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   

"OFFworld" by Robin Parrish - Review

I only read this book because its short summary was quite unusual. It did really start very promising. 

NASA mission to MARS coming to an end. Everything going smooth on MARS, except there is 18h period when mission leader, Chris, is lost during unexpected martian sand storm and later found unconscious nearby the mission camp. He does not remember what happened. His memory for this 18h period is coming as short flashes, occasionally.

Meanwhile, mission is returning to Earth after 2.5 years. Suddenly, when just 60 days is left to reach Earth, space craft loosing all contacts with Earth. Eventually they approached Earth and managed with some difficulty to land in Florida on autopilot mode. 

At this stage they realized that Earth is empty. Every living things have disappeared. They have no idea what happened.

Surprisingly on the way to Houston, where NASA HQ is located, they meet a strange young girl, only living person they found so far. They can't explain why she survived this "disappearance".

Afterwards, everything is too uninteresting. It turned out that two scientists developed some type of supercomputer which can manipulate time and space. For some reason, this technology ended up in the hand of rogue general who is disappointed how governments are running the world and decided to change it with the help of this supercomputer. 

In the end, NASA team managed to defeat the general and bring people and living things back to Earth.

This novel is more of a fantasy, rather than science fiction.

posted by David Usharauli    

Travels in Georgia, Persia (Iran), Armenia, ancient Babylonia (Iraq), ...during the years 1817, 1818, 1819, and 1820

I am very interested in history, especially if the source comes from the first hand knowledge. In this regard travelers memoirs are very valuable. The Internet Archive is a digitized collection of many historical documents, including private memoirs. Wonderful thing is that it is free to download and read.  

By random search I found this memoir written by British officer, Sir Robert Ker Porter who traveled from Russian Empire to Persian Kingdom soon after Napoleonic wars concluded in Europe (1815). 

My interest was to learn, from his observations, about conditions of early 19th Georgia. By the time of his travel, a small kingdom of Georgia located south to Caucasian mountains, was absorbed into Russian Empire as an another province. 

As Robert Porter writes, he traveled to Persia via Georgia. His travel memoir was originally printed in 1821. I was surprised to learned that West Europeans already by early 19th century referred to Kingdom of Georgia as Georgia. Honestly, I do not know when word Georgia was first coined in reference to kingdom of Georgia since Russians till these days (and then too) refer to Georgia as Gruzia, while Persians and Turks call it Gurjistan (land of Gurjs). In Georgian language the name for the country is entirely different, Saqartvelo, i.e. land of Qartveli, original ethnic population occupying land in central Georgia.  

Sir Robert Porter devotes few lines to Georgia, however. He mentions that roads and living accommodations were very poor in Georgia proper. That is not surprising considering that Georgia was by end of 18th century at the brink of total economical and social collapse. 

I was disappointed that I did not learn much about early 19th century Georgia from Sir Robert Porter's writings. He frequently compares his notes to those found in memoirs of Chardin, another European fellow traveler who appeared to visit the same locations some 100 years earlier. It looks like that Chardin was kind of authority for later travelers. His memoirs would be next logical step.

posted by David Usharauli

Saturday, August 15, 2015

"Titan" by John Varley - Review - Saturn's organic satellite

Republished with modification.

Now reviewing science fiction novel by John Varley. Its title: Titan and it is first novel in a trilogy. It is about human expedition to Saturn. There they encounter an artificial satellite that contains unusual organic life forms.

It is not clear who build this satellite or when, though it is quite ancient. It is ruled by entity that is part supercomputer, part organic life form. Her name is Gaea. 

She was left in charge of this organic satellite by intelligent beings called Builders. She created all other organic life forms. Interestingly some of them she designed very recently after watching TV broadcasts from Earth. But by the time, Earth expedition arrived to investigate her dominion, her "brain" was split into several semi-autonomous modules, each of them with its own intentions for this satellite.

One creature I liked in this book is a long air-floating intelligent gasbag blimp named Whistlestop. Blimp communicates through whistles and transports other organic creatures across large distances like a dirigible. Some of these small native passengers have a symbiotic relationship with the Blimp. They help Blimp to digest her food. 

