Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Adapt - or else!

It's a privilege and honour to have a guest post today from my friend Donna McPhail.  Donna and I met by chance at the Fortune Innovation Forum in New York a number of years ago and developed a friendship based on our shared passion for ideas.  We breakfast together from time to time and my husband is always amazed that a breakfast can take that looong.  But we always leave with a bunch of topics we wanted to discuss and never got around to.  I never come away without learning from these meetings.  And now I'm happy to share some of her wisdom here.

At our last breakfast, Donna was excited about a book she'd recently read, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, by Tim Harford.  Or as so eloquently put by Sonny in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, "Everything will be all right in the end; if it's not all right, then it's not yet the end".

I thought others would enjoy Donna's review of this book:

In Adapt, Tim Harford argues that complex or complicated problems are best solved through a process akin to evolutionary development.  Survival of the fittest doesn't mean survival of the strongest, but rather of those with the ability (accidental, usually) to adapt to the environment in a positive or influential way.

He outlines a fairly simple 'algorithm' for finding solutions - although these solutions can never be permanent since the environment itself is always changing.  The steps of the algorithm were developed by the early  20th Century economist Palchinsky.  They are paraphrased as follows.

Try new things in the expectation that some will fail.  This liberates you to try some very unexpected ideas, things that are quite wide-ranging.

Make the failures survivable because failure will be common.  This implies you should focus on small tests, rather than giant leaps of innovation, because small experiments are more survivable if they fail.  Look for buffers to protect you from failure.

Take the things that work and start all over again.  Try variations on the successes as well as new ideas.  Make sure you know what is working and what has failed.  When you discard the failures, make sure you understand why they have failed.  Then, if there's a simple 'fix', you can add that to the ideas you're testing again.

This instruction set is based on trial and error, not ideology or theory.  In fact, Harford seems convinced that theory can rarely solve complex problems, except perhaps in science, although even in science there can be fundamental paradigm shifts which overturn theory. 

Why did this book impress me so much?  Perhaps because it reinforced my slowly dawning rejection of ideology and theory as solutions to the world's problems -  apparent most obviously in the stalemate of US politics and in the pre-2007 rigid belief that markets are 'perfect', self-correcting, and amenable to mathematical modeling.  Theory simplifies complex situations too much.  It encourages a rigid attitude and an all-or-nothing approach to solutions.

In contrast, studies of successful people and companies would indicate that trial and error are the norm, that luck plays an important part in achievement, and that cross pollination of ideas is more likely to contribute to invention and innovation than sheer genius or theory.

While we often recognize these 'success factors', we don't always translate them to adoption of pragmatic testing of hypotheses.  Instead, we try to codify what did work into a new theory after observing one example of success.  Hence, for example, there is a new trend to micro-managing because Steve Jobs micro-managed everything.

An ideal summation comes from the father of economics, Friedrich von Hayek, as quoted in the beginning chapter of the book.  "The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."

Donna is an independent marketing and communications consultant in Toronto.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Clayton Christensen on the early days of Disruption Theory

There's a short video of Clayton Christensen on the HBR Blog Network.  In his quiet way, he  describes the wide applicability of his theory of disruptive innovation, in spheres as diverse as chip manufacture and the military.  Well worth a few minutes of your time to hear about the early days of the idea of disruption exploding in the marketplace of ideas.  Click here.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

TED and the Enlightenment

TED's just hit a billion!  One billion views of those magical talks about big ideas.  In a world characterized by an insatiable appetite for salacious gossip about celebrities, TED talks have been viewed one billion times.  Wow.
TED set out to celebrate Ideas Worth Spreading.  And, as they say on the web site, "an idea, when received by a prepared mind, can have extraordinary impact".

Having just studied the Enlightenment in my World History course on Coursera, this TED milestone really got me thinking.  Everything about TED echoes the intellectual ferment in 18th Century Europe known as the Enlightenment*.

Enlightenment thinkers believed there were natural laws - about science, politics, technology, sociology -  that governed the way the world worked, and that those laws were discoverable by men who were all born with the ability to reason. (It took longer for general acknowledgement that women might also be capable of reason!)  One could/should rely on these natural laws - determined through observation and experimentation - to explain the world rather than relying on religious or classical texts or absolute rulers.  Men should be free and should participate in governing themselves.

Moreover, it was your duty to spread these ideas and influence everyone to live by the tenets discovered. That spread was enabled by the increased availability of books, the establishment of scientific societies, publication of scientific journals, and the collision of ideas and debate in informal settings like coffee houses and salons.  Ideas flowed both geographically - indeed bringing those ideas to other parts of the world was used as a justification for colonization - and vertically through different strata of society with the increase in literacy.  As our professor put it, ideas were packaged up for easy dissemination and thus became commoditized.

TED's dedication to Ideas Worth Spreading is highly evocative of these Enlightenment ideas.   Clearly, there's the dedication to ideas, from all spheres of human endeavour.  And there is a passion to spread those ideas to as many people as possible. enabled the spread of those ideas well beyond the confines of the fortunate few who attend TED.  TEDx conferences empowered people who love ideas to create local conferences, and add to the cauldron of ideas that is the TED community.

Bravo TED and Chris Anderson, whose passion is behind this incredible phenomenon known as TED.

*  Here's a link to a description of what Coursera's all about.  And you can look here, herehere and here for my feeble efforts to summarize lectures to help consolidate my own learning.  I'm way behind.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Coastal Cities: Love 'em or Leave 'em

I just read Richard Florida's [1] fascinating and sobering article about the vulnerability of the planet's coastal cities.  Storms like Sandy generate a spike of interest in such topics.  Florida refers to an article in The Nation, which lays out three choices for our coastal cities:
  • Abandon our coastal cities and retreat inland
  • Stay put and try to adapt to the menacing new conditions 
  • Stop burning planet-warming fossil fuels as fast as possible 
Or in my paraphrase, love 'em (options 2 and 3) or leave 'em (option 1).

Why should we care about coastal cities?  Remember Willie Sutton's response to why he robbed banks?  "Because that's where the money is".  Well, we should care about coastal cities because that's where the people are, or an awful lot of them in any case.

The ability to trade was a major growth stimulant for early cities whentrade flowed primarily over the water.  This correlation between big cities and location on a coast, meaning that today we have coastal mega-cities, with many millions of population.

Now that we are observing rising sea levels of an average of 3 mm/year since 1993 (see IPCC 2007 Working Group report here) and tropical storms and hurricanes of longer duration and greater intensity (see IPCC 2007 Working Group report here), the risk to these cities is escalating.  If we hit a tipping point where the Greenland icepack melts, the seas would rise a whopping 7 meters.

Economics is what seems to get people's attention, and Florida includes an interesting table about the potential for financial losses in huge coastal cities.  There is huge vulnerability today and even more by 2070.

Options 2 and 3 above are not cheap.  Doing nothing may be more expensive.

This whole discussion brings into sharp focus a major frustration of mine.  There's a common slogan "Save the Planet".  I don't agree with that slogan.  The planet will do just fine no matter what we do about climate change, including nothing.  What we need to think about is "Save our Civilization".   That's 'all' that's at risk with climate change.

