Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Let There Be Light

I found this article uplifting and so I thought I would share it.

A nice story about a remarkably industrious individual bringing solar panels to a remote village in India.

Apparently it was the first time many of the residents had seen artificial light after dark. The article speaks to the fact that this literally created several more hours each day in which these people live productively - working, studying or just socializing with family and friends.

The potential for solar (and wind power) is phenomenal on several levels and this article speaks to some of them.

At the same time, I wonder how this entrepreneur was financed. Solar power is not yet cheap on any scale that I am aware of (though wind is much cheaper)..... in other words, we can't exactly roll this out to all the un-powered villages in the world just yet (barring massive philanthropic efforts or some revolutionary business model).

Still, this article is inspiring. As the economics for these technologies become more favorable, the benefits for communities like this will be enormous. It seems hard to believe that efforts similar to this will not be an integral part of any eventual solutions to global poverty.

If you're interested, read the article here.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Recommended Reading

An insightful analysis on the factors that shape world opinion on America's foreign policy.

I recommend the entire article, but would like to highlight two specific parts that I thought were particularly intelligent and effectively communicated.

First, a brilliant analogy that attempts to explain the gap in understanding between Americans watching or reading the news and citizens of other countries that are often living it.

[A] major reason for anti-Americanism: the accreted residue of many years of U.S. foreign policies. These policies are unknown to most Americans. They form only minor footnotes in U.S. history. But they are the chapter titles of the histories of other countries, where they have had enormous consequences. America's strength has made it a sort of Gulliver in world affairs: By wiggling its toes it can, often inadvertently, break the arm of a Lilliputian.

The author follows this analogy with a compelling and specific example of U.S involvement and its impact on Pakistan over the last 30 years. Though people reading only this quoted paragraph could dismiss it as a common "blame America first" line, it is certainly not - quite the opposite.

The second part was a call to action.
Americans need to educate themselves, from elementary school onward, about
what their country has done abroad. And they need to play a more active role
in ensuring that what the United States does abroad is not merely in keeping
with a foreign policy elite's sense of realpolitik but also with the
American public's own sense of American values.

Most probably view this as an unrealistic aspiration. I will grant that it is extremely unlikely in the short term. But in the longer term, it is certainly not any more so than the aspirations of 17th and18th century political philosophers.

Their ideas, once doubtedlessly characterized as naive, politically unrealistic or simply impossible given human nature have a daily impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of people today.

Like Locke and Voltaire before him, Hamid is saying what needs to be said.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Prove me Wrong, Madam Speaker

I would be lying if I said that I had a favorable opinion of Nancy Pelosi. I feel this way despite the fact that a few close friends - with intellect and character that I greatly respect - are strong supporters.

Although it is not at all fair, I am willing to admit that this opinion is largely (though not entirely) based on an irrational, unfavorable gut-feeling.

Perhaps I should not admit this weak rationale, but it is a powerful and (will any one dispute?) almost universal aspect of voters' decision making process. So please remember the criteria for casting the first stone....

Anyway, I suppose that I feel comfortable admitting this personal weakness because I also know that I can and will give credit where it is due - and the Speaker has a big opportunity to win some points with me in the near future - and more importantly - to do some good for the country.

On the flip side, she could also ease my conscience by giving my instincts some supporting evidence.

The Senate recently passed the first measure since the 1970's that would require American automakers to raise the fuel efficiency of the automobiles they produce.

Under Speaker Pelosi's leadership, the House is trying to pass its own energy legislation. However, the current drafts do not include the efficiency law the Senate passed. The New York Times largely attributes this to a particularly powerful member of Pelosi's own party, Rep. John Dingell of (shocker) Michigan.

Over a year ago, I attended a speech Ms. Pelosi gave at my graduate school. It was a pitch about Democratic ideas for the future and the progress that our voting Democrat in 2006 could bring.

The centerpiece of the speech was....energy independence.

Of course, this is a tremendously (and ever increasingly) important idea, but hardly a new one.

Some genuine leadership on the issue - precisely the kind Speaker Pelosi has the chance to demonstrate here - now that would be new.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Hope....Front and Center

I get depressed from time to time like almost everyone else. But in general, I am most definitely an optimist.