Still, the book disappoints in the end. This is supposed to be a first contact with alien life forms but book is totally missing that feeling. It could be because human members of this initial expedition are altered by Gaea or her semi-autonomous brain networks.

posted by David Usharauli    

"Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson - Review

In this book, the author Steven Johnson, argues that innovative ideas come from the environments that support free thinking and cross-disciplinary cooperation and knowledge exchange. Sure, no one can seriously dispute these assertions. Do we need to read this book to know this? Not really.

In general, the author's writing style reminded me books by Malcolm Gladwell. In both cases the authors literally are cherry picking data that better fit their arguments. They never bother to discuss opposite views or counter arguments.

For example, here the author argues that cooperation is important for good ideas but provides examples that goes against it, such as Charles Darwin's work on origin of species or invention of Internet by CERN scientist. In both cases ideas were crystallized in total solitary mode.

Similarly, the author argues that Big cities produce more inventions. However, it is not clear whether this is a simply quantitative effect. Also, the author fails to discuss whether every Big city produces similar number of inventions, or some cities are better than others.

Finally, the author does not articulate clearly the conditions that could foster innovations (beyond cliche ideas about office design that in my opinion rather helps to foster common gossip than innovation in an ordinary sense).

Good ideas clearly don't come from this book.

posted by David Usharauli   

The Merck Druggernaut by Fran Hawthorne - Review

Year 2003. If one could imagine the worst time to publish the book that praised the Merck's pharma business, then the author Fran Hawthorne couldn't have done the better job.

Published on eve of Merck's Vioxx scandal, this book provides mostly positive, though superficial look at Merck's history and its tradition to put "the patients first". 

Within 1 year, Merck's Vioxx scandal was an example of what is wrong with big pharma (suppression of negative data about drug's side effects, pricing of drugs that are based not on actual drug benefits but on market tolerance threshold and widespread abuse of patent law to prevent cheap version of the drugs to reach the market).

Book itself is easy to read but it is totally useless. After first few chapters, the author's focus wanders around and discusses among other things how pharma sales reps used to interact with medical providers (i.e. doctors). 

One things is clear from this book: when the company goes public, all hell breaks loose. Until Merck went public in 1995, Merck was the best pharma company in the world (in basic pharma research, in number of drugs developed and approved, and consistently listed among the best and the most admired companies). 

The author's mission was to show to the reader how Merck is (or was) so different from other pharma companies. However, in the end, Merck appears to be no different at all. There is no surprise here. Publicly-traded companies are subject to shareholders pressure. Only thing that matters afterwards is a profit. Prestige, reputation, curiosity and culture go out of window.

posted by David Usharauli   

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (2nd book) - the worst sequel ever

Republished with modification.

Initially I was surprised to find this book, a sequel to a famed "Ancillary Justice" at our local digital library. Usually, its really hard to get hold on popular titles. 

Ann Leckie's first book "Ancillary Justice" was so well written and so good that I expected a long waiting period before I could have a chance to read this 2nd novel. In fact, this second book too has been nominated and shortlisted in best novel category at 2015 Hugo awards (first book actually got the award). Hugo awards this year will be announced on August 18, 2015.

But now after reading it I want to express my deep disappointment with the book. This is probably the worst sequel of any science-fiction novel. I can't understand how anyone could nominate it for anything, let alone for Hugo prize. I started to doubt the quality and integrity of nomination procedures for Hugo awards. 

When looking at the readers review summary for this book on Goodreads where it has got score 4.1 (quite high), one can only wonder if we are reading the same book. I can't explain this score, except that many people do not want to believe that after "Ancillary Justice" Ann Leckie could write such a totally unreadable sequel (it appears that only 3% of reviewers, or just under 300 reviewers at Goodreads, gave this book score 2 or 1, as it would deserve, if you would have asked me).    

I could not even understand what was this book about. There was no guiding concept to keep the story together. This is supposed to be a galaxy wide space adventure and to keep the whole story fixed on irrelevant individuals on one of the remote space stations made no sense. 

