Tag: non-fiction

Review – How To Change Your Mind

Posted October 31, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How to Change Your Mind by Michael PollanHow to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics, Michael Pollan

If you’re interested in the recent findings that psychedelic drugs (like LSD and magic mushrooms) could help treat forms of depression that have proven themselves resistant to the usual standard of care, this is pretty helpful in many ways as a survey of how LSD et al were originally perceived, how and why things changed, how a psychedelic experience feels, and where things are right now with research (roughly, given that anything based on research can be refined or retracted by the time the book’s printed).

It is also, however, very much about the author: his experiences with various different psychedelic substances take up a whole chapter, and another chapter is given over to the hunting of mushrooms (and the descriptions of a psychedelic trip based on those, too). It’s a very personal history, though I feel that Pollan does make his biases and prejudices — and how they changed with the research — pretty clear, so the unwary reader is still aware that some of this is coloured by opinion.

It sounds like psychedelics are a pretty promising avenue not just for treatment-resistant depression, but for quite a few other mental health issues too. I don’t think that I’m ever likely to see out psychedelics recreationally: the described dissolution of the ego and changed perceptions don’t really appeal to me, and I’d rather find my oneness with the universe through meditation and just trying to be a good person. The one way in which it appeals to me is the finding that it often changes people’s relationship to death (having been used with great success as part of palliative care). As someone with 10-15 years of constant anxiety about my health and anxious predictions of my imminent death under my belt, the idea of feeling able to let that go to some extent sounds very appealing… if only there were an exact science to having the kind of trip that leads to that outcome.

There are a few things that bother me about the current perception that psychedelics could be a panacea for almost all mental health problems, and to his credit, Pollan does discuss them despite his enthusiasm. One is the near-impossibility of randomised controlled studies; another is the impossibility of tightly controlling all the variables when psychedelic drugs are used, because people’s experiences depend highly on their setting and their mental state beforehand, and crucially, what they expect to happen. As soon as you’ve got someone’s informed consent for a psychedelic to be administered, you’ve changed the outcome of their trip.

Finally, we’ve had seemingly amazing breakthroughs in mental health treatments before, but over time they have lost their efficacy — repeat studies on antidepressants like fluoxetine (Prozac) now find far smaller effects, even when everything is carefully controlled. It’s not entirely clear why that is, so it is also unclear whether that will apply to psychedelics as well, and to what extent.

In any case, Pollan’s book is an interesting survey of the history and the state of the field now, and well worth it if you’re interested in the topic.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The CBT Toolbox

Posted October 28, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The CBT ToolboxThe CBT Toolbox, Jeremy Crown

A friend who knows I studied a little bit of the science around mental health, and am also currently seeing a therapist for CBT, asked whether I thought this book would work as a self-guided treatment. It’s available cheap on Kindle, and free on Kindle Unlimited, so it’d be kind of nice to think it’s an easy answer.

Well, I’m not discounting the power of a good book, ever, but I don’t think it’s likely to ever be a very good idea to try to do CBT on yourself. A therapist can slice through a whole crowd of issues to pick out the one which sounds important right now; you’re the one stuck in your head with the dizzing number of possibilities. If you know yourself really, really well, then maybe you can pick out the right thing… but even then, it can be hard to take things seriously, and give things a proper try, without someone to report back to. It can be hard to see your progress without having someone to help you see it, even if you self-administer the GAD7 or the PHQ9 or whatever other diagnostic.

And this particular book… no, it’s not a replacement for CBT. It can help introduce you to some of the ideas, but mostly it explains what a therapist will focus on, and a really high-level version of what they might choose to work on. My “deferred worry” system isn’t mentioned, for instance, even though it’s what my therapist identified as the most likely thing to help me. (Not sure. Maybe it is helping.) It has a worksheet for each type of problem that it mentions, but I don’t think it is (or could be) a replacement for the expertise of someone who has treated all kinds of people in their practice, and who can hone things down to what you need.

It would be a good one to read if you’re feeling a little sceptical about CBT and what it might offer; I still wouldn’t turn down CBT based on how you feel about it after reading this book, but it gives you a bit of a frame of reference for what CBT can be used for, and how broadly efficacious it is considered to be. So, it’s of use, but not a treatment plan unto itself.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Stuck

Posted October 17, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Stuck by Heidi J. LarsonStuck: How Vaccine Rumours Start — And Why They Don’t Go Away, Heidi J. Larson

I was really interested to read this, partly because Heidi J. Larson’s position at LSHTM (where I now study) caught my eye. Hey, I’ve picked books for worse reasons, and the issue this book is trying to dissect is really, really important — and something I might perhaps be interested in working on someday in terms of trying to reconcile people to vaccines.

