Walter Issacson’s The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

This is a big book in so many ways. Walter Isaacson is known for in-depth biographies of such diverse people as Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, and Benjamin Franklin, so he is certainly a “big name” author. The book itself is 485 pages long, not including the notes, which brings the page count to 536. As the sub-title indicates, the central figure in this book is Jennifer Doudna, but many, many others have significant roles in this not so brief history of CRISPR (which can be loosely defined as a way to edit genes.)

Jennifer Doudna grew up in Hawaii, the eldest daughter of a college professor. Her father, who doted on her, once left her a copy of Watson’s book on DNA, The Double Helix, and she mentions this book as one of the reasons she pursued a career as a scientist, despite being told by her high school guidance counselor that “women don’t do science.” Rather obviously, she not only did science, but she has done it well enough to earn the Nobel Prize in 2020.

In The Codebreaker, Isaacson follows Doudna’s career, but intersperses it with pertinent information about the gradual unfolding of modern genetic studies, along with brief sketches of the scientists and scholars who influenced Doudna’s work. Two terms which come up over and over are RNA, which is the “worker bee” that carries out many functions in life, and CRISPR, which has to do with the structures which help organisms adapt to needed change (such as when bacteria “learns” to resist a virus.)

There are a lot of pages in this book devoted to what was discovered, by whom, when, and who managed to get published first. That’s the nature of academia. Then there’s the quest for patents and prize money, which is how some academic institutions manage to pay for enormous labs and pay their large supporting staff. Again, this is a book that is about more than a single researcher. Over and over, Isaccson stresses the importance of collaboration in modern science.

There are some really important concepts discussed in the later chapters, including the ethics of manipulating human genes. One researcher took it upon himself to edit the offspring of Chinese couples in an attempt to eliminate the possibility that they could have HIV, which is apparently quite shunned in modern Chinese culture. Other possible reasons to edit offspring would be to eradicate such conditions as Huntington’s disease, which ends in a horrible decline before inevitable death. Eliminating genetic diseases are worthy uses for CRISPR and other genetic engineering, where is the line? Should prospective parents be able to choose the genetic characteristics such as height, intellect, or even hair color of their offspring they way we might choose dishes in a cafeteria? A number of scientists, including Doudna, have had many meetings, discussing such topics, and these are summarized in The Code Breaker.

When the nasty CV hit, a situation that the author sometimes describes as “the plague year,” many of the scientists mentioned in this book, including Doudna, put aside their competition for prizes and first published honors, and collaborated to produce accurate and rapid tests for the pesky illness. Then, in short order, they turned to prevention, and the mRNA vaccines. Not only were these vaccines quick to develop, they also lay the groundwork for more to come, as the same techniques might be used to prevent other illnesses.

The Code Breaker is more than a biography, as the title states, and it is a longish, sometimes challenging book, but like other works by Walter Issacson, ultimately quite rewarding. It isn’t cheap to buy, compared to many of the books I read, nor is it “light reading.” Like a gourmet meal, it is complex, memorable, and enjoyable. Readers are urged to read, then think, and ultimately savor this work.

Remember when journalism was compelling reading?

Hubby and I have been watching Manhunt: Unabomber on Netflix, and since the storyline is anything but linear, we both looked for articles to help us understand the story. As we are chronologically gifted, we remember the case being in the news, but as it happened some 25 years ago, we wanted a refresher. Hubby looked at Wikipedia, because, as always, it comes up first on search engines. I went a bit farther and looked at the source material for that article and chose a piece in the NY Times archives. Oh, wow, is that a great article. A hell of a great read, and it helped me know more about the Unabomber case than I ever knew way back when. Also, it was a glaring reminder of how far the standards of good journalism have fallen.

Unabomber

One of my sisters is a journalism major, and she still thinks that journalists do a reasonable job. Oh, sure, she says, there are some bad ones, and some hacks, but that’s always been the case. My other sister works in communications and believes modern journalists are often poor writers managed by even poorer editors who are more interested in how many times articles are shared or clicked upon than actual quality. After reading the simply superb article about Ted Kaczynski in the NYTimes, I tend to agree with the sister that says journalism has fallen on hard times.

Manhunt: Unabomber is a good show if you haven’t seen it, and I recommend it, but the filmmakers do jump from scene to scene, sometimes with only a brief graphic telling the date, too quickly. In part, this seems to be an effort to create a bit of suspense, which is always tricky when telling a tale wherein the outcome is known by the audience. The folks behind the show do an excellent job of portraying the very complex man who chose to bomb those he deemed hostile to him or to his vision for the advancement of society, and it reveals the mis-steps of the initial profilers of the suspect labeled UNABOM because his targets were associated with universities or airlines. The NY Times story mentions Kaczynski’s failed attempt at getting articles (or rants, depending on one’s viewpoint) published. Indeed, only the Unabomber’s success at getting his “manifesto” published in a national newspaper actually caused him to be captured, and the FBI had a tip or it wouldn’t have happened at all.

