BOOK REVIEW: Life at the Extremes by Frances Ashcroft

Life at the ExtremesLife at the Extremes by Frances Ashcroft
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Anyone interested in the limits of human physiology will find this book fascinating. Technically, its subject matter is broader than that, considering the environmental limits of living creatures, generally. However, all but the last chapter focuses on how humans react to (and adapt to) extreme conditions. Chapters one through six explore the challenges and limitations of humans under extreme conditions of elevation (ch. 1,) of pressure [underwater] (ch. 2,) of heat (ch. 3,) of cold (ch. 4,) of intense physical activity [running-centric, but deals with strength and power as well] (ch. 5,) and in space (ch. 6.) Then, each chapter reflects upon examples of species that are extremely well-adapted to said conditions, and why. (e.g. After learning about how and why humans have to acclimate to survive high elevation treks, one learns about the bar-headed goose, a bird that can go from sea level to flying over Everest – all in the same day.)

The final chapter (ch. 7) is a bit different in that it discusses extremophiles, creatures that can survive in a wide range of conditions (e.g. acidity, temperature, lack of moisture, lack of oxygen, etc.) that would be certain death not only for humans but for any animals. Most of the species discussed are either single-celled creatures or tiny multi-cellular life (e.g. Tardigrades.) With respect to humans, there is a discussion of the limits and present understanding of suspended animation.

This book offers an intriguing look at life at the extremes. While written by a Professor of Physiology, it’s highly readable for a general audience. It mixes narrative examples in with the discussion of physiology to make the material approachable and engaging. I’d highly recommend this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Drunk Flies and Stoned Dolphins by Oné R. Pagán

Drunk Flies and Stoned Dolphins: A Trip Through the World of Animal IntoxicationDrunk Flies and Stoned Dolphins: A Trip Through the World of Animal Intoxication by Oné R. Pagán
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Humanity’s proclivity to think ourselves above nature has led us to miss the fact that we aren’t the only intelligent creatures and that we share more in common with the rest of the animal kingdom than – perhaps – we’d like to think. Science’s recognition of this truth has spawned a vast collection of books on animal (and, for that matter, plant) intelligence as well as the other traits we share in common with different species. This book carves out an interesting niche in this literature by discussing how other creatures use psychoactive substances (i.e. what we think of as “drugs and alcohol.”) While people tend to think that we are alone not only with respect to intelligence, but also with respect to our vices, it turns out this doesn’t seem to be the case. Of course, there’s a lot we don’t know about dolphins that play with blowfish or monkeys on magic mushrooms – e.g. what their internal experience of the substance is like, and to what degree consumption is purposeful versus accidental, but there is an increasing number of studies that suggest other species use drugs, and like it. The book also delves into the role plants play, particularly in producing substances that have psychoactive effects.

This book is humorous (the material is certainly there) and intriguing. It’s an easy pop science read, and avoids becoming too bogged down in the minutiae of biochemistry. That said, it does include graphics, such as chemical diagrams of psychoactive molecules, and does have to dip its toe into concepts of biology and chemistry. If you find the topic intriguing, you should give it a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Anatomy, 3rd Ed. by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews

Yoga AnatomyYoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book has several competitors, and so this review will focus on a few of the features that I believe make it one of the best books on yoga anatomy, and the most appropriate for many users. To clarify, H. David Coulter’s “Anatomy of Hatha Yoga” has some advantages over this book, but Coulter’s book is also denser and will send neophyte readers to the glossary / internet / library much more often. On the other hand, some of the other yoga anatomy books fixate entirely on postural yoga and treat it entirely as a matter of skeletal alignment and muscular engagement. While a lot of this book (and any such book, really) focuses on skeletal alignment and muscular engagement, I appreciated the books exploration of breath and the nervous system – topics that are often neglected. In short, this book offers a mix of reader-friendliness and detail that makes it at once approachable and tremendously informative.

One important feature of this book is that it avoids the dogmatism of some yoga texts, encouraging experimentation and recognizing that a one-size-fits-all approach to bodies is bound to fail. This can best be seen in the “Cueing Callout” boxes that explore the pithy adjustment directives for which yoga teachers are famous (and often satirized,) advice that is often misunderstood in ways detrimental to a student’s progress.

A second key feature involves keeping anatomy and physiology distinct from the folk science of yoga / ayurveda. While Kaminoff and Matthews do refer to ideas like prana and apana, they do so in a broad, conceptual way that doesn’t conflate said ideas with science. A common problem in yoga texts is conflation of science with folk science such that confused readers are left with a muddle of puzzle pieces that don’t belong to the same puzzle.

