Posted by: Green Knight | April 30, 2013

Reading List, part 3

Maybe I should look into a retirement career as a book reviewer, given all the hits I got on part 1. My reading list, part two, is under the 4/17 post titled “Popularity Contest?” Related to that, I just got hits from the Maldives and Sao Tomé and Principe. I just love getting those islands!

One book I just finished and recommend highly is David Ropeik’s 2010 “How Risky Is It, Really?: Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts“. It’s a great exercise in critical thinking; it focuses on public health and environmental issues, but it would be great for any PR person to look at, and should be required reading for any government drone who has contact with the public, which is ALL of them, some just more than others. I always enjoyed dealing with the public and the media, but most public servants would rather hide under their desks than talk to the public. Go figure, eh?

David entertainingly shows how people freak out over relatively trivial issues and ignore the monumental but sometimes less obvious ones. I tried to point that out over and over as a government employee, private consultant, public speaker, and longtime instructor. I took an EPA course while I was a state guy that was about Risk Assessment, Management, and Communication, and it was pretty good, but David stresses that the affective side should carry as much weight as the rational side, and he’s right. We’re all in this together, and if you don’t take people’s feelings into account, you get the usual reaction from the folks you’re trying to communicate with, viz. “they’re all LYING to us!!!” Mr. Ropeik correctly and deftly tosses psychology into the mix. It’s a great primer for anyone doing disaster relief, emergency response, all the way down to someone on the city council arbitrating a neighborhood dispute over trash pickup schedules.

The second book, which I’m about halfway through at the moment, is “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic,” by David Quammen, 2012. People love this stuff, and I’m among them. It’s chock-full of scary true stories about viruses and bacteria that jump ship from critters to humanoids. Another witty scribbler, is David. He can horrify, educate, and make you laugh to ease the tension convention (as my pal Kinky Friedman says) all at once.

And, in case I haven’t mentioned it previously (although I’m pretty sure I have), another favorite is my buddy Mark Pendergrast’s 2010 “Inside the Outbreaks: The Elite Medical Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service.” Mark is an engaging writer who looks at social issues from unusual and revealing perspectives. He’s written about coffee, and Coca-Cola, and in this one he writes about epidemiology on the wild frontier. Don’t get sick without him! Just today I decided he’s sort of America’s version of James Burke.

Don’t be shy, folks, read the stuff on my list and provide feedback. This blog DOES accept and welcome comments. [my cranky old former feral tortoiseshell cat Mitzi helped me write this post. that’s her curled up in a sunbeam. if i can’t get it right, i can always blame it on the kitty.]Mitz the solar tortie



  1. Thanks, Bob, for your kind words about my books, and I look forward to reading Quammen and Ropeik as soon as I can. It’s interesting that one is saying not to freak out, and the other gives some pretty good reasons to freak out. But both make sense. In my book about the Epidemic Intelligence Service (Inside the Outbreaks), I noted that the EIS was begun in 1951 because of paranoia over bioterrorism. EIS officers did end up investigating the anthrax letters 50 years later in 2001, and a few other intentional human-sponsored epidemics, such as the Rajneeshees spreading salmonella on salad bars, but bioterrorism is way overblown as something to freak out over. Nature is much better as putting us in our place (or keeping us there), as David Quammen points out, I am sure.

    One a related matter, I have heard no one in the media comment on the irrationality of the “line in the sand” in Syria over chemical weapons. Chemical warfare is terrible, but it doesn’t in fact matter how you are killing innocent people. Bombs and guns are equally appalling. Yet no one ever states that this the case.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Mark. Now we have ricin letters. Sheesh. I was still back home in San Francisco before the Rajneeshees (sheesh, Rajneesh?) did their thing up in Oregon, and I used to see them in their recognizable attire, loose oranges and reds and pinks, with the wooden-bead necklaces and the locket with the picture of the guy. The Bhagwan predicted, as did Edgar Cayce, that California was going to fall into the ocean, but the guru even timed it, and his followers all had to move out by a certain date. When I ran into them, I used to ask, “so, what are you gonna do on that day: move, or just change clothes?”

    As to Syria, I can’t really comment; I haven’t been following the situation as much as perhaps I should be doing, as a world citizen. As a former archaeology major, I regret that Dr. Zahi Hawass had to step down, and that his museum got vandalized, when Egypt “got its freedom.” I watch BBC World News when I remember to. I’m so tired of oppression and warfare that I just wish humanoids would evolve past violence. It’s a necessary step, and way past time. I read Lao-tzu or Alan Watts or Black Elk or weird cosmology just to calm down before bed, or play guitar or write moody poetry. I’m optimistic about our potential, but pessimistic about how we’re probably not going to live up to it.

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