Sunday, January 8, 2017

BIOPUNK by Marcus Wohlsen

Bill Gates told Wired that if he were a teenager today, he would be hacking biology. “If you want to change the world in some big way,” he says, “that’s where you should start—biological molecules.”  In the 2017 audiobook BIOPUNK author Marcus Wohlsen, a senior technology writer at Wired magazine, explores the recent history and potential of biotechnology, both for good or ill. Subtitle is "Solving Biotech's Biggest Problems in Kitchens and Garages." The audiobook begins with showing how hacking biology by private tinkerers in garage labs may be the wave of the future. (The term “biopunk” elicits visions of punk bands cranking out original songs to stick it to traditional music, but in this case science.) The positive aspects include creating new cancer drugs which Big Pharma can’t do, with their “nuke it from orbit” approach and focus on profits. “A big drug company isn’t interested in tailored drugs for small niche markets” (ie. YOU.) “They want drugs that cover a wide range of cancer patients, and make the most profits.” Problem is, that wide range drug for anything from depression to diabetes can end up making you sick, or killing you with side effects. No cancer is like another, and yours may be unique to you. Wouldn’t you rather have a drug tailored for you, without the side effects which TV commercials always list because they are forced to by law…(”side effects may include vomiting, bleeding, loss of breath…” etc.) Only a biopunk geek has the incentive to work at a small scale. Marcus covers case studies, like the woman who created a genetics test in her apartment, a team that built an open-source DNA replicating machine, and a duo who started a drug company in their kitchen. Wow. Instead of cooking meth or trying to get on The Voice, maybe young people should switch to making legit drugs in their garages. The money is certainly there. Health care costs are “skyrocketing,” as they say. Wohlsen also discusses DIY bioterrorism, GMOs, and whether those fears are unfounded. Will an AI take over the world? How hard is it to engineer a living cell, and until scientists can do it, will real artificial consciousness ever be obtained? These are some of the questions covered in this interesting book. Narrator Paul Michael Garcia, an AudioFile Earphones Award winner and former company member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, received his classical training in theater from Southern Oregon University, where he worked as an actor, director, and designer.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

BOOKS FOR LIVING by Will Schwalbe

When should you post to social media, and why do we do it at all? In BOOKS FOR LIVING by Will Schwalbe the journalist and author of The End of Your Life Book Club details the books that have moved him and his friends personally. Among the books he discusses is an obscure title “Zen and the Art of Archery,” which was the inspiration for the classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Published in 1948 by German philosophy professor Eugen Herrigel, it describes getting rid of the self in knowing when to release an arrow. Technical skill must yield to instinct, and so it is an art achieved best by becoming one with the moment, in the Japanese sense of oneness. The practice then applies to other things, including reading. Why is reading an art? Schwalbe makes an interesting analogy in saying that in youth one’s reading is like seeing the moon from an alleyway, high up there in a slice of sky. In middle age it is like seeing it from a parlor. In old age it is like seeing it from a courtyard. Everyone brings their own experience to the reading, and the art is learned in a lifetime of connecting the dots. Or periods. He also employs humor, as in the anecdote relating to his own archery skills: “I once shot an arrow at a target and hit the bullseye…of the other guy’s target.” He writes about digital media too, as he did for The New York Times. His house is cluttered with books everywhere, candidate for a hoarder’s TV show, perhaps. But you can fit your own 100 books on one iPod or iPhone, and travel everywhere with them, downloading them as needed. Narrator for Will’s book is actor Jeff Harding, a veteran of stage, TV, and film. Both have mastered their respective arts, making this a “must hear,” although Schwalbe also points out that fav authors, like fav artists or musicians, can only be arrived at by individuals experiencing widely and encountering them. And that requires curiosity, a rare element in our winner-take-all culture. 
AUDIOBOOKS TODAY:  The author of “The Untold Story of the Talking Book” makes the point that listening to books rather than reading them in print isn’t cheating.  Do you agree?

WILL SCHWALBE:  I don't think audiobooks are cheating at all!  I think we are all wired differently. Some of us are more visual/print oriented and some of us are more auditory.  I do still sometimes love to listen to audiobooks. And I love the voice of the man who reads my books, Jeff Harding. He brings out things in the text I didn't even know I put in.  I should add that part of the reason I tend to prefer print is because I've become quite hard of hearing, and so print is just easier for me. I often read first thing in the morning before I even get out of bed, and before I've put my hearing aids in.  Plus I think all forms are here to stay—printed, ebook, and audio. The more ways that books are available the better!   

