the (sic) Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl

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The Book of the Week is “the [sic] Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl, How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis” by Arthur Allen, published in 2014. This disorganized story presented horribly confusing time frames, alternating between scenes of the main characters, with a large amount of historical context thrown in– which made the book’s title misleading, besides. But it provided information on a lesser-known aspect of WWII: the evolution of the typhus vaccine that saved countless lives.

Anyway, in 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire drafted the two doctors described in the story, as medics for the Kaiser’s army. Dr. Rudolf Weigl was born in 1883 in what is currently Czech Republic. Dr. Ludwik Fleck was born in 1896, and was Czech, Austrian and Polish. They both lived in the city of Lviv (aka Lwow or Lemberg) for a significant period in their lives. Weigl studied typhus there at the Polish National Health Institute of Hygiene (PZH).

Fleck opined that the contradictory medical journals of the 1930’s weren’t particularly useful, so doctors needed to use their personal smarts when diagnosing patients. Patients could be carriers of an illness, but not have symptoms themselves. For decades, Weigl was experimenting nonstop by breeding body lice (rather than head lice) as the spreaders of typhus– that fed on human blood. The guts of those lice were then injected with typhus-contaminated blood solution. He developed a vaccine that worked better than the competition’s.

Later on, during WWII, the German military ordered Weigl to refine the vaccine (because different strains of typhus appeared) to protect its soldiers. Fleck’s immediate boss was a spy for the SS (Security Service) who ordered him to do medical research that minimized the possibility that Aryans would contract a disease such as typhus, in the name of creating a master race. His ultimate boss was Heinrich Himmler.

Beginning in autumn 1939, new Soviet bosses imposed their will on Fleck and Weigl. Fleck previously had a private medical lab, but he was named head of the microbiology department of the new Ukrainian Medical Institute, led Lviv’s Sanitation and Bacteriological Laboratory, and conducted research at the new Mother and Child Hospital.

Weigl received and took the savvy advice that he should avoid joining the Communist Party, because inevitably, eventually, Stalin would turn against him and he would be thrown in the gulag, or worse. He also heeded the warning that he should engage in corruption only insofar as it helped him survive. Excessive corruption would get him in trouble. Different armies took over certain territories in Eastern Europe during the war years.

Beginning in summer 1941, fearing for his and his family’s life, Weigl cooperated with the Nazis rather than the SS and local German leaders in Lviv. His reasoning for insisting on keeping his private lab was that, if the Nazis killed him, he’d be viewed as a martyr. He let a German VIP help him supervise the research, though. He saved hundreds to thousands of lives of Jews of Polish origin. Their false identity papers allowed them to be hired as medical guinea pigs by having body lice feed on their blood.

Starting in the early 1940’s, the Nazis needed medical doctors who happened to be Jewish, so they spared them, but they compelled them to commit atrocities doing research. During wartime typhus epidemics, deaths of Polish and Soviet Jews were significantly higher than those of people of other ethnicities due to anti-Semitism. For, the Nazis ordered medical doctors to refrain from treating Jews in their quarantined ghettos. The SS needed the Jews’ slave labor in factories to further the war effort, so the Jews weren’t confined to the ghettos. They therefore spread typhus, anyway.

Through the years, the constantly-improved vaccines developed by Weigl were used (and spread far and wide in black markets) in Ethiopia, Manchuria, North Africa, and Eastern Europe. Britain, however, decided to take steps to kill the lice rather than muck about with a typhus vaccine.

Read the book to learn how American soldiers fared during times of typhus epidemics; plus much more about vaccines other than Weigl’s, about the Soviets on the Eastern Front, the history of Buchenwald, the adventures of Fleck and his family at Auschwitz, the fates of the people associated with different vaccines, and other ways various peoples combated typhus.

On Shaky Ground

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The Book of the Week is “On Shaky Ground, An Invitation to Disaster” by John J. Nance, published in 1988. Prediction of earthquakes is an age-old issue that can be improved, if enough money and political support is thrown at it, in connection with studying the geologic, tectonic, volcanic and geophysical problems that crop up along fault lines.

