My Reading List: August 2014

credit: slate.com

A week ago, I gave my team a talk about the necessity of developing and maintaining a reading habit for a number of reasons, including its ability to keep you up with the latest trends in your line of work or interests in the world, infusing you with ideas, and generally keeping you fresh and thinking. Naturally a few of them asked me about what my reading list was.

A couple of caveats, before I reveal this…this is *my* list and reflects *my* interests; I don’t believe AT ALL that this is the perfect list for anyone including myself. My interests change regularly, and my reading list changes with it. I generally encourage people to come up with their own, as each of us is different. Finally, my focus in that talk was the emphasis of developing the habit of reading. In the beginning, content is moot…the point is to just make the habit of reading; but hopefully over time, it will evolve into something more significant and educational.

I’d also like to make it clear that I am practising what I preach in terms of developing the habit. As a child, I lacked the attention span to read…the only books I read were mandatory for school and the ones I read by choice had lots of  pictures in them. That said, ALL my closest friends and the people I admired most were bookworms…so I got knowledge by proxy. Over time, as I got separated from my friends and the internet, particularly during long waits “in the field” on remote assignments away from my regular life, often in places where I didn’t speak the language, books became my solace, my escape, and my “happy place.” I clung to them and they to me. And so began a new habit…to a point where a book is usually my constant companion. I have an old iPad and an iPhone, but given a choice, I would prefer a good handheld paper book, than the e-reader any day…

What I’m reading now: I primarily read non-fiction, with a focus on travel, history of science/technology, entrepreneurship, business, international development, and auto/biographies. I LOVE memoirs. Of course its constantly evolving and here’s what’s on my current list:

  • A Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson: Narrated like a detective story, this tells the tale of John Snow, a young, driven surgeon in 19th century England who was trying desperately to find the cause of Cholera. His discovery eventually changed the face of modern medicine, led to the establishment of the modern public health sector, and changed the way cities were designed and maintained. This was the birth of the modern water-sanitation-trash collection sectors. I’m at the tail end of this book. Its been marvelous so far!
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: I’m reading this because I’ve come to love and greatly appreciate what Steve accomplished through Apple, something that has blossomed into deep admiration. Its thick and daunting, so its taking me a LONG time to get through it…
  • Walking Home From Mongolia by Rob Lillwall: I love slow travel through foreign countries, and I love long walks. On my bucket list is to do a very long walk somewhere…but until then I will live vicariously through others. Rob and his buddy’s crazy 3000 mile walk from the Gobi Desert to Hong Kong was absolutely riveting. At the tail end of this book too.
  • Daring Greatly by Brene Brown: Like many other people, I was introduced to Brene through her superb TED Talk (which projected her into an insane fame spotlight) and was drawn to read more about her findings.
  • The Hindus by Wendy Doninger: A practicing Hindu myself, this book piqued my interest because of its highly controversial reputation in India where it was ultimately banned. Now that I’ve skimmed through it, I fail to understand the big deal. And I would encourage you to ignore most of the reviews (placed there to “kill” the book), as any non-biased person who has read it will tell you that its a great overview of the religion from an outsider’s perspective.
  • Jewels in the Crown by Ray Hutton: I just started this book, but its the ultimate revenge story in the best possible way. In six short years, Tata Motors of India acquired British automobile icons Jaguar-Land Rover, and turned the company around. This is the ultimate anti-colonial story that would make Gandhi proud.

What I plan to read in the future:

My blogroll/magazines I read regularly (this is NOT comprehensive…I read a lot of blogs…I read in breadth, not so much in depth when it comes to blogs…meaning I browse a LOT and find only a few things that I read thoroughly):

Innovation in Sanitation: Winner of the Gates Toilet Challenge…NOT SO CLEAR

The winner of the Gates Reinvent the Toilet Challenge is…drum roll please…

WELL, not so clear.

(I have a lot of problems with the Gates Foundation including their inability to communicate clearly what’s going on…)

Gates has decided to give money out in the form of grants; and its not clear what happened with any of those grantees. They got the money, yes…but then what?? Have the toilets been developed? Are they being tested? Are they being deployed?? Does the Foundation really care?? Well who really knows…

One of the grantees was the National University of Singapore, a place I was stationed at from 2010-12 and working in the field of water policy (including sanitation) at the time. Even with all my networking, I never heard about the grantees, or the development of the project. So I was never able to follow or support the project as it developed; nor was there any chance of collaboration.

From this article, it seems like CalTech was the winner of the challenge. Their model and development is innovative, effective and deserving, but a little technologically complex. I could instantly see problems with operation and maintenance in the developing world. But I’m not sure again what happened with it.

More results of the challenge are available here.

Innovation in Sanitation: The Man Who Wore A Sanitary Napkin

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Arunachalam Muruganatham at his desk working away on his award-winning sanitary napkin machine.

Lack of toilets and water during a menstrual cycle can mean huge drawbacks for women and girls. They can’t travel or get their work done on a regular basis; families that rely on a woman’s income will often starve during those days when she probably needs it most. Young girls often drop out of school because they can’t use the bathroom when they need, and this has lasting repercussions. Sanitary Napkins have traditionally been out of reach and too expensive for the poor.