Finally, as one who’s found pranayama (breathwork) to be one of the most profoundly transformative elements of a yoga practice, I appreciated that the book not only had a chapter on breath dynamics, but that all the posture discussions included a “breath inquiry” section that encouraged readers to reflect upon the effect of the posture on breathing, as well as suggesting ways in which a practitioner might experiment to improve one’s breathing.

The only criticism I have is that many of the text-boxes in the early chapters seemed to contain random information that could have been incorporated into the text, into footnotes, or edited out altogether. [In contrast to the aforementioned “Cueing Callout” boxes that had a clear and distinct purpose.] If you’re a yoga teacher or dedicated practitioner without a deep scientific background, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than this book for learning about the anatomy of yoga.


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BOOK REVIEW: BrainComix by Jean-François Marmion

BraincomixBraincomix by Jean-François Marmion
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This nonfiction graphic novel surveys the brain and what it does, including: sensory processing, memory, attention, unconscious activities, learning, language, emotional experience, etc. It also reviews some of the more intriguing brain disorders (e.g. synesthesia, apraxias, phantom limb syndrome, etc.) and what they tell us about the nature of the mind.

If you’re looking for a soup-to-nuts overview of the brain that covers the gist without getting in too deep, and which is quick and easy, this book is hard to beat. If you have read much about neuroscience, you probably won’t be introduced to anything new. The book employs the usual suspects of pop-sci neuroscience and cognitive psychology: Phineas Gage (i.e. rebar through the brain guy,) H.M. (i.e. couldn’t form new memories after brain surgery guy,) the rubber hand experiment, the gorilla basketball experiment, etc. However, because it’s such a quick and light read, it’s not much of an investment to review these topics, and – who knows – maybe you’ll retain more due to the graphics.

The premise is a simple one, the brain is being interviewed for a Larry King-style talk show that at times becomes a Jerry Springer-style show as “characters” (e.g. a neuron, a homunculus, the conscious mind, etc.) charge the stage to get in their two cents. This might not be the most creative or clever approach that could’ve been taken, but it also doesn’t distract from the objective of teaching about the brain – as a more intense plot might have done. The art is crudely drawn, though I suspect this is on purpose to make clear this is not a textbook, but rather a pop-sci book.

If you are looking for an introduction to the brain, you should check this book out. (Also, if you’re looking to review, quickly and concisely, you might find it of value as well.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Immunity by Jenna Macciochi

Immunity: The Science of Staying Well—The Definitive Guide to Caring for Your Immune SystemImmunity: The Science of Staying Well—The Definitive Guide to Caring for Your Immune System by Jenna Macciochi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a book about how to keep one’s immune system firing on all cylinders, and it reports on the scientific findings about how a range of lifestyle activities (e.g. exercise, sleep, and nutrition) impact upon the robustness of one’s immune response. The book was exceedingly timely, having been put out last spring in the early days of the pandemic [though I was delinquent in getting to my review until now.]

The book consists of just seven chapters, though they are substantial in length and extent of discussion of the respective topics. The first chapter offers a primer on the immune system, its components, and how it does its crucial job. This chapter also explains how vaccinations work, what autoimmune diseases and allergies are, and what role genetics (nature) and lifestyle / environment (nurture) play in immunity.

Chapter two investigates a range of topics at the nexus of lifecycle and immunity, including: differences between male and female immune responses, pregnancy and immunity, and the effects of aging and menopause on immune system activity.

Chapter three is about our intestinal microbiomes and immunity. If this seems like a strange topic to devote an entire chapter to, you probably haven’t been following the voluminous outpouring of research findings about how our helpful microbiological lifeforms are being shown to have a profound impact on all aspects of human health and well-being from mental health to, well, immune system robustness.

Chapter four explores how immune system activity is compromised by lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep. However, it also looks more broadly at how our immune system responds to the various cycles in which it finds itself — from the daily cycle of days and nights to the yearly seasonal cycle.

Chapter five considers the nexus of mental health and immune response. As was mentioned with respect to the gut, the connections between physiological activity and mental health are becoming ever more apparent – though there remains much to be understood.

The penultimate chapter is about fitness and physical activity and what is know about why exercise is so good for one’s immune response. Of course, there seem to be diminishing marginal returns (less benefit for a given additional workout) and even diminishing returns (negative outcomes) if one goes too crazy with one’s exercise regiment and doesn’t give one’s body adequate amounts of rest.