Even in 1960 when a major earthquake hit Chile, there was disagreement among scientists over the behavior of underground structures. The opposing theories consisted of “steep vertical fault” and “shallow, sub-horizontal dip-slip fault.”

To that time, ivory-tower “experts” at Caltech relied on only seismograph data for ideas. In the coming decades, graduate students looked elsewhere to disprove the old theories. One young scientist personally, physically surveyed a large swath of the topography of the Alaskan countryside. His data disproved the steep vertical fault theory. Another graduate student became a pioneer in paleoseismology, which identify the substances piled up underground in an earthquake zone, showing how they changed and moved over the course of millennia.

In the early 1960’s, the U.S. government and military were the major employers in the city of Anchorage in Alaska. They were eager to urbanize the place, and construction was booming. They ignored a pesky report issued in 1961 by the U.S. Geological Survey warning that the city’s underground foundation– Bootlegger Cove Clay– would be unstable in the event of an earthquake. Building codes were lax on structural soundness.

Alas, a major earthquake hit the area in March of 1964. The epicenter was under Unakwik inlet in North Prince William Sound, ten miles from Valdez, Anchorage and Seward, Alaska. Many structures collapsed, including but far from limited to: docks, warehouses, a newly opened J.C. Penney store and a Four Seasons apartment building.

The underground clay became liquid, causing the location of oil, army and cannery docks, and railroad yards to shift many feet. Fortunately, there had been regulation of natural gas lines. They had been programmed to shut off in an emergency, and they did, preventing explosions and fires. However, wooden buildings swayed instead of collapsing, but they burned in fires when a Texaco fuel tank exploded.

As fate would have it, the Seismological Society of America happened to be holding its annual meeting in Seattle, on the campus of the University of Washington on that very day. But news of the disaster in those days took hours to reach them. As is well known, communications technology has come a long way since 1987, when there were different radio systems for Los Angeles’ more than one hundred and forty police and fire jurisdictions.

The seismic waves generated vibrations in numerous other places around the world. The quake’s severity was “off the charts” given the existing technology for measuring such activity. Four tsunamic waves spanning twelve thousand square miles of Alaska’s sea floor was felt as far away as Hawaii, and swamped Vancouver Island. Seward’s economy was ruined, as it was based on oil, fishing, import/export, railway transportation, and boating.

Sadly, human beings have short memories; possibly because they’ve become desensitized to cautionary tales. Greed eventually results in business as usual. Political candidates in at-risk communities are loath to spend precious campaign time on safety regulations– their donors benefit financially from disasters. In recent decades, American communities have become wise to the fact that they can always apply for federal aid when they are hit by a disaster (whose loss of life and property damage could have been minimized!).

Anyway, read the book to learn about additional disasters in China, California, Mexico, South Carolina, and much more about the science of earthquakes, and the mentalities of the people in connection therewith.

Gynecologist Reflections

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The Book of the Week is “Gynecologist Reflections” by Robert A. Siegel, published in 2017. As is well known, until about the 1970’s, an American medical doctor was a trusted family friend, a generalist. The author started medical school at the dawn of that decade, and ultimately chose obstetrics and gynecology as his specialty. In this poorly edited volume, the author detailed his memorable patient-cases inside America’s changing medical industry amid changing cultural and economic times.

During his training, the author was required to perform abortions; if he didn’t, he’d be fired. Another medical institution wouldn’t accept him and he wouldn’t become a physician. He acknowledged the very emotionally charged, controversial nature of the procedure, and controversial nature of not only when life begins, but when it ends.

The author’s generation of medical interns was still male-dominated. According to the book (which appeared to be credible although it lacked a detailed list of Notes, Sources, References, Bibliography and an index), most of the interns were brainwashed into thinking that working around the clock, saving lives on eight hours of sleep a week, was a macho thing to do. Of course, in the next few decades, American medicine became an increasingly litigious line of work and its trainees rebelled against the abusive hierarchy.

