Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson is an excellent nonfiction read for anyone who enjoys history, especially the history of science. It tells the story of an outbreak of cholera in Victorian London, and how two men from different backgrounds and points of view fought the prevailing - and dangerously wrong - view of the disease. Although I had never heard of this story, it is apparently well known, and usually mistold; The Ghost Map corrects some common misconceptions.

In Victorian England, one misconception was very great, and it was deadly. People believed that cholera - and most disease - was spread through something called "miasma," meaning bad air. In short, if you could smell it, it could kill you. And boy, could you smell it. Don't read The Ghost Map while eating! It is full of rich, detailed descriptions of the stench and filth of Victorian London, a city whose population had mushroomed into the largest city ever known on our planet, but whose sanitation methods had not begun to catch up. The descriptions of outhouses and cesspools emptying directly into the Thames, while children bathed and drew drinking water only a few meters away, is positively stomach-turning. And the detailed description of cholera itself - how the disease spreads, how its victims suffer and die - is equally and fittingly disgusting.

But in 1854, the concept of micro-organisms that were invisible to the human eye living in and poisoning water was not yet understood. Since disease was spread by foul air, or so the story went, public health would be improved by making the air fresher and better smelling. The solution: move all the human and animal waste into the river, where it will be carried away.

In a few decades the Thames was transformed from a clean river full of salmon to a giant, festering sewer drain. The advent of flush toilets - which emptied ten times as much water into the river - made it ten times worse. Thus, Johnson shows, the first great public works of London had the effect of poisoning the population.

The miasma theory of disease was riddled with gaping holes. If smelly air caused cholera, then the people who worked in London's sewers - urban scavengers who spent their days combing through human excrement - should be the sickest people of all. Yet they were generally healthy and lived to what was then old age.

If smelly air caused cholera, why did people in grand mansions, where the chamber pots were emptied immediately and the air smelled fresh, succumb to the disease as often as the destitute who lived right near the smelly river? These inconsistencies were explained away with a combination of superstitions and medieval beliefs. The waterborne theory of disease was ignored or ridiculed.

John Snow, an accomplished doctor and inventor, believed cholera was spread by water. Snow didn't have the tools to prove his theory through direct observation. So he went about proving it indirectly, by painstakingly documenting outbreaks of the disease, looking for patterns and making connections between the water residents drank and the illness. (As it turns out, the cholera bacteria had been isolated and identified by a scientist in Italy, but that breakthrough had been ignored.) London was built on a crazy labyrinth of water and sewer pipes, and a dozen different companies provided the city with water. Snow faced a monumental job - and along the way, he became the first person to map an epidemic. His methods and the map he created form the basis of the modern methods of understanding and controlling infectious diseases.

John Snow was right, but no one was listening. Henry Whitehead was a minister with deep roots in the London community that was being devastated by cholera, and he became Snow's crucial ally. Like everyone else, Whitehead originally subscribed to the "miasma" theory, but his open mind and intelligence compelled him to accept Snow's waterborne theory. Johnson demonstrates how Whitehead's deep understanding of the neighbourhood was the link to the eventual ascendancy of Snow's theory: how the local impassioned amateur works with the trained scientist both to reach the necessary conclusion and to make people hear it. He also shows how urban life itself contributed to the understanding that eventually stopped the outbreak: "the battle between metropolis and microbe was over, and the metropolis had won."
Cholera would continue to terrorize Western cities into the first decades of the twentieth century, but with London's successful engineering project as a model [i.e., the building of London's monumental sewer system], the outbreaks usually prodded the local authorities into modernizing their civic infrastructure. One such outbreak hit Chicago in 1885, after a heavy storm flushed the sewage collecting in the Chicago River far enough into Lake Michigan that it reached the intake system for the city's drinking water. Ten percent of the city's population died in the ensuing outbreak of cholera and typhoid, and the deaths ultimately led to the city's epic effort to reverse the flow of the Chicago River, sending the sewage away from the water supply. . . . By the 1930s, cholera had been reduced to an anomaly in the world's industrialized cities. The great killer of the nineteenth-century metropolis had been tamed by a combination of science, medicine, and engineering. In the developing world, however, the disease continues to be a serious threat. A strain of V.cholerae known as "El Tor" killed thousands in India and Bangladesh in the 1960s and 1970s. An outbreak in South America in the early 1990s infected more than a million people, killing at least ten thousand. In the summer of 2003, damage to the water-supply system from the Iraq War triggered an outbreak of cholera in Basra. There is a fearful symmetry to these trends. In many ways, the struggles of the developing world mirror the issues that confronted London in 1854.
The Ghost Map is at its best in the history and sociology of science department, tracing the solving of a medical mystery. Johnson goes beyond the history to make links between that long-ago cholera outbreak and our contemporary world. He is a passionate urbanist, who correctly believes that cities are good for humans and good for the planet. He quotes the great urban activist Jane Jacobs and writes about the giant so-called squatter cities now occupying - and in some respects, thriving and developing - in places like Mumbai and Sao Paolo. He has great hope for these situations, tempered with great caution.

