Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Fort - A Novel of the Revolutionary war by Bernard Cornwell

An Unappealing Fort!

Having read all of Bernard Cornwell's books till date, I was disappointed with 'The Fort'. Usually Mr.Cornwell's formula seldom fails to work - his authentic research, excellent writing skills and imaginative story telling makes reading his books a lingering pleasure. Unfortunately 'The Fort' has no heroes nor villains or even a credible plot. Based on a small battle between a British Force and American rebels in 1779 during the Independence war in the coast of New England, Mr.Cornwell tries to tell the story from both sides. But frankly, the story becomes very boring and it took me a great effort to complete the book. Some interesting facts about Paul Revere and John Moore do provide some excitement but does not make it worth the effort of reading over 440 pages.

As usual, Mr.Cornwell's research stands out - but you might as well read the last few pages of the Historical Note to enjoy that.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Arsenic - any one?

Element number 33 of the periodic table jumped into prominence this week with the discovery of arsenic based life form on earth. It seems the bacteria GFAJ-1 uses arsenic instead of phosphorus (which all known life forms use) for its DNA backbone.
Arsenic, famous as the poison of choice in Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories as well as being allegedly used by the English to finish off Napoleon Bonaparte, works well as a poison due to its similarity with Phosphorous - our cells easily accept it and try to use it in lieu of Phosphorous.

Discovered in Mono Lake, California by geomicrobiologist Felissa Wolfe-Simon, GFAJ-1 does not naturally prefer arsenic. But when grown in culture and given an arsenic rich diet, devoid of any phosphorus, instead of dying of like other organisms this particular bacteria, GFAJ-1 used arsenic in place of phosphorus in DNA and other molecules inside the cell.

How is this discovery so significant? It is a very momentous discovery for two reasons - (1) It implies that life can be very different from what we think - especially as we search for extraterrestrial life. It is not a coincidence that the announcement of this discovery was made by NASA as one of relevance to astrobiology (2) It might also support the theory of the origin of life in hydrothermal vents down under the oceans (a concept well explained by Nick Lane in his book ‘Life Ascending’).

Till now, the biochemistry of life has been dominated by the Big Six - Oxygen, Hydrogen, Carbon, Nitrogen, Sulphur and Phosphorous - the critical elements for life to exist. Well, now here is new biological paradigm - and let us see what new science this will give us.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Matt Ridley vs Bill Gates - Debate

Check out the review by Bill Gates on Matt Ridley's book 'The Rational Optimist' in Wall Street Journal

Friday, November 26, 2010

Designer Genes - A new era in the evolution of man by Steven Potter

Our Genetic Destiny?

Sometimes potent things come in small packages. In this short book of 175 pages, Steven Potter takes us through the fields of DNA sequencing, genetic modification, stem cells and embryo manipulation. We have seen numerous books come out in recent times on these subjects, but this tome differs from them through its simplicity, lucidity and clarity of vision.

Steven Potter shows us why it would be impossible to stop human beings from changing their genetic code - initially it would be to cure diseases and then to prevent them - but sooner or later to improve it. The ethical and moral dilemma involved in these are discussed in a very balanced manner and it would be highly beneficial if our politicians and so called leaders spend some time in understanding the basic science behind the issues, through reading books like these.

Towards the end of the book, Dr.Potter springs a surprise by a Kurzweilic play of hypothesizing the potential of smarter than human machines and how humans might be forced to make themselves better (quite drastically by changing their genes) to stay ahead of the machines.

This is a an interesting and thought provoking book and a very easy read.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller

Learn from the ants, bees, fish, termites and locusts!

Through a very insightful book, Peter Miller turns to Nature to explain crowd behavior. Leveraging upon numerous scientific studies, Peter elaborates the principles through which even insects with low individual intelligence perform extraordinary feats of brilliance as a group. That too without hierarchy or elaborate rules!

