Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters

Rose George lures us in with tales of high-tech Japanese toilets and then spends the rest of The Big Necessity pointing out that the phrase 'water born disease' is a euphemism for 'shit born disease.' 2.6 billion people have no access to even the most rudimentary toilet, and many of the toileted are relieving themselves into a hole which may seep into the ground or a pipe which may overflow with moderate rain. After the brief discussion of Japanese plumbing (including a crowded bar debating the qualities of the top two toilet brands - basically, one rinses better and the other dries better, leaving the choice of toilet up to the preference of the user), she takes us on a tour of the developing world where the same basic problem of safely eliminating and possibly recycling waste needs to be tailored to scores of environmental and cultural issues. George discusses biogas generators on Chinese farms, the struggle to create enough toilets in India so that the country can be "open defecation free," and addresses the problem of using 'biosolids' as fertilizer (they're nutrient rich, but how much treatment do they need to be made safe). I found George's writing style accessible and the topic fascinating, but she's a bit earnest. Part of me wonders what Mary Roach would do with this subject.

Napoleon's Buttons

I went a little overboard when the Borders in Center City closed last March, buying anything that looked interesting. I seem to have made mistake with Napoleon's Buttons - I thought it would be a bit like James Burke's Connections, but it's more of a Connections-light. Maybe with my chemistry background I'm not part of the intended audience, but I found it a bit condescending in places, and a few questionable facts make me suspect the rest of the presented historical connections. The specifics of the experiments leading to the discovery of vitamin C deficiency as the cause of scurvy and some of the background on the origins of olive oil were interesting, but I think I might have enjoyed this book more if I knew less about the covered topics. Or maybe not - the authors' tone isn't particularly inviting.