The final chapter is about the role of nutrition in immune system activity. The approach is very much accord with my own beliefs which are that if one eats right, there is little need for supplements, and no volume of supplements will save you from a poor diet. The emphasis is upon a high-fiber diet rich in plant nutrients and balanced to provide all necessary macro- and micronutrients, while debunking fads and dietary myths. There is discussion of many of the foods that are traditionally associated with immunity (echinacea, elderberry, turmeric, etc.,) and what claims seem to hold and which are unproven.

If you don’t know a lot about the science of healthy lifestyles, this book offers an additional benefit in that it approaches the topic from a quite basic level. That is, it provides a lot of background information that would be useful for a complete neophyte to understand the points about immune activity. So, for example, the author lays out rudimentary explanations of micronutrients or sleep cycles before getting into the relevant information about how these impact on immunity. Of course, the flip side is that for those who have studied this science, it may take some skimming because there is a lot of material that will probably be elementary to those who practice healthy living.

I found this to be an extremely beneficial book. Its focus upon what one can do to improve immune robustness makes it tremendously useful for the average reader. It presents the science without getting too deep in the weeds of detailed physiological activity. I felt the author did an excellent job of walking the line to produce a book that is useful, readable, and digestible.

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BOOK REVIEW: How To Make a Zombie by Frank Swain

How to Make a Zombie: The Real Life (and Death) Science of Reanimation and Mind ControlHow to Make a Zombie: The Real Life (and Death) Science of Reanimation and Mind Control by Frank Swain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The title of this book might lead you to believe that it’s either frivolous or that it’s an examination of a successful sci-fi subgenre. In fact, the book presents some serious (if disturbing, and often unsuccessful) science on two concepts that are disparate except by way of analogy of the Zombie – the brain-obsessed walking undead popularized in film and fiction. Those two ideas are: 1.) how definitive of a state is death, can people be brought back from it, and – if so – under what conditions and at what costs? 2.) is it possible to completely usurp an individual’s will, and – if so – by what means?

The book consists of seven chapters that are topically organized. The first chapter introduces the idea of Zombies, discussing early reporting on them from interested parties visiting the cane fields of the Caribbean. But it also delves into the idea of how drugs and freezing might create temporary death (or the appearance of death) from which individuals can be [partially or fully] successfully roused.

Chapter two explores the history of research about how to bring a deceased person back from the dead. Squeamish readers should be forewarned there is discussion of such things as partial dogs (i.e. the head end) being temporarily revived. The book touches on various ideas related to resuscitation. There is a discussion of one researcher’s study of katsu, techniques used in judo and jujutsu to revive an individual who has lost consciousness [or worse.] Near Death Experiences [NDE] and Out-of-Body [OoB] are also covered. These strange phenomena reported by revived individuals are too common to ignore, but — while they are often presented as evidence of an afterlife and /or the divine, there’s little reason to believe that they aren’t perfectly natural phenomena. [e.g. Neuroscientists are able to induce an OoB with a carefully placed electrode.]

Chapter three shifts gears from the question of death and resuscitation to the one of mind control. While the bulk of the chapter is devoted to pharmaceutical approaches to mind control, it also examines mind control by other means – e.g. authority as an agent of mind control as seen in the famous Milgram experiments, as well as hypnosis. Most of the drug related sections deal with psychedelics (and their naturally occurring precursors.) Swain describes the CIA’s varied shenanigans with LSD in MK-Ultra, Operation Midnight Climax, and the Frank Olsen death. [Long story short, you can’t control someone’s mind with psychedelics, but you can still achieve some despicable ends.]

Chapter four continues the exploration of mind control, but focuses on more invasive approaches — from lobotomies to electro-stimulation. Of course, even as these procedures got more sophisticated, they could still only reliably make vegetables.

If you think the history of lobotomies from chapter four was as scary as it can get, I’ve got news for you. Chapters five and [particularly] six are the ones that I found both the most fascinating and by far the most terrifying. These chapters, together, uncover how mind control is achieved in the natural world by parasitic creatures. Clearly, if there is any risk of successfully taking over a human will, it will not be with doses of Acid or icepicks stuck in the brain, it will be from figuring out how some of nature’s parasitic masters of mind control do it and copying from their playbooks.

Chapter five discusses wasps and fungi that successful take over their [fortunately non-human] hosts. I wasn’t familiar with how many mind-controlling wasps there are, but I had heard of the fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. Said fungus infects an ant, steers it up into a tree, forces it to secure itself by locking in its mandibles onto a branch, and then the fruiting body blooms out of the ant’s frickin’ scull. It’s chapter six, however, where things really get creepy. There’s an extended discussion of rabies, but the wildest part was a discussion of Toxoplasma gondi. T. gondi likes to infect cats, but if it can’t find a cat, it’ll infect a rodent and selectively (not only turn off the rat’s fear of cats but also) make the rat attracted to cats. What’s fascinating is that all of the rat’s other usual fears remain intact (bright lights, sharp noises, etc.)

