Category: Books

The Kindle Can Change South America

Books are incredibly expensive in Chile.  I’m talking $50-$80 for a new hardcover and $30-60 for a new softcover.  Even used books can be $5-15.  It’s even more expensive for books in English.

It’s easily 2-5x more expensive here to buy a book, sometimes more. Textbooks are closer to US prices, but that’s still much more expensive when the GDP per capita is around $15,000 and the minimum wage is about $400 per month.  These extremely high prices put books out of range for Chile’s poor and even middle class.

I talked to a friend who works in a language school who told me that when she goes back to the US, the school asks her to bring books back because they are so much cheaper there.  Every Chilean I’ve talked to about book prices says “oh man, don’t get me started, it’s ridiculous.”  It’s a big problem.

Books are fast, simple ways to transmit large amounts of knowledge quickly.  They are the the most cost effective way for poor and middle class people to learn.  Those without access to the internet still read the printed word, and even those with internet access still buy one of the four published daily newspapers (primero, sengunda, tercera, cuarta) which come out at various times of the day.

I’ve talked to a few people and it seems that the reason they are so expensive is taxes.  The government has a tax that amounts to about $3-6, and sometimes more on each book.  Also, there seems to be a tax on publishing that gets baked into the cost somehow.  All of these costs add up to $80 hard cover books.  It makes no sense, when the government ran on a platform of education reform and educating the poor.

Which brings me to the Kindle.  The 3g enabled Kindle provides free access to the Amazon store from over 100 countries in the world, including Chile and Argentina.  You can be sitting in park, pull out your Kindle and browse for free and Amazon foots the bill.  They have made deals with all of the local cellular networks so that you can buy books from anywhere.  I can buy just about any book in English for between $1 for classics and $9 for brand new hard covers.  The vast majority are $6 and you have the entire Amazon store at your fingertips.  Books download in 30 seconds.

The new wifi enabled Kindle costs $139 and the 3g enabled Kindle costs $189 on Amazon.  When buying a Kindle costs less than 2 books, it just makes sense to buy, even for those without much money.  As the price of Kindles fall below $100, they will begin to be even more attractive to South American readers.  Unfortunately, you can only buy a two generation old 3g Kindle in Falabella for 199,000 pesos, or about $400, as the government slaps a tax on imported electronics.

The other problem is that there are hardly any books in Spanish available for purchase.  There are classics like The Count of Monte Cristo, Don Quijote and The Three Musketeers, trashy romance novels, a few different versions of the Kama Sutra and believe it or not, lots of books from the “church” of Scientology.  There are a few exceptions: you can find a few Isabelle Allende books and other very well known Spanish speaking authors, but there are not many.

As more books in Spanish get formatted for Kindle and Kindle’s price falls, Chileans will have a much greater access to books at a much lower price.  Kindles and other ereaders are poised to change Chile and other South American countries by providing cheap access to knowledge and circumventing the taxation and publishing industry prices.  It will be interesting to see if the government tries to extend it’s hand into ebooks, as they have with published books.

March Books

I got a bunch of reading done this month, mostly because I found myself on an airplane fairly often.  Of the four, The Last Lecture was the best.

Rework – Rework is the newest book by 37 Signals founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.  They are well known for creating simple, easy to use online products that help business get things done.  Rework is the follow up to their first book, Getting Real, and attempts to show people how to work more efficiently and effectively.

I first became interested in 37 Signals when I heard Jason Fried speak at an entrepreneurship conference in Milwaukee where I was also speaking. Fried stressed simplicity, focus and building something you would use because if you are building something you’d use, you are already an expert.

My favorite chapters were Go, Progress, Promotion and Productivity.  They explain how to get started, make progress and then promote your business.  They also have a ton of great tips about how to be more productive.  My biggest take away is that companies should be teaching instead of promoting.  Most companies do not teach, they promote.  Companies that teach lessons to their customers have bigger followings, which leads to free promotion.

The book is a little repetitive at times, but is worth reading.  I’m fairly familiar with 37 Signals because I read their blog regularly, so most of the ideas weren’t groundbreaking, but it was nice to hear everything in a single place.  If you don’t read their blog or haven’t heard about 37 Signals, this book is a must read.  If you are familiar, you can save the money and just read their blog again.

Mark Cuban recently said “if I had to choose to invest in someone who’s read Rework or has an MBA, I’m choosing rework every time.”  While I wouldn’t go that far, I’ll want any new Entrustet hires to read the book as part of their initial training.

The Checklist Manifesto – I heard about Checklist by Atul Gawande while reading Switch last month.  It sounded interesting and I planned on picking it up.  Luckily, my Aunt came to visit and happened to have the book.  I read the book on the plane to SXSW and really enjoyed it.  Gawande is a brilliant surgeon who wanted to know how he could improve medical care.  He got interested in checklists after marveling about airline safety.  In the book, he investigates how checklists can be used to prevent mistakes in any industry. He first helped implement a clean IV lines program that help Michigan hospitals reduce infections almost entirely, which saved lives and millions of dollars.  He later helped the WHO implement a standard checklist for surgeries that has saved countless lives and money.

