Spillover by David Quammen

Many, if not the majority, of human diseases are what are called zoonotic. They don’t originate in humans but pass to humans from animals. Ebola, the common flu (“…wild aquatic birds are now known to be the ultimate origin of all influenzas…“), and AIDS are just a few examples. It seems that the rate at which such diseases are making their way to the human population is increasing. In his book Spillover, David Quammen delves deep into this question, traveling the globe, interviewing leading scientists, and witnessing first-hand our response to these diseases.

Spillover is one of those “popular” science books that it would behoove everyone to read. It is accessible, boiling the science down to the essentials and describing it in a way that is understandable. More importantly, it discusses a topic that is often in the news and which will only become more prevalent and newsworthy as time passes. Further, the types of diseases that Quammen investigates are becoming more common and understanding why and how may be a critical step in preventing a future epidemic.

This is one of those books where I was constantly highlighting passages, as I was continually learning something new, interesting, and, seemingly, important. Quammen is a field reporter, having worked with publications such as National Geographic. He doesn’t just report but he participates in his stories. As such, he has a multitude of anecdotes to share. Some of them are very enlightening as he describes, for example, how he helped capture bats to test them for various viruses. Once or twice, his penchant for storytelling goes a little astray, for instance when he hypothesizes the voyage of one of the first HIV positive men in Africa traveling along the river and settling in a city where he spreads the disease. In these instances, I grew a bit impatient and wished he would get to the science. But, overall, his vibrant descriptions broke up what might have been a dull narrative and certainly gives it flavor.

Quammen describes the basics of zoonotic diseases. They have some animal host, that often is unaffected by the pathogen. Often there is an amplifier host, another animal in which the virus can quickly replica and from which it can be quickly injected into the environment and find its way to humans. He goes in to detail about numerous zoonotic outbreaks and how scientists trace the origins of those outbreaks and try to develop vaccines for them. This effort reads like a detective mystery, as scientists have to piece together very fragmentary bits of evidence to build a picture of what is going on. And this is a hard problem. We still don’t know what the host animal is for the Ebola virus, despite the effort put into identifying it.

One of the central themes of Quammen’s book, one that he raises multiple times but doesn’t really beat to death, is that the reason that zoonotic diseases are on the rise is because humans are continuously disrupting the habitat of animals. By deforestation and construction, we encroach into new areas where animal hosts with these diseases have lived maybe for millennia and now we are exposed to them and their diseases. It is our increased interaction with remote species that seems to be the driver. As Quammen puts it “Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behavior are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly.” By the latter, he means our ease of global travel, where a virus originating in China can make its way through Hong Kong and then to Europe and the Americas before anyone comes down with symptoms. There are also a lot more of us than there used to be. From the planet’s point of view, we might be one of the more successful pathogens… As Quammen summarizes the situation “Ebola virus is not in your habitat. You are in its.” Further, climate change may exacerbate the problem. Drier climates can lead to easier transmission of pathogens as they can carry on the air easier.

Often, the host species are bats. This surprised me to some degree. Why would bats be special? This is a question that is still being understood. Bats are very abundant. One quarter of all mammal species on the planet are bats. They also behave very differently from other mammals in that they can fly long distances and roost together in large communities, enabling the transmission of pathogens. However, the role of bats as hosts seems greater than their shear number. There is something about viruses that are harmless to bats, and so they carry them, that are deadly to humans. This is still an open scientific question.

Quammen goes through the basics of disease science: how scientists model disease spread, how we characterize diseases, and how we use that information to trace the origins of the disease. He provides numerous examples of how we have been able to isolate the nature of the specific virus that is attacking humans and where it might have originated from. AIDS is an interesting example. There are lots of internet rumors and stories about where AIDS started. However, I have to be honest: I have never heard about the current best theory. My knowledge is clouded by the false information or earlier false leads and the current best hypothesis never made it to me. For those who are interested, it seems that the best hypothesis now is that an African hunter likely killed an infected chimp, for meat, way back in the early 1900s, maybe about 1908, way before we first identified the disease in humans. That is, it has been circulating in humans for the better part of at least 50 years before we even realized what was going on.

