Solar: the problem was never the technology

Planet Money has an excellent episode, 616: How solar got cheapI see a parallel here with the recent interest in listening to the world’s poor, citizen reporting, and “feedback loops” in general. Most people think it is about enabling conversations with new technology. But, like the solar panels story, I think it will be about rethinking the conversation and the context that makes it ultimately work.

Quick recap: In the podcast three things happened between 2009 and 2013 that changed the solar market:

  1. China flooded the market with cheap solar panels, because they oversubsidized production and to many companies jumped in. This caused legacy companies in USA, Japan, Germany, and Korea to be forced to cut costs and offer their products at competitive rates, or get out of the market. Most found they could sell a panel for $200 that used to cost $1000 without needing to fold. So the price resettled at $200 per panel.
  2. Financing changed: Companies like SolarCity will convert your home to solar for $110 a month if you sign a 20-year contract. They make money at this price point, and the homeowner saves 30-60% off their existing power bill. Now banks are “owning” solar panels and collateralized debt obligations on panel installations to finance this long-term savings.
  3. Marketing changed: Out is “this is the right thing to do for the environment!” and in is “this will save you money.” Also, they’re no longer talking about the long term return on investment. They’re provided immediate savings on day one, through financing.

What didn’t change: The Technology

I shared this with my team at KeystoneAccountability as an allegory for the feedback business. We are wrestling with the pressure to deliver community feedback to Ebola actors in Sierra Leone and Nepal earthquake recovery actors at lower cost. There’s a tendency to focus on better technology as the answer. I suspect it is more about financing, marketing, and process enhancements around existing technology.

One of them commented, “they [Planet Money] left out that panels have also became a lot more efficient in the last few years.” To this, I replied with some charts:

The efficiency of solar panels has increased every year, but no dramatic improvements have happened since 1996, and they are not projecting any breakthroughs this decade.


For comparison, this 20% increase in solar cell efficiency in the last half century is pretty small compared to the 10,000,000-fold increase in processor power: (note the logarithmic scale).


Solar has a theoretical maximum efficiency of 95% on Earth, and we’re hovering around 25% in 2015. But it turns out that we didn’t need to get much more efficient to make solar a viable alternative energy source. The cost of solar energy per Watt decreased dramatically starting in 2009 – when the Chinese flooded the market with cheap panels.


Thus, economics and not better technology has caused the price to plummet. This has the effect of making solar look like a more efficient technology, but the energy conversion efficiency hasn’t changed.

Only the way that people think about it and pay for it has changed!

Lessons for citizen listening projects:

  • Let’s stop focusing entirely on the technology. It’s there. It’s sufficient. Even paper surveys can support feedback loops, if needed.
  • Let’s focus more on “flooding the market” with the feedback equivalent of solar panels. This comes in many forms when the goal is to help citizens change their governments. You have the Arab Spring approach, or the Facebook Zero effect (free internet on phones for the poor enables more social change), or maybe some kind of citizen-advised-experts talking to governments (the GroundTruth model), or something else.
  • Market reliable and accurate citizen voice sources: If good, reliable information was coming in from many places and we can show that listening to citizens solves the problem, people will use it.
  • Different financing models: Right now these listening experiments happen slowly and rely on grants for funding, if they are funded at all. More often they’re volunteer led out of necessity, or use tons of micro-payments like Storytelling did in Kenya. What would a 20-year contract on citizen feedback look like for a government agency? Could we cost out the long term savings and deliver those benefits to the payer up front and recoup this cost over the life of a loan? The possibilities intrigue me.

Listen to that podcast!


Despite these impressive declines, the United States still has the highest prices where data is available for residential and commercial solar. US installed PV prices are more than double German prices for systems under 100 kW, and much higher than prices in the UK, Italy and France.

Obamacare stories


Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers decided to post an anti-Obama graphic on Facebook marking the five year anniversary of this “debacle:”anti-obamacare-cath-McMorris-propaganda

This backfired, as hundreds commented in protest and told their personal stories about how Obamacare has improved their lives. These are their stories:

Erika Dennis My whole family now has coverage. The ACA is the cause for this, I work in health care, I have seen the increase in covered patients first hand. The next step is universal coverage, this will truly lower costs and provide the best care. Cathy, you barely work, spend most of your time catering to special interests so you can be re-elected.. All while receiving a large wage and the best health insurance and care. Stop telling us how it doesn’t work while enjoying your tax payer funded care and life.
  • 77 Replies · 49 mins
Allan Massie Thanks to the ACA, my cousin was able to get affordable insurance despite her preexisting condition. So grateful.
  • 6 Replies · 4 hrs
Bink Olney It’s working fine – you and your Republican cohorts aren’t.
  • 13 Replies · 41 mins
Denise Foster Lockamy And now my daughter, diagnosed with MS at age 22, can have insurance. What do you plan to do with her?
  • 56 Replies · 3 hrs
Shar Van Winkle Obama Care saved us when my husband was unemployed and we couldn’t afford coverage. We might have been ruined without it. My husband could not have had the eye surgery needed after an accident. So grateful.
Janice Grounds With the ACA my partner is able to FINALLY get health insurance. She has severe arthitis….you know the kind that the wealthy golfer talks about helping with the magic of humera…only this medication is $$$$. She has lived with, worked with severe pain for years. Once she got the insurance, an MRI showed a huge tear in her hip….yep, this tear would catch and be so intensely painful she fell several times-twice breaking her wrist (which cost several thousand out of pocket). She was pulled overby our dog two weeks ago fracturing several ribs, ambulance, er, w nights in trauma ward…..imagining what this would have done without insurance??????? You sit on your high horse talking platitudes and right wing talking points. You and all the other flaming GOP “faith and family” hypocrites make me sick. If you truly believe this crap, you’re even worse. Thank yoy President Obama and Democrats for the Affordable Care Act .
  • 10 Replies · 43 mins
Steve Verhey My sister, a breast cancer survivor, couldn’t get health insurance, and now she has it. Thanks, Obama!
Justin Jensen It needs some tweaking, but is headed in the right direction… The affordable health care has allowed me and my son to have affordable insurance that we would not have been able to afford otherwise.
  • 1 Reply
Jennifer Holden My biggest problem with Obamacare: My partner and I no longer have health benefits from an employer, and the ACA has made health insurance more accessible and less expensive for us.Oh wait, that isn’t a problem!
Carla Carnegie I and my husband now have really truly affordable insurance. In the past 20 years, as small business owners, whatever any insurance company offered us as ‘affordable’ was not affordable in the least, and had pretty high deductibles. I have had nothing but praise for what we have now, and I am sure it could be made a little better with some tweaking, but compared to where we were without—there is no comparison.
  • 2 Replies · 1 hr
Earl Roney My wife is disabled and she could not leave her current plan that sucked, $40 Dr copays and no limit out of pocket and because of preexisting conditions couldn’t leave. Obama care gave us a plan through BC/BS $120.00 per month cheaper 3 times better, See More
  • 24 Replies · 1 hr
Melissa Kelly 5 years of not waking up in the middle of the might panicked that my child won’t ever be able to get health insurance thanks to a brain tumor at the age of 2. Thank God for Obamacare. Anyone who ever fought an insurance company for pediatric neurosurgery coverage knows there was NEVER a hassle-free system in place and Obamacare is light years better than what we had.
  • 10 Replies · 24 mins
Ryan Boddy My premiums have risen in the same amount as they had previous to the ACA and my coverage is better. Thanks Obama:)
  • 9 Replies · 3 hrs
Katy Killilea With Obamacare, my child with Type 1 diabetes can not be denied insurance.
  • 5 Replies · 1 hr
Dale Lindekugel Having looked through these comments it appears that the jury is in. I trust you’ll be changing your position in the face of the evidence.
  • 18 Replies · 1 hr
Gary Downing When someone asks you what good is Obama Care.. Tell them.. give them the numbers.. 16 Million Americans have health care… 76 Million now have preventive care.. and 129 MILLION AMERICANS WHO NEVER COULD GET HEALTH CARE NOW CAN.. On top of this See More
  • 22 Replies · 1 hr
Linda McHenry Why do you only want to hear the bad news? Tryjng to resurect another Bette?
  • 1 Reply
Justin Konrad My small business has been greatly benefited by the ACA; we’re able to offer our partners and staff less expensive and more comprehensive plans. Shame on you for lying and fearmongering about this for political gain.
  • 1 Reply
John M Moros I got insurance, I got a job, I have some dreams taking root…..I can honestly point to the failed republican horrendous, 1 percenter policies for the things that I have lost….I am a working man, not wealthy, and feel that we need another democrat in office if we are ever going to have a decent middle class again
  • 8 Replies · 53 mins
Benjamin Calvert I had to quit my job to take care of my father after he had a massive stroke. After my work insurance had to drop me, I applied and got health insurance in 15 minutes… Full coverage, no questions, and with all the stress I’m under now knowing that I have no co-pays and everything covered is the biggest relief. Explain yourself madam.
  • 2 Replies · 2 hrs

Shana Cuddy  I work in a bone marrow transplant unit at one of the top rated hospitals in the country. Although the ACA has had its problems, I have seen numerous patients get life saving transplants when previously they did not have insurance coverage, or they had sub par coverage that would not cover this service. I think it is wonderful that the ACA has allowed people not only to get this life saving procedure, but allowed them to get it at a top notch hospital where they will receive the best care possible.Our hospital, like many other health care organization, lobbied in favor of the ACA, and we are very happy that it has been implemented and allows us to save even more lives.

