Archive for December, 2013

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You know you’re into something special when you open a book randomly and find something compelling on every page.

Sonia Shah performs a great balancing act in delivering the complexities of malarial science while keeping the storytelling brisk and riveting.

The long history of the disease also provides her with rich pickings and some great anecdotes like that of Oliver Cromwell.

He spurned one of the best and most effective treatments of the day, the ground-up bark of the cinchona tree, because it had been brought to Europe by Jesuit missionaries.

Anti-Catholic sentiment saw him dismiss it as “Jesuit’s Powder” and at 59 he died,  20 years after its introduction from South America. Had he tried it and survived would Britain’s constitutional monarchy ever have made a return?

Another tale recalls sufferer Sir Walter Raleigh who, when captive in the Tower of London, prayed not to have a malarial fit on the scaffold in case people thought he was shivering with fear.

And harking back to Roman times, there’s a story about Julius Caesar being struck down with malaria while, paradoxically, the disease-riddled swamps around the imperial city kept besieging foreign armies at bay.

There’s more to this book than mere anecdotes though. There’s much to think about in Shah’s view of how the disease affected the culture and demography of the United States, creating “deep cultural prejudices…that persist to this day”.

In documenting previous efforts to thwart the disease, she relates how drugs have been misused, strategies ill-thought out and quick fix “solutions” have been anything but.

Environmental disturbance, climate change and mass movement of people have all been exploited by the parasite which continues to plague mankind.

Attempts to combat the illness have occupied some of the world’s finest minds and have cost billions of dollars but it continues to survive and thrive.

The lesson of the book is that there is no silver bullet, no single solution; nets, drugs, new technologies and good intentions cannot succeed on their own.

Without accompanying improvements to countries’ infrastructure in areas like schools, roads, clinics, housing and good governance any short-term gains will be swiftly overturned and newer, more virulent forms of malaria will return with a vengeance.

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Container shipLet’s be honest, the evolution of shipping containers isn’t the first thing that springs to mind for a reading list recommendation.

You might struggle to believe that interest could be sustained on the topic at article length much less for an entire book – and you’d be dead wrong.

The hum-drum box unleashed a wave of disruption that smashed union power, consigned thousands of workers to the scrapheap, devastated established city ports, uplifted backwater areas and, as an unforeseen consequence, ultimately became an engine of globalization.

Marc Levinson’s meticulously researched work takes us into a world of cartel stitch-ups, protectionist regulation, corrupt officialdom and high stakes gambles involving billions of dollars in a freight industry arms race that was ruinously expensive for many of its players.

Pioneers like trucking boss Malcolm McLean, the epitome of a self-made man, was a driving force in propelling change, but even his boundless energy after a dockside Eureka moment wasn’t enough.

Change had to be dogged out in a series of frustrating battles over standards, subsidies and route restrictions. There were bet-the-farm buy-outs, leveraged acquisitions and some nimble creative thinking to circumvent the resistance of entrenched vested interests.

It was the Vietnam War that provided one of the key breakthroughs: the military supply chain wasn’t able to keep pace with the rapid commitment of American forces and chaos ensued.

With no dedicated port facilities, supply ships had to lay-up offshore, unload cargoes onto lighters, which then had to be manhandled again at piers and docksides. On this scale, sheer muscle simply wasn’t enough and the military accepted the intervention of the private sector.

Since then, a sophisticated logistics industry has developed, one that touches our lives every day whether it’s through supermarket supply chains or just-in-time delivery of components to manufacturing plants.

The cost savings set in train by the shipping container, on labor, on warehousing, on insurance, on turnaround times, on delivery speeds, were profound. So much so, that industry no longer had to locate its factories where its customers were. China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea with cheap pools of labor and access to US ports were able to take advantage of the new economics of the freight trade and global business was born.