Peter Miller calls this intelligent group behavior - the smart swarm. He then explains how the smart swarm works - using biology to unlock the secrets of collective behavior. The dangers of group behavior are also brought out through the examples of locusts - which is useful to understand how human groups also sometimes turn violent.

What are the principles of smart swarms?

The first principle of a smart swarm is self organization. Through the basic mechanisms of decentralized control, distributed problem solving and multiple interactions, members of a group without being told can transform simple rules of thumb into meaningful patterns of collective behavior. This is explained through the functioning of ant colonies - that is "Though Ant's aren't smart, why Ant colonies are?"

The second principle of a smart swarm is 'diversity of knowledge' - which is basically achieved through a broad sampling of the swarm's options, followed by a friendly competition of ideas. Then using an effective mechanism to narrow down the choices, swarms can achieve 'wisdom of crowds'. The honeybees example of choosing a new nest illustrates this very clearly - and Peter shows how communities and businesses can build trust and make better decisions by adapting this.

The third principle is indirect collaboration. If individuals in a group are prompted to make small changes to a shared structure that inspires others to improve it even further, the structure becomes an active player in the creative process. This is explained beautifully with the example of how termites build huge structures. We also see this in our internet world through Wikis!!!

The fourth principle is adaptive mimicking. With the example of flight behavior of starlings, Peter shows how the basic mechanisms of coordination, communication and copying can unleash powerful waves of energy or awareness that race across a population evoking a feeling of mental telepathy.

The author explains how the above principles will give businesses powerful tools to untangle some of the knottiest problems they face. With examples ranging from Oil, Aircraft manufacturing to Movies, very useful practical situations are given throughout the book.

I would strongly recommend this book all interested in Science & Business.

Monday, November 22, 2010

What on Earth evolved? 100 species that changed the world by Christopher Lloyd

Great theme, but surprising errors!!

The book talks in detail about 100 species - 50 before human and 50 that came after the human and influenced by him. It is very much a reference book with lot of scientific detail and a great layout.

But on a quick review of a couple of chapters, I saw two errors which made me lose confidence in the book.

On Page 13, "Even more shocking was that of the 25,000 human genes at least 95 per cent turn out to have no apparent function at all." Ouch! I guess the author meant 95% of the DNA has no apparent function - but what an error!

On Page 170, "Elephants have no less an impact....... most popularly by Indian chief Chandragupta Maurya. His 9000 elephants were according to Greek historian Plutarch, instrumental in deterring invasion by Greek adventurer Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC" Sounds well researched and impressive? But unfortunately it is wrong. Chandragupta Maurya was a teenager when Alexander invaded India. Alexander did beat King Poros and his elephant troops, but turned back before proceeding much further into India since his troops wanted to return. They might have been influenced by rumors of the strength of King Nanda of Magadha who would have been Alexander's next adversary if he had moved further into India. After Alexander left India, there was a power vacuum which Chandragupta Maurya took advantage of. But he had to fight many battles and it took many years for him to establish the Mauryan empire and its powerful army. Alexander was long dead by then!. However there is evidence of Chandragupta Maurya supplying elephants to one of Alexander's successors - Selecus, whose daughter Helen was given to Chandragupta in marriage - but that is another story.

Everybody makes errors, but there is no excuse for these type of errors in a book of this nature. After spending $45, I feel disappointed.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mount Merapi Volcano - Indonesia

It is sad to see the damage caused by Mount Merapi Volcano in Indonesia. I was in Yogayakarta about 25 Km from Mount Merapi in April this year and had visited the Mountain. See some photos below of the mountain then:

You can see the tracks left by flow of lava in previous eruptions.

