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.

Time for Dystopian Science Fiction?

Reader’s Alley, a nifty site for bargain eBook lovers, divides their science fiction offerings into sub-genres: sci-fi romance, sci-fi thriller, and science fiction, dystopian. While those first two descriptors would seem self-evident, the dystopian flavor is considered by some (mostly jaded members of academia) as the only serious science fiction. Typically, I avoid reading dystopias because they tend to be so darned depressing. But, with all that is happening in the news, which I also try to avoid, perhaps it is time to take a look at the genre.

One of the finest books about the history of science fiction is Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree, which covers science fiction literature from its beginnings to the early 1980s. Aldiss does discuss many sub-genres, but the thread of dystopia runs strongly throughout his encyclopedia of science fiction in printed form. The term, dystopia, is applicable to “a world in which everything is imperfect, and everything goes terribly wrong. Dystopian literature shows us a nightmarish image about what might happen to the world in the near future. Usually the main themes of dystopian works are rebellion, oppression, revolutions, wars, overpopulation, and disasters. On the other hand, Utopia is a perfect world – exactly opposite of dystopia.”

Science has, until recently, been viewed as a two edged sword; while it can make life much better, mis-use of science has been the root of all sorts of evils. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is often considered to be the first science fiction novel, and the dark side of science is clearly the central theme of the novel. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment and Rappacini’s Daughter, short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, also feature mis-use of science as their main themes. When teaching those stories, which used to be in many American Lit anthologies, one way to make it simple for students is to say, “Hawthorne is basically telling his readers, ‘don’t mess around with Mother Nature’.”

Later novelists fine tuned dystopian themes, with societies becoming more and more restrictive upon the populace. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 share these themes, “including the consequences of totalitarianismmass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of persons and behaviours within society.” Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Burgeron is one of the most widely read dystopian stories, due to its inclusion in anthologies for students, and I recently read a news story liking our current government policies to Vonnegut’s didactic work. Y’all, it is scary when dystopia becomes reality.

Of course, many fans of science fiction today seldom, if ever, read it. Instead, what they know of utopia and dystopia is presented via video. Early episodes of Star Trek explored both sides of the scientific divide. The Ultimate Computer, rather dated today, explored the man vs. machine conflict, using future war games as a setting for its rather disturbing premise. Various dystopian novels have been adapted to long form (movies) video, including everything from 1984 to Planet of the Apes. There are literally dozens of dystopian sci fi films. Some are rather laughable now (Mad Max?) but others are quite troubling.

My own fiction, which has many conflicts for characters to attempt to resolve, certainly isn’t “happily ever after, ” but it isn’t as dark as some of these works, and that’s because my outlook on life is more pragmatic. Hopefully, there will be some gravitation away from the totalitarian policies of modern politicians and administrators. But, when I consider what I am seeing when I do go out and about, I wonder. I really do. Remember this: In each fictional dystopia, the goal was to make things better for certain segments of the population, and bad outcomes are unhappy accidents. Be careful what you wish for—

ARC review—Edge of Extinction by Kim Borg

EdgeOfExtinction_CVR_SMLI read Kim Borg’s debut novel as an ARC, and published public reviews on Big A and Goodreads, and I stand by that review. This one is going to be a bit different, however, and there are gonna be a few spoilers, so if that bothers you, go read the Goodreads version.

Science fiction is a modern art form, which probably begins with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, although there is some debate on that. Actually, there is also debate as to the exact definition of science fiction, along with what works should be classified as science fiction. For instance, many works of horror and some that are largely fantasy end up in the SF basket. As I don’t especially like either of those genres, that bothers me, but the lines are often blurred. Anyway, science fiction generally takes what is known (science fact) and extrapolates that is some manner (the fiction part.) I like to say it this way, science fiction asks “What if______?” In this case, we have a novel which poses several questions.

Borg’s novel is set in 2086, when Teslas drive themselves, which isn’t much of a stretch, and population control is a world-wide mandate, which extrapolates a bit more. Oh, and the Earth is a polluted mess, and rather than clean it up, at least one rich and famous guy  is looking to find a new spot to colonize. Apart from the one child per couple population control, which China tried a while back, none of this is much of a mental stretch.

However, after a few more scenes, the point of view characters, Dr. Amber Lytton and Dr. Joel Carter, become members of a space going team who board a ship called the Hermes, launch into space, and rely on a Phoenix drive to take them to the pristine Earth type planet, Arcadia. During their training, the couple learns that they are actually the second team to venture to the planet to assess it as a possible location for colonization. Once there, the travelers must dodge aliens of various sizes and levels of ferocity, while looking for clues as to the fate of their predecessors. Problems, both external and within the group, complicate the mission. Borg’s debut novel has quite a bit of suspense, a good character development, and lots of world building. The gadgets, although present, don’t over-power the story, either, which I like.

