Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Adrian Tchaikovsky recreates a fascinating world of intelligent arachnids in the novel "Children of Time"

I really liked Adrian Tchaikovsky's sci-fi novel "Children of Time". It is not just "another" science fiction novel. It is a masterpiece. Actually, I would rather call this novel a philosophical essay about inter-gender and inter-species relationships.
The novel describes unintended consequences of biotechnological experiments with terraformed planet in far away galaxy. In this far future Earth is in control of highly advance technologies. Planets in alien galaxies are subjected to terraforming to recreate Earth-like habitats. One such planet is about to be populated with monkeys expressing gene drive virus designed to accelerate their development. However both this experiment and soon Earth itself with all of its colonies and space stations undergo violent collapse. 

But not every live form is destroyed. Virus will escape and attaches itself to the arachnids. All these events are described within first few pages of the novel. The main part of story is about how gene drive virus will influence its host, a spider world. Arachnids are chosen for a reason. In spider world gender roles are reversed [compared to mammals], so its society is dominated by females and males have no power or status. The author provides a deep analysis of gender imbalance and how it affects spider's societal development and progress as their intelligence is increasing.

In the end, intelligent spiders and remaining humans from old lost Earth will clash for survival and for the right to live on this new Earth.

This is a fascinating book. I will highly recommend it. 

posted David Usharauli  

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Review of sci-fi novel "Leviathan wakes" by James S.A. Corey

I read this book after I saw the first episode of syfy TV series "The Expanse" that is based on this novel. That TV episode was very good. 
I had not heard about this author or about these novels until I saw it on a syfy YouTube channel, free to watch [~ 35 min episode]. I will highly recommend to watch it. Also I think it is for the first time, if I am not mistaken, that I read a book after I saw its TV adaptation [not exact adaptation but close]. 
The novel itself was also quite satisfying, at least its first half was really good. I really liked the idea of dividing humankind that colonized solar system into three subcultures: Earth, Mars and Belt. 
The novel starts with destruction of two Belt space ships. Initially Belt people suspect that it is Martian fleet that attacked them. However, it turned out that Earth corporation was behind it to cover up the discovery of alien life form.
The alien story is too unscientific to be believable but sub-cultural relationship, including inter-personal relationship like between Miller and Holden or Naomi are well described and interesting to read. 

posted by David Usharauli   

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

"Handbook of Bioentrepreneurship" - How Kirin founded La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology

This book named "Handbook of Bioentrepreneurship" was available so I decided to read it. Now, I am a research scientist who wants to learn the structures that allows initiation of biotech ventures. 

I read few biotech-related books and absolute majority of them have one major issue that completely makes the book worthless: they are just filled with generic nonsense numbers and theoretical discussions no one needs. 

This book was not different in this regard. It had 12 chapters, I believe, and only one chapter was really engaging to read and you know why? Because it had analysis of real events that happened  to a company in Japan when it decided to enter biotech field.

Actually it was really fascinating story. In late 70's, an Japanese brewery company, called Kirin, decided to diversify their product line by entering into biotech industry. This chapter in book described how mid-level Kirin managers showed entrepreneurial alertness that allowed Kirin, in collaboration with Amgen, to develop FDA-approved recombinant erythropoietin, one of the first biotech drug. 

Interestingly, this collaboration with Amgen was so successful that Kirin later founded wellknown La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology in San Diego to develop treatments and cures for immune system disorders. This is not well publicized story because even La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology website does not mention it in their "history" page. Only by noting that Dr. Makoto Nonaka, the Institute's founding President, and Dr. Kimishige Ishizaka, the Institute's first Scientific Director were of Japanese origin  one could make connection between this premier American scientific institution and Japanese brewing company Kirin.

posted by David Usharauli

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Biotech apocalypse in "The Year of the Flood" by Margaret Atwood

I had a hard time digesting this sci-fi, dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. This novel "The Year of the Flood" is a second novel in the MaddAddam series.   

It is set in near future where there is a new world order "controlled" by private mega corporations with its own army and police forces and research institutions. It is very ugly future. Now it is not clear why and how civilization, especially in the USA, descended into this wild-west type police state. Readers are told that there was some kind of natural or man-made environmental degradation in the south and basically USA is split into several corporate-run states.

The novel has multiple narrators who are recounting for readers events they have witnessed. Each narrator's story completes gaps in other narrator's story, so reader has whole view of what happened or is going on.  

Novel is centered on pacifist group led by person named Adam one. Members of this group practiced vegetarianism and believed that every species has the same rights as humans to exist and flourish on this earth. 

They also believed that world is near to "waterless flood" when Nature would turn against humanity for their callous and inhuman relationship with other earthly species. In the end, "waterless flood" indeed comes as a kind of biotech-engineered pandemic.

This is a very complex novel. Atwood "forces" readers to accept a human civilization where evil prevails and dominates, at least temporarily. It is hard pill to swallow.

posted by David Usharauli 

Friday, November 20, 2015

First 50 pages of "The Cat Who Walks Through Walls" by Robert A. Heinlein

Few days ago I went to local library to select books to read. I had no particular idea which book to choose so I was browsing through shelves and after 15 minutes walking through book aisles I came to this book "The Cat Who Walks Through Walls" by Robert A. Heinlein (1985 ed).

I only read one other novel by Robert A. Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land, 1961 ed.) before and I liked it, so I thought this book will be interesting too.

I was mistaken. I only read first 50 pages of this novel and it was enough for me to give it up. First, its writing style is complex. It requires "too much attention" when reading. For sci-fi novel this type of writing is big no no, if you ask me.

Second, this is a sci-fi novel set in far future and still in one of the episodes about photo taking, the author could only imagine Polaroid/Kodak-type photography [when it takes few seconds/minutes for image to appear after camera shot]. Basically, Robert A. Heinlein's writing about photography in 1985 fails to anticipate that in very near future there will be a digital, truly instantaneous imaging capabilities available for usage.

These two factors were sufficient for me to say thanks and stop reading this novel. I am reading sci-fi novels for their simplicity in writing, for their fun [nice to have it] and for their breadth of imaginations, so when sci-fi novel lacks these components there is only one thing left to do.

