To See The World

I remember the first excitement at seeing the bubble maps of population vs GDP for countries around the world, and how they changed across a span of a century. If one could have their mind blown, that chart was it. Then, a few years on, I saw the TED Talk by Hans Rosling in which he explained Large Families/Low GDP Vs Small Families/High GDP, and this time the wonder grew.

In the intervening years, the power of big data and visualization grew by leaps and bounds, and there never was a dearth of graphs, or data analysis. Causal analysis, correlations, search engine optimizations, ad targeting, and numerous other concepts entered the lingo of the normal person. As early as 2012, Target could predict when a woman was expecting a baby even before her family knew.

Daniel Kahneman & Amos Tversky changed our perceptions by introducing the world to a whole new world of Behavioral Economics.

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by [Michael Lewis]

So, when I picked up the book, How I Learned to Understand the World, I thought I would find about more interesting statistics about the world, but I was in for a pleasant surprise.

In the book, How I Learned to Understand the World, written by Hans Rosling and his daughter-in-law, Anna Rosling, it is Dr Hans Rosling’s journey that is written. The book isn’t written in the style of can’t-put-it-down. Instead of a compelling narrative that is keeping one’s interest, it is the genuine interest in the human being who was instrumental in changing the way we think of global health and economies. His journey to help humankind starts off with being a doctor in a impoverished nation, but moves on to much more than that. This is an inspiring sketch of what is possible when we think outside the box. That varied interests and knowledge-seeking is never wasted: they truly do come together in myriad ways.

The book starts as most biographies do, with a character sketch of the good doctor’s parents, grandparents, and his modest upbringing in Uppsala in Sweden.

He goes on to study medicine, and then travels to lesser developed countries hoping to do good work. His perception of developing countries such as India undergoes a transformation as he studies and travels there. It is here that he gets an appreciation for public health. The Indian Government at the time was battling one of the largest public health initiatives of the time ( possibly polio vaccinations – I forget). It is a humbling experience for him. He realizes, for instance, that medical facilities were not as backward as he assumed, medical knowledge was quite on par, or better, where it was available. The true problems were scale, population and outreach. 

After his return to Uppsala in Sweden, he goes on to begin work as a doctor in Impala. Where is Impala? Nacala? The joy of studying a map for these places is half the joy.

Here, in the coastal region of Nacala, he settles into his work as a doctor with his wife and children. Faced with less than ideal facilities, low budgets, and even less trained people to work with, he slowly learns the areas in which he can make a difference. He learns the importance of cultural awareness, and his humility for people’s knowledge and way of living, helps him reach the people he is attempting to serve. Without this realization he might never have been able to understand the devastating Konzo (‘Konzo’ means tied leg referring to the paralytic symptoms) disease that was paralyzing children in rural areas.

His work in Nacala, and his researches around the paralytic disease, konzo, led him to a life in research after his medical practicing days. The cassava plant is a staple diet in these areas. The cassava root is treated to a long, and arduous process of preparation before being made fit for human consumption. For example, the cassava is dried in direct sunlight for more than 8 weeks, to remove bitterness coming from a cyanide like substance that causes partial paralysis in human-beings (The long process is usually sufficient to remove the amounts of cyanide, but during times of drought, the plant produces more of this chemical content). Dr Rosling was the person to identify this link between the food process and the paralysis in his patients, and it was because he made the effort to understand the way of life in these areas. In times of food crises, the cassava plants are the only source of nutrition, and the results are devastating for those affected: their disability spiraling them further into poverty.

His ability to reach dictators, elected officials, and private industry for the sake of public health is remarkable.

His book, Factfulness, is the next one on my list to be read. In this one, he outlines the state of the world in terms of actual numbers. Is our world as bad as we think it is, or are we progressing better than we give ourselves credit for? I am waiting to read this one.

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by [Hans Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Ola Rosling]

In 1 Week! – Covid-19

I had written this to be posted on last Monday: I then decided to not post it since everyone was worried about the Coronavirus. It is an eerie reminder of how quickly things can change.  How drastically they can change. 

Due to the pandemic of Covid-19, Bay area was issued a Shelter-in-place mandate.

It had been a regular, noisy midweek day. The trains tattled and battled their way through to the city. Cars whizzed around on roads & freeways. In the city, planes, trains and automobiles honked and blared their way through the streets. Ambulances and fire trucks screeched by.  The elevators and public transit announcements were incessant and usefully useless to the point of comic relief. 

“Elevator F, F as in Foxtrot, opening doors, closing doors, Elevator F, F as in Foxtrot. ”

“Now arriving at Bay Fair.  Doors are opening. Doors are closing. Now departing Bay Fair”. 

Even at the gas station, it seemed the world was intent on tugging my attention towards world events – a screen blared CNN news in the few minutes it took to fill the gas tank. By the time I made it back to the home, I was craving for some quiet. But the bustling urban noises went on – humming and drumming out the quiet. 

We have become such noisy inhabitants of this planet. I would like to hear how we sound in outer space – I hope our atmosphere provides for a decent enough insulating layer. 

Quiet

I then went on to write about a book that calls out the different kinds of Quiet in the world, but I shall save it for another day. Quiet – By Deborah Underwood

Like everyone around us, I am still in a state of shock at the rapid change in world affairs. Where last week, I wrote about the noises in the environment, this week I am writing about the eerie feeling that links us all together – the lack of noise on roads, the lack of noise from the joyous parties with happy people singing into the night, the lack of laughter even. The world has become a sober place.

Our street has not looked this empty since the time I went for a walk during Super Bowl. People are scurrying with their heads bent in worry and hands full of supplies to calm anxious minds in the stores that do remain open. Shelves are empty.  We have so many doom sayers, we need more doom slayers. 

Never has so much changed so rapidly and this drastically in my lifetime. It truly makes me appreciate the delight of the ordinary. Social media has given me a bad case of wanting to read about anything else – 10 things to consider before buying soap anyone? What happened to those posts?

“It is like that David Vs Goliath story huh Amma? You know the virus against humans?” said the little fellow the other day, and I smiled at the analogy.

It’s true: Covid-19 has created ruckus. If ever we thump our chests on how high and mighty we are as a race, the humblest virus is there to bring us down to size.

When I started writing the piece above, I did not anticipate in my wildest dreams that such a scenario would pan out, and yet it did in 1 week. In the past week, the World Health Organization classified Covid-19 as a Pandemic, and world-wide countries started responding with varying levels of success to contain the spread of the disease. This post reminds me of the normal then, and the new normal we are adapting to. Everyone is worried by the effect of the virus on us; on hospitals, nurses and doctors; on the infrastructure and economy.

3D_medical_animation_coronavirus_structure

Image By https://www.scientificanimations.comhttps://www.scientificanimations.com/wiki-images/, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86436446

Please watch: TED Talk By Bill Gates in 2015 where he says that our next big catastrophe to prepare for is not missiles but microbes.

 

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

Every now and then, there arrives a book that is designed to knock the sails out of your windpipe. William Kamkwamba’s journey to build a windmill and uplift his community is one such. It is the true story of a poor boy in Malawi.

boy

I bought the book a while ago, and it lay languishing on my tsundoku pile. Maybe, there was a purpose to the book. The book needed to be read at a time when I most wanted to reassure myself on human potential if only we choose to apply it for good.

The only son, among eight children, of a poor Malawian farmer in Wimbe near Kasungu, Malawi, this is a true story of William Kamkwamba.

The book started off slowly talking about tales of magic, witchcraft and sorcery in Africa. As you read about William and his journey, you cannot help getting absorbed into the life around him with good natured understanding. You like his dog, Khambe, and his friends, Geoffrey and Gilbert, who show themselves to be the kind of stalwart friends you wish your children will grow up to be. Kind hearted, supportive, fun and ready to lend a hand, always.

When, famine hits Malawi, William Kamkwamba is forced to drop out of school, it is crushing to read how his father felt and I wish no parent should have to face that in their life.He writes about how his family struggled for months with nothing but a few nsima cakes between them to eat everyday. Everything we tell our children about starving children in Africa is true.

During those long hours of working in the fields to do their best to see if they can fortify themselves against another famine, it is William’s dream to build a windmill that keeps him going. William had seen pictures of a windmill, and given that his little village is always blessed with wind, he wants to build one, so that water and electricity can mitigate another famine. He is called misala (crazy) for haunting the trash piles to find something reusable to build his windmill.

After months, of scouring trash piles and junkyards, using tools that would not pass any safety standards laid out in the West, it is a proud moment indeed when finally he connects his rickety windmill to a tiny light bulb.

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The windmill is noticed by a school official who notifies a professor and a blogger. From there to TED Fellow in 2007 is a remarkable journey for a boy who had never set foot outside his little village in Wimbe.

When William is finally called upon to talk at the TED conference, he is justifiably nervous. His English is poor among other things, and to make it easier for him, his host on stage, Chris, prefers to ask him a few questions that he can answer instead:

My heart beat fast like a mganga drum as I climbed the steps to face the audience, which totaled 450: inventors, scientists and doctors who’d stood on that stage in the previous days.

Five years ago, you had an idea”, Chris said, “What was that?”
“I want to made a windmill”. Wrong again. Chris smiled.
“So what did you, how did you realize that?”
I took a deep breath and gave it my best. “After I drop out of school, I went to library…and I get information about windmill…”
Keep going, keep going…”And I try and, I made it.”

The problem with reading a book like The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind on public transport is that it is takes phenomenal effort to keep from tearing up. You can manage a silent tear that just needs to come out, and one that you can unobtrusively wipe away as if some dirt got in there. But if the book goes on to make you want to weep not out of despair or sadness, but out of pride, joy and the eternal good-ness of mankind despite everything, that is hard to do.

Some pictures from the book: The image of his prototypes, his big windmill and one of his parents after he was able to harness the energy generated from the windmill to provide clean drinking water and electricity in his village.

Unfortunately, for every William who is outstanding in perseverance, grit and intelligence, there are thousands of williams who flounder in the stormy tempests of life. Every time I am caressed by the wind during this Thanksgiving break, I will know what to give thanks for. Thanks to William Kamkwamba.

I try, and I made it.

Please watch the TED talks, even if you are unable to get to the book:

TED Fellow William Kamkwamba