Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Vintage Affair

Sometimes you pick up a book for pure escapist nonsense.  I can't remember what recommendation made me pick up this book to read.  All I can say is this.  If this temptation hits you, resist.

The Man from Beijing

The latest mystery book I've read in my 'world tour' is The Man from Beijing, whose locales range over four continents.  The novel starts with a horrific, unprecedented mass murder of 19 people in a Swedish hamlet, all named Andrens or related to Andrens.  Intrigued and shocked when she reads the newspaper reports about the crime, Judge Birgitta Roslin’s recognizes Andren as the name as her mother’s foster parents.  She heads off to the village to learn more and reads a family diary which leads her to form a contrarian view of the cause of the murders.

The diary reveals a brutal and racist ancestor who was a foreman of Chinese work crews during the construction of the American transcontinental railway.  The link to China is reinforced when Roslin discovers that a red ribbon found near the scene is from a lamp in a Chinese restaurant in a nearby town.  Further, she nails down that the ribbon was cut away on exactly the night before the massacre, and that a Chinese stranger happened to eat there that night, never to be seen again.  Except in a fuzzy picture from the security camera of a nearby hotel.  

Roslin, off work due to a medical condition, joins a friend  going to China for a conference.  She and Roslin were student radicals and believers in Mao’s Little Red Book.  Walks around Beijing arouse musings on the China she supported in her youth compared with the bustling capitalistic society she finds in the 21st Century.   Showing the security-camera photo of the unidentified Chinese man brings her to the attention of the authorities, and links the story to a wealthy Chinese industrialist Yu Ra.  

Yu Ra believes that the solution to China’s overcrowding is to trade investment and infrastructure for the right to resettle Chinese peasants.  Mankell lives in Mozambique, and believes the scenario of Chinese colonialism is very real.   Mankell says that a deal to rent land in Kenya for one million Chinese peasants has already been consummated.  Ya Ru is resisted intensely by his sister who believes in China’s hard-fought struggle to escape colonialism and worries about China’s descent into colonialism itself.

As a mystery, this book had something lacking.  Firstly there were simply too many coincidences.  You’ve probably noticed them:  Roslin’s convenient time off work, her friend’s fortuitous trip to China, the killer clipping the lamp ribbon and dropping it at the scene.  There was also a rather unsatisfying ending, although I must say that mysteries with clear-cut endings seem to be going out of style.  However, the characterization, especially of Birgitta Roslin, was great.   And touring vicariously around China and Mozambique, and getting a taste of history and history-in-the-making was thoroughly enjoyable.  I’ve been meaning to read Mankell’s series about the detective Wallenberg (now on TV with Kennth Branaugh in the starring role) and this has certainly increased my motivation.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Mark News

Thought readers of this blog might be interested in a short article published in The Mark News about TED's evolution and spirit, and the TEDxIBYork conference in Toronto.  The Mark is an interesting site, aimed at providing an outlet for a wide variety of Canadian voices.  Check it out.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dr. Greg Wells Joins the TEDxIBYork Roster

During the Winter Olympics this year, I was riveted to the TV when Dr. Greg Wells was explaining the physiology of the athletes as they performed astonishing feats on ice and snow.  Science, graphics and clear explanations by someone who looked like he was having the time of this life all combined to make this one of my favourite parts of Olympic coverage. 

Did you enjoy him too?  If so, now's your chance to hear Greg Wells in person, at TEDxIBYork.  Wells has studied extreme human physiology in both elite athletes and children with chronic diseases.  He's going to talk to us about what makes Olympians different.  How do they live their lives differently in order to achieve their goals and how can we apply those lessons in our own lives?   Won't that be an interesting analysis?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Corpse in the Koryo: An Inspector O Mystery

I'm continuing my habit of reading mystery/thriller books set in unusual locales .  The latest is about a police inspector in North Korea.  Really, North Korea. 