The low quality of this book could explain why it was available so easily at our local library. I put "no read" recommendation for this one.

posted by David Usharauli  

Thursday, August 13, 2015

"Earth" by David Brin - 50% review

Science fiction novel "Earth" by David Brin is a complex story set in near future. However, it is really hard to read. I read half the book and then decided to stop. It reads as if documentary story rather than truly science fiction novel.  

Science fiction plot itself revolves around discovery of artificial black holes in the center of earth. However, lot of pages are devoted to description of future Earth where global warming has melted Antarctica and where several religious sects sprung up which are devoted to Gaia or Sun. Many animals went extinct and genetically created nd housed in de novo in Arcs around  the world.

The book talks about Helvetian war, kind of WWIII, that supposedly happened in central Europe, against Alpine gnomes (people who controlled treasures held in Swiss Banks). Strange idea. 

The book is set around year 2032. Earth population is ageing. Vegetarianism is widespread. There are floods across globe, population re-location and strict birth control projects are common. 

In addition, the author also inserted pages dedicated to evolution of life on Earth.    

In the end, this novel is a mix of reality and some science fiction. I found it difficult to follow. It has to many separate, unrelated topics.

posted by David Usharauli 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

"The Cell Game" by Alex Prud'homme - Review

Republished with some modifications.

When I started reading this book I would never have guessed that one of its main characters would be Martha Stewart. I thought the book was about the biotech company Imclone (and it is).

I did not know much about Imclone before this book. However, I do remember that when I arrived in USA in 2004 to start my postdoctoral studies, one of the main news on TV was about Martha Stewart going to prison for insider trading. Who knew that she ended up in prison because of her connection to Imclone's boss (both are of polish origin).

This book is more like a biography of Imclone's co-founder Sam Waksal, a very charismatic person. It describes his personal life with great details. The author portrayed Sam Waksal as a habitual liar, someone who is hungry for money and luxurious living, who could easily attract people and used to get what he wanted (of course, until 2003, when he went to prison for insider trading and related charges).

Sam Waksal had been running Imclone for almost 20 years. The fact that he managed to keep the company alive for so long without having a single product does indicate that he did has an extraordinary qualities. People thought he was a great scientist with great social skills. In late 2001, Imclone made headline news in USA by revealing its $2 billion deal with Bristol-Myers Squibb to develop and commercialize cancer drug erbitux (EGF-R antagonist). It was the largest deal in biotech world at that time. However, within next 2 years, almost all of the Imclone's top executives were either in prison or no longer with the company.

What happened? Imclone's story is a classical example of corporate hype. After reading this book it becomes clear how easy it is to manipulate media and investors. Imclone's story reminds us about the disconnect between making science and making money.

But I also want to point out that science behind Imclone's drug Erbitux was ahead of its time and later discoveries in cancer field vindicated Imclone's management's position regarding some of Erbitux [failed] trials (for example need for patient stratification based on cancer genetic makeup). In fact, few years later after Imclone's debacle Erbitux was approved by FDA for use in cancer patients.          

posted by David Usharauli      


"Dark Fire" by C.J. Sansom - Review

If you are interested in historical novels set in Tudor's England, Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom should be on your list of books to read.

Set in the reign of Henry the VIII, these mystery series follow the life and work of lawyer named Matthew Shardlake. The author provides quite vivid descriptions of the social and political environment surrounding Henry the Tudor's England, especially the fear of self-expression and problem of absolutism. 

This was a very turbulent time for England. When religious reformation started by Luther and his followers in Germany, Henry VIII began his own religious reformation, led by all powerful chief minister Thomas Cromwell. Henry VIII simply to confiscate properties associated with Church of Rome and to divorce from his first wife (that Pope would not allow).

However later, Henry VIII, fearful that too much freedom in religious matters could undermine social structure of the kingdom, backtracked and instituted more conservative approach that eventually led to downfall of Thomas Cromwell.