As in many worthy stories, the bad guys (or critters) aren’t all bad, and the good guys aren’t all good. There are a lot of questions to answer, such as will the villain who is only along to steal a valuable hunk of mineral get away? Will our point of view characters both live through the conflict between species which rule Arcadia? Is Arcadia a parallel planet to Earth, wherein the dinosaurs were never killed off? And, perhaps most important, are humans too wicked to trust to colonize any planet? This novel reminds me of some excellent science fiction writers, especially Jules Verne and Pierre Boulle (Planet of the Apes.) The ending isn’t quite a cliff hanger, but it opens the door for sequels, and I hope the author continues the story line in other novels.

Edge of Extinction is skillfully written and worth the reader’s time. Kim Borg states in her acknowledgements at the end of the novel that her goal is to both educate and entertain the reader, and while she certainly tries to educate, she does entertains. Borg is a new author for fans of classic science fiction to watch.

 

The Functional. Fragment. Celebrated. Or reviled.

ARC5Claimed (which may or may not also have the title of Rescued) came to me as an advanced review copy (ARC) which I read recently for a review site. Actually, I am glad to have the opportunity to review again, as it has been quite a while since I’ve done this. Most such sites really want a positive review, and I have written one. My comments for the site are true but censored a bit. What you’ll read here is more genuine.

First of all, sometimes minor mistakes are in an ARC, and I certainly understand that. The author used “fussed” for “fussy” for instance. That’s the kind of minor mistake that should be corrected before the final book is published. This book is a science fiction romance, with the emphasis on romance. For me, science fiction should have a bit science, but in Claimed/Rescued there aren’t many science fiction elements, apart from characters (lots of aliens) setting (a spaceship and a space station) and plot (alien abduction.) Apart from vivid descriptions of aliens, the other elements are not especially detailed.

Romance comes in several flavors these days, from very hot (nearly pornographic) to sweet (think Amish stories that talk about feelings rather than body parts.) Claimed/Rescued is skewed well on the sexy side of the continuum. For those who read romance for vicarious sex, this novel is a winner. From a science fiction standpoint, this yarn disappoints a bit. Okay, I don’t have to know how the ship goes or how the remote control on her wicked slave collar works, but a little more detail concerning the gadgets would be welcome. The most sci fi part of the book is the afore mentioned vast array of aliens, and those are described in varying levels of detail.

For me, the most annoying aspect of the book was the author’s reliance upon the “functional fragment.” Of course, lots of dialogue depends on the functional fragment. Think about one side of a phone conversation:

“Hey!”

“Oh yeah.”

“Really?”

“No kiddin’!”

I have no problem with the construction in that context. But. This author. Tends to write. Like. This. The words shared in this manner tend to be feelings or observations, such as “Handsome.” “Kindness.” “To Bond.” “To become as one.” “Tenderness.” “Aroused.” “Stay strong.” “Traumatized.” “Wary.” “Forever.” Y’all, I just listed a few of the functional fragments. Every once in a while, this could be an effective technique, but Claimed/Rescued is far too reliant upon these pseudo sentences.

No doubt Claimed/Rescued will be published, and there will be enough positive reviews that some science fiction romance fans will read it. And, those who want to experience sex vicariously may well enjoy it. But. All I seem to remember. Are. Those. Fragments.

Why Fair and Square Pricing Fails

Purple and White Speech Bubble Clothing Logo-2I like for the price to be the price. But, I must be one of the few people who think that way. Fair and square pricing works for me: I can budget for what I need to purchase, and know when it is okay to splurge a bit. However, I have a dear friend who won’t buy anything unless she negotiates a better price. This practice is downright embarrassing at times. Recently, we were in a charity thrift store and she saw a large ceramic vase filled with fake flowers. (I know, taste varies.) Anyway, it was priced fairly, but she stood in line to ask a harried clerk to lower the price by $5. The clerk said, “The price is the price.” My friend walked away. “It’s a charity,” I reminded her. As we got into the car, my friend made up some excuse about the quality of the item. But, I know her. No discount, no sale is her motto.