The story in the NYT is not entirely linear either, as it jumps from witness to witness, but the story is primarily based upon a long interview with David Kaczynski the bomber’s brother, who ultimately helped the FBI identify the bomber. Still, the article is far more informative, if not as dramatic, as the television show. In particular, I was struck with the tremendous dilemma in that David had, because he knew that other instances of FBI vs. a long sought suspect ended in a firestorm (such as the Branch Davidians in Waco and the stand off at Ruby Ridge) so he was concerned. With the support and prompting of his wife, he supplied materials to support his suspicions and approached the FBI. Despite being assured that his role would be anonymous, someone in the investigation leaked it to CBS news. Nowadays, it is no secret that the FBI is more of a political organization than a crime fighting one, but even then, the younger Kaczynski brother was very wise be concerned, and even wiser to have an attorney.

One aspect of the NYT story that helps it be fascinating reading is the focus on Ted Kaczynski, from childhood on, and the use of excerpts from the manifesto. Despite being mentally unbalanced, the brilliant former math professor did have some profound observations about the deleterious effects of advancing technology on people and society. He attempted to wall off those technological intrusions by living as he did, off the grid, in Montana. For whatever reasons, whether one deems it mental illness or just plain evil, Kaczynski did try to fight technology by writing and bombing. His life, and those of his victims, would have been far better if he had written more, been a little less clueless about getting published, and never made those bombs, however.

The television series Manhunt has two seasons available. Season one is about the Unabomber and season two, entitled Deadly Games, is about Eric Rudolph and Richard Jewell, one of whom made bombs, and one of whom was falsely accused. Both shows are worthy of viewing. Sadly, I don’t think anything published in the New York Times today is as nearly as good as “PRISONER OF RAGE — A special report.;From a Child of Promise to the Unabom Suspect.”

The Crown— review and commentary

Which is which?

Netflix has some amazing original content, and one of its best efforts thus far has been The Crown, a somewhat fictional series based on the reign of Elizabeth II. Written and produced by Peter Morgan, this series begins while Elizabeth is still a youngster, but when her father takes over for his brother (who abdicated the throne so he could be with his “commoner/divorcé” lover) Elizabeth becomes the heir to the throne. From that time period, her father grooms her to serve the people and the royal family, a/k/a The Crown. Seasons 1 and 2 feature Claire Foy as Elizabeth, and former “Dr. Who” Matt Smith is Prince Philip. Perhaps the best performance in this award winning season goes to John Lithgow as an aging Winston Churchill, who guides and yet admires the young monarch as she works to live up to the responsibility thrust upon her when her father dies at a fairly young age.

The Crown does a fantastic job of intertwining history and some suppostion, thus educating a new generation about some of the most important (or at least entertaining) events in United Kingdom in the past few decades. Each season spans several years, so the cast changes in order to better show the aging of the characters. For instance, while Claire Foy is Elizabeth in the first two seasons, the queen is portrayed by Olivia Coleman in seasons three and four. The latter dropped onto Netflix November 15, and Coleman does a really good job as the middle aged sovereign, as does Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher. Another season four cast addition is Emma Corrin, who bears more than a passing resemblance to young Princess Diana. The series has been mostly been praised, but season four is a bit more controversial. Since this season portrays the “fairy tale romance” between Prince Charles and Diana, then quickly lays out the conflicted marital mess that ensued, because apparently Charles didn’t love Diana at all, but maintained his relationship with his former lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles, during most of the marriage, some viewers (and those close to the real people) have been a bit riled.

Of course, Prince Charles and Princess Diana separated then divorced, but younger fans apparently didn’t realize the “why” in the divorce until The Crown brought this back in a big way on the small screen. Recently, the social media accounts of Prince Charles and (now wife) Camilla have been inundated with snarky posts. Furthermore, officials in the U.K. have asked producers of The Crown to assure the public that the show is fictional.

History only works after the fact. Peter Morgan (series creator and chief writer) benefits from the many publications about the British royals, and is able to pick and choose what he presents to the audience in The Crown. Mostly the characterizations and storylines seem spot on, but those close to the royal family point to discrepancies, and no doubt some “fiction” does come in. Regardless of these points, The Crown has extraordinarily high production values. The cast is first rate, the scripts mostly entertaining; and the sets, costumes, and locations all contribute to the feeling of being an eyewitness to history. If you haven’t seen it yet, this series is one of the very best shows on Netflix.

Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help— review and commentary

ToxicA friend who works on the staff of a large church recommended this book to me, and while it lacks sufficient support for some of the concepts, the principles are sound. Basically, the title says it pretty well—whether just throwing money or a week of unpaid labor at poverty—this act of charity might do more harm than good.