The last chapter is on the various intriguing things that happen after a person dies — from cannibalism to organ harvesting. I think the most interesting discussion to me, however, was one about keeping a brain-dead accident victim alive long enough that her baby could live to term within her. (There was also an intriguing – if unnerving – case of a mother who wanted her deceased son’s sperm harvested.)

The book’s only graphics are black and white photos at the head of each chapter, but it is footnoted and has a chapter-by-chapter bibliography.

I found this book riveting. I learned a lot from it. The cases are presented in amusing and enthralling ways. If you are interested in the questions of what it means to be dead and how safe your free will is, this is an engrossing look at those subjects. I highly recommend it.

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POEM: Ode to My Immune System [Day 8 NaPoMo: Ode]

I

Accused of failing to think about you,
I cannot deny that it’s true.
My lymph bristles with white blood cells
that make invading me treacherous hell.
And leucocytes are just a start,
marrow and spleen each play a part.
I can’t thank you all in this strophe,
but if I could I’d give you each a trophy.

 
II

I can’t say I recall each time I’ve been sick,
but my T-cells must surely have a nice trick
cause they’ve got them etched from first to last,
dating back fifty years in my past.
And if my thymus weren’t a taskmaster
I fear my life would end in disaster
for my body would self-cannibalize.
[And if that idea gives me teary eyes,
tears have antimicrobial enzymes.]
If I had to think about all the times
my NK-cells shivved a potential tumor,
I couldn’t maintain such good humor.

 
III

My ode is almost done, and many were left out.
The truth is there’s a lot that I don’t know about.
So, it’s not that I don’t love my antibodies.
Nor that I think their work is shoddy.
I just didn’t do well enough in Chemistry
to describe their heroism with rhymed brevity.
Skin, lung cilia, gut mucus, and macrophage
each deserve more words up on this page…

than have smarts to write.

BOOK REVIEW: The Immune System: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Klenerman

The Immune System: A Very Short IntroductionThe Immune System: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Klenerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a volume in the “A Very Short Introduction” [AVSI] series put out by Oxford University Press on a wide variety of scholarly subjects. As the series title suggests, the central objective of AVSI books is to pack as much of the fundamentals of a topic into as slim a package as possible. I read quite a few of these to get the gist of a subject without a lot of extraneous information. In short, they are brief and provide a high caliber understanding of the topic, but they aren’t written to be entertaining and they assume a basic scientific literacy. They usually weigh in at between 100 and 200 pages. (In this case, 144 pp.)

I found the seven chapters were optimally arranged. Chapter 1 describes and delineates the immune system, which isn’t as easy as it might seem. Putting the immune system inside neat borders is hard. If you simply describe it as the body’s defensive system, you quickly run into problems at the edges of competing classification. Sure, B cells and T cells are clearly part of the immune system, but what about skin and mucus membranes? Where does the lymphatic system end and the immune system (which uses it extensively) begin?

Chapters two and three explore the two major divisions of the immune system: the innate and the adaptive. These days, with COVID-19 at the center of global attention, the distinction is probably clear to most. The innate system isn’t geared to take on specific invaders. It has the advantage of being able to fight almost any invader, but the disadvantage of not being able to keep up with invaders that grow rapidly, are good at disguise, or both. An adaptive system response is what we all lack for COVID-19 because it only recently jumped to our species (well not “all of us,” those who had it and are recovered have adaptive immunity and that’s why they don’t have to worry about getting it again [those who have properly working immune system, at least.]) The adaptive response recognizes specific invaders and can raise an army against them tremendously quickly. Vaccines train the adaptive system to build such a response (typically by injecting a weakened strain into the body, but more detail is provided in the final chapter.)

Chapter four is entitled “making memories,” and it is an extension of chapter three. It further investigates adaptive immunity by focusing on the question of how the body develops a memory of those invaders it’s crushed in the past (or that it learned to crush by way of vaccination.)

