“Advances in Gene Sequencing” Have Not “Unlocked the Key to Cures for Cancer”

(p. 10) In his new book, “The Song of the Cell,” Siddhartha Mukherjee has taken on a subject that is enormous and minuscule at once. Even though cells are typically so tiny that you need a microscope to see them, they also happen to be implicated in almost anything to do with medicine — and therefore almost anything to do with life.

. . .

If Mukherjee were another kind of storyteller — tidier, if less honest — he could have showcased a more linear narrative, emphasizing how developments in cell research have yielded some truly amazing possibilities. He himself has been collaborating on a project to engineer certain cells in the immune system so that they eat tumors without stirring up an indiscriminate inflammatory response.

But as a practicing physician, he has seen too much suffering and death to succumb to an easy triumphalism. He recalls the “exuberance” of the mid-2000s, when spectacular advances in gene sequencing had made it appear as if “we had unlocked the key to cures for cancer.” Such exuberance turned out to be fleeting; the data from clinical trials were “sobering.”

Many medical mysteries remain unsolved. If the book’s protagonist — our understanding of cell biology — seemed to be riding high again on new advances in immunology, such “self-assuredness” was laid low by the Covid-19 pandemic. Mukherjee presents a string of questions that are still unsettled. “The monotony of answers is humbling, maddening,” he writes. “We don’t know. We don’t know. We don’t know.”

For the full review, see:

Jennifer Szalai. “Building Blocks.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, November 13, 2022): 10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated Nov. 2, 2022, and has the title “Siddhartha Mukherjee Finds Medical Mystery — and Metaphor — in the Tiny Cell.”)

The book under review is:

Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human. New York: Scribner, 2022..

Toyota Pressured to “Dial Back” Its Defense of Hybrids as a Practical Bridge to EVs

(p. B2) Mr. Toyoda, Toyota’s chief, has been one of the industry’s most prominent voices of caution about EVs. He has questioned whether the vehicles are as environmentally friendly as advertised and expressed doubt that consumers want them.

Toyota has said it believes hybrids can reduce carbon emissions while the battery supply chains and charging networks necessary to support big fleets of EVs are built globally over the coming decades. Hybrid cars—which made up nearly 30% of Toyota and Lexus global shipments for the most recent quarter—are helping the auto maker meet tightening emissions rules in markets like Europe.

Demand for hybrids also helped Toyota reach a record operating profit of ¥3 trillion, equivalent to $21 billion, for the fiscal year ended in March. Its stock price on the Tokyo Stock Exchange has held up reasonably well, down 9% this year, while other auto makers have suffered steeper declines.

Mr. Toyoda has been trying to understand why some investors and environmental groups remain unconvinced about the company’s electrification strategy.

. . .

People at Toyota said company executives have been advised by public-relations specialists and others in the company to dial back negative comments about EVs and instead highlight their benefits as well as Toyota’s extensive investments in the technology.

Sage Advisory Services, an investment management firm in Austin, Texas, that holds Toyota bonds, said it has sensed a shift in rhetoric.

Sage Advisory had approached the car maker last year with concerns about its EV stance, to which Toyota responded with its usual arguments, including about hybrid cars, said Sage Vice President Emma Harper. She said the points made sense to her but were hard for the general public to grasp.

More recently, she said, Toyota has “flipped over and they’ve felt the change in the tide and how consumers and politicians and other stakeholders are feeling about the transition away from fossil-fuel cars.”

For the full story, see:

River Davis. “Toyota Aims to Face Critics of Its EV Policies.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Sept. 26, 2022): B1-B2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date September 25, 2022, and has the title “Toyota Softens Toward Critics of Its EV Push.” Where the versions differ, the quotes above follow the more detailed online version.)

Forest Service Banned Private Logging to Thin Forests; Then Started an Uncontrolled “Controlled” Fire to Thin Same Forests

(p. A11) SEATTLE — In a high-altitude landscape parched by drought, U.S. Forest Service crews took advantage of some stable weather in eastern Oregon this month and prepared to burn off some thick underbrush and shrubbery at the edge of the Blue Mountains, part of an expanding strategy to remove forest fuel that can turn fires into conflagrations.