David Usharauli

Monday, November 16, 2015

Review of sci-fi novel "Corsair" by James Cambias

I found this book in the local library and decided to read it. Both title image and its summary were interesting.

The novel is set around year 2030. There is a base on a moon used to harvest helium-3. Helium-3 is used as a fuel in nuclear fusion reactions, and it is very expensive and necessary item.

The novel's focus is a commercial space piracy. The novel's protagonist is a computer hacker for hire named David. He is very successful in hijacking commercial helium-3 payloads during orbital re-entering.

However, David's tendency for trying of outsmart everyone around him will put him and people who cares about him in danger.

But as in Hollywood movies we have more or less happy ending. Basically, this novel is great for quick fun read and it could be even great as a script for B grade sci-fi movies that directly go to DVD.

posted by David Usharauli

Thursday, November 12, 2015

More real than fantasy. Review of "The Goblin Emperor" by Katherine Addison

Just finished reading "The Goblin Emperor" by Katherine Addison. This fantasy novel was actually nominated for Hugo award this year.    

I was very surprised that the author wrote this novel as a fantasy. I found nothing in this novel that did not actually happen in annals of real World history [except, of course, calling novel's characters goblins or elves].

The novel itself is very good and easy to read with lots of court intrigues. It describes first 6 months since Maia's character, King's youngest half-goblin prince, ascends the elvish throne [by chance]. Changes in Maia's life during this time period is well developed.

It is very strange that even though Maia had experienced very difficult, abusive childhood, the author decided to portray him as well behaved, well balanced young man [with no tendency to cruelty, abuse or superficiality]. Moreover, without formal education in statesmanship, somehow Maia is able to intuitively navigate a complex web of intrigues he encounters in Elvish court. Readers are only told that Maia is well versed in history of his kingdom.

In the end this novel is for kids, not for adults. It is very simple and everything is explained.

posted by David Usharauli

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Review of "Dark Orbit" by Carolyn Ives Gilman

The story starts really great. It is set in distant galaxy where humans are living in a planetary federation made of 20 planets, called Capellan 2.  

It appears that society is quite advanced technologically but politically it is developing into authoritative regime due to do strong anti-governmental movements. 

Here is one funny thing. They have beam teleportation technology but they still are using pagers for notifications. This seems out of character.

Basically, team of scientists are beamed to old space station located 58 light years away. There they discovered a planet with strange unknown biosphere that hides indigenous blind people. 

It appears that planet has a wormhole-type port through which local people can travel across time and space instantaneously. However, planet is undergo strong electromagnetic filed that threatens to destroy both spaceship and planets.

In the end, somehow, they managed to escape through wormhole. Great. There is a parallel story told in first person by one of the protagonists, Thora Lassiter. She becomes involved in movement to liberate women from male domination on planet Orem. Sounds like a good old Earth.   

In summary, novel's ending is pretty much mambo jambo. 

David Usharauli

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Gary Corby's Athenian mystery series book # 5

Gary Corby's Athenian mystery series are very entertaining series about ancient Greece. I read all five of them and highly recommend them.  

Gary Corby's portrayal of ancient Greece (~455 BC) is very interesting for educational point of view and easy to read. The series are mostly written for middle school students who are just starting to learn more about world history.    

The series' main characters are fictional private investigator, Nicolaos, his wife Diotima and his young but very bright brother Socrates (probably future famous philosopher).

In this 5th episode, Nicolaos are asked by Pericles to investigate death of metic actor at the time of great Dionysia festival. Great Dionysia was a Athens art festival where famous plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were shown. Metics were called people who came to live in Athens but did not have a formal citizenship (and associated privileges and rights). 

The story itself is kind of ridiculous, especially its ending, but this does not diminish overall quality of the story. When reading the book you are immersed in ancient Athens and learn a lot of details about peculiarities of ancient Athenians and their leaders. 

posted by David Usharauli

Monday, October 26, 2015

Biotech valuation

I tried to read these two books to introduce myself to biotech valuation. I had no clear idea what actually "valuation" meant. I wanted to learn a little bit about biotech investment strategies and how to appraise a company's financial "worthiness".  

I thought these books would be easy to understand for the beginners who are not familiar with professional assessment of biotech stocks [I thought books were about it]. However I was mistaken. Book is filled with all kind of graphs and mathematical equations or formulas that had nothing to do with investment and were more advance than my math skills could handle.

Beyond numbers, however, books contained little useful information for me. I thought I would learn, for example, why a particular biotech pipeline is valued so and so. Real life examples. I found none of these. What a waste of time.

posted by David Usharauli

Monday, October 19, 2015

Harper Lee and american social foundation

I am not very familiar with american classical literature. I have heard about Harper Lee before but have never read anything of hers, so when I found this book in our library I said let me try it. This novel, published originally in 1960, was considered as an important foundation for coming civil rights movement.      

In general, after reading the whole book I realized that is it essentially a book for teens. It is true that book is about complex social issues such as racial and social injustice, misogyny, hypocrisy. But Harper Lee presents these issues to the readers from 9 year old girl's point of view, so the reader is "cushioned" from immediate exposure to harsh reality.

The book is set in 1935, in a fictional small town, in deep south. Racial divide is a fact of life and no one seriously questions it, though there is already some "awaking" to the concept social injustice. Atticus Finch, a girl's father and one of the main characters in this book, is part of this "awaking" but as a lawyer his "awaking" is restricted to the concept of legal injustice, not a social injustice per se.   

However, hypocrisy is a fact of life life too. In one episode a school teacher is horrified by the fact that in Germany Hitler is doing whatever he wants to the Jews, but in the same sentence she shows that she is totally oblivious to the condition of blacks in her own town.   

The most enigmatic character of the book is Boo Radley, a reclusive young man. No one really knows much about him and or thought of him as a "burden" to the town. However, he is a real life "good Samaritan". 

posted by David Usharauli

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Oh, Sarum, Sarum, you are too big to fail

This is really a big book by Edward Rutherfurd. The book's story covers the period between 7,500 B.C. until modern days and focus on fictional characters who lived in Sarum (ancient name for modern day Salisbury), which is located near the remains of the modern day Stonehenge. 

