Mountains Beyond Mountains

If you read regularly, not many of the books you read can change your life much. I read Mountains Beyond Mountains over a year ago, and it clearly is a book that can change your life. It changed mine.
    This book tells the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, a specialist in infectious disease who divides his time between Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and a rural clinic he founded in Haiti. In his spare time, Farmer revolutionized the treatment of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis. Farmer is about the hardest-working person I've ever heard of, and a great doctor: brilliant, determined, and compassionate.
    Read this book because it tells a great human story, and by the way shows what global health can really be, and how much better life can be for the world's poor, if we are willing to take even a little effort to make it so.
    This is the second book by Tracy Kidder that has had a memorable impact on me. His book The Soul of a New Machine was much read by technologists in the 80s. This book portrays the bright, driven technologists at Data General as, well, kind of soul-less. Sure, they were interesting people, but ultimately their work just wasn't very important, or even very interesting. Most of what made the book interesting is their suffering, but since their suffering was ultimately meaningless, it wasn't even redemptive. Kidder's earlier book persuaded me that I did not want to make a career in the computer equipment industry, a career path I was already on when I read Soul. Kidder's later book made me confidently enthusiastic that, if all I ever accomplish is to put moderately better tools in the hands of doctors like Paul Farmer, my career will have been worthwhile.


Pedestrian InRoads

Check out my friend Andrea Okomski's blog Pedestrian InRoads. Andrea's son was run over in a crosswalk three years ago. He survived, but his life was turned upside down (along with his mother's). Andrea's boy spent four months in a coma. If you know anything about head injury, you know that's a very serious situation. I've met him, and his life seems to be like some sort of fever dream. Not what his mother hoped for. Not what he was entitled to. He's a good kid, but every day is a massive struggle.
Andrea's sense of outrage is that her son's misfortune is not an isolated incident. It happens every day.
Over forty thousand Americans die in auto-related collisions every year. Over a million are injured. As Andrea's story shows, many of those injuries are far from trivial. It's obvious isn't it? If an external threat killed 40,000 Americans and maimed 1,000,000 every year, we would spend billions to combat that threat. Maybe form a new branch of the Federal Government. But these accidents and injuries happen one at a time. We blame bad drivers, bad weather, or just bad luck. Driving can never be entirely safe, but "accident" isn't the right word for this level of carnage. As I walk, ride, and drive in America's cities, it's clear to me the basic problem is that many drivers don't take driving seriously.
Not that I'm exactly a model driver. I'm impatient, more than anything else. But I try hard to have good driving skills, which to me includes signaling properly and yielding to pedestrians. For the last six or seven years, I've been more often a pedestrian than a driver, and that has definitely made me more respectful of pedestrians, and more aware that too many drivers just don't understand pedestrian's rights, or don't care. That has to change.


The Trouble with Physics

The Trouble With Physics tries to be about physics, but it's more about the politics of physics. Of course, since physics is the original Big Science, there is very little about physics that isn't political. Smolin's thesis is that string theory stopped being a proper theory a good while ago, and is now something more like a political party. Or a cult.
    Maybe people who haven't had much exposure to science might find this booking shocking. Science, as it happens, is fiercely competitive. Most of the scientists I know are kind, delightful people. But science doesn't give much credit for being nice, it gives credit for being right. And not everyone is going to be nice all of the time. When millions of dollars in research funding is at stake, there will inevitably be people who will do things that should not be done. Smolin argues that realpolitik has come to dominate physics research, particularly in America.