[1]  Richard Florida is an urban studies theorist at the Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto and head of the Martin Prosperity Institute

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Lectures 5: History of the World Since 1300

The 15th and 16th Centuries saw a stampede of Europeans rushing to create colonies in Asia.  And they arrived as bullies.  With superior firepower to all the countries in Asia, including powerful China, they overcame wherever they went.  China was able to defend their territory and relegate the Europeans  to the margins in China.  This was fine because they were primarily after trading bases anyway.

Portugal went out to an early lead in Asia.  Vasco de Gama led the charge by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope to avoid the Muslim blockade.  And a rapacious, brutal explorer he was, bombarding ports and butchering sailors.   Pires followed, arriving in China with a similar absence of respect.  There was retribution by the Chinese, who executed Pires and resolved to keep Europeans at the periphery of their country.  Nevertheless, through European military technology, Portugal took Goa (1510), Melaka (1511), Hormuz (1515) and Macao (1535).  This was a totally different pattern from the style of conquest in Mexico. The Portuguese did not create an institutional system in their outposts, and their success was ephemeral.

Meanwhile, Spain took Manila in 1571 and transformed it into an important port for trans-shipment of silver from the Americas to China, displacing Japanese silver.  Manila Galleons carried 15 tons of silver a year along this 'China Road'.

The Dutch also acquired territories in Asia, taking Java in 1519 and establishing their permanent headquarters base for the Dutch East India Company.  But they went beyond just trading, and established plantations to grow nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and cloves.

After their initial success, Europeans faced some setbacks.  They had a growing need for profits to fund the religious wars in Europe.  Yet their fierce rivalry with each other was driving up the costs of maintaining and fortifying these Asian outposts.  Meanwhile, profits were dropping as the Arabs fought back by reopening the Red Sea Ports, and flooding the market with pepper and reducing its price.

Innovation and Getting Out of Recession

Clayton Christensen has revolutionized our understanding of innovation - and in fact business - by providing a theoretical framework around sustaining and disruptive innovation[1].

A couple of days Christensen published an article in the New York Times, showing how different types of innovation either created, destroyed or just maintained jobs in the overall economy.  And without new jobs, the US will not emerge from recession.

Empowering Innovation (what he has called new market disruptive innovation in the past) creates jobs, whereas efficiency innovation (what he has called low-cost disruptive innovation) destroys jobs.  Sustaining innovation doesn't create jobs, but does manage to preserve reduced job numbers in an industry that might otherwise fade away.  Very interesting analysis.  It takes his thinking about innovation at the level of an individual company to a thoughtful analysis of how innovation affects a whole nation.

He goes on to discuss the perniciousness of some of our financial metrics for measuring company success.  Let me take one he mentions, RONA, or return on net assets.  You can improve this ratio, like any other ratio, by increasing the numerator (return or profitability) or reducing the denominator (net assets).  Too many companies have focused on the denominator, clearing net assets off their balance sheets.  Outsourcing manufacturing activities to another party gets those big expensive factories (assets) off your balance sheet, improving RONA but outsourcing jobs and reducing your own control of your destiny in business.  And it certainly doesn't grow jobs in your own country.

I highly recommend reading this article.  It'll get you thinking.

[1] Disruptive innovation is a term of art coined by Christensen.  It's means something quite different from what you'd read in a dictionary by looking up disruption.  Read The Innovator's Dilemma to get the whole picture, or my post here to get a quick summary.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Jo Nesbo and Harry Hole

Jo Nesbo
Reading some books are like white water rafting (think Stieg Larsson and The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo).  Others are like drifting down a lazy river in a rubber tube (think Alexander McCall Smith's series about Precious Ramotswe and the The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency or Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, reviewed here).  Put Jo Nesbo's series featuring Norwegian detective Harry Hole in the white water rafting category - Class 5.

The Harry Hole series by Norwegian Jo Nesbo consists of nine books, eight of them translated into English.  That's already a step up on the Stieg Larsson, which left us gasping for more after just three.  I've written a couple of posts (here and here) about particular Harry Hole books, but I wanted to comment on the series as a whole, having now read everything that's available in English.

Detective series like this are an interesting genre.  The author can develop a character over several novels, and while each book stands alone, it's a particular pleasure to read the books in sequence.

Nesbo's Detective Harry Hole is tall, blond, with 'light blue alcohol washed irises' and a tenacious way of going after a criminal.  He's a lone wolf, and definitely not interested in playing office politics.  He's often a thorn in the side of police authority with his willingness to take on politically sensitive crimes, to follow up clues that could lead to embarrassment, not to mention appearing on TV for an interview visibly intoxicated.  Tormented by traumatic events of the past, he takes up extreme exercise to exorcise his demons, but still suffers from nightmares.

The thing I found most interesting about Hole is that he's a character who keeps an open mind, even after he believes he's found the culprit.  Behavioural psychologists have shown us how people will ignore new contradictory information that arrives after they've formed a conclusion, or distort it so that it actually supports their conclusion.  (Just look at reactions to the Presidential candidates to see how you can interpret 'facts' differently depending on whether you are Republican or Democrat).   However, when Hole receives new information that doesn't fit his theory, he sits back and re-evaluates.  It's an interesting character trait, and makes for particularly interesting reading because it leads to sharp turns in the plot.

Hole's, or Nesbo's, is a darker vision of Norway than we commonly see with a streak of bleak cynicism.  Take this quote about a time when Harry is chasing down someone with mental health issues.  "You mean the rat-catching game?  The innate ability to lock up people with mental illnesses, addiction problems, well under average intellect and well above average childhood deprivation?"

I found all the books difficult to put down once started and I observed my husband having the same reaction.  Although I didn't enjoy the increasingly deviant violence as the series progressed, I was able to ignore that to keep reading to discover the solution.

Reading these books makes one feel like a participant in a fad (see this article in the Economist about Scandinavian crime writers).  However, an avid reader will always be overjoyed to find books that can hold attention over the span of several books.

I highly recommend these books - I think you'll like them better than Stieg Larsson's.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Peer and Self Assessment

In a previous post I discussed the need for peer assessment in a course the size of Coursera (83,000 students).  Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, had presented some research on how the evaluation of peers closely matched the evaluation of teachers in her TED talk this summer.

Here's my contribution to this research based on a very small sample size - namely the evaluation of my latest Coursera exercise by my peers and by me.  It's a simple scoring system:  three categories of scoring, for Argument, Evidence, and Exposition, on each of which you can receive a score between 0 and 3.  In each of the three categories, my own self-evaluation and that of my peers matched identically.  I got back worthwhile feedback, that was completely appropriate, clearly stated, and right on target.  Sweet.

I thoroughly expect that massive amounts of data are being collected on everything about this course.  I'll be watching for papers assessing how this kind of evaluation works.

Evaluators are invited to provide their initials and where they are from.  Two of the students who evaluated me self-identified as being from Chile and Germany.  It's a truly international student cohort.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

What a lovely, old-fashioned story.  