This is basically a historical fiction. The author created several fictional family line with long unbroken lines of descendants who supposedly continue living in or around Sarum for 10,000 years.

The book starts with the depiction of final act of separation of British isles from continental Europe at the end of big ice age when vast amount of melted ice established the strait of La Manche (English Channel).

Later it describes how Stonehenge was built around 2000 B.C. Strangely, the authors depicts local ruler as a despot with arbitrary power. It also reveals widespread human sacrifice for solar or moon gods.

Then, it switches to the period of Roman occupation in the 1st century A.D under Claudius and Nero. Then, to the 5th century A.D, fall of Roman Empire and Saxon invasion of British isles.

and So on. For each period, the authors chooses several characters and show their living conditions and surrounding socio-political environment.

I read this book up to Plantagenet period, but no further. For me this book lacked sufficient details to keep my interest going. Many characters are artificially inserted into the story and mostly distract rather the help the story lines. 

posted by David Usharauli

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

"Human trials" in oral [antigen] tolerance by Susan Quinn

I was trying to get hold of this book for some time and in the end I found it at Open Library. I was interested to read it once I realized that it described a biotech company, then called Autoimmune Inc.,[now no longer existing], that have tried an "oral tolerance" approach to treat autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).   

Now, this book was published in 2001. By that time, Autoimmune had conducted two major trials, one in MS, and another in RA, and both of these phase III trials failed. As book described, the main reason for those "failures" was unusually high placebo effect.

Book itself is an interview-observation type of work. It focus is people involved in oral tolerance trials. Its main character is Howard Weiner, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School, whose lab provided the scientific basis for oral tolerance trials. 

Oral tolerance is a classical immunological phenomenon. Basically, it postulates that orally taken antigens induce special type of immune response that can cross-inhibit inflammatory immune response. So, the idea was that if patient with autoimmune disease takes target [MS or RA] antigens by oral route, then these antigens will induce special population of T cells which in turn would inhibit disease causing inflammatory T cells.

Today we know that there are several types of regulatory T cells (such as Foxp3+ T cells, IL-10+ or TGFβ1+ Tr1 cells) that can be induced by oral antigens. However, even today, after 15 years, we still have no clear understanding of exact mechanisms responsible for oral tolerance effect.

The story in this book is a prime example of difference between [bio]chemical and purely biological [drug] approaches. Biological approaches, such as oral tolerance, adoptive T cell therapies, are more complex because they involve live cells whose functionalities are not completely understood and they still store lots of unexpected surprises.

posted by David Usharauli

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Review of "A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller

On the surface, "A Canticle for Leibowitz" represents a futuristic dystopian novel. But it is misleading. Actually it is about our past, but only about past as seen in the west (from Greco-Roman world's point of view). 

The book comes in three parts. It begins in 26th century with the story about  nuclear holocaust that happened in the 20th century, referred as "flame deluge", that soon was followed by act of massive homicides and cleansing of educated classes, referred as "simplification". Within few years the whole world civilization collapses. 

We can clearly see the parallel with the fall of western Roman Empire in 5th century and beginning of the dark ages.  

Leibowitz is a scientists who is martyred by the mob during "simplification" for collecting and saving books. With the blessing of surviving Catholic church, now located in New Rome, the whole new priestly order is established, named after Leibowitz, tasked to preserve the knowledge. 

Again, we clearly see the parallels with the medieval libraries associated with the Catholic church during dark ages.

In the second part, set around 3200 A.D, there is a renewed interest in acquiring knowledge and we are witnessing advances in secularism but also in empire building. These are references to real life Renaissance in the western Europe starting in the early 15th century.    

In the final, third chapter, set around 3700 A.D, society came full circle and we are witnessing nuclear weapons and space travel capability. Yet again, book is ending by another "flame deluge", this time even worse. One space ship owned by Catholic church, however, manages to escape destruction and leaves for closest star system.

I personally see this book more of "Christian faith" book rather than science fiction. Catholic church is portrayed as a only force whose goal is to preserve and defend humanity. Conceptually, book's first and its final 20 or so pages contain all the the book's "artistic values" and they are quite powerful to read.

posted by David Usharauli

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Review of "Science, innovation, and the gene patent wars" by David Koepsell

There is a phrase "not to judge book by its cover". However, here for this book its meaning is completely reversed. I am sorry to admit but this is one of the most useless book I came across, though it has quite cool cover. 

I am really interested to learn more about some of the legal reasoning behind the biggest patent law cases of the past few years that basically transform the landscape for biotech patenting.

Filled with numerous repetitive statements the book fails to even deliver the promise of its title. Only relatively useful part of the book is related to the actual description of Myriad case.

But the author never explained why even assuming in arguendo that third party, for example, some Bay area biotech company has a patent on blue eye gene, it somehow make them to own or control your blue eye gene?

The author has put in the title big words such as "science" or "innovation", but somehow failed to mention anything about them (except some 9th grade level intro about DNA organization).

I was expected that the author would explain why Chakrabarty decision had ballooned into gold rush for patenting naturally occurring genes. It seems that Myriad case wasn't a new decision but rather it re-established the original meaning of Chakrabarty decision written some 30 years earlier.

In addition, the author does not discuss the outlook for biotech patenting in the wake of Myriad case. For example, can one patent any naturally occurring, but newly discovered molecule with anti-viral or anti-microbial properties? Current patent law cases suggest that the answer is negative for this question. You have already guessed obviously that this book does not say anything about it.

posted by David Usharauli


Thursday, September 24, 2015

"The Ten Thousand Things" by John Spurling

This book is a literary masterpiece. Book is a natural blend of history and philosophy. Set in China in the middle of 14th century, it follows the life of low level [former] administrator, part freelance painter, named Wang, as he retires from active government duties under Mongol Yuan dynasty and tries to devote full time to landscape painting.   

While Wang himself is a low-level bureaucrat, his is descended from late emperors of south Song dynasty, a Chinese dynasty that was replaced by Mongol Yuan dynasty founded by Great Mongol Khan Kublai in the middle of 13th century. Several members of Wang's family, including his famous grandfather, General Meng, freely accepted Mongol rule and served under "progressive" Kublai Khan.