After about a decade, the author was able to make a living as a solo practitioner treating private patients. But his dedication to his work (which often involved emergencies) still left him severely sleep-deprived and very stressed. He admitted to coming quite close to making a medical mistake that would have resulted in a patient’s kidney failure. Fortunately, his assistant asked him a simple question about the task at hand.

In another instance, the doctor bragged about saving the lives of a woman and her later prematurely-delivered baby who were in a serious car accident. He got all the kudos, but explained that the surgical team, the technology and the hospital were just as responsible for the positive outcome.

The doctor also recounted a legal case of an acquaintance of his (who was also a doctor). The acquaintance gave verbal instructions, which the mother of the patient (a young child who apparently died through no fault of the doctor’s) failed to follow. He wrote, “You should have seen this lady. She was reeking of alcohol but we weren’t allowed to say that in court…” The initial jury-award unexpectedly, outrageously exceeded his malpractice insurance coverage.

Read the book to learn about: hemorrhages, caesarean sections, hysterectomies, OB-GYN screening tools, etc., plus the sociological aspects of the doctor’s practice, and biographical info on him– including how he almost died at a young age (hint: he led an unhealthy lifestyle to say the least– “Two days before my double by-pass was scheduled, I signed myself out [of the hospital] against medical advice.” Exhibiting arrogance and a feeling of invincibility, no doubt.).

The New Cool

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The Book of the Week is “The New Cool, A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts” by Neal Bascomb, published in 2011.

In the single-digit 2000’s, Amir Abo-Shaeer taught robotics in a “STEM” (four subjects that would help the United States remain economically dominant in the world: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program at Dos Pueblos high school in Goleta, California (a western suburb of Santa Barbara). If he was able to raise $3 million, he would receive matching funds from the state of California to start to build STEM academies all over the state. Dean Kamen’s goal was to have a robotics team in every school in the country.

Kamen was gravely concerned that the United States education system was falling woefully behind that of other countries. He might best be remembered as the inventor of the Segway, but at the dawn of the 1990’s, he also began to change the world in a much more impactful way.

Kamen and Woodie Flowers’ goal was to spark students’ interest in STEM. They wanted to give young people hands-on, real-world skills, not just convey knowledge. In 1992, they co-founded an annual program of STEM competitions for American students called FIRST. About a decade into the program, there were hundreds of thousands of students of different age groups competing in different events.

Elementary schoolers built structures out of LEGO. Each high school team was required to build a robot, and then in the competition, form alliances with other teams in playing a complicated physical game that differed every year, against another alliance.

In January 2009, the aforementioned Shaeer and his robotics team (consisting of high school seniors he taught) attended the briefing that Kamen, Flowers and NASA simulcast– of the terms and conditions of the robotics competitions to take place in the next three months. If their team emerged ultimate winners, they could win scholarships and might be more motivated to pursue a STEM career.

Read the book to learn of Shaeer’s students’ extremely hard work in preparing their contest entry (the robot), and the suspenseful story of how the team performed with its alliances in its very emotionally charged matches against other alliances, and whether Shaeer got the funding for his schools.

Dr. Folkman’s War

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The Book of the Week is “Dr. Folkman’s War, Angiogenesis and the Struggle to Defeat Cancer” by Robert Cooke, published in 2001.

In the 1970’s, Judah Folkman was a competent surgeon and a very popular professor at Harvard Medical School, but his first love was medical research. He hypothesized about why and how a tumor grows. He inferred that blood vessels grow toward a tumor, but was unable to provide proof for a very long time. He was ostracized for having this radical idea, so he had difficulty attracting enthusiastic graduate students to assist him, and with getting funding for his research.

Traditionally, university medical studies in laboratories had been funded by government grants. Profiteering from patents and medical products resulting from research was considered sleazy in scientific circles. In 1974, Harvard broke the taboo and partnered with the large, profit-making organization called Monsanto.

Even after receiving generous funding, Dr. Folkman worked around the clock simply because making new medical discoveries requires months or years of blood, sweat and tears. The materials required to do experiments can be expensive, messy, odorous and pose unanticipated problems. For a while, Folkman’s lab was working with vast quantities of cow and shark meat (and other obscure, problematic materials) because the animals’ cartilage contains no blood vessels.