The target was a 300-acre tract of woodlands in the Malheur National Forest, adjacent to a private cattle ranch. But the controlled fire that the crew set on the afternoon of Oct. 19 [2022] jumped a containment line and charred through a portion of the nearby ranch. Two sisters from the family-owned Windy Point Cattle Company made their way through the smoke-filled landscape for a furious confrontation with the Forest Service’s “burn boss,” Ricky Snodgrass, and then dialed 911.

What happened next, federal officials say, was highly unusual in the modern history of the Forest Service and its programs for managing federal lands across the country. The Grant County sheriff arrived on scene, placed Mr. Snodgrass in handcuffs and sent him to jail.

. . .

With climate change driving an increase in the size, frequency and ferocity of wildfires, the Forest Service adopted a plan this year to step up those prescribed burns, and also more aggressively thin forest stands with strategic logging programs.

. . .

The Forest Service’s operations in this part of Oregon have long been the subject of contention in Grant County, where the U.S. government manages some 60 percent of the land.

Locals have long stewed over federal land management policies, including logging restrictions that have contributed to declines in timber production and the shuttering of the region’s sawmills.

For the full story, see:

Mike Baker. “A Strategy to Protect Forests Reopens Old Wounds in Oregon.” The New York Times (Saturday, October 29, 2022): A11.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Oct. 28, 2022, and has the title “Prescribed Burns Are Encouraged. Why Was a Federal Employee Arrested for One?.”)

“If Pro Is the Opposite of Con, Is Progress the Opposite of Congress?”

(p. B12) Gallagher, who became one of the most recognizable comedians of the 1980s for an outrageous act that always concluded with him smashing a watermelon with a sledgehammer, died on Friday [Nov. 11, 2022] at his home in Palm Springs, Calif.

. . .

In 1987, United Press International reported that researchers at Loma Linda University in Southern California studying laughter took blood samples from 10 medical students while they watched Mr. Gallagher in action. Not only did they laugh uproariously; their white blood cells increased. The comedian, the scientists said, appeared to have boosted the subjects’ immune systems.

. . .

Much of Mr. Gallagher’s humor was based on wordplay. (“I don’t know why they say you have a baby. The baby has you.” “If pro is the opposite of con, is progress the opposite of Congress?”) But he also prided himself on being outrageous and even offensive, defying political correctness. (Deaf people, he said, should be required to live near airports.) Many people, especially in his later years, felt his jokes about racial groups, gay people and women crossed a line.

“Look around — see any Mexicans?” he said during one 2010 show. “They’ll be here later for the cleanup.”

In 2011, Mr. Gallagher was a guest on his fellow comedian Marc Maron’s podcast but walked out when Mr. Maron asked him about this and similar jokes. Some critics agreed that his act had gone too far. But he never toned it down.

For the full obituary, see:

Douglas Martin. “Gallagher, 76, Who Smashed Watermelons With a Sledgehammer, Dies.” The New York Times (Saturday, November 12, 2022): B12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Nov. 14, 2022, and has the title “Gallagher, Watermelon-Smashing Comedian, Is Dead at 76.”)

The Sassoon Family’s Rags-to-Riches-to-Rags Story

(p. 8) The rise and fall of the Sassoon family, who, at their height, traded in opium, tea, silk and jewels, is charted in delectable detail in “The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire,” by the historian Joseph Sassoon, a distant relative who seems just as pleased as anyone unrelated might be to uncover the grit and gains of a tribe of fascinating figures.

. . .

Rags-to-riches stories may all be the same, but it’s the way in which a fortune is lost that’s truly compelling. Sassoon’s detailed account of the decentralization of family power and the proliferation of descendants interested in spending but not making money is well paced and supremely satisfying. An observer of the clan notes that “nothing suppresses an appetite for commerce more than a diet of gentlemanly pursuits,” and readers are treated through the second half of the book to a slow-motion sputtering out of David Sassoon’s great machine. You find yourself feeling for them: While masters of the universe inspire little sympathy, knowing from the first page that this empire has crumbled allows you to mourn the sunset of a particular kind of existence, even as a part of you revels in it.

