The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Fifty years and what feels like ten times as many people crammed into a story of physics, engineering, politics, psychology, diplomacy, and war. An awesome book about an awesome topic, and yes that’s how awesome was meant to be used.

  • I enjoyed the first half of the book, about the physics of it all, much more than the second. It has fewer characters, all of them characters, and has fewer parallel stories to tell. A whole chapter is devoted to a manuscript authorship dilemma: kudos to Rhodes for making it interesting.

  • Niels Bohr and Ernest Rutherford were some of those characters. So was Marie Curie: “How does it feel to be married to a genius, Mdm. Curie?” “I don’t know, ask my husband”. Indeed.

  • If there’s anything that I got from the second half, about engineering and deploying the thing, it’s that large projects are messy, costly, and never completely satisfying. But that’s kind of a given.

  • With all the firebombing (Dresden et al), and two atomic bombs top it off, how much worse must have the Allies behaved for their atrocities to be equal to those of the Nazis? Note that Stalin was an Ally.

  • I knew little of Oppenheimer before reading this except that he got into political trouble after Los Alamos. The book doesn’t go there, but every mention of him foreshadows his troubles to come. Which would be very confusing if I knew absolutely nothing about him, and was still kind of confusing with the little knowledge I had.

  • Soldiers were much more interesting to read about than politicians, and came out on top in almost every confrontation.

  • I know what I wrote about the second half of the book, but the last three chapters are easily the best, and the way Rhodes covered the actual bombing of Hiroshima was masterful.

This will probably be the best book I read this year.

Written by Richard Rhodes, 1986

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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

A speedy overview of the past 70 some millennia of humanity. Self-aware without being modest about its proclamations. Very 2014 in its optimism to dread ratio, but with enough forewarning that things might slip at any moment that it doesn’t appear naïve when being read in 2019. A few observations:

  • The book’s main thesis is that civilization as we know it lies on many, many figments of our collective imagination: states, laws, human rights, religions, corporations, etc. The last hundred years have sped this up, pulling people apart from families and other tangible local communities and into fictive constructs such as nations, sports teams, organized religion, and other forms of fandom. Are Twitter and Facebook communities more or less real than these, and if more, are they why people have been having a hard time suspending their disbelief?

  • Many religions are poked, proded, and pulled apart by witty turns of phrase, but Harari turns dead serious whenever buddhism is discussed. Unlike christianity and islam, buddhism gets whole running paragraphs of in-depth explanation. Did the book need a religious disclaimer?

  • His go-to example for discussing nationalist myths is Serbia. It figures. Kudos for doing it respectfully.

  • Another thesis is that capitalism lives by using up future resources in form of credit, which in turn produces and enlarges those very same future (now present) resources. In addition to being a very Predestination way of seeing things, does that support or conflict with Tyler Cowen’s thesis in Stubborn Attachments that we tend to — but shouldn’t — discount the future? Maybe we (or capitalists, at least) are at the same time optimists by thinking the future will be better by default, but also saying to hell with it by using those perceived future benefits now, to the detriment of future people? To this non-economist modern capitalism looks like an underbaked ideology.

  • This is the best-looking and best-made soft cover edition of a non-fiction book I’ve ever read.

Written by Yuval Noah Harari, 2014

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How I handle email (which is not how everyone should, but you may find some of these useful)

This is all about work email. I have succeeded in transferring most personal communication to Slack, iMessage, and WhatsApp, with a sprinkling of Skype for the grandparents. The sole holdout is Dad, who insists on emailing me links to Serbian tabloid news, child rearing advice, and recipes.

Inbox Zero is a great idea in its original form: live you life and write your emails in a way that solicits as few return emails to you as possible. It means giving some thought to what you put in your responses, and being clear and definitive about them. It doesn’t mean mindlessly deleting or archiving everything or, even worse, sending out half-baked replies just to pass on the baton when you’ll get a dozen of them in return.

