The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles

It is no secret that The Hound of the Baskervilles, the third Sherlock Holmes novel is the best of the lot. Compared to the first two, which are essentially long short-stories, Arthur Conan Doyle sets the stage here for a village of multiple characters and a creepy tale. I had the most thrilling bedtime chills this week reading this novel before sleep. It totally reminded me of childhood nights spent with Famous Five, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and the like.

Dr. Watson takes center stage in this novel. Holmes sends him to the mysterious moor where an ancient curse of a ghostly hound has been killing off the Baskerville family. It is upto Watson to protect the last of the Baskervilles from certain death by this dog. Through the observations of Watson we get to see the characters of this distant village and thus begins the calculations in our mind as to which of them could be the killer and how this hound is being unleashed. Needless to say that Holmes appears before the end to wrap up the mystery. The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the surest ways to have exciting bedtime reading for a couple of nights.

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 0241952875

The Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All Maladies

In a world where almost all ailments have been understood and cured, cancer remains the last mystery. It is this stubborn enemy that is the subject of The Emperor of All Maladies written by oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee. The book traverses the entire spectrum of cancer history, analysis, treatment, its devastating effect on the patients and doctors.

The book starts with the history of cancer, illustrating that humans have had it since time immemorial. The incidence though was minuscule compared to today, mostly due to the high probability of dying from other major diseases. Once those were vanquished, what remained was the enemy within. For the last couple of centuries, the only real attack on cancer was to remove its tumors surgically. Though this delayed its progress, it was almost never a cure. About a century ago, another brute-force method was adopted: chemotherapy. This is literally an attempt to obliterate cancer cells, but again it could usually only stem its progress for a while. It was only at the onset of the last half century that cancer was attributed to carcinogens, substances which could cause cancer. Incidence of lung cancer for example reduced after eliminating exposure to asbestos and waging a war against smoking. The true understanding of cancer started in the 1960s after discovery that its rampant cell division was caused due to mutations in genes. It is only in the last decade that drugs are being developed specifically to inhibit these oncogenes or to allow the working of tumor suppressor genes, thus turning cancer cells back into benign cells.

The book weighs in at 470 pages of main content and does read like an encyclopedic biography on cancer. Among all specialties in medicine, the oncologists see the highest incidence of suffering and death. And this depressing aspect of the disease is vividly presented in the book due to the author’s own experience with his patients. After a crackling start, the rest of the first 200 pages of the book seemed like quite a slog. Other than a cancer historian, no one else would be interested in plodding through 100 pages of famous surgeons cutting out tumors by varying amounts. Another 100 pages follows of oncologists trying various cocktails of toxins in chemotherapy and celebrities raising funding for cancer. It is only with the arrival of smoking and carcinogens in the second half that the book gathers momentum and interest. The journey from there to discovery of oncogenes and cancer drugs is truly delightful to read.

The writing in the book is top quality, especially commendable since it is written by a doctor. Every detail is religiously referenced. One does get a feeling in the first half of the book though, that this is being written to win awards rather than to interest a reader. (It did win many literary plaudits.) There is also quite a bit of over-emphasis on the cancer hospitals in Boston, which is where the doctor practices. There is rapid progress in cancer research in the last few years, so I know that the doctor will be writing a second edition to this popular book in 5 or 10 years. Until then, if you can skip or skim through the first 200 pages you are rewarded with a fascinating read on cancer.

Rating: 3/4

ISBN: 9781439107959

Best of February 2015

In Defense of the Selfie Stick: The selfie stick which has been ubiquitous in East Asia for a few years now is hitting the rest of the world. People in these countries are surprised why it is needed. Miguel de Icaza pretty much sums up my opinion on this (inconsequential?) topic.

It assumes that the volunteer will have the patience to wait for the perfect shot (“wait, I want the waves breaking” or “Try to get the sign, just on top of me”). And that the volunteer will have the patience to show you the result and take another picture. Often, the selfista that has amassed the courage to approach a stranger on the street, out of politeness, will just accept the shot as taken. Good or bad. Except for a few of you (I am looking at you Patrick), most people feel uncomfortable imposing something out of the blue on a stranger.

Stop Trying to Save the World: The problems left in the world are complex. In project after project, developed-world intellectuals continue to think they can solve a problem everywhere it occurs with a simple solution and are failing spectacularly.

If someone is chronically malnourished, to pick just one example, you should give them some food, right? Duflo and Banerjee describe dozens of projects finding that, when you subsidize or give away food to poor people, they don’t actually eat more. Instead, they just replace boring foods with more interesting ones and remain, in the statistics at least, “malnourished.” In Udaipur, India, a survey found that poor people had enough money to increase their food spending by as much as 30 percent, but they chose to spend it on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals instead. Duflo and Banerjee interviewed an out-of-work Indonesian agricultural worker who had been under the food-poverty line for years, but had a TV in his house. You don’t need a Ph.D. to understand the underlying dynamic here: Cheap food is boring. In many developing countries, Duflo and Banerjee found that even the poorest people could afford more than 2,000 calories of staple foods every day. But given the choice between the fourth bowl of rice in one day and the first cigarette, many people opt for the latter.

How one stupid tweet ruined Justine Sacco’s life: The online naming, shaming and bullying of people for something they said in a moment of stupidity is turning into a seriously bad phenomenon. It might take a while for social norms to evolve to ignore such incidents for what they are, insignificant.

He murmured the joke to his friend sitting next to him, he told me. “It was so bad, I don’t remember the exact words,” he said. “Something about a fictitious piece of hardware that has a really big dongle, a ridiculous dongle. . . . It wasn’t even conversation-level volume.” Moments later, he half-noticed when a woman one row in front of them stood up, turned around and took a photograph. […] The woman had, in fact, overheard the joke. She considered it to be emblematic of the gender imbalance that plagues the tech industry and the toxic, male-dominated corporate culture that arises from it. She tweeted the picture to her 9,209 followers with the caption: “Not cool. Jokes about . . . ‘big’ dongles right behind me.” Ten minutes later, he and his friend were taken into a quiet room at the conference and asked to explain themselves. Two days later, his boss called him into his office, and he was fired.

Let India’s urban poor pay for good water: Pavan Srinath makes a compelling argument to provide good quality basic utilities to the poor who are willing to pay more for it.

India’s urban poor pay more for water than the rest of us. Take the case of Bangalore. Many of the city’s more deprived residents do not have access to municipal water, in the form of a working connection from the water supply agency. Those who do have a connection can only meet a fraction of their needs on the unreliable supply. The city’s poor by and large get their water through tankers and through informal sellers. A water tanker can cost over Rs50 a kilolitre. Many more buy water by the pot or the bucket, where they may pay a rupee or two for 20 litres. That translates to Rs50-100 again for a kilolitre. By contrast, the most profligate users of Bangalore’s municipal water pay Rs36 a kilolitre.

The Pursuit of Beauty: A beautiful piece on an esoteric mathematician who solved a famous problem on bounded gaps between prime numbers.

From Zhang’s result, a deduction can be made, which is that there is a number smaller than seventy million which precisely defines a gap separating an infinite number of pairs of primes. You deduce this, a mathematician told me, by means of the pigeonhole principle. You have an infinite number of pigeons, which are pairs of primes, and you have seventy million holes. There is a hole for primes separated by two, by three, and so on. Each pigeon goes in a hole. Eventually, one hole will have an infinite number of pigeons. It isn’t possible to know which one. There may even be many, there may be seventy million, but at least one hole will have an infinite number of pigeons.

Inside the food industry: the surprising truth about what you eat: Every food item we pick up in a store or restaurant has been carefully engineered by an entire industry to look beautiful, taste great, at cheap cost, but with no word about its long term consequences on our health.

A pastry chef in gleaming whites rounded off his live demonstration by offering sample petits fours to the buyers who had gathered. His dainty heart- and diamond-shaped cakes were dead ringers for those neat layers of sponge, glossy fruit jelly, cream and chocolate you see in the windows of upmarket patisseries, but were made entirely without eggs, butter or cream, thanks to the substitution of potato protein isolate. This revolutionary ingredient provides the “volume, texture, stability and mouthfeel” we look for in cakes baked with traditional ingredients – and it just happens to be cheaper.