The next two chapters delve into the two opposing ways the immune system can fail. Chapter five is about immunological failure, or how and why the body sometimes isn’t up to defeating invading adversaries. Most famously this is seen in HIV / AIDS patients, but there are other ways that the system fails in its job as the body’s bouncer. Chapter six looks at what happens when the immune system is too aggressive. [It’s important to realize that not only does the immune system check out foreign bodies, it also checks the tags on the body’s own cells, killing those that don’t display a proper “tag.”] The two major categories of over-performance are: autoimmune disorders (when the body wrongly attacks its own cells) and allergies (when the body goes all “This is Sparta!” on relatively benign foreign objects.)

The last chapter looks briefly at what work is being done in medicine these days involving the immune system, including approaches to vaccines, immunotherapy, biological therapies, and work on inflammation and the how the immune system is linked to aging.

If there was one topic I wish was better (more extensively) handled it would be discussion of what is known about how and why lifestyle choices influence immune system operation. There was a mention of how smoking has been linked to a specific immune system deficiency, and a general comment on how diet and exercise appear to be linked to increased effectiveness of autophagy (the body’s process of self-consumption and recycling of cells,) but that’s pretty much it. As there is a lot to cover in a small space, it’s hard to be too critical about this, but it seems like a crucial topic (if not as scientifically sexy as vaccine research, which is discussed relatively extensively.)

I found this book did as advertised, give me the immune system basics in a quick read. It has simple illustrations to support the text, and has a table of abbreviations — which can be beneficial given the hugely abbreviately nature of the immune system physiology. There is also a “further reading” section, but it’s heavily focused on textbooks – versus presenting popular science books that cover the material in a more light and entertaining manner.

I’d highly recommend this book if you have a basic scientific literacy and want just the facts on immunity without a lot of meandering narrative.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Modern Art and Science of Mobility by Aurlien Broussel-Derval & Stephane Ganneau

The Modern Art and Science of MobilityThe Modern Art and Science of Mobility by Aurelien Broussal-Derval
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is designed to help athletes (and those who train athletes) increase mobility. The authors draw heavily upon yoga and martial arts drills (especially judo and jujutsu groundwork drills) in addition to the usual suspects of modern fitness – i.e. calisthenics, kettlebell, etc. It’s a visual book. The text is highly distributed toward the first half of the book. The heart of the book is pictures and descriptive captions of the exercises and practices described. This isn’t a complaint. I think there is sufficient discussion of the topics addressed and that said discussion was clear.

The book is organized into four parts, and — within each part — by anatomical region. The four parts are: Pain, Breathing, Movement, and Mobility. The section on pain offers many self-massage techniques, often using foam rollers or balls to counteract myofascial pain. I was particularly impressed to see an entire section devoted to breathing, and that it not only explored exercises to free up the diaphragm and intercostals (rib muscles) but also discussed issues such as the role of stress on breath. As mentioned the parts on movement and mobility are heavily oriented toward conveying exercise sequences graphically, and the chapters were oriented by parts of the body.

With a book that is so graphically-oriented, it’s important to mention that the photography, anatomical drawings, and diagrams are well done. The photos make it easy to see what is happening. It seemed to me that they used the right number of photographs to convey the movements involved, and they augmented these with arrows and lines to show direction of movement and alignments. It was usually quite clear what the movement was even before reading the captions. The photos are of varied sizes and orientations as needed to convey the exercise at hand. The anatomical drawings are clearly labeled.

I will say there were three exercises that I found troubling, but I gave the authors the benefit of the doubt as the book seems to be directed toward athletes. I don’t think these are things that will give most athletically-built people too much trouble especially when practice in moderation. However, as anyone may pick up such a book, I would be cautious of these three activities – especially if you haven’t been training in a while or are new. First, doing loaded lunges (i.e. barbells across the shoulders) with one’s knee way out forward of the toes. As the point of the book is mobility, I don’t have a problem with doing floor exercises on a knee this way, but that’s a lot of pressure to load onto connective tissue. Second, doing cobra (Bhujanga, or what they call “Sphinx”) with straightened arms and thighs resting on the floor. That almost always creates a sharp kink in the back with one spinal process prying into another. One can do Up-Dog (Urdhva Mukta Svanasana) with thighs off the ground or Cobra (Bhujanga) with your navel on the ground, but you shouldn’t confuse the two. Finally, they mention doing a roll up into shoulder stand. Unless you are extremely experienced, this is a bad idea because with the chin tucked into the chest there is very little room for error. Work up into shoulder stand slowly and easily. I will point out that this is what I noticed as a yoga teacher, individuals with other experience may see other issues, but I have some experience with the jujutsu drills and didn’t notice anything problematic.

That said, I thought this book was well done. The organization, explanations, and graphics were excellent and it will be a helpful resource for athletes working on mobility issues.

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