TED Talk: Nandan Nilekani's ideas for India's future

Brilliant speech by Nandan Nilekani in Ted about imagining India. Nandan is the visionary CEO of Infosys and the author of the book 'Imagining India'. As part of this speech Nandan explains four brands of ideas that will determine whether India can continue its recent breakneck progress.

Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed by Jared Diamond

'Collapse' is an excellent read. In this book Jared Diamond tries to analyze what caused some of the major civilizations of the past to collapse and what can we learn from their failures. The book is divided into three major sections. In the first two sections Jared does an in depth analysis on several past and modern societies and the factors that led to their success/failure. In the final part of the book he tries to come up with some practical lessons that we can learn from the failure of past societies and how do they apply in today's context. Overall the key message from the book is that environmental destruction and unsustainable development are key reasons for failure of successful societies.

Jared picks an diverse set of societies from different geographies, time periods and cultures for this analysis. He has come up a 5 point framework for analyzing each of the societies. The key factors of the framework include environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners and society's response to environmental problems.

The book starts off with a detailed analysis of modern day Montana - considered to be one of the most natural and pristine states in US and analyzes some of the problems faced in Montana society due to mining, logging, non-native species etc. In the next few chapters he analyzes some of the past societies starting with Easter island where the natives had deforested the complete island while competing with each other to build more and bigger statues. He then briefly covers the collapse of Pitcairn/Henderson societies, Anasazi's of American southwest and Maya civilizations. This is followed by analysis of some successful societies like New Guinea, Tikopia and medieval Japan(Tokugawa era). He wraps up this section with detailed analysis of Vikings and Norse Greenland society which had failed after surviving for more than four centuries. Jared concludes that the Norse society failed due to its inability to adapt to the harsh Greenland environment, clinging on to unsustainable European lifestyle and last but not the least - not mingling and learning from the Inuits(locals).

The second section of of book covers about the challenges faced by some of the current societies and their outcomes. Jared starts off with the Rwandan Genocide and the factors leading to it. He then talks about Hispaniola and contrasts how the two countries of this island(Dominican Republic and Haiti) with the same history and environments had responded to their challenges differently leading to different outcomes - Dominican Republic is thriving whereas Haiti is on the verge of collapse. He goes on to analyze how the rapid growth and industrialization of China is impacting its environment and affects the quality of life if its people. Finally he wraps up the section with an analysis of some of the challenges faced by Australia and their response to it.

Based on the detailed analysis Jared reasons that past societies had made their disastrous decisions due to - Failure to anticipate, Failure to perceive, Rational bad behavior, Disastrous values and unsuccessful solutions. He sums up the current day scenario and details some of the actions taken by governments and corporates to protect the environment. He concludes the book on a positive note stating that the awareness of environmental issues is increasing and that governments and corporates are taking it seriously and acting on it. He is fairly optimistic about the success of our society.

Overall it was a very interesting read. Jared has done an excellent job by providing indepth details and doing a thorough analysis using a logical framework. The only comment i have is that most of the past societies he has taken are fairly small(except Mayas) and have fragile environments. However his point that environment destruction is a key factor leading to failures is valid and true. It would have been good if he had analyzed the failure of any major civilizations. Anyways this book has spurned my interest in studying the demise of major historic societies like Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Indus Valley and Chinese civilizations. If you have any pointers to these pls let me know!

Are we entering an era of pandemics?

Swine flu has been on top of news for the last couple of weeks. It has been spreading across the globe really fast and on last count around 21 countries have confirmed cases of Swine flu and another 20 more countries had suspected cases. The speed at which this pandemic has spread across the globe has been mind-boggling. The first reported case of Swine flu was in Mexico on April 2nd 2009 and the virulent strain of the swine flu was discovered on April 16th only. Within a short span of 3-4 weeks this has spread to 40 countries across 5 continents putting millions of people at risk!

This is not the first time the world has seen pandemics. The biggest one in the not too distant past was the 1918 Spanish flu. This pandemic claimed an estimated 50 million plus lives across the globe. Some of the other significant pandemics that caused large scale impact include 1958 Asian flu,1968 Hong Kong flu etc. The more recent pandemics in this decade include SARS, Avian flu etc. Never before in the history of humans has the risk of being affected in a pandemic of a global scale that too within a short span of time been higher. The pace of spread of these pandemics gives us very less time to respond/find cures.

Some interesting patterns that i see based on these are:

a) These pandemics seems to be occuring more and more often (3 significant ones so far in this decade)

b) Most of these virulent strains are resistant to known anti-biotics and drugs and are increasing harder to cure using our current medicines

c) The speed with they spread across the globe is rapidly increasing with each outbreak

Increasing trade and travel between countries has been acting as a catalyst speeding up the proliferation of these pandemics. As global population is getting aggregated into ever-growing cities, more and more people are crammed into smaller places/close proximity. In lot of 3rd world countries the living conditions & hygene in these cities are really bad. This exponentially increases the risk of both creating a pandemic and being exposed to a pandemic. If you notice another interesting trend, more than 60% of all infectious diseases are caused by 'zoonoses' - pathogenic viruses that originate in animals and jump to humans. Some of the classic examples of zoonoses include SARS, bird flu, HIV/AIDS, West nile virus, Ebola etc. A lot of these are very lethal and we still dont have a cure yet. Zooneses are caused due to increasing human/animal interactions & clashes due to declining habitat.

Taking a step back, while we have made gaint strides in science and medicine in the last century our risk to getting exposed to these pandemics has only increased. The complexity of newer diseases has outpaced the growth of science and technology. Whether knowingly or unknowingly we may have contributed to this increased risk of pandemics thru pollution, decreasing quality of key natural resources - air/water/soil, deforestation, shinking habitats, unsustainable population levels, genetic engineering, wide spread use of harmful chemicals like pesticides/insecticides, dumping of radio-active wastes etc. These bring home a simple fact that nature is infinitely complex and sensitive, playing with it can affect us in ways beyond our comprehension. Pandemics is nature's way of re-establishing the equilibrium that was disturbed by humans. The sooner we start realizing this simple fact and start acting responsibly the better the chances of our future generations enjoying the quality of life that we enjoy today.

Here are some interesting links/articles on this topic:

Age of pandemics - Excellent article by Larry Brilliant in WSJ
Swine flu tracking map by Ushahidi.com

Pls let me know your thoughts and comments on the above!
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