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27 great recent nonfiction books I’ve read in 2015

recent nonfictionBiography. Science. History. Current affairs. Business. Medicine. Espionage. Innovation. The 27 books listed below represent a wide range of topics — because I’m a really curious guy. They have three things in common: they were all published within the last year or two, I read and reviewed them all in 2015, and every one of them is a fine piece of work that helped me understand better the world we live in. The 27 are arranged below in alphabetical order by authors’ last names.

It’s daunting even to think about naming one among these books as my favorite, or “the best.” I won’t even try. However, if I have to pick the one that shocked me the most, it would be Annie Jacobsen’s The Pentagon’s Brain.

One of the virtues of nonfiction is that a book’s title is almost always a good guide to its contents. That’s true of all 27 of the books listed below. Pick one, or two, or ten: you’ll learn a lot.

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, by Tamim Ansary

Empire of Cotton: A Global History, by Sven Beckert

The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis

The Summit: Bretton Woods, 1944: J. M. Keynes and the Reshaping of the Global Economy, by Ed Conway

Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism, by Bartow J. Elmore

Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, by John A. Farrell

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande

Future CrimesEverything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It, by Marc Goodman

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom, by Blaine Harden

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex, by Michael Hiltzik

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal, by David E. Hoffman

The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency, by Annie Jacobsen

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, by Steven Johnson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be, by Moises Naim

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by David Nasaw

Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism, by Karen M. Paget

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II, by Richard Reeves

Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson

Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA, by Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister

Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, by Joby Warrick

One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, by Tim Weiner 

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might be wondering why I’ve listed so many of the nonfiction books I’ve reviewed this year. Truth to tell, this is most of them. However, I need to emphasize that (a) I’m very selective in picking books to read, and (b) if I am disappointed once I start a book, I put it down. I review only those books I’ve read from start to finish. Now you know.

What makes social change happen?

social changeA review of The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving Our Most Complex Challenges, by Zaid Hassan

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

“Planning based-approaches — so common across government, civil society, and even business — represent a neo-Soviet paradigm” and have long been shown to be at best minimally effective in fostering meaningful social change.

If that assertion is a revelation to you, you’re sure to find The Social Labs Revolution illuminating. No matter how familiar you may be with economic development, urban planning, or other fields in which disciplined planning is a fixture, you’re likely to discover something new in this challenging book.

The author, Zaid Hassan, has built a consulting business on the basis of his belief that, instead of “strategic planning” by “experts,” the world’s most urgent and compelling problems can be solved only by bringing together large, diverse teams representing every aspect of the population that is most directly affected. Working together over months or years as a “social lab,” a team consisting of as many as 36 people struggles together but, eventually, and after considerable conflict and unhappiness, will arrive at a set of practical approaches to prototype as the first stage in solving the problem they share. At its core, a social lab is characterized in three ways: it’s social, it’s experimental, and it’s systemic (in that the ideas that emerge “aspire to be systemic in nature.”). Work within the lab is based on the “U Process” championed by Otto Scharmer.

The problems Hassan and his colleagues choose to address are invariably deep-seated and often life-threatening. The Social Labs Revolution focuses on three long-running experiments, one on sustainable food, a second on malnutrition in urban children (specifically, those living in Maharashtra state in India), and the third on stabilizing the (notoriously unstable) nation of Yemen. For example, the first of these three, a Sustainable Food Lab, was global in scope and participation, bringing together participants from government (Brazil, The Netherlands), civil society (World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy), and corporate food companies (Unilever, General Mills) who worked together for two years. The author credits the team with putting “sustainability” on the radar screens of global food companies.

As Hassan concedes, his consultancy, Reos Partners, is not alone in advancing the social lab technology. He also mentions a Chilean innovation, SociaLab, which addresses new enterprises to alleviate poverty, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT, and points to a number of similar though less structured examples such as Greenpeace’s Mobilisation Lab, set in motion “‘to break through and win on threats to people and the planet.'”

The Social Labs Revolution is blissfully short and easy to digest, with the exception of an annoying digression into an academic discussion of the philosophy underlying the social labs concept. I don’t know about you, but whenever I come across repeated references (13 of them) to the philosopher Martin Heidegger and his disciples, or any other recognizable name from the ranks of dead white philosophers, I head for the exits. Instead of that digression, I would have enjoyed a more detailed discussion of the results that emerged from the three social labs mentioned most prominently in the book. What Hassan offers is spotty and inadequate.