The book is a quick read because it is written more like fiction than non fiction and provides tips to increase productivity and help you get things done, while avoiding mistakes.  Highly recommended.

Leadership and Self-Deception – Someone gave me this book right before I got on a plane when I was complaining that I didn’t have anything to read.  It’s a self help book, styled as dialogues between an employee of a company and his bosses.  Written in 2002, the main idea is that it is not what you do, but why you do it that matters.  The central advice is that whenever you want to do something to help another person, you should do it, otherwise you make excuses for yourself and it starts a downward spiral.  I don’t agree with everything from the book, but I believe that the world would be a better place if people were motivated to help others more often.

The Last Lecture– I had seen Randy Pausch’s last lecture on youtube before, but had not read the book.  For those who don’t know, Randy Pausch was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and was given 6 months to live.  He spent that time trying to make life better for his wife and his three young children.  Pausch was a professor at Carnegie Mellon and was given the opportunity to give a “last lecture.”  It was recorded and Pausch used the time to talk about how to live life, pursue your own dreams and enable the dreams of others.  It is a sad and uplifting book at the same time.  It is well written and funny, informative and wise.  I especially liked the section about enabling the dreams of others.  The Last Lecture is one of the best books I’ve ever read and should be required reading in high school classes.

February Books

It’s been a busy last two months, so I haven’t been able to read as much as I’d like to.  I only had a chance to read two books this month, but both were really good.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.  This was one of the most unique books I’ve read in a long time.  The book is set in post WWII London and later Guernsey, one of the channel islands between England and France.  It is historical fiction about what life was like on Guernsey during and after WWII. I had never heard about this aspect of WWII and it was really interesting to read about what life was like on the island.  For example, I didn’t realize that Germany took over Guernsey fairly early in the war, expecting to only be there for a brief stopover before attacking the UK and that there was a small concentration camp on the island.

Aside from the history, the book is interesting because it is written all as letters between the characters.  There are no chapters, making it easy to continue reading.  At first, I thought I would have trouble keeping all of the characters straight because of the format, but I quickly started to enjoy the new format.

Another unique aspect of the book is the authors themselves.  Shaffer had never written a book before this, but had stopped over on Guernsey and was stuck in the airport with nothing to eat except candy from the vending machine and nothing to read except travel books about the island.  Fast forward 30 years and she started to write this book after being harassed by her book club.  After completing the first draft, her health began to deteriorate and she realized she would not be able to do the necessary edits and rewrites.  She drafted her niece, Annie Barrows, who is also a writer, to complete the book.

The overall plot isn’t incredibly complex and fairly formulaic, but the book is a winner because of the interesting historical context, great descriptive writing and unique format.  I highly recommend reading it.

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard – Chip and Dan Heath.   In their follow up from their must read book Made to Stick, the Heath brothers have done it again.  Switch details a simple strategy to help create change in all different scenarios, from eating behavior, politics, business and health care.

They believe that the human mind is broken down into two parts, which they call “the rider” and the “elephant.”  If you imagine that the rider is attempting to ride the elephant, The rider is the analytical part of our brain that likes to think things through, while the elephant is our emotions and motivation.  They show that in order to create change, you need to get both the rider and the elephant moving in the same direction along a well defined path. They offer some inspiring stories to go along with some great strategies that help make campaigns work better.

They show examples of people with small amounts of power who created huge changes in behavior using simple, innovative strategies.  They show how a tiny group highlighted the bright spots of villagers’ behavior in Vietnam to help end childhood malnutrition in the country and how providing a roadmap to child abusers can reduce abuse by 3x.  I can’t really do this book justice with a short blog post, but if you are interested in change and how it works, read this book.

December Books

I read three interesting books in December.  All three of these books actually made me think, which doesn’t always happen.  The first two books were an amazing contrast and I think I wouldn’t have enjoyed them as much if I had not read them back to back.  Here’s my thoughts on my December books, Infidel, Three Cups of Tea and Soccernomics.

InfidelAyaan Hirsi Ali.  Infidel is one of the most powerful books I have ever read.  It is about Ali’s path from Somalia to the United States, with time spent living in Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Germany and the Netherlands in between.  Without giving away too much of the book, Ali was born into the Somali clan system and was raised as a devout, conservative Muslim.  She faced incredible hardship during her life including living multiple war zones, abusive parents, female circumcision, forced marriage, an internal struggle with her religious beliefs, death threats and so much more.  Her story is so incredible that if it were written for Hollywood, you would think it was fake.

A little background.  When the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was butchered by an Islamic extremist in broad daylight in the Netherlands, the terrorist stabbed a 5 page note to Van Gogh’s chest.  The note was addressed to Ali and included a fatwa, or holy order, calling on Muslims to kill her.  The books tells Ali’s life story that lead to this horrific conclusion.