Karen Hawkins I have 3 cousins I am immediately aware of that can now buy insurance whereas they previously couldn’t. At my company, we have seen a very low increase of 4% per year in premiums per employee for the last 3 years, where the prior increased premiums ran 8-20% per year. No one has had to change plans or doctors. It’s all good.
  • 2 Replies · 5 hrs
Cathy Scott As the president of the board of directors for a local nonprofit childcare facility, we were spending upwards of $40k to insure 5 of our full time teachers (a benefit choice of range of options). We recently elected to get rid of this policy in order to free up those individuals to shop for their own healthcare plan on the exchanges. We now have more teachers covered than ever before and are able to reinvest that money into add’l salary and benefits for our employees. Win-win!!
  • 5 Replies · 2 hrs
Edina Meiners 5 years later I am finally getting treated for multiple sclerosis and no longer have nightmares about hospital bills! Thank you Obamacare!
Mark Griffin  I spent $60,000 dollars in five years on medical insurance and was looking at another $60,000 before I was eligible for medicare. That is more than I spent to own my house. I now pay $200 a month instead of $1,200 for exactly the same policy from the same company. I have recommended Obama care to over 30 friends and family who thank me every time they see me for taking the pressure off and giving them hope if somethimng went wrong. I just had a retinal surgery that would have cost $5,000 out of pocket…under Obamacare it was $50. Why don’t you Senators and Congress people who get Medical for life …even if you quit your job…want anyone else to have it?
Dawn Smith Health care is a human right. In my community I have seen people who could not go to a doctor or dentist for 10 years now able to go and get some treatment. If I had to pay a few dollars more myself it is worth it to be part of a country that doesn’t only have access to medical care for the wealthier people.
  • 2 Replies

Al Petterson I’m doing fine, I’ve got a good job I enjoy, I had insurance before the ACA, I still have insurance today; it hasn’t particularly helped nor hurt me. But millions of my fellow citizens didn’t have insurance, and now do. Only a sociopath would be angry about that.If the ACA had been in place fifteen years ago, I might well have been an entrepreneur – I’m well-educated and ambitious, I had ideas I was willing to pursue, I was willing to work hard and take chances. But I never even considered self-employment, because for my family, with mild to moderate health issues, covering insurance myself would have been prohibitively expensive. I made the right choice for my family given the circumstances, but if health insurance hadn’t been the factor it was, things might have gone quite differently. I might even have made a difference, in a significant industry. Or not – but I didn’t consider taking the chance, because of the pre-ACA state of health insurance in this country.

Someone in my position but fifteen years younger is now more likely to start his own business than I was. That’s *good news*, Congresswoman.

Like · Reply · 85 · 22 hrs · Edited
  • 3 Replies · 4 hrs
Chris Jacobson Your questions on the web page is set up to receive negative input. I’m a conservative, but this has been a god send for millions of people. Fix the problems and move on. Tell your republican boss (Mitch McConnell) to move on. And by the way, everything I read about his state is how much of a success ACA is!!
  • 1 Reply

Bart King My wife and I are both self-employed. Three years ago, we had extraordinarily expensive and substandard health insurance. With the ACA, we’ve enjoyed quality coverage at a reasonable price for the last two years. (And no, we don’t receive subsidies.)So Obamacare has been a complete success for our household.

  • 1 Reply
Rosie Lineham “Obamacare” saved my daughters life. She was in critical care for 4 days, and is a single mother of a 6 year old daughter. Now, she will never be denied insurance for a pre-existing condition thanks to The Affordable Care Act. We were born and raised in Washington State, and honestly, you are Washington’s Sarah Palin.
  • 6 Replies · 43 mins
Peter Rothbart My premiums went up, but if that’s what it takes to bring healthcare to millions of Americans who would otherwise be without coverage, then so be it.
Like · Reply · 76 · 11 hrs
  • 3 Replies · 29 mins
Peggy Munson Please stop saying you are proud to represent this district and the people. You do not have our best interest in mind. Anyone that is only interested in collecting fabricated horror stories and has shown no interest in improving the situation to help people is evil!