Johnson concludes by writing about the modern descendants of John Snow's disease-mapping techniques, both the high-tech tools of the Center for Disease Control and the local geomapping of urban neighbourhoods through popular online tools. He speculates about the threats of biological or nuclear terrorism, to which an urban population is at much greater risk than a widely dispersed population. He also mentions that if humans don't deal effectively with both climate change and our dependence on fossil fuel, our long-term prospects are not good.

Johnson goes far afield, and you may or may not agree with his conclusions, but he writes strongly and convincingly. However, it's the first two-thirds of The Ghost Map that are most fascinating. (This review was originally published here, on wmtc.)

Monday, February 24, 2014

Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History

Eduardo Galeano’s Children of the Days is indeed a calendar - each page presents a day of the year, with a historical story somehow associated with that day.  He tells stories about people, places, and events that in most cases have some connection with the day they appear on.  Some vignettes will be well known, but many document unsung ordinary people who have championed a cause, and in many cases suffered and died for it.  The book features many happenings from Latin America - an area that does not receive a lot of international media coverage - and so it is a very interesting way to experience historical events.  Rather than delving into extensive historical detail on a central topic, Galeano gives us a collage of disparate events.  In reading this book, I found myself choosing to read one month per day.  When I would put the book down after each sitting and reflect upon my reading, the distinct events start to weave together and form patterns.

As one progresses through this book, overall themes start to present themselves - ordinary people, often indigenous peoples, fighting for human rights and freedoms from government and corporate oppression.  Freedom to live in traditional lifestyles, freedom from environmental degradation, and defence of democratic principles in the face of military dictatorships and foreign influence.  Galeano celebrates human achievement and creativity, and the pursuit of peace and environmental harmony.  He is strongly critical of corporate greed and its profit-driven expedient decision-making, and is clearly critical of the dubious motives of war and the military (as it manifests in any country).  The clearest and succinctest example of this is by simply referring to the U.S. Department of Defense as the “Department of War.”

Each story is fascinating, and in many cases horrifying.  But every once in a while, a story has a happy ending, and faith in humanity can be somewhat restored.  The stories are quite short - each is no more than a page, but many are short paragraphs.  Many are told in almost poetic form.  I have reproduced a passage below, which to me is a representative sample of what this book is like to read:       
April 24
The Perils of Publishing
In the year 2004, for once the government of Guatemala broke with tradition of impunity and officially acknowledged that Myrna Mack was killed by order of the country’s president.
Myrna had undertaken forbidden research. Despite receiving threats, she had gone deep into the jungles and mountains to find exiles wandering in their own country, the indigenous survivors of the military’s massacres. She collected their voices.
In 1989, at a conference of social scientists, an anthropologist from the United States complained about the pressure universities exert to continually produce: “In my country if you don’t publish, you perish.”
And Myrna replied: “In my country if you publish, you perish.”
She published.
She was stabbed to death.

Discussion Questions
  1. Describe the tone of Children of the Days.  
  2. Does this book change how you view human history?
  3. What was your favourite “day” presented in this book?
  4. How many of the people/events were familiar to you?
  5. Galeano does not provide “textbook” summations of historical events. What is the effect of his portrayals?  
  6. How would you describe his writing style?
  7. Did you ever feel intrigued enough about a story to conduct further research?
  8. Sometimes the link between a story and the date it appears on is not obvious (and may not be stated at all). We can also assume that Galeano to some degree manipulated the flow of stories throughout the book. How well does the subject matter integrate into the calendar idea? How does each story flow into the next?
  9. What are some major themes that Galeano is particularly concerned about?
  10. Can you think of an “unsung” hero who could have been added to this book?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