Wang has no personal ambition to achieve higher status in Mongol government. He is neither pro-Chinese nor anti-Mongol. Mainly he cares about stability and economic prosperity. However, by the time Wang takes official 3 year leave of office to spend some time in his country estate, Yuan dynasty undergoes degradation and China is falling apart.

On one his travels Wang meets young monk named Zhu. Zhu had left his village after surviving black plague. Zhu is confused. He offers himself to Wang as a servant, but Wang cannot afford or has any need to take him. Wang gives to Zhu a piece of paper that happened to have a nationalistic, anti-mongol sentiments printed on it (actually, Wang has found this note but hidden it in his pocket to avoid any provocation with local mongol authorities).  

As a story develops Zhu is that peasant boy, later leader of bandits, who will eventually found new Ming dynasty in China. This transfer of power from Mongols to native Chinese took decades and it was not always clear which rule ordinary Chinese preferred, especially after Zhu, as a new Emperor, periodically showed a paranoid behavior that invariable resulted in executions, including of old Wang himself. 

This is a backdrop of the novel seen with the eye of Wang and people he encounters. 

posted by David Usharauli

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Review of "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley

This book was first published in 1932. It was time of a great depression. World was in chaos. Future of world social and economic order was in turmoil. 

In the "Brave New World" Aldous Huxley imagined a new world order, set in far future (around year 2500 AD), where people are artificially divided into intellectual and labor caste system referred by Greek alphabet: alpha, beta, gamma, delta. In this world, children are created in an in vitro dishes (bottles) and modified by hormones to develop into appropriate castes.

Alphas and Betas are in charge of "intellectual" work, while Gamma and Deltas are destined for lifetime of menial works. Surprisingly, it seems that everyone is content with their role. How? Because of pharma drug called soma and childhood conditioning.

However, occasionally few individuals from top alpha caste did not seem to fit in. Probably they are "mutants" who develop some kind of resistance to conditioning and soma. These individuals are questioning their environment. They want to experience something "different" and as the novel develops, they are able to meet people in "reservations" who follow forgotten traditions and live in pre-historic fashion (religion, monogamy, disease, ageing).

Is such future possible? Now this is not a typical dystopian future since Huxley's world is "happy" and "safe" place, at the expense of truth or love or any self-expression like art and literature. It is an extremely utilitarian and consumerist world (but not a totalitarian world). It is highly controlled and highly organized society. But still everyone needs soma to feel good. It appear that only soma can keep this world going.   

posted by David Usharauli

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Review of Brad Geagley's historical novel "Day of the False King"

I really enjoyed reading this historical novel by Brad Geagley. It is so well written that when one reads it you don't feel that there is a single extra word in it. Everything is written with the purpose.

I also liked the fact that these stories are about ancient Egypt and Babylon and Mesopotamia, a period not frequently covered by novelists. 

This particular novel is a second novel in a series that follows Egyptian investigator named Semerket. Here, Semerket is sent by ailing Ramses IV to the Babylon with the secret mission to bring back the statue of Babylon's god Marduk. Pharaoh believes that by touching the statute of this alien god he will be cured.

Semerket has his own interest to go to Babylon. He is looking for his ex-wife he still loves dearly. 

During his stay in Babylon, Semerket becomes involved in investigation the death of member of local Royal family and he himself comes close of dying, but eventually with the help of local tribes and new friends he will be able to solve the mystery, find his wife and safely brings god Marduk's statue back to Egypt (for 1 year "loan").

The novel is filled with interesting information related to ancient middle east. It appears that already by 1100 BC Babylon had a working indoor plumbing that delivered both cold and hot waters. Another interesting story was about women-only sect called gagu who were part astrologer part businesswomen. Another story I found fascinating is that at that time Babylonians apparently could worship 60,000 different gods.

posted by David Usharauli

Monday, September 14, 2015

Review of "Networking For Nerds" by Alaina Levine

I came across the reference to this book while browsing journal Science news/views career section. In our time when achieving old-fashioned academic science career has become as remote possibility as mythical labours of Hercules, STEM people frequently looking for alternative option to contribute value to the society.   

While book tries to be a honest portrayal of alternative science career [with some real life examples], it falls short of its proposed goal. 

The author does not have any unique advice to tell. Only thing the author suggests over and over again is not to be a shy and to start reaching out to people in career opportunities one finds interesting. I hardly imagine anyone who would disagree with this statements or have not thought about it. What is missing for this book is the idea that there are myriad ways of networking, not just one "standard". 

In my view the author also overusing word NERD. The focus of this book are people in STEM career and but very few people qualify under definition of NERD. Nerd by definition cannot and more importantly wouldn't network in a sense advocated by this book. And thanks for that, otherwise everyone would become copycats. 

posted by David Usharauli

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Cixin Liu's "The Dark Forest" - Enemy of my enemy is my friend

Cixin Liu's first book in "The three-body problem" trilogy won 2015 Hugo Award this August. In that first novel we are introduced to alien race, Trisolarians, technologically far advanced compared to humans on Earth. However, their planet, Trisolaris, 4.2 light years away, is a dying planet and after detecting a signal from Earth, Trisolaris had decided to invade the Earth and take it over for themselves. 

Since space travel from Trisolaris to Earth would have taken 400 years, a sufficient time for Earth to make technological advances necessary to protect against Trisolarians, the subatomic particles, sophons, were dispatched by Trisolarians ahead of their main space fleet. Deployment of sophons was designed to prevent further development in quantum physics and computation on Earth and essentially Earth technological development was frozen to early 21st century standards.      

In the second volume of this trilogy, called "The Dark Forest", we follow Earth development for next 210 years (crisis year 0 - 210), i.e. halfway before Trisolarian fleet arrives in solar system. 

While reading this second book, I frequently felt that it had a strong resemblance in style and concept to Asimov's "Foundation" series. As in "Foundation", the main and decisive concept in "cosmic psychology" and how to survive when dealing with "asymmetrically" advanced competitor. 