I only check email twice a week day and once on a weekend, and with the explicit intent to clean out the inbox (unless when on service or when I’m the primary attending for a sick inpatient). Never check email “just to see what’s there” unless you have the time and the means to do something about whatever you’ll find. More than once in the past I was left to sour over an unexpected administrative roadblock or a non-urgent patient care calamity during a family event, when I could have just as easily waited for Monday morning.

When scheduling meetings: Doodle (or your preferred equivalent) for more than three people, email is fine for 1 or 2. If using email and I’m scheduling, proposed times, location, and a tentative agenda are all in the initial email. If I’m responding to a meeting request I try to put all of those in my reply, but that also depends on who’s requesting.

I thank in advance, not after the fact, and rarely send emails whose sole purpose is to give thanks.

If I get an unsolicited and unexpected email from someone I don’t know but that’s not obviously a mass posting, I wait for the second one. Most times it never arrives.

If the email looks like it came from a template it gets deleted without being read.

If I am cc’d on an email chain with many recipients and not directly called out, I archive and wait it out. The only exception is when I know that one or two replies from me would be able to end the game of email chicken that these chains tend to become.

The few times that I didn’t follow these guidelines, I came to regret it (confirmation bias warning!). I’m sure plenty of people don’t give it a second thought and go by just fine. But they probably don’t work in health care.

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Flashpoint: Trieste

A history of the Trieste kerfuffle between Tito and the Allies immediately following WW2, but also an overview of the many warring sides: Non-soviet Allies, the Soviets, Tito’s partisans (“Yugoslavs” but also sometimes “Slovenians” and “Croats”), Chetniks (“Serbs”), Ustashe (“Croats”), Italian communists, Italian fascists, Italian non-communist non-fascist partisans, and let’s not forget the Nazis. Whew… At least the French are out of the picture.

It’s biased towards the Americans and the British, but then that’s not surprising considering the author. All other sides being equally horrible — according to the book at least, and it’s a lazy though intellectually safe stance to make — it manages to be sort of objective but then in a lot of cases resorts to citing some not very objective secondary sources written in the background of a much bigger kerfuffle in the 1990s. Jennings is no Ron Chernow, and even less of a Robert Caro. The region needs someone of Cs’ tenacity and attention to detail to untangle even the footnotes of Balkan history like Trieste. I can’t imagine who would be able to tackle a Power Broker-like biography of Tito, but I’d be happy to read one.

Written by Christian Jennings, 2017

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Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

A biography of the Rockefeller patriarch. It’s a messy book, but then it was also a messy 97 year-long life. A few highlights:

  • He benefited from starting his business, unencumbered by monetary or ideological debt, just when one of the greatest technological leaps of human history occurred. What got him all that money was luck and ruthlessness more than business acumen (what others thought) and religious zeal/hand of God (what he thought). His subsequent mostly failed business ventures confirm this.
  • Even so, it is his religion that led him to become the world’s greatest philanthropist, and also set up a template for modern billionaires on how to donate most of their fortune formally and on a grand scale. Yay for religion, then?
  • Rockefeller’s company Standard Oil and other trusts emerged at a time when legislature couldn’t keep up with rapidly evolving technologies; by the time laws caught up, it didn’t matter. Private data and human attention are 21st century oil.
  • You also have corrupt politicians, populist presidents, and progressive and gender/racially sensitive (dare I say woke) but ineffective intelligentsia. It all seems very familiar.
  • A search for “John D Rockefeller” on youtube brings mostly conspiracy videos and hilarious reenactments. I did find one video of the man himself in which he looks eerily like my grandmother.