Bring in Arunachalam Muruganantham, a poor handyman from a village in India and a high school dropout who was brave enough to take on the project to address the issues his wife was dealing with. It nearly cost him his marriage and made him the laughing stock of his community, but he stuck to his principles. Today, he has pioneered cheap and effective sanitary napkins for the poor in India and potentially the world. Watch his amazing story in his own words here:

Innovation in Sanitation: “She Toilets”

New “She Toilets” are causing quite an uproar in South India

In India, a country with one of the worst sanitation crises, the Hindu (the most respected newspaper in India), reports on a new initiative started by one of the small towns in South India to address the issue for women (women suffer the most with lack of access to toilets).

The “She Toilets”

The smart toilets will clean and sterilise their environments automatically. They have coin-operated sanitary-napkin-vending machines and an incinerator to burn used napkins. The toilets have baby stations to help mothers change the diapers of their children and Indian-style commodes.

Electronic display boards will tell users if the toilet is occupied or not. The toilet operation is remotely controlled. The smart toilets will send automatic SMS alerts to its controllers if the septic tank fills up or water supply is exhausted.

 

There are also security features to ensure the safety of the users. The agency has put up the “she-toilets” as most public toilets lack hygiene and pose health and safety problems to women users. The “she-toilets” have been designed keeping in mind the welfare of women commuters. They will be able to find the location of the nearest public e-toilet by searching on their mobile phones.

 

Sensor systems inside the toilet trigger its cleaning systems. The toilets will have washbasins, mirrors and health faucets. They will have FM radios and provisions to stop intruders.

 

Like everything else in India that is a public entity, I worry about the operation and maintenance, and long term use of this wonderful pilot project.

Sanitation: The Largest Infrastructure Problem in the World

This week is dedicated to sanitation. Around the world over 2.6 Billion people  (that’s almost 40% of the world population today!) lack access to sanitation. The results are catastrophic – high rates of diarrheal disease, typhoid, and other primary water-borne diseases; with numbers of secondary infections (such as HIV and TB) happily taking their toll.  The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 1.6 Million people die every year from diarrheal diseases alone, with 90% of these being children under the age of 5.

The worst part is its preventable. Want to learn more?

Here’s a great video to give you some perspective…

Xylem’s Innovative Water Convention

The Xylem World Water Show’s entrance page…look at the virtual classroom that you can “walk” into on the right.

The connective power of the internet and more powerful tools like smartphones and computers are both increasing innovation in otherwise stale areas, as well as decreasing barriers to entry for players who previously couldn’t come to the playing field for a variety of reasons.

Xylem, Inc is a company I had scarcely heard about until recently when I came across their World-Wide Water Show, a virtual trade show and convention that you could attend from the comfort of your living room.  Access to an internet browser and a dial-up connection gave you access to a whole world of international technology, and speakers. Suddenly, third-world citizens have the same access to opportunity as those from the first-world.

The one-day show on Nov 29, 2012, meant that you could attend at ANY point in the world’s 24-hour cycle. Like any convention, there was a calendar and agenda for when things were being showcased at what times. You could “wander” into a conference room that had a live speaker who was being simulcast; there were moderated forums for chat during the speech and a space to ask questions. Or you could go to the trade floor and “meet” virtually with experts from sponsor companies who “displayed” their wares and answered any questions. Forums or “live chats” took the place of face-to-face interactions.

Xylem also worked hard to incorporate features that made you feel like you were in a conference room or trade floor, by looking at the screen and letting you play like you were in a “Second Life” style setting.

If you are interested, the content and features are still up for another 85 days. Highly recommend it!! Go hereregister and click on the “on demand” button.

I’ll be honest… even as a water engineer, it is a little boring, so I didn’t stay too long. But its still worth visiting to check out the idea in action, the platform and the overall design/user experience…it was extremely innovative and brilliantly done at a fraction of the cost of a real convention. Granted there was no face-to-face interaction…but this could easily lead to that through.

Innovation in Sanitation: Waste Enterprisers

 

WE Founder, Ashley Murray has a PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering from UC Berkeley

A small group of poo-advocates have parked themselves in Accra, Ghana and creating an eco-energy business, transforming sewage into precious fuel.

 

Called the Waste-Enterprisers, their business model works as follows:

Inspired by the widespread use of sewage sludge as a fuel for cement plants, we’re developing a business around processing fecal sludge as a fuel for industrial boilers and kilns. Through our work with the FaME consortium in Ghana, Senegal and Uganda, we’ve found that the solids portion of fecal sludge has an energy value similar to coal.

Our business will harness that energy by processing, branding and marketing fecal sludge as a clean, renewable fuel to industries.

Here’s the best embeddable video I could find of theirs that showcased their business model:

Oh, and bTW, they are hiring. See here for more details (couldn’t find anything on their website, but heard about this from a friend). Follow them on twitter @WEnterprisers

Innovation in Sanitation: Sanitation Hackathon

Thankfully, several innovative Sanitation projects are popping up around the world. Take the recent Sanitation Hackathon from Dec 2012, when 1100 developers and technologists convened to address Sanitation problems from the developing world. This featured a collaboration of public, private, and non profits from around the world.

From what I could tell, there was an onsite challenge, and an offsite one for app development. You can track and see the results here.

 

 

Sanitation: Great Report from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

This stunning report from the LSHTM aims to encapsulate and capture the measure of the sanitation crisis in the world today.

This stunning report from the LSHTM aims to encapsulate and capture the measure of the sanitation crisis in the world today.

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has come out with a beautiful report on the state of Sanitation that is accompanied by strong visuals, including pictures, maps and graphics. Check it out here:

Here's an example of data that LSHTM has taken from the UN Database and turned into a visual representation.

Here’s an example of data that LSHTM has taken from the UN Database and turned into a visual representation.