as juicy as screed as it could be, but is actually a kind of post-fact manifesto, a wistful but detailed fantasy of the good she imagined she could have done had she won the presidency. It was a chronicle of her thoughts about being a woman in power, of her true passion of working on policies that would lead to the betterment of the children of America. Indeed, pretty much all the juicy bits, I read before actually buying the book.
  • That said, she is strident in her criticisms of the state of American politics and society in this age of Trump.  She doesn’t hold back in accusing the Russians of an all-out campaign to undermine American democracy and aiding the Trump campaign, and she has no compunctions in warning us of just how incompetent and unfit Trump is to be President, both from a personality and policy angle.
  • It’s hard to feel anything but sympathy for Hillary after reading the book – while she does get tied up in her own significance at times, it was still a surprisingly self-aware and engaging look at herself and the decisions that ultimately led to our present situation. Who can blame her for trying, appreciating the significance of her candidacy for millions of men and women in America? Should we blame her for losing to a buffoon, for her unpopularity, which was the result of decades of Republican smear tactics? For her emails, blown insanely out of proportion? For the media, walking hook, line and sinker into Trump’s shock doctrine and inadvertently pushing his brand even more into the American consciousness?
  • Ultimately, though, this book is the kind that will not have much lasting power. It isn’t a call to action or a manifesto, not a manual for revolution – it is just a journal of introspection, self-reflection and a wistful imagining of a what-could-have-been, a kind of cathartic exercise for Hillary, even (and she admits it, in the book). It is a book to be consigned to the background texture of history, fitting for a woman whose time in the spotlight is probably over, however unjustly.

Verdict: Equal parts what-if policy manifesto, self-reflection, and screed, What Happened gives an interesting and unique account of the election from Hillary herself, but doesn’t rise above its own self-preoccupation to deliver a strong message of hope and action for the American people, sorely needed in these times.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 pantsuits

 

Spring Chicken

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What it’s about: A journalist plumbs science and pseudoscience for the secret to living a longer and healthier life.

Notes:

  • This is a book that, naturally, touches on something of abiding interest to everybody on the planet – how to stay youthful and healthy for as long as possible. It’s not just about keeping death at bay, but to increase your healthspan as long as possible. There’s also a brief meditation on the socio-economic and environmental impact of having a bunch of eternally-living folks around, which is a subject of another book, presumably one about the necessity of space colonisation.
  • Gifford’s wry, layman-peeking-in sort of tone lends an approachable air to the already intriguing subject matter. His attention is prolific, touching on nearly everything being done in the field, from the serious scientists to the celebrity hacks trying out dubious supplements like HGH (which, spoiler, are pretty dangerous and can even increase your chances of cancer or other age-related diseases.)
  • Gifford spends time as a volunteer in the massive Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Ageing, a decades-long study aimed at identifying all the external predictive correlates of senescence. He finds that it has as much to do with behavior as genetics (of course).
  • According to Gifford’s research, an important biomarker of senescence is inflammation, caused by senescent cells whose telomeres have depleted and hence are reaching the end of their replicative lifespan (telomerase activators are implicated in causing cells to go cancerous, so pumping yourself full of telomerase is not a particularly good anti-ageing strategy). Inflammatory compounds like cytokine contribute to all manner of age-related diseases, such as heart failure and dementia. Basically, it’s a catch-22. Left to their own devices, your cells either die (after becoming senescent) or become cancer (and you die in both scenarios). There isn’t any getting out of this bind – at least, not yet, with current technology.
  • There are, of course, certain people who possess certain sets of protective genes that guard against the effects of old age – and these lucky people can live to fantastically old ages even if they pursue all manner of bad habits. It seems that such genes are not selected for because there is no evolutionary pressure to privilege them – after all, such genes, whose effects only become evident in older folks, don’t really affect people’s chances of having babies.
  • Are there miracle medicines or interventions to extend lifespan? Gifford’s answer is, unsurprisingly, a “it’s too early to tell”. There are studies touting the restorative effects of rapamycin and metformin that have some scientific purchase (unlike HGHs peddled by aforementioned celebrity kooks) that may or may not have efficacy beyond the lab environment and/or horrible side effects. There’s also the creepy fact that blood transfusions from young to old mice (i.e. parabiosis) have restorative properties in the latter, due to some as-yet unclear property of young blood. But the biomechanical pathways for these substances are not well-understood as of yet.
  • That said, the good news is that there are plenty of behavioral modifications that most people can adopt to maximise their chances of living long and healthy lives. These include, naturally, losing weight, frequent exercise, and being educated, as well as having a positive outlook on life. One can also try some other, more drastic, lifestyle changes, such as intermittent fasting/caloric restriction and introducing physical stressors to the body from time to time, like taking dips in ice-cold water.
  • And so, whatever it is, after all that talk about scientific measures to reverse ageing, it seems like the age-old adage of “use it or lose it” still wins out in the end. Essentially, you gotta work hard for the life you want. Even if it means earning enough money to pay for frequent blood transfusions from broke Gen-Zers.

Verdict: Engaging, accessible and soberingly wry, Spring Chicken educates and entertains while reminding us that the reins to our own health are entirely in our hands.

I give this book: 4.5/5 danishes

 

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty

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What it’s about: Dan Ariely takes us on a tour of human dishonesty and tells us that humans in general don’t rely on dispassionate cost-benefit analyses (expectation of reward vs penalty of being caught) to guide when they cheat. Instead, cheating is motivated by a number of things, including, most importantly, whether we are able to rationalise the cheating to ourselves such that we can maintain a positive self-image.

The list of such rationalisations might include: whether other people in your social circle or culture are doing it (social and cultural norms), whether someone else can benefit from it (collaborative cheating), whether there are a large number of ways to justify the cheating (creativity), the emotional disposition of the cheating person (willpower depletion), whether the person has done it before (the “what-the-hell” justification) and a few more.

Conversely, cheating can be mitigated using tried-and-tested methods to outsource the “moral compass” or remind people of the rules of the game, including through supervision, pledging or moral suasion.

Notes:

  • This book strikes me as one of those “I could’ve told you that” tomes that provide, at best, simple (lab-environment) experimental backing for well-understood but ill-defined social adages. Humans cheat when they can rationalise it to themselves. That’s essentially what the book says. Hardly earth-shattering to presuppose that we are not all amoral cost-benefit calculators.
  • But even the distinction between rational cost-benefit analyses and rationalisation isn’t quite as stark, because what constitutes utils to you might be different from me. If a person cheats because everyone is cheating, is that necessarily not a cost-benefit analysis borne from the quantification of the “everyone does it” excuse as an input in the cost-benefit calculator?
  • Ariely’s approach to substantiating his claims strikes me as a bit overreaching, because he writes as though his series of experimental protocols demonstrate the conclusive truth of everything. But his experiments are all carefully controlled and offer comparatively little in terms of payoffs and risks, and by and large he relies on a common pool of university students (although he does conduct experiments on other people from time to time). Are his models really extensible to real-world cheating, Bernie Madoff style? I’m not so sure yet . That said, his conclusions are quite parsimonious in that they are not extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence, and I don’t disbelieve in anything he claims through what I understand from my Jungian received folk-wisdom corpus of moral sensibilities.

Verdict: While written in an engaging and accessible style, this book doesn’t quite manage to conclusively prove its truisms beyond the four walls of the psychology lab. But it does provide a useful conceptual framework to crystallise the folk wisdom on how cheating comes about into something more academically rigorous.

I give this: 4 out of 5 worksheets full of matrices