Anyway, the gist of the argument is that scientists and government officials aren’t listening to the concerns of people who are worried about vaccination. At the same time, it points out that when governments have listened to such concerns and paused vaccination schemes, it’s legitimised that view — often again years of studies — and resulted in even more people losing their trust in vaccines. It pings around between those points a bit and comes to no conclusions.

There’s no additional wisdom here: Larson never manages to get beyond “people feel their [fictional, unscientific, ungrounded in fact] concerns about vaccines should be listened to and investigated very carefully, and they’re mad that governments aren’t doing so… but it’s also bad when governments do so.” Thanks, I figured that out. Somehow governments/health officials need to listen to people with concerns and made them feel valid, without actually making those concerns sound valid.

I get that it’s a difficult subject, but this book — short though it is — takes too long to tell me nothing I didn’t already know. If you’ve never thought about why vaccine refusal happens, and never tried to dig into the consequences, then this book will be useful, though.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Entangled Life

Posted October 7, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Entangled Life by Merlin SheldrakeEntangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, Merlin Sheldrake

I’ve been looking forward to Entangled Life for quite a while, so hurrah! It’s finally here. I read it pretty quickly, and then had to put it aside and think whether it actually met my expectations. Sheldrake’s really, really keen on fungi, that much is obvious; sometimes I was less interested in his poetic hands-on eagerness to understand them close up — I wouldn’t wax lyrical about Mycobacterium tuberculosis in quite the same way, however wonderful and terrible I find it.

In the main, it’s accessible and interesting, and centres fungi completely in a way that normally doesn’t happen. There are lots of books about microbiology and few are the ones that really delve into fungi, partly for the good reason that we don’t actually understand fungi very well and have a lot to learn. There are a lot of interesting facts in this book, and some interesting speculations as well.

I just… I don’t know, I ended it feeling that Sheldrake was more interested in evangelising for fungi than anything else. The bit at the end where he says he’s going to seed a copy of the book with spores and dampen it, and then eat the mushrooms that grow… and then pulp another book to make alcohol out of it — I don’t know, it had me pulling back a lot and saying “y’what, mate?” There’s something very performative about it, and if someone were to tell me he were being mind-controlled by our secret fungal overlords, well… In fiction, that’s exactly what’s going on.

It’s odd for me that I ended the book with that strong feeling of “…dude, what?” instead of fascination with the genuinely interesting scientific titbits newly learned.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – X+Y

Posted October 4, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of X+Y by Eugenia ChengX+Y: A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender, Eugenia Cheng

X+Y is a pretty accessible book, despite being written by a mathematician and professing to be a mathematical approach to the problem. It doesn’t involve much mathematics in the sense of numbers: instead, it uses “category theory”, Cheng’s particular specialism, to try to look anew at the problem of gender inequality. She writes well and makes the concepts very clear, sometimes with the judicious use of diagrams and examples. Not being a numbers person, I expected to be thrown by all of it, but actually I found it quite an enjoyable read.

In the end, what it does is take gender out of the question, and view the problem of inequality as being to do with traits that are associated fairly strongly with feminity and masculinity, but which don’t need to be. In the end, she calls the two extremes “ingressive” (competitive, self-focused) and “congressive” (cooperative), and her suggestions revolve around both individuals and society becoming more congressive.

It’s not that I disagree, because the situations she describes sound wonderful — I’d kind of like to see if she could teach me mathematics, or rather if an approach like this could teach me and get through my aversion. And she mentions disliking the feeling that she had become “ingressive” in order to succeed, and changing that, and I agreed with some of those points too. I think it could indeed be transformative to promote congressive behaviours in your everyday dealings and in the things you have responsibility over.

I’m not sure if it’s an answer to gender inequality per se; I think it is a bit overly optimistic in stripping away factors to claim that congressive behaviour is all we need. At best, what she suggests will be a slow climb.

So an interesting read, and I agree with her in principle — and I’m certainly happy to make the experiment in my own life. I think for many mired in the consequences of binary and gendered thinking, though, it’s a hard sell that it’s all about these simplified behaviours and that we can just promote better ones.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Story of Wales

Posted October 1, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Story of Wales by Jon GowerThe Story of Wales, Jon Gower

The Story of Wales is an attempt to tell (some of) the history of Wales, and come to some kind of understanding about what shaped the nation as it is now. A lot of this history is familiar to me, but only vaguely and through literature, so it was nice to get it all laid out and clarified.