And now… disclosing Cathy’s handlers:

Is this a coincidence? Cathy McMorris Rodgers top campaign funding source are health care professionals. Data provided via the Chrome Greenhouse plugin, written by a teenager:


Godel Escher Bach: Tessera ex Machina

Marc Maxson:

Nick (author) is one of the guys I work with at GlobalGiving. You can see why it is so much fun. This what he does (and blogs about) on his DAY OFF. Imagine what he does when he’s on.

GlobalGiving is full of creative people dedicating to making the world a better place. Seriously. And I’m not just talking about the staff.


Originally posted on Godel, Escher, Blog:

My self imposed quota on this project is a minimum of one post per week: 12:00am sunday through 11:59pm on saturday. So far I’ve made every deadline, but I’ve been creeping closer and closer to midnight on saturday as I write these (it is currently 9:58pm). This week, I started to worry a bit that I wouldn’t make the cutoff, as saturday morning had arrived and I still hadn’t planned out what I’d write. Furthermore, it was my birthday, and Lauren had just passed her medical boards. To celebrate, we had plans to go to Rose’s Luxury, our favorite restaurant in the District, which doesn’t take reservations. As such, eating there requires a multiple hour-long investment in line-waiting that wouldn’t leave much time to blog about frivolities like podcasts and slinky bracelets.

The literary term for what happened next is Deus ex Machina, literally, “God from the…

View original 408 more words

The subsidy vending machine

By one estimate, the US government spends more on subsidies to oil companies ($52B) than they do in non-military foreign aid to the entire rest of the world ($32B).

vendingThis must have been on my mind when last last night, in a dream, I found this vending machine on the street. Inside were all sorts of useful items. There were LED lanterns on the bottom shelf, microwave dinners on the next, bottles of pills on the next, voucher cards further up, and on the top shelf were crisp twenty dollar bills.

“Hrmph!” I said. “Who would buy a twenty dollar bill from a vending machine!”

Then a man walked up, inserted his photo ID. The machine said, “Welcome!” and changed the pricing on everything. The twenty dollar bill was now selling for $15.00.

The man fumbled with bills and change for a while. He looked like a panhandler. He found $15 and put it in the machine and took out $20. At the same time, the machine dropped a bottle of pills for him to take. They looked like vitamins, but they could have been medication for a mental illness. He walked away content.

Subsidizing people, not things

I woke up amazed at the possibility of a subsidy vending machine. It is microfinance in a box, complete with a way to track each user’s behavior and provide different incentives to each person who walks up. The machine probably matched the photo ID to their tax records to see whether they qualified. I could imagine this being used to incentivize parolees to check in regularly – because they get a rebate or discount on an item.

The subsidy vending machine teaches people how to save money and plan for the future.

That’s the secret to fighting poverty. International development aid fails when it just hands out twenty dollar bills indiscriminately, and fails even more when the World Bank takes all the money in the machine and hands it to the richest person, relying on this “leader” to build its own vending machine for the rest. Throughout history, rich people have exploited poor people. That’s why their great grandchildren are rich. We forget this because the American experience is an exception to the rule. But in Feudal Europe, Russia, Asia, colonial South America, and Africa, rich people in power exploited poor people without power. Many are still doing it today. They deserve nothing from the subsidy machine.

Giving subsidies to the richest corporations in the world is no better. Most of the top ten most profitable corporations are oil companies. They are also among the most heavily subsidized companies. They exploit tax payers when they lobby for support that comes from citizens. If the US wanted to keep gas prices low, they should instead give consumers a subsidy.

On the opposite end, our greatest successes in aid have come from matching $10 saved with $10 from elsewhere, or investing in a community when a community invests in itself. This literal vending machine idea would make a wonderful kickstarter, because as simple as it is, its flaws are fewer than other approaches.

Why the poor don’t speak up

Katie Meyler has been telling stories of how the people of West Point slum in Monrovia, Liberia overcame Ebola:


This little girl and her brother and sister lost their parents. The auntie is asking me to help her by taking the kids. I asked her, “If someone helped you support and empower her, would you could feel happy raising your sister’s children?”

“Of course!” She said.

rebecca tells me she is scared aug 2014 racingheart

Rebecca tells me she has symptoms and is scared. I took my gloves off and let my hair down because I was leaving for the day. I wasn’t scared, because she looked strong. We are bringing her meds and will keep a close eye on her. Obviously this is agonizing but we are doing all we can. Please pray for Rebecca with me.


I talked to local medical staff about serving West Point. Everyone I met was really lovely. There were 20 or 30 body bags with deceased people inside. I was scared but also at peace. This place has things under control.