Yougyakrta has some beautiful temples and I hope they have not been much affected by the volcanic ash. See slide show below of some of the photos of the temples

Friday, November 5, 2010

Evolution of Political Complexity - A lesson for the U.S

In an interesting article in Nature (Oct 14, 2010) titled ‘Rise and fall of political complexity in island South-East Asia and the Pacific’, authors Currie et al explain their study of the development human political organizations. They evaluated six models for the evolution of political organizations in Austronesian speaking societies using phylogenetic methods. Austronesian speakers spread from the island of Taiwan around 3200 BC through the Philippines into Indonesia, west to coastal south east Asia and Madagascar and east through the Pacific Ocean to evolve into Polynesians and colonize every habitable Pacific island from Hawaii to New Zealand. Based on ethnographic and linguistic data they studied 84 austronesian societies.

They defined levels of political complexity by the number of hierarchical decision making levels: societies lacking permanent leadership beyond the local community are labelled ‘acephalous’; those with a single level beyond the local community are labelled ‘simple chiefdoms’ ; those with two levels represent ‘complex chiefdoms’ and societies with more than two levels are ‘states’. I do not want to go too much into detail of the study - But what was their conclusion?

Let me quote Jared Diamond who wrote a review of the article in the same issue “The results are clear. First, political evolution increases only in small steps: states and complex chiefdoms don’t form directly from leaderless societies. Second, political complexity can decrease as well as increase, in agreement with the abundant evidence of the disintegration of states and chiefdoms. Finally, unlike increases of complexity, declines can plunge a society politically several stages backwards ....”

Why is this relevant now?

Imagine the ostensible goal of the U.S to install democracies in tribal Afghanistan and Iraq!!

Look at the plunge of the society taking place in Pakistan!!

Not that we need to look at an arcane study to prove these points but if our political leaders had some sense to look at history and evolution of societies it would enable them to take better decisions.

As Winston Churchill once sald ‘Americans can be expected to take the right decisions - after they have exhausted all other options’

So let us hope that the U.S will get it right soon :)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Singularity University Briefing - Sept 13, 2010 9.30 AM (PDT)

Listen to this free webinar from the Singularity University!

Learn about the projects (world changing ideas!!!) the Singularity University students developed during their 2010 Graduate program.

Hear Ray Kurzweil, Dan Barry & Peter Diamandis talk about these breakthrough ideas...

You wont regret it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The future of Personalized Medicine - P4 Medicine!

"Predictive, Personalized, Preventive & Participatory"

I listened to an exciting presentation on P4 medicine from Dr.Leroy Hood of Institute of Systems Biology, Seattle at Policy Forum meeting hosted by 23andme at Burlingame, San Francisco on July 14, 2010.

Dr.Hood explained how will P4 medicine will catalyze a revolution from Reactive to Proactive Medicine. He highlighted the general scientific advances that are leading to this revolution - the use of systems approaches to understanding disease, them emergence of transformational technologies and the development of new mathematical and computational tools to analyze, integrate and develop predictive and actionable models of how to deal with disease.

Features of P4 Medicine are:

  • Informational Science
  • Data Driven - each patient will have billions of data points
  • Patients taking more control - from definition of wellnes to assessing treatment for disease
  • Benefits
Lower cost of Healthcare
Transformational nature of healthcare
Global wellness
  • For rich and poor
For more details take a look at and

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Andrew Marvell - marvelous poems

The beauty of the English language never ceases to amaze. I came across the poems by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) - even after so many years, see the power of the words...

From 'The Garden"

Meanwhile the Mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does streight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other Worlds, and other Seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green Thought in a green Shade.

From "To his coy mistress"

But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Kindle is dead - Long live the iPad

After two months of using the iPad as an ebook reader, here is my conclusion - the iPad is definitely better than the Kindle for reading ebooks.


(a) Ease of use - flipping the pages is such an experience, that one would want to just keep doing that....
(b) Pictures and tables are hundred times better in the iPad - especially the ability to zoom; for technical books Kindle is such a pain
(c) Battery charge lasts long enough - though iPad battery does not last as long as the Kindle, over 10 hrs of use time from one charge is good enough
(d) Magazines in the iPad - wow!!!! Just try National Geographic in the iPad using software like Zinio - looks even better than the print edition

Now, if you consider the other uses of iPad as a tablet, why would anyone carry the Kindle when the iPad can do it all.