Sunday, December 25, 2016

If Our Bodies Could Talk by James Hamblin

From “the most delightful MD ever” (Buzzfeed), IF OUR BODIES COULD TALK by James Hamblin is, according to the publisher, “an enlightening book about how bodies work—and how to keep them working in a world full of myths and misinformation.” In 2014, James Hamblin launched a series of videos for The Atlantic called “If Our Bodies Could Talk.” With it, the doctor-turned-journalist established himself as a seriously entertaining authority in the field of health. Now, in illuminating and genuinely funny prose, Hamblin explores the human stories behind health questions that never seem to go away—and which tend to be mischaracterized and oversimplified by marketing and news media. He covers topics such as sleep, aging, diet, and much more. Hamblin is a senior editor at The Atlantic, and has published widely in magazines and online. The subtitle of the audiobook, which he also narrates, is “A Guide to Operating and Maintaining a Human Body.” Since everyone reading this has one of those, the audience is vast. Subjects include everything imaginable, with science answers to questions involving cell phones, vitamins, probiotics, aging (like what happens in your skin), genetics, biology, CPR, psychology, metabolic syndrome, coffee, milk, meat, sports drinks, snake oil salesmen (pseudo-science), sleeping, drugs, sex, hormones, technology, and tidbits from history (or recent examples) to keep the answers interesting. Culture figures into all this, and the author has an ear for when a topic needs some jazz notes for proper timing and stress. It’s popular science with the angle of answering questions from readers, presented with an amiable tone sensitive to the topic. It is appropriate to note that Hamblin presents various sides in arguments about some controversial topics, but applies skepticism where validity requires, and doesn’t fall for fallacies of logic in order to arrive at consensus. He may not always be right, (the HFCS debate is not as settled as he imagines: see my interview with Mark Hyman and listen to THE CASE AGAINST SUGAR or SALT SUGAR FAT as well to see that all sugar is not the same, despite the soda industry's attempts to say so), but he does display a willingness to change his opinion when presented with new evidence. What will happen to the internet and the science reporting on it? This is anyone’s guess. Perhaps a rebellion against the “McNews” in which pseudo-science is reduced to being equally popular as real science due to the strategy of saying “some scientists believe?” (This is sometimes the mantra of the History Channel, presenting their “findings” as if there is a debate among legit scientists when there is not. Everyone being in favor of equality, that sounds good, when in fact that’s not how science works, and no one’s opinion counts in real science: it’s only what you can prove.) So this is perhaps the best thing about the book: walking the line of reason and discovery. Not referring to “authority” or doing the opposite, either—believing that everyone’s opinion is of equal value. Maybe one day “factoids” of truth (coined by Bradbury) will be automatically vetted and assigned a “believability” rating by an artificial intelligence like those who now already tract us. In the meantime, listening to an audiobook as balanced as this one can only have a positive effect on one’s mind and body.                  
Audiobooks Today: “Could you relate how listening to books might have a calming effect to those experiencing stress while stuck in traffic or at the airport?” 

James Hamblin: “I’d be speculating about calming effects of audiobooks – speaking strictly scientifically, I imagine the effects vary from person to person and book to book. But I can guarantee with 100% certainty that listening to my book will impart a positively transcendent bliss that will render any aspirations to calmness irrelevant. At least, I hope so!”

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Weapons of Math Destruction

In WEAPONS OF MATH DESTRUCTION by Cathy O’Neil you’ll learn some surprising things about the algorithms that now rule our society, as an expansion of the subject matter revealed in such books as The Filter Bubble, Utopia is Creepy, and Future Crimes. This book is unique in that it focuses on how statistics are utilized by mass marketers, politicians, and media giants to extract as much advantage as they can in order to, as they say on Shark Tank, “eviscerate the competition.” For example, credit scores are utilized in hiring practices in 40 states, and so if you made the “mistake” of being laid off and then applied for a loan in which you missed a payment, you may not be hired over someone who wasn’t laid off (for whatever reason.) If you clicked on an ad for a college loan you may be swamped with calls from loan sharks looking to collect high interest rates…get one of those, and algorithms will spot this too. It will appear on records you have no access to, although future employers or loan officers might. If you don’t know the proper ways to word a resume, it might never get viewed since algorithms pre-screen the first round, in search of certain keywords relevant to job openings. You name, race, sex, and even the typeface used can affect your odds before a human ever sees your application or resume. Shoppers who log in to online stores may not get the same deals as those who don’t log in. (Why offer deals to repeat customers?) Google, Amazon, Facebook…they all track you, and know when and where to hit you with ads based on your personal buying patterns, beliefs, and social status. These “WMDs” are like bombs targeting you in their laser sights. They know who you are, and where you live. Zip codes are also utilized, and can keep poor people from getting out of poverty by victimizing them with high interest rates or preventing them from obtaining a job. All this ends up costing more in government assistance, and, once taken, locks some into a death spiral of debt and discrimination. What can you do? Start by listening to this audiobook, which is long listed for a National Book Award, and is ably narrated by the author. 