Written by Ron Chernow, 2004

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Voices in my head, 2019 edition

  1. Plenary Session. Many friends and coworkers are amazed that anyone would voluntarily subject themself to Vinay Prasad‘s tirades, but his podcast is well-behaved and a pleasure to listen. The monologues are better than the interviews, which is to be expected: he’s been monologuing his whole life and interviewing for less than a year. And yes, some of his guests/collaborators need too much coaxing, but sock puppets only reinforce the national meeting atmosphere that the name evokes.
  2. Conversations with Tyler. Still great. You can start at the beginning, or with the one with Daniel Kahneman, but start somewhere. Most are excellent and all are good, even the ones you wouldn’t guess from the interviewee’s name and bio.
  3. The Knowledge Project. Farnham Street/F.S. has gotten some good press, and for good reason. It’s self-improvement for people allergic to the self-improvement label.
  4. Revisionist History. Yet to listen to the latest season, but I can’t see it going badly. Malcolm Gladwell is a pro.
  5. The Glass Canon Podcast. In the absence of a regular gaming night (never schedule a campaign around three doctors’ schedules), I listen to other people playing tabletop RPGs. No better entertainment, I say.
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ASH 2018 unposted posts

  1. Science and the real world: Too many abstracts touted their “real-world” data meaning to say their analysis was retrospective. No shame in a well-done chart review, but calling it “the real world” dilutes the phrase. When the NCI director referred to real world data in his not-well-enough-attended ASH speech, it was to describe prospective collection of structured data in routine clinical practice. It can also be used to describe pragmatic clinical trials, with looser eligibility criteria and fewer treatment restrictions. The “real world” abstracts I saw were neither.
  2. Steve Horwitz’s weird weekend: How many oral abstracts can one person have in a single meeting? Apparently, four; three of which were spread over two T-cell lymphoma sessions held on the same day. These were all multi-center trials, one global, so not exactly venues where one may cede the podium to their mentee (some of whom had their own orals to deal with). But sheesh.
  3. T-cell lymphomas have their day (maybe?): The global trial was ECHELON-2, and it showed an overall survival benefit of first-line brentuximab vedotin + CHP over CHOP in CD30+ T-cell lymphoma. Which is great, only ~80% of patients in the control arm did not get BV on progression due to the trial being global and BV not being available in most of the countries. There were several more would-be flies in the ointment, but US FDA approved BV for first-line treatment of CD30+ TCL even before the paper was out in The Lancet (which was on the day of the talk). Thus the incredible path of data for BV in first-line TCL was: press release -> FDA approval -> Lancet paper -> ASH oral. Again, sheesh.
  4. Spotlight so bright: I moderated an oral abstract session, and it was fun, but oh wow did the spotlights hurt my eyes. Much respect for anyone who has to stand in front of them professionally.
  5. Let’s have it in San Diego every year, please, and thank you.
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The drunkard’s walk: How randomness rules our lives

An introduction to the normal distribution and to our incompetence in dealing with probability. Since it covers a different type of probability than “Fooled by randomness”, and only skims the heuristics and biases discussed at length in “Thinking, fast and slow”, it works well as a prologue to both books. This trio should be mandatory reading for premeds, by the way, with the rest of Taleb’s Incerto rounding out an advanced curriculum. They would for sure have served me better than the anemic statistics textbooks I had to plough through in the early ‘00s.

Written by Leonard Mlodinow, 2009

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Buffet: The making of an American capitalist

I’m glad the author, Roger Lowenstein, didn’t even attempt to appear impartial in this, Amazon’s most highly rated of Warren Buffett biographies. It’s the reverse of a Power Broker hit job: in the reprint afterword, Lowenstein is wistful about not getting more praise from Buffet while the aforementioned is signing the author’s personal copy at a conference. How wonderful it would be if our heroes loved us as much as we love them.

Granted, Buffet is an easy person to love, what with being an aw-shucks Midwestern pro-government regulation democrat who is modest, smart, and also one of the richest people in world. That he first earned his money off of America’s addiction to sugar and shopping, followed by tobacco and war, followed by decidedly inegalitarian buddy deals, all while neglecting his wife to the point of her leaving, and his children to the point of their becoming New Age musicians, just supports his claim to being the most American of all American heroes. Kudos.

Written by Roger Lowenstein, 2008

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