Food safety: The struggle to pasteurize milk

Pop quiz: The scientist who discovered that pasteurizing milk prevented it from transmitting diseases was told that if it were important, someone else would have discovered it already. What sex was the scientist?

Alice Catherine Evans proved that unpasteurized milk spread disease, and improved the health of any nation that was listening.

It was an exceptionally stubborn microbiologist named Alice Catherine Evans who was the first scientist in the United States to definitively show that microbes in unpasteurized milk can sicken humans as well as animals. She went on to fight for the heat-treating of milk to protect the public and stands today as the mother of pasteurization in the United States. And the male heroes embodied in De Kruif’s book were hardly supportive. She was mocked, belittled and assured that if she was right, “someone much more outstanding” would have made the discovery long before.

De Kruif included her [in Men against Death] to both acknowledge her contribution and protest her treatment. “Such,” he noted sadly, “is the silliness of scientists.”

Still, by the time his book was published, Evans had won her battle to such an extent that she had already been elected president of the Society of American Bacteriologists—a forerunner of the Society of Microbiologists—in 1928. And she had done that with significant support from male colleagues, willing to “honor one woman whose findings dramatically advanced their field of research and improved public health in this country,” wrote Maryland biologist and former National Science Foundation director Rita Colwell in a much later tribute of her own.

Currently reading: Outliers

Malbook cover, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwellcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is a book that makes me think. Using statistics from demographics, education, sport, and individual biographies, he shows that a minor advantage caused by happenstance can translate into an insurmountable advantage years later. The happenstance is often being just a bit older when training or education starts. That accrues extra help and practice time and the snowball is rolling. At the end of the process, a sport or vocation is missing half its potential because half the population was filtered out at the start by happenstance.

Gladwell also maintains that expertise comes from practice and a lot of the difference in outcomes is derived from differential opportunity to amass the 10,000 hours of practising needed. He cites musicians in general, the Beatles, and Steve Jobs. He points out that most American self-made millionaires were born in a span of only nine years, 1831 – 1840, and that today’s most successful computer startup firms had founders with an even narrower range, 1953 – 1956. If you were older, you were settled into a different career and if you were younger, it was too late.

Another point he made was that there’s some level that’s good enough, after which more intelligence makes no difference to professional outcomes.

I’m only half-way through the book. Perhaps he’s cherry-picking his examples but it is thought-provoking.

  • Book review on Google
  • Discussion on Gladwell’s website. “In the case of Outliers, the book grew out a frustration I found myself having with the way we explain the careers of really successful people. You know how you hear someone say of Bill Gates or some rock star or some other outlier—”they’re really smart,” or “they’re really ambitious?’ Well, I know lots of people who are really smart and really ambitious, and they aren’t worth 60 billion dollars. It struck me that our understanding of success was really crude—and there was an opportunity to dig down and come up with a better set of explanations.”
  • Review on Goodreads
  • Wikipedia article
  • Book on

Amazon’s $23-million book

When I see an ordinary book advertised for thousands of dollars, I assume it’s some kind of data error. It never occurred to me that it could be a result of runaway competitive pricing algorithms. But take a look….

Old Britannica

Quagga mare

This Google Books section of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, about Africa, is from such an old edition that it gives the range of the quagga! Africa.

“The quagga, exclusively African, inhabits the most southern parts of the continent, and is scarcely found north of the Orange river, but occurs in great herds, associated with the white-tailed gnu. The zebra (Equus Burchellii), or zebra of the plains, is widely distributed over Africa, from the limit of the quagga to Abyssinia and the west coast; the zebra of the mountains (Equus zebra), more completely striped than the rest, is known only in South Africa. The true onager or aboriginal wild ass is indigenous to North-East Africa and the island of Socotra. A species inhabiting the high land of Abyssinia is distinct from these.

…the Cape buffalo, a species peculiar to Africa, reaches as far north as a line from Guinea to Abyssinia; the Bos Brachycerus is a species peculiar to West Africa, from Senegal to the Gaboon. Of sheep, the Ovis Tragelaphus is peculiar to North Africa; the Ibex goat extends into Abyssinia. the family of the antelope is essentially African, five-sixths of the species composing it being natives of that country, and chiefly of the portion lying south of the Sahara, occurring in dense herds. Lastly, the giraffe, one of the most celebrated and characteristic of African quadrupeds, ranges from the limits of the Cape Colony as far as the Sahara and Nubia.