Friday, December 16, 2016

HOLD A SCORPION by Melodie Johnson Howe

HOLD A SCORPION by Melodie Johnson Howe is a crime thriller that takes amateur sleuth Diana Poole deep into Southern California’s underworld to uncover the mystery of a diamond-encrusted scorpion—and the reason for the murders that follow in its wake. One afternoon while standing outside her newly renovated Malibu house, Diana Poole sees a woman across the highway waving at her, but Diana doesn’t recognize her. Still waving, the woman walks into the oncoming cars and is killed instantly. Why would anyone do such a thing? Melodie Johnson Howe is the author of several novels, and was nominated for an Edgar Award. After a career in movies and television, she quit acting to write novels. This is a pretty unique story, not just the series of novels here, but because the author made the transition out of films into fiction...and also "audio movies." Many film and TV stars (both former and present) do voiceover work narrating books (including Stephen Lang, Natalie Portman, Richard Poe, Kristoffer Tabori, Lorna Raver, Barbara Rosenblat, Will Patton, among others), and authors themselves sometimes narrate their own books (like Stephen King and a slew of autobiographies, most recently Carrie Fisher of Star Wars fame.) But the list of former film stars who now write fiction has to be small. Howe hasn't acted in a long time, but was in both movies (Coogan's Bluff with Clint Eastwood) and TV series such as Lou Grant, Barnaby Jones, Baretta, and Love American Style. Meanwhile, narrator of this novel is Marguerite Gavina seasoned theater veteran, a five-time nominee for the prestigious Audie Award, and the winner of numerous AudioFile Earphones and Publishers Weekly awards. Marguerite has been an actor, director, and audiobook narrator for her entire professional career. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

Audiobook of the Month: Assassination Generation

Not a happy title for the New Year, but appropriate if you have young children. ASSASSINATION GENERATION: Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman is an internationally recognized scholar, author, soldier, and speaker who is one of the world’s foremost experts in the field of human aggression and the roots of violence and violent crime. He is a West Point psychology professor, a professor of military science, and an Army Ranger who has combined his experiences to become the founder of a new field of scientific endeavor, which has been termed "killology." In his audiobook he reveals new science showing that violent games such as Grand Theft Auto 5 (which sold more than $1 Billion in 3 Days—more than then entire music industry combined) deaden sensitivity to violence, may cause depression, and may lead to some kids later joining gangs or getting involved in school shootings (esp. if exposed as pre-teens by parents or siblings who buy them the over-18 games.) He says that the difference between civilian gaming and military war games is discipline and accountability, and so if there's bad parenting and lack of love along with isolation from social contacts due to being connected for long periods (some kids playing these games constantly) American presidents will be forced to give an ever more number of school shooting speeches as part of the job (including Trump.) Playstation 4 was used by ISIS to communicate outside normal channels leading up to the Paris attacks, so ISIS was playing these games too. AMERICA'S WAR: former Col. Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University, served for twenty-three years as an officer in the US Army. He is the author of Washington Rules, The Limits of Power, and The New American Militarism, among other books. His writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, the Nation, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. His premise is that jingoism has gone viral in America (especially among gamers?), with everyone waving (or hiding behind) flags in the "good-old-boy" failed school of “shoot first, ask questions later.” AMERICA’S WAR reveals that military contractors have lobbyists in Washington intent on keeping their grip on the American budget. (We currently spend more on military arms than the next top 20 countries combined.) He also reveals that vets get the shaft in these massive deficit transactions, and Pentagon brass are worried Trump may upset their golden apple cart. What will happen next? No one knows for sure, but Bacevich lays out the options. And reading on the go via listening beats McNews and the same rap or pop songs playing endlessly. (Footnote: did you see the 60 Minutes piece on Colombia, where an ad man planting messages to drug fighters to come home for Christmas "because they are loved" has resulted soldiers for the drug lords abandoning their posts? Fewer drug deaths in that country, plus a revived economy...a result far more effective than bullets. Hearts and minds.) Regarding Grossman, he is always believable as narrator, and the opening narration by Jay Snyder was a touch of genius. He nails it. He may as well have added, "Can you hear me now?" AUDIOBOOK OF THE MONTH. Order at