Btw, I own three Kindles - any buyers out there?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

And Craig 'Vented' Life.......

Craig Venter did it again!. After 15 years of hard work, Craig Venter and his associates created the first synthetic genome, inserted it into a cell after replacing its original DNA and created a new life form!!!!!
This is the second
time that Craig has revolutionized the Genomics field. Couple of decades back, his sequencing approach, completed the Human Genome Project many years ahead of schedule. This time I think the impact is much more. The Econo
mist had the news on the cover page of their May 22nd issue. However the May 20th issue of Science covered it only as a News item deep inside the magazine! Unfortunately the scientific world has always viewed Mr.Venter with suspicion. Agreed he is a maverick, but isn't it time to fully acknowledge the man's contribution!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Poseidon's Steed - Helen Scales

Everything you wanted to know about seahorses, but didn't know where to ask!

This is a beautiful book that anybody can enjoy!

Imagine these wonderful creatures living in the ocean- miniature horses with rolling eyes and tiny monkey's tails. It was the males that had babies - no animals do that anymore - and they changed color as if by magic and danced elegant dances every day with their faithful partners. This is how Helen Scales describes the passion of her life - seahorses; elegantly written, researched in depth, the book provides everything that one would want to know about seahorses. How did such a strange creature evolve? How does their genome look like? Not only is the biology covered in detail, Helen's researches the history starting from the Greeks, how our ancestors perceived them, covering all surviving documentation and paintings. Helen goes to the extent of looking at antiques which depict seahorses, with many interesting side stories such as the stolen seahorse brooch from the Lydian Horde in Turkey. (For more on that story see 'Loot' by Sharon Waxman)

Where would one find seahorses? What do they eat? Why is there a black market trade in seahorses? How is global warming affecting them? Find all these out in this charming and easy to read book. You wont regret buying this book.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

My friend Sancho - Amit Varma

India's Erich Segal?

Amit Varma's `My friend Sancho' reminded me of Erich Segal's "Love Story' that had captivated millions during the 70's. The background setting, the time period and the story line are different, but Amit's love story also has the same depth, humor and beauty as Erich's.

For me, it is a great feeling to see a new author with talent - and Amit Varma made my day - I discovered Amit thorugh his new column in Yahoo India, which led me to his blog `India Uncut'. His writing talent is pretty obvious in his articles, and hence I had no hesitation in buying his first novel `My friend Sancho' which was highlighted in the blog.

The story is set in Mumbai, India, the hero is a journalist who meets a girl whose father was mistakenly killed by the local police. The story is developed well and the book is a truly enjoyable read!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Borobudur - an amazing Buddhist Monument

About 50 Km from Yogyakarta in Indonesia, is Borobudur - an amazing Buddhist monument that can transport the visitor to another plane. Constructed around 750 AD by an unknown king of the Cailendra dynasty, the monument was abandoned after a couple of hundred years and soon got covered with volcanic ash and the jungle. Rediscovered after about 1000 years in the early 1800s, the monument has been restored - but not to its previous glory; many of the 500 odd Buddha statues are headless!! But still the massive monument built in stone with 10 levels, offer visitors many hours of pleasure in climbing and walking on the stone paved steps. Beautiful landscaped gardens around the monument and the old volcano of Mount Merapi in the background provides a special aura to the setting

The size and beauty can be really appreciated only by a visit - I would recommend that you stay in the resort inside the Borobudur complex which allows you to see the sunrise from the monument at 4.30 AM!

Enjoy the slide show!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

iPad vs eBook Reader

The Jury is still out....

After a couple of weeks of using the iPad, I am still unable to make a categorical decision whether the iPad will be the eBook reader killer. So I will list the pros and cons of the iPad when you use it to read ebooks.


