Making far out the norm: Or how to nurture loonshots

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Vannevar Bush – loonshot pioneer (Picture credit- TIME magazine)

What makes a revolutionary scientific or technological breakthrough by an individual, an organization or even a country possible? In his thought provoking book “Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases and Transform Industries”, physicist and biotechnology entrepreneur Safi Bahcall dwells on the ideas, dynamics and human factors that have enabled a select few organizations and nations in history to rise above the fray and make contributions of lasting impact to modern society. Bahcall calls such seminal, unintuitive, sometimes vehemently opposed ideas “Loonshots”. Loonshots is a play on “moonshots” because the people who come up with these ideas are often regarded as crazy or anti-establishment, troublemakers who want to rattle the status quo.

Bahcall focuses on a handful of individuals and companies to illustrate the kind of unconventional, out of the box thinking that makes breakthrough discoveries possible. Among his favorite individuals are Vannevar Bush, Akira Endo and Edwin Land, and among his favorite organizations are Bell Labs and American Airlines. Each of these individuals or organizations possessed the kind of hardy spirit that’s necessary to till their own field, often against the advice of their peers and superiors. Each possessed the imagination to figure out how to think unconventionally or orthogonal to the conventional wisdom. And each courageously pushed ahead with their ideas, even in the face of contradictory or discouraging data. Read more »

This book should transform your outlook on cancer research

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

A few days ago I finished watching a new documentary on Bill Gates’ life and work. One of the episodes narrated the sad story of the death of his mother in the mid 1990s from late stage breast cancer. She was a great philanthropist and a doting parent who managed to see Bill get married just before she died. At that point her son was already one of the most successful and wealthiest individuals in the world, but with all his resources and wealth, her life could not be saved. Steve Jobs, another person who had access to every medical treatment that money can buy, died early from cancer. These two stories tell us how great the leveling effect of cancer is, taking poor and rich alike without discrimination. Like war, cancer is the father of us all.

Today breast cancer can be treated much better than it was in the 1990s. There are better drugs and better radiation treatment options available, but for resistant late stage breast cancer the prognosis isn’t much better. In fact, as Dr. Azra Raza who is a distinguished oncologist at Columbia University tells us in this eloquent, thought-provoking and immensely sobering book, what’s true for breast cancer is true for most other kinds of cancer except for a few rare exceptions. The hard hitting truth is that in spite of tens of billions of dollars fueled into research around the world done by some of the smartest people in the field, the truly relevant endpoint for cancer – the increase in someone’s life span – has not changed much even after thirty years. For instance, a study of FDA-approved drugs from 2002 to 2014 showed that these drugs extended people’s lives by an average of only 2 months. Dozens of Nobel Prizes have been given out for basic cancer discoveries, cancer ‘moonshots’ have been promoted by politicians, startups and hospitals working on cancer continue to spend countless dollars and hours on a cure for the disease, but the two things that matter most for patients and their loved ones – extension and quality of life – haven’t changed much.

To know why this depressing scenario persists, Raza offers a simple reason with a hard answer: we are focusing too much on late stage cancer treatment, when the disease has already progressed and spread throughout the body, and much less on early stage detection and prevention. In spite of purported cancer breakthroughs in the media, the treatment is essentially the same as it has been for decades – slash (surgery), poison (chemotherapy) and burn (radiation), a triad of interventions sounding like they have been imported from the Stone Age, used because we can’t use anything better. Read more »

Robert Caro: (Obsessively) Working

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Robert Caro might well go down in history as the greatest American biographer of all time. Through two monumental biographies, one of Robert Moses – perhaps the most powerful man in New York City’s history – and the other an epic multivolume treatment of the life and times of Lyndon Johnson – perhaps the president who wielded the greatest political power of any in American history – Caro has illuminated what power and especially political power is all about, and the lengths men will go to acquire and hold on to it. Part deep psychological profiles, part grand portraits of their times, Caro has made the men and the places and times indelible. His treatment of individuals, while as complete as any that can be found, is in some sense only a lens through which one understands the world at large, but because he is such an uncontested master of his trade, he makes the man indistinguishable from the time and place, so that understanding Robert Moses through “The Power Broker” effectively means understanding New York City in the first half of the 20th century, and understanding Lyndon Johnson through “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” effectively means understanding America in the mid 20th century.

