By Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak

Purpose

During my recent studies, I started thinking about how to build sustainable agriculture that will be able to handle the increasing requirements of developing countries and increasing land costs. Then I came across this book, which promised to explain the challenges and solutions in current agriculture with focus on what clearly are today’s trends: GE foods and organic farming.

The book was a bit short, but not knowing the complexities of agriculture, I thought that the basic ideas could be covered in a little over two hundred pages if the author stayed focused during course of this book.

Notes

The book starts with clearing the fog around the term organic farming. Organic products are defined in the US and EU regulatory framework, they put focus on using organic components to aid the farmer instead of artificial components (pesticides, insecticides …). It is notable that today’s organic farming should be GMO free (by legislation), which can be a bit controversial, because of the reduced toolkit available to the organic farmer. Genetic engineering can provide resistance to certain pests and insects (aside from consumer benefits such as longer shelf life) and in effect reduce the amount of artificial pesticides, which are believed to be harmful on a variety of fronts.

One interesting case where genetic engineering was extremely helpful was when enabling rice to withstand flood for extended periods of time. Standard rice can typically withstand up to one week submerged under water. Often times, that is not unfortunately not enough. When introducing a new genetic trait from a different rice species, the period for which rice can withstand submergence has been extended to up to two weeks.

And how do we get genes from a different species into a plant? One relatively easy way is to use a bacteria called Agrobacterium. This bacteria is capable of transferring its genes through the plant’s cell walls into the nucleus.

Another interesting modern technique available to farmers are hybrid seeds. Hybrid seed is developed from parents of two distinct species. These parents come from process of self-pollination that generates “genetically pure” plant over time. Offspring of such two parents is a hybrid plant that has significantly higher yields and generally retains the good qualities of both parents. Unfortunately offspring of the hybrid plants do not retain the quality of their parents, therefore the farmer is forced to acquire new seeds from the seed vendor every year. It should be noted that hybrid seed san be quite expensive for the farmer, therefore limiting their availability in the developing world.

Short Review

I chose this book based on a review from the great Bill Gates. Bill helps fund new development in the field of GE foods, so I had great confidence in his recommendation.

Unfortunately I found the book longwinded with a lot of unnecessary personal stories and recipes. These are loosely intermingled with more informative parts, which makes it hard to skip the weak parts. I do not feel particularly enriched by studying the book, which could be concentrated into fifty if all the unnecessary fluff would be omitted.

There are a lot of serious statements that are not supported by fact (but I guess a recipe for “Sticky Mango Rice” will make up for it). Although I firmly belong to the camp of GMO supporters, this book does not provide sufficient data to support the claim that GE is “well-tested” which should clearly be included in such a book.

Overall, I cannot recommend this book. I need to read another book on agriculture with focus on GE foods to get a deeper understanding of the field because this book did not deliver on the facts. This book is published by the Oxford University Press which is hard to believe due to severe scientific weakneses.

Bullet points

  • Fig is a flower inverted into itself.
  • Types of pesticide and what they kill: herbicides – weeds; insecticides – insects; fungicides – fungi; bactericides – bacteria; nematocides – nematodes.
  • Bacillus thuringiensis produces a so-called BT toxin which can kill some pests as caterpillars and beetles. BT toxin-producing capability is commonly engineered into corn or cotton, which are commonly affected by the aforementioned pests.
  • Marker-assisted breeding is a process using traditional breeding where the breeder identifies detectable manifestations of desired gene which helps distinguish offspring possessing the desired genes.

By John Bryan Starr

Purpose

This books aims to educate on the topic on modern China. Unlike most books written in the topic, it does not focus on history and culture, but rather explores the political and economic state of contemporary China and a fairly comprehensive picture on the country’s current state.

I’ve long planned to read a book about China since it is clearly a tremendously important topic that complex and even though the discussion on China are frequent, only a small portion of people can see below the surface of the rapidly expanding state with questionable politic representation, daily protests and almost no organized opposition (the only Chinese political figure that opposes the Chinese regime is the Dalai Lama and his vision for China and Tibet is vague at best).

As always, I will pick some interesting topics mentioned in the book so you can decide whether the book is worth the read.

Notes

Regions of China

China is a tremendously diverse nation from almost all perspectives. Starr divides China into three main parts: the east, which has the densest population and by far the most foreign investment capital, the center and the west, which are predominantly rural communities with considerably lower wages, no retirement plans and ever worsening health care.