 The book opens with Inspector O being assigned to dawn surveillance on a deserted country road.  The assignment: take photos of any cars that pass.  When he returns to base, he hasn't any photos to show for his uncomfortable dawn vigil, because the camera's battery was dead.  In North Korea, the police can't always put their hands on batteries. 

So begins the slow unraveling of a mystery based on intense rivalry between the military and intelligence services, while simultaneously giving us insights into the privations of North Korean society.  Inspector O is that traditional mystery character, the assiduous detective who really wants to find the truth, despite the web of intrigue that the bureaucracy weaves around him.  O walks a tightrope between opposing forces, but he's not just fighting for his career.  He's struggling to save his own life.

The author, James Church, is a pseudonym for a a Western intelligence officer with lots of experience in Asia.  The picture he paints of North Korea is more evocative than all the news articles you read about this repressive, deprived country.  One vignette that really brought it all home to me was O's experience with sandpaper.  O's grandfather was a cabinet-maker, and O is assembling pieces of wood to build a bookcase.  He has a cache of sandpaper he has brought back from various trips to the West because there is no sandpaper in North Korea.  However, his apartment is searched and the sandpaper is confiscated, and he has only one used-up piece left, which he keeps in his office desk drawer.

This is Church's first book and I personally can't wait for a follow-up.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Genuine Progress Index comes to TEDxIBYork

The most common benchmark when measuring countries is GNP, or Gross National Product, a financial measure of the goods and services created in a country.  A nation's GNP reflects the average income of its citizens.  Gross National Happiness is a term coined by the King of Bhutan in 1972 to highlight the fact that a people's happiness is what's really important and happiness involves many more aspects than just wealth.

There has been considerable research on finding a metric for happiness in individuals.  There was a recent New Yorker article surveying several books that describe attempts to scientifically measure happiness and what increases happiness.  One of the books mentioned in this article is Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.  Gilbert gave a great talk at TED (see it here) and blasted many myths about what we think will make us happy and what really makes us happy.

So how might all this be put together in a metric for national happiness, or at least national wellbeing?  The Genuine Progress Indicator has been proposed as a quantitative measurement of the overall wellbeing of a country replacing, or at least complementing, GNP as the economic measure of its production and consumption.  Leading practitioners of the GPI happen to be right here in Canada - at GPI Atlantic in Halifax - and we're fortunate to have Gwen Colman of GPI Atlantic coming to TEDxIBYork to tell us more about this.

I'm a strong believer in the old saw that you succeed at what you measure, so I'm really looking forward to hearing Gwen.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Involuntary Witness

Having just read an American-based legal novel (Innocent), I've continued my habit of reading books based around the world, with Involuntary Witness by Italian author Gianrico Carofiglio.  And what a contrast in legal systems between America and Italy.  If American TV and books are even vaguely realistic, the case described in this Italian novel would never go to court.  There is extremely flimsy circumstantial evidence, but in Italy, it seems so compelling that the accused is being advised to plead guilty for a lesser sentence. The system seems mind-boggling in its unfairness.  

The author Carofiglio should know the Italian system well.  He is is an anti-Mafia judge in Bari, a port on the Adriatic coast of Italy. He has been involved with trials concerning corruption, organized crime and the traffic in human beings.  He sounds like a brave individual.  News reports suggest that taking on the Mafia in Italy can be a distinctly unhealthy and often terminal hobby.

One of my favourite series is the Donna Leon series with police detective Guido Brunetti solving crimes but fighting the system in Venice.  This is another, discouraging, look at the Italian justice system through another set of eyes.

Again, I recommend this book and intend to read more of Carofiglio's books myself.

Friday, October 15, 2010


Innocent, by Scott Turow, takes place a couple of decades after the novel Presumed Innocent.  If you liked the first novel, I recommend the sequel.  It brings back the characters we remember from the first book, Rusty Sabich and Tommy Molto, and delivers the same page-turning suspense.  Sabich is again suspected of murder.  Molto is again out to get him.  And we're again treated to an inside look at the legal system as the case unfolds.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

TEDx Entertainment

Part of the joy of a TED (or TEDx) conference is the inclusion of entertainment in the program.  You get lots of brainfood; you need some time to just sit back and enjoy something light.

