Filed under dewey decimal project

Dewey Decimal Project: 664 LYN Seeds of science : How we got it so wrong on GMOs

I continue workingSeeds of Science book cover through the “Technology” class of the Dewey Decimal System, with 660–669.9 being “Chemical Engineering.” It’s easy to forget this while I’m browsing the stacks and I wouldn’t have guessed that’s where I was when I saw this book about GMOs.

There are a handful of areas where my liberalism becomes a bit heterodox and one of these is with respect to GMOs. I’m willing to believe the arguments for the safety of GMOs (a far bigger problem, as far as I’m concerned is not the artificial manipulation of genetic materials, but rather the application of intellectual property laws to organisms and associated legal actions surrounding the escape of said protected genetic material beyond the initial customers).

Lynas was originally part of the anti-GMO crowd and took place in a number of actions to disrupt the development and distribution of GMO plants. Then, while trying to justify his actions, he did actual research and discovered that so much of what he believed was wrong. It’s notable that this project began with a book about being wrong.

As it turns out, there’s an over-romanticization in many instances of old ways of doing agriculture that reek of first-world privilege. Subsistence agriculture means that those practicing it can only subsist and not advance beyond bare survival. Meanwhile the first world is poisoning the earth and, through its burning of fossil fuels, changing the climate so that subsistence in the third world becomes that much harder. Many of the GMO innovations would allow farmers to go beyond subsistence to being able to prosper—the children, especially girls, would be able to attend school and the family would not be living harvest to harvest but would be able to have a financial cushion that would lift them out of poverty. But thanks to the demonization of GMO crops, these innovations are foreclosed and the agricultural ministries in these countries are unable to make improved crops available to their farmers.

And despite fears about health effects of GMO crops, it turns out that there is absolutely no evidence to indicate that they exist.


Dewey Decimal Project: 650.11 DAV Two awesome hours : science-based strategies to harness your best time and get your most important work done

Who wouldn’t want to make more effective use of their time?Cover of Two Awesome Hours I sure would. So when I faced the bleak wasteland of 650–659.999, Management and Public Relations, I decided that one of the time management books would be the most appealing option.

Davis’s approach is to focus on decision points and  making the point of making the right decisions of what to do at those points. This is pretty much the opposite of my way of working and probably why I’m not that effective. I tend to have a quasi-deterministic way of going about my day, taking the next item on my to-do list and tackling it regardless of whether it’s the best thing to be doing. I’ve ended up rejecting the advice from Davis not because it’s bad but because I don’t really want to change my life in that way even though it would be better for me. Perhaps one of these days I’ll have to revisit this approach to life.


Dewey Decimal Project: 640 BOW The useful book : 201 life skills they used to teach in home ec and shop

I think NewImagethat the best option for writing about this book is to provide a copy of the letter that I wrote to accompany the copy that I gifted to my nephew after I read it (roughly a year ago, in pre-Covid times when he had just started his freshman year of college.

Dear T—,
I hope this letter finds you well as you’re about a month into school. I’m sending you a book I recently discovered that I think you might find useful (not too surprising, given its title). When I told your aunt that I was thinking of sending you a copy of this book, she said that everything that’s in it was a Google search away, and this is true, you can almost certainly find all the information in this book on the internet.

So why go to the trouble and expense to send it? Let me digress with a bit of a background for how I came to find the book myself. I’ve had a project going for the past few years where I’m reading my way through the Dewey Decimal system at the library. Not every book—that would be crazy. (Which is not to say that my plan isn’t crazy.) Instead, I’m looking for something interesting in each “decade” (xx0–xx9.999) of the DDS. The big thing I’m getting from this is exposure to things I wouldn’t normally encounter. In this case, the decade that the book comes from (64x) is “Home & family management” and looking for something to read there turned up this book. I’ve found a number of books that I probably would have never encountered otherwise with this technique. There’s something to be said for planned serendipity in life. It’s easy to get caught up in a plan. I have at least a hundred books on my Amazon wishlist and a file on my Dropbox (pro-tip: sign up for a free Dropbox account, or something similar, and put all your documents there. This gives you an instant back-up of everything on the net, easy access to your files via any web browser or a phone app, and you will never have to worry about what happens if your laptop gets lost or stolen or dropped in a pond) with nearly 1000 books that I’ve heard about through various venues that I’d like to read but don’t need to own so I plan to check them out from the library. The problem is that this doesn’t give me the opportunity to discover something by accident. I put a hold on the book at the library and pick it up from the lobby when it’s available. Buying books from Amazon, while it offers similar instant gratification, loses that ability to discover some other book I never realized I might be interested in in the first place.