Unlike the first book, there is no "wow" moment in this book. Rise and fall of "Wallfacer project" is the only interesting concept. As expected, resources of Earth during the initial years of crisis were depleted within 50-100 years and brought with it a global decline called "great ravine" that lasted for 50 years. Afterwards we see a second Renaissance, rapid advances in living standards, subterranean cities, digital environments, and confident humans starting explorations and exploitation of solar system. However, book does not explain clearly how this transformation happened.

In any event all this "bravado" evaporates when around 210 crisis year a single Trisolarian's vanguard robotic probe arrives in solar system and completely annihilates human space fleet.

In the end, transmission of a simple "spell" (representing planetary coordinates) into space 200 years earlier by one of the Wallfacer appears to rescue humanity from a total collapse. Trisolarians become afraid of this "spell" and are finally forced to negotiate with humanity.

The novel's main idea is about how alien civilizations react to the intelligent signals. What is a cosmic psychology? How does the intelligent alien race think? How will intelligent civilizations respond when encountering alien civilizations? Would they be friendly or show hostile character? The author concludes that this is completely unknowable. The fear of "unknown" is the foundation of peace and coexistence, according to Cixin Liu's "The Dark Forest".

posted by David Usharauli 


Sunday, September 6, 2015

What FDA does and how FDA does it?

Federal Drug Administration (FDA) is a federal agency that controls drug and biologics approval process. FDA decisions make or sometime breaks the companies.   

This book, edited by Douglas Pisano and David Mantus, is a compilation of FDA related regulations and law applicable to biotech/biopharma drug development.

Of course no single book can provide full picture of FDA. Though I would say this book does some decent job, especially one chapter with tips how to find FDA related information online. Chapter about IND is also quite good. 

Primary interest in this book from scientist's point of view are chapters about IND and NDA applications. I personally learned that new law enacted in 2012 increased by 60 days both standard and priority review times necessary for NDA processing (8 months for priority review and 12 months for standard review).

Also, I learned that until FDA approves new drug, drug manufacturer or its associates cannot mention anywhere that their drug is "safe" or "effective". I did not realize that such rule existed. In my work, I frequently encounter science articles where IND/NDA-associated drug is discussed. I have not paid attention before but now it will interested to verify how drug-sponsors adhere to this FDA regulation.

posted by David Usharauli

Monday, August 31, 2015

Lasharela: a historical novel about Georgian King Giorgi IV Lasha (1213-1223 AD)

Historical novels are my favorite reading subject. I am especially like novels that "naturally" fill the holes in the historical records and brings out the story that sounds authentic.   

Georgia is a relatively tiny country south of Caucasian mountains. For the most of its existence, Georgia (also referred as east Iberia, or Iveria) was ruled by Bagrationi royal family (~ 800 AD - 1810 AD). Some people claim that Bagrationi royal family was the longest ruling royal family in the world (~ 1000 year rule). I don't know enough world history to support this claim.

Of course, when country has such long ruling royal family you can expect all kind of variations in its sovereigns' ruling characters. However, we have limited and occasionally controversial historical records with the regard to Georgian sovereigns. Since Mongol invasions of 13th century, Kingdom of Georgia underwent so many cataclysmic events that it is quite remarkable that Georgian nation could survive and maintain its autonomous or semi-autonomous existence to these days.

In this respect, 13th century stands as a watershed moment in Georgian history. It is time when Georgia kingdom reached its maximum power and then lost and never again recovered fully (to these days its disintegration continues).     

This is a novel that tells the story of Georgian King Giorgi IV Lasha. He ruled Georgia from 1213 to 1223. Surviving Georgian chronicles describe him in a very negative terms. Records show him as someone who used to drink a lot with his close buddies, spent too much time with women and in the royal hunting, and more importantly he did not listen to the state's advisory council and acted in a selfish manner. Though he was open minded and good-natured, he was weak-willed and easily influenced by the court's intrigues.    

However, he is mainly remembered for one thing, wonderfully described in this novel: he fell deeply in love with a married woman and against all common senses, took her from her husband. Not much is known about this woman except that it is said that she was of "low birth" and married. But the fact is that while living with the King, she gave a birth to a son who later will rule Georgia during Mongol period (and his descendants will rule Georgia until 19th century).

In the end, this unwise act by Giorgi IV Lasha (to steal someone's wife) sealed his fate in Georgian history. Chronicle tells us that after some time Georgian nobility and church representatives forced Giorgi IV Lasha to give up a woman and let her go. He never married and died soon after from wounds received during the battle with mongols.

The novel is, of course, a fiction. But it is based on few real facts. I think the author managed to successfully describe 13th century Georgia and Lasha's personality and his relationship to his subjects.

There is some historical inaccuracies in this novel (I read it in Russian translation), for example, talking about Saladin as if he was still alive in 1221 and ruled over the Palestine and controlled Jerusalem.

posted by David Usharauli

Saturday, August 29, 2015

"Academia to Biotechnology" by Jeffrey M. Gimble

This book "Academia to Biotechnology" by Jeffrey M. Gimble was published in 2004. Its author worked both in university and biotech industry. It is relatively short book (less than 200 pages), and it has an interesting title. It summary promised to reveal some first hand knowledge about career options in both academia and biotech industry.

It is always interesting to learn more about people's personal experience in science. However, for some reason, book authors, including this one, rarely talking about their own personal experiences, just providing generic "wisdoms" similar found in any management books.

Though this book start quite boldly, within few pages it starts to become boring and utterly disappointing. It absolutely lacks any personal touch. What is the point writing book about your career experience if you do not provide meaningful examples?

I can understand politeness, but if politeness prevents you writing book that has any value for a reader, then maybe it is not right moment for its publication. Just talking about patents, grants and publication in general terms do not constitute a value. 

I am not sure whether my criticism should be directed to the author or to the publisher. Both of them should carry a burden and incentive to publish books that provide meaningful values. With the regard of this book, however, both the author and publisher failed to leave up to reader's expectations.

posted by David Usharauli


Thursday, August 27, 2015

Life after academia. Review of "Alternative Careers in Science" by Cynthia Robbins-Roth

Getting tenure-track positions in academia are becoming more unrealistic as time passes. In my view, there are 3 reasons for it: (1) abundance of qualified but cheap scientists (mostly postdocs, mostly from oversees), (2) reduction of federal funds for basic research and (3) introduction anti-ageing laws that allowed tenured academicians to stay in their position indefinitely.