I’ve sold items on eBay for almost a decade. But, recently, I’ve been rather frustrated with the “Buy it now or best offer” feature on eBay. As a seller, I prefer to list an item at the price I want for it, and my potential customer can pay for the item and the shipping (which isn’t free, so I never pretend that it is) or not. However, if sellers don’t activate “best offer” when creating the listing, eBay will do it later, and before long, I start getting half price offers. Yep, the default “best offer” setting is literally half price. I hate telling customers, “no.” And, I have learned that counter offers seldom result in a sale. Lately, I have been listing items a couple of dollars more than I normally would ask, then setting the best offer for the real price. Yes, the whole thing bothers me, but many, many shoppers want to feel that they got a discount, especially on really low priced items. I’ve literally gotten an offer of $2 on a genuine leather designer handbag.

And, this gotta have a discount mentality is not just for used items, such as the pre-owned books and garments that I generally list in my eBay store (The Alternative Article.) Remember the absolute disaster of “Fair and Square” pricing at J.C. Penney? Although I am not particularly fond of that merchant, I really liked their pricing when that experiment was underway. Apparently, I was alone, however. J. C. Penney customers stayed away in droves until the management jacked up the prices and paid newspapers to print coupons so customers could “save” 40% off.

It’s psychology. And it sucks.

Overdignosed— a brief review and commentary

OverdiagLike many people in the USA, I am concerned about the state of our health care. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to live in a country that has lots of great medical facilities and practitioners. But, I’ve watched people go through some pretty difficult situations, too, so I read Over-diagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Healthcare in hopes that I’d learn more about what sometimes goes wrong with our healthcare system. This book offers some first hand insights from three physician authors, and I learned a great deal from it.

Many of the chapters have a “case study” to frame the discussion. One of the most memorable is the story of an older gentleman with a borderline diagnosis of diabetes. In the interest of keeping those blood sugar numbers in the optimal range, the principal author (Dr. H. Gilbert Welch) prescribed medication. Unfortunately, the gentleman’s blood sugar dropped, causing him to lose control of his car, resulting in an accident that broke his neck. The gentleman survived, but he had to wear a halo brace for many weeks while his neck healed. When it was all over, the doctor and patient agreed that the best practice in his case would be to forgo the diabetes medication. This anecdote is a great way to illustrate how over diagnosis can make people sick!

Each chapter explains how modern testing, coupled with ever changing standards for “normal,” have resulted in more and more people being diagnosed with something. The approach is cautionary, explaining that many times a diagnosis might be correct, but if the condition is unlikely to cause the patient any reduction in quality of life, or end the patient’s life early, then it is far better to not treat the disease. However, once diagnosed, both the patient and most physicians will be reluctant to “watchfully wait.” Indeed, the principal author states in the introduction that he does not have routine checkups, even though he works in healthcare and could easily do so. Instead, he waits for something to go wrong. As the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The mammogram is probably the first test that my doctor wants me to have done, but our author states that for most women, they do more harm (due to radiation) than good. Aggressive cancers can develop in the one to two year interval between tests, but slow growing cancers can result in over-reaction by doctors and patients. Also, many women go through the “false positive” situation, which might mean more testing, including a breast biopsy. I’ve known several women who had that done, only to find out that the mammogram was incorrect (or incorrectly interpreted.)

Another interesting story is a conversation between the author and a pharmaceutical rep. The latter was touting the benefits of a drug for women with bone density issues. After a friendly discussion, the drug company rep admitted that the greatest risk for these women is mostly hip fractures, which can lead to all sorts of problems, including premature death. The author states that helping women prevent falls, though physical therapy and other practical measures, would be much more useful. And the testing phase of the drug was eventually discontinued due to subjects developing bone cancer.

The author is firm in his stance that patients are often over-tested and over-diagnosed. He believes that many doctors do this out of an interest in finding answers for their patients, and not merely in making more money. He is also firm that the threat of a law suit can be a driver for hyper testing and the end result of over-diagnosis. I’m all for people having the right to seek redress in the case of gross malpractice, but doctors who have been the defendant in a case, win or lose, will often err on the side of caution and order tests that probably aren’t needed and will refer cases that are only marginal. The costs of this mind set are not negligible, as tests can costs hundreds or even thousands, and that doesn’t include the costs of treating a condition that might not need any treatment. Nor does it address the mental stress of having a chronic “condition.”

Common sense is sorely lacking these days. Certainly many aspects of modern America are getting totally weird, so I guess it is not unusual that medicine is affected. I am grateful to Dr. Welch and his fellow authors for this very cogent discussion of the problem of over diagnosis. I am seriously contemplating what to say at my next doctor visit, when I will face that computerized list of items that modern medicine says I need, but just might result in me joining the long list of those who are “over-diagnosed.”