Friday, August 29, 2014

This Is Improbable

My favorite IgNobel prize was the one awarded to the inventor of the run away alarm clock.   She won the Economics prize - for getting people out of bed and to work on time.  That's not included in This Is Improbable.  What you will find is reports on the speed of fingernail growth, alternative uses (easing sweaty hands and cracked nipples) for tea bags, how people view "Norman" when he's dressed as a punk versus when he's dressed as an accountant, and the amount of stress a strapless gown can bear before, well, leaving the wearer bare.  All of these studies first appeared in Annals of Improbable Research edited by Marc Abrahams.  They're all silly on the surface (and some are side projects which must have been conceived after a third drink), but some (like the IgNobel winning Wasabi Fire Alarm) have real applications.  As Abrahams says, the IgNobels go to achievements which make you laugh - and then make you think.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Whole Enchilada

Diane Mott Davidson slumped a bit after her first half-dozen Goldy Schultz mysteries, and the series has been uneven for the past decade-plus.  I never stopped reading, though, because they remained entertaining and Davidson always includes several fantastic recipes.  The Whole Enchilada is my reward for sticking with the series.  Not only do I want to try every included recipe, it's one of the best books in the series.

The book opens with a birthday party for Goldy and her friend Holly's son Drew.   Goldy and Holly met in the maternity ward and bonded over their sons and their bad marriages to doctors.  Both divorced and formed a support group with Marla (Goldy's ex's other ex) and a few other women, but as their lives improved (and Holly moved to Denver) the women drifted apart.  Holly moved back to Aspen Meadows and while the boys picked up their friendship, Holly seemed a bit distant.  That worries Goldy, but the spring/summer catering season is about to start and she's dealing with an overbearing client who wants everything to be perfect for his mousy daughter Ophelia's surprise 21st birthday party.  Her personal life is busy as well - her former assistant Julian has closed his cafe in Denver, rejoined Goldy's business, and moved in with the family and Goldy and her husband Tom are thinking about having a baby together.  So Goldy puts her concerns aside until she and Holly can catch up.

But Holly dies as she leaves the boys' birthday party - and it appears that someone tampered with one of the dishes at the potluck buffet.   As Goldy comes to terms with her friend's death, she discovers that Holly was in financial trouble, but she can't see how that would make anyone want to kill her.  Then Goldy falls into a trap possibly meant for Holly and someone stabs Father Pete in the parish office.   How were Holly's secrets involved?  Between catering events (including Ophelia's unexpectedly eventful party), Goldy and Marla pour through old meeting notes and half-forgotten memories, bringing  together what appear to be separate plots into one satisfying mystery.

My only problem with the book is that I'm afraid it's the last in the series.  The final chapter feels like a Happily Ever After coda.  Davidson hasn't so completely tied up the loose ends that she can't return to the series, but I suspect that she's at the end of a contract and she wanted give readers a resolution in case the series has ended.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients

Ben Goldacre's follow-up to Bad Science focuses on how the pharmaceutical industry manipulates doctors and patients.  Most people may realize that drug companies design and fund much of the medical research done today (who else would you expect to fund registration trials?), but probably don't know that the results are, if not actively manipulated, disseminated (through publication bias towards positive results) in a way that favors the sponsors.  Additionally, once drugs are approved (shown to be safe and more effective than nothing), there's little to no research to show whether they're safer and/or more effective than the current treatments on the market.  Finally, there's promotion - drugs are advertised to patients ("medicalizing" issues which may or may not be a problem and inducing them to ask for specific name-brand drugs) and to doctors (who understandably appreciate the convenience industry-sponsored CMEs provide, allowing them to get their credits and cut through the stacks of articles published each month).

As anyone who's read the business section knows, drug companies sometimes do more than selectively release data.  Some alter (or actively hide) studies so that ineffective and/or harmful drugs make it to the market.  Goldacre argues that the "cure" for this is the same as the "cure" for the less explicit problems. Larger, simpler trials (such as randomly assigning new patients to one of two similar and known to be effective treatments so we can know which one is better), more research from independent (mostly governmental) agencies, an end to drug advertising, and most of all transparency (in funding of studies and conferences, the disclosure of funding to doctors, and the release of the full data from drug studies) would go a long way to improving legitimate research and preventing the more nefarious actions that land pharmaceutical companies on the front page.

Danger to Elizabeth

When I read The Young Elizabeth, I didn't realize it was part of a quartet (one of the disadvantages of shopping at Daedalus).  Two years later, I've found and read the second in the series, and I'm surprised at how Elizabeth is almost a minor character in Danger to Elizabeth.  Much of this volume focuses on the religiously tinged political battles in her kingdom, with the implication that Elizabeth, while a Protestant, really didn't care what people believed so long as they treated her as the ultimate authority on earth.  The position of English Catholics stood out here.  Unlike the 1998 movie Elizabeth, 1560s England was not quite crawling with assassins and murders.  There were attempts to reestablish Catholicism, but at least as Plowden tells it, they were more political and less bloody than in the inaccurate but entertaining film.  For the most part, Catholics with the means to pay fines were allowed to practice with minor harassment (unless they involved themselves in political intrigues) and the general citizenry didn't seem to care much one way or the other.  Anglicanism wasn't that much different from Catholicism, and the people who'd experienced contradictory fanaticism from the two preceding probably appreciated Elizabeth's more nuanced views.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Plague on Both Your Houses

I read a lot of mysteries - they make up more than half of my reading and most of my fiction reading.  I also re-read some of them, which probably sounds odd to others.  If you know who "dunnit" there's no reason to read it again, right?  Not really.  I enjoy trying to solve the puzzle, but if the only thing the book has going for it is a good puzzle, it's barely worth reading the first time.  A mystery novel is first and foremost a novel, and therefore needs to be well written, with vivid descriptions and interesting characters.  And sometimes, after 15 years, I may forget the killer's identity and motive.

Susanna Gregory's A Plague on Both Your Houses introduced Matthew Bartholomew, professor of medicine at Michaelhouse College, Cambridge.  I've now known Matthew for 15 years (10 in his timeline), and it was interesting to see how he's changed in that time.  He was fairly new to the University in 1348, somewhat unsure of the politics, and in love with his roommate's sister.  Overall, he seemed a bit, innocent, perhaps?  Matthew is not a cynical character, but he seemed a bit less accustomed to the backstabbing (literal and figurative) so common to both town and gown. Matthew's two closest friends, his book bearer Cynric and theology instructor Brother Michael have also changed over time.  The Cynric of 1348 is a vaguely drawn character, little more than a shadowy figure who appears when most needed and not the trusted and perceptive man with a sense of humor I encountered in later books.  Brother Michael underwent an even greater transformation - through most of the book, Matthew didn't know whether he could trust his gluttonous colleague who had not yet revealed his background as a courtier.  Now that I've reminded myself of who these characters were, I want to re-read the entire series and once again watch their growth.

As I read, also I discovered I'd forgotten as much of the plot of A Plague on Both Your Houses as I had of the characters' earlier personae.  I remembered that the plague came to Cambridge, and that Matthew contracted it and recovered with the help of one of his students, and that he was informally engaged to his roommate's sister.  I'd forgotten that the book started with the death of Michaelhouse's master, and that Sir John had been murdered.  Michaelhouse's new head is the vain and bombastic Wilson, and during his installation, someone murders another Michaelhouse member.  Matthew begins his investigation, but is soon interrupted by the spread of the plague.  Somehow, through his exhaustion and frustration, he manages to stumble onto the plot at the root of the murders and, with help from an unexpected person, solves the mystery.

I don't know if this is intentional, but Gregory brings up an immunological issue.  Michaelhouse's laundress Agatha claims to be immune to the plague, and she appears to be right.  Brother Michael also avoids developing the disease, despite multiple exposures.  HIV researchers have found that some people are strongly resistant to the virus, and that the mutation that protects them from HIV may have protected their ancestors form the plague.  I hadn't heard that when I first read this book (maybe the theory hadn't even been known outside of professional circles), so it really stood out when Michael mused why he seemed to be immune.