Saturday, November 21, 2009

100 Years of Drucker

Had he lived to this day, Peter F. Drucker would have turned 100 this week. A host of events have been organised worldwide to commemorate the Drucker centenary. There have been numerous tributes to Drucker from numerous sources: Havard Business Review put him on the cover of its November issue and asked "What would Peter do?"; The Economist pays him fulsome praise in it's latest Schumpeter column; The Wall Street Journal assesses his lasting legacy; Inc surveys some of his contributions from A to Z.

But the simplest, sincerest, most personal and most poignant tribute that I have come across is from one of Drucker's countless students, a man whose life was literally (and positively) transformed by his contact with Drucker. Drucker's deep humanity and wisdom shines through in this story. But I'll let Opoku Acheampong tell us the story for himself.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Alcoholics Synonymous

From Chapter 3 ("Reclaiming Your Creativity") of Creative Design of Products and Systems (John Wiley & Sons, 2009):
A man comes to a bar and orders three glasses of beer, sits alone, and drinks from the three glasses one sip at a time. the bartender goes to him and says: " Sir, why don't you order one glass at a time so that your beer will be cool and fresh?" The man says: "I have two brothers that are not here. We used to drink together all the time. I am doing this as if they were here, drinking with me." This goes on until a few weeks later, when the man comes in and orders only two glasses. The bartender later goes to him and says: "I am really sorry for the loss of one of your brothers. You must really miss him." The man replies: "Oh, no. They are fine. It is that I have just decided to quit drinking."
Who said engineering textbooks have to be boring?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Clarke Orbit: When I'm 64

This month is the 64th anniversary exactly of the paper by Arthur C. Clarke that set out the principles of geostationary orbits and geostationary satellites. Extra-Terrestrial Relays was published in the October 1945 issue of Wireless World.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Dr Mo says No

Today we learnt of the not-too-surprising decision that the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership will not be awarded this year. Apparently, this is due to a lack of worthy candidates for the prize.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A fine series by a Feynman

Fresh from the philanthropic bounty of Bill Gates comes a very fine series of seven lectures (the 1964 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University) on physics by Richard P. Feynman, that rarest of rare combinations, a great researcher who is also a great communicator. Mr. Gates bought the rights to this great series of lectures from the BBC in order to make them freely available to everyone online.

The whole scheme is called Project Tuva. Why Tuva? Well, that's another story altogether.

Enjoy and Be enlightened.

Aside: A thought, a palpable thought: you'll notice Feynman's distinctive New York accent (and, it has to be said, New York manner). The key to understanding Feynman is that he was a quintessential New Yorker.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Most Wanted Man

Just finished reading:

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carre.

Review to follow.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Introducing Okonkwo

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond.
--The very simple, very memorable, first line of Chinua Achebe's 1958 literary masterpiece Things Fall Apart.

The problem of attribution or the problem of appropriation?

How India missed another Nobel Prize

(See The Dilemma of Attribution)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

2009 Nobels

We now have the complete list of this year's Nobel laureates.

The biggest surprise by far was the award of the peace prize to Barack Obama "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples". The nomination process for the Nobel peace prize is described here, but here's the relevant excerpt about the deadline for submission of nominations:

The Committee bases its assessment on nominations that must be postmarked no later than 1 February each year. Nominations postmarked and received after this date are included in the following year's discussions. In recent years, the Committee has received close to 200 different nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. The number of nominating letters is much higher, as many are for the same candidates. [Emphasis added]

Barack Obama took the oath of office on 20 January 2009, 12 days before the submission deadline. The citation could not have possibly have been referring to these 12 days, which raised the question of what exactly Mr. Obama's nominators nominated him for.

The literature prize, again, went to an obscure writer nobody had heard of before last week.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Is have it again

Institutional economists this time.

It: The 2009 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, popularly but inaccurately, known as the Nobel Prize in Economics.

All I can say is: the pendulum swings. The work being recognised is firmly rooted in the real world. Which is more than can be said for a lot of contemporary economics.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Diego Armando Maradona

The question of who is the greatest footballer of all time is one that has occupied, and will continue to occupy, the minds of football fans for many decades. Two players, from two different eras of the game, usually end up at the top of most people's lists as arguably the best in the history of football with apparently very little to choose between them: Pele and Maradona. And, indeed, a good case can be made for either man.

But for me personally (and the tautology is quite deliberate) Maradona, and not Pele, is the greatest player ever to have played the game of football. Why? Well, before I discuss what puts Maradona at the head of this two-man class, let me deal with the similarities between the two players. Both wore the number 10 jersey, which traditionally denotes the role of playmaker, and both were the finest exponents of the playmaker's art and science. Both were iconic talismen for club and country, frequently looked to produce moments of divinity--and neither man disappointed in that respect. Both had an unmistakable presence on the field and both were supremely gifted and accomplished footballing athletes. Both won major championships with (or in Maradona's for) their club and national teams. And both were universally acknowledged to be the greatest players of their respective generations.

So much for the similarities. Why do I unequivocally--and not arguably--put Maradona above Pele? In a word: passion. I do not know of any great (or good) footballer who has played the game with more passion, more heart, more drive, more determination, or more sheer will to win than Diego Armando Maradona. And in this department, Maradona is streets ahead of Pele.

That passion was on display again yesterday when Argentina (now managed by Maradona) sensationally won a crucial World Cup qualifier against Peru with a stoppage time goal from Martin Palermo, a 35-year-old player brought back (resurrected?) by Maradona after a 10 year absence from the national team. Enough said. Watch:

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Is have it

The "Is" are Inventors. And "it" is the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The inventions? Optical communication fibre and the charge-coupled device (CCD).

Here's the lowdown and the breakdown.

Update: There's an interesting little interview with one of the laureates, George E. Smith, on the Nobel Foundation website. It turns out that Dr. Smith and Dr. Willard S. Boyle, co-inventors of the CCD, and both of Bell Labs, worked out all the basic principles of CCDs in a single afternoon 40 years ago! Dr. Smith, it appears, has long believed in the virtues of going straight for the scientific jugular: his 1959 PhD thesis (University of Chicago) is just eight (yes, 8) pages long. It was subsequently published in the journal Physical Review in the same year. Einstein's 1905 doctoral thesis is just 24 pages long. It's here, see for yourself. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

And the Ig Nobel Prize goes to...

The 2009 Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded last week in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Mathematics prize went to Gideon Gono, Governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) since 1 December 2003 and author of a recent book entitled Zimbabwe’s Casino Economy: Extraordinary Measures for Extraordinary Challenges. (No, I didn't make that last bit up.)

The citation reads:

for giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers — from very small to very big — by having his bank print bank notes with denominations ranging from one cent ($.01) to one hundred trillion dollars ($100,000,000,000,000).
But leaving the surreal world for the real world for a moment, the 2009 Nobel Prizes will be announced this week.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Friday, September 04, 2009

Terraforming the Earth

A recent report commissioned by the Royal Society acknowledged the possibility of counteracting the effects of climate change by means of geoengineering. The idea of terraforming in science fiction means the creation of environments capable of human habitation on otherwise humanly uninhabitable planets or other bodies beyond the earth. So if man has already dared to conceive of rendering extraterrestrial environments fit for human habitation, the business of making earth (re)habitable through the use of technology can't be that farfetched, can it?