Nitpicking: Someone — the author, the editor, or the proofreader, I know not who, or what potential combination of them — seems to believe that Jack Welch was “the legendary CEO of General Motors.” Fact-checker, please!



June 6, 2014

One soldier’s front-row seat on the war in Iraq: a memoir

memoirCombat and Other Shenanigans: Tales of the Absurd From a Deployment to Iraq, by Piers Platt

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Here’s a memoir of one soldier’s year of service in Iraq that masquerades as a light-weight tale, crammed with humor. Though the book is funny at times, hilarious even, and the author’s voice reflects little of the tragic reality of that misbegotten conflict, it’s revealing nonetheless. Read between the lines, and put the anecdotes in this book together with what you’ve learned from the news, and you’ll gain at least a little more understanding of what modern war in general, and the US occupation of Iraq in particular, are really like.

Not that Combat and Other Shenanigans is the best available book about the Iraq war. Two other books I’ve read and reviewed supply more insight about the effect of the conflict on those who suffered on its front lines. A novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk, by Ben Fountain, is a terrific satire of the experience from the point of view of enlisted soldiers. And a portrait of a remarkable Iraqi family, Nabeel’s Song: A Family Story of Survival in Iraq, by Jo Tatchell, offers perspective of the impact on the civilian population.

What stands out in Platt’s book is the lopsidedness of the conflict between US forces and Iraqi fighters. The astonishing firepower, the high-tech capabilities, the pinpoint accuracy of American rifles and artillery — it’s enough to take your breath away. If you set out to read the book, get ready for scenes in which insurgents are virtually vaporized by US weaponry. This book — well, any book about the reality of war — is not for anyone with a weak stomach.

In fact, it’s hard to come away from reading any of these books, much less all three of them, feeling good about the tragedy that was — and still is — Iraq. Nobody has yet written the Slaughterhouse-5 or Catch 22 of either Iraq or Afghanistan. But do we really need a masterpiece to drive home the lesson that war is almost always the worst of all possible options?

During 2013-14 — less than a year and a half, since it’s just May 2014 as I write — Piers Platt has had five novels and a book of short stories published. I can find no explanation for how he’s managed to pull this off, since he claims not to write full-time. (Platt has a job as a marketing consultant.)

Here’s the sum total of his biography on Goodreads: “I grew up in Boston, but spent most of my childhood in various boarding schools, including getting trained as a classical singer at a choir school for boys. I joined the Army in 2002, and spent four years on active duty, including a year-long deployment to Iraq in 2004 as a tank and scout platoon leader. I now work as a marketing strategy consultant in New York City, when I’m not spending time with my lovely wife and daughter.”

8 great books about Africa

great booksThe big English newspaper The Telegraph publishes lists of the “best” books in many categories. One is the “10 Best Novels About Africa.” (It’s a great list, featuring both celebrated authors such as V.S. Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, Naguib Mahfouz, and J. M. Coetzee; familiar contemporary names such as Alexander McCall Smith and Barbara Kingsolver; and African writers less well known to Americans.) I’ll leave it to them to feed your desire for great fiction about the continent and confine myself here to the nonfiction, with which I’m more familiar.

Following are my eight top picks for reading about Africa, arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.

The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, by Angus Deaton

A veteran professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton explores inequality — between classes and between countries — with a detailed statistical analysis of trends in infant mortality, life expectancy, and income levels over the past 250 years. He concludes that the large-scale inequality that plagues policymakers and reformers alike in the present day is the result of the progress humanity has made since The Great Divergence (between “the West and the rest”) since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. “Economic growth,” Deaton asserts, “has been the engine of international income inequality.” (Deaton’s research backstops the work of today’s economics superstar, Thomas Piketty, who finds the data point to increasing inequality.)

The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, by William Easterly

This is the best book that explores the ways and means of promoting economic development in poor countries. Easterly finds most traditional methods to be sorely lacking. The author, a former World Bank economist who is now an economics professor, emphasizes grassroots development. He writes about the necessity of involving people who will be affected by change in the process of planning and executing it — beginning with the selection of what is to be changed. A large proportion of Easterly’s experience and of the examples he cites come from sub-Saharan Africa.