With our blended audience of adults and high school students at TEDxIBYork, we decided to take advantage of the marvellous talent in Toronto's schools for the arts. 

We're happy to announce that the RHSA Dance Troupe will be appearing at TEDxIBYork.  We are looking forward to the appearance of this dynamite dance troupe from the Rosedale Heights School of the Arts.  I've heard they're absolutely amazing and I can't wait to see them on November 11.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Janissary Tree

Jason Goodwin
The Janissary Tree is a mystery set in Istanbul in 1836 in the sunset years of the Ottoman Empire.  It was written by Jason Goodwin, an English historian specializing in the history of the Ottoman Empire.  It won the Mystery Writers of America award for Best Novel in 2007, somewhat to the astonishment of Goodwin's agent and publisher!

The hero, a eunuch detective named Yashim Togalu, lives in a moldering apartment and is comfortable in the sordid parts of the city, but he also has amazing access to all sorts of places, including the opulent royal palace and the restricted harem (after all, he is a eunuch).  This allows the book to give a flavour of both the top and the bottom of the social scale in nineteenth century Istanbul.  Since the author, Jason Goodwin, is an English historian and previously published a history of the Ottoman Empire, we can be pretty confident the details are all right.

The title refers to the Jannisaries, elite troops of the Ottoman Empire, who got too powerful and ended up terrorizing people.  The Sultan had banned them ten years before the period of this book and there are concerns that they might be planning a resurgence.  That's not necessarily how the mystery unfolds.

But it was a treat to read this book.  And I'll be looking forward to The Snake Stone, the next book in the series.

Tom Wujec on Design

Tom Wujec has agreed to be a speaker at the TEDxIBYork conference.  A fellow at Autodesk, Tom is just completing a book on design and is much in demand around the globe as a speaker on a variety of topics.  We're lucky to have snagged a day in his busy schedule.

Jane and I (the program committee for the conference) just had a phone call with him discussing his talk.  We came away very excited about his planned kaleidoscopic view of the intersection of design and the recent technology trends that are revolutionizing design, and just maybe giving us the tools to address the world's biggest problems.  Tom's extremely articulate, knowledgeable on a wide range of topics, and attuned to fitting his wealth of knowledge into the theme What in the World?

His bio has just gone up on, so take a peak for more details there.

Monday, October 11, 2010

TEDxChange: Mechai Viravaidya – Thailand’s Mr. Condom

Thai Tulips
 Another talk at TEDxChange was a case study in Thailand of how it had tackled several of the MDGs, by Mechai Viravaidy.  Viravaidy argues, with exquisite passion and humour, that for global success, family planning has to be added as a 9th MDG. 

In 1974, Thais had 7 children per family and the country’s growth rate was 3.3%.  By 2000, there were 1.5 children per family and the growth rate was .5%.  How did that happen?  Thailand’s Mr. Condom, came to TEDxChange to explain how in a country with a weak government and few doctors.

Viravaidya led a country-wide campaign on family planning in Thailand.  His marketing skills would be the envy of any company.  A sampling of his approaches to getting the entire nation involved include:
  •  How about games?  Well, let’s have condom blowing contests in the schools.  Let’s invent a family planning snakes and ladders game.  
  • Let’s involve shopkeepers in distributing condoms.  They’re everywhere and have the reach that Coca Cola recognized (described in Melinda Gates’ talk at the same conference).  Even floating markets became family planning outlets
  • Let’s have the monks bless the condoms with holy water.
  • Let’s get into the schools by training 320,000 teachers in 5 years.
  • Let's start a micro-credit program but only lend to women who practice family planning.
  • Let's have a 4th of July vasectomy celebration and invite American men to participate.  Hold it in the ballroom (pause for laughter) and serve hot dogs (more laughter)
  • How about branding a Captain Condom in a blue cape?  Why not start a Miss Condom pageant?
  • Wait, let’s get the taxis handing out condoms, and police on the street (the Cops and Rubber program)
  • And you cannot have a grass-roots campaign without T-shirts, right?  So, make Tshirts with interlocking condoms that look like the Olympic ring.  Make them with the words Weapons of Mass Protection – Don’t Leave Home Without It.  Make more with In Rubber We Trust.  The list of corny slogans seemed endless.
 When the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit Thailand, the same verve and focus on condom distribution was directed at the HIV epidemic, and Thailand achieved a 90% reduction in AIDS from 1991 to 2003, with 7.7M lives saved. 