Of Edentata the seven species known to occur in Africa are also peculiar to it. The aardvark (Orycteropus capensis) is essentially burrowing in its habits….

A genus of moles is met with in South Africa, but is not found in the tropical regions. The Cape or gilded mole, chryso-chlore, is so called from its iridescent glossy fur; two or three species of hedgehog occur in the continent, and Madagascar has a peculiar family resembling those in appearance, but without the power of rolling up into a ball for defence. Bats are numerous in Africa, but few are peculiar to it.

Of Rodenta the burrowing kinds prevail. The African species of porcupine are known in the the northern and western coast-lands and in South-Eastern Africa. The hyrax extends over Eastern Africa and a portion of the west coast. Hares are only known in the countries north of the Sahara and in the Cape colony. Among squirrels, those with bristles or spines in their fur are peculiar to the southern regions of the continent….

The ostrich, the hugest of birds… is found in almost every part of Africa. But its chief home is the desert and the open plains; mountainous districts it avoids, unless pressed by hunger. The beautiful white feathers, so highly prized by the ladies of Europe, are found in the wings of the male bird. The chase is not without its difficulties, as it requires the greatest care to get within musket-shot of the bird, owing to its constant vigilance and the great distance to which it can see. The fleetest horse, too, will not overtake it unless stratagem be adopted to tire it out. If followed up too eagerly, the chase of the ostrich is not destitute of danger; for the huntsman has sometimes had his thigh-bone broken by a single stroke from the leg of a wounded bird.

The large messenger or secretary-bird, which preys upon serpents and other reptiles, si one of the most remarkable African birds. It is common near the Cape, and is not seldom domesticated. Of gallinaceous fowls, adapted to the poultry-yard, Africa possesses but a single genus, the guinea-hens, which, however, are found in no other part of the world. These birds, of which there are three or four distinct species, go in large flocks of 400 or 500, and are most frequently found among underwood in the vicinity of ponds and rivers.

Bonus quotation: “Plants of the proteus tribe also add to the extraordinary variety in the vegetable physiognomy of that region.”

The quagga was hunted to extinction in the wild in the 1870s, exact date not noticed, and the last known quagga died in the London Zoo in 1883. The only photograph of a live quagga was taken at the London Zoo in 1870.

“The Crusades through Arab Eyes”

Steve Smith says:
[I recommend] “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes” by Amin Maalouf. This is religious, political, and strategic history as it should be written. It’s a pithy and honest history of a subject that continues to highly relevant. And it can be read in its original French or the very good English translation. It also quotes this gem from 10th c. “Muslim” poet al-Ma’arri:

The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: Those with brains, but no religion, And those with religion but no brains.

Little has changed over a thousand years.

Anti-Semitism and preference at Harvard

James Traub first points out that he was a beneficiary of preferential treatment because his father had attended Harvard:

…in the late 1960s and early 1970s, supposedly a time when the admissions process had at last been freed of archaic bias, “legacies” were two-and-a-half to three times likelier to be admitted than was the average applicant; that admitted legacies ranked lower than average admits on everything Harvard cared about—personal attributes, extracurricular activities, academic achievement, recommendations, and so forth; and that the degree of preference granted legacies was only slightly less than that given to black candidates, who in turn received less of a thumb on the scale than did athletes. I was, in short, an affirmative-action baby.

The “well-rounded” requirements at Harvard were devised to keep out bright, urban Jewish intellectuals. James Traub reviews Jerome Karabel’s book The Chosen,  which describes the history of  Harvard’s unpublicized affirmative action program for WASPs.

…the admissions systems at the Big Three were built expressly to keep out people like my father—smart, driven Jewish kids from gigantic New York City public high schools. Until 1920 or so, anyone could gain admission to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton by passing a battery of subject-matter exams.

By 1920, the Big Three presidents were looking on in horror as Columbia, the Ivy League school situated in the midst of the melting pot, became 40 percent Jewish.

In 1922, [Harvard president Lawrence] Lowell was reckless enough to think that he could solve “the Jew problem,” as he was wont to call it, with a straightforward quota. This provoked a mighty uproar among faculty members and outsiders with more tender consciences; instead, Lowell agreed to limit the size of the entering class and to institute recommendation letters and personal interviews. Yale and Princeton followed suit; and soon came the whole panoply familiar to this day: lengthy applications, personal essays, descriptions of extracurricular activities. This cumbersome and expensive process served two central functions. It allowed the universities to select for an attribute the disfavored class was thought to lack—i.e., “character”—and it shrouded the admissions process in impenetrable layers of subjectivity and opacity, thus rendering it effectively impervious to criticism. The swift drop in admission of Jews could thus be explained as the byproduct of the application of neutral principles…
The willingness of these universities to suffer real harms rather than admit more Jews is astonishing. Having long distinguished itself as a “national” and “democratic” institution, Yale by 1930 had become more insular, more parochial, and less intellectual as a consequence of the new admissions system. During World War II, with the size of the entering class size [sic] seriously depleted, Yale turned away qualified Jewish students rather than increase the proportion of Jews.