The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, by William Easterly

A decade after The White Man’s Burden, the author explores the history of economic development and finds that professionals in the field have gotten it all wrong. They present themselves as experts with technocratic solutions that suppress the rights of those they pretend to help — and almost invariably go awry. In fact, he asserts, democracy, rooted in local history and local customs, is the key to successful development. It’s a fascinating and surprising analysis and displays great insight.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

This is the astonishing story of a brilliant, self-taught young Malian man who demonstrated the vast human potential that underdevelopment leaves behind. Barely in his teens, Kamkwamba built a working windmill to generate electricity on his parents’ farm based on reading decades-old Western textbooks on physics that turned up in a tiny nearby library.

Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, by Dambisa Moyo  

In a list of top books on economic development, Amy Lockwood writes that Moyo, a Zambia-born economist, asserts that aid is not only ineffective — it’s harmful. Her argument packs a strong punch because she was born and raised in Africa. Moyo believes aid money promotes the corruption of governments and the dependence of citizens, and advocates that an investment approach will do more to help reduce poverty than aid ever could.

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, by Nina Munk

Though commercial trade is far and away the dominant feature of the economic relationship between Africa and the so-called West, most of the attention in the new media tends to focus on aid — the decades-long project of the world’s richest nations to end poverty on the continent. Economist Jeffrey Sachs’ ill-advised and egregiously expensive Millennium Villages Project stands out as a symbol of just how badly wrong those efforts have gone.

The Bright Continent: Breaking the Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, by Dayo Olopade

Few who follow news from abroad can fail to have noticed that economic development has accelerated in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years. This book catalogs an impressive number of innovative businesses, social sector ventures, and even an occasional government initiative that contribute to the fast growth of this long-underestimated region — and explains the cultural norms that make innovation so natural for Africans.

It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower, by Michael Wrong

No view of contemporary sub-Saharan Africa is complete without taking official corruption into account. This story, which focuses on one courageous Kenyan man who tried to expose some of the most blatant examples of embezzlement by senior government officials, brings to light the complexity of the issue and its impact on African society.




May 15, 2014

Elizabeth Warren speaks truth to power

1A Fighting Chance, by Elizabeth Warren

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Finally — a leading Democrat who understands that elections are won or lost on the basis of personal values. The same person whose gifted leadership led to the creation of the new federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that’s beginning to level the playing field between the public and the Wall Street banks.

Here is Elizabeth Warren getting down to the roots of the country’s current predicament: “I will be grateful to my mother and daddy until the day I die. They worked hard — really hard — to help my brothers and me along. But we also succeeded, at least in part, because we were lucky enough to grow up in an America that invested in kids like us and helped build a future where we could flourish.

“Here’s the hard truth: America isn’t building that kind of future any longer. Today the game is rigged — rigged to work for those who have money and power.”

In A Fighting Chance, Elizabeth Warren’s revealing political memoir, the recently elected Senator from Massachusetts displays both her deep understanding of the economic and social plight of the American middle class, and her passion for doing something about it. This combination of understanding and passion, which is unusual in our country’s political class, is particularly unexpected in a long-time professor at Harvard Law School. But Elizabeth Warren is no typical professor.

Born and raised in a small Oklahoma town to low-income parents hardened by the Dust Bowl and the Depression, and descended from both early settlers and Native American forebears in what was then Indian Country, Senator Warren has injected into her life ever since a ferocious commitment to economic and social justice. From an early age, as a champion high school debater, she showed a special talent for pursuing everything in life with dogged determination and a refusal to give up no matter how bleak the prospects. These qualities, together with her powerful intellect, helped her rise from a teaching post at a commuter college law school to the pinnacle of her field, first at Penn and then at Harvard. The same gifts no doubt contributed in a major way to her solid victory in a U.S. Senate race she wasn’t widely expected to win.

A Fighting Chance tells Elizabeth Warren’s story, both public and private, warts and all. You’ll follow her into an early marriage at nineteen, the birth of her children, the struggle for acceptance for the brilliant teacher she was, and then the separation from her first husband. Sen. Warren doesn’t mince words as she tells this story, and she comes across as far more critical of herself than of anyone around her. This same self-critical approach imbues the story of her later life: her ultimately unsuccessful ten-year-fight against the Big Banks to strengthen the bankruptcy laws, her appointment to head a toothless federal commission to monitor the government’s enormous bank bailout, her stewardship of the campaign to establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and later of the effort to build it from scratch — against massive opposition from Wall Street at every step along the way.