This particular novel, titled Dark Fire, is set during the final year of Thomas Cromwell life (year of 1540). Asked by his former master, Thomas Cromwell, to investigate reports about Greek fire, an ancient weapon also known as dark fire, Shardlake uncovers the "fictional" conspiracy against Cromwell initiated by his political rival, Lord Norfolk. However, in the end, Shardlake is not able to prevent the downfall of Thomas Cromwell.

In addition to this, there is a side story running throughout book related to young woman who is accused of murdering her young relative. However, thanks to Shardlake's efforts, she will be exonerated and real culprits found. The author has included a very interesting detail about usage of belladonna drops by the young girls in 16th century to make them look more attractive and "comely" by pupil dilation (belladonna plant contains atropine, an original active ingredient of eye drops used in current ophthalmology).    

Overall, this novel is not as great as "Heartstone" but it is still easily readable and I would recommend it.   

posted by David Usharauli  

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Cetus legacy: a Nobel Prize winner biotech company

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a cornerstone technology of modern biomedical science. Essentially, genomic DNA and RNA science advances that have been occurring for the past 25 years began with PCR. No other biotech invention so far compares to PCR's impact on science. PCR is so ubiquitous nowadays in both experimental or clinical labs that it is seen as just another "method". 

However, when we talk about methods we rarely think about who invents them or what it takes to invent them.

How many people have heard about Cetus? It is very likely that the vast majority of people using PCR today have no idea about Cetus.

The short book by Paul Rabinow titled "Making PCR" is a really wonderful "live" account of Cetus and the people there who invented PCR. Cetus was a biotech company even before Genentech. Kary Mullis was a Cetus employee when he conceptualized and did initial PCR validation experiments. 

For his role in PCR invention Kary Mullis was awarded Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1993, the first ever Nobel prize awarded to a work done at biotech. 

Curiously, this is how Kary Mullis is described in the book "at almost every scientific retreat [he would propose] a number of wild ideas, some of which were flatly wrong because he wasn't really familiar with some of the most basic aspects of molecular biology. And also because he was abrasive and combative and often times his comments would be counterproductive in meetings where people have to try and work together. Mullis had a grudge against his critics and they had a grudge against him". 

At some point Cetus management seriously considering "firing Mullis outright". It is obvious, today's workplace would reject Kary Mullis-type of personality. 

In the end, Cetus disappeared, Kary Mullis became outcast but PCR stayed and transformed science and medicine.   

David Usharauli   

"A History of Modern Immunology" by Zoltan Nagy

Re-published with modifications.

I came across this book by chance. It's title caught my attention.  It is relatively new book. The author, Zoltan Nagy, is not well known to current generation of immunologists, including myself. But he had quite interesting science career, including a stint at the prestigious Basel Institute of Immunology (closed down in early 2000s). 

In general, I like reading history, both non-fictional or fictional. As title suggests this book is about history of modern immunology. As the author says book's focus is the last 25 years of 20th century (1975-2000). In the author's opinion that major questions of immunology were raised and answered during this period. I am not sure about it.

Only reason I have decided to read this book was the fact that the author appeared to be a former member of famous Basel Institute of Immunology. In the introduction, the author mentioned that he will provide personal accounts and observations about immunological discoveries during that period and people who were involved in those discoveries.

Honestly, even though the author appears to have had a distinguished immunologist's career, I never heard about him (he probably retired by the time I entered immunology and became avid reader of scientific articles), though I could recognize about 95% of scientists mentioned in the book. 

One thing is obvious: famous people rarely have time writing history. They are busy making history.

Book is filled with information which are boring for practicing Immunologists and completely alien to non-immunologists.

To be fair to the author, the book has several personal accounts. But absolute majority of those accounts are so limited and generic (and almost never critical) that they failed to make this book useful or enjoyable to anyone for any stretch of imagination. 

David Usharauli        

Sunday, August 9, 2015

"Science and University" edited by Paula Stephan and Ronald Ehrenberg

Republished with some modifications.

I have decided to read this book, "Science and University" edited by Paula Stephan and Ronald Ehrenberg, to better understand academia/university science funding in US. 