How Do You Tuck in a Superhero? And Other Delightful Mysteries of Raising Boys

Written by Rachel Balducci, this book is a slightly bewildered look at the hilariously unpredictable antics of Balducci’s five young sons.  How Do You Tuck in a Superhero?  And Other Delightful Mysteries of Raising Boys is terribly funny, sometimes poignant, and thoroughly enjoyable. It reads like a blog, with each chapter a new discovery of adventurous and outrageous behaviour, documented with love. It’s a light read, only a slim 203 pages, and grouped into sections (she calls them chapters) with each “bloggish” entry given its own title. The sections’ theme categories range from Proper care and Feeding, (lots on hygiene) to The Other Heroes in Our House (like Chuck Norris) to The Sweet Side (which is just that—how her kids melt her heart, often unsuspectingly).

Here’s an example of her wit:

“Stuff I say that no longer sounds crazy (to me):
-I am not a wrestling mat.
-No, you may not, and if I find a knife stuck in my kitchen cutting board, you will be in big trouble.
-Stay off the roof.
-Why are there blocks of wood cooking in my oven?”

With my own three children, (two girls, one boy) I have also found that I have spewed such things, usually with a note of disbelief and barely-contained laughter.  Ms Balducci sounds like a great mom—someone who will get into gargling contests with her kids (so that mouthwash is fun) and who understands that brotherly love between her kids can be an exercise in pain. Physical pain. Limb-twisting, karate-kicking, shriek-inducing pain. But it’s still love.

She’s attempting to find that balance we all want our kids to have; the freedom to experiment and be creative but always within acceptable limits. As in: “[y]ou can try to invent a jet pack, but I will not buy the fuel for it.” I’ll bet she usually comes close to getting it right. And somehow, she also finds time to write books, too!

I think she brings it all together nicely when she expresses her understanding of her kids’ worldview:

“When they grow up, boys want to be all those things you would guess—a construction worker or a fireman or possibly a superhero. Depending on what powers that would involve.
They want those things for you, too.
One of the boys once told me that he thought it would be cool if I could add a few more titles to my job description.
‘What if you were a mother slash assassin slash double agent?’ he asked, gazing into my eyes as if it were already so.”

As a mother, I have experienced such moments myself—and the sentiment intended in those gazing eyes is pure love and even respect. In that moment, you know you’ve been given an honourary distinction:  Mom, who understands me! In reality, Mom is trying hard to do just that.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Seven Glorious Days: A Scientist Retells the Genesis Creation Story

Seven Glorious Days: A Scientist Retells the Genesis Creation Story by Karl W. Giberson drew my attention by the blurb on the back cover:

"This provocative work recasts the ancient Genesis creation story within the framework of contemporary science. Seven Glorious Days takes readers on a grand ride through the history of the universe--from the big bang, to the origin of stars and planets, to the appearance of living creatures bearing the image of God and living in community."

There was far too much science in this book and not enough spirituality to put it in the 231[1] Dewey range, in my opinion. I would have classified it in the 523's [2] since there was nary a mention of God at all. The final chapter, "The Seventh, Final Day of Creation" resembled a new age blissfest where Giberson revealed that the greatest power known to man is the power of love. I had to withhold swearing as I cast my glance heavenward as I read about the healing and restorative powers of love. What does love have to do with the origin of the cosmos? Where was the scientific analysis comparing the opening verses of Genesis to the astronomical record? That's the kind of book I was expecting. Instead I got the lowdown on atoms and molecules and spinning globs of molten mercury--Giberson did go overboard with the spinning globs imagery--while the religious analysis was hardly touched upon. I cannot complain about the science, even though it was a tad boring, however I did finish the book in two days so it was engaging enough in its presentation of cosmology. I appreciated most of all the detail given to the Drake equation, which Giberson acknowledged was "little more than a series of educated guesses multiplied together". In that I agree. Seven Glorious Days was a quick read but didn't give me the science-versus-Genesis analysis that its Dewey classification implied it would.

[1] Scientific and Christian viewpoints of the origin of the universe
[2] Expanding universe theories (including the Big Bang)

Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned

Throughout my life and my self-education, all the way back through childhood, in books and movies, I repeatedly stumbled on Clarence Darrow. And the more I learned of him, the more I loved and admired him. Is it any wonder? Darrow was: an outspoken atheist, a radical death-penalty abolitionist, the greatest defender of organized labour and the rights of working people the U.S. has ever seen, and an anti-racist in a time when segregation was absolute and violently enforced. He questioned and subverted all of society's institutions and conventions, including monogamy, marriage, and the subjugation of women. He didn't play by the rules, because he believed those rules were corrupt and designed to serve the interests of wealth and property.