For the full review, see:

Adam Rathe. “BOOKSHELF; Dynasty.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, November 6, 2022): 8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated Oct. 25, 2022, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; The Rise and Fall of a Great Dynasty.”)

The book under review is:

Sassoon, Joseph. The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire. New York: Pantheon, 2022.

Environmentalists Throw Mashed Potatoes on Monet Landscape

(p. A7) Two climate activists threw mashed potatoes on a glass-covered painting by the celebrated French Impressionist Claude Monet on Sunday [Oct. 23, 2022] inside a German museum, the latest art attack intended to draw attention to climate change.

Videos show the activists dousing one of the artist’s works, “Grainstacks,” with a thick yellow substance that covered the painting’s warm red hues. The oil on canvas is one of 25 paintings the artist made around 1890 of stacks of hay in the fields near his house in Giverny, France.

The activists, a man and a woman, each glued a hand to the wall by the painting. Then, the woman shouted in German that the world was in “a climate catastrophe, and all you are afraid of is tomato soup or mashed potatoes in a painting,” referring to a similar attack this month in London by activists who threw cans of tomato soup on a painting by Vincent van Gogh.

. . .

Across Europe, climate protesters have sought to capture headlines in recent months by engaging in similar stunts tied to beloved pieces in the art world. In Britain, activists glued themselves to about a half-dozen masterpieces, including a 16th-century copy of “The Last Supper” at the Royal Academy, a major art museum in London. And in Italy, activists glued themselves to a sculpture held in the Vatican and to works in the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence.

For the full story, see:

Eduardo Medina. “Monet Painting Is Splashed In Latest Stunt Over Climate.” The New York Times (Tuesday, October 25, 2022): A7.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Nov. 8, 2022, and has the title “Climate Activists Throw Mashed Potatoes on Monet Painting.”)

“I Was There and I Was a Part of This Wonderful Thing That He Was Doing”

(p. A20) If Snow White looked suitably snowy in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” if Pinocchio’s nose grew at just the right rate, if Dumbo was the correct shade of elephantine gray, all that was due in part to the largely unheralded work of Ruthie Tompson.

. . .

In 1922, after her parents divorced and her mother married John Roberts, a plein-air painter, Ruthie and her sister moved with her mother and stepfather to Los Angeles, where her mother worked as an extra in Hollywood movies. The family lived down the street from Robert Disney, an uncle of Walt Disney and his brother Roy.

The Disney brothers founded their first film studio nearby in 1923, and it happened to be on Ruthie Tompson’s route to school. Walking past it each day, she peered through a window, transfixed, as the work of animation unfolded.

One day, Walt Disney spied her.

“He came out and said, ‘Why don’t you go inside and watch?’” Ms. Tompson recalled some nine decades later in a podcast for the Walt Disney Family Museum.

“I was really fascinated,” she said. She returned to the studio many times, becoming something of a fixture there.

During those years, the studio was shooting the Alice Comedies, a series of silent shorts combining animation and live action, and sometimes enlisted neighborhood children as extras.

Among them was Ruthie, who appeared in several pictures, receiving 25 cents for each. Her cinematic salary, Ms. Tompson recalled, went toward licorice.

Her association with the Disneys might well have ended there had it not been for the fact that a decade later Walt and Roy chose to take polo lessons.

. . .

“Ruthie Tompson!” Walt Disney declared on seeing her there. “Why don’t you come and work for me?”

“I can’t draw worth a nickel,” she replied.

No matter, Mr. Disney told her: The studio would send her to night school to learn the rudiments of inking and painting.

“Of course,” Ms. Tompson recalled, “everybody around me said: ‘Don’t say no! Don’t say no!’”

. . .