Community leaders made the rounds in West Point and found 45 sick people in the areas they were able to check. Unfortunately, all of the clinics are at capacity and not able to receive people.

These are stories of people trying to be resilient in the absence of any real government help. These slum dwellers had only two options if they wanted to survive: wait for the Powers to come save them, or become self-reliant. Resilience won, because they were used to being ignored. And while the medicine, supplies, and training were delivered by non-governmental groups like MoreThanMe, the people running the ambulances, screening citizens, and handing out the food were community members. The community saved itself. It illustrates a larger truism that we keep denying: Only the Poor can end poverty. Allow me to explain why.

First, a little more of my backstory. My job for the past few years was figuring out how to give Voice to the Poor. I ran an East African storytelling project with GlobalGiving from 2010 to 2013. It showed that the Poor clearly were the “experts” on what they needed, and knew how their governments could solve big problems. But my straightforward approach – collect their first-hand testimony and present it to those in power – wasn’t enough. Why? Because governments and international agencies are not built for listening. They have no effective mechanisms to redress complaints. They don’t give local leaders and local solutions a fair hearing.

Most people are eager to speak up at first, but experience teaches them that Power doesn’t care about the Poor. If they complain about a program, the donors too-often go elsewhere and start over, leaving those people with nothing. Spurned and punished for their participation, they don’t speak out.

It is not just organizations. Governments and business have also taught the Poor to merely accept what is offered. Business offers the Poor jobs that sacrifice wages or safety through the unregulated markets of Globalization. Governments are “representative democracies” at best, not direct democracies. Few representatives really listen to the Poor. Power listens to Power. The Poor survive on what they get, and only take to the streets and assert their rights when hardship becomes unbearable.

But sometimes a community does come together and builds something. Ebola’s demise in 2015 is the story of local leaders rising out of the chaos and helping neighbors choose resilience over fatalistic resignation, as I profile in my book.

Their stories are often untold, because telling their story to outsiders doesn’t help them along the path of self-reliance or survival. A reporter swooping in to get the story gives the storyteller fresh hope that someone will save him. There are millions of international do-gooders in the world spending their lives in an effort to help the Poor. We live among the Poor. We listen to them. We share their stories with a broader audience. Sometime we raise awareness about an issue. Occasionally we inspire the Poor. But mostly we offer a twisted hope that keeps them off the path of self-reliance. We cannot end poverty for the Poor, only enable to Poor to lift themselves up.

In a famous letter from a law professor to his student, Bill Quigley writes:

“Many come to law school because they want to help the elderly, children, people with disabilities, victims of genocide, victims of racism, economic injustice, or religious persecution. Unfortunately, the experience of law school and the legal profession often dilute that commitment.”

It is a harsh lesson I keep learning over and over. Regardless of my tactic, Peace Corps, science, banking, or medicine, the end result only moves the Poor a few feet from where they once stood. No mix of skills or tools or toys may ever work if I am the one holding the chalk, the shovel, or the smart phone.

Singing “No one is coming to save us!”

Katie Meyler once said that things started getting better when the people of West Point slum starting singing “No one is coming to save us!” It was a turning point. They understood that local leaders were their best hope for survival. The people were finally taking charge of their own future. The narrative changed from being about the failure of outsiders to the success of the community. And when West Point slum’s death toll fell far short of projections in the months that followed, locals could look at each other and say with pride, “We did this ourselves!

This isn’t about outsiders abandoning the Poor, but about truly Serving the Poor.

But in our world, when stories like these are told by outsiders, the people who supply the materials take the credit. The bags of rice are stamped ‘US AID from the American People’.

CENTRAFRICA-UNREST-US-AIDThe medicines and the trucks and the soldiers all have branding. But the people remain anonymous because they are the community being helped. It is a false narrative to separate the helpers from the helped. Serving the Poor means being in the community, without identity.

Instead, the locals are given supporting roles, first in the narrative, and later in the power restructuring following success (during the elusive “project replication” phase that funders seek). The meeting rooms usually look like this (a bunch of acronyms working together):


Newsmakers and storytellers and politicians must unlearn bad habits. Every success story is, at its core, about people helping themselves. We outsiders are mere bystanders. But with hard work we can become true servants.

