Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"The Sparrow" - a sci-fi novel that disappoints

I have nothing much to say about this novel. It really disappointed me. It had a very interesting summary and I thought it might be something similar to "A Canticle for Leibowitz", a mix of sci-fi and religion.

Actually, I forced myself to read it but only around 80% and then I decided to give it up. If novel does not say anything important or relevant after reading more than half of it, I don't expect a miracle in the end.

However, it had such a interesting story. Jesuit priests and scientists travel to different planet to understand who are those aliens who transmit their "singing" through radio. Somehow this travel end up very badly. So the story supposed to be reconstruction of what went wrong and how people of faith lost it all.

But, the author decided to drag the story by discussing irrelevant stuff that has no role or influence how story develops. I read close to 80% of the novel and still I had no idea what was going. In fact, first 5 pages contained all the information available in next 350 pages. It felt that the author deliberately decided to make novel's "revelation" only in the very end of the book, but without considering how to make the reader interested enough to keep reading it. 

For me this novel felt like those novels that make you feel you have really wasted whatever time you spent on reading it. 

posted by David Usharauli

Saturday, January 23, 2016

My review of Becky Chambers' sci-fi novel "The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet"

In my reading experience, if you come across a book with the topic that interests you and which has a rating above 4 points in Goodreads, then you may consider reading it. It should be good [in most cases, if not all cases].  

I used this principle when deciding to read this particular sci-fi book. In its summary, it said that it is about spaceship crew [made of different sentient beings, including post-apocalyptic Earth humans] traveling across galaxy on a mission. 

Now, by itself this is not a particularly interesting idea. But the novel was very light and easy to read and occasionally funny. It describes several different sentient species whose nations are part of large galactic union, humans being one of the later comers [actually human leftovers from destroyed Earth were rescued in space by one of leading species and given technology to re-establish themselves as a member species].     

As mentioned earlier, the novel centers on a crew of the spaceship whose job is to punch and establish wormhole exits that will connect different part of galactic union [referred in novel as galactic commons].

They were given a contract to make such wormhole exit in space area occupied by mysterious and vicious sentient species called Toremi. Galactic commons wants to establish trade network between Toremi and union to collect ambi, an energy source.

This is an year long travel and crew will go through many challenging experiences, however in my view, the novel's master piece is how relationship between ship's AI and ship's human engineer called Jenks unfolds in the end and how this side story becomes the story that defines this novel.

posted by David Usharauli

Monday, January 11, 2016

Review of Gore Vidal's epic novel "Creation"

I really like reading historical novels (fictions) especially those which re-interpret past events and provide different point of views. When I came across this book I was intrigued by its title image depicting a famous image of Achaemenid Persian Emperor Darius III (~332 b.c.) as known to us from Alexander the Great campaign.  

I was also intrigued by its title "Creation". Too grandiose. But surprisingly, in goodreads review it had more than 4 points that indicated good quality consensus. So I decided to read it.

It really starts extremely interesting. It is narrated in first person by Cyrus Spitama, a fictional "grandson" of Zoroaster, a founder of Zoroastrian religion in ancient Persia. As a child he is accepted in the Court of then Persian Emperor Darius I the Great and grows up alongside with Xerxes I, future Emperor. In general, novel covers the world period between ~500 b.c. and 450 b.c., so I have no idea why title image depicts Darius III who lived almost 150 years later and had nothing to do with any part of novel.

The novel itself follows Cyrus Spitama's upbringing and then travels as a Persian ambassador to India's gangetic kingdoms and China's warring states and later to ancient Athens. During his travel, Cyrus Spitama meets founders of Buddhism, Jainism and Confucianism. Novel is filled with discussions regarding various philosophies about religion, purpose of life and afterlife and their interpretations. 

Beyond religious concept, novel is interesting from historical point of view as well. It provides some detailed knowledge related to ancient customs practiced in ancient Persia, Greece, India and China. I really liked reading those details (of course, I can't be sure that all of the author's claims are historically accurate. For example, references to Aryan invasion is problematic since now we know that these events were a myth created by British to gain support of Indian aristocracy in 19th century). Besides this, very interesting were those parts of novel where Persian invasion of Greece were detailed. The novel mocks Greek version of events that transpired during those Persian invasions and provides alternative Persian view points.

In summary, I would recommend this book for a reading. If you can find it in local library, yes go ahead and read it. First half is really excellent. Second half is a little monotonous. Part of the novel about China is less well developed and feels more artificial.   

posted by David Usharauli       

Friday, January 1, 2016

The pharma myth that will not go away: we spent 100s of millions on R&D

Reading book "The $800 Million Pill: The Truth behind the Cost of New Drugs" by Merrill Goozner (2005) was kind of revelation for me. Even if it is written more than 10 years ago, it feels if it was published yesterday. 

These days we are constantly reminded by pharma and biotech industry that it costs a lot of money to develop a drug. Some even suggests that it cost around 800 million or even more to develop a single drug. In fact, we "intuitively" accept that this statement must be true, notwithstanding of waste associated with any such program. Of course, it must cost that much money to Pharma to run FDA required sequential clinical trials (phase I, II, III, IV) involving in sum 1000s of patients. 

However, careful analysis of Pharma R&D expenditure reveals something entirely different. No one seriously disputes the fact that the "biggest" drugs for treatment of rare diseases (enzyme deficiency), HIV, cancer that entered market for past 25 years were initially developed in labs funded wholly or partially through federal grants (mostly NIH) or via nonprofit organizations. Moreover, not just those drug were initially synthesized and tested with non-industry funds, for many of these drugs clinical trials including phase III trials were run with non-industry funds (federal or private nonprofit funds). Basically, on many occasions, already tested drugs were handed to pharma industry on a silver platter.

Moreover, in 1995, at the insistence of pharma executives, federal government voluntarily withdraw "reasonable price clause" that were previously included in licensing agreement for drugs developed with federal money. This allowed pharma industry to set any price on drug they wished [otherwise known as "what market would bear"] and recover their own cost within first year of drug sale.

Still, every time voices are raised to complain about rising drug costs, pharma's public relations offices are working hard to convince people and legislative representatives that without freedom to set prices pharma R&D would crumble. The pharma industry has been using this same tactic since late 80s when first HIV drugs entered market priced for thousands of dollars. In US, there isn't even a free market when it comes to prescription drug or any drug for that matter. Free market means free movements of goods and price setting based on some generally accepted values, but drug importation is not allowed in US and federal agencies are explicitly prohibited to determine real medical values for new drug.  

In sum, I highly recommend to read this book.

posted by David Usharauli