Sunday, August 02, 2009

First Lines

A new series: First Lines. The objective: To celebrate interesting openings, not in the Chess sense, but in the literary sense. And occasionally: To analyse them.

First up: A Mathematician's Apology (1940) by G. H. Hardy, a work on which Graham Greene remarked "I know no writing—except perhaps Henry James's introductory essays—which conveys so clearly and with such an absence of fuss the excitement of the creative artist." (The Spectator, December 20, 1940).

The first line in the book is:
It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics.
The first line in C. P. Snow's 1967 biographical foreword to AMA reads:
It was a perfectly ordinary night at Christ's high table, except that Hardy was dining as a guest.

The Man Lived

Harry Kreisler: Your work as a political activist and as an essayist and as a human rights activist took a decisive turn at a period before the Biafran war in which, in your efforts to prevent that conflict from occurring, you became a political prisoner in Nigeria for two years. You recounted that story in a book called The Man Died. Where did that title come from?

Wole Soyinka: Well, the title was directly from a telegram which was sent to me. The man who died was a victim of military brutality in whose case I was particularly interested as one of the many causes which support, investigate, challenge power on behalf of human dignity. And in this case this fellow had been brutalized by the military, it was a military government, and after I was forced into exile while I was writing the book, looking for a title for the book, I sent word home asking for information about this young man and a telegram came with the title, "the man died." And it just seemed to me just apt for the book, my prison experiences, which I was writing at the time.

Conversations with History interview, 16 April 1998.
Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka, who recently turned 75, is this week's guest on CNN's African Voices programme.

By giving his 1972 memoir chronicling his 22-month imprisonment in solitary confinement the title The Man Died, Soyinka seemed to be saying "There, but for the grace of God [or Ogun in Soyinka's case], go I." Others have not been so fortunate: The eponymous anonymous "Man" and, over two decades later, Soyinka's friend and compatriot Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Pure Pauli

In 1921, Einstein reviewed a newly published book surveying his great special and general theories of relativity:
Whoever studies this mature and grandly conceived work might not believe that its author is a twenty-one year old man. One wonders what to admire most, the psychological understanding for the development of ideas, the sureness of mathematical deduction, the profound physical insight, the capacity for lucid, systematical presentation, the knowledge of the literature, the complete treatment of the subject matter, or the sureness of critical appraisal.
The book's author was one Wolfgang Pauli who went on to win the Nobel physics prize in 1945 and is universally acknowledged to be one of the greatest theoretical physicists of all time. Einstein called him his intellectual heir. (Pauli should not be confused with Wolfgang Paul, the 1989 Nobel physics laureate, whom Pauli humourously referred to as his "real part".)

I find Pauli and his approach and style utterly fascinating. There is something very pure about him. It is not for naught that he was known as "the conscience of physics" for much of his career, such was his uncompromising dedication to truth and willingness to face facts honestly. In this respect, he reminds me a lot of Orwell, another thinker of unbending integrity, whatever his philosophical and political faults.

Pauli's Nobel lecture provides a classic illustration of what I'm alluding to. He was awarded the prize for his discovery of the exclusion principle, also known as the Pauli exclusion principle. Now, any normal person called upon to deliver a lecture on the occasion of the award of such a prize of high distinction would focus, however discreetly and "modestly", on praising his own achievements. This, of course, is precisely what most of the Nobel laureates have done. But not Pauli. In his Nobel lecture (entitled "Exclusion principle and quantum mechanics"), Pauli delivers an unflinching, indeed an altogether unflattering, assessment of his own discovery and declares himself singularly dissatisfied. He concluded:
From the point of view of logic, my report on "Exclusion principle and quantum mechanics" has no conclusion. I believe that it will only be possible to write the conclusion if a theory will be established which will determine the value of the fine-structure constant and will thus explain the atomistic structure of electricity, which is such an essential quality of all atomic sources of electric fields actually occurring in Nature.
That's pure Pauli.

This is my favourite picture of Pauli. It's a passport photograph taken some time in 1940 just before Pauli (a Jew) left Hitler's Europe to take up a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. I loved that photo from the moment I laid eyes on it. It seemed then, just as it seems now, to capture something of the essential spirit, attitude and approach of Pauli: the intellectual purity and honesty; the penetrating gaze of the theorist (in the highest and best sense of that much misunderstood word); the simplicity; and the integrity. Earlier on today, I discovered that Pauli's wife also thought there was something very special about that image: "To my opinion, this is the best existing photo of W. Pauli," she remarked.

No account of Pauli would be complete without at least one of the many legendary Paulian quotes or anecdotes. I end with Pauli's inimitable and incontrovertible rebuttal to the publish or perish mentality so beloved in the academic community:
The fact that the author thinks slowly is not serious, but the fact that he publishes faster than he thinks is inexcusable.
Again, pure Pauli.

More on Pauli:

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Poet on The President

In The Root, Wole Soyinka analyses Barack Obama's choice of Ghana for his first visit to Sub-Saharan Africa after becoming POTUS. It makes for interesting reading, not least for the opportunity to savour Soyinka's highly verbose and dense prose style. Generally speaking, extreme verbosity and density does not make for very readable writing, but Soyinka somehow manages to pull it off in the way that only Soyinka can. He turned 75 earlier this month--remarkable for a man who has had numerous run-ins with brutal military dictactorships in his native Nigeria, including one which resulted in a 22-month imprisonment in solitary confinement from 1967 to 1969 (an ordeal immortalised in the ominously titled prison memoir The Man Died published in 1972).

Monday, July 20, 2009

Lunar Landing

"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."
--Neil Armstrong, 20 July 1969 (See: NASA transcript)

It's been exactly 40 years since man first landed on the moon. The Apollo 11 mission still stands as one of the most remarkable achievements in human history. Technologically, it is arguably the single greatest feat of engineering of all time.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

In a Mirror Darkly

What's the opposite of an A-List Celebrity? Not a Z-List Celebrity but rather a Z-List Nonentity. Following that train of thought to it's logical conclusion: an A-List Celebrity is equivalent to a Z-List Nonentity and a Z-List Celebrity is equivalent to an A-List Nonentity. By the same token, a B-List Celebrity is equivalent to a Y-List Nonentity and a Y-List Celebrity is equivalent to a B-List Nonentity. And so on from A to Z and reflectivity from Z to A.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Madman or Genius?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb of The Black Swan fame, that is. I can't quite make up my mind. Maybe he's both. Whatever he is, what he's not is boring. Here's his very interesting take on the limits of statistical and probabilistic reasoning vis-a-vis the global economic meltdown.

Update: An alternative title for this post would have been "Insanely Great or Greatly Insane?"

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Two Geeks in a Pond

Like Two Peas in a Pod.

How so? Thus so:
Worth a pop.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Corporate Resurrection

Last week saw the resurrection of a dead company: General Motors. This was possible through a quintessentially American innovation: Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. Chapter 11 is the "Reorganization Under the Bankruptcy Code" chapter of the United States Bankruptcy Code. (The United States Code refers to the categorised, consolidated and codified general and permanent laws of the United States.) There is another form of corporate bankruptcy, Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, that deals with "Chapter 7. Liquidation Under the Bankruptcy Code". Although other countries have similar legislation to Chapter 11, for example Insolvency laws in the United Kingdom, there are several aspects of Chapter 11 that make it unique. For instance, under Chapter 11, typically the current management is allowed to continue running the business, whereas under British Insolvency laws the business is "put under administration" and is run by an outsider.