The Useful Book can serve as a sort of microcosm of this sort of openness to possibility. It’s not merely that you can find out, for example, how to patch a pair of jeans, but that you might entertain the possibility that a pair of jeans can be patched. There are a lot of skills here that you likely won’t need to employ in the foreseeable future, if ever (your need, to clear clogged gutters is likely to be near-zero), but you might find it helpful to browse at random through the book and discover things you hadn’t thought about previously.

And if nothing else, it’s a nice thick book that you could use to raise a monitor to a more comfortable level on your desk.

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Dewey Decimal Project: 635.934 ORL The Orchid Thief

I knew this book Image from the movie Adaptationfirst from the movie Adaptation and when I finally saw Susan Orlean in person and she didn’t look especially like Meryl Streep, I was somewhat disappointed.

And the lack of resemblance between book and movie (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the funhouse mirror resemblance between book and movie) goes beyond the appearance of Susan Orlean. Although it’s been almost twenty years since I saw the film, it was still fresh in my mind when I was reading the book and I was surprised a bit at how much of the book actually made it into the movie despite the excursions into screenwriting and the bizarre chase scene at the end of the film.


Dewey Decimal Project: 621.3092 COO The Truth About Tesla: The Myth of the Lone Genius in the History of Innovation

ContinuingNewImage through technology, we reach engineering. Spotting a book about Tesla, everyone’s favorite wizard of science, I decided I’d see what Cooper has to say, especially given his provocative title.

Cooper is a lawyer and this reads in a lot of ways like a legal brief. Cooper writes the life of Tesla with an agenda, to argue that Tesla’s genius was not the singular thing that many claim it to be while also attacking the concept of the lone genius in general. To this end, Cooper takes a systematic approach to Tesla’s life and inventions, showing the precedents for many of his great creations, most notably the AC motor/generator which is at the heart of Tesla’s reputation (I discount the wireless electricity transmission claims as these are objectively spurious and only championed by the most deluded of Tesla partisans).

Cooper, like a good lawyer, lays out his case in a way to make his conclusion seem inevitable and this perhaps is my biggest complaint: His legalistic style tends to take much of the energy out of the story.


Dewey Decimal Project: 616.994 MUK The Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

The 610s are oneNewImage of those sections of the library where there are a huge number of books, which is understandable as this is the medicine section and I have to imagine that self-diagnosing illnesses and/or researching treatments for illnesses, real and imagined, is a big use for the library.

I’d heard good things about The Emperor of Maladies so it was not an unfamiliar title when I spotted it on the shelves. My sister-in-law, who’s a doctor, saw it when I was in the middle of it and added her own endorsement of the book.

Much of the history of cancer takes place in the twentieth century, although that’s partly because so much of the history of medicine in general takes place in the twentieth century with medicine as a science being a relatively young discipline. The four humors theory of the functioning of the body managed to last into the nineteenth century despite the fact that two of the four humors turned out to not exist at all.

It seems somewhat miraculous that any treatment for cancer exists at all, or any understanding of cancer, for that matter, given the backwardness of medical science for so much of human history and even during the twentieth century, there was a lot of driving into long dead ends. Mukerhjee manages to make all of this compelling without giving in to oversimplification or distortion of the underlying science. Overall a book worthy of its praise.