There are also interesting dynamics between the different levels of animals involved in the spread of disease. Take ticks and Lyme disease as an example. Ticks catch the disease from mammals, most often small rodents, who then pass it on to the next generation of ticks. That is, ticks aren’t born with the disease, they catch it from other animals. As one scientist quoted by Quammen says, “If mammals didn’t make ticks sick, ticks wouldn’t make mammals sick.” Further, the relationship to the animals we might interact with, in this case the deer, is not so obvious. It was thought that culling the deer would make the disease go away. It didn’t. It made it worse, in fact. This is still being studied, but it seems that the more we disrupt the native animal population, the more we increase the risk of spreading these diseases.

To reemphasize the central tenet of Spillover, the increase in these disease is a direct consequence of humans’ expansion across the globe. However, there are a lot of complex and interconnected factors at multiple levels that drive the spillover of a disease from the animal host to humans. “Habitat disturbance, bushmeat hunting, the exposure of humans to unfamiliar viruses that lurk in animal hosts — that’s ecology. Those things happen between humans and other kinds of organisms, and are viewed in the moment. Rates of replication and mutation of an RNA virus, differential success for different strains of the virus, adaptation of the virus to a new host — that’s evolution. It happens within a population of some organism, as the population responds to its environment over time.

Another theme that Quammen emphasizes is that, while we can, with enough diligence, understand and potentially control an outbreak, we cannot predict where the next one will be. There are too many things we simply don’t — and can’t — know, to make such a prediction. Thus, we need high levels of readiness to respond when the next outbreak occurs. “If we can’t predict a forthcoming influenza pandemic or any other newly emergent virus, we can at least be vigilant; we can be well-prepared and quick to respond; we can be ingenious and scientifically sophisticated in the forms of our response.”

The Changeling by Victor Lavalle

The Changeling, by Victor Lavalle, is, at its core, a book about fatherhood, what it means to be a good father. Apollo, who has his own daddy issues, having been abandoned by his dad when he was a young kid, is now a father himself. However, his world is completely shattered when… well, I won’t say more about what happens. Suffice it to say that Apollo undergoes a quest to find out what really happened to him and, more importantly, why.

The Changeling takes place in modern New York City but infuses elements of Nordic mythology. All of this is to examine what it means to be a father, not only from Apollo’s perspective as both a son and a father himself, but also from others, including those of the bad guys. At one point, Apollo self-congratulates himself on being a so-called “new dad”: “New Dads carry the diaper bag — really a big old purse — without awareness of shame. New Dads are emotionally available. New Dads do half the housework (really more like 35 percent, but that’s still so much better than zero). New Dads fix all the mistakes the Old Dads made.” However, later, another character rants at Apollo: “I know you. One of these special new fathers. You’re going to document every moment, every breath of your child’s life. You take videos of them while they’re sleeping and slap them on the computer before the baby wakes up. You think you’re being so loving. You’ll be a better father than the one who raised you!… But let me tell you what I see instead. The neediness of it. The begging to be applauded. As if the praise of a thousand strangers would ever make up for the fact that you didn’t feel loved enough as a child.” This is the real tension in the book: what makes a good father? To what lengths do good fathers go? Even the bad guys are motivated, in some sense, by being good fathers. The entire chain of events that lead to Apollo’s misery begin with an act, centuries before, of a father trying to do right by his family.

Lavalle’s characters come alive through their interactions between one another. Apollo is the central character, but his wife Emma, their son Brian (named after Apollo’s long-vanished dad), his best friend Patrice, his mother Lillian, and others make for a complex set of characters that are all well-developed and add to the richness of Apollo’s world. At various times, Apollo has reason to doubt all of them, emphasizing how we are all ultimately, to some degree, navigating this world on our own. And, especially in his world, Apollo has no idea of whom he can trust.

Lavalle has a sharp wit and keen insight that makes for pleasurable reading. Here are some of my favorite lines :

  • ‘Women only like jerks.’ That’s the mantra of dudes who have made themselves undateable but aren’t willing to take the blame.
  • The only real magic is the things we’ll do for the ones we love.
  • Do you know how much harm ‘happily ever after’ has done to mankind?
  • The last two days had been an uncut drug, an overdose of the improbable.”
  • In America your name must be convenient or it must be changed.”
  • What lengths will people stretch to believe they’re still good?”

This last line emphasizes that, in the world of The Changeling, while there are certainly bad guys, they aren’t evil, per se, in the sense that they are inherently trying to do bad things. They think they are doing good things, they are doing the right thing. They are wrong, but they don’t realize it. They have motivations that, to them, seem reasonable and maybe even right. It is the kind of grey world that most appeals to me.