So what can you do if you like science, but due to circumstance beyond your control, would not able to accumulate sufficient academic scores (mostly papers in top journals, plus little help from your supervisor) to qualify for artificially complicated academic position?    

I imagine that in the beginning almost 100% percent of PhD students or postdocs believe that they will be "one" who can do it that impossible task and land the position in academia. however, as time goes, many will realize that it is better to look for some alternative career options.

The best option is, of course, to found a company. If you can do it, then only thing left is to applaud you. Though, in reality very few people can have necessary knowledge and connections to start  a science-oriented business. 

The most common alternative is to switch to industry. If you are lucky you may end up in a company that do a cutting-edge science. However, ordinarily biomedical industry is focused on very narrow field and quite happy to just do repeatable and scalable science. There is lots of misunderstanding about what exactly biotech industry does. Many believe that biotech industry does innovative work, from traditional science point of view. In reality, so called "innovations" that are coming from biotech are mainly to do with "formatting" of scientific innovation generated mostly in academic centers.

Basically, if you just started thinking about life after academia, you may consider this 2006 book. To tell you truth, it is quite "old". In fact, it is so old that some of the websites it refers to no longer exist :) But if you can get it from local library or through friends or colleagues, try it. It have some useful generic information. One thing that is missing from those individual stories told in this book is some kind of authenticity. The way the authors are describing their transitions from one field to another feel like "packaged for sale" stories.

posted by David Usharauli

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"The Adventures of Ibn Battuta" by Ross E. Dunn - Review

The "Mongol Peace" of 13th-14th centuries had enabled commerce on a global scale, for the first time since the fall of west Roman empire. Close to 100 years (around AD 1250-1350), travelers and merchants of whole Eurasia (both from west and east) could criss-cross the known world in relative peace. 

[Now this sounds exciting but if you ask me it would have been much better for a humankind if mongols would have never appeared on world stage in 13th century, to begin with. If there is a single event that negatively altered the whole history of humankind in the past 2000 years, it would be mongols].

In this book, Ross Dunn had analysed  travel accounts of the most famous [moroccan] explorer, Ibn Battuta. Born in early 14th century in modern day Morocco (then part of Marinid empire), Ibn Battuta left his native country when he was in his early twenties and spent traveling and residing in foreign countries for next 30 years. He was a modest scholar of Qu'ran. His travel itinerary covers whole of north Africa (Maghreb and Egypt), Saudi Arabia, modern day Turkey and Istanbul, Iran, Ukraine and south of Russia (Golden Horde), central Asia and Afghanistan, India and Sri Lanka, Maldives, south China and Mali Empire (African empire that were quite advanced with the regard to gender equality, even by 20th century standards). 

It appears that Ibn Battuta got married 6 times (5 of these marriages happened in Maldives). He was appointed as a chief judge in Delhi by shade of god Sultan Muhammad Tughluq.  

It is a twist of fate that almost every great empire Ibn Battuta visited during his travels collapsed within his life time or next 20 years (Mongol empire in Iran, Delhi Sultanate, Mongol empire in China, Mongol empire in Central Asia). 

It is remarkable that a single person could travel such length. In year 1347, on his way home to his native country, Ibn Battuta even survived black plague pandemia (1347), a global disease that put an end to global travel and precipitated collapse of mongol world empire.      

There is lots of books about Ibn Battuta, including his own account of his travels. However, for the beginners, it is advisable to choose the book that provides an analysis of his travels rather than to read Ibn Battuta's own accounts (which contains lots of inaccuracies). 

posted by David Usharauli

Saturday, August 22, 2015

"Crusader Gold" by David Gibbins

I found this book at local library (ebook version). I like to alternate what type of books I read. If I just read sci-fi, next one will be historical novel. Usually I read second, non-fiction book in parallel.

This fictional book is one in a series about archeology and ancient history. The author combines novel's fictional narratives with real historical events.

For example, "Crusader Gold", is about fate of the treasure looted by Romans from Jewish temples during Jewish wars of the 1st century. In this novel, the treasure travels from Jerusalem to Rome, then to North Africa in Vandal kingdom and later in 6th century in Constantinople in Byzantine empire. Here, according to novels, in the 11th century, Viking-Varangian guard who served the Greek byzantine emperors, captured the treasure and took it to Scandinavia where Harald of Hardrada of Norway used it first to secure his hold on the throne and then to invade the England in 1066. However, he was defeated by another Harald (Harold Godwinson, King of England).

However, rather then dying on the battlefield, the novel suggests that Harald of Hardrada survived the battle and sailed west with remaining treasure and reached viking's settlement in North America and later ended up in Yucatan peninsula where Vikings died at the hand of Toltecs, Maya warlords.

In parallel, novel is focused on mystery society who claimed that they are maintaining secret traditions derived from the same viking king Harald of Hardrada. 

Basically, novel is quite wild in its scope and imagination. Too superficial to feel any satisfaction from reading it. It can be useful for 5th graders who want to learn little extra history from fictions.

posted by David Usharauli              

"A Biotech Manager's Handbook: A Practical Guide" by O'Neill and Hopkins

I am very curious person and like to understand how things really work. A biotech industry is a complex network of small research labs or campuses where the majority of new therapeutic drugs originate. It is the place where great academic discoveries will be tested and baptized in the real world. 

But how biotech works? Interestingly, majority of biotech companies never make any profit during their life-span. Almost 40% of investments in biotech sector are never recovered, either. So, why are investors still continuing investing in these companies?

Now, if you think this book would provide an answer, you are mistaken. In general, I started to realize that no single book can provide an adequate answer. For me books are like a long reviews where the most important parts should be "personal observations" and/or inclusion of information not readily available in public domains. This book tries to do some of it but it has still a long way to go before achieving any meaningful impact on the reader, like myself.

posted by David Usharauli    

"Timescape" by Gregory Benford

This novel "Timescape" by Gregory Benford is a strange science fiction novel. Written in 1980, it depicts World set in years 1963 and 1998. 