Here’s Sen. Warren again, as she spoke during her 2012 campaign for the U.S. Senate:

“Look around. Oil companies guzzle down billions in subsidies. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Wall Street CEOs — the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs — still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them.”

In a rational world, the Democratic Party would be looking to Elizabeth Warren to head the national ticket in 2016 rather than Hillary Clinton, who wouldn’t be caught dead speaking such truth.


Do vegetarians love animals more than people?

vegetariansEating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
I am not now, nor have I ever been, a vegetarian. However, living as I do in Berkeley, California, from time to time I find myself in the minority at dinners and potlucks. So, as you might imagine, over the years I’ve come to hear most of the arguments against eating animals. 
One thing has always puzzled me about the torrent of passion that invariably erupts when I question why I, or anyone else, should become a vegetarian (much less a vegan): apart from a few rejoinders that the practice of limiting my diet to plants will improve my health, extend my life, and make me a better person overall, most — maybe 80 percent of the verbiage — concerns cruelty to animals.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like furry little animals as well as the next person. Over the course of my long life, I’ve had dogs, cats, and rabbits as well as a few less cuddly animals such as turtles and fish as (dare I say it?) pets. Nor do I kick dogs or other helpless beasts when I’m angry or frustrated with other human beings.

But why do so many people justify vegetarianism on the basis of animal cruelty when the practice of raising animals for food in factory farms promises to drown our country in shit and spew so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that it may eventually inundate low-lying coastal cities like Berkeley and make our planet uninhabitable for the human race? 

Where’s your perspective, people? Cheez! We’re already eliminating a million species a year from the biosphere by encroaching on animal habitat and screwing with the climate, and you’re worried about hurting chickens and cows?

Do I want to hurt chickens or cows? Of course not! I’ve even petted a heifer or two myself over the years. But still . . .

To give due credit, Jonathan Safran Foer does explain some of the environmental consequences of factory farming in Eating Animals. But his foray into the hidden depths of this tragically misconceived industry is almost exclusively focused on — guess what? — animal cruelty. His descriptions of the way animals are treated are purposely graphic and sometimes hard to take. PETA will love this book. If you don’t have an iron stomach, you might not.

Eating Animals is Foer’s first venture into book-length nonfiction. It’s his fourth book. The novels that preceded it, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, have attracted critical acclaim, including a number of literary awards, and both are being adapted to film. (He also produced a strange  work of fiction that was more a sculpture than a book.) For what it’s worth, I tried reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close but couldn’t get past the first few pages. However, Eating Animals is brilliantly crafted. Foer’s writing style, perhaps even his personality, come through loud and clear. He’s obviously a brilliant young man, and if he can avoid falling prey to the silly experimentalism of some of his early work, he’s got a great career ahead of him.

Oh, by the way, are you wondering why I haven’t become a vegetarian? Well, that’s another story . . .

Note: I’m away at Pinchot University for several days, serving as a “Change Agent in Residence” at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute business school. That’s why I’m re-running this review, first posted in December 2012. 

Innovation: Look beyond Silicon Valley

Solar engineering trainer_UN Women_Flickr CC

Today the popular website Virgin Disruptors, one of Richard Branson’s innumerable activities, posted the following article of mine under the title “Innovation — Look beyond Silicon Valley.” I had answered the challenging question, “Have entrepreneurs lost the will to innovate?”

Innovation is alive and well among entrepreneurs—but not so much where you’d expect.

Take Silicon Valley, for example—a place long considered virtually synonymous with innovation.

Twelve companies originating from that hotbed of invention during the past decade have achieved market valuations of $1 billion or more, presumably marking them as the most successful of the lot. Five are what I would term utilities, companies that provide online services that compete with similar free offerings available from Google or open source nonprofits (MongoDB, Evernote, Dropbox, Box, and Automattic). Four provide consumer services (Lending Club, Airbnb, Square, and Uber). The others provide social networking (Pinterest), big data analytics (Palantir Technologies), and flash memory storage (Pure Storage).

Of these dozen companies, only two are true market disruptors: Lending Club, which enables peer-to-peer loans, and Square, a mobile payment service. Both undermine the financial services industry (which can use some competition!). Just two companies—out of the dozen most successful, with hundreds, perhaps thousands of other ventures that have fallen fall short of the billion-dollar mark. Are some of these truly innovative? Probably. But take a look around Silicon Valley, and you’ll find the majority of would-be entrepreneurs are navel-gazing to dream up pointless apps that solve nobody’s problems.