Even after the doctor’s studies yielded exciting breakthroughs, media articles influenced the medical community and the public in ways that were harmful to Folkman’s research operations. There were even accusations of fraud against him. It turned out that in his team’s haste to treat cancer patients, many errors were made. Time was of the essence, and procedures for organized data collection were lacking. Folkman wasn’t deliberately trying to deceive anyone.

Folkman was a rare bird in that he was quite altruistic with his time and talents. His patience and persistence allowed him to ignore his detractors and the naysayers (most of whom were jealous). He eventually acquired an area of expertise that not only spawned a new way of thinking about cancer treatment, but also led to treatments for other medical conditions, and whole new industries, including biotech. He also helped shatter a myth in cancer treatment. But this additional idea of Folkman’s still might not be fully accepted in oncology circles (due to GREED), even two decades after the writing of this book.

This is what he learned: The approach to cancer-drug delivery to a tumor of:

“low [dosage] and slow [buildup over the long-term]” was shown to be superior to

“might makes right” and come in with guns blazing; in the past, it was hoped that immediate, large doses would eliminate the tumor before metastasis, and before the patient died from the deaths of too many healthy cells that were also killed in the process.

In other words: The patient’s treatment should begin with a low drug dosage, and if that proves ineffective, increase the dosage gradually until it is effective. Folkman’s experiences with patients showed that that was the successful way to go, and he even saw a few miraculous cures.

Read the book to learn many more details on Folkman’s trials and tribulations and the reasons for them, and what transpired when he finally found vindication.

The Education of A Speculator

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The Book of the Week is “The Education of A Speculator” by Victor Niederhoffer, published in 1997.

Born in 1943 in Brooklyn in New York City, the author sorted “market advisers and investment newsletter writers” into eight different categories, providing a brief description of their behaviors or personality traits. He classified himself as “The Other World Person” because he ignored the overpaid noisemakers and distractions of conventional media outlets that purported to convey information on which securities to buy, sell, or avoid.

The author’s two data sources for his commodities, currency trading and investing ideas consisted of the National Enquirer and his research results from testing all kinds of variables in statistics-calculations of past securities-market data using software. No other sources.

The mid-1990’s saw great advances in statistics software modeling that could process scads and scads of data; hence, market players could erroneously use past performance of investment vehicles faster than ever before for predictive purposes to help themselves and others lose their money faster than ever before. And those advances might have played a part in the scandals and financial crashes that have occurred with alarmingly increasing frequency in the last thirty years. Big Tech’s and Big Media’s incestuous oligopolies (fraught with political donations) just keep getting more hegemonic, so that power and money keep feeding on themselves ad infinitum. Globalization is yet another wrench in the works.

At the book’s writing, global trade had been maturing for decades, but capitalism was still in its infancy in many territories of the world; particularly in ones that were becoming politically democratic again, or for the first time in their histories. Many European countries were in the process of adopting cooperation rather than competition in their financial and economic dealings. A large proportion of them even voted to use one currency among them. The United States kept to itself, but more and more people around the world were starting to trade or invest in foreign securities, currencies and governmental financial entities, so chain reactions occurred more and more.

The Federal Reserve (aka Fed) has always been a major influence on America’s financial markets. The author contended that the Fed was just as clueless as the rest of the country about what effects its making of rate-adjustments would have on the nation’s economy. It is currently just as clueless. But its announcements are made with such confidence and arrogance, that a large number of their listeners are brainwashed into believing they are receiving valuable information.

The incumbents– known names pre-Internet–became the most influential voices in the financial sphere. The wiliest ones use propaganda techniques to paper over their wrong predictions. They never apologize for the losses stemming from their pronouncements. The walls of the author’s business office were lined with portraits of ones who had disastrous losses.