(a) The iPhone like interface is cool and the iPad offers many other applications as compared to a dedicated eBook reader
(b) All the books you bought for Kindle are available in the iPad for no additional charge
(c) The Book Directory is much better than that of Kindle
(d) Flipping pages is much easier because of the touch screen
(e) Pictures and tables come up much better in the iPad - you can enlarge them in the iPad by dragging two fingers on the screen, like in the iPhone
(f) Battery lasts for more than 10 hrs of usage - so this is not going to be as much of an issue


(a) The screen reflects light - so readability is not as good as the dedicated ebook reader
(b) The additional weight of about 800 gms (compared to an ebook reader) is a hassle
(c) The price is about twice as much

My conclusion:

Even if the iPad does not kill off the eBook reader right away, it will definitely reduce its market share. And when iPad begins to support multiple applications it will really start being a better value proposition than the ebook reader. One of the biggest challenges all of us face is to decide how many devices to carry - you are anyway stuck with a cell phone (maybe two) and a laptop. The eBook reader becomes the third device - well, if the iPad can provide the functionality of the laptop and the eBook reader it can become the eBook reader killer; Let us wait and see!!!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

iPad - the ebook reader killer?

The iPad is here!! As a geek I did make sure I got mine on the first day by preordering it. My first impression? - I like it a lot!.

There were many reports in the last few months that the iPad would challenge the ebook reader devices like Kindle and Nook, but I did not take that very seriously. But I am having second thoughts now. The iPad sold over 300,000 units in the first day and is expected to sell 5 to 7 million this year, but what caught my attention was that over 250,000 ebooks were downloaded by iPad users the first day!!! That is nearly 1 ebook per user which means most users are keen to try out the iPad for ebook reading too........

Amazon has been quick to release the Kindle software for iPad - well I guess they plan to hedge their bets and focus on their content sales if the Kindle device loses out the iPad. I installed the Kindle software in my iPad and frankly the user experience on the iPad is much better than the Kindle. I could access all the books that I had purchased on Kindle and the book arrangement is much better than how it comes on Kindle. I tried a couple of old ebooks and the reading feel is also better with the backlit screen. So will the iPad now replace the Kindle? - I guess it will depend on two issues:

(a) Battery power - how long will the iPad battery last on a single charge? Kindle battery lasts for over a week supporting more than 7000 page flips
(b) Strain on the eyes - for continuous reading will the iPad screen add more eye strain

We will find out - I will post my conclusions soon.....

iPad is heavier than the Kindle by a few hundred grams but I did not find that to be much of a hassle yet.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Decision Tree - by Thomas Goetz

The Choice is up to you....

Good health is the most important aspect of our life, but we seldom pay much attention to it till we fall sick. In this insightful book 'The Decision Tree', Thomas Goetz shows us why we should take control of our health and how this can have a significantly better outcome than just depending on our doctor. All our life, we have been taught that 'Doctor knows best' and we listen (even if we don't follow) to the doctor's advice. However Goetz show us that in this new era of Personalized Medicine, we need to take the decision making into our hands since neither the healthcare system nor the doctors are incentivized properly to focus on the preventive care that is critical.

How do we do this? That is the strategy that Goetz explains to us in this book using his 'Decision Tree' concept. The book is divided into three parts (a) Prediction & Prevention (b) Diagnosis & Detection (c) Care & Treatment. The first part focuses on how the recent advances in genomics can now start providing us the right basic data of our predispositions but still how difficult it is for us to change our habits even if we know that they are harmful. The second part concentrates on the screening and diagnosis tests - with the benefits and pitfalls and the third part targets the approaches to treatment efforts and how people are grouping together to find better ways of treating their diseases. In this time of enhanced privacy concerns I was thrilled to see web sites like and taking advantage of the internet to discover common solutions for those afflicted with similar diseases.