Major Pettigrew is an old-fashioned retired army officer, who has recently lost his wife.  He has old-fashioned values of honour and loyalty.  He lives in an old-fashioned English village, Edgecombe St. Mary.  He belongs to an old-fashioned - a very old-fashioned - golf club, full of people with old-fashioned ideas of what Britons should look like.  They should be white, of a certain class, and follow traditional societal conventions.

Among the thatched cottages in the village lives a recently-widowed Pakistani shopkeeper.  She too lives in a world of convention and tradition; they're just different traditions and different values.

Who would have thought that a relationship would blossom between this unlikely pair?  How lovely to share with these characters the unfolding of that relationship.  It's a lovely relaxing read.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Coursera and Peer Evaluation

Readers of this blog know how enthusiastic I am about taking a course on world history on Coursera.  I've loved learning the history, and the experience has provoked many thoughts about the future of education (see this post).  Education is undergoing the process of disruptive innovation, and it's about to explode.

I've just discovered a TED talk by Daphne Koller, one of the founders of Coursera from TED Global this summer.  It outlines some of the motivations of the founders of Coursera and talks more about data on the efficacy of online teaching.

She quoted Thomas Friedman's article in the New York Times:
Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary. 
How true that is.

MOOCs (massive online open courses) in the social sciences must figure out a way to include written work as part of the course.  For a class of more 80,000 students, like The History of the World Since 1300,  what is desperately necessary - evaluation of those essays - meets what is suddenly possible - mass technology-enabled anonymous peer evaluation.

But can peer evaluation be effective and fair?  Koller showed some fascinating data on peer evaluation (which she acknowledged was based on relatively small samples).  Here's her chart of the very high correlation between peer grades and the grade a teacher would offer.

Even more surprising was the chart showing that self-evaluation correlated even more highly with the teacher grade (given some software that prohibited perfect scores).

I'm eager to see what my peers think of my first essay handed in a few days ago.  Coursera also asks students to self-evaluate their essays.  Coursera is so cleverly designed that I'm sure this data will all be collected and form the basis of future publications on the effectiveness of peer evaluation.  It is truly a new age!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Assignments in History of the World Since 1300

In the weekly letter from Professor Adelman in my Coursera history course, he reported that almost 1,800 of the almost 83,000 registrants in the course had handed in the first essay assignment.  He called that an 'impressive feat' by online education standards.  I wasn't sure what to expect.  Since registering is free and one click away, it's pretty easy to sign up and not engage at all.  Or to want to passively view the lectures, but not do any assignment work.  And then there would be people like me, who did the assignment, thought I'd submitted it correctly.  However, when I looked for the essays I was to mark, there were none.  (Only people who hand in an essay mark others' essays).  I assume this was my own operator error.  Sigh.

Since I did all the work, I thought I might as well include my assignment essay here for anyone who was interested.  The question I answered (chosen from three) was "How would you explain the causes and processes of European conquests of the Americas?"  So here it is:

As our course opens in the 14th Century, Europe is integrated into the AfroEurasian global network of trade and commerce.  Trade routes to/from Europe have ranged over the Silk Route and maritime routes through the Indian Ocean to the Far East.  The trade routes have been dominated by Arab merchants and traders and the language of commerce has been Arabic. 

Europe has had an enormous appetite for the goods produced from the East, especially China - goods like porcelain, silk and spices.  Yet less sophisticated goods from Europe don’t have a reciprocal appeal in the Far East: Europe’s balance of trade with China is in a deep deficit. 

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, tightens the Muslim control of traditional trade routes.  The ‘Ottoman Blockade’ creates a strategic imperative for Europe to find an alternate route to the East.

To Europe’s good fortune, new shipping technologies and knowledge enable such an enterprise.  Tools like the compass and better ships have emerged, and increasing exploration down the West coast of Africa and Atlantic islands have built a knowledge base of trade winds and Atlantic currents which allow European adventurers to venture further and further into the Atlantic towards the Americas.

When Columbus achieves landfall in the Caribbean, he triumphantly asserts he’s found the coveted alternate path to the East (a belief he maintains to his death, even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary), but in fact he’s found something much more valuable for the Europeans. 

As the earliest conquerors in the Americas, the Spanish initiated patterns that were to be seen elsewhere. After initial settlements on Hispaniola, the Spaniards moved onto the continent.  In their conquest of the Aztecs, they made alliances with tribes, such as the Tlaxacan, who were rivals of the incumbent Aztecs.  Native interpreters often joined the invaders, often with the support of natives, such as Dona Maria who assisted Cortez. The conquest of the Axtec capital Teochtitlan may have fallen to 100,000 warriors, but only 600 of them were Spanish.

Disease did more to conquer the Aztecs than Spanish swords.  The invasion of European diseases ravaged the population as multiple epidemics took the population from well over 100M to less than 20M.   The Spanish conquerors entering Tenochtitlan found 40% of the population dead from disease.

The most important challenge facing the Americans was how to sustain their conquest of the Americas.  This was not a slash-and-grab operation to gather booty, but a co-ordinated effort to solidify the conquest and make the colonies work for them, both literally and figuratively.   The Europeans turned the Americas into an export economy.  Originally they exported agricultural products of moderate value.  But soon the economy turned on the mining of silver and the production of sugar.

Sugar transformed the European diet, but silver transformed the world economy.  The balance of trade, which had so favoured China pre-1492, had shifted by 1600 in favour of the Europeans.  85% of the world’s silver and 70% of the world’s gold was being produced in the Americas, and the Europeans controlled it.

Both silver mining and sugar plantations required large work forces.  Where possible, the Europeans used native Indian labour in their enterprises.  Notably, the Portuguese grafted onto the existing Mita labour system in South America, turning it into an indentured labour system.  But the effects of the epidemics meant that there simply weren’t enough natives left to man the mining and agribusinesses of the conquerors.  There was already an example of how to circumvent this labour shortage in the Canaries and Azores: import African slaves.  Slavery became the mainstay of the Americas.  In fact, of the 6.5M immigrants to American up to 1776, 5.5M of them were involuntary immigrants, the African slaves.  By the end of the slave trade, 10-12M Africans had been shipped to the Americas, a staggering number when you consider the relative populations of those days.  40% went to Brazil, 30% to the Caribbean and less than 5% to North America.

So the European process for solidifying their new colonies was to create an export-led economy, whose riches would line European pockets.  Labour shortages were overcome through the use of African slaves.  

Saturday, September 29, 2012

History of the World Since 1300: Lecture 3 & 4

Clashing Worlds

In the 15th C, the Americas were well developed, with some of the largest cities in the world and well-defined culture, but they had been insulated from developments in Afro-Eurasia - technologies like large sailing ships or the wheel, the use of domesticated animals, and the Afro-Eurasian culture of warfare.  They had not been part of the AfroEurasian global networks as described in Lecture 1 and Lecture 2.  As the lecture title Clashing Worlds indicates, Lecture 3 focused on what this clash meant for both the 'old' and the 'new' world.