Take another example, this time from the 1960s US Civil Rights movement. One witness tells the story of the political parade that was the funeral for Rev. James Reeb, who was brutally murdered in Selma in 1965:

From the balcony I saw a sea of dignitaries clearly unrelated to the events in Selma. Many faiths had come to pay tribute in this memorial to James Reeb. Until Dr. Martin Luther King himself spoke, it is hard to imagine a more jumbled collection of prepared prayers and speeches rattled off in a patronizing way. It was ecclesiasticism at its worst. James Reeb’s death was described as the most monstrous example of brutality, when in fact it was one more instance in a long series. Men who had not taken the time to meet any young people praised them for their courage. The men and women who had come “thousands of miles” for the memorial were extolled. I thought that it was not too difficult to come and go in 24 hours and have the vicarious experience of heroism through singing a few freedom songs.


When King began to speak, however, it suddenly seemed right that we should all be there. Everyone moved a bit in his or her seat when King asked rhetorically,

“Who killed Jim Reeb?”

He answered: A few ignorant men. He then asked,

“What killed Jim Reeb?”

and answered: An irrelevant church, an indifferent clergy, an irresponsible political system, a corrupt law enforcement hierarchy, a timid federal government, and an uncommitted Negro population. He exhorted us to storm the bastions of segregation and see to it that the work Jim Reeb had started be continued so that the white South might come to terms with its conscience.

This account captures the movement as well as a pan-out to illustrate the circus around the movement. Power lives a circus life. I too had that experience and blogged about it.

So if local efforts do succeed, outsiders swoop in and take all the credit, and the Poor are pushed out of the limelight. Outsiders get promotions and the Poor find themselves only a few feet from where they began. Though nothing is won entirely without cooperation – and everything is at least partly enabled by those in Power – the distortion of who deserves credit is so large in the International Aid world that we’ve forgotten why it ever works at all. Everything starts because a community buys-in, and ultimately survives because a community takes ownership. We are just drifters and gamblers in their story.

Only the Poor can end poverty. But the rest of us can make that journey lighter. 

One way is by emulating organizations like MoreThenMe.


It was no accident we find them in the slum at the center of a strong network of relationships. Katie spent 9 years there working for the community as a humble servant. Then in December of 2014, Time Magazine anointed her “Person of the year.” Now she’s brunching with billionaires instead of begging for books. But it is the same Katie, doing the same work. Serving Pearlina and Rebecca and other girls who deserve to go to school. She is part of the community. She was amazing and unknown before; now she amazes a bigger audience with grace:


They did not invent the process of community-building. It has been known for thousands of years. It is explained in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War:

“Come among the people.

Live among them.

Work with that they have.

Build on what they know.

And when the work is finished, they will say,

‘we have done this ourselves!'”

There has never been a better credo for fighting poverty, nor a better description of resilience. There are many technical ways to stop Ebola, but underneath every successful strategy is an appetite to empower resilient communities in precisely the way that Katie has. She didn’t know much about Ebola, but she knew a whole lot about inspiring people and organizing groups.

This is the most important lesson in my Ebola book for how we deal with the next crisis. Local leaders exist in every community, but too often our international systems co-opt their power and authority, replacing them in a state of emergency instead of empowering them. The sooner we can get a community singing, “No one is coming to save us,” the sooner that community can come together to save itself. Only then – and only through pre-existing local relationships – can international help be effective. No one from the Red Cross, WHO, CDC, and US army can live Sun Tzu’s credo in every town that might face a disaster in the future, and so these institutions need thousands of local allies. Only local voices can sing the melody in the resilience song.

A pro-Poor environment

If we want to hear the Poor speaking up, we must give them space to lead. We can create mechanisms to connect local voices with better performance in foundations and government (Keystone Accountability’s mission). We can reign in our proxy-democracy and make it more direct through functional citizen feedback loops (FeedbackLabs’s mission). We can listen to the Poor and let them speak in their own words (GlobalGiving’s Storytelling Project). These are all steps on the path to prosperity, but they are not the whole path.

I offer a deeper dive into these issues in my book, Ebola: Local Voices, hard facts on Amazon.


Hack to convert your word document to kindle (with images)


Amazon Kindle is quite flexible. But my Ebola book had 82 images, and I wasn’t about to re-import each one using the [ Menu | Picture | Insert | From File… ] command that Amazon publishing requires. Instead, I converted it to a “web page” in HTML format and used a free editor called Notepad++ to hack all the images at once. It works everytime.

The 5 minute word doc hack for Kindle

Note: I tested this on Word 2000.


Save a copy of your ebook manuscript in HTML format.

Don’t throw away the old version – you’ll want to use the word doc to make edits in the future. The HTML version the copy for Amazon, but disposable afterwards.


Move the HTML file to the folder of the same name.

If your book was called “Cooking with Martha” then you’ll find a sub-folder wherever you saved it called, “Cooking with Martha” with all of your images.