This is not a new book. It was published in 2007. One of its editors, Paula Stephan, later in 2012 published a book titled "How Economics Shapes Science" that attracted big attention and was reviewed intensively in both scientific and news articles. I thought this earlier book will be kind of introductory for reading later one. 

What did I learn from this book? Honestly, not much at all. It is written in a very dry language, with lots of numbers that have no meaning without proper interpretations. 

One new thing I learned was about existence of federal earmarks (funds in federal budget) allocated for specific projects or universities that are issued without competitive peer-review.  

As you know, the vast majority of federal funds that are going into research through NIH are screened by peer-review committees and allocated on the basis of their competitiveness. However, it turned out that around 2 billion dollars (in 2007), or around 10% of total federal R&D funds were issued through earmarks. It was proposed this would help 2nd tier universities to compete with big name universities. This could be true, except that subsequent analysis has revealed that scientific research derived from earmarked funds were of poorer quality (based on patents and publication records).

posted by David Usharauli          

"Academic Scientists at Work" by Jeremy Boss and Susan Eckert

Republished with some modifications.

Academic Scientist's career sounds quite boring, and it will be boring if you believe this book. 

One reason I decided to read this book was the fact that one of the authors, Jeremy Boss, works in the field of immunology. He was also at one point, the chief editor of Journal of Immunology. so I thought he may have some interesting to say. I thought he may reached the stage in his career when he can challenge the status quo. Forget it.

So why is this book so boring? Because it has nothing beyond trivial views and facts that any junior scientist could randomly guess. I was not able to derive any tangible value from reading this book. When you are a scientist who worked in academia for the past 30 years, you should try to incorporate your personal observations of the actual events (name and place changed) that you yourself witnessed and that have impacted your views. Otherwise, dry and generalized discussions are not very attractive or useful to anyone.  

In my opinion, non-fiction books should contain information that are not immediately available for the larger audience. If I can find information discussed in the book just by randomly searching it online, then the book failed its purpose. 

The one thing I agree with the authors is the notion that when you are running your own lab and training postdocs, you are taking responsibility for their careers as well. This aspect of PI's job is mostly ignored in real life.    

posted by David Usharauli    

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Genentech: How it all started

Re-published with modifications.

This book by Sally Smith Hughes about the biotech pioneer company Genentech is a very good read. Strangely, it starts to captivate you and then suddenly it ends. Kind of positively disappointing.

For me as a scientist the most revealing part of the book was the role of Bob Swanson played in founding Genentech. He was a young man (only 28 years old), formerly a junior partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner & Perkins, but presently unemployed when he and UCSF scientist Herb Boyer decided to form a partnership to commercialize recombinant DNA technology. Bob comes across as an ideal entrepreneur. Accounts of his vision in the potential of new DNA recombinant technology and his tireless networking to secure initial seed money to run Genentech's proof of principle experiments, are most fascinating. Clearly, there would have been no Genentech without Bob Swanson.

Other parts of the book related to science of producing first human recombinant somatostatin, insulin and growth hormone seemed secondary in nature, in my view. I would only highlight that at this stage of its corporate development Genentech was basically an academia-type company without academia-type hierarchy. Dream place to work for scientists who wanted to show to their peers in academia that they are scientifically "equal" and maybe a little bit "richer". Of note, after more than 30 years, Genentech, now part of Roche, still stays one of the best places to work in surveys.

The author, however, did not discuss much about what happened to Genentech after initial years of success. Though, admitting that it was rescued by Roche in the early 90s suggests that it went through some difficult periods and was not able to survive as a large independent biotech company.

David Usharauli    

"The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula K. Le Guin

Have you read "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula K. Le Guin? It won both Hugo and Nebula awards. I said, sounds interesting, let me read. Half a book through and I am so bored I decided to stop. Book did not engage my interest at all. From the beginning I felt that I was "forced" to continue reading it.   