By drawing up this grand landscape, Caro has become one of the most obsessive and exhaustive non-fiction writers of all time, going to great lengths to acquire the most minute details about his subject, whether it’s tracking down every individual connected with a specific topic or interviewing them or spending six days a week in the archives. He worked for seven years on the Moses biography, and has worked an incredible forty-five years on the years of Lyndon Johnson. At 83 his fans are worried, and they are imploring him to finish the fifth and last volume as soon as possible. But Caro shows no sign of slowing down.

In “Working”, Caro takes the reader behind the scenes of some of his most important research, but this is not an autobiography – he helpfully informs us that that long book is coming soon (and anyone who has read Caro would know just how long it will be). He describes being overwhelmed by the 45 million documents in the LBJ library and the almost equal number in the New York Public Library, and obsessively combing through them every day from 9 AM to 6 PM cross-referencing memos, letters, government reports, phone call transcripts, the dreariest and most exciting written material and every kind of formal and informal piece of papers with individuals who he would then call or visit to interview. Read more »

The Perfect Library

by Leanne Ogasawara

In heaven, there will be no more sea journeys, says Virgil. For much of human history, to journey by ship across open waters was thought of almost as an act of transgression. It was something requiring great temerity and audacity. It was therefore something not to be taken lightly.

Crossing boundaries, such journeys often ended in ruin.

Shipwrecked.

CS Lewis once described the people of the Middle Ages, not as a pack of barbarians, but as a literate people who had simply lost all their books. Likening them to castaways washed ashore with just a few of their greatest volumes, the medievals, he said, set out to rebuild their civilization. Not an easy task to be sure; for not only had they lost most of their library, but what did survive, survived by nothing other than mere chance. This is how it came to pass that while all of Aristotle was lost, parts of Plato’s Timaeus somehow made it. (Of all the works by Plato, the Timaeus might be the last one that could have been any use to the people!) It would take centuries to rebuild what was lost–and this done through Latin translations made via the Arabic translations.

I like this way of imagining the medievals; for I too have suffered a shipwreck. This happened when I was 44 and walked away from my life in Japan. I left everything behind. All my beloved clothes, pottery, furniture, gifts– you name it. Just a few choice things to put in one suitcase –with the other suitcase devoted to things I imagined my son might want. Walking away from my belongings was a lot easier than you might imagine. Indeed, I found I didn’t miss any of it. Well, except for one important thing: I missed my books beyond belief.

My lost books in Japan haunted my thoughts. So a few years ago, my astronomer and I started recreating my library. Read more »

Bookworm

by Carol A. Westbrook

To Your Health I gave a signed copy of my new book about beer, “To Your Health!” to a couple of favorite bartenders and a bar owner, all of whom had been featured in a story or two in this book about beer. A few weeks later I asked
each one how he enjoyed the book. And each admitted he hadn't yet opened the book, but assured me he put it in the bathroom. After my initial shock, I recognized that I was being paid the highest compliment. For a non-reader, the bathroom is the place of honor for reading material. A stack of books or magazines in the bathroom means, “this is valuable to me, and I am going to read it some day.”

What a different world than the one in which I live! In my world, books hold a place of honor and, more importantly, books are read. I love books. When I was a kid, the Tooth Fairy left us books. My first Tooth Fairy book was “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” by Crockett Johnson, which today remains my favorite children's book. I loved getting books from the Tooth Fairy, and treasured every one.

Because we were a Catholic family of four children, all of whom attended parochial school, we didn't have much money to spare, but books were always there. My father got many of these books for free, since they were demos at his place of work–he did PR for the Chicago Public Schools. We were fortunate to have a steady supply of children’s' books long after we had our permanent teeth.

Reading was a joyful activity in our family. We children taught each other to read long before we started first grade (there was no kindergarten at St. Hyacinth's School). I remember showing my younger brother how to sound out the letters in words; I was seven and he was three. Family vacations were always preceded by a trip to the library, to stock up on a dozen or so books to take along as we lounged at the lake or drove on our interminable car trips.

I was the bookworm of the family. In fourth grade I breezed through the classics on our classroom bookshelves–“Black Beauty,” “Oliver Twist”, and “Tom Sawyer.” I doubt these books would be considered suitable for a 10 year old today (even if they could read them), featuring abuse of both animals and children.

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The Immutable, Dusty Path

by Gautam Pemmaraju

He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness.

