Boathouse Row Philadelphia, PA

Main menu:

April 2014
« Feb    


Site search


Now Reading

Are we killing our bacteria friends?

Missing MicrobesFull disclosure – in my youth I found Paul de Kruif’s book, Microbe Hunters, one of the most captivity books and for awhile considered becoming a pathologist. I eventually was captured by the electronic technology bug but never lost an interest in our invisible biology. This is important for Martin Blaser’s new book, Missing Microbes. If you are a germophobe or squeamish about the fact that we are colonized by billions of bacteria in every crevice of our body, inside and out, then this book isn’t really for you.
However, if you are concerned about what may be happening to our bacterial ecosystem through the extensive and inappropriate use (Blaser position) of antibiotics in our food and as medical treatments; then you will find Missing Microbes compelling book.
Blaser starts off modestly with some personnel history and evolutionary history of homo sapiens along with our bacterial brethren. The human microbiome that consists of 10 times more cells than our entire body and weighs a staggering 3 lbs! Blaser describes the rise of pathogens and our response with the creation of “wonder drugs”, antibiotics.
Much of the book addresses our gut bacteria, H. pylori. H. pylori is the cause of ulcers and contributes to stomach cancer but also has therapeutic benefits!
The book’s main theme is our use/over use of antibiotics in modern life and the implications for human health. For example, in our food, livestock are given large doses of subtherapeutic antibiotics for rapid weight gain. If this treatment works for livestock does it have a similar effect in us? Does ingesting these antibiotics in our food supply (use in the EU is band) affect our microbiome?
I found Blaser’s description of the relationship between a mother’s microbiome and the birth process one of the most interesting discussions. Blaser roundly condemns elective C-section births and post natal antibiotic treatments as endangering babies for life of health complications.
Much of the book addresses our gut bacteria, H. pylori. H. pylori is the cause of ulcers and contributes to stomach cancer but also has therapeutic benefits!
Blasser even addresses heartburn and acid reflux (GERD). Isn’t it fundamentally plausible that if we are impacting our microbiome with antibiotic use then there would be a price to pay in our digestive processes?
In summary, Martin Blaser has laid out sound arguments based on his own studies (and others) that our indiscriminate use of antibiotics is contributing to many of modern maladies. The reader is cautioned however that Blaser does freely speculate and frequently extrapolates to more general conclusions than is supported by current data. In his defense, however, Blaser does indicate his opinion or the need for further investigations in these cases. It is left to the reader to carefully note these author speculations.

The Ariadne Objective

The Ariadne ObjectiveIt seems to have been successful at espionage during World War II Britain recruited some of the most eclectic and unlikely group of characters and somehow molded them into teams that thwarted the Nazis. Evidence of this assertion is clear in Ben Macintyre’s 2012 book, ‘Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies‘ and most recently Wes Davis’, ‘The Ariadne Objective

Common to both espionage teams was a strong determination to succeed, strong language skills, a dislike for military formality coupled with high creativity and flair for the unconventional solution.

The book starts off immediately establishing British espionage leader’s courageous spirit by describing his solo WALK from Amsterdam to Istanbul in 1933 at age 18! In the course of this adventure, Patrick Leigh Fermor would master the Greek language and learn many lessons of getting along in strange lands. Shortly after the out break of war, Fermor’s knowledge of Greece came to the attention of the War Office and he was soon to return to familiar territory. However, the war was progressing badly for Britain, Greece and Crete were lost to the Nazi’s and Egypt was nearly lost.

Another key player in the Crete espionage history was John Pendlebury. An archeologist and Crete expert prior to the war, Pendlebury established much the early intelligence network on the island. With his death early in the war, Pendlebury became almost mythical among the Cretan resistance fighters.

Completing the complex tapestry of the Cretan espionage network were a motley group of British military, and Cretans. The Cretans are a particularly interesting group of peasants, monks, shepherds, farmers and the odd assortment criminals. What united all Cretans was a common history of opposing invaders whether they be Turks or Nazi’s.

The account of the group culminates in the audacious kidnapping of the senior Nazi general in charge of Crete and spiriting him off to Cairo as a POW.

In summary, ‘The Ariadne Objective’ reads more like a World War II spy thriller than the real life account of a courageous band of unlikely warriors. As with all detailed historical accounts in unfamiliar places, maps of Crete are essential. My uncorrected galley proof only contained a placeholder for these needed maps. I trust they will be up to the task in the final version of the book.

By the way, In Greek mythology, Ariadne is the daughter of Minos, King of Crete. She is mostly associated with mazes and labyrinths. Her father put her in charge of the labyrinth where sacrifices were made as part of reparations. Given the part that the Cretan cave system played during the War, this was a very appropriate title.

American Spies

American SpiesMichael Sulick’s American Spies  is the continuation of his history of American spies i.e. individuals who have spied on American. His previous book covered the period from the Revolutionary War to the beginning of the Cold War. His latest book, American Spies, covers the period from the Cold War to the present. Sulick undertook quite a challenge with this book. Simply the large number of spies requires more of a survey approach to this history. Sulick developed a flexible organization devoting a chapter to each of major spies of recent history. For the lesser spies he groups them by country, China and Cuba or timeframe. The result is a well organized easy reading narrative.

This approach also avoids extensive rehashing details of spies like Boyce/Lee, Walker, Ames and Hansen that have been covered in detail in individual books.

Sulick pulls no punches when it comes to failures of US counterintelligence activities. Though the counterintelligence failures to detect spies such as Walker, Ames or Hansen are well known, this book reinforces the decades long turf wars that prevented the CIA, NSA and FBI from working effectively together. All the agencies have suffered from an ego trip that blinded them from believing one of their own could be a traitor.

Beacuse of the long lasting implications to CIA counterintelligence, Sulick also includes a chapter on the devastating impact that the master spy hunter, James Angleton, had on the CIA. “The Angleton legacy would haunt the CIA and provoke a backlash that would irreparably damage the spy agency.”

In each case covered by Sulick he also provides a glimpse into the psyche and motivation of the spies. For many (or perhaps most) a primary motivation was money troubles and the quick fix by selling secrets. The most incredible parts of the money story are how easy it would have been to check the spies financial health and how little money was involved (in most cases) versus the consequences.

An interesting thread noted by Sulick in his discussion of the FBI spy, Robert Hanssen, is the relationship with his father. Benedict Arnold, John Walker, Clayton Lonetree, Rick Ames, and Robert Hansen all had abusive fathers that shaped their son’s treachery!

In summary, American Spies doesn’t provide major new revelations but it is an excellent concise survey of modern spying in America. His writing style is light and easy to read.