Basically, the novel describes snow covered, earth-like world of Gethen with two rival states Karhide and Orgoreyn. In this cold world, a member of far away civilization, called Ekumen, will arrive. His goal is to persuade Gethenians to accept their membership to Ekumen confederacy. So far OK.

It is not clear why Ekumenian traveled 16 light years to accomplish this task. Of course, Gethenians are suspicious. It appears that they do not even believe that Ekumen really exists. Could envoy do something to convince them? This is a conservative society with unusual reproductive physiology designed for population self-control. Each Gethenian ordinarily exists as an asexual person who periodically undergoes random transformation into female or male personality. If in this sexual stage, male or female personality is able to find his/her kemmering (mate), offspring will be born. This is basically a novel idea. The rest is utterly conventional.

posted by David Usharauli  

Friday, August 7, 2015

Madness in Civilization by Andrew Scull

Mental disorders are and will remain for some time the least understood medical conditions. These days there are more than 900 different conditions that "qualifies" for mental illness.   

In this book, "Madness in Civilization", Andrew Scull has presented historical view about mental disorders. It appears that for past 3000 years we did not make much progress in understanding it. What has changed, however, is how they are treated. Today psycho-pharmacology dominates the field. It is less aggressive form of treatment compared to insulin shock or electroshock therapies (not to mention water boarding therapy developed in 19th century). However, even neurotransmitter based treatment protocols do not treat the condition but simply make mental patients to behave less abnormal (from normal people's point of view).  

In general, the authors heavily relies on Judeo-Christian point of view of mental illness as a condition inflicted by God as a punishment. This is however not universally accepted concept across civilization. For example, among Incas, mental patients were [are] viewed as blessed by God, not as punished [by God] individuals. 

In this book, the author tries to develop the concept that progress in civilization coincides with an increase in number of mental patients. However, the author failed to provide clear scientific basis for such concept. Even notion that simple living conditions of pre-industrial societies protected against development of dental disorders is simply too superficial to be taken seriously.

The book contains some valuable information, but not enough to recommend for a reading. In the end, it appears that the author believes that without understanding the biological basis for mental disorders we may never make a breakthrough in its treatment.

posted by David Usharauli


Thursday, August 6, 2015

Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith

Year 1956 is a time in Soviet Union's history that changed everything. In essence, one person, Nikita Khrushchev transformed Soviet Union from a purely evil terror State into conventional autocratic state.    

This novel by Tom Rob Smith focuses on fictional life of a former NKVD (soviet secret police) officer turned policeman Leo Demidov caught in the real life events during transformative period of 1956. It is brutally honest novel about conditions in which people lived under Stalin's regime. These events were kept so secret (prison uprising, revenge killings) that absolute majority of Soviet citizens had no idea about it. The novel provides some accurate elements of what happens in a country when state sponsored total control on its citizens is suddenly lost.

I did not know about this author until the new movie came out this year based on his novel "Child 44". However, my attention was caught by "the secret speech". My father, who was historian by education and history teacher at one point, frequently used to mention that Nikita Khrushchev played the most important role in Soviet History.

posted by David Usharauli   

Ancillary Justice: the Lord of the Radch and Hal syndrome

Republished with modification.

I was curious to read Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice. As you may know it received both Hugo and Nebula awards (and some other awards as well), I thought it should something special.

Well, the book is really very engaging. For me, a good science fiction novel should be able to clearly articulate "realistic" possibilities. Book features three main concepts: (a) "clan" based feudal hierarchy of Radch empire, (b) artificial intelligence (AI) that exist on both individual and systemic network level, (c) psychological issues of the Lord of the Radch.

The most interesting novelty of the book is the personality of the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, that exists in multiple identical bodies across Radch empire. It appears that Radch Empire had been pursuing very militaristic path, constantly on the move to conquer new planets and galaxies. At some point, though, it encounters highly advanced alien race of Presgers. And suddenly, Radch empire stops its expansion and peace is established. However, for some reason, most likely under psychological pressure, some of Anaander Mianaais copies starting to sabotage its own peace policies. The story about Anaander Mianaai's personality has some resemblance to Hal's personality in "2001: A Space Odyssey" whose AI personality cracked and went insane under mutually incompatible orders.