So, where are entrepreneurs innovating in ways that make a difference in people’s lives? Where is innovation alive and well?

Call it the Global South, the developing nations, the emerging economies, or whatever you will. That’s where.

Innovation that matters

Most people who live in the developing nations of Africa, Asia, and to a lesser degree in other regions are extremely poor. All told, more than 2.7 billion people live on $2 a day or less. They represent two-thirds of the population of India (about 800 million) and seventy percent (600 million) of the people of sub-Saharan Africa. In those regions, real innovation—innovation that improves people’s lives, and doesn’t just make money for the inventors—must address the challenges faced by people in poverty. To an extent that most of us who live in the rich nations of the North are likely to find surprising, resilient and resourceful Africans and South Asians are putting Silicon Valley to shame.

So, just as we took Silicon Valley as emblematic of entrepreneurial innovation in the North, we’ll look to sub-Saharan Africa for counterpoint—surely, the region where most of us living in the world’s richest countries have been taught to least expect business smarts to emerge. So, here’s just a smattering of recently founded African companies and their products or services for the poor:

  • EGG-energy (Tanzania) wires homes and businesses and furnishes them with reliable electricity using rechargeable batteries, charged at central locations where customers exchange them for new ones—at half the cost of energy from the local (highly unreliable) grid.
  • MPedigree and Sproxil (piloted in Ghana) use scratch-off codes with a phone number a customer may text to learn whether a medicine is authentic—in a region where thirty percent of drugs are counterfeit.
  • Moladi (South Africa) builds modular urban homes in under a week around a plastic skeleton around which a mold is fastened and a concrete-like mixture is poured. The Moladi system is in wide use building affordable and low-cost housing, “training the unemployed to house the homeless.”
  • M-PESA (Kenya) provides two-thirds of Kenya’s population with a banking and person-to-person funds transfer service using text messaging on mobile phones; the company is now beginning to expand globally.
  • Medic Mobile (launched in Malawi) provides health personnel with the tools to deliver critical information such as health alerts and the availability of drugs and to receive progress reports from patients who live hours or days away from clinics.
  • Bridge International Academies (Kenya) operates hundreds of bare-bones private schools that offer consistent, quality education for $5 per child per month, supplanting ineffective and unreliable public schools.
  • Solar Sister (Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda) provides affordable, solar energy to unserved villages in rural Africa through a direct sales network that empowers women as entrepreneurs.
  • Shujazz (Kenya) is a comic book and FM radio station reaching young people with stories full of advice on how to make money and improve their lives.
  • Other companies in the region offer such agricultural innovations as crop insurance indexed to climate indicators, paying out to farmers if rainfall is inadequate; cooperative farming projects that enlist small farmers in collectives that achieve the scale to employ modern agricultural techniques to raise crops for export; and databases of critical agricultural information (crop prices, pests, rainfall patterns, opportunities to buy and sell) via mobile phones.

Where do all these exciting new ventures come from? Some are from innovation hubs (call them incubators, if you will), both public and private, throughout the region: iHub (Kenya), Akendewa (Cote d’Ivoire), Jokkolabs (Senegal), EtriLabs (Benin), and many others. Yet other innovations spring whole from the minds of brilliant (if often unschooled) individuals like William Kamkwamba, a 13-year-old Malawian boy who used ancient physics textbooks to teach himself how to build a windmill on his parents’ farm that furnished power for irrigation and increased the family’s agricultural output by a factor of five.

Most of the examples cited here can be found, along with others, in an excellent new book, The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, by Dayo Olopade. [Note: I recently reviewed this book here.]

In places where so many things are dysfunctional or entirely unavailable, innovation isn’t just a good way to make money—it’s a necessity.

Stay tuned: you’re going to see a whole lot more come out onto the market from Africa, South Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe—and anywhere else people are forced to do what they can with what little they’ve got.

An optimistic view of economic change in Africa

economic change

The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, by Dayo Olopade

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

It starts with the title itself—Dayo Olopade’s challenge to the prevailing sentiment that sub-Saharan Africa today is little different in its essence from the “dark continent” perceived by nineteenth century colonialists. In The Bright Continent, Olopade catalogs an impressive number of innovative businesses, social sector ventures, and even an occasional government initiative that contribute to the fast growth of this long-underestimated region.