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

One hundred years from now, the United States has collapsed. Big Pharma is more powerful than most governments. Robots are as intelligent as people. It is in this world that Judith “Jack” Chen survives as a pirate, making illegal versions of drugs to sell to those that can’t otherwise afford them.

In this world, Big Pharma has made life “better” for those on the top. Drugs exist that can keep you young, can make you more productive, and can heal wounds. Biotech has also led to the ability to “paint” roads as needed. Most technologies are biogegradable — “somebody had left a throwaway mobile which was now biodegrading into a lump of gray cellulose.” Robots are indeed smart, so smart that they’ve been given the same rights as people. But, as courts decided that robots still could be “indentured,” they also decided that people could, since they are no smarter. A new form of slavery emerges. Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz, explores this world through the adventures of Jack, who has reverse engineered a new drug that has some nasty side effects. Once her drug gets out there, she tries to stop it, any way she can.

Autonomous explores themes relevant for our own times. What is the meaning of freedom? Both literally, in the form of actual bondage to another person, and more abstractly. In a world where the rich can stay perpetually young with their designer drugs, what chance does anyone else have of ever breaking out of the bottom? If drugs exist that can enhance your abilities, make you work better and more efficiently, what choice do the rest of us have but to take them? If big companies control these drugs, what hope do any of us have against being beholden to their demands? Many of these questions we grapple with now.

Take for instance, performance enhancing drugs. We are most familiar with steroids, and athletes who use them both to get a leg up and to heal faster. If all of the other football players are using them, how can a guy not be tempted to follow their lead, to ensure he is on the same playing field in terms of base level of talent? I’ve often wondered, if there was a drug that made me smarter and better able to do my job, would it almost be an obligation to take it? Wouldn’t it be in my employer’s best interest? In my family’s?

At the same time, as such drugs are developed, they are owned, by big multinational corporations. This is exemplified by GMOs. I’m not at all against GMOs from a scientific or health point of view. Humans have been modifying the food they eat for millennia, so little of the food we eat is “natural.” No, to me the bigger issue is who then controls the food supply. If companies own the rights to the genetic material, and we rely upon that material, we lose control of how to grow our own food. And, the next step is that they own more and more genetic material, not just of corn and wheat, but of animals, including people. Where does it end? Who fundamentally owns the “rights” to the DNA structure of humans? What happens when “every living thing and idea [is converted] into property?

In the world of Autonomous, the emergence of intelligent artificial life raises new questions about freedoms. Robots are smart and are aware. But, people still want them to work for them. So, they are kept indentured, or as slaves, effectively. However, there are pockets where robots are “born” free, raised autonomous. One character is just such a robot, and she struggles with identity issues: “How could she understand them [indentured robots], when she’d always been autonomous? She felt like her bot identity was incomplete without that seminal experience.

Autonomous doesn’t delve deeply into these questions. By creating a world in which these issues have become part of the fabric of life, Newitz has the freedom to tell her adventure story within the backdrop of this world, touching on these questions through her characters. I’ll admit, it took me a while to get into the story, but once I knew the characters and the setting of the story, it flowed a lot better. Newitz raises questions that already face us and will only become bigger issues as we go forward.

Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

In some real sense, computers are like brains. They take information in, process it in some way, and try to make sense of it. A key difference is that, with computers, we can explicitly lay out all of the rules for processing that information. For brains, the rules are already there, we can just try to figure out what they are. The central thesis of Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths’ book Algorithms to Live By: What Computers Can Teach Us About Solving Human Problems is that, by looking at how computers can be programmed to solve problems and what kinds of problems are easy and hard, we can learn something about how brains do the same.

Christian and Griffiths go systematically through a series of problem types that are central to computer science and applied math and describe how the insights into those problems give us insight into how brains handle information. One of their first examples relates to decision making. Say you have a choice you need to make from a pool of options — who to get married to, what house to buy, which secretary to hire. The basic conundrum is this: you want to make sure you get enough data to make an intelligent choice — you want to know that your choice is really a good one by comparing it to the other options — but the more information you gather, the longer you wait, the more likely the best one has already come and gone. So, you need to wait for some time to judge the quality of the pool and each candidate relative to the pool, but you can’t wait too long or you miss the best one. Under some assumptions, applied math has solved versions of this problem, a class of problems called “optimal stopping” problems. It turns out that, under certain conditions, the optimal stopping point is 37%. That is, you should use the first 37% of your options to help you build your knowledge base about the pool, and not choose any of them. But, you should choose the very first person after that 37% that is better than any of those in the first 37%. This maximizes your chances of choosing the very best person. You aren’t guaranteed to get the very best with this algorithm, but you have the best chance of getting the best.