I will recommend this book. 

posted by David Usharauli   

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"The Declaration" by Gemma Malley

I liked this dystopian novel. The main events are set in the future, year 2140, 70 years after pharma company had discovered medicine (some kind of stem cells) that allowed the people live forever without ageing.  

However there is a catch. Since people live forever, there is extreme fear of overpopulation. This led to enactment of law called "declaration" where people declare that they would accept longevity at the expense never to have children. 

A child who is born from people who have signed the declaration but ended up anyway with a child, is called a surplus. In this future society surpluses have no right and treated as a servant slaves. Surpluses are hunted down by Catcher, a brutal secret service with omnipotent power over both surpluses and even legals. Surpluses are thought to think about themselves as a burden to the society and to hate the parents who are criminally negligent for allowing surplus to be born in the first place.

For some reason, this dystopian future is characterized by energy deficiency.

As it always happens, there are enough people who consider declaration law to be against the law of nature and who form underground movement to counteract governmental oppression.

In my view this novel is remarkably good. There is nothing extra in it. The author nicely captures the transformation of surplus Anne undergoes from obedient servant into free thinker and explains what motivates such changes. 

David Usharauli

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Made in China: Three body problem

Republished with modification.

Cixin Liu's "The Three-Body Problem" is nominated for this year Hugo award and it may win it too. It is an amalgam of Chinese history, ecological desolation, human courage or lack of it.

This is a sci-fi novel with a unique plot. It is the story of a woman, Ye Wenje, whose life was permanently shattered by cultural revolution that was raging in China in 1960s. Really ugly period in modern Chinese history. Wenje witnesses the death of her father by school girls brainwashed by revolution. In fact, it was her mother herself who denounced her husband to the authorities. This episode of Chinese history is not well known to the large audience. It has some similarity to the Red Terror of 1930s in Soviet Russia or Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime in 1970s.

As novel progresses and main plot unfolds one can see how Chinese society is returning to "normality". However, it is too late. Alien race is coming towards Earth thanks to Ye Wenje and other human "traitors" who believe that human race's self-destructive tendencies should be checked by superior Alien race, whose societal structure resembles typical dictatorship.

Strangely, as novel suggests there are pacifists among Aliens who do not believe that they should take Earth away from humans.

I would recommend anyone reading it. It is very original.

posted by David Usharauli   

Inspector Pekkala # 4 - the Emerald Eye

Re-published with modification.

Inspector Pekkala is an enigmatic fictional character invented by Sam Eastland. I read 5 novels (6th has just been released), out of which book #1 (Eye of the Red Tsar) and book #4 (The Red Moth) are the most interesting from a historical perspective providing wealth of information about people, time period (though highly superficial).

Pekkala is a Finn. At the beginning of 20th century, Finland was part of Russian Empire under Romanovs. It appears that Russians had developed a particular "opinion" of Finnish people. They thought of them capable of supernatural acts. According to novels Pekkala was born indeed with a special skill of having a photographic memory. After undergoing vigorous training in the clandestine or non-clandestine methods, he is recruited and appointed by the last Tsar Nicholas II as his private "eye" tasked to investigate range of top priority criminal or non-criminal activities. He was given a special ID badge known as an Emerald Eye. He is feared by all who have heard about it. He has access to everything and to everyone. His prestige grows so far that many even doubt that such a person really exists.

After Russian revolution of 1917, Pekkala is captured by Reds and after brutal interrogation, sentenced to prison camp in Siberia. However, he manages to survive against all odds and later is summoned back to Moscow by Josef Stalin, Soviet leader, to use his famous skills to help newly established Soviet Union.    

In "the Red Moth" Pekkala is tasked to recover famous "amber room" lost during Red Army's retreat in early days of German invasion of Soviet Union in 1941. The novel provides some interesting background information for what it was like living in Soviet Russia during WWII. Of course, original amber room was lost without trace and here the author speculates how that could have happened.

posted by David Usharauli