To put Olopade’s story in context, the World Bank recently announced that economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to rise from 4.7 percent in 2013 to 5.2 percent in 2014, compared to 3.5 percent globally. And the CIA World Factbook lists eight African countries among the twenty fast-growing nations in the world in 2013. However, these numbers must be interpreted with caution, since the measurement of economic indicators in most countries in the region is notoriously unreliable (as economist William Easterly reminded us in The Tyranny of Experts), and growth in GDP or even GDP per capita doesn’t necessarily mean that life is getting better for the seventy percent of sub-Saharan Africans (600 million) who live on $2 a day or less. Still, there is clearly a lot going on in Africa these days, and it’s time for the world to pay much closer attention.

Olopade, a first-generation Nigerian-American whose parents, both physicians, have roots in rural Nigeria, brings a fresh and well-grounded perspective to the project. She refuses to accede to conventional word usage, rejecting terms such as “developing country,” “emerging nation,” “poor country,” and “rich country” in favor of her own constructions. One is the term “fail state,” connoting a country whose government fails to deliver essential services but is not a “failed state,” which she applies only to Somalia. Another is the distinction between “lean economies” and “fat economies.” (You can guess which is which. Not a bad way to look at things, is it?) She also organizes her material around a clever device she calls mapping, relating new developments in terms of five “maps” that dominate the reality of Africa today: Family, Technology, Commerce, Nature, and Youth. These five maps “showcase the unique institutions that bind black Africa together and are building its bright future,” Olopade writes.

Permeating the book is the concept of kanju, a term in the Nigerian language Yoruba that the author loosely translates as “hustle,” “strive,” “know how,” or “make do.” In practice, kanju means bending the rules and devising workarounds — a concept similar to the Hindi and Urdu term jugaad, which also is often used to characterize the unconventional solutions that people come up with out of necessity.

Here are just a few of the many recent ventures featured in The Bright Continent, every one of them an example of kanju in action:

  • EGG-energy (Tanzania) wires homes and businesses and furnishes them with reliable electricity using rechargeable batteries, charged at central locations where customers exchange them for new ones—at half the cost of energy from the local (highly unreliable) grid.
  • MPedigree and Sproxil (piloted in Ghana) use scratch-off codes with a phone number a customer may text to learn whether a medicine is authentic—in a region where thirty percent of drugs are counterfeit.
  • M-PESA (Kenya) provides two-thirds of Kenya’s population with a banking and person-to-person funds transfer service using text messaging on mobile phones.
  • Bridge International Academies (Kenya) operates hundreds of bare-bones private schools that offer consistent, quality education for $5 per child per month, supplanting ineffective and unreliable public schools.

Olopade emphasizes that virtually everywhere in the region, national governments are “a constant impediment to development progress,” typically ignored if possible and almost universally disdained. (She reports that ninety-two percent of the businesses in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city with a population now estimated at 21 million, operate outside the law.) Rwanda is an outlier. There, the autocratic government of Paul Kagame enforces rapid and orderly development free of corruption in a pattern similar to that of Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore in decades past. Visitors to Rwanda, including friends of mine, note the surprise they registered when they learned that “everything works there.” The country is on a fast track toward middle income despite (some might say because of) a lack of high-priced natural resources.

The author does have blind spots. I detected a couple of errors in her reporting, and, more consequentially, she seems to have been bamboozled by Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs, the driving force behind the ill-fated Millennium Villages Project. Olopade refers to the project respectfully, although the available evidence points to the effort as a dismal failure. (The full story is told beautifully and authoritatively by Nina Munk in The Idealist, a biography of Dr. Sachs that focuses on the village project.)

In researching this book, Olopade, a journalist, spent many months traveling across the continent to observe the promising changes underway and interview the bright, resourceful, and usually young innovators who are creating change in one of the world’s most tradition-bound areas.

The 10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing

1By Steven Piersanti

1. The number of books being published every year has exploded.

According to the latest Bowker Report (October 9, 2013), over 391,000 books were self-published in the U.S. in 2012, which is an amazing increase of 422 percent since 2007. The number of non-self-published books issued annually has also climbed over the same period to approximately 300,000 in 2012. The net effect is that the number of new books published each year in the U.S. has exploded by more than 400,000 since 2007, to approximately 700,000 annually. And since 2007, nearly 10 million previously published books have been reissued by companies that reprint public domain works. Unfortunately, the marketplace is not able to absorb all these books and is hugely over-saturated.