Naturally, I was eager to read John A. Farrell's Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned. Farrell serves up Darrow's triumphs and his defeats, his idealism and his trickery, his genius and flaws and contradictions in equal measure. The research is masterful, the writing is elegant, the pacing exciting. I don't usually quote book publicity material, but in this case, it's accurate.
Amidst the tumult of the industrial age and the progressive era, Clarence Darrow became America’s greatest defense attorney, successfully championing poor workers, blacks, and social and political outcasts, against big business, fundamentalist religion, Jim Crow, and the US government. His courtroom style — a mixture of passion, improvisation, charm, and tactical genius — won miraculous reprieves for men doomed to hang. In Farrell’s hands, Darrow is a Byronic figure, a renegade whose commitment to liberty led him to heroic courtroom battles and legal trickery alike.
Farrell's Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned is an opportunity to be amazed and inspired - and perhaps to contemplate radical solutions to remake our world. (This review originally appeared here, on wmtc.)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction

So do you want to live in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world? All the latest cool fiction is doing it, so why not embrace it as a life choice? With the weight of scientific (biological, medical, atmospheric, psychological) evidence leading us to this unfortunate hand-basket theory, it is tempting to jump on. However, let me introduce you to Annalee Newitz, an author whose book Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans will Survive a Mass Extinction can provide you with post-post-apocalyptic inspiration on a scientific level.

I first became aware of Newitz from the superlative science website, where she is editor and contributor, and where articles about physics or comparative global population distribution are interspersed with ones on the year’s best fantasy movies.  Like the website, the content of her book ranges from the solemn to the humourous, but with solid scientific backing and a very engaging writing style.  

For me, one of the best parts of the book is the “Preface to the Canadian edition: Moosejaw on Venus”, written for the Penguin Canada imprint of the book. Newitz has a special place in her heart for Canada, and a deep respect for the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She believes that Saskatoon epitomizes the city of the future, calling Saskatoon “a model for human survival” because of its success in dealing with a difficult climate. “[P]eople there have found ways to incorporate the latest scientific advances into agriculture and urban design without overspending,” Newitz states, which she feels can inspire other urban centres to adopt similar methods. 

As for outlining the theory of her book’s title, Newitz doesn’t just look at human models, like the Jewish diaspora, to illustrate the virtues of “scatter”. She posits “adapt” using cyanobacteria that, united, can become, as she says, "Mighty Morphin Power Ranger-like". In other words, super powerful, but expressed in a way much more fun. She advocates humans emulating the capacity for deep “remembering” that the majestic gray whale has, as a species, for international migration, with constant variation in their routes taken.  

Coming back to the human world, Newitz looks at a variety of approaches to survival. Along with mining science fiction for evidence of "pragmatic optimism" (not her strongest chapter), she also strongly advises rethinking civic planning with profound creativity. From ancient Catalhoyuk (where residents "dropped in" on their friends literally, entering the house from the roof), to underground cities, to a Waterworld-inspired tsunami-proofed model city built at Oregon State U; adaptability and resilience are key concepts that cannot be left out of planning. To round it all up, Newitz looks at the million-year plan, which involves terraforming a la Star Trek 2 but on our own planet, asteriod-crushing situations a la Deep Impact and beyond, and replacing our wimpy body parts a la RoboCop. All the cheesy movie references are my own, don't worry.  

This book has its fair share of cutting-edge scientific theories and cuttingly witty ways to express them. Here’s an example of Newitz's charm:

“If there had been a paleogeologist among the last of the dinosaurs, she could hardly have pinned the blame on her peers’ demise on any single factor. The entire ambiguous history of the planet would have to stand trial for murdering brachiosaurus and letting a bunch of little monkeys take over.” 

I don’t know about you, but I can certainly picture that denizen of the Cretaceous scolding me with one of her three front toes shaken in my direction--how fun is that?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Man's Search for Meaning

Man's Search for Meaning is a classic text written by Dr. Viktor E. Frankl in 1959, republished with various forewords and epilogues in 1984, 1992, and 2006. Frankl, who died in 1997, was a neurologist, a psychiatrist, and a therapist. He was also a Holocaust survivor whose entire family perished in the Nazi death camps. The original German title of Man's Search for Meaning is translated into English as Nevertheless, Say "Yes" to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp.