6a00d83451bcff69e2012875a9ed93970c-300wiThe narrator of WG Sebald’s The Emigrants informs us that the lonesome painter Max Ferber, worked in a studio in a block of ‘seemingly deserted buildings’ located near the docks of Manchester. His easel, placed in the centre of the room, was illuminated by “the grey light that entered through a high north-facing window layered with the dust of decades”. The floor, the narrator observes, was thickly encrusted by deposits of dried up paint that fell from his canvas as he worked, which in turn mixed up with coal dust, and came to resemble lava in some places. Thinking inwardly that “his prime concern was to increase the dust”, the narrator watches Ferber over the weeks working on a portrait, ‘excavating’ the features of the posing model. The melancholic painter’s tenebrous kinship with the accumulative debris of his days strikes him as profoundly central to the artist’s very existence, for as Ferber says to him, the dust itself “was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure”. Ferber had come to love the dust ‘more than anything else in the world’, and wished everything to remain unchanged, as it was. In the neon light of the transport café bearing the unlikely name of Wadi Halfa, Ferber’s haunt, and where the two often met after the day’s gloomy exertions in the ‘curious light’ of the studio that made everything seem ‘impenetrable to the gaze’, the narrator observes the dark metallic sheen of Ferber’s skin, particularly due to the fine powdery dust of charcoal. Commenting on his darkened skin, Ferber informs his companion that silver poisoning was not uncommon amongst professional photographers and that there was even an extreme case recorded in the British Medical Association’s archives:

In the 1930s there was a photographic lab assistant in Manchester whose body had absorbed so much silver in the course of a lengthy professional life that he had become a kind of photographic plate, which was apparent in the fact (as Ferber solemnly informed me) that the man’s face and hands turned blue in strong light, or, as one might say, developed.

Atmazagaon1In Carloyn Steedman’s Dust (2001), an intriguing collection of essays on a most curious set of concerns, she writes that in the early 19th century “a range of occupational hazards was understood to be attendant on the activity of scholarship”. She makes clear the distinctions between Derrida’s seminal meditations on Archive Fever (see some interesting entries here, here & here), the febrile “desire to recover moments of inception; to find and possess all sorts of beginnings”, from Archive Fever Proper. There was a specific attention to dust and the ill effects it had on artisans and factory workers, during the 19th century and the early 20th century. She points to Charles Thackrah’s investigations into the occupational diseases arising from various trades, particularly in the textile industry, wherein the employments produced ‘a dust or vapour decidedly injurious’. In John Forbes’ Cyclopeadia of Practical Medicine of 1833, Steedman writes, there was also an entry on ‘the diseases of literary men’, a subject of interest among investigators, albeit, for a short thirty year period between 1820 to 1850. In Forbes’ view, the ‘brain fever’, no mere figure of speech as Steedman points out, was a malaise of scholars caused predominantly “‘from want of exercise, very frequently from breathing the same atmosphere too long, from the curved position of the body, and from too ardent exercise of the brain.’”

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The don of Pérignon

Moet%20chandon A year ago (February 2010) I met, in Lagos, Nigeria, Pascal Pecriaux, “Ambassador” for French champagne brand Moët & Chandon. The profile below provides insight into Pecriaux’s life – in and out of wine-tasting – and the Nigerian obsession with champagne. Nigeria ‘discovered’ champagne in commercial quantities (by importation, of course) following the oil boom of the 1970s (starting in 1973/74 and lasting much of the decade). The love affair has continued to this day. Time Magazine reports that the coup-plotters who murdered Nigerian Head of State, Murtala Mohammed, on February 13, 1976, “apparently made their move after an all-night champagne party.”

I wrote this piece not long after meeting Pecriaux:

By Tolu Ogunlesi

On a Friday afternoon at the Lagos Sheraton, a group of people are gathered in one of the banquet rooms. Most are Sheraton staff – waiters and waitresses. There are also a few journalists, like me. We are all waiting for Pascal Pecriaux.

Pecriaux is a “Wine Ambassador” who has flown all the way from the village of Champagne in France, to spread the gospel of Moët to a Nigerian audience. By the time he steps into the room, two hours behind schedule, we are not the only ones waiting for him. Rows of empty champagne flutes line the tables in front of us, and half a dozen or so bottles peek from ice-boxes at the far end of the room.

Moët is one of the most easily recognizable badges of honour flaunted by Nigeria’s elite, especially its young upwardly mobile class. If the frequency of its appearance in the lyrics of Nigerian hiphop songs and in music videos is anything to go by, Marc Wozniak, Deputy General Manager of the Lagos Sheraton, is absolutely right when he says that Moët is “the most common and most well-known champagne in Nigeria.” David Hourdry, Moët Hennessy’s Market Manager for Western Africa says that “Nigeria is today the biggest market for Moët & Chandon in all Africa.”

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