Dewey Decimal Project: 607.3474 CRE The electrifying fall of Rainbow City : Spectacle and assassination at the 1901 World’s Fair

The 600s are technology which managed to yield The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City courtesy of the Buffalo Pan American Exhibition’s exhibition of technology alongside the various cultural displays and sideshow acts.

This book isNewImage a sort of unofficial sequel to The Devil in the White City. As in that book, there is the intersection of a grand exhibition and a killer. In this case it’s Buffalo and the assassin of William McKinley, Leon Czolgosz. Where this falls short is that the Rainbow City was a somewhat less spectacular affair than Chicago’s White City and Czolgosz a less grotesque character than Dr Holmes. Even with that, there’s still plenty of interest between the electrification of Buffalo courtesy of generators at nearby Niagara Falls (along with an assortment of sideshow antics at the falls including the first person to go over the falls in a barrel). Creighton does a good enough job with the material that she has to work with.


Dewey Decimal Project: 599.884 WAA Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape

I first learned Bonobo book cover f bonobos about the time that this book was originally published. I remember reading an article about these not-chimpanzees in the Chicago Tribune. I found it fascinating that the two ape species closest in relation to humans have bifurcated into “R-rated” species with one specializing in violence (chimpanzees) and the other sex (bonobos). I remembered reading something about dolphin or porpoise species indicating that a similar bifurcation between sex and violence had occurred with those animals. It raises the question about whether a focus on sex and violence is inherent in intelligence (and on a theological-anthropological note sex and violence come upon the stage in close succession in the book of Genesis).

The book goes into a good deal of detail about what’s known about bonobos, much of which comes from observations of the animals in captivity since their native range and behaviors are such that observations in the wild are difficult and often involve activities such as leaving out food for them to forage which arguably shape their behavior in unnatural ways. Alongside the text are spectacular photos of bonobos, again mostly of the apes in captivity but including some in the wild, which add to the book’s appeal.

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Dewey Decimal Project: 583.22 MOO Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit

When I wasNewImage younger, my father took the family to Paw Paw Woods in the southwest suburbs of Chicago in search of pawpaws. We found a paw paw tree, but it had no fruit. I don’t know whether we had come at the wrong time of year or if the fruit had already been collected or if it was a year that the tree was not going to be bearing fruit.

It was with my father’s obsession in mind that, when I spotted this book on the shelves I decided it would be the next book in line for my reading through the Dewey Decimal system.

Moore provides an engaging account of the natural and cultivational history of the pawpaw, the only tropical fruit to be found natively in temperate North America. Unlike other formerly wild fruits, there has been little success in domesticating the pawpaw. A number of cultivars now exist, but commercial growing has yet to be successful at the scales necessary to make the pawpaw anything more than a niche farmer’s market fruit.

I happened recently to be passing through Ann Arbor and thought we might stop by Zingerman’s Deli to try the pawpaw ice cream that was mentioned in the book, but alas, it is not, as Moore claims, a year-round offering, but only available during pawpaw season so there was no pawpaw ice cream to be had. Instead, at the end of September or beginning of October, I’ll grab my dad and drag him to Paw Paw Woods in search of pawpaws.


Dewey Decimal Project: 573.3 SPE Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery

The 570s are general NewImagebiology which includes evolution which includes the Piltdown man hoax. Since it was mentioned in passing in <cite>The Last Human</cite> and I knew very little about it, when I spotted this book on the shelves, I decided it would be my next read.

It should be a great book: a fake skull was planted in a gravel pit in England, the cranium of a human with the jaw of an orangutan, a hoax that managed to go undetected for several decades despite the misgivings of some contemporary paleontologists. The mystery becomes who was the perpetrator, and unlike some mysteries examined by book authors, Spencer claims to have a definitive answer to the question.

This perhaps is the downfall of the book. To level a charge of who the forger could be, Spencer felt obligated to document his argument extensively and as a result, the book reads drily and ends up being dull. Spencer does do a good job of making his case, but sadly fails at creating a compelling reading experience.