Man's Search for Meaning is divided into two parts. In the first part, Frankl recounts some memories of his own experience in Nazi concentration camps. There, he became a keen observer of how people survived - in the differences between who survived and who didn't, who managed to retain some measure of dignity, who adhered to their own moral code despite being surrounded by immorality and degradation, and who became brutal themselves, who lost the will to live.

This section was, of course, difficult to read, but it was also fascinating. Although I have thought extensively about the Holocaust, I mainly have thought of concentration camps as death camps: places where people were exterminated in mass numbers. Clearly they were that, but they were also forced-labour camps. Frankl relates how he and the other men were forced into slave labour under unimaginably brutal conditions - starving, sick, exposed to the elements, in constant danger of being beaten or murdered, in constant danger of being still further humiliated. Frankl draws one of the clearest pictures of slavery you will read anywhere.

Woven into these descriptions are firsthand accounts of choices made by both inmates and overseers - because, although no one could choose their conditions, everyone, Frankl believes, could choose how they reacted to those conditions. These are stories of small moments of courage, dignity, and heroism, as well as of the descent into sadism and brutality.

In the second part of the book, Frankl describes his theory of human experience and the therapy derived from that theory, both derived (in part) from his experiences in the concentration camps. (Frankl had begun working on the theory and the book before being captured by the Nazis.)

I can't write about Frankl's theory impartially, because it dovetails perfectly with my own worldview, and confirms so many of my core beliefs. According to Frankl, humans' greatest driving force - the primary, most powerful motivation in our lives - is the will to meaning. The school of therapy he founded, logotherapy, is based on the premise that humans must find purpose and meaning in their own lives, and that many psychological problems can be traced to a lack of meaning and purpose.

Frankl himself was a believer in his own religion, and apparently many people find spiritual meaning in his book, but Man's Search for Meaning is not spiritual or religious. Indeed, logotherapy is not prescriptive and does not proselytize. In logotherapy, the role of the therapist is to help people discover their own purpose, not to assign a purpose to them.

The search for meaning in life is not an abstraction, not the same as the so-called "meaning of life". Frankl writes:
For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: "Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?"
Each person's meaning, and the path through which they discover it, is unique to that individual. That meaning is dynamic and fluid, and will change many times over the course of a lifetime. There is no blueprint of a search for meaning. But, according to logotherapy, humans discover meaning in their life in one of three ways. Meaning is discovered through deeds and acts, through love, and through suffering.
Thus far we have shown that the meaning of life always changes, but that it never ceases to be. According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering.
The first path is self-explanatory. By the second path, Frankl means the experience of truth, beauty, art, nature, culture, or any other enriching experience, and he means the experience of love. The third path - the attitude we take to suffering - might stop you for a moment, as it did me. How can suffering have meaning? Shouldn't suffering be prevented? Must we suffer to find meaning?

Frankl answers the latter questions unequivocally. If we can prevent suffering, or remove the cause of suffering, we should and we must. Suffering is not a necessary pre-condition to meaning. There is no crucible of fire through which we all must pass in order to find liberation.

However, life can be full of suffering. There is pain in ordinary existence. And through that suffering, there is potential for meaning and purpose. Whenever a person says, "I'm not glad it happened, but I learned and grew so much from the experience," she has found meaning through suffering.

Every one of us who has discovered growth through personal loss or just plain hard times has lived this precept. War resisters who feel compelled to speak out against war, rape survivors who volunteer in a crisis centre, recovering substance abusers who become sponsors - these are all examples of finding meaning in suffering.

The meaning found through suffering needn't be activism, it need not be altruistic or charitable. It could be enjoying a rich and beautiful day with a loved one, despite having cancer. It could be deciding to adopt another animal after the loss of a beloved dog or cat. It could be deciding to take better care of oneself after an illness.

Finding meaning in suffering is more than making the best of a bad situation. It's understanding that conflict and pain are also opportunities for growth and personal development - opportunities we would never choose, but which ultimately become part of our strength and our purpose. Because, Frankl believes, humans never lose free will. We can seldom choose our conditions, but we can always choose how we react to those conditions. That is a central teaching of logotherapy.