2. Book industry sales are declining, despite the explosion of books published.

Adult nonfiction print unit book sales peaked in 2007 and have declined each year since then, according to BookScan (Publishers Weekly, January 6, 2014, and previous reports). Similarly, bookstore sales peaked in 2007 and have fallen each year since then, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (Publishers Weekly, February 12, 2014, and previous reports).

3. Despite the growth of e-book sales, overall book sales are still shrinking.

After skyrocketing from 2008 to 2012, e-book sales leveled off in 2013. Unfortunately, the decline of print sales outpaced the growth of e-book sales, even from 2008 to 2012. According to BookStats data reported by the Association of American Publishers (May 15, 2013), revenues in the entire U.S. book publishing marketplace fell again in 2012, to $27.1 billion. The total book publishing pie is not growing—the peak was hit in 2007— yet it is being divided among ever more hundreds of thousands of digital and print books.

4. Average book sales are shockingly small—and falling fast.

Combine the explosion of books published with the declining total sales and you get shrinking sales of each new title. According to BookScan—which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books (including Amazon.com)—only 225 million books were sold in 2013 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined (Publishers Weekly, January 6, 2014). The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling fewer than 250 copies per year and fewer than 2,000 copies over its lifetime. And very few titles are big sellers. Only 62 of 1,000 business books released in 2009 sold more than 5,000 copies, according to an analysis by the Codex Group (New York Times, March 31, 2010).

5. A book has far less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.

For every available bookstore shelf space, there are 100 to 1,000 or more titles competing for that shelf space. For example, the number of business titles stocked ranges from less than 100 (smaller bookstores) to up to 1,500 (superstores). Yet there are several hundred thousand business books in print that are fighting for that limited shelf space.

6. It is getting harder and harder every year to sell books.

Many book categories have become entirely saturated, with a surplus of books on every topic. It is increasingly difficult to make any book stand out. Each book is competing with more than ten million other books available for sale, while other media are claiming more and more of people’s time. Result: investing the same amount today to market a book as was invested a few years ago will yield a far smaller sales return today.

7. Most books today are selling only to the authors’ and publishers’ communities.

Everyone in the potential audiences for a book already knows of hundreds of interesting and useful books to read but has little time to read any. Therefore people are reading only books that their communities make important or even mandatory to read. There is no general audience for most nonfiction books, and chasing after such a mirage is usually far less effective than connecting with one’s communities.

8. Most book marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers.

Publishers have managed to stay afloat in this worsening marketplace only by shifting more and more marketing responsibility to authors, to cut costs and prop up sales. In recognition of this reality, most book proposals from experienced authors now have an extensive (usually many pages) section on the authors’ marketing platform and what the authors will do to publicize and market the books. Publishers still fulfill important roles in helping craft books to succeed and making books available in sales channels, but whether the books move in those channels depends primarily on the authors.

9. No other industry has so many new product introductions.

Every new book is a new product, needing to be acquired, developed, reworked, designed, produced, named, manufactured, packaged, priced, introduced, marketed, warehoused, and sold. Yet the average new book generates only $50,000 to $150,000 in sales, which needs to cover all of these new product introduction expenses, leaving only small amounts available for each area of expense. This more than anything limits how much publishers can invest in any one new book and in its marketing campaign.

10. The book publishing world is in a never-ending state of turmoil.

The thin margins in the industry, high complexities of the business, intense competition, churning of new technologies, and rapid growth of other media lead to constant turmoil in bookselling and publishing (such as the bankruptcy of Borders and many other stores). Translation: expect even more changes and challenges in coming months and years.

Strategies for responding to “The 10 Awful Truths”

1. The game is now pass-along sales.

2. Events/immersion experiences replace traditional publicity in moving the needle.

3. Leverage the authors’ and publishers’ communities.

4. In a crowded market, brands stand out.

5. Master new digital channels for sales, marketing, and community building.

6. Build your book around a big new idea.

7. Front-load the main ideas in books and keep books short.

Steven Piersanti is Founder and President, Berrett-Koehler Publishers. This article is a new version of a previous post, updated April 15, 2014.

April 14, 2014

Nanotechnology and the future of our species

nanotechnologyRadical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization, by K. Eric Drexler

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Once upon a time a nutty scientist gave a talk called “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.”

The scientist was the wacky and wonderfully entertaining Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, the guy who solved the mystery of the Challenger disaster. It was 1959, and he was not referring to organization charts but, rather, to the bottom of the physical measurement scale. He was referring to atoms and molecules measured in nanometers.

As a student, Eric Drexler took up Feynman’s challenge. He’s the man who crafted the term “nanotechnology” and set off a race for its realization. In Radical Abundance, he sets the record straight on this much-misunderstood field and paints a picture of a possible (not certain) future of plenty for the human race.

It’s important to note at the outset that, despite the implied inevitability of the book’s subtitle, Drexler is not in a class with the boosters of a glorious future such as Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis. (I previously reviewed Diamandis’ Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think.) Drexler is more level-headed than that. He recognizes the immensity of the challenges facing homo sapiens in the twenty-first century, from the self-inflicted travesty of global climate change, to the danger of massive unemployment once manufacturing is completely automated, to the sheer perversity of human nature in organized settings.

A future of unlimited possibility

At his most expansive, Drexler describes a revolutionary new nanotechnology manufacturing paradigm that could produce such items as ultra-efficient solar energy generators, ultra-safe, zero-emission automobiles, and, presumably, perfectly insulated dwellings with innumerable electronic capabilities — all from simple raw materials such as air, sand, and water.

“Imagine a world,” Drexler writes, “where the gadgets and goods that run our society are produced not in a far-flung supply chain of industrial facilities, but in compact, even desktop-scale, machines. Imagine replacing an enormous automobile factory and all of its multi-million dollar equipment with a garage-size facility that can assemble cars from inexpensive, microscopic parts, with production times measured in minutes. Then imagine that the technologies that can make these visions real are emerging — under many names, behind the scenes, with a long road yet ahead, yet moving surprisingly fast.”

An unfortunate detour along the way

As the author explains at length (and in more than one place, resulting in some duplication), his vision of nanotechnology — enunciated in a scholarly paper at MIT in 1981 and in a widely read book for the public, Engines of Creation, five years later — was a call for Atomically Precise Manufacturing (APM). In Drexler’s concept, scientists and engineers a few decades down the road would perfect the techniques of assembling atoms and molecules into minuscule machines capable of crafting slightly larger machines, which would in turn create even larger machines. After numerous generations of ever-more capable machines, the system would turn out all manner of useful items. And the whole manufacturing system would be housed in the equivalent of a box just slightly larger than the products it was designed to manufacture.

Sadly, Drexler’s compelling vision was bowdlerized soon after the publication of Engines of Creation by both journalists who rhapsodized about such things as tiny robots that would rush to a blood clot and demolish it before damage could be done, and science fiction writers who, of course, went much further. You may recall reading about nanobots run wild and becoming “gray goo” that would consume everything in their path, including their creators. Though Drexler protested loudly that this was nonsense, the most colorful of these creations took hold in the public imagination and helped suppress the funding necessary for R&D to bring his vision to fruition.

Even worse happened in 2000 during the transition from the Clinton Administration to that of George W. Bush. Earlier that year, Wired magazine published an article by Bill Joy — a cofounder of Sun Microsystems and one of the country’s most celebrated technologists — warning about the dangers inherent in nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and the creation of sentient robots. Joy’s disquiet was summed up in a single sentence: “robots, engineered organisms, and nanobots share a dangerous amplifying factor: They can self-replicate.” In effect, Joy had fallen prey to the “gray goo” fallacy. And apparently his fear projected onto the managers of a bill recently passed by Congress to allocate a billion dollars to nanotechnology research: instead of just taking the money and running with it, the custodians of the program rewrote the terms of the grant (after Congress had defined them) so as to rule out any mention of atoms or molecules and instead to redefine nanotechnology as a field dealing with anything really, really small (i.e., measured in nanometers). As a consequence, the field bifurcated into two streams, with the public drowning in all the confusion that came about.

A book for scientists, engineers, and their fans

Radical Abundance covers a lot of territory, from Drexler’s personal intellectual history to the history of technology to the difference between science and engineering as well as his vision of future plenty. However, much of the book requires more than a rudimentary understanding of science. Rather than characterize its audience as the general public, it’s probably fairer to say that those who would gain the most from the book are scientists, engineers, and people who can engage in conversations with them without becoming befuddled. In other words, the book is challenging at times for a reader such as me: my last organized brush with science was half a century ago in college, and what I learned then (little of which I remember) bears little resemblance to science today, anyway. Nonetheless, the prophetic message in Radical Abundance — and the numerous warning signs posted throughout the book — make this invaluable reading for anyone concerned about humanity’s prospects for the future.


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