In this future, year 1998, world is undergoing food and energy shortage. In a story, scientists working in UK discovered a subatomic particle, tachyon, that could travel faster than light speed and even travel in the past. Using tachyons, physicists then are trying to communicate with the scientists back in year 1963 in USA and share some critical information that could help to avert future natural catastrophes. But for some reason, the way messages are received by physicists in the past, in year 1963, are seen as artifact, an experimental error and become subject of ridicule of the scientist who shared it with his colleagues.

In general, the novel alternates between discussions about physics of time travel and associated paradoxes and the crises affecting people's personal lives.  

For me, personally, the book was quite difficult to read and most importantly not believable. Depiction of world in 1998 totally missed the point. I can't seriously consider science fiction book where time period is so off target. 

posted by David Usharauli  

"Stand On Zanzibar" by John Brunner

Now this book may be a science fiction but Zanzibar is a real place and probably more interesting than this book.

I decided to read this book because its reviews were literally glowing. Guess what? I hardly managed to read its first fifty pages.

I would admit that Brunner's writing style in "Zanzibar" is quite unusual, but I do not see it in a positive way. It is impossible to connect the dots when you are reading chapters. Even if it has some "cool" stuff it is not easy to understand from today's point of you how or what are those technological "things" actually doing. 

As I was reading the book I thought the book was written by someone under the influence of mind-altering drugs.

posted by David Usharauli     

Thursday, August 20, 2015

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams - Review

Every serious review of science fiction literature includes Hitchhiker's guide. So I thought, why not, let me try.

It did started quite well. It was funny, especially the first few chapters. I especially enjoyed conversation between Ford and depressed robot named Marvin. I also appreciated the author's concept related to non-anthropomorphic view of reverse evolutionary manipulation of humans by animals or plants.

However, once I reached the middle of the book, it became a total nonsense. It became more of the children's fantasy novel rather that science fiction. 

And then when I thought that novel was about to reveal its secrets, it suddenly ended. Apparently, there are several other subsequent novels  that follows this book. 

I was very disappointed. So much talk about it as a science-fiction classic and in the end it had simply too superficial narrative to make any serious review. 

posted by David Usharauli  

"The Shallows" by Nicholas Carr - Review

The book "The Shallows" by Nicholas Carr was among finalist for 2011 Pulitzer prize in general nonfiction category.   

Since my overall experience with non-fiction books so far is quite low, I thought that at least Pulitzer prize nominated book would have some solid story to tell.

As title suggests, this book is how Internet affects users' brain development and communication styles. Initially, I did like this book. First idea that I found interesting and relevant was the notion that recent advances in electronic communications made Internet users brain "impatient". People are having more difficulty concentrating on long reading and prefer short, headline type of information. 

However, later the author went on introducing several published social or psychological studies that proved or disproved certain his concepts. Basically, the book took very similar style that became popular with books by Malcolm Gladwell. Basically, it became cheap and non-serious.

Only other interesting idea which I derived from this book is the notion that Internet and other social communication tools available now are not necessarily being developed naturally or organically to fit the humans genetic or social tendencies. 

These social electronic tools are developed by few selected tech people who are not particularly known for their highly developed social skills. These tech geniuses are simply creating social communication standards in their own images, based on their limited preferences. However, such social tendencies might be totally alien for ordinary non-tech brains and could create potential dissonance between natural and artificially-imposed communication processes.

posted by David Usharauli      

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

"America's Bitter Pill" by Steven Brill - Review

What is the most frequent wish among people all around world? Most likely it is "to be, to stay and to become healthy". Compared to health everything else fades. We believe we can do anything if we are healthy. 

Universal health care law in USA, called Affordable Care Act (ACA of 2010), is a relatively new law. There are many myths about ACA, also known as Obamacare, after President Obama who singed it into law in March 2010.

This book by Steven Brill is an excellent review of how ACA came about. Steven Brill dissects pre- and post-ACA health care environments and explains what was accomplished by ACA and in what areas it failed to deliver.    

The book also explains how legislation in US is working why it is so susceptible to interference from outside interest groups (lobbyists).

Why is healthcare in US so expensive? According to Steven Brill's book 3 main categories determine health care cost in US: (1) cost of hospital treatment, (2) cost of medical devices and (3) cost of brand-name prescription drugs. Surprisingly, the role of health insurance companies are minimal in overall rise of healthcare costs.

I was disappointed to learn that Obamacare did little to modify these 3 major costly categories. Basically new law does not seem to make healthcare less expensive. It appears that without federal subsidies to cover portion of premiums, Obamacare would have been too oppressive for an average US resident. 

Still, as Steven Brill himself admit, when it comes to health, people rarely think twice whether to get treatment or not. Moreover, people want to get the best treatment available, no matter what it may cost. So, in this regard, by abolishing (1) pre-existing condition exception and (2) upper limits on health plan coverage, ACA law is first step towards right direction.

posted by David Usharauli

"The Daughter of Time" by Josephine Tey - Review

Re-published with some modifications.

Of course, if you are interested in tragic life of England's Richard III, Josephine Tey's "The Daughter of Time" is an obvious choice. This is exactly what I did after finishing Sharon Kay Penman's "The Sunne in Splendour". Actually, it is widely acknowledged that Josephine Tey's "The Daughter of Time", had started the renewed interest and reevaluation of Richard III and his "role" in disappearance of Princes in the Tower. 

Published in early 1950s, this short book mainly consists of conversations between several people discussing several original sources available about the fates of Richard III and princes in the tower. These sources are analyzed, as if court evidence, from police detective's point of view.

Tey is correct to point out the existence of several noticeable weakness about evidence that portray Richard III guilty in eliminating his own nephews. It is true that no contemporary records within England talk about disappearance of the princes. It is true that once boys were declared illegitimate, Richard III had no reason to eliminate them.

However, for me two questions remains unanswered: (1) were the boys truly born from illegitimate marriage or was the evidence faked to make Richard III a King?  (2) If Richard III accession was legitimate and he was a good King and no one thought he was guilty of crimes against his nephews, then why would he seemed so desperate to gamble his life during the crucial battle of Bosworth Field against Tudor pretender?

posted by David Usharauli        

"The Sunne In Splenduor" by Sharon Kay Penman - Review

Republished with some changes.