In 1948, she was promoted to the dual role of animation checker and scene planner. As an animation checker, she scrutinized the artists’ work to see, among other things, that characters literally kept their heads: In the animators’ haste, different parts of a character’s body, often done as separate drawings, might fail to align.

The scene planner was tasked with working out the intricate counterpoint between the finished setups and the cameras that photographed them: which camera angles should be used, how fast characters should move relative to their backgrounds, and the like.

“She really had to know all the mechanics of making the image work on the screen as the director, the layout person and the animator preferred: how to make Peter Pan walk, or fly, in the specified time,” Mr. Canemaker explained. “What she did ended up on the screen — whether you see her hand or not — because of the way she supported the directors’ vision.”

. . .

In the Walt Disney Family Museum podcast, Ms. Tompson fondly recalled her long-ago association with Walt Disney and the unexpected career to which it gave rise.

“I never got over being awe-struck at the fact that I was there and I was a part of this wonderful thing that he was doing,” she said.

For the full obituary, see:

Margalit Fox. “Ruthie Tompson, Invisible Hand Behind Pinocchio’s Nose, Dies at 111.” The New York Times (Wednesday, October 13, 2021): A20.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Oct. 12, 2021, and has the title “Ruthie Tompson Dies at 111; Breathed Animated Life Into Disney Films.”)

Cutting Out Time to Do Key Tasks on Vacation, Can Allow More Vacation Time and Choice

(p. A18) Loosening up the vacation vs. work binary opens up possibilities for living in new ways. Karen Raraigh, a Baltimore-based genetic counselor with a focus on research, gets a generous quantity of vacation days each year. But as with many professionals, her specialized projects won’t move forward in the same way if she’s not tending them — and she finds these projects quite meaningful.

“I like the work I do,” she told me. “The fact that I do a little work on vacation makes me feel a little better about taking more of it.” Her family spends multiple weeks visiting extended family in Maine, but she sometimes holes up for an afternoon to manage work matters while relatives play with her kids.

. . .

. . . if doing some work at the beach means you can be at the beach for two weeks instead of one, and moving work time around means you can play with your kids in the afternoons and still keep your clients happy, then those blurred boundaries might be working to your advantage.

For the full commentary, see:

Laura Vanderkam. “Go Ahead, Work While on Vacation and Vacation While at Work.” The New York Times (Tuesday, August 16, 2022): A18.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Aug. 13, 2022, and has the title “Don’t Feel Guilty About Working on Vacation — or About Vacationing at Work.”)

Through Evolution, Body Parts Are Inelegantly Repurposed into Workaround Kluges

If the body itself is an amalgam of workaround kluges, then maybe our regulators should be more tolerant of medical MacGyvers who attempt to keep the body working through medical workaround kluges.

(p. A15) Mr. Pievani is a professor of biology at the University of Padua. His brief and thoughtful book (translated from the Italian by Michael Gerard Kenyon) isn’t just a description of imperfection, but a paean to it. There’s plenty of description and discussion, too, as “Imperfection” takes the reader on a convincing whirlwind tour of the dangers as well as the impossibility of perfection, how imperfection is built into the nature of the universe, and into all living things—including ourselves.

. . .

Readers wanting to get up to speed on imperfection would do well to attend to two little-known words with large consequences. The first is “palimpsest,” which in archaeology refers to any object that has been written upon, then erased, then written over again (sometimes many times), but with traces of the earlier writings still faintly visible. Every living thing is an evolutionary palimpsest, with adaptations necessarily limited because they’re built upon previous structures.

Consider, for example, childbirth. As smart critters, we’ve been selected (naturally) to have big heads. But in becoming bipedal, we had to rotate our pelvises, which set limits on the size of the birth canal. As a result, an unborn baby’s head is perilously close to being too big to get out. Usually, they manage it, but not without much painful laboring and sometimes, if this cephalopelvic disproportion is too great, or if the baby is malpositioned, by means of a cesarean delivery. In such cases, obstetricians take the newborn out the obvious way: through that large, unobstructed abdominal space between pelvis and lower ribs. Things would have been much easier and safer for mother and baby if the birth canal were positioned there, too, but our palimpsest nature precludes such a straightforward arrangement.

Which brings us to our second unusual word: “kluge,” something—assembled from diverse components—that shouldn’t work, but does. A kluge is a workaround: often clumsy, inelegant, inefficient, but that does its job nonetheless. Because we and all other living things are living palimpsests, we are kluges as well.

For the full review, see:

David P. Barash. “BOOKSHELF; Unintelligent Design.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, October 26, 2022): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date October 25, 2022, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Imperfection’ Review: Unintelligent Design.”)

The book under review is:

Pievani, Telmo. Imperfection: A Natural History. Translated by Michael Gerard Kenyon. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2022.

California Law Mandating $22 Wage for Restaurant Workers Is “Discouraging” Entrepreneurs

(p. A3) A government-appointed council could increase wages for California’s estimated half-million fast food workers to as much as $22 an hour starting next year, under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom Monday [September 5, 2022].

. . .

“You can’t charge enough for food to offset what will happen from a labor perspective,” said Greg Flynn, president of Flynn Restaurant Group, which operates franchise brands in 44 states and owns 105 restaurants in California. “California is already the most difficult state in the nation to operate as a restaurateur. This just makes it more difficult and less attractive.”

. . .

Michaela Mendelsohn, an El Pollo Loco franchisee in Southern California, said she recently put on hold plans to add to her group of six stores because of the measure.

If wages shoot up, she added, she will consider eliminating cashier positions or installing kiosks in her California locations that allow customers to input orders.

“We’ve gone too far here,” Ms. Mendelsohn said. “It’s just really discouraging.”

For the full story, see:

Christine Mai-Duc and Heather Haddon. “California Fast-Food Bill Signed, Opening Path to Higher Pay.” The New York Times (Tuesday, September 6, 2022): A3.

[Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.]

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Sept. 5, 2022, and has the title “California Governor Signs Fast Food Bill, Opening Way to Higher Wages.” The last two sentences quoted above appeared in the online, but not the print, version.)

Entrepreneurs Harvest Useful Protein Collagens From “Precision Fermentation” Rather Than From Slaughter of Animals

(p. B4) The multibillion-dollar push to make animals obsolete in the food industry has already produced pea-protein “bratwurst,” fungus molded into “ham” and “leather,” and “meat” cultured from chicken cells. Geltor, a seven-year-old company based in the Bay Area, is taking a different tack: bioengineering bacteria cells to produce animal proteins you’ll likely never taste.

Geltor is producing forms of collagen they say are identical to the proteins extracted from skin and bones. For now, those vegan collagens can be found in high-end skin care creams. But as the company grows, it’s eyeing other ingredients few Americans associate with animal farming, such as the elastin in your shampoo, the collagen peptides in your smoothie, and even the gelatin (which is hydrolyzed, or slightly broken-down, collagen) in your marshmallows. Alex Lorestani, co-founder and chief executive of Geltor, likes to talk about how the company’s proteins impose a lighter burden on the environment than the meat industry. The challenge, however, is how the company gets to the scale necessary to exert that kind of impact.

In 2012, Dr. Lorestani and co-founder Nick Ouzounov, both 35, were both pursuing doctorates in molecular biology at Princeton University when the invention of Crispr turbocharged the field of bio-design. “We can bio-design medicine,” Dr. Lorestani recalled discussing with his labmates that summer. “Why can’t we bio-design everything?”

Dr. Ouzounov eventually came up with a method — which he and Dr. Lorestani, in typical Bay Area techspeak, call “a platform” — for genetically modifying bacteria cells to reproduce a wide variety of animal proteins, a process that biotech firms are calling “precision fermentation.” In 2015, the two scientists formed Geltor.

For the full story, see:

Jonathan Kauffman. “Going Beyond Vegan ‘Meat’ to Bio-Designed Collagen.” The New York Times (Wednesday, August 3, 2022): B4.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date August 2, 2022, and has the title “Is Bio-Designed Collagen the Next Step in Animal Protein Replacement?”)