Use notepad to remove the paths to your images in the HTML file.

notepad-plus-plus-iconNotepad++ is my favorite choice but Windows default ‘notepad’ editor will also work. Open your file. Search (Ctrl-F) for ‘src=”‘ and file the path to your images. It will be something like “./cooking with martha/image001.png”.

Next, press Ctrl-H to bulk-replace every instance of that path with nothing. It will look like this:


Note that spaces in your title are replaced with %20s. That means ‘space’ in HTML. Remove everything between the src=” and the image01.gif” part of the code. This is what causes your images to break when you upload a word document to Amazon. You’re almost done.


Add all the files in your sub-folder to a ZIP file and upload to Amazon.

Be sure to preview your book and confirm that the images are showing up. IF you get a box with an X in the middle, Amazon did not find the image. It should find the image if it was included in your zip file and the name matches what was in the html file exactly.

The next hack I recommend is making your table of contents link to the chapters in your book. The short version is that you can use Word’s built-in [ Insert | Table of Contents ] so long as the chapter titles are “heading 1” elements, and not just paragraphs with larger fonts. Instructions on that here.

Why two thirds of cancer cases are not preventable

The lead

One of the most significant Science papers on cancer came out this month (Jan 2015). It shows that regardless of all future discovery about the nature of cancer, 65 percent of all people who develop cancer do so simply because we age.

Cell division is imperfect. That’s part of life. It if were perfect, evolution could not occur, and we wouldn’t be here trying to cure cancer. It is an unfortunate side effect of the process that created us, and it cannot be “cured.”

The argument


Vogelstein and Cristian Tomasetti used a mathematical formula to explain the genesis of cancer. Here’s how it works: Take the number of cells in an organ, identify what percentage of them are long-lived stem cells, and determine how many times the stem cells divide. With every division, there’s a risk of a cancer-causing mutation in a daughter cell. Thus, Tomasetti and Vogelstein reasoned, the tissues that host the greatest number of stem cell divisions are those most vulnerable to cancer. When Tomasetti crunched the numbers and compared them with actual cancer statistics, they fell along a straight line on the chart.

The statistics

There was a good linear correlation with strength r=0.81. The square of the correlation (r2) is the amount of Y predicted by X . In this case, Y is the risk of getting cancer and X is the number of cell divisions of this tissue in your lifetime. This, they concluded that this theory explained two-thirds (65%) of all cancers:


There is a linear pearson correlation of r=0.81 with an r-squared of 0.65, meaning variation in this chart explains two-thirds of cancer risk.

There’s more to that collection of dots than just a trend line. Look again:


Some types of cancer appear to occur more often than expected due to our environment. The red lines show how elevated each type is, presumably by our habits and environment. For example, smokers and non-smokers both get lung cancer, but smokers are much more likely to get lung cancer by the length of the red line connecting the two dots. The non-smokers’ lung cancer risk falls along the trend line, as expected.

The green lines are a little less intuitive. Cancers that fall below the trend line appear less often than expected because some body process is working to remove tumors in these tissues as they appear. The intestine, duodenum, and colon constantly slough off tissue as food passes through the digestive tract, so maybe any fledgling cancers leave the body this way. Likewise, AML and CLL are types of leukemia – white blood cell cancers. And something about blood cells in fluid make this type of cancer less frequent than expected.

All the cancers with ‘osteo’ with them are huddled in the lower left – low risk and low cell division – because bone cells rarely divide.

All of these deviations from the trend line represent logical explanations and strategies for preventing cancer. They only add up to 35% of the total explanation. But they’ll account for 99% of all the TV news headlines about cancer. That’s the sad part. Headlines focus on all the small deviations from the trend line, and ignore the existing of this trend line all together.

The message

The good news is that you can reduce your lifetime risk of getting cancer by up to 35% by eating well, exercising, avoiding smoking and drugs, and having a positive attitude about life and death. But we are never going to prevent cancer the way we ended small pox and (until recently) measles. That would require reversing the ageing process entirely, which is generally a bad thing.

Fugueing around with Sufjan Stevens


My buddy Nick started a year-long blog to accompany his reading of the book Godel, Escher, Bach – an eternal braid – by Douglas Hofstadter.

In his effort to explore Bach’s fugues… he explains recursion and performed a Fugue.

recursive-beardnessHere is my attempt.

To get my head wrapped around Bach’s Fugues, I made a Fugue version of some Sufjan Stevens songs. This artist writes really interesting, melodic music with some sparse parts, making it easier to fugue.