Several important points made in Frankl's book have become contemporary cliches - overused to the point of having lost all meaning. But that has occurred in a different time and context, and shouldn't be held against Frankl. He quotes the German philosopher Nietzsche in two important points, which you will recognize from cubicle decorations and pop-psychology-speak. That which doesn't kill me makes me stronger and If a man has a why, he can withstand any how. Cliches, yes. But for many people, simple truisms.

Some of the language in Man's Search for Meaning is outdated, and some of the scenarios seem old-fashioned. For example, a disabled man is described as "crippled". Yet Frankl uses this "crippled" man as an example of a person leading a rich and meaningful life, which would have made him very progressive in his era. He uses the word "man" generically, where today we would use more inclusive, gender-neutral language. The need to make minor mental updates shouldn't detract from the value of this book. Man's Search for Meaning is a rich and rewarding read. (This review originally appeared here, on wmtc.)

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Politics of Blindness: From Charity to Parity

I am an advocate for blind rights and accessibilty. That I can read a printed book is a gift I treasure every day. As one with a visual disability myself, I know better than to take my eyesight for granted. I am sensitive to the needs of those with low visual ability or no visual capacity at all, so I was drawn to The Politics of Blindness: From Charity to Parity by Graeme McCreath, because it was written by a blind author about the state of blind charities in Canada. McCreath pulls no punches in his biting critique of the ineffectiveness of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, a 100-year-old organization which in his opinion has done very little towards helping those who need its services the most.

It was a shocking surprise to read in the preface:

"Our government initially chose to try to equalize this playing field by creating the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) in 1918. But this charitable organization, which requires an enormous amount of resources to maintain, represents a considerable impediment on the long road to blind people's achievement of independence and equal opportunity." 


"If we look at the lives of blind Canadians, not much has improved since the inception of the Institute all those years ago in 1918. Benevolent Canadians have been donating their hard-earned dollars in the name of the blind for all these years, but there is still massive unemployment, fragmented and inadequate rehabilitation and limited education or prospects for training."

This criticism is maintained throughout the book, with stories about overpaid CNIB senior executives who, unlike their clients, have sight. I agree with McCreath that organizations that represent a specific group of people should have those people at its highest levels of management. Imagine any other organization be it charitable, for-profit or activist (for example feminist, aboriginal, prostitutes, engineers) with an executive body devoid of those in whose name it represents.

McCreath paints a dark portrait of the CNIB as a charitable institution accountable to no one, that behooves blind Canadians to be members in order to access the bare minimum of support services. Services that one might expect the CNIB to provide such as employment training, the sale of discounted accessible equipment such as scanners and Braille typewriters, and even guide dog referrals are all either not covered by the CNIB or are otherwise disappointingly lacking. Much to my surprise, the CNIB does not train guide dogs nor does it even provide referrals, although there is plenty of evidence that the organization likes to piggyback on the efforts of those who provide this service.  

I did not feel that The Politics of Blindness was a whiny rant against the CNIB, even though McCreath had virtually nothing good to say about the organization. Whatever trace of a compliment he may have had was for a satisfactory yet still barely passable level of service. McCreath opened my eyes to what the CNIB actually does and does not do, and how its main concern in the past fifty years is making money at the expense of its clients, most of whom--75% of all blind adults--are unemployed. With such an embarrassingly high unemployment rate, surely much more has to be done to integrate blind people into the workplace and to adapt these workplaces by making them accessible to the blind. I found it most appalling how the CNIB operates as a for-profit monopoly. They are the sole suppliers of essential accessible devices yet provide them to their clients at exorbitant prices. Why is a charitable organization that is funded by donations charging its clients, who are in many cases living below the poverty line, for accessible equipment at all? Why then are people donating to the CNIB if the organization is not being charitable?

McCreath made his book available in a variety of accessible formats, such as Braille, audio, DAISY and E-book. Publishers are sorely unaware of how difficult it is to read the works they produce, as in my own experience I have strained to read type on dark backgrounds. The Politics of Blindness however was the easiest effort to read of all, as the pages were white (not any shade of cream or off-white) and the type was large with clear marks of punctuation. There was only one glaring spelling error, the unfortunately multiply-misspelled "opthalmologist". 

The Politics of Blindness will change your mind about the role the Canadian National Institute for the Blind has in helping those who need it the most.