The 'Ottoman Blockade' of the traditional paths to the East impelled the Europeans to find a new way. The discovery of the equatorial currents, trade winds and the technology of tacking enabled Europeans to venture ever further.  Columbus himself was old-fashioned, disdaining to use modern sailing technologies, and he never adjusted his world view to acknowledge that he hadn't discovered the East.  However, he ushered in an era of enormous change in the world.  After the initial landfall on Hispaniola, the Spaniards were quickly drawn inland in search of more gold and silver: El Dorado.

Although some tribes held on for 400 years (notably the Sioux in the Western US), the indigenous populations were mostly defeated quickly by the Spaniards and other Europeans.  They were vanquished mostly by disease:  in 1521, when 600 Spaniards along with their 100,000 native allies entered Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs, over 40% of the population was already dead from disease.  Spaniards described wading through putrefying corpses in the streets.

The Columbian Exchange

The Columbian Exchange describes the interaction between Europe and the Americas.  It was a highly asymmetric exchange in favour of Europe.

The most important - and devastating - thing the Americas 'got' was an onslaught of European microbes, the most dangerous being smallpox, measles and typhus.  14 separate epidemics ravaged the Americas in the period, taking the native population from somewhere between 100 and 120M, to 20M.  The Europeans also brought crops like cotton, rice, indigo, bananas and sugar.  Sugar would have the most impact; this export crop was a driver of the slave trade.  The Americas  also gained domesticated animals like horses, sheep and pigs.

Apart from syphilis, Europeans benefits vastly from what they obtained in the Americas.  Some crops like tomatoes, maize, cocoa and potatoes were helpful.  But let's face it, the big win was precious metals.  Before 1500, the Europeans were poor sisters to China, having little to trade that the Chinese valued.  Europeans suffered a huge deficit in the balance of payments because of their eagerness to acquire the silk, porcelain and spices that China offered.  By 1600, that trade imbalance had reversed, with China* in deficit because of Europe's gold and silver.

Silver and Slaves

Between 1493 and 1800, 85% of the world's silver and 70% of the world's gold came from the Americas.  Spanish doubloons became the global currency.  The precious metals were originally mined by indigenous Indians.  The Incas had a system of forced labour for the state, the Mita, which the Spaniards adapted as a form of labour servitude verging on slavery.  But soon the dearth of local labour, due to disease, necessitated imported labour.  This came from Africa.

Of the 6.5M people who came to the Americas between 1492 and 1776, 5.5M came from Africa, with 40% going to Brazil, 30% to the Caribbean, and less than 10% to North America.   Adelman terms this the Africanization of America.  It was not until the abolition of slavery in the 1830's and the Irish potato famine of the 1840s that European immigrants started to outnumber African involuntary immigrants.  African chieftains were active participants in the trade, using the revenue to buy weapons for warfare against their neighbours.

The Baroque Period

I think of the Baroque as a style of art.  Adelman contends that this style, which emphasized movement and a sense of imbalance, was a reflection of the changing world.  Intermarriage resulted in people of mixed breed - Mestizos, Creoles, Metis - and the merging of indigenous cultural and religious practices with those of Europe was creating entirely new forms.

In short, the 'discovery' of the Americas transformed the world from a multi-centred global trading system dominated by Arab merchants to a world system centre on Europe.

*The course has spent a lot of time on China up to now.  The integration of the Americas and its riches into Europe leaves China on the periphery of history during this period.  The major discovery of America happens in a period when China has withdrawn into itself at the behest of the Confucian scholars who argued that Chinese culture was being adulterated by their explorations and trade.  While European maps by 1507 are incorporating the Americas, although the dimensions of America were greatly distorted), Chinese maps persist with wheel maps, showing China at the centre of everything, with people's of lesser and lesser civilization in concentric circles around China.  Very symbolic.
Adelman promises the next lecture will turn to further discussion of what's been going on in China during this time.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A World Elsewhere

The book may be called A World Elsewhere, but Wayne Johnston's book drew me right into that world of loyalty and treachery, of dark family secrets, and deep puzzles.  I'll be anxious to enter other worlds of Johnston's in his other books, because I just loved this book.

A World Elsewhere chronicles the relationship between two unlikely friends who met at Princeton, Landish Druken and Padgett Vanderluyden.  The youngest son of the fabulously wealthy Vanderluyden family, Vanderluyden, or Van as he is know, is distinctly damaged goods.  Van strikes up a friendship with Landish and tries to seduce him into his dream of building a fantastic mansion to be called Vanderland.  When Druken declines, Van betrays him and Landish leaves Princeton without graduating.

Landish Druken is an unlikely person for Van to befriend.  He is the son of a nasty, wealthy sealer from Newfoundland who is reviled for his heartless desertion of crew members on an ice floe.

Landish is disowned by his father for not continuing in the sealing business.  Allowed to keep only his clothes, Landish dubs the arrangement The Sartorial Charter.  Landish is trying to write a book but is so dissatisfied he burns everything he writes.  Despite his circumstances, Landish adopts Deacon, the sweet and fragile son of the crew member who lost his life off Captain Druken's ship.  Landish likes to speak his own mind and follow his own path, even though his actions alienate others and drives him and Deacon into deeper penury.  Landish's last resort is to appeal for help to Van, and so he ends up at Vanderland after all.

The book's eccentric characters are so finely drawn that they are totally believable.  You might be charmed by the young orphan Deacon, chronically irritated with Landish for being unable to restrain his tongue, and disgusted by the malicious Van, but I defy any reader to be indifferent to these characters, or indeed any of the lesser players in the story.

The other great character in the book is the vast and eerie Vanderland estate itself.  Vanderland evokes an atmosphere reminiscent of two Neverlands:  the fantasy of J. M. Barrie's and the menace of Michael Jackson's.  Johnston has written a non-fiction about Biltmore*, the largest estate in the US, built by George Vanderbilt, the third son of Cornelius Vanderbilt.  Hmm, looks like a case of making your research do double duty!

Johnston's vibrant prose is full of delightful word play that had me chuckling out loud.  Even the final puzzle to be unveiled in the book rests in word play.  This verbal dexterity added to an already enjoyable book.

* Biltmore was used in a recent Economist article about income inequality to personify the extravagance of the Gilded Age in the US.  The article is well worth reading.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

History of the World Since 1300: Lecture 2

I've been learning interesting things in my course on the History of the World Since 1300.  Since this blog is about ideas, and since recapping the lectures will be useful to my own learning process, I'll be giving a quick summary of each lecture here.  Lecture 2 started with a description of The Black Death.

The Black Death

After a 12th Century  of growth and relative stability, the Black Death of the 13th Century changed all that.  Carried by rats and fleas transported along the global trade routes, the plagues killed millions - mostly in the very important trading centres with dense populations.  Thought to have started in China, where the population plummeted from 120M to 80M, the Black Death left huge power vacuums in its wake, and several empires filled the holes. 

The Muslim Empires

Three Muslim empires emerged: the Mughal in India, the Safavid in Iran and Iraq, and the Ottoman Empire in the middle East.  Tamerlane, a descendant of the Mongols and now a Muslim, started the Mughal empire consolidated by Babur by entering into alliances with the local principalities.  Muslims had also integrated the Swahili Coast of East Africa into global networks, and were starting to trade African slaves.  