This is just one example that Christian and Griffiths use to draw analogies between computer science and human thinking. They delve into a variety of topics:

  • Exploring versus Exploiting. Related to optimal stopping, this is the problem of relying on something you already know well versus trying out something new, such as a restaurant.
  • Sorting. If you have a large amount of information, how is it best to sort through it all.
  • Caching. Again, if you have a lot of information, how do you deal with it in the first place? How do you get the information you need now when you can’t have all of the information at your fingertips?
  • Scheduling. If you have a full to-do list, how do you optimize the best way of getting through your list? Do you want to keep the list as short as possible? Do you want to minimize how long others have to wait for you?
  • Bayes’s Rule. How do you use what you know now to make estimates about what will happen next?
  • Overfitting. What are the dangers of overthinking a problem?
  • Relaxation. Given a hard problem, how do you even begin to solve it? How do you find the best answer?
  • Randomness. When you have a huge problem, with a lot of data, so much that you can’t look at all of it, how do you figure out what it says? Think of polling.
  • Networking. In a large, interconnected world, how do you share information with everyone else?
  • Game Theory. How do we make choices when our choices involve other people and their choices?

All of these topics not only have direct relevance to how we program computers to work for us, to solve hard problems that computers are better at, but also give insight into how we can organize our own thinking and data processing. With the internet, 24-hour cable news, and ever-increasing media presence, the amount of information we are bombarded with continues to grow. Our lives become busier as we juggle work, our child’s soccer schedule, the maintenance we have to do on our house, our social lives. A lot of what we do is process information and try to make some sense out of it. While computer algorithms often don’t provide silver bullets — in fact, some problems are simply not solvable, at least not in a finite amount of time — they provide some insight into how to think about certain types of problems.

Algorithms to Live By provides a nice introduction into some of the problems of computer science in a way that is easily approachable. And, if the problems Christian and Griffiths describe might offer some insight into how our own brains work, at the same time, by making that connection between computers and us, they make the problems of computer science more relatable. That is, they provide an accessible pathway to learning about computer science and how we solve some of the biggest problems in computer science. Given the ubiquity of computers in our lives, it certainly doesn’t hurt to know more about how those machines work.

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

Myfanwy (pronounced like Tiffany, but with an M) Thomas lived in a world in which some people are born with supernatural abilities. Imagine the X-Men, but with a wider range of powers (some not altogether that useful) and no colorful costumes. Myfanwy’s employers, the Checquy, are a secret society that has been around for centuries and works with the British Government to protect the United Kingdom. Myfanwy was one of their best employees, having risen through the ranks to a position of relative power. However, Myfanwy Thomas no longer exists. Her brain has been wiped clean and a new personality inhabits the body that once belonged to Myfanwy. This is the world of The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley.

Without giving too much away, this new Myfanwy — for the new personality adopts the old inhabitant of her body’s life — has to learn both her role in this supernatural world and the reason the old Myfanwy was eliminated. During the course of her journey of both self- and world-discovery, Myfanwy encounters foes that are centuries old, that the Checquy has fought against before.

O’Malley has created an interesting world with “mutants” that are surprisingly fresh. I won’t reveal their powers here, but some of them are very inventive. O’Malley also has a way of bringing his characters and world to life. He has a way with words. At one point, describing the formation of the American counterpart to the Checquy — the Croatoan — he describes one of the first supernatural people to work in the Americas as being “condemned to a tedious backwater populated entirely by religious fanatics whose idea of fun was not having any.”

The world of The Rook, while built on a supernatural foundation, still connects to science in a strong way. The powers of the characters work in pseudo-scientific limits. The Checquy’s foes are rooted strongly in the biological sciences. The world O’Malley has created is one in which, yes, the supernatural is a strong element and people do have absurd powers, but they fit in the world, they aren’t out of place. Combined with O’Malley’s strong sense of pacing — The Rook reads like an action movie of sorts — this is an entertaining thrill ride in an oddly parallel world. The Rook is not the deepest reading in the world, but it is an exciting one.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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