Failure, it appears, in the United States is an option. And a very good thing that is too. In Silicon Valley, a corporate failure or two is regarded as a badge of honour. This is something the rest of the world should learn from the United States: Failure does not have to be the end, it can be a second chance and a new beginning.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Soyinka on Négritude

"The tiger does not proclaim its tigritude. The tiger acts."
--Wole Soyinka's immortal response to the Négritude movement

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Merchant of Hope

Yesterday and today, U. S. President Barack Hussein Obama made his second visit to an African country after coming in to office. He made a major policy speech to the Ghanaian Parliament in which he spoke candidly about the failures of African governments, as well as the challenges and opportunities of the present and the future. The title was a typically Obaman one: "A New Moment of Promise in Africa". The speech has been characterised as a strong dose of "tough love."

President Obama's first visit to an African country was in early June 2009, to Egypt. Again he made a major policy speech, this time at Cairo University. The title? "A New Beginning". The same hopeful theme--apparently. But was it really?

Reading and comparing the two speeches, I couldn't help but be struck by the difference in tone between them. In the Egypt speech, President Obama adopted a more cautious, almost conciliatory, approach. In the Ghana speech he was much more hard-hitting and blunt--and rightly so. But still, it makes me wonder about the real motivations and drivers behind these two speeches. It's not as though the countries of North Africa are paragons of virtue with regard to good government.

President Obama (quite rightly) slammed Sub-Saharan countries for their failures of governance. But when the BBC's Justin Webb asked him in an interview just before his trip to Egypt whether he regarded President Hosni Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler, President Obama replied: "No, I tend not to use labels for folks...I think he has been a force for stability and good in the region."

Clearly, President Obama has no problems accurately labelling the problems of Sub-Saharan Africa: the words "disease", "conflict", "tribalism", "patronage", "nepotism", corruption", "brutality" and "bribery" all made it into the Ghana speech. So why call the Egyptian spade a horticultural, earth-inverting implement?

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Mr. Andreessen, I presume?

Just over two years ago, Marc Andreessen started a blog on technology, business (especially tech startups), media and other issues. It was (what's that cliche again?) required reading for anybody interested in technology issues, especially around computing and the Internet--and I am such a body. And then about a year after the blog's launch, in mid-2008, Mr. Andreessen abruptly disappeared from the blogosphere never to be heard from again. Until now. At the beginning of this week, Mr. Andreessen blogged on the launch of Andreessen Horowitz, a new US$ 300 million venture capital fund headed by himself and his long-time business partner Ben Horowitz. It all sounds very interesting indeed. The first inkling I had of this fund was back in February 2009 in an interview Andreessen did with Charlie Rose. Oh, and he made the cover of the latest issue of Fortune magazine as well (story here).

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Old Boys' Network

This from the stated-owned Zambia Daily Mail of 8 July 2009:

Mugabe, African role model - Rupiah

PRESIDENT [Rupiah] Banda [of Zambia] has described his Zimbabwean counterpart, Robert Mugabe as a role model to all Africans who fought for and cherish African nationalism.[...]

“President Mugabe is a role model. Lesser men would not be standing where he is now, they would have been broken by the intrigues of his enemies. You are such a dedicated African Mr President…what a selfless leader you are,” he said.

He was speaking yesterday at this years’ Lwiindi Lo Kuzyola Mukuni N’gombe traditional ceremony, also attended by Mr Mugabe, at the Simukale Shrine in Mukuni village [in Livingstone, Zambia].

The ceremony, which is a commemoration of the Toka Leya people’s history, ended in song and dance.

For a good insight into the problems of the African continent, look no further than the few short paragraphs above. Both Mr. Banda (age 72) and Mr. Mugabe (age 85) were freedom fighters in their respective countries. That was decades ago, although you wouldn't know it from Mr. Banda's words. But the most chilling part for Zambia and Zambians is Mr. Banda's descriptions of Mr. Mugabe as a "role model" and a "selfless leader". I wish I could truthfully say that these words were little more than diplomatic hyperbole, but I can't. That's what makes them so chilling--and baffling.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Christmas Wish List: Making Your Case

I recently stumbled upon Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges (2008) by U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia and leading legal communications expert Bryan A. Garner. Although the book is primarily aimed at helping lawyers improve their powers of written and oral persuasion, I've seen enough to convince me it would be an excellent resource for anyone who is interested in effective writing and speaking.

A nice anecdote from Tip # 110 ("Learn how to handle a difficult judge") in the section on "Handling Questions":
Whatever else you do when confronted by a hostile and unreasonable judge, don’t reply in kind. Don’t become hostile yourself; don’t display anger, annoyance or impatience. Keep telling yourself that you owe it to your client—because you do.

Even so, lawyers are entitled to take great delight in the wonderful comeuppances to judicial boorishness that some of their more rash predecessors have devised. Our favorite was also a favorite of Justice Robert H. Jackson. A noted barrister, F.E. Smith, had argued at some length in an English court when the judge leaned over the bench and said: “I have read your case, Mr. Smith, and I am no wiser than I was when I started.”

To which the barrister replied: “Possibly not, My Lord, but far better informed.” Smith, who later became a famous judge as the Earl of Birkenhead, could reportedly carry off such snappy rejoinders with impunity.

We doubt that, but in any case we don’t recommend that you emulate him.
Note to friends and family: This would be a nice christmas present for your humble servant.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Tolstoy of the Zulus

"Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I'd be glad to read them."
--Saul Bellow, New York Times Magazine (1988)

"Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus--unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership."
--Ralph Wiley, Dark Witness (1996)
The term "orature" was coined by the Ugandan linguist and literary theorist Pio Zirimu. He used it as early as 1970; at first interchangeably with "oral literature", but later defined more precisely to mean "the use of utterance as an aesthetic means of expression". (See Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams by Ngugi wa Thiong'o.)

The primacy of orature over literature is one of the distinguishing features of non-literate societies such as the Zulus and the Papuans compared to 19th Century and early 20th Century Russia and France. So whilst there may well have been a Zulu Tolstoy and a Papuan Proust nobody would have been able to read them.

Other relevant features of these non-literate societies were their concepts of identity and property--both tended to be communal and collective in nature. Consequently, virtually all artisitic works such as songs, proverbs, stories, plays, and so forth were associated not with their individual authors but with their communities. Thus, in such societies, wise sayings for instance were commonly attributed to society as a whole, as evidenced by the typical introductory phrasing of proverbs: "The Zulus say..." and so forth.

Another issue worth considering on this topic: How do you untangle the heredity of an intellectual artifact like a novel or a sing or an Internet? To take the last item, the Internet, as an example: The Internet, as we know,, would be impossible without integrated circuits (an American invention); which would be impossible without Boolean algebra (which is of British extraction); which would be impossible without Arabic numerals, particularly ones and zeros (Arabic, get it?); which would be impossible without the numerical concept of zero (which owes its existence to Ancient Indian mathematicians).

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

UK MPs expenses

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past three or four months, you've heard about the UK Members of Parliament (MPs) expenses scandal. The statistics on the MPs expenditure for the 2007/2008 financial year are here. The total expenses for some 644 MPs were about £160 million, equivalent to roughly US$ 260 million. This works out to an average of approximately US$400,000 per MP per annum, all inclusive.