Author Robert D. Lupton has plenty of experience in urban ministry, and he cites many examples from his experience in Atlanta, Georgia, which is where he lives and works. But, as I have seen lots of churches gather a group of volunteers for week long “mission trips” I was fascinated by the story of a church in Mexico that was painted six times during one summer, by six different sets of volunteers. Indeed, what the author terms “religious tourism” is big business. He states that in 2005, $2.4 billion was spent by 1.6 million Americans, who traveled abroad for short term mission trips. My favorite statistic: “The Bahamas, it is estimated, annually receives one short-term missionary for every fifteen residents.” Okay, I have never traveled abroad on a mission trip, but the Bahamas sounds like a great place to visit. (My daughter mentioned knowing of a local church that did a mission trip to Ireland. Sounds heavenly!)

Lest readers get the idea that all Lupton does is make the good hearted look either mis-guided or just plain stupid, he does mention that many people set out on these trips with good intentions. Then he explains that in the third world, a little bit of money spent properly can do quite a lot. He explains the use of “micro loans” which can give a struggling person a needed hand up. For example, a $50 loan to a woman in Nicaragua allowed her to buy a sewing machine so she could ramp up her production of baby clothes. Once she paid off the loan, she still had the increased earning capacity.

In the U.S. many churches and other charities give away certain items. One example was giving holiday presents to needy families, but the fathers in such situations are often embarrassed that they can’t match the generosity of the well meaning givers, and are thus emasculated in front of their wives and children. Another example was a food bank, wherein the recipients had come to view the handouts as entitlements, which the author then contrasted with a food co-op, where members paid a small ($3) membership fee, and the members then gathered food from free or discounted sources, set their own rules for distribution, and so forth. The co-op helped the members but did not demean them or destroy their work ethic.

Toxic Charity is a bit controversial, but the U.S.A. is one of the most generous nations which has ever graced this planet. Unfortunately, just throwing money at problems can actually make things worse. This book is a must read for anyone who is involved in charity work, faith based or not, because it explains the problem but gives some good guidelines for better ways to help without hurting the recipient or wasting effort and money.

The editors are children

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The other day, I wondered aloud why writing is so bad these days. My young adult son scoffed and informed me that he went to school with some of the staff at the news outlet that posted the story above. He didn’t view these fellow students as the best or brightest, obviously.

My sister, a media professional, informed me that these days, editors (and program directors) are more interested in how many hits an item gets on YouTube or Twitter than how well written or researched an item might be.

Considering the power our nation gives the media, it is scary how low the bar is set for those who write, edit, and direct what the rest of us consume.

Oh, and look out for the back Nissan.


Here’s another one:

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That’s from a site with a big budget, but again, there’s not much editing going on.

Resources for Readers

DaVinciWhat to read? When I was young (a very long time ago) my mother took my sisters and me to visit the public library every week. This was “free” entertainment, and as we were fairly poor, it was a great deal. However, there was that day when I’d read everything of interest to me in the children’s and young readers category. Again, this was a long time ago, when “young adult” publications were not a big category. I remember her guiding me over to the adult fiction section (meaning not for kids, but nothing racy—it was a public library) and she suggested some titles. My first reads from that section were what mom would term “mysteries” although romantic suspense would be closer to the genre of that time. The authors were Phyllis A. Whitney and Mary Stewart, although I can’t remember the titles. So began my transition into reading for pleasure, an activity that is still a big part of my life.

Mom has been gone for a long time, as she had cancer and died before she should have, but there are plenty of other places to find recommendations for reading. I do belong to way too many Facebook Groups, and most of those have advertising that I largely ignore. For a time, Amazon was my favorite place to find books, and while it is a source for content, the weirdo reviews have made it less and less reliable for recommendations. Also, big A encourages authors to buy ads, making it even less relevant. If you are lonely and want to be inundated by promotional emails, there are lots of sites that promote books via that route, but by and large that content comes from paid ads, so it’s not reliable either. I read a lot of eBooks these days, and my public library has a few thousand titles, but I’ve noticed that far too many of them are “reprints” wherein established authors are giving their backlist titles new life, and I have either read those books are wasn’t interested the first time. So, what to do?

There are some solutions. First, check out Goodreads. It’s now owned by Amazon, but it seems to work quasi-independently from big A, so the reviews are more often by serious readers. Authors can have a “page” on Goodreads, too, which can be helpful. If you like a certain genre, typically there are blogs that feature books of interest. As a lover of science fiction romance, I like this blog: SFR Brigade. Some authors maintain a blog or a Facebook group, so check on a favorite writer’s web presence. Often writers will mention fellow writers or their own favorite reads. I’ve really enjoyed Susan Grant’s books and her blog, Come Fly with Me (now found via her website).

In addition to big A, readers sometimes leave reviews on traditional bookstore sites such as Barnes and Noble and Books a Million. As these sites primarily serve readers, the reviews tend to be written more literate customers. There may be fewer reviews, but I believe they are more reliable.

Also, if you know others who like to read, try forming a book club. My sister belongs to such a club, and members propose which books to read. She’s given me some suggestions of books that were well-received by her group, such as my current read: DaVinci, by Walter Issacs. It’s fascinating, and I would never have chosen it without the recommendation of that group over in Richmond, Virginia.