Despite all the human history I have read, most of which is quite dark, I am convinced that our true potential as a race is tremendous. I do not think it is possible that any nation, much less the great bulk of mankind, will achieve anything remotely Utopian in my lifetime, but I do believe that the world - in as little as a couple centuries - could be dramatically better than any one today really thinks is possible with respect to health, peace, education and the universal acceptance and true establishment of a core set of human rights.

Perhaps I'll write more on this in a later post as I have some pretty specific ideas about how this could happen and, more importantly, what our generation's role should be to that end... but right now, I want to focus on something we need in the meantime.


I am convinced that great things almost never happen when hope is totally absent, and it occurs to me that we could use a little more of it these days.

And I'm not talking about the vague and endlessly recycled warm and fuzzy rhetoric our politicians use.

I'm talking about concrete examples of meaningful progress and achievement in the face of overwhelming odds. I'm talking about actions and outcomes that defy our presumptions regarding what is realistic and what is ultimately possible.

We hear about these occasionally, but not nearly often enough. I guess the media doesn't seem to think they attract viewers as effectively as sex, scandal or bad news. Perhaps they don't...

In any case, I am going to make an effort to highlight examples a little more often here.

I am creating another permanent section on the left column of this blog. I am giving it the self explanatory title: "Hope". I'll do my best to add example to it from time to time.

I will give an introductory example here. I have changed the names and will not reveal the sources of this story, but it is entirely true.

It is about a public school teacher working in one of the poorest and most under performing schools in the United States. It shows what one capable individual can do - and the grand potential that could be realized if our nation's priorities and resources were aligned behind her.

Mary Jones taught 1st grade in inner city New Orleans. A Tulane
University study of her school district revealed that 85% of the children
in her school suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to witnessing
violence and crime in their communities. It was not uncommon for some of
her students to arrive to class without shoes and with empty
stomachs. Although most would probably take pity on these children,
many would probably also tragically assume that no school - and certainly no
individual teacher - could make substantial progress with them.

Indeed, 21 of her 25 first graders arrived with skills registering below

Mary did the following:

She set a clear and ambitious (undoubtedly characterized by some as naive) goals for every single student. Specifically, that every one of them would be able to read at a third grade level by the end of the year, write a paragraph with a main idea and
complete sentences and be able to add and subtract.

She assessed their progress constantly, and adjusted lesson plans accordingly. Her effort was substantial, but the process replicable.

She engaged every child's parents with home visits, phone calls and daily
personalized notes sent home with the students.

She did not receive any additional financial or material resources from her school, yet she made sure she had food for children that arrived hungry.

At the end of the year, 8 of her students - almost a full third - were reading on a third grade level. Another 40% were brought up to a second grade level from a pre-k level in a single academic year.

It was Mary's second year as a teacher. She was only 23 years old.

Stories like this make me realize that the progress we could attain one day as a society is truly beyond what we even dare to dream.

The admirable visionaries in our world today work towards the goal of the most disadvantaged students receiving a comparable education to the most fortunate. Doubtlessly, this is a worthy goal that we should pursue relentlessly...and it must be achieved before something greater can be attained.

Yet, reflect on what was accomplished with these students. A substantial fraction of them achieved more than two years of progress by our current standards. Their achievement was not simply incredible given their circumstances - it was extraordinary by any standard widely adopted today. Imagine what this teacher could have achieved with secure, properly clothed, properly fed children...

It makes me imagine a world in which 14 year-olds have the academic skills of today's high school graduates (the adequately prepared ones). It makes me think of a world in which people do not fear change as they do today because they were not simply infused with facts and routines (the process we call "education"today), they were also trained as independent critical thinkers - adaptable, open-minded problem solvers. This is entirely possible - it's precisely what the best colleges and universities achieve today.

These individuals would be able to independently seek answers to the cultural questions posed by an increasingly smaller and borderless world. These individuals would not be as susceptible to incompetent or manipulative leadership (whether it be tyrannical or democratically elected) or agenda driven media or individuals. These individuals would comprise an entirely new form of society.

But let me descend from the clouds for a bit.

I am not foreseeing or depicting a world in which every one can write a Pulitzer Prize winning essay or make a Nobel Prize caliber discovery. I am simply talking about a world in which people are not bound by prejudices or worldviews built in their youth - views that may very well have been accurate or useful when they were taught, but can serve in a rapidly changing world to hold that individual back for the majority of their life.

If we can remove that burden, then it will not just be our potential - but our actual achievement - that will truly be extraordinary.