Concerning the population composition, over ninety percent of the population designate themselves as Han with the rest contributing to the tenths of officially recognized minorities. Among the most populous are the Zhuang (16.2 million) and Manchu (10.7 million). The minority which gained arguably the most international attention, the Tibetan has only 5.4 million members. That is less than 0.4 percent of the total population in China. And while we are discussing Tibet, which often tries to make the case for its independence, consider the following: tax revenue from the Tibet collected by the central government is about three hundred million dollars. On the other hand, the inflow into Tibet from the central government is close to four billion dollars. Now putting aside the question of human rights (on which China has a different perspective from ours), how would Tibet obtain the funds to function without being dependent on foreign charity? And while Tibet is the most publicized case, it is not the only one. This is the same case for the region Xinjiang which is aside from a significant portion of the Han population home to Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kirghiz and Tajiks and Uzbeks. While Xinjiang is also dependent on economic help from the central government, it is subject to growing Islamic fundamentalism and frequent demonstrations.

Regional and Centeral Government

The relation between the regions and the center can be described as complex. It is a traceable trend, which whiles the power of the central government declines; the regional administration is on the rise. Because of the Chinese preference for informal negotiations, preference for passive resistance instead of direct conflict, and the need to “preserve face” at every cost the rampant corruption is being felt throughout China, decreasing efficiency, inducing then need for everyday bribery and creating frustration, principally in the rural areas. Some of this can be accounted to the small accountability of local government officials. While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tries to implement elements of democracy inside the party to introduce better accountability, it has met with limited success.

Outside the party, the policy for democracy and any idea to opposition to the CCP can be only described as a zero tolerance. This can be demonstrated on the Hundred Flowers Campaign (one of Mao Zedong’s disastrous campaigns, the other being The Great Cultural Revolution or The Great Leap Forward). After the first eight years of rule of the CCP, Mao invited the intellectual community to discuss the development to date, offer suggestions and criticisms. When they did so, and didn’t meet with Mao’s agreement, Mao initiated a major campaign, imprisoning, intimidating and otherwise punishing his critics (that he asked to voice their criticisms).

After The Great Leap Forward, that established communes and banished the remaining of private enterprise, tenths of millions dying of famine Mao was still reluctant to diverge significantly from the Marx’s path (interestingly, Marx’s requirement for reaching communism was a prior implementation of capitalism, that China never fully undertook). But after Mao Zedong, a new leader, Deng Xiaopeng (if you will remember one thing from this blog post, it should be this name) took reigns over China. Deng’s recipe for prosperity was privatization of enterprise combined with foreign capital. This approach is called “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”, but all, nonworking, communist and socialist ideas were abandoned at this point. This new approach enabled China to develop rapidly and combined with some controversial measures, as the One Child policy is guiding China to this day.

Hong Kong & Taiwan

Hong Kong is a peninsula lying in the southeastern China. It partly belonged to the UK and is currently being unified with the People’s Republic of China under the “one country, two systems” policy. What this means that Hong Kong is allowed to retain political system that was established by the British while under their rule. Aside from being a significant exporter, it acts as a gateway to mainland China and is responsible for creating a significant amount of regions in the bordering Guangdong province. While the process of unification cannot be called smooth, it is going relatively well.

Taiwan is a different story entirely. After the communist revolution, the Kuomintang (translated as the Chinese Nationalist Party, if you find the name impossible to memorizeJ) escaped to the island of Taiwan, where it established the Republic of China (ROC). It originally claimed the right to govern the entire China and marked the CCP as illegitimate while gaining substantial international support. The Kuomintang, originally a party governing in an authoritarian fashion, began to democratize. Eventually, the ROC became a full-fledged democracy that many regard as a model for future Asian democracies.

Relationships between the PRC and ROC are difficult. PRC wishes to integrate Taiwan using the same model as Hong Kong, which would prove difficult, because unlike the people of Hong Kong, the Taiwanese obviously care about democracy, which is unacceptable by the CCP. The Chinese frequently demonstrate their military power by firing missiles into the Taiwan Strait. From what I gathered, it seems unlikely that the PRC will unify with the ROC in the near future.

The People’s Liberation Army

In contrast with the US Armed Forces, the PLA is politically ambitious and is the only organization in China that would be able to take over the reins in case that the CCP collapses. In the past, the PLA owned enterprises as part of Mao Zedong’s initiative to make the PLA economically self-sufficient. That resulted in the PLA having its own economic and political goals that can clash with the party’s goals. This is clearly in conflict with the principle, that the civilian government sets the policy and there are cases, when it is not clear, whether the PLA acted in alignment with the CCP or on its own.

Short Review

Narrative of this textbook has strong textbook characteristics. Unlike the last book I introduced, The Start-Up Nation, Understanding China gets right to the point and stays there. This book has been a tremendous read since it contained a great deal of information that went sufficiently deep and I feel that it really left me more knowledgable.