The song: We are Night Zombies!! has a perfectly Fugueable opening line, it turns out. It even follows the rule, as the first four notes are the theme for the fugue.

Here is a link to the original song, along with my fugue version:

Play original version

Play original version of They are Night Zombies!!

America at the Crossroads (Complete MP3)

The Fugue of They are Night Zombies!!






The Fugue is a style of music composition with strict mathematical rules. I learned that these rules make creating harmonies easier. When I tried to write something in totally free form, it usually was harder to do.

Most of my efforts were failures. Banjo music with chords is very hard to Fugue, but one song with a clear opening melody did work.

Writing a piece with more than two “voices” in Fugue form was exceedingly difficult. Now I understand how amazing Bach was to write a fugue with six voices.

Only certain instruments were good for Fugue. Guitars and Banjos are harder because they use chords. You also need a musical theme that has some emptiness in it in order to leave space for more voices.

In this song I used all of these allowed transformations of the original musical theme:

  • Pitch shift (playing the same piece up a 5th of an octave)
  • Time shift (playing the same piece time-shifted against itself)
  • Tempo shift (slowing down or speeding up the theme against the original voice — both kinds of shift appear in it)

I could not manage to fit an inversion of the Fugue theme in here, though that is also allowed.

It was interesting that I could make reasonable chords with a pitch shift and change the song’s key.

The only tools I had available were copying pieces of the music using the Audacity MP3 editor.

I also remixed one of Sufjan Steven’s longer musical pieces (All Delighted People, 2010) into a shorter one that combines the best of both his published versions:

Play All Delighted People (hybrid remix)

Play All Delighted People (hybrid remix)


Images and memes of 2014

December-January 2014 Fast for Families starts a group hunger strike for immigration reform in front of the US Capital Building.

obama_fast_for_families dog-shark-octopus

The Sochi Olympics happenedsochi-toilet-rules angry mop

Kids get to buy pink Ouija boards pink ouija board

Human rights campaign becomes the meme of the year, as marriage equality wins over homophobia.marriage equality emergence australian earthworms

Looking for synonyms for… tuberculosis?

synonyms for autocomplete search

I started a second blog, to help others hear from ebola survivors in West Africa over the media noise.


Meanwhile, filmmakers in Nigeria release the worse ebola movie imaginable, and spread fear and misinformation while trying to make a buck.


In September 2014, America suddenly freaks out about Ebola. (Twitter activity below)

ebola hashtag map USA oct 4 2014

… and indicts all of Africa.


Africa is huge.


The media does its customary sloppy job of reporting and applauds itself for saying anything about Africa at all. Newspapers continue to count revenue as the only measure of “good journalism.”

we only care about white people with ebola

NGOs step up when the WHO fails. More than Me in Liberia gives people in West Point Slum, Monrovia hope and respect.


I write a book about ebola, from the local perspective.

pearlina-color-title-5 ebola-baby-4 ebola_liberia_2014_08_17

Violent extremism rises in Iraq in Syria as ISIS / ISIL becomes a country. And a girl in Pakistan gets the Nobel peace prize for fighting extremism by getting more girls into school

Electric cars finally get respect. Tesla motors gives away hundreds of its patents in order to grow the market of competitors (thereby making e-cars cooler than e-cigarettes)

What it s like to own a Tesla Model S   A cartoonist s review of his magical space car   The Oatmeal

E-cigs arrive, giving a whole new generation the chance to build their own personal brand of douchebaggery.

e-cig-douchebag e-cig-ad-douchebag

Yeah, sure. Let’s start smoking again.

In 2014 millions finally get healthcare because of Obamacare. And a few states successfully deny their citizens access to healthcare (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Virginia, and Colorado see no gains despite millions of uninsured, while most of New England sees no change because everyone is already insured.)


But 1 in 5 in the South and most of Red State America remains uninsured in 2015.


While wealth inequality remains, some prosperity comes to the Midwest and Northeast but is denied to the South

USA doing better vs worse map

The Reverend William Barber starts his Moral Mondays movement.barber01

No long after, in another part of America, Black Lives Matter becomes the mantra.

BlackLivesMatter BLM_Photo_Collage unintended-murder-but-not-a-mistake


Google image search for “iconic image” in 2014 reveals this mix:iconic images

The Internet is almost 20 years old now, and one browser remains timeless.internet-explorer-sucks

Serial becomes a podcast phenomenon.

SERIAL_Podcast-board snl-parodies-the-popular-podcast

Memes propagate.

fabulous-llama-movie baboon-baby-zoo-butt-spank
My family prepares for its first child.

Pregnