Random Acts of Medicine: The Hidden Forces That Sway Doctors, Impact Patients, and Shape Our Health by Anupam B. Jena; Christopher Worsham

Random Acts of Medicine is a Malcolm Gladwell style book applied to health care systems. The authors — both physicians and public health researchers at Harvard Medical School — propose to explore the “hidden, but predictable ways in which chance affects our health and our healthcare system” through the use of “Natural Experiments,” that is observational studies that make use of naturally occurring differences in the world and measuring the impact. The two (along with colleagues) have used the approach to explore and answer a number of questions such as: does stress really age you? How does the month of a child’s birth impact their health and life success? What happens when all the cardiologists leave town? How does a marathon impact our health? Does your doctor’s politics affect the care they give? For each question (and there are many, many, more than the ones I have listed), the authors carefully explain the natural experiment, the sources of data, results, and what use can be made of the results (possible policy changes, or greater awareness of our own biases at work).

I found the book got better (more interesting to me) as it went on. The authors are careful not to assume that the reader knows anything about natural experiments, statistics, counterfactuals, etc. and they explain the (possibly new) concepts carefully, but not tediously. Still, if you are already familiar with the concepts it can get a little dull and I enjoyed all the actual experiments (many with surprising results) more than the introduction.

An easy read full of fun “I never thought about that” insights. Plenty of notes and references for those who want to investigate further. I always appreciate the kind of “popularized” topic books when they actually show their work, clearly separating them from the whopping pile of self help books that make claims without an iota of scientific support.

Thank you to Doubleday and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 11th, 2023

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss by Rajeev Balasubramanyam

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Random House Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 26, 2019.
Writing: 5 Plot: 4.5 Characters: 4.5

69-year old leading Cambridge economist Professor Chandra is a shoe-in for the Nobel prize in Economics — except that he doesn’t get it. Divorced, distant from his three children, and frustrated with the new tenor of academic life, this “non event” coupled with a silent heart attack sends him off on an unintended, Siddhartha-like quest for personal enlightenment (naturally starting with a sabbatical at UC Bella Vista in Southern California).

His journey takes him to unlikely places — both physical and emotional. He is tricked into attending a weekend workshop at Esalen; he visits his ex-wife and new, annoying husband in Boulder in order to see his troubled daughter Jasmine; he searches for a way to reach his middle daughter Radha — an angry Marxist who hasn’t spoken to her conservative father in over two years; and visits his son Sunil’s highly successful Hong Kong-based “School for Mindful Business” (based on principles completely antithetical to his own). He learns that he is human and not infallible and finds himself more OK with that than he would have expected.

Excellent and insightful writing — wry and witty with deliciously pithy and often hysterical articulations of his evolving viewpoints. Lots of interesting commentary about psychology, economics, spirituality, achievement and the personal search for meaning and happiness.  I appreciate that while he learns more about himself, his priorities, and his relationships, he does not relinquish his intellectual interests or accomplishments.

Some great lines:

Brief but scathing summary of the identity politics Radha adheres to:
“‘West’ … ‘bourgeois’ … ‘capitalist’ … these words would fly from her lips like tiny swastikas, her knuckles turning white, her jaw clenched, her eyes hard as Siberian pickaxes as she sentenced most of the world to the gulag for their crimes against ideology.”

“An Indian Miss Havisham with an Emeritus Professorship and a takeaway menu.”

“… but he couldn’t help believing meditation was best suited to those with less mind to be mindful of: sociologists, for example, or geologists”

“Humans were like those snowflakes against the window, buffeted by winds no one understood.”

“Chandra accepted the phone as if he’d been handed a small but quite genuine lump of plutonium.”

“They seem to come pre-offended, forsaking any analytical content in favor of emotion and outrage.”

“But the undergraduates were even worse than in Cambridge: arrogant, unhygenic, and brazen, convinced that lazy platitudes and fallacious arguments would earn them nothing but praise if delivered with sufficient conviction.”

“King’s was Chandra’s least favorite college. It was the intellectual equivalent of a Disney princess, fluttering its eyelashes at tourists who didn’t know any better.”

“It was what Chandra loathed most about liberals — their shameless self-righteousness, as if the species’ failings were always someone else’s fault, while anything they did, murder and arson included, were heroic acts in the service of liberty and justice.”