To be fair, the author himself told various anecdotes of his own failures. In 1992, he bought IBM stock for his own kids. That was an embarrassing mistake. He learned to cut his losses at a certain level of the total money he reinvested. And, he didn’t let his greed get out of control when he was winning.

The author was a champion squash player. One similarity between squash and speculating is externalities–opponents’ actions determine players’ actions in the game. So, for instance, in ten-pin bowling, there are no externalities. In squash, there are. In one college finals-match, the author moved his body in a way that tricked his opponent into thinking the ball was going to go in a certain direction, but it went the opposite way. Traders and investors play similar tricks in their communications in the financial markets. Conditions change rapidly so even the market propagandists’ winning streaks don’t last long.

The reason is:

First, independent thinkers make observations or find obscure data that works in making them money. Then software detects their trading tricks. So word gets around, and everyone else jumps on the bandwagon so that the advantage is lost.

Human beings want so badly— to believe they can predict the future, and love to fantasize about getting rich quick– that they tend to look for patterns and order where none exist. The author did provide one vast generalization that might be valuable, though. His statistical analysis between the years 1870 and 1995 inclusive showed that years ending in the digit 5 were good years, and those ending in 7 were bad, for the American stock markets. He didn’t speculate as to why.

However, politics is one major mover of markets, and the collective mood of the United States specifically, might be a bit more upbeat in years when political uncertainty is at a minimum. Presidents and other politicians begin or continue their terms during years ending in 5. The public might be unclear about their future policy directions, or weary of them by the years that end in 7.

Anyway, read the book to learn a boatload more about the author’s philosophy, his trials, tribulations and triumphs in the markets, his research results and comparisons between financial markets and: ecology, games and sports.


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The Bonus Book of the Week is “Car Wars, The Rise, the Fall, and the Resurgence of the Electric Car” by John J. Fialka, published in 2015. This volume provided a brief history of how manufacturing and sales of renewable-energy vehicles has been evolving in the last few decades. Clearly, the author wrote about relevant subjects from documents, and people to which he had easy access.

The (lazy?) author dismissed the electric cars of the late 1800’s in two sentences, saying they were obsolesced by 1920 via an innovation by engineer Charles Kettering; an electric ignition system replaced a burdensome hand crank in gas-powered cars, especially in the Cadillac of 1912, and then just like that, everyone started buying gas-powered cars. A propaganda war, profiteering and politics likely played a role in that major development in standard-setting in transportation, but the reader wouldn’t learn that from this book.

Anyway, in the 1980’s, previously competing automakers were initially compelled to form alliances to comply with car-emissions limits and meet deadlines set by U.S. laws, especially in the state of California. They shared info on electric vehicle (EV) technology. Over the years, when the deadlines were relaxed by pro-business politicians, the automakers parted ways, and independently pursued only the specific projects they felt would be profitable. Environment be damned.

In 1990, near the campus of the California Institute of Technology, when drivers tested the plug-in recharging feature of the General Motors Impact in their personal garages, their neighbors’ garage doors and TV sets went crazy, because the recharger was actually a huge radio transmitter.

In October 1995, Japan’s Toyota beat American carmakers to the punch when it showed off its hybrid Prius, that got 70 miles per gallon of gas. Of course Japan, of all the industrialized countries in the world, is significantly more motivated to seek efficient, renewable energy sources for its transportation modes– for the sake of its economic survival.

In the late 1990’s in a few select places in California and Arizona, super-rich males leased the first few models of EVs, because the cars had the attractive features of fast acceleration and high velocity; high gas mileage was a secondary benefit.

Meanwhile, in the single-digit 2000’s, a group named the California Fuel Cell Partnership was formed. It consisted of Geoffrey Ballard, Daimler, and Ford, who were working on a competing vehicle that uses fuel cells– whose mechanical components chemically alter water molecules. The selling points for those cars, once the technology’s commercial application is perfected, include: zero-emissions and the ability to fill up the car at existing gas stations. However, oil companies would supply hydrogen tanks.

Read the book to learn some of the politics, economics, entrepreneurs and technologies involved in developing cars that ran on renewable-energy sources, up until the book’s writing.