An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

People who are passionate about their subject tend to fall into two categories. There are those who will bore you at length on such subjects as the taxonomy of sponges or the structure of the inner ear. Then there are those whose passion is matched by an ability to communicate, who will make you understand why the taxonomy of sponges or the structure of the inner ear are actually amazing and fascinating subjects.
Neil Shubin covers both those subjects and more in his book Your Inner Fish. Shubin definitely falls into the latter camp of interesting experts – he refers several times to his teaching work and in the book you feel that you are being gently led through the subject by an excellent teacher. Shubin’s passion is using both fossils and DNA to assess what humans share with other forms of life. He refers not just to inner fish but inner flies, inner chickens and inner skates, among others. Like the best teachers, he has the ability to simplify difficult concepts without talking down to his readers. The book is suited to a general readership and no prior knowledge of the field is assumed. In fact, you have the sense that Shubin is particularly targeting those people who might have thought the subject boring. From genes called “sonic hedgehog” to an exploration of why tadpoles hiccup, Shubin is never less than engaging, and his enthusiasm for the subject shines through. In an era when science and in particular genetic experiments on animals have become the subject of a thousand horror films, it is refreshing to find someone who talks unashamedly of his love for science and his joy of living in an “age of discovery.” By the end of the book it is almost impossible not to share his wonder at “finding the basis for our humanity…nestled inside some of the most humble creatures that have ever lived on our planet.” Shubin should be congratulated on translating his passion into a readable and fascinating book.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh and Professor Edzard Ernst

I added this book to my “to-read” list upon hearing that as a result of its publication, the authors had been sued by the British Chiropractic Association.* My reasoning went something like: defamation case = scandal = juicy secrets. As it turned out, while the book is not at all dry, “juicy” is probably a description that the authors would scorn. In fact they clearly pride themselves on the meticulous research that went into their examination of alternative medicines.
Trick or Treatment looks at the evidence for or against five of the main streams of alternative medicine, being homeopathy, chiropractic therapy, herbal medicine and acupuncture. It also examines the history of evidence-based medical treatment and its applicability to “alternative” forms of medical treatment.
Simon Singh, one of the authors, works as a science journalist, and I expect the books readability is largely his work. In contrast, Ernst is a doctor with a great deal of experience in natural therapies, and I suspect the level of scientific rigour brought to bear is a testament to his influence. You can’t help but feel that the authors also brought a pre-existing level of scepticism to the project, but perhaps this is necessary for a scientific and objective enquiry.
The general thesis of the book is that if alternative medicines were proven to work, they would have been adopted by the medical establishment and ceased to be “alternative.” While this could be debated, it is difficult to refute the number of studies cited by the authors, almost all of which show no or dubious benefit to the patient by alternative therapies. The book also provides an interesting window into the field of medical ethics, particularly in its examination of the ethics of exploiting the placebo effect (if a placebo makes people feel better without side effects, should doctors prescribe placebos?) The authors’ reasoning is too detailed to go into here but also makes sense to a layman, as is characteristic of the rest of the book.
So his is clearly an interesting and informative book – but is it useful? I think so, with some caveats. It is unlikely to change the mind of those who are already convinced of the benefits of alternative therapies. They are unlikely to accept the contention that the results of these therapies can be “measured” and compared with any other treatment. However, for those who are unconvinced one way or another, the book does provide a clear summary of the current state of medical knowledge. It even has an exceedingly useful index listing the therapies they were unable to cover in detail and outlining the main points of any research done in relation to them. Where the evidence is insufficient to conclude either that a therapy is effective or ineffective, the authors say this clearly.
Trick or Treatment is certainly a very blunt book and pulls no punches where a therapy is not supported by evidence or could potentially harm a patient. They are particularly critical of chiropractors as an organisation, hence no doubt the court case. The book concludes by suggesting that if alternative medicines carry some of the risks of conventional treatment, they should be regulated to the same standard and the same warning labels should apply. It’s difficult to see this happening if alternative treatments remain on the fringe, but if they do move into the mainstream (for example by obtaining government funding) it may yet come to pass. In that case it would remain to be seen whether a warning label stating “this product has been shown to have little or no effect” would be detrimental to the alternative medicine industry, or whether its follows continue to believe in its intangible, immeasurable and probably illusionary benefits.
* Wikipedia tells me that Singh was actually sued over a column, not over this book. I expect the content was similar though.

Friday, August 5, 2011

How I learned to read without paper

Today I am interrupting normal transmission to tell you how much I love If you are the kind of person who goes to bed clutching a paper book to your chest, feel free to leave now. This post is for those people who have discovered that with an eReader you can carry a hundred books in your pocket, and have never looked back.
Firstly, you have to understand that in the world of eReaders I am doubly disadvantaged. Firstly, I have a Sony Reader, which reads ePub format. It was a deliberate choice not to get an Amazon Kindle – I’m not a fan of the whole “walled garden” thing – but it does make it a bit trickier buying books. I can buy from Kindle but need to convert to the ePub format, which I can only do if the book doesn’t have digital rights management. Then there are those like Readings' online store which provide books that can only be read in a browser – a fact I only discovered after purchasing a book that I now can’t read on my eReader. I’m disappointed, because I think they have great books and offers, but there’s no way I’m reading a book on my laptop. ePub files are where it’s at for me, but for a supposed industry standard they are harder to find than I thought.
The secondly and worst problem I face is that I’m located in Australia. Australia is more than an afterthought when it comes to eBooks. We are the forgotten pimple on the afterthought’s bum.  Think about this for a minute – if I go to today, it tells me there are around 968,000 ebooks. Only 717,000 are available to Australians, and for some reason quite a few of those missing seem to be by Australian authors. Australians have become very familiar with the messages  cheerily announcing “I’m sorry! This book is not available in your location.” It tends to induce a red mist and an urge to commit grievous bodily harm on the computer (which can only be overcome by thinking about how much that infuriating screen actually costs to fix).
And that’s the problem, really. It’s not that they tell you upfront it’s not available. Oh no, it’s not until you put it into your cart and go to check out that they spring the news on you. In fact, it's happened more than once that I've filled my cart with books, only to be told that none of them are available to purchase. Diesel eBooks is the worst have experienced – they let me purchase a book and then wouldn’t let me download my purchase because I was apparently in the wrong territory. It took an email  to the help desk to get a refund, and even then they didn’t refund the credit card charges I paid for making an overseas purchase (okay, it was only about a dollar, but it’s the principle of the thing).
And hence to Read Without Paper. Despite the .com address, it’s an Australian site. It offers ePubs that are easily downloaded to my Sony Reader. Even better, they tell you upfront – when you are actually considering buying the book! – where it is available. It’s a sad comment on the state of eBook sites to say it, but this is revolutionarily wonderful.  They have a great range of books that I actually want to read, and they are set out in a way that actually makes sense.
I spent around a hundred dollars on books a couple of months ago. I haven’t spent that much in years. It just goes to show the potential when sites can actually get this thing right – and in my opinion, Read Without Paper definitely have. Cheers guys!