Well, “nice” is a very bad word for it, since the history of Wales quickly becomes a history of oppression of the language and customs. People don’t like hearing this, but what are the Welsh Not, Brad y Llyfrau Glaision, the wanton drowning of Capel Celyn to get water to Liverpool, but the oppression of a native people? And these events aren’t all hundreds of years in the past: Capel Celyn was drowned in 1965, after Liverpool put it through Parliament to avoid having to get planning permission from the local council (who would have denied it). All the Welsh protests against the drowning mattered not at all; only what the English Parliament said.

It was a little funny to see my tiny part in history mentioned there: I voted in the 2011 referendum, and voted “yes”. I wonder if one day I can go home to live in an independent Wales — I’ve never particularly wanted the end of the United Kingdom, but if an independent Scotland and an independent Wales can re-enter the EU, I’ll head home like a shot to get my rights back. It’s nice to know a little more of the history of my home, for sure, though The Story of Wales was at times a little dry or unengaging.

Rating: 3/5

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Weekly Blogging Challenge: Non-fiction

Posted September 30, 2020 by Nicky in General / 8 Comments

Wednesday Weekly Blogging Challenge

I’ve decided to take part in a new blog hop, hosted by Long and Short Reviews. This week’s topic is “the non-fiction book you think everyone should read, and why”.

So the answer is David Quammen’s SpilloverIt’s a little old now, I guess, since it’s what kinda set me on my current trajectory (just about to start my MSc in Infectious Diseases!) — but the points he makes about how “spillover” events occur and why are still as valid as ever, and it’s a good survey of some emerging infectious diseases which could cause huge problems. It basically predicts the current situation with COVID-19, which has burst out of its bat reservoir and become pandemic shockingly swiftly.

The gist is that, due to destroying habitat, increasing usage of land, and climate conditions… we’re increasing the contacts between humans and animals we previously didn’t come into contact with so much. Every species has their own share of diseases, and some of them can be transmitted to humans too. When that happens, that’s “spillover”, and we should expect to see that happen more and more.

So I think everyone should read that, to really understand what’s currently happening and why, and what should be done about it.

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Review – Invisible Women

Posted September 27, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-PerezInvisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado-Perez

I was somewhat hesitant to read this book. Caroline Criado-Perez became somewhat known during her campaign to ensure that Britain’s currency honoured at least one female figure (aside from the Queen), during which she endured a torrent of abuse. However, she’s also been accused of being a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), owing partly to a really rather bizarre rant complaining that she’s not cisgender. Since being “cis” is simple the counterpart of being trans (think Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul, or cis and trans fats)… it’s a weird hill to decide to die on, though a certain branch of “feminism” has decided to find “cis” offensive as a term.

Anyway, I decided that it was important I read this anyway, partly to form my own opinion and partly because I think the topic of her book is important, so I got it from the library. And I’ll be clear: she’s not wrong in many of the things she asserts, for example that drugs are tested on men and not on women, and that this results in drug dosages being calibrated to the average man… and thus often failing entirely in women, or conversely proving to be harmful. Criado-Perez has example after example in which there is a clear tendency for people to a) bucket the vast array of human variation into two sexes, and b) ignore one of those two buckets anyway.

Unfortunately, she’s all on board with a). She critiques things as if those buckets are real things, rather than acknowledging that despite those fairly robust-looking buckets, within them there is still a great deal of variation, and between them there is great overlap. I was going to say that it would not shock me at all to learn that the differing causes of intersex development each have different impacts on response to drugs — but it would be more accurate to say that I’d be pretty flabbergasted if it weren’t the case. This makes her examples of the “gender data gap” overly simplistic when she discusses it as it relates to medical interventions, though a layperson might well not notice. To me, that’s a problem in itself. It’s far too easy to come away with the impression that there’s two kinds of people in the world, men (who have XY chromosomes and “male” bodies) and women (who have XX chromosomes and “female” bodies).

For someone who is reading this book without really being interested in trans issues, so much of what she says will just be taken as read. Since she’s critiquing a very binary society, it will fit very well within what people understand. I think she could’ve unpicked this a lot more, and that it’s a particular problem when she embroiders on how women would be much better at handling x or y because they are inherently more caring and drawn to compromise. There’s a lot of critique of that ‘women are from Venus, men are from Mars’ attitude in science as well. Figuring out how best to handle all this is not served by blithely accepting sex differences as being a stark divide between male and female, either.

Part of the gap in all our data is this lack of understanding that “male” and “female” are roles, differing slightly in different societies, and sometimes admitting of other gender identities… none of which really express the sheer variety that those buckets contain. Despite, for instance, her complaints about medical interventions being calibrated for men and not women, we actually need to know not the right drug and dosage to use for a woman, but the right drug and dosage to use for a given individual.

In many places in her book, you can read in “those perceived as female” instead of “women” and “those perceived as male” instead of “men”, and it makes perfect sense. Criado-Perez does state in the preface that she discusses gender rather than sex because the problem does not reside in the female body, but in how “women are treated because they are perceived to be female”. This is a bit more nuanced than I’d expected from her based on the criticism online, but from that point on she refers solely to “women” and “men”. Throughout, Criado-Perez refers to “women” and means a sort of average woman, who she pretty much always imagines with kids (or as someone who will plan to have kids) and a husband who earns more than her.

I think her book is not a bad place to start, if you haven’t thought about the topic, but it’s likely to be disappointing to anyone with a more nuanced view. She has a simplistic view of gender: highly reductive, and prone to leaning on supposed sex differences without ever critiquing whether they’re even real (as others like Cordelia Fine and Gina Rippon have done). She is not wrong that the “typical” male body is treated as the default, and that it has resulted in massive gaps in our data. She’s not wrong about the impacts on people everywhere, either, and when she discusses the social impacts of the gap in data, she makes some good points. She’s more gender essentialist than I would ever care to be, though.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Utopia for Realists

Posted September 20, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Utopia for Realists by Rutger BregmanUtopia for Realists, Rutger Brenman

Utopia for Realists set out the case for three major things which would build a better world, a utopia in which we not only have unprecedented prosperity but that prosperity is more evenly shared, and people do worthwhile work:

  • A shorter workweek
  • Universal basic income
  • Open borders

As far as I can tell, Brenman has his facts in order, citing studies and real-world circumstances which support the suggestions he makes. Giving homeless people free cash, no strings attached, seems to have a better result than any other intervention, according to the studies he cites; shorter work weeks were almost actually implemented before they slipped off the political agenda; the numbers suggest that immigration will boost economies…

There are a lot of studies mentioned and footnoted, and a lot of sources to check; I did a little digging, but not more than that. I feel like I know so little about economics that Brenman could be saying “we should dye all ducks green” in economics-ese and I would just be nodding along. He writes very convincingly (with a few slip-ups like calling people with disabilities “cripples” — hopefully something introduced by the book’s translator rather than baked into the original text) and often aligns with my own ideas and ideals, so it’s not surprising that I feel the urge to nod along.

I did have a couple of criticisms that even I noticed, though. One example was his claim that immigration doesn’t harm social cohesion… only to claim that open borders couldn’t be introduced immediately because of the impact on social cohesion. Yikes, dude. You literally just said there’s no effect, two pages before. He also explicitly mentions rejecting a study because of his own opinions on the subject, and never actually discusses the results of that study and why he would rationally put it aside. There are a couple of other bits and pieces like that — inconsistencies and eyebrow-raising moments.

He also exhorts people at the end to be idealists, after setting out his case that utopia is achievable. I see what he means — it is achievable, if his data and theories are correct, but it requires people willing to commit to it and believe it, and in the face of so much opposition that does take an idealist, not a realist. It’s still a bit of a contradition, though…

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Digging Up Armageddon

Posted September 20, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Digging Up Armageddon by Eric H. ClineDigging Up Armageddon, Eric H. Cline

Digging Up Armageddon discusses the archaeology of a fascinating site: Megiddo, better known as Armageddon. Alas, despite wanting to know more about the archaeology and that area of the world, I struggled a bit with Digging Up Armageddon. Much of the book involves the exact composition of the digging team in the Oriental Institute Megiddo expedition, what they said and did and complained about. It’s all relevant — it affected the excavation, and shaped the entire approach to the dig… but it overshadows the actual archaeology in this volume, leaving me hard-pressed to talk about the archaeology!

As a result, it took me quite a long time to read it. It’s best approached as a history of that specific expedition and their legacy, with some discussion of how things have changed (how they misinterpreted or outright messed things up) — it’s definitely not about the archaeology alone, though you could in theory read each alternate chapter and focus more on the archaeological side. Still, things are so entwined that personally I wouldn’t recommend it, and I have no idea how you’d follow all the names and why they’re involved without reading it all. The disagreements were sometimes a bit byzantine.

In the end, I’m glad I read it, but it wasn’t so much the kind of non-fiction I really enjoy. If you’re looking for info on that particular expedition, it’d be a great resource.

Rating: 3/5

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