The next target for Thailand was to reduce poverty.  This meant getting the business community engaged.  Viravaidy asserts that “the poor are business people who lack business skills and access to credit” and sets out to create barefoot entrepreneurs.  He says that access to credit is a human right.  Villages could earn access to a micro credit loan fund through planting trees.  He was particularly proud of one business, the local competitor to Starbucks he says, which sells Coffee and Condoms. 

Viravaidy says Thailand still needs a revolution in education.  They’ve started on this by creating school-based rural development programs. With Viravaidya involved, one can picture great strides in this area too.

TEDxChange - Hans Rosling and the Millennium Development Goals

Rosling loves the Millennium Development Goals

Hans Rosling was his usual sparkling self at TEDxChange.  He loves the UN MDG goals.  Why?  Two reasons.  One, because the UN recognized there are so many interlinked things needed  in a county to bring about a good life – end poverty and hunger, universal education, gender equality, child health, maternal health, combat infection, environmental sustainability, and global partnerships – everything from aid to trade.  Two, he stressed the universal truth that there's no point in having a goal, if you don't make it measurable.  He went on to fucs on one of the goals, reducing child mortality at a rate of 4% decline per year.

There's been gnashing of teeth that the 4% decline in child mortality has not been achieved. But Rosling digs beneath the averages to uncover lots of reason for optimism.  For instance, the averages obscure the achievements of superstar countries like Brazil at 5% and Turkey at a sizzling 7%.   He calls Egypt the poster child country for reducing child mortality.

A Detailed Look at Africa, Especially Kenya

Rosling challenges the notion that there is no data in Africa; it just isn’t collected in the normal way.  Another difficulty is the volatility of the data, where child mortality, after making dramatic gains in the 80s, soared in the 90s, due to the peaking of the HIV/AIDS  epidemic, the resistance to old malaria drugs and social-economic problems.  All of these factors have since been ameliorated, and child mortality is once again on the decline. 

Rosling talked about Kenya in particular.  After a dramatic drop in the late 80’s, Kenya’s child mortality rate increased through the 90’s, leading to a UN forecast of 128 child deaths per thousand in 2010.  Very discouraging.  But data for the year 2008 showed great improvement; adding that one data point lowered the forecast to 84 deaths per thousand.   Rosling thinks even this forecast is too pessimistic, because it uses past data from a period when conditions were dramatically different.

Rosling also breaks down the 1.8% average decline over 20 years in Africa into two periods:  the 80s with its 1.2% improvement  and the 90s, with the much better 2.1% improvement. But even that is an average.  Countries like Congo are stalled because of civil war, while Ghana and Kenya are declining dramatically.  In fact, Ghana is declining at a similar pace to Sweden, which started in the 1800s with child mortality higher than the Congo.  The rate of improvement in  Sweden follows a similar trajectory to that for Ghana and Kenya.  Sweden just got started earlier!  Sweden never met the MDG target rate of 4%; the best it ever did was 3.1%

The 'Developing World' Has Converged on the 'Western World'

He goes on to show the relationship between child mortality and children per woman.  In the 1960s, the so-called ‘developing counties’  had high child mortality and large family size, while the so-called ‘western world’ had low child mortality and small family size.  Since then, both child mortality and family size has declined in most of the 'developing world'.  In fact, most of the developing world is so similar to the western world that the labels no longer apply.  Yet the UN labels South Korea as a developing country!  The country of Samsung?  And Singapore? Singapore has the lowest child mortality in the world!  What balderdash!

The Future Rests with Female Literacy

Rosling ended with the link of improved child survival to female literacy.  Almost 50% of the decline in child mortality can be attributed to female literacy (with a lag of about 15-20 years) according to the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation.  And that in turn leads to smaller family sizes.
Rosling ended with an impassioned plea for the world to continue to focus on child mortality.  Not only is it a moral thing to do, but it is the only way to stabilize world population, which is a strategic investment in the future of all mankind.  Not a small vision.  But then, Rosling's visions never are!

Saturday, October 9, 2010


The TEDxChange conference was sponsored by the Gates Foundation to promote awareness and support of the Millennium Development Goals and was convened in New York City during the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals Summit (September 20-22, 2010). 2010 marks the 10th anniversary of the adoption of United Nations' Millennium Development Goals.  The MDGs, as they’re affectionately known, set out goals to wipe out poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, empower women and reduce child mortality by 2015. However, they’re not widely known.  You can click here if you went to refresh yourself on the details of the goals.  I attended one of many local events around the world where you could 'attend' the event by live webcast.

Melinda Gates said that there was much to celebrate on progress to meet the goals but that there was much left to be done.  And she proffered advice on how we could meet the Goals:  social organizations focused on global development, rather than having total contempt for business organizations, should consider emulating the strategy and tactics used by successful corporations.  Gates  chose Coca Cola as the archetypical successful global organization and compared and contrasted how it was .  In a typical Gates analytic fashion (I guess it runs in the family), she laid out three tactics used by Coke for reaching their goals and showed how these tactics could work for social organizations as well.

Real Time Data

Business enterprises are run with a keen eye on real time data – Coke knows exactly how many bottles they’ve sold on a daily basis and where they were sold.  In contrast, the typical development project gets evaluated at the end of a project.  While the project is underway, it’s like bowling in the dark.  You can hear the pins falling, but you’re not sure which ones, until the lights come on after you’ve finished.  “Real time data turns on the lights” Says gates.    You can only optimize development projects if you get a stream of real time data that allows you to continuously adjust for success.

This is clearly the approach Melinda and Bill Gates have taken with their philanthropy efforts.  They started with deep and thorough analysis of data to determine how their foundation could make the most impact on the world.  They focused on what they saw as the highest-gain activities, and they continue to analyze the success of their efforts through intense data analysis.

Local Entrepreneurship

Coke, like many other American companies, originally tried to enter new developing markets by exporting US business practices, but the results were mediocre.   By 1990, Coke was training local entrepreneurs; they even lent them money to get their businesses off the ground.  They now have 15,000 such entrepreneurs in Africa.  In Tanzania, 90% of their total sales come from entrepreneurs selling Coke from push carts.

This idea is being applied to the development world too.  A great example can be seen in Ethiopia’s health extension program.  Since 2003, Ethiopia has trained 35,000 heath extension workers who bring the ratio of health works to population from 1 in 30,000 to 1 in 250.  They reach the millions of people living in remote villages in the country who previously had no access to healthcare.

Aspirational Marketing

Intensive and pervasive marketing has been a key to Coke’s success around the world. Gates argues for the same kind of marketing to development projects.  We were treated to a clip of Wavin’ Flag and reminiscence about I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing

How could the lessons learned from Coke’s marketing be applied to the development projects?  Perhaps by stressing positive aspirational messages instead of minatory messages.  For instance, instead of sermonizing about the perils of open sewage, how about an ad campaign that gives some sex appeal to toilets?  Sex appeal and toilets, you say?  In one state in India, young women are encouraged to seek husbands who have a toilet.  The campaign’s slogan is  “No loo, no I do”. 

 Mellinda ended on a positive note, speaking of the potential in the futureto improve the world, if we’re willing to accept tried and tested ideas for success as practised by successful organizations in any arena.