But the most important and largest was the Ottoman Empire.  The Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453.   Refugees who fled to Venice and other Italian states helped spark the Renaissance in the West.  

Islam was also the dominant religion on the Swahili Coast of East Africa.  African gold injected liquidity into the world economy and African slaves were found as far away as China.


Meanwhile, in China, the vacuum was filled by the Mings who ousted the Mongols from Beijing in 1368.  The Mings rebuilt the army and a huge administrative elite formed of people who had passed rigorous exams.  

To finance their army, the Mings sought for new revenue sources.  Their most famous warrior and explorer was Zheng He, a captured Muslim boy who was castrated and joined the powerful eunuchs of the court.    Zheng He led seven voyages of exploration between 1405 and 1433.  Zheng He's powerful naval ships, including stupendous 400' warships and 100' supply ships that dwarfed other ships of the time, would enter ports in flotillas of 300.  Instead of bombarding the ports, he would exchange gifts and enter into complex negotiations about the prices of commodities.  The Mings did not seek to overturn the existing rulers; their interest was in developing subordinate relationships with these states who would return revenues to China.

A student in one of the class forums posted a picture from the Dubai Airport showing a model of Zheng He's ship compared to Columbus'.  Other students doing research have pointed out that most of Zheng He's ships were undoubtedly smaller and used for commerce like Columbus', and were more stable for navigation.  For someone like me who had never heard of Zheng He, this picture was very powerful.

After the death of the Ming emperor, two factions fought for control: the Eunuch administrative elite who argued for continued exploration, and the Confucian scholars who argued for retreat into deeper Chineseness.  The scholars won and so ended Chinese explorations to the outer world.  In fact, any vessel of over two masts were outlawed as of 1500.


At this time, Europe is fragmented.  Even the Holy Roman Empire is a pastiche of smaller, antagonistic principalities.  As Professor Adelman put it, "this disequilibrium bred militarism, aggressive political cultures and expansionism." As the Ottoman presence in the middle East blocked European access to Asian markets, Europeans looked west and we see the motivation for the great Atlantic crossings and explorations.

Monday, September 17, 2012

History of the World Since 1300

The first lecture of History of the World Since 1300 was wonderful.  The course promised a world view of history, and it's already showing in the readings and the lecture.

I was impressed with the perfect technology.  I started to view the first lecture shortly after 6 pm when it first became available, and it was great - no problem with buffering on the beautiful high definition video.  The first lecture was divided into five segments, with a quiz question after each segment.  You can download the video in MP4 format, and there is a text version of the lectures as well (called subtitles, but really just a separate written text).

The first lecture focused on the growth in trade as the driver of linkages around the world.  In the back story about earlier times, Professor Adelman talked about early trade between the countryside and villages, which allowed the villages to grow because of the agricultural produce from the rural areas. As people become able to produce more than required just for survival, 'luxury' items  start to move great distances along overland trade routes like the Silk Route.  Such trade is driven by products with a high value to bulk ratio.  Camels can't carry all that much and so you want to ship light, valuable goods like spices, cinnamon and pepper.  The emergence of maritime trade routes, enabled through improved maritime technology like bigger ships, the compass and charts, meant that heavier goods like teak, ivory, sugar, earthenware, lead and glass could flow along the trade routes.  

We see the beginning of the great entrepot centres like Aleppo (in the news about Syria lately) and Samarkand (in today's Uzbekistan) that served the overland routes and the maritime entrepots of Calicut (Kozhikode in Kerala in Southern India), Melaka (in present-day Malaysia), Aden (in present-day Yemen) and Venice.  In all cases, it's Arab merchants who dominate trade, using close, trusted family connections to carry out trade, and they become the first money lenders to facilitate trade.

The lecture and the readings brings together the spread of religion and the interlinking of the world.  Buddhism spread along trade routes, and in turn facilitated trade by developing bonds between people.  From the above mention of maritime technology, Adelman foreshadows future world trends caused by technology changes.  He had already spoken of China's strength and power largely driven by their harnessing of water through irrigation, dams, land reclamation and sewage handling.  But a key theme has been the development of wealth and the trading of wealth driving world development.  Indeed, Adelman's first introduction pointed to Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations:  Smith argued that wealth was an engine of social interaction, and clearly Adelman subscribes to this notion.

Adelman ended with a segment on Genghis Khan.  Did you know that in 25 years the Mongols conquered an area larger than the Romans conquered in 400 years?  The Mongols came from the Northern Asian plains, with little opportunity to develop beyond subsistence level.  With so few resources of their own, their approach to developing wealth was to plunder it through conquest.  They travelled light and conquered quickly, depending on surprise, terror and their superior horse-based warfare for victory.  They wiped out the rulers in conquered areas and replaced them with Mongol rulers (often sons of Genghis Khan), they left the common people in place and living much as usual.  They needed these people in place to provide the goods for their support.  You can't plunder much from a society that isn't producing any more.  Trade flourished under the Mongols, bringing lemons and carrots from Persia to China and noodles and playing cards to Europe.  But there were exchanges beyond goods.  German miners found their way to China to improve mining practices there and Chinese doctors found their way to Persia.

Past  related blog posts:
  • discussion of Coursera as a disruption innovation in eduction here
  • post on the way the course will run - a fascinating view of the advantages of an online course here
  • talking of The Wealth of Nations, I reported on a fascinating chart article from The Economist, on the first effort to actually measure the wealth of nations, as opposed to their income which is captured in GDP

Sunday, September 16, 2012

22 Britannia Road

For newlyweds Sylvana and Janusz, World War II takes them to the limits of human experience.    Sylvana spends the war foraging in the forest with her son Aurek, after fleeing rape by German soldiers in her home in Warsaw.  Barely surviving, she needs every ounce of her courage and ingenuity to feed and protect herself and her son.

Meanwhile, Janusz joins a Polish unit that is routed and wiped out by the Germans.  He walks across several countries before finding refuge with a French family and making his way to England to join the army against the Germans and ultimately to settle at 22 Britannia Road in Ipswich..

22 Britannia Road opens as Sylvana and Aurek arrive in England from a refugee camp to rejoin Janusz.  Sylvana's obsessive protectiveness of Aurek and Aurek's paranoid distrust of Janusz make for a troubled household, but Janusz persists in constructing his dream home and family just as he meticulously cultivates his flowers in the back garden.

This is a story of three people trying to rebuild their life after the trauma of the war.  Dark secrets hang over their lives, threatening their new life in England.  Their progress toward understanding and acceptance is erratic.

The novel alternates between present day Ipswich and gradually unfolds the back story of their lives during the war.  The characters are well drawn and the description of their ordeals is most engaging, albeit not particularly credible.  This is Amanda Hodgkinson's first novel and I hope to see more of her writing.

Monday, September 10, 2012

History of the World Since 1300

In a previous post I described signing up for a course at Coursera and why I think MOOCs (massive open online course) are going to revolutionize education.  The first lectures will be posted next Sunday and today I received a message from Professor Adelman about how the course will be organized and what will be expected of me - and 70,000 other students!!!  If I want to take this seriously, it's going to be lots of work.