This is rather cheap if you ask me. Consider, by contrast, the cost of a single African politician. Taking some hypothetical but realistic figures: Let's say the politician is the president of an African country that produces 300,000 barrels of oil per day. And let's say the spot price of a barrel of oil is US$50 and that the production cost per barrel is US$20. That gives profits of US$9 million per day or US$3.285 billion per annum. Let's suppose, conservatively, that said politician takes 10% of these profits as his own. That's US$328.5 million per godfather per annum. Nice work if you can get it. Now, I hasten to add, that this scenario is not necessarily typical of 53 African nations, but it's certainly not unheard of.

The big lesson, of course, for African countries is how politicians in the UK are being held to account even for such "small" sums of money.

Update (9 July 2009): Perhaps not so farfetched after all...

Monday, June 29, 2009

Eight Year Old Questions

Over the weekend my eight year son asked me two questions:
  1. Why are clouds white?
  2. Why is the moon cold?

Update: After thinking about question (2) a little bit, I was puzzled and so after the initial post I went back and asked him "But how do you know the moon is cold?" "Because it's cold at night." Oh, ok, I get it: The hot sun "comes out" during the day and warms up the earth and the "cold" moon "comes out" during the night and cools it down. Interesting.

The Man in the Arena

This quote by Theodore Roosevelt is one of my favourites:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face in marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
The quote is taken from a speech delivered by Roosevelt almost a century ago at the Sorbonne in Paris. His theme was Citizenship in a Republic. Here's the quote in context:

Let the man of learning, the man of lettered leisure, beware of that queer and cheap temptation to pose to himself and to others as a cynic, as the man who has outgrown emotions and beliefs, the man to whom good and evil are as one. The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twister pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life's realities - all these are marks, not as the possessor would fain to think, of superiority but of weakness. They mark the men unfit to bear their part painfully in the stern strife of living, who seek, in the affection of contempt for the achievements of others, to hide from others and from themselves in their own weakness. The rôle is easy; there is none easier, save only the rôle of the man who sneers alike at both criticism and performance.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face in marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world. Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride of slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not exactly what they actually are. The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be a cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder. Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength. It is war-worn Hotspur, spent with hard fighting, he of the many errors and valiant end, over whose memory we love to linger, not over the memory of the young lord who "but for the vile guns would have been a valiant soldier."

--"Citizenship in a Republic," Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Land of Green Ginger

I'm reading The Land of Green Ginger (1975) by Noel Langley to my sons at bedtime. (Langley, incidentally, also wrote the screenplay for The Wizard of Oz.) I've just finished Chapter 2, or as it called in the book "Chapter The Second: Which Explains How Abu Ali Began the Search for the Land of Green Ginger, and Introduces Us to the Wicked Prince Tintac Ping Foo". (Chapter 1 is entitled "Chapter The First: Which Explains How, When, and Where There Was Ever Any Problem in the First Place".)

Promising, yes? And judging by the first two chapters, I can report that The Land of Green Ginger more than delivers on this promise. It is a wonderful book with memorable characters and a great story. But its principal pleasure, for me, is its delightfully humorous prose. Permit me to show and not simply tell. Here is a small excerpt from Chapter The Second:
And even though he is the hero of this tale, Prince Abu Ali had his faults, gentle reader, and it now my painful duty to enumerate them.

He was too amiable; too good-natured; too kindly; too honest, and too fair-minded.

He was too considerate of other people's feelings.

He laughed too easily, and he was much too sympathetic.

He was deeply fond of both his parents.

He was never lazy, impudent, or ill-mannered.

He could never raise his voice in foolish rage, or be a tattle-tale behind your back.

He was, in fact, quite hopeless. Nobody in the Court could see any hope for him. They were sure he'd make a highly unsuccessful Emperor. They doubted whether he would even be able to make a good marriage; because any real Princess was bound to find him as dull as ditchwater.
That is worthy of the master of comic prose himself, P. G. Wodehouse.

I can already see that The Land of Green Ginger will be one of those books that I enjoy reading so much that I regret finishing it.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Football, Footballing and the Meaning of Life

I suppose reading Fever Pitch (1992) by Nick Hornby should be de rigueur for any self-respecting Arsenal fan (De rigueur being particularly apropos given the enormous influence of the French manager and French players over the last 13 years). But I only got round to it this year and I've just finished reading it: It's a delightful, idiosyncratic, funny book and should be part of the intellectual furniture of any football fan. It's theme could be described as "Football as a mirror" (for life, living and much else), or more grandioslely, perhaps, as "Football, Footballing and the Meaning of Life".

There are hilarious bits on virtually every page of the book, but in keeping with the ongoing "Say No to Racism" campaign by FIFA I'll focus on a section entitled "Bananas". "Racism? Funny?" you say. Oh yes, funny in the way only all absurd ideas can be. So, back to "Bananas": On 15 August 1987, John Barnes, one of the most talented footballers of his and probably any generation, made his debut for Liverpool in a game against Arsenal at Highbury. Nick Hornby, aged 30 at the time, was in the stands. Before kick-off, Liverpool fans hurled bananas on to the pitch to welcome their new black player. In the interests of fairness, we should note that today John Barnes is one of the best-loved Liverpool players, affectionately known as "Digger" Barnes by Liverpool fans after a character from the 1980s soap opera Dallas. But here's the funniest bit of the "Bananas" section:
You can still, even now, occasionally hear idiots who jeer the black players on opposing teams. (One night I turned round angrily to confront an Arsenal fan making monkey noises at Manchester United's Paul Ince, and found I was abusing a blind man. A blind racist!)
It doesn't get any more absurd than that.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

Michael Jackson
(29 August 1958 – 25 June 2009)

This morning the world awoke to news of Michael Jackson's untimely death yesterday afternoon in Los Angeles. The news instantly became the lead story on all major online and offline news channels and platforms around the world. On many of these news forums, it became the only story. The Internet came under massive strain as millions tried to get the latest news, with many major websites experiencing significant slowdowns or outages. Let's be absolutely clear: this is not because of Michael Jackson's "eccentricity" or "notoriety". There are many other public (and private) figures of equal or greater eccentricity and notoriety whose deaths would not trigger such a tidal wave of reaction. No; it is because Michael Jackson was an unqualified genius, a word that is all too frequently used and all too rarely deserved. But Michael Jackson certainly deserved that description.

He was a mesmerising entertainer, vocalist, lyricist, composer, producer, actor, dancer, choreographer, writer, indeed an all-round artist. He defined and redefined various aspects of the entertainment and music industries. He had universal appeal, cutting across numerous geographical, cultural, racial and generational boundaries. (From my personal experience, I can confirm that he was and is hugely popular in Africa. In terms of cross-generational appeal: my eight year old son became an instant fan some years ago after watching a Michael Jackson video.) He was a legendary perfectionist, who wanted to work only with the best to produce the best. His vocal abilities were tremendous, and with the vocal range to boot: from the beautifully clear (You Are Not Alone), through the teasingly playful (The Girl is Mine), to the jarringly rough (Scream). There was no truer falsetto (Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough). And of course, we mustn't forget those Michael Jacksoneque vocal and lyrical flourishes: "Hee hee!"; "Whoo!"; "Aow!"; the stunted, tracheal "Umh!"; "Shamone!" (whatever that means); "Sha-la! Sha-linge!" (the part of the chorus of We Are The World which ended up on the editing room floor), and so forth. His powers of creativity and invention were boundless and perhaps, now, ironically, after his death, he will finally begin to be fully recognised for the supremely gifted artistic pioneer and innovator that he was. At the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards, which coincided with his 44th birthday, Michael Jackson was conferred with the Artist of the Millennium award by Britney Spears. He made a brief, emotional acceptance speech. It turned out that this was all done in error--there was no such award. But there should have been: Has there been a greater performing artist in the last 1000 years?