This book has made a significant change to how I view my health planning and I believe it will do the same to any reader who takes the effort to read the book. I would strongly recommend that you do.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Whole Earth Discipline - An Ecopragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand

Turn the Greens Blue?

'Global warming' is a hot subject these days. For many decades the environmentalists more well known as the 'Greens' were ridiculed as 'anti progress' and leftists. Now when they have been finally proved right, the Greens seem to have lost their way. As a well known environmentalist, Stewart Brand explores where the Greens are going wrong and why they should trust Science more. Brand is keen to show us how Urbanization is Green, Nuclear Power is Green and Genetic Engineering is Green. This is the focus of the first part of the book. The book also traces the Green movement and is filled with references to various publications over the last three decades.

The second part of the book explores how we can take care of the Earth and examines possible global scale nature infrastructure initiatives that can reverse global warming.Brand is ready to acknowledge his mistakes and would like the rest of the Greens also to do so. If not he would like to see some of the Greens split away to become Green-Blues and develop the Green movement in a different direction.

The book was interesting and thought provoking. I was impressed with the coverage on the benefits of Genetically Engineered plants and the various measures that can be taken to improve the conditions on Earth. He exposes the damage caused by the fears of the traditional Greens in opposing genetic engineering. But I would have liked to see a more deeper analysis of some of the conclusions - especially the safety aspects and waste clean up of Nuclear Energy. Brand seems to rely too much of quotes and references and avoid science fundamentals in this case.

I liked the author's summary at the end:

"Ecological balance is too important for sentiment. It requires Science.
The health of natural infrastructure is too compromised for passivity. It requires Engineering.
What we call natural and what we call human are inseparable. We live one life."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How to build a Dinosaur (the science of reverse evolution) by Jack Horman

Hello - I am a T-Rex....

What happens when Paleontology converges with Molecular Biology? Advances in molecular biology now allows us to make changes to the genetic code - the 'language of life'. Paleontology gives us glimpses of extinct animals. The authors of this book challenges the reader to consider the possibility of changing the genome of an existing embryo say that of a chicken and enticing it to 'remember' its past and develop characteristics of its ancestors - such as teeth, tail etc. And since birds are descendent from Dinosaurs, theoretically you can now go back in time step by step and slowly but surely create a Dinosaur.

It is an intriguing concept and the authors do an excellent job of asking the right questions - can we do it? should we do it? what are the benefits? What are the disadvantages? The book also covers the basic science very well and in simple terms explains the principles involved.

The title of the book is slightly misleading since we are far away from actually being able to create a Dinosaur. Many challenges still remain but the possibility of being able to do this in the next 10 to 20 years is very real. More importantly the book will give the reader a better idea of the various possibilities, that a proper understanding of the genetic code will provide humanity.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Open: An autobiography by Andre Agassi

"An Outlier's life Opened'"

Andre Agassi is an outlier. His autobiography ‘Open’ appears to be a frank and honest narrative from the heart of champion. Malcolm Gladwell (author of Outliers) would be glad to read this - it substantiates a lot of what Malcolm has wrote on what creates outliers.

I don’t usually read autobiographies - so it is difficult for me to compare this with others. Nevertheless I would not hesitate to recommend this book to readers - it is inspirational and has many lessons for all professionals. What does it take to be successful and then how do you handle success? Agassi’s life is a lesson to all of us.

It is so surprising that the media initially highlighted Agassi’s confession of his ‘drug experience’ when the book was published. However, thankfully that is only a few pages and in no way is the important part of this book. Everybody makes mistakes and hopefully Andre got his ‘catharsis’ by the confession. But there are much more important insights one can learn from this book. I would invite all to read this and find out for yourselves.

The best confession that I liked is when Agassi says in the last page of the book that he ‘was late in discovering the magic of books’ and that is what he would put near the top of his list on what he would want his children to avoid. I wonder why none of the media quoted this?