Things are changing but it doesn’t always work out well:

the Big Three ramped up the admission of black students almost overnight owing not to some midnight conversion but to terror at the rising tide of black anger and violence—owing, that is, to racial blackmail. And because the elite universities began admitting large numbers of black students with sub-par academic records at precisely the moment they were becoming more “meritocratic”—i.e, more academically selective—affirmative action felt more like a violation of meritocratic principle than a recalibration of it. This painful fact continues to haunt affirmative action

Racial paranoia, I’d call it.

John Wilkins has a new book!

John S. Wilkins, who has thought long and hard about what the species concept, has published Species: A history of the idea.

Wilkins (2009) has provided an annotated list of 26 distinguishable species concepts in the modern literature (an earlier version of the list is freely available on his web page; Wilkins 2006…. Although a list can be a very useful thing, it is even more useful if it has a context, and that is what Wilkins’ new book, Species: A History of the Idea, is intended to provide. It ends with the same list, but starts by telling us where it came from.

Science fiction recommendations

This is science fiction that I like. Your mileage may vary.

Try C. J. Cherryh. Almost everything of hers is technologically sound as much as a story needs (no lectures), has aliens and alien cultures that are truly alien (no Ukrainians in greenface), takes economics and politics into account (e.g. vast Union-Alliance future history), and you know what the protagonists know, no more. If you want something long, her First Contacts series starts with Foreigner, where the aliens have different instincts from humans and so contact must be limited to keep from inadvertently starting wars—and the humans are a small minority stranded on the alien planet. If you want a single novel, Finity’s End is good. Menyambal likes “Cherryh’s Chanur Saga. The spaceship’s captain and crew are female, for what that’s worth, catlike and dealing with multiple species.” I’d go for any of C. J. Cherryh, especially these series: Chanur, Exile’s Gate, The Faded Sun, Merchanter.

Also, try Connie Willis, especially her To Say Nothing of the Dog. And Fire Watch. And Impossible Things. And The Doomsday Book : real characters, real stories, and mostly happy endings.

I also recommend anything by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon). There’s a lot of alienation and a sprinkling of weird sex.

A mostly forgotten novel that I loved was Brian W. Aldiss’s The Dark Light Years. It’s about one man who finally learns how to talk to the aliens, when no one cares about them any more.

How could I have forgotten to mention Tanya Huff, a gay author of both hard SF (including some military SF) and fantasy. The real fantasy element in her stories is not the elves, it’s that whenever a gay character makes a pass at a straight character, the straight one is intrigued.

Look for the Year’s Best SF, xxth edition, which has been going on for about 25 years so far. You’ll meet new writers, old favorites, Hugo winners, etc. Try second hand stores or thrift stores or your local library. They’re hefty hardcovers.

Somewhere I have a paperback, Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume II B, which is so-o-o geeky! It’s full of good stories, all right, but “Volume 2B”? 2B? Nerds.

Remember also Barbara Hambly’s logical fantasy novels, which are continuous action from the first page. In fact, she seems unable to insert a phrase such as, “they rode north for a week,” instead driving her characters without rest from one ambush to another. Although I feel sorry for her exhausted protagonists, I like her work, which is colourful, imaginative, and logically consistent. She has an Unschooled Wizard series, a Dark Mage series, a Kingdom of Darwath series, and a pair of vampire novels set in Victorian times (Those Who Hunt the Night and Travelling with the Dead). There are other works, but those are the ones I like best.

Menyambal recommends “T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose. I dunno if it is online, but find an illustrated copy, read it, and pass it on to a nerdy child. Funny, English and full of life–away better than Harry Potter” and adds “Gutenberg has a marvellous selection of books in various file formats. Mostly older, but you can’t go wrong with Twain.”

Diverging into mysteries, also try Josephine Tey’s mysteries, especially The Daughter of Time, I think there are seven in all: The Man in the Queue, A Shilling for Candles, Brat Farar, The Singing Sands…

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