A small aside to further illustrate the man's genius which apparently extended even to technology: You remember the anti-gravity lean in the Smooth Criminal video? You know, the one where Michael Jackson and his dance crew lean forward to an impossibly acute angle without falling over? In the video, it was done with special harnesses, wires and magnets. But how were they to achieve the same effect for a live show without spoiling the illusion? Answer: Invent special anti-gravity shoes. Which is precisely what Michael Jackson did. He holds US patent 5255452 for a Method and means for creating anti-gravity illusion.

The lyrics of Gone Too Soon from the Dangerous album seem appropriate for the occasion:
"Gone Too Soon"

Like A Comet
Blazing 'Cross The Evening Sky
Gone Too Soon

Like A Rainbow
Fading In The Twinkling Of An Eye
Gone Too Soon

Shiny And Sparkly
And Splendidly Bright
Here One Day
Gone One Night

Like The Loss Of Sunlight
On A Cloudy Afternoon
Gone Too Soon

Like A Castle
Built Upon A Sandy Beach
Gone Too Soon

Like A Perfect Flower
That Is Just Beyond Your Reach
Gone Too Soon

Born To Amuse, To Inspire, To Delight
Here One Day
Gone One Night

Like A Sunset
Dying With The Rising Of The Moon
Gone Too Soon

Gone Too Soon
(Here's a YouTube video of Michael Jackson performing--note performing not singing!--"Gone Too Soon".)

The King is Dead, but his work will live on. Forever.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Hope Springs Eternal

One mistake followed by one unstoppable free kick from the boot of Dani Alves in the 88th minute.

That, in the end, was what decided the Confederations Cup semi-final match between Brazil (ranked 5th in the world by FIFA) and South Africa (ranked 72nd) earlier this evening, Brazil winning 1-0.

South Africa put in a very creditable performance against Brazil, the best football team in the world in many people's eyes, regardless of the official rankings. The Brazilians never found their natural rhythm--the South Africans didn't let them. In particular, Kaka, the supremely gifted Brazilian playmaker with the elegant, balletic, almost languid style, had neither the space nor the time to display his prodigious gifts. Instead, it was the South African midfielders that dominated the game--Steven Pienaar ultimately collecting the Man of the Match award. His colleagues in the middle of the park, Teko Modise and Siphiwe Tshabalala, were full of guile and cunning. Unfortunately, South Africa was unable to convert their impressive possession and passing into goals. This was also a feature of their previous games in the tournament, particularly the game against New Zealand which they won 2-0, but in which they failed to convert numerous goal-scoring opportunities. South Africa will have to correct this shortcoming. It may be due to the fact that the South African coach, Joel Santana, has chosen to play with only one striker, Bernard Parker.

However, the positives far outweighed the negatives and South Africa can justifiably be proud of their performance.

The next match on Sunday afternoon provides another stiff test, this time against the No. 1 ranked team in the world, the current European champions, Spain. Should be interesting.

Ed, Edwin n Eddie

Interesting talks and interviews by Co-founder and President of Pixar Amimation Studios, Dr. Ed Catmull:

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bloemfontein Tea Party

This evening, in Bloemfontein, in the FIFA 2009 Confederations Cup: The USA beat Spain, the top-ranked team in the world, 2-0. The USA played a very tactical--and it has to be said a very effective--game. Spain, a team with oodles of talent, had a frustrating night and missed out on setting a new record for the longest unbeaten streak in world football (36 matches, for the record, if you'll excuse the pun).

All hopes in South Africa are that tomorrow evening, Bafana Bafana, the national football team, will achieve a similar result against the mighty Brazil.

According to the current FIFA rankings, the relative positions of the four semifinalists are as follows: Spain (1), Brazil (5), USA (14), South Africa (72).

Clearly, on the basis of these rankings, any feat of giant-killing that will happen in tomorrow's game will far outweigh the giant-killing feat that happened in today's game. But we live in hope.

Incidentally: It's winter this time of year in the Southern Hemisphere and Bloemfontein was freezing--literally, with temperatures around 0°C. All teams that will play here in the World Cup next year should beware--the weather will definitely be a factor.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Last(ing) Lecture

I never cease to be inspired by Randy Pausch, the late author of the best-selling book The Last Lecture. When Randy was asked if he had any heroes and why, he replied:

I have a picture of Jackie Robinson on my wall. It's there to remind me that when there's prejudice or hostility, the best way to address it is to do your job well.

I love that.

Although the concept of a "Last Lecture" is a longstanding tradition in American universities, I think it's fair to say that it will continue to be associated primarily with Randy Pausch for some time to come.

The title of Randy's lecture was Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.

I love that too.

The pdf transcript is here (248 KB).

The video is on Youtube:

Defining Success

Just a thought:
If you don't define what success for you means for yourself, someone else will.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Mr. Ponzi comes to Africa

There's a very well kept secret about Africa and it's this: There are many wealthy people here, some of them fabulously wealthy. And where there is wealth, it is reasonable to expect, there will be stealth. And so it has proved to be. This week Noseweek, the monthly (ahem) South African investigative magazine, broke a story about a massive Ponzi scheme that's supposed to have fleeced hundreds of (mostly African) investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars. Yes, that's UNITED STATES dollars. Like I said, there are some fabulously wealthy people in this continent.

Now, admittedly, not all of these rich people have acquired their wealth through (how shall we put it?) conventional channels. Or at least, not through what passes for conventional channels in other parts of the world. Take the recently departed Omar Bongo, erstwhile President of Gabon. And that's erstwhile with a capital "WHILE", 42 years to be precise. 42 years! You can do a lot in 42 years and Bongo did a heck of a lot. For himself, that is. Politics being the original African Ponzi scheme, you see.

This week's Economist has an obituary of Omar Bongo. Entertaining and depressing in equal measure.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Pixar's Secret Sauce

Pixar Animation Studios has a long string of firsts to its name, including creating the world's first computer-animated feature film (Toy Story, released in 1995).

To date, Pixar has released ten feature films: Toy Story (1995), A Bug's Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Cars (2006), Ratatouille (2007), WALL•E (2008), and Up (2009). All but three, Toy Story, A Bug's Life and Up, are in the top 100 worldwide box office grossing movies of all time. The first two are in the top 200. As for the third, Up, well, it's still in cinemas as we speak and if Pixar's track record over the past decade is anything to go by, it will also end up in the top 100. Up has already scored another first: it became the first animated movie to open the Cannes Film Festival in 2009.

So, what's the secret of Pixar's success?

Well, it probably helps that George Lucas and Steve Jobs were intimately involved with the creation of Pixar, but this alone cannot explain the success story that Pixar has become over the last 30 years.