While reading the book, I found myself questioning how anyone could believe in cultural relativism, especially if they read Ali’s story.  I see cultural relativism as a continuum.  On one end is the people who say “our values are right, other values are wrong.” The other end is people who say “all cultures are equal, we must respect their practices, as their values are as good as ours.” I’ve gone back and forth along the cultural relativism continuum for a long time now, but after reading Ali’s book, I am falling much farther toward the first end of the spectrum.  I think that my reading of cultural relativism is now something like this: I can understand why people have the values that they do in different countries, but I believe that there are universal human rights and truths that everyone should adhere to.  For example, I can understand how someone born in the rural, tribal hinterlands of Somalia could believe that female circumcision is the right thing to do, but I don’t believe it’s wrong to try to stop the practice.

I’m probably not doing a good job of explaining myself here, but I believe that Infidel is one of the most interesting books of the 21st century and potentially one of the most important.  I highly recommend Infidel.

Three Cups of Tea – Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.  After reading Infidel, I dove right into Three Cups of Tea.  I had never heard this story, but after reading the book, came away inspired.  Three Cups of Tea is about Greg Mortenson’s quest to build schools and improve the quality of life for children, especially girls, in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In 1993, Mortenson, an American, failed at summiting K2, arguably the world’s most difficult mountain to climb.  Mortenson got lost climbing back down to civilization and wandered into Korphe, a tiny mountain village in Northern Pakistan.  He was sick, tired and lost, yet the impoverished Muslim villagers nursed him back to health and gave him amazing hospitality.  After living with the villagers for about seven weeks, Mortenson was able to go back home ot the United States.  But before he left, he agreed to return and build the villagers a school to educate their kids, especially their girls.

Fast forward to 2009, Mortenson has built over 130 schools and countless clean water projects, women’s centers and self improvement facilities in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.  His schools have educated over 55,000 children in an area where America is not all that well liked.  Mortenson has succeeded in helping these children by sheer personal grit, determination and amazing perseverance.  He has spent years in Pakistan and Afghanistan, braving some of the most dangerous places in the world, in order to help children get an education.  He believes that books, not bombs, will make the world a safer place in the future.

Mortenson is now one of my personal heroes because he has done so much good, without any official mandate.  Mortenson is a charity entrepreneur.  He has gone into an area that had a huge need and filled it as best as he could.  I truly believe that Mortenson deserves a Nobel Peace Prize and believe he will get one within my lifetime.  If you want to be inspired and read about one of the most amazing people on this Earth, read Three Cups of Tea.  I can’t recommend a book any more highly.

SPOILERS: After reading Infidel and Three Cups of Tea back to back, I really wanted to hear what Ali and Mortenson would think about each other.  By the end of Infidel, Ali believes that Islam needs to have a reformation because many of the core tenants of Islam advocate violence, oppression of women and a “backward” outlook toward the word.  She does not seem to believe that there are moderate Muslims, only religious Muslims and secularized Muslims.  The does not seem to believe in the concept of the “silent majority.” These ideas are completely understandable if you lived in her shoes and lived the life that she did.  They may even be completely correct, but I am not so sure.

Mortenson’s story seems to prove otherwise and provides signs of hope.  Although he is kidnapped by the Taliban and threatened by some religious Mullahs, the vast majority of people he meets are devout Muslims that are good people.  They are clearly not secular and are very religious, but do not have any problem with an infidel like Mortenson.  In fact, many of them are willing to put their life on the line to protect him.  Additionally, these rural Pakistani and Afghani Muslims are willing to educate their girls and the girls are willing to learn.  Mortenson’s example of how education can help people break free of poverty is incredibly powerful and I think Ali would agree that what he is doing is amazingly important.  I would love to be a fly on the wall if the two of them would ever have a candid conversation.

Soccernomics – Simon Kuper and & Stefan Szymanski.  Soccernomics is nowhere near as heavy as the previous two books, but is still very interesting.  Kuper is the author of Soccer Against the World, another book I read this summer, and is back at it again.  Soccernomics is the Moneyball of soccer.  The authors try to bring statistical analysis to the pitch, just like Michael Lewis did in Moneyball.  The authors tackle why England always seems to fail at major tournaments, which countries overachieve and underachieve and who will be successful in the future.

My favorite part of the book is the section about Olympic Lyon, currently one of the most successful clubs in Europe.  Just like Moneyball, the authors show why Lyon can be such a good club with limited resources.  Lyon goes against conventional wisdom and is incredibly active in the transfer market.  They have a stable front office and only buy players who are between 20 and 22 and are among the top 2-3 players in their country or are Brazilian.  Once the players sign with Lyon, the club spares no expense to help the players adjust to living in Lyon and French culture.  I found it amazing that other clubs, even the richest in the world (Chelsea, Man U, Real Madrid etc) don’t do this.  They simply sign the player and hope he is able to adjust.  Third, Lyon sell players as soon as they show any sign of deterioration and never try to sign center forwards, as they are the most over valued players in the transfer market.  If you liked Moneyball or like European soccer, Soccernomics is the book for you.

Note: If you are interested in donating to Greg Mortenson’s charity to build schools in Central Asia, check out the Three Cups of Tea website.

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