Here's what is on offer and what's expected of me:


  •  There are two 1-hour lectures a week.  These will be posted on Sunday night.  Each lecture will be available until the end of the course.  The lectures will be interpolated with quizzes that test assimilation of facts and also demand analysis.
  • There was an earlier statement that there would be a progress metric - I'm assuming there will be an automated way of ascertaining if I actually watched the lectures and answered these quizzes.
  • The text Worlds Together, Worlds Apart has 11 chapters, and one chapter will be assigned each week, with one chapter spanning two weeks.  I've been sporadically reading this book for a couple of weeks now, and have completed a 'prequel' chapter and am most of the way through the first chapter.  Time to step up the pace.
  • When I was shopping for the text in August, there was no e-book version, the hardcover cost $120 in Canada, $80+ in the US and there was a loose leaf version for $60+ in the US.  I opted for the loose leaf version, based on cost and the convenience of carrying around a smaller weight. Today, the book was ranked #203 on Amazon in the US and the text is out of stock in Canada.  We can certainly see one motivation for Adelman to do this course, as he's a co-author of the book.
  • It's a long time since I read a text book.  This doesn't look anything like a text I might have had 'back in the day'.  Glossy pages, oodles of maps, text boxes of interesting excerpts from letters and diaries of the period, guiding questions for chapters and sections.  It feels a bit spoon-fed compared to my educational past, but very nice indeed.
  • There will be assignments every two weeks, six in all.  Students will have a choice of three different essay questions on which to write a 650-word essay.
  • For a good essay, you must have strong evidence, a compelling argument and clear exposition.  Each student will be asked to evaluate five essays, assigning a score of 1 to 3 on each of evidence, argument and exposition.  When I heard there were assignments, I assumed we'd have to mark each others'.  There's a nice guideline to writing and evaluating essays.  I like the simplicity of the evaluation approach.  There's also a field for putting in comments.  I expect to learn a lot from reading other students' essays, as well as their feedback on mine.
Global Dialogues
  • Each week there will be a live discussion between Princeton on-campus students and visiting professors.  Adelman will choose from questions submitted by on-line students to pose during the dialogue.  The discussions will be recorded and made available on the site.
Discussion Forums
  • Students are invited to join in discussion forums.  Up-votes for the most useful posts will help students sift through the vast material.  Already, there are lots of posts there.  The first one I read provided links to the BBC radio series on the history of the world through 100 objects from the British Museum.  I hope they're all as relevant as that one.  Adelman responded to that one, so I expect we'll see him from time to time on the discussion forums.
  • The site has an introductory video by Adelman, describing roughly what I've described above (and what's available in writing on the site).  I was happy to see him self-identify as a Canadian right off the top.  (Readers of this blog will know I'm Canadian myself).  The video was gorgeous high definition and the sound was perfect.  Really impressive.
  • Hosting a course like this with so many students - did I mention 70,000 were registered? - is challenging.  There were a couple of moments today when I noticed the site was unavailable, and I suppose there will be a few more glitches before all is said and done. (added note:  there was a message from Coursera today saying that their domain name server Godaddy was down for a few hours yesterday but that Coursera had just switched to Amazon for domain name services and were now back up.  It would be fascinating to know just which off-the-shelf services Coursera is using to lick the technology challenge.)  But the experience so far is marvellous: nice organization, good navigation, intuitive and clear, and high quality.  It's great that such a great shared platform will be shared, not only by the students in this course, but the many other courses being offered.
I'm excited about the start of the course next week, and also filled with a bit of trepidation.  I'll keep posting on the subject.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Wealth of Nations

Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, but economists have done precious little to measure the comparative wealth of nations.  We have GDP as the main economic comparator among nations, but that is only about 'income'; there's been no metric for retained wealth.  Until now.  That gap has been addressed by a recent UN publication which lays out a metric for the wealth of nations and even analyzes what part of that wealth arises from Human, Physical and Natural capital.  In business terms, this gives us a balance sheet, as opposed to an Income Sheet.

Here is an extract from the report, as published recently in an article in The Economist chart section - boy I love that section!  As a Canadian, it's comforting to see our country ranks high on the list of wealthy countries, - very high indeed on wealth per person.  But the chart also emphasizes what we as Canadians already know: we are desperately dependent on our natural resources for all our wealth, and haven't been very good at developing our human or physical resources.

The authors of this report consider this a first cut at such an assessment and recognize that the process of measuring wealth will need many refinements before it has anywhere near the validity of GDP.

There is another Economist chart special (didn't I say I loved these charts?) that is all about measuring national well being instead of just financial strength.  This time the work was done by the OECD.

Once again, Canada is in the upper cluster on this metric, again confirming something we already knew.

Another interesting part of this chart is the indication of the difference in economic well being between the top 20% and the bottom 20%.  The US has a huge gap, confirming what we already know.  But South Korea's gap between rich and poor was startlingly large too.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Polio in India: Going, going, gone

Last year there wasn't a single reported case of polio in India.  Wow!  While there is still polio in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, India is now off the list of countries where polio is endemic.  Against incredible odds, the World Health Organization and the Indian government, with funding help from Rotary International and lately the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has been working for 27 years to reach this landmark.

2006 TED Prize winner Larry Brilliant described the eradication of smallpox in his ringing acceptance speech.  The last case of smallpox on earth was diagnosed on October 26, 1977.  Look up smallpox in Wikipedia and you'll read "Smallpox was an infectious disease unique to humans...." How powerful is that past tense!   Smallpox simply doesn't exist any more.  Polio might soon be referred to in the past tense as well.

However, polio will be tougher to lick than smallpox.  Since polio is usually transmitted through contact with the stool of an infected person, it is particularly tough to beat in densely populated, low-income areas with poor sanitation.  A long incubation period means that an infected person can pass it on to many people before being diagnosed.  And the vaccine requires multiple boosters to be effective.  In places where kids don't regularly go to school it can be hard to identify and inoculate all those who need it.

The states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the poorest in India, are perfect breeding grounds for polio.  A recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review documents the size of the problem.   In Uttar Pradesh alone, 500,000 children are born every month. To vaccinate all children under five, that translates to 170,000M children to be vaccinated each year.  Just one national campaign involves stunning numbers: 700,000 vaccination booths, 2.5M vaccinators, and 200,000 homes visited.  And this combination of partners, led by the Indian government, have been doing this for 27 years.  27 years!

But the key to the campaign is communication.   This year's TEDxChange conference included a video about the Daredevils, a group of activist kids in a Kolkata squatter community who wanted to move their vaccination rate from 80% to 100&.  They started by wandering the neighbourhood with handmade megaphones announcing a vaccination clinic that weekend.

But they soon became even more effective with some outside help.  The community had never been mapped - a great big blank on Google maps.  So the kids created that map, numbering and plotting every house in the area.  Then, using smart phones equipped with GPS, they visit every home and record whether everyone has had all their shots and boosters.  If the adage is true that you succeed at what you measure, that neighbourhood should soon hit 100% vaccination rates.

Bruce Aylward, the Canadian physician who heads the polio eradication program at WHO, gave a passionate TED talk about polio.  Worried that the world could become complacent when the goal of total eradication is so close, he exhorted the world to continue supporting this important public health initiative.   The news that India has accomplished this feat should give heart to those out there fighting the disease.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Revolution in Education

Adelman and the ivied walls of Princeton

When my daughter attended Princeton, I was filled with immense pride and a dollop of envy.  The pedagogical experience was awesome - the small classes and individual attention from world class faculty showed the wisdom of her decision to eschew Harvard in favour of Princeton.  

Now I've just registered to take A History of the World Since 1300 from Princeton professor Jeremy Adelman, starting this September.  How, you might ask, is this woman in Toronto taking a course at Princeton?  Coursera is the answer.  Coursera offers online courses from 17 of the world's top universities, free. I certainly won't get the individualized learning experience of an undergrad at Princeton, but I will learn from one of their top faculty.

And that's not all:  I also registered for Healthcare Innovation and Entrepreneurship taught by Bob Barnes and Marilyn Lombardi of Duke, and Critical Thinking in Global Challenges by Celine Caquineau and Mayank Dutia of University of Edinburgh.  The breadth of choice, even at this early stage, is amazing.  To peruse the courses on offer at Coursera is to be a kid in a candy store.

There is one downside - in Adelman's email to me confirming registration, he already handed out pre-reading.  
Thank you for your interest in global history.  This is a course I have taught for many years, and I never cease to find it a source of excitement.  We will be in touch with more details when the class starts.  But in the meantime, you should feel free to start reading the recommended textbook, Worlds Together, World Apart (3rd edition), Volume 2.
Hmm, some things are the same about online education.

This course will run for 24 lectures of 50 minutes each, with regular assignments of map tests and short essays.  The lectures are expected to take two hours, including the embedded assignments, plus two hours for writing and three hours for reading each week.  

In 1997, Clayton Christensen introduced the concept of disruptive innovation in his book The Innovator's Dilemma (named one of the six best business books of all time by The Economist) and Coursera is disruptive innovation at its finest - a product that is "not as good as" that offered at traditional institutions.  At least not by traditional standards.  You can forget the ivy-clad walls, the chance to talk to the prof in person after class, parties, football games, and most importantly, that certificate on the wall saying you're a Princeton grad.  However, it's vastly more convenient and accessible for people who would not otherwise be able to attend university, let alone storied Princeton.  Many advocates argue that, for many topics, online learning is actually better, because of the frequent progress testing, and the ability to proceed at an individualized pace.   And did I mention it's free?  That's what disruptive innovation is all about, less good on traditional attributes, but 'disrupting' an industry through the introduction of some new attribute that overturns our whole view of the industry, in this case the opportunity to take a Princeton course while staying at home in Toronto, doing it on my own time, and doing it for free. 

A typical reaction of people vested in an industry threatened by disruption is to treat the disruptor with disdain.   It's no different in education.   I've met people who sneer at a degree from University of Phoenix, a pioneer in online education and the largest university in the US, and liken it to a mail-order degree.  And an MBA from Athabaska?  Pshaw.  It doesn't hold a candle to an MBA from one of Canada's prestigious programs.  

However, disruptive innovations undergo continuous improvement over time, and ultimately challenge the leading incumbents.  Just look at the universities involved in Coursera, and it's hard to justify disdain: University of California (Berkley and San Francisco), California Institute of Technology, Duke, Ecole Polytechnique National de Lausanne, University of Edinburgh, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Illinois, John Hopkins, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Rice, Stanford, University of Michigan, University of Toronto, University of Michigan, University of Washington.  Then, there's edX, started by Harvard and MIT and recently joined by University of California at Berkeley, offering mostly courses in Computer Science.  Clearly, the big names are jockeying for position in this new arena.  

The limitations of online education are sure to be diminished over time.  New generations find online social media as satisfying as real-life interactions and they may not miss university social life quite as much as the older generation expects them to.  For this history course, Princeton is not offering an official credit, but will provide, with my approval, data documenting my progress and performance.  This is definitely inferior to a course credit or degree from Princeton, for students or potential employers. 

However, it doesn't take much imagination to envision testing centres, similar to those for SAT tests, to enable those taking courses online to get official credits for the courses they take.  How will an employer respond to an applicant who has a full load of course credits, spread over 8 world-class universities, but no degree from a single one of them?  It unbundles the idea of a 'degree' as we've known it.   

Will students get very picky about where they take course and from whom?  Think of a student given the choice between taking a course from a local university, potentially from an unseasoned or just plain weak professor, or taking the same material from a renowned professor who's earned a global reputation for this course?  As a adjunct professor in a couple of MBA programs myself, I can certainly understand the threat of this competitive breeze down my neck.  Teaching faculty could be disrupted as much as the institutions themselves. 

Coursera's founders are from Stanford and they are funded by two Silicon Valley venture capitalists.  It's not been stated what the eventual business model will be - is the initial free offering to be superseded by fee-based courses once the concept is established?  Stanford Department of Engineering was a pioneer in online courses online: a graduate course in Artificial Intelligence last year attracted a remarkable 160,000 students from 190 countries.  

Of course, it's not an either/or decision.  Online courses are already popular with 'regular' college students.   As reported in the Sloan Consortium 2011 report, almost one third of students at college in the US are taking an online course.  Online education can also be a supplement to traditional education.  Perhaps the greatest success story of online education is the Kahn Academy.  Started 'accidentally' by Salman Kahn who was tutoring some cousins at a distance through online lectures - no fancy technology, just a YouTube video of Kahn with his engaging manner and the equivalent of a black board for notes.  Those first efforts have led to a site with over 3,000 videos and millions of views (see Kahn's TED talk for more information about some of the revolutionary techniques being used in K-12 curricula).  

As education costs continue to spiral upward, the cost effectiveness of online education will become even more important - consider that one Stanford prof teaching 160,000 students!  It could also lead to the unbundling of university degrees, the enhancement of the brands and success of the top universities and the erosion of second-rate institutions, the need for much fewer teaching faculty - in short a revolution in education.  It's happened in many other industries.  There's no reason education would be exempt.

Education is in for a revolution.  I'm excited to be a small part of this revolution as a student of my first online course.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Berlin Crossing

Have you ever been employed in a company that was taken over by another?  If so, chances are you were treated with disdain by the acquirer; after all they were the strong ones, and you were weak enough to succumb to the takeover.

Politically, this is the situation for East Germans after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Capitalism has triumphed over communism, and the Wessies are swarming over East Germany, usurping all the important posts, and crowding out the East Germans, especially those who have been loyal Party members like Michael Ritter, the protagonist of The Berlin Crossing.  To make matters worse, Ritter teaches English: only unswerving party members could be trusted to specialize in the language of the enemy, and dedication to the ideals of communism is now the kiss of death.  In a gesture of defiance, Ritter drives an ugly old Trabi, a relic from the Communist era, even though better cars are now available.   In other words, Ritter wears his continued dedication to the ideals of Communism on his sleeve.   And so he loses his job.

Shortly afterwards, Ritter loses his mother.  An only child of a single parent, he returned home to nurse her through her last days.  On her deathbed, Ritter's mother implores him to go to Bad Saarow to talk to Pastor Bruck to find out about his father.

So begins Ritter's quest to track down the truth about his father, which leads back to the dark days of the repressive East German regime and ultimately to a small town in Ireland.  The plot was not particularly credible, but the evocation of the atmosphere of those days made The Berlin Crossing an enjoyable book to read.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Another Take on Birth Rates

Recently, I wrote a post about Hans Rosling's latest TED talk, discussing the relationship between birth rates* and religion.  He shows data that debunks the idea that religion is a factor in birth rates.  Rather, the factors that affect birth rates are economic well being, health (in particular infant mortality), and the education of women.  Rosling focuses on these factors with respect to the poorer countries in the world.  He analyzes the data to show that birth rates decline with bettering social and economic conditions, and better social and economic conditions drive the birth rate even lower, creating a virtuous circle.

But what happens when the birth rate drops below 2.11, replacement level that keeps population from declining?  Then you have a different problem: there are too few young working people contributing to the economy relative to the number of older people who create significant burdens on pension plans and health care services.  The problem is extreme in Japan, where the birth rate is 1.39 and immigration is almost nil: the population will decline from its peak of 128M in 2008 to 87M in 2060, with more than 40% of the population over 65.  Concern about this onrushing demographic disaster is said to be spurring Japan's interest in anthropomorphic robots, which they envision looking after the elderly when there aren't enough young people around to do it.  (Apparently the xenophobic Japanese would rather have a robot look after them than an immigrant!)

In general, Europe had experienced recovering birth rates for the decade up to 2008.  But since 2008 birth rates have plunged.  A recent Economist article examined this drop.

You can see a number of countries where the birth rate has fallen below 2.11.   You'll also remark that the drop started just after the economic crisis of 2008.  The Economist's conjecture is that this is not a coincidence: because of the economic situation, young adults are postponing marriage and having kids, while immigrants, who in general had higher birth rates, have left now that the employment market has dried up.  They show a graph of the inverse correlation between youth unemployment and partnership formation.  (They look at partnership formation as a common precursor to having children, and thus one that foreshadows a drop in the birth rate, which of course has a built-in 9-month lag).  

Rosling certainly piqued my interest in birth rates as such an important factor in global development. It was equally interesting to see The Economist's take on the subject, through the lens of the developing countries.

*By birth rate here, we mean the number of children born per woman.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Gold: A Novel

One coach, two determined women track cyclists, one man, one child, and the Olympics.  This isn't the typical triangle of fiction - it's a pentagon.  Although the story focuses on the two women cyclists, the other points of the pentagon are critical to the plot.  Gold is about dedication, love, loyalty, betrayal, and the big questions about what's important in life, in the run-up to the London Olympics.

Zoe and Kate have been competing against each other since they were nineteen.  Kate trains hard to be the fastest rider, but Zoe's need to win is greater and motivates her to psycho Kate out at every opportunity.  And Kate falls for it every time.

Despite these nasty tricks, Kate remains Zoe's loyal friend, supporting and consoling her even when Zoe has betrayed her.  Zoe's manoeuvring leads to Kate making the ultimate athlete's sacrifice at the Beijing Olympics.  

The competition extends off the track where Kate and Zoe vie for the same handsome cyclist, Jack.  Kate and Jack get married but not before some shenanigans by Zoe.   Both Kate and Jack train intensively for the London Olympics while struggling with the demanding care of their daughter Sophie who has leukemia.   

The two women share the same coach, Tom, an almost-crippled, lonely, disappointed former cyclist.  Tom has dedicated himself to coaching the girls since that first day they met at nineteen. Ostensibly unbiassed, he can't help having his own personal favourite. 

And then there's the fifth point of the pentagon - the Olympics.  A rule change means that Britain can only send one track cyclist to the London Olympics.  Who will it be?  The generous and sympathetic Kate with a full life and family to focus on, or the driven Zoe whose whole life is about sport?  

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Redeemer

I've previously reviewed two books in Jo Nesbo's mystery series about Harry Hole here.  I missed one book in the series after those two but just read The Redeemer, book four.  The series just keeps getting better.

The Redeemer has a complex plot which keeps you turning the page as fast as you can read.  Surprises keep coming; what's more, they're all pretty credible, since the characters' motivations have been quite well laid out beforehand.  And when you think the surprises are finishes, along comes the one final truly mind-blowing surprise, which you are completely unprepared for.

The book explores yet again the situations of immigrants to Norway, this time immigrants from the former Yugoslav republic, and continues the ongoing exploration of corruption in the police force.

The Harry Hole character is very interesting.  He's an alcoholic, he's a loner who has many relationships with women, he's disdainful of authority, he's sympathetic with the underdog, he's loyal but undemonstrative.  He's determined to see justice done, even if not the formal Justice of the system.

Most interestingly, Hole is that rare human who can formulate a solution and yet remain open-minded enough to abandon the hypothesis when new evidence comes to light.  Most people tend to stick to their first credible solution and then interpret the evidence to support that hypothesis from then on. You can observe this phenomenon in medicine where practitioners fall in love with their first diagnosis and subsequent data that assails that diagnosis is ignored.  You can see it in business where people leap on the first viable solution rather than searching for the optimum one (read Roger Martin's work on this kind of pitfall).  This kind of confirmation bias affects us all.  But Hole is a detective who keeps processing clues after the 'solution' appears to be all locked up.  Anomalies nag him, until they point in yet a different direction for the solution.  It's an interesting character.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Redbreast and Nemesis

Here's another series I've dipped into - Jo Nesbo's series about Norwegian detective Harry Hole.  And I also like this series, of which I've only read The Redbreast and Nemesis, Books 3 and 4 in the series.

The Redbreast is a very intriguing book, cutting back and forth between modern Norway and World War II and the Norwegians who fought for Hitler.  I hadn't realized there was a sizable contingent of Norwegians fighting for Hitler, having thought the recent shooting in Oslo to be a complete aberration of the Norwegian character.  Perhaps not totally an aberration.  Meanwhile, there's a parallel story involving officers within the police department, which is not resolved at the end of the book.

This was a complex plot to follow, made even more difficult because some of the names of the characters were very similar.  If I ever fulfil my longtime ambition to write a book,  I will  ensure the characters' names are highly differentiated, to make it easier for readers.  This is particularly relevant in a book that has been translated, where the names are unfamiliar to begin with.

I liked my second Nesbo book, Nemesis, even more. Harry eventually tracks down a bank robber, but nothing is straightforward in this plot as it twists and turns as Harry follows one hypothesis after another.  Meanwhile, he girlfriend Rakel is in Russia fighting to retain custody of her child in corrupt Russian courts and that thread eventually weaves into the story too.  Also, the story inside the police force continues although again it does not reach resolution,

This is another series I will keep reading.  There are nine books translated into English, so I have lots to go.  I didn't read Books 1 and 2, so I don't know what I missed there, but you should definitely read The Redbreast before Nemesis.