Book Reviews

Book review: The End of Alzheimer’s Program, by Dale Bredesen.

This sequel to The End of Alzheimer’s is an attempt at a complete guide to a healthy lifestyle.

Alas, science is still too primitive to enable an impressive version of that. So what we end up with is this guide that would overwhelm anyone who tries to follow it thoroughly, while still lacking the kind of evidence that would convince a skeptic.

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Book review: The WEIRDest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich.

Wow!

Henrich previously wrote one of the best books of the last decade. Normally, I expect such an author’s future books to, at best, exhibit regression toward the mean. But Henrich’s grand overview of humanity’s first few million years was merely a modest portion of the ideas that he originally tried to fit into this magnum opus. Henrich couldn’t quite explain in one volume how humanity got all the way to industrial empires, so he split the explanation into two books.

The cartoon version of the industrial revolution: Protestant culture made the West more autistic.

However, explaining the most important event in history makes up only about 25% of this book’s focus and value.

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Book review: The Precipice, by Toby Ord.

No, this isn’t about elections. This is about risks of much bigger disasters. It includes the risks of pandemics, but not the kind that are as survivable as COVID-19.

The ideas in this book have mostly been covered before, e.g. in Global Catastrophic Risks (Bostrom and Cirkovic, editors). Ord packages the ideas in a more organized and readable form than prior discussions.

See the Slate Star Codex review of The Precipice for an eloquent summary of the book’s main ideas.

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Book review: Lifespan: Why We Age – and Why We Don’t Have To, by David A. Sinclair.

A decade ago, the belief that aging could be cured was just barely starting to get attention from mainstream science, and the main arguments for a cure came from people with somewhat marginal formal credentials.

Now we have a book by an author who’s a co-chief editor of the scientific journal Aging. He’s the cofounder of 14 biotech companies (i.e. probably more than he’s had enough time to work for full time, so I’m guessing some companies are listing him as a cofounder more for prestige than for full-time work). He’s even respected enough by some supplement companies that they use his name, even after he sends them cease and desist letters.

I’m glad that Sinclair published a book that says aging can be cured, since there’s still a shortage of eminent scientists who are willing to take that position.

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Book review: Black Death at the Golden Gate: The Race to Save America from the Bubonic Plague, by David K. Randall.

Imagine a story about an epidemic that reached San Francisco, after devastating parts of China. A few cases are detected, there’s uncertainty about how long it’s been spreading undetected, and a small number of worried public health officials try to mobilize the city to stop an imminent explosion of disease. Nobody knows how fast it’s spreading, and experts only have weak guesses about the mechanism of transmission. News media and politicians react by trying to suppress those nasty rumors which threaten the city’s economy.

Sounds too familiar?

The story is about a bubonic plague outbreak that started in 1900. It happens shortly after the dawn of the Great Sanitary Awakening, when the germ theory of disease is fairly controversial. A few experts in the new-fangled field of bacteriology have advanced the radical new claim that rats have some sort of connection to the spread of the plague, and one has proposed that the connection involves fleas transmitting the infection through bites. But the evidence isn’t yet strong enough to widely displace the standard hypothesis that the disease is caused by filth.

There was a vaccine for the bubonic plague, which maybe helped a bit. It was only 50% effective, the benefits lasted about 6 months, and the side effects sound like cruel and unusual punishment. It was controversial and often resisted, much like the compulsory smallpox vaccinations of the time.

Yet the plague didn’t seem to know that it was supposed to grow at exponential rates. That left an eerie sense of mystery about how the plague could linger for years, with people continuing to disagree about whether it existed.

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Book review: Nutrient Power: Heal Your Biochemistry and Heal Your Brain, by William J. Walsh.

Nutrient Power is an eccentric book about nutritional problems and their effects on the brain. It’s full of information that’s somewhat at odds with conventional wisdom.

It’s a short book, and I wasn’t tempted to read all of it. I usually don’t review books unless I’m willing to read the whole thing, yet this time I can’t resist the temptation.

I expect that it’s important reading if you’re building your own model of how nutrition affects cognition, you’re frustrated about how little you’ve found in peer-reviewed publications, and you’re interested enough to treat this as something closer to a career than a hobby. If, like me, you’re less ambitious than that, you should expect to find at least parts of the book frustrating. And if you just want easy-to-follow or rigorously proven advice, this is definitely not the book you want.

I’ll guess that a bit more than half of the unusual ideas are correct and valuable, and that less than 10% of the others are harmful. Don’t expect it to be easy to distinguish the good ideas from the bad.

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Book review: Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement, by Katy Bowman.

Move Your DNA does for physical activity what paleo diet advice does for food.

The book is full of suggested movements to practice, making it look somewhat like a yoga book.

Bowman criticizes the common notion of exercise, because it leads to people repeating a tiny set of motions.

Most of us wouldn’t imagine that we had a healthy diet if we ate nothing but carrots, or nothing but liver, even though eating more of those is usually a good idea. Yet plenty of people seem to imagine that they can offset the risks of spending 60 hours per week in chairs by running for a few hours on a carefully maintained surface, repeating a single type of motion with no variation.

A healthier lifestyle would include a wide variety of motion, ideally motivated by the need to accomplish a wide variety of tasks such as carrying wood, digging, pounding nuts, and walking on terrain with lots of little irregularities (she calls this cross-terraining).

How much does it matter? Bowman provides surprising hints, and good theoretical reasons for concern, but leaves me with a good deal of uncertainty about the magnitude of the harm.

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