This book will make you appreciate the complexity of the transformation that PRC is going through and you will stop thinking about China in black and white, and begin to consider all fifty shades of gray.

Bullet points

  • Less than half Chinese judges have a postsecondary degree
  • Chinese court’s ruling is subject to review by the party
  •  Wood and plant stalks supply around four fifths of heating and cooking energy in the countryside
  • Around 150 million rural workers have left their homes for search of temporary work in the urban areas

Purpose

We all know that there is a country called Israel; it is predominantly Jewish and has a tumultuous history. What you might have missed in case you are not a tech savvy person, is that Israel is huge in the technology space. While there might not be any well-known technology brand, there is an astounding number of innovations taking place in Israel. It may happen in start-up companies, or multinational corporations that have their R&D centers in Israel, like Intel and Microsoft.

Goal of this book is to study the remarkable success of Israel in terms of innovation, overcoming its geopolitical constraints. The book author’s conclusions are very clear and I will try to provide them without the hassle of actually reading the whole book.

Notes

From inception of the modern State of Israel 1948, the country’s mission has been simple: To offer safe sanctuary to any Jewish person. From the start Israel has been under a tremendous pressure from its neighbors and has been forced to adapt a mix of policies to defend itself from aggressors and ultimately become what some might call a success.

IDF

The first and somewhat surprising catalyst of innovation is IDF, the Israel Defense Forces. IDF is conscription-based and recruits its members fro, high-school graduates. The IDF can be very selective and getting into an elite force is a big asset, because in these forces young people quickly learn about responsibility and leadership. Almost nowhere in the world can people in their early twenties take charge of dozens of people and millions dollar worth of equipment. And because IDF’s members get into the field regularly, they are pressured to think unconventionally to defend their country with limited resources.

The IDF is very informal and less hierarchical than its US counterpart. When in action, the soldiers need to operate with little directive and need to make their own decisions. When the citizens of Israel leave the military service, they are experienced in dealing with very stressful situations, gain a great sense of proportion and most of all, and are able to translate all those skills into their business ventures.

Chutzpah

Secondly, the Israeli people have something called chutzpah, meaning “boldness coupled with supreme self-confidence” and “impudent rudeness or lack of respect”. Chutzpah probably stems from Israel’s rich cultural background, coupled with the constant need for improvement and more relaxed hierarchy of IDF, where challenging your superior is not endured, but required. Although this can introduce some friction when negotiating with foreign business partners, it is a great feature facilitating open discussion and therefore sparking innovation.

Technology hub

With the aid of government policy, strong academia presence and increasing venture capital interest Israel has started to become one of the main technology hubs of the world. As in other parts of the world (e.g. China), when the technology sector representation became denser in the region, it attracted even more companies, so more links of the technology chain became represented in the region thereby creating synergies for present companies.

Wrap-up

The above mentioned are just some of the factors that contributed to Israel’s vast number of successful start-ups and the highest venture capital per capita in the world (you can read about it here). I believe there is much more to be studied, in particular the cultural aspects of Israel which are very prominent but a little overlooked in the book.

One problem that should be mentioned and is closely linked to the technological success of Israel is its ever increasing reliance on the technology sector. While the rest of the economy is also growing, it is happening at much lower rates. That could be a serious issue for the future, since Israel is dependent on foreign venture capital to power its tech powerhouse and venture capital is declining due to recent economic developments. I personally believe that some of the Israeli government’s policies that are aimed heavily on the tech sector, but are forgetful of other industries, are at least partially to be blamed, but that is a matter of discussion (don’t forget that is what chutzpah is about, though).

Review

As for the book itself, it could certainly be more fact-oriented. Instead it is heavy on storytelling, which can be good to lighten the mood, but after a few dozens of pages, I beginning to feel that I am not gaining any new information. While I understand the chosen narrative is great for readers less focused on knowledge gathering, I think some of the Israeli specifics were left out, the religious and cultural (in a narrower sense) in particular. There is a long history of Jewish people being great with innovation and financing. Sadly the book did not dig more deep, which certainly could have, if the authors would just dial back on the chit-chat.

On the plus side, the book is a good introductory material written in a friendly narrative that is not intimidating, but is still capable to deliver the basic facts which can be used in a dinner party.

Bulletpoints

  • David Ben-Gurion was the main founder and first prime minister of Israel
  • The Intel Centrino chip, which you probably had on your notebook at some point, was designed in Israel and was opposed for some time by the board of executives at Intel
  • The first acquisition that Warren Buffet made outside the US was a Israeli company.
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