Richard III has become a cult figure in our time. If you don't yet know who was Richard III, then Sharon Kay Penman novel "The Sunne In Splenduor" is an excellent choice. First novel of hers I read was "Lionheart" about crusades and Richard I of England. It was beautifully written novel. So I decided to read another of her novels about Wars of Roses set in late 15th century.

This novel "The Sunne In Splenduor" is about two Kings of Yorkist dynasty, Edward IV and Richard III. Actually three-fourth of the novel is mainly about Edward IV, Richards eldest brother, the first Yorkist King. House of York was one branch of Plantagenet dynasty that ruled England since 12th century. Another branch was house of Lancaster (Henry VI). Tudors were remotely related to Lancasters.

 Wars of Roses lasted for about 25-30 years. Young Edward IV managed to defeat his opponents and ruled England for more than 20 years. He had a talent for war and women (two of most important qualities for a King in the medieval Europe). He was not even 20 years old when he first led his victorious army on the battlefield. He apparently was unusually tall and according to book very handsome, though images of Edward IV I have seen do shows very different face. His life trajectory reminds me of Richard Lionheart and his own grandson Henry VIII. Like Lionheart, Edward was tall and skilled military leader and like Henry, Edward was indulging himself too much and as a result he died barely reaching age 40.

Richard, his younger brother was named as Lord protector by Edward before his death. Edward's own son, young boy named Edward, was to succeed him on the throne once he reached age of maturity. However, for reasons not fully understood, Richard was proclaimed as a King Richard III and prince Edward and his younger brother Richard vanished from the palace (white Tower).

According to this novel, princes were murdered by Duke of Buckingham on his own initiative. Novel suggests that Duke of Buckingham had his own aspiration to become King himself. He later rebelled against Richard III and was executed. 

Richard III is shown as a gentle person who loved his nephews. Novel explains that Richard was forced to take the crown because his nephews were "illegitimate" due to fact that before Edward IV married their mother Queen Elizabeth Grey, he was legally bound to another woman, Eleanor Butler. No one can really say whether it was a real fact or some fabrication to advance Richard's claim to the throne. This type of "illegitimacy" claims were quite common even against King Edward IV and also young prince Edward, son of Henry VI, house of Lancaster. Later in the book, Richard III himself is shown having doubts about his right to the throne, especially after losing his heir, Edward and then his wife, Queen Anne, in quick succession.  

One thing is clear: during the battle of Bosworth field in August 1485, Richard III's superior force (20,000 man at arms) was defeated by small army of Henry Tudor (5,000 man at arms) and he himself killed. Many critical information from that time are missing to fully understand why would Richard III gamble his life in the battle field by engaging personally what looked like a suicidal action.

posted by David Usharauli   

Monday, August 17, 2015

"Inside the FDA" by Fran Hawthorne - Review

Republished with some modification.

I have decided to read this book to become more familiar with the FDA's role and its impact on BioPharma. And also because the author, Fran Hawthorne's writing style is quite easy to follow and isn't boring.

Of course, similar to her earlier book about pharma company Merck, Fran Hawthorne's writing failings are in its content. This book, rather than being "inside the FDA" is more better described as "about the FDA".

The author provided short overview how FDA was established and how it is accomplishing its duty to keep the public safe from poor quality drugs or food. However, it is based on publicly available information that does not really explain how is works.

In addition, since the book was published in 2004, it is probably outdated. The book simply reinforces long-held public opinion that politics does play a role in how FDA, as a federal agency, does it's work. Rather being totally "objective", it appears that FDA's visions undergo modification whenever new directors are appointed.

Another topic discussed in this book is the FDA's approval process. The book tend to imply that FDA reviewers are near "perfect" scientists whose opinions should be followed strictly no matter what. This is, of course, the most unrealistic scenario. 

posted by David Usharauli  

"The Startup Game" by William H. Draper - Review

I am naturally curious about people who can create values from "zero".   

One things that really interests me is the dilemma that exists in startup world: people who have financial resources lack scientific or engineering knowledge, and people who have scientific and engineering knowledge lack necessary financial resources.

I thought this book would provide some answers to this dilemma. The author, William H. Draper, is  third generation venture capitalist.

However, book failed to live up to my expectations. First of all, the author's background disqualifies him, in my view, to pontificate about startups. He was born in very well to do family. His father was General in US army and later became one of the first venture capitalists in USA. It appears that the author had never experienced difficulty associated with starting something new. He talks about venture risk but he himself never really risked anything substantial in his work. He just happened to be lucky enough to have an access to surplus money due to his connections (that existed due to his family position). 

Book fails to explain how to raise money and how to understand which idea is worth of investment. The author did not mention what was his personal ratio of successful versus failed investments. Every person with common sense and someone else's money could make random investment decisions, out of which some would end up to be successful. The author himself admits that one good investment can be worth of 9 failed investments. I do not think that to have such ratio would require specialized education or knowledge.

David Usharauli  

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Shogun by James Clavell - incomplete review

Shogun has a good reputation as a must read historical novel. It depicts Japan in the beginning of the 17th century when English and Dutch manned ships reached its coastline for the first time (after Portuguese).

I really like reading historical novels but there should be some limit for its size. This particular novel has around 800-1100 pages (depending on book style).

This is a fiction, so I don't understand why would the author decide to provide such detailed accounts of everyday life in Japan or conversations between different people. Many of them are unnecessary and repetitive.

I would admit that after reading for about 300 pages, I became utterly bored by its narrative.

Some of the ideas in the book made no sense. For example, the author imagines that for even slightest deviation from the order or culture norms of the 17th century Japan, samurais were willing to commit ritual suicide. If indeed that was case there would be no samurai left alive to participate in the actual wars. 

Moreover, the author depicts future Shogun escaping from the enemy's castle dressed as a woman. Such "escape" would have considered quite dishonorable act by any samurai standards, especially by a person who was aiming to be the first man in Japan. 

Reference to vegetarianism among samurai class in 17th century Japan is also questionable, especially when they were freely eating fish products. More accuracy would have been beneficial for such a monumental work.

David Usharauli