In an article entitled "How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity" published in the September 2008 issue (pages 64-72) of Harvard Business Review, Dr. Ed Catmull, Pixar's co-founder and President, reveals all. Catmull has been there from before the beginning--he was recruited by George Lucas from the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), where he headed the Computer Graphics Lab (CGL), to start up the computer graphics division at Lucasfilm in 1979. In 1986, Steve Jobs bought the division for US$ 10 million and established it as an indepedent company called Pixar, with Catmull as co-founder and chief technical officer.

It's a fascinating article and worth reading in full, but here's my summary of Catmull's key insights on Pixar's principles and practices for managing creative companies:
  • It's primarily about good people, not good ideas. Good people are more important than good ideas.
  • The Nature of Collective Creativity:
  • In complex product development, like filmmaking, creativity involves many people from different disciplines working together to solve numerous problems. It is not a solo act.
  • Such a working environment requires a tolerance for risk (and possible failure), trust, respect, and a deep sense of community.
  • Set and maintain the highest standards of service and product quality.
  • Power to the Creatives:
  • Creative power and authority must reside with the creative team's leadership, i.e., the film's producer and the director.
  • A Peer Culture:
  • Create internal peer review panels and processes to provide unbiased, unvarnished input to the creative team's leaders, but ultimate power and authority must resides with those leaders. At Pixar, this elite peer group of producers and directors is called The brain trust.
  • The practice of working together as peers extends to all levels of Pixar, not just producers and directors. For example, daily reviews or dailies are a process for giving and receiving constant feedback in a positive way. People show work in an incomplete form to the whole creative team and everyone is encouraged to comment. The benefits are: (1) Once people overcome the embarrassment of showing work still in progress, they become more creative. (2) The leaders can communicate important points to the entire team at the same time. (3) People learn from and inspire each other. (4) It avoids wasted efforts. People's overwhelming desire to ensure their work is "good" before they show it to others increases the probability that their finished version won't be what the director wants.
  • Technology + Art = Magic:
  • Getting people in different disciplines to treat each other as peers is just as important as getting people within disciplines to do so. But it's much harder as a result of various barriers including: natural class structures (some functions consider themselves and are perceived by others as being more valued by the organisation); different languages spoken by different disciplines; physical distances between offices; etc. In creative businesses, all such barriers are impediments to producing great work.
  • Making constant change, or reinvention, the norm in the organisation and blending technology and art, leads to magical things happening.
  • "Technology inspires art, and art challenges the technology"--John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer, Pixar Animation Studios
  • Operating Principle #1: Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone.
  • Operating Principle #2: It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas.
  • Operating Principle #3: Stay close to innovations happening in the academic community.
  • Other barrier-breaking practices: (1) Pixar University--a collection of in-house courses open to anyone in the company and allows for training and cross-training of people. Reinforces mindset that everyone in the company is learning and it's fun to learn to learn together. (2) Pixar's building (Steve Job's brainchild) is structured to maximise inadvertent encounters and interactions. At the centre is a large atrium containing the cafeteria, meeting rooms, bathrooms, and mailboxes.
  • Staying on the Rails:
  • The history of the computer industry has many examples of companies that put together great people who produced great products and then, at the height of their powers, made stunningly bad decisions and faded into irrelevance.
  • Catmull vowed to ensure Pixar would not suffer this fate by inculcating a culture of introspection and self analysis, systematically fighting complacency and systematically uncovering problems in the midst of success.
  • The keys are: clear values; constant communication; routine postmortems; the regular injection of fresh blood, and strong leadership.
  • Effective postmortems. Nobody likes to do postmortems, left unchecked they will be gamed to avoid confronting the unpleasant. Simple techniques to avoid this include: (1) Regularly vary the way you do postmortems. (2) Ask each group to list the top five things they would do again and the top five things they wouldn't do--this balances positives and negatives. (3) Employ lots of data in the review, including activities and deliverables that can be quantified (e.g., rate at which things happen, how often something has to be reworked, whether a piece of work was completely finished when it was sent to another department or not, etc.) These data show things in a neutral way, which can stimulate discussion and challenges assumptions arising from personal impressions.
  • Fresh blood. There are two challenges associated with bringing in new people with fresh perspectives: the not-invented-here syndrome and the awe-of-the-institution syndrome. The former is less of an issue because of Pixar's open culture. The latter is a bigger challenge, especially getting young new hires to speak up. To try to remedy this, Catmull makes it a practice to speak at orientation sessions for new hires and to talk about the mistakes Pixar has made and the lessons it has learned. The purpose is to persuade them that the company haven't got it all figured out and that they want everyone to question why they're doing something that doesn't seem to make sense to them.
Catmull concludes:
For 20 years, I pursued a dream of making the first computer-animated film. To be honest, after that goal was realized - when we finished Toy Story - I was a bit lost. But then I realized the most exciting thing I had ever done was to create the unique environment that allowed that film to be made. My new goal became, with John [Lasseter], to build a studio that had the depth, robustness, and will to keep searching for the hard truths that preserve the confluence of forces necessary to create magic. In the two years since Pixar's merger with Disney, we've had the good fortune to expand the goal to include the revival of Disney Animation Studios. It has been extremely gratifying to see the principles and approaches we developed at Pixar transform this studio. But the ultimate test of whether John and I have achieved our goals is if Pixar and Disney are still producing animated films that touch world culture in a positive way long after we two, and our friends who founded and built Pixar with us, are gone.
Hear, hear.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Mo Ibrahim on Aid

In the FT: Mo Ibrahim, the founder of Celtel, weighs in on the ferocious worldwide debate on the (in)effectiveness of aid to Africa sparked by Dambisa Moyo's recent book Dead Aid.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Gordon Brown: Not Drowning but Waving

Not Drowning but Waving. That's the phrase that comes to mind when I think of the UK's beleaguered Prime Minister. Here we have a man who should drown (figuratively, of course), but refuses to do so. It makes for painful and pitiful viewing.

The phrase is a play on the title and refrain of a poem by Stevie Smith, that she (yes, she) published in 1950s:

Not Waving but Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Reading: Things Fall Apart (Classics in Context edition)

In 1958, a highly unusual manuscript arrived at the Heinemann publishing house in London. It was a novel, set in Africa, with Africans as the main characters, and written by a young unpublished African writer. Heinemann took a risk and published the novel. More than 50 years later that novel, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, is widely acknowledged to be one of the finest novels of the 20th Century. Indeed, it frequently ends up on lists of the finest novels of all time. Achebe was 28 when the novel was published and several years younger when it was conceived and started.

I'm currently rereading Things Fall Apart in the Classics in Context edition. It contains a wealth of supplementary material including scholarly essays by Professor Simon Gikandi of Princeton University and the late Professor Don Ohadike of Cornell University. This book is a fascinating introduction for anyone who might be interested to learn more about African history and African culture.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Encyclopedia of African Politics: Two New Entries

The two new entries to the Encyclopedia of African Politics both happen to be TLAs-Three Letter Acronyms:

  1. GNU (Government of National Unity)
    In other parts of the world, a GNU (pronounced like the antelope) is instituted after a period of hostilities between two parties has been halted and the former enemies agree to work together. In Africa, the GNU is brought on by a disputed election: one or more of the parties contesting the election refuse to accept the outcome of the ballot, normally citing various irregularities. The winning party and the losing party or parties then take the country to the brink of civil war. And then, with great aplomb, steer the nation back to safety using a GNU.

  2. PIG (Party and Its Government)
    PIG is the name given to the almost universal practice in Africa of the ruling party extending its tentacles into the affairs and working of government to such an extent that the dividing line between partisan interests and national interests are blurred.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Phenomenal and the Fundamental

Dambisa Moyo (Foreign Policy, “The Next Big Thing: Africa,” May/June 2009) argues that the current global economic crisis could benefit Africa by reducing the supply of foreign aid to the continent. This is on the grounds that aid is not only ineffective but counterproductive (as so ably shown in her highly stimulating and readable recent book “Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa”) and that the removal of aid will force African leaders to find alternatives.

Moyo states that “Africa’s renaissance is firstly economic” and gives a largely economic analysis of the continent’s predicament and possibilities—not entirely surprising perhaps since she’s an economist.

But this approach is somewhat misleading in that it deals with phenomena and not fundamentals.

It is true that the removal of foreign aid will prompt the search for other sources of funding. However, fundamentally, it is not true that these alternatives will necessarily be good, as we see from the recent history of aid-starved Zimbabwe, where hyperinflationary printing of money was used as an alternative source of government funding.

It is true that there have been some improvements in governance, access to telecommunications via mobile telephony, and financial systems in Africa. However, unless these improvements are fundamentally linked with the cultural and institutional entrenchment of democratic values, progress will be ephemeral and short-lived.

This is the basic challenge facing Africa: Not the need for a past-focused African Renaissance to restore lost African identity and pride; but the need for a future-focused African Enlightenment based on the best ideas and ideals, which Africans themselves create, adopt (regardless of historical or geographical origin), cultivate and implement. This is much more involving, but ultimately sustainable, than any other development strategy for it embraces all aspects of that quality that Africa and Africans have been in search of for so many decades: Freedom.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Larry Speaks

You know you've really arrived when you finally join the ultra-exclusive My First Name Is Enough Society. You know, the one with members like Oprah (Winfrey), Tiger (Woods) and Warren (Buffet), and whose latest inductee is Barack (Obama). Larry (Page) joined the club some years ago along with his partner Sergey (Brin). It's been over ten years (ten years and eight months to be precise) since they officially founded Google. A decade is a good time to stop, look around, look back, and look forward. And that is precisely what Larry did on the 2nd of May 2009 when he spoke at the 2009 University of Michigan Spring Commencement. He also collected an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree at the same event.

My favourite pearl of wisdom from his speech:
Have a healthy disregard for the impossible.

You may...


Or read:

The Full Transcript

Either way: Enjoy.

Beyond Aid

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda puts the case for a development agenda in Africa that is not driven by aid.

The pro-aid activists will, of course, baulk at the very idea: "African development without aid? Impossible!"

And yet consider the evidence:
  • No country in history has ever developed as a result of the injection of aid. (And before anyone throws post-World War II Europe at me, that surely was a case of reconstruction not development.)
  • The only available precedents of rapid socio-economic development have all, without exception, been self-driven.
  • Heavily aid-dependent countries have regressed not progressed as they've sunk deeper into the swamp of foreign aid.
Could it be that what the pro-aiders really believe, perhaps unconsciously, is that Africans are somehow incapable of doing what Europeans, Americans and Asians have done before them?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

UEFA Champions League

Last night: Disappointing but not entirely surprising: Arsenal beaten 3-1 on aggregate by our mortal enemies Manchester United. I hate to admit it, but we were completely outthought and outplayed by our opponents.

Tonight: Surprising but not entirely disappointing: Chelsea beaten 1-1 on aggregate by Barcelona (that pesky away goals rule again--sorry Chelsea) with Barca equalising in the 93rd minute courtesy of a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (there's just no other way to describe it) volley by the gifted Spanish midfielder Andrés Iniesta (watch out for him in the World Cup next year). The 93rd minute! What a game football is. I know, I know, it's only a game, but my, what a game! Cruel and cool, all at the same time. Unfortunately this match will also be remembered for some atrocious refereeing by this man. But anyway...

Upshot: The appetising prospect of a final between Manchester United and FC Barcelona at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on Wednesday 27 May 2009.

Lesson: Didier Drogba, who completely lost his composure after Chelsea's defeat, needs to cool down and learn Kipling's If off by heart. As should we all:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream -- and not make dreams your master;
If you can think -- and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings -- nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run --
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man, my son!

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Life: Retrospective and Progressive

One of my favourite quotations is: Life must be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards. It originates from an 1843 entry in The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard. Here's what Kierkegaard originally said in context:

It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards. And if one thinks over that proposition it becomes more and more evident that life can never really be understood in time simply because at no particular moment can I find the necessary resting-place from which to understand it backwards.

Monday, April 27, 2009

She comes to bury Aid, not to praise it: "Dead Aid" by Dambisa Moyo

Review: Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is Another Way for Africa. By Dambisa Moyo. Penguin, 2009. Pages: xx + 188.


The word looks and sounds innocuous enough. Its basic meaning is simple too: “v. & n. help.” according to one pocket dictionary.

But there’s another side to aid apart from humanitarian assistance and charity, an altogether more pernicious side. This kind of aid involves the transfer of money from governments in developed countries to governments in developing countries for the ostensible purpose of fostering economic development. It is, in the memorable words of the eminent development economist Peter Bauer, “a process by which the poor in rich countries subsidise the rich in poor countries.”

Aid has become big business. Over the past 50 years, African countries have received over US$1 trillion in aid. Every year billions more are poured into the aid industry in Africa. The industry employs many thousands of people inside and outside the continent. The World Bank, for instance, one of the largest conduits of aid, has over 10,000 employees, although ironically only 30% of them are based in developing countries; the rest are in Washington, DC and similar places. Many of the aid workers that are in developing countries are expatriates and are handsomely paid for their work. I have seen many an expatriate aid worker in Lusaka’s top shopping malls lavishly spending their hard-earned hardship allowances—this in one of Africa’s safest and most stable countries. The aid industry also employs many of the brightest and best educated citizens of African countries, precisely those whose talents and skills are most needed and would be most productive in government and the private sector.

Yes, aid has become very big business indeed, but with very little to show for it in the way of positive results. In fact, as Dead Aid, Dr. Dambisa Moyo’s new book on aid and African development, shows, systematic aid is not only ineffective, it is harmful. It encourages corruption; it stifles the private sector; it weakens public accountability; it foments conflict and rivalry; it produces negative economic effects (such as reduced savings and investment and increased inflation); and it inculcates a culture of dependency in its recipients. Dr. Moyo sets out to show how aid is at the very root of Africa’s problems, how it must be removed, and how it can be replaced with better alternatives.

Dr. Moyo certainly has the credentials to match her aims. She was born and raised in Zambia. In 1990, her chemistry studies at the University of Zambia in Lusaka were disrupted by political unrest and she left to study in the United States. She earned a bachelors degree in chemistry and an MBA in finance from the American University in Washington, DC. From 1993 to 1995, she worked at the World Bank and was a co-author of its annual World Development Report. She then went on to earn a masters in public policy from Harvard KSG and a doctorate in development economics from Oxford CSAE. From 2001 to 2008, she worked at Goldman Sachs. She sits on the boards of several non-profit organisations and was recently nominated to the board of Lundin Petroleum, a global oil and gas exploration and production company. It is an impressive mix of experience and expertise: academic and professional; public sector and private sector; developing world and developed world.

In the first part of the book (“The World of Aid”), Dr. Moyo makes the case for the ineffectiveness and counter-productiveness of aid. As she readily admits, this case has been made before, first by Peter Bauer (to whom the book is dedicated) and later by others such William Easterly. But the unique perspective and deep passion that she brings to the task makes this perhaps the most compelling case yet. It fell, as it were, to Prof. Bauer and Prof. Easterly to pronounce aid dead, and to Dr. Moyo to deliver a brutally honest funeral oration and see to the burial of the corpse.

In the second and final part of the book (“A World without Aid”), Dr. Moyo proposes a number of market-based funding alternatives to replace aid: international private bonds; financing from China and other emerging economic powers; trade and foreign direct investment (FDI); and microfinancing, international remittances and local savings.

Now that aid is dead and buried, are we potentially on the cusp of a new era of sustainable African development based on the funding alternatives suggested by Dr. Moyo? Are the Dead Aid proposals the final answer to Africa’s perennial problems?

It has been said that to the man (or woman) with a hammer in his (or her) hand, every problem looks like a nail. Therefore, perhaps it’s not surprising that as an economist Dr. Moyo tends to see Africa’s problems and solutions in purely economic terms. If it were true that Africa’s problems were wholly or chiefly attributable to its dependence on aid, then we would certainly be on the verge of a metamorphosis. Sadly, the issue of aid, important though it is, is really only a serious symptom or set of symptoms (i.e., a syndrome); it is not the underlying disease. Or to use a military analogy, aid is a major battle (but still only at the tactical level) and not the war (at the strategic level).

The fundamental problem in Africa is not with the way African governments are funded (as the book asserts). The fundamental problem is with the way African governments are run, that is to say with the nature of government itself. For the most part, African governments act as masters, not as servants (their only legitimate role). There has been much talk about The African Renaissance (the “rebirth” of traditional African identity and culture presumably), but nothing about what’s really required: The African Enlightenment (the creation, adoption [regardless of historical or cultural origin], cultivation and implementation of good ideas and ideals). And so, the approach of the contemporary African government looks (and feels) remarkably like that of the traditional African chief. Government, legitimate government, should be a means, not an end. People should be ends, not means. This order is exactly reversed in many African countries. Not only is government the end, it is literally God, complete with all the divine attributes: omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence.

Dr. Moyo argues strongly in favour of economic freedom but, regrettably, downplays the importance of other freedoms like political freedom. In one startling passage, she argues that democratic systems of government may be bad for economic development:
The uncomfortable truth is that far from being a prerequisite for economic growth, democracy can hamper development as democratic regimes find it difficult to push through economically beneficial legislation amid rival parties and jockeying interests. In a perfect world, what poor countries at the lowest rungs of economic development need is not a multi-party democracy, but in fact a decisive benevolent dictator to push through the reforms required to get the economy moving (unfortunately, too often countries end up with more dictator and less benevolence). The Western mindset erroneously equates a political system of multi-party democracy with high-quality institutions (for example, effective rule of law, respected property rights and an independent judiciary, etc.). But the two are not synonymous.
This is a mistake. Ultimately, economic freedom, political freedom, and any other freedom, are only particular aspects of freedom itself. In the final analysis, freedom is one indivisible whole. As one of the journals of the Scottish Enlightenment put it:
Be assured that freedom of trade, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of action, are but modifications of one great fundamental truth, and that all must be maintained or all risked: they stand or fall together.
-The Edinburgh Review, Vol. LXXVII, No. CLV, February 1843, p. 224.
To her credit, Dr. Moyo acknowledges the importance of democratic institutions (such as the rule of law, private property rights, and an independent judiciary) for economic development. However, she fails to adequately emphasise that ultimately such institutions must be the embodiment of democratic principles (ideas and ideals centred on individuals), and cannot, perforce, be the embodiment of certain personalities (not matter how decisive or benevolently dictatorial).

Fortunately, the absolute necessity of good governance is beginning to be recognised in Africa. For instance, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, founded by the eponymous Sudanese-born telecoms billionaire and philanthropist, focuses on building good governance in Africa through its annual Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership and Ibrahim Index of African Governance.

Dr. Moyo’s gung ho attitude towards Chinese economic expansion (or imperialism, according to some commentators) in Africa is somewhat misplaced. Clearly much of Africa’s economic partnership with China has come at the expense of democratic principles, human rights and good governance. Furthermore, whilst the Chinese government consistently proclaims its policies of not interfering with and not imposing conditions on its African partners, its actions belie its words. For example, in the run-up to the 2006 Zambian presidential elections, the Chinese government publicly threatened to sever all ties with Zambia if the electorate chose the opposition presidential candidate instead of the more pro-Chinese incumbent. More recently, in March 2009, the Dalai Lama was denied a visa to attend a FIFA/Nobel Foundation conference in Johannesburg. This came after the Chinese government “appealed” to the South African government not to allow the Dalai Lama into South Africa, warning that doing so would “harm” bilateral relations. So much for no interference and no conditions.

As a polemical work of literature, Dead Aid is very well written, in clear, supple prose with the occasional burst of linguistic flair.

In writing this book, Dr. Moyo set herself three ambitious goals: first, to write a book that tackles not one but two major themes (the case against aid and workable alternatives to aid); second, to write a book that is both scholarly and popular; and third, to write a book that addresses multiple audiences at that same time (In her own words: “Africans and African policymakers...[and]...those in the West and broader international community who truly wish to see Africa progress.”).

The first goal is a success: Dr. Moyo makes a well-argued and powerful case against aid and for alternative development financing alternatives. (Readers interested in learning more about the wider debate in development economics, especially central planning versus free markets, should consult the works of Peter Bauer, particularly his detailed critiques of state-led development approaches and his monumental and meticulous studies on indigenous entrepreneurship in West Africa and South East Asia.)

Dr. Moyo’s second accomplishment is to have written a book that is scholarly and yet popular. The end notes and extensive bibliography should prove useful to researchers in development economics and other disciplines. And the easy, accessible style should help almost anyone to become acquainted with the real issues around aid. The importance of effectively presenting these issues to the general public should not be underestimated, more so in these times when aid has become, in Dr. Moyo’s phrase, a “cultural commodity”. The proponents of aid now include all kinds of celebrities who are extremely adept at packaging their message for public consumption (e.g. the “Make Poverty History” campaign). Dr. Moyo’s book should do a lot to present the other side of the argument.

The third and final goal was the most herculean of all: to write a single book that speaks effectively to Africans, African policy makers, Westerners and the “broader international community”. Here, Dr. Moyo has not been entirely successful, but not for want of ambition or effort. The advice and prescriptions she offers to Africans and African policy makers, in particular, may be dangerously misleading in various ways. Nevertheless, the valiant pursuit of such a lofty goal should not be lightly dismissed for, as Browning reminds us, “a man's reach should exceed his grasp - or what's a heaven for?”

The book has two notable weaknesses, one, an error of commission, and the other, an error of omission. The first is the erroneous claim that aid is the fundamental cause of Africa’s problems. And the second is the lack of emphasis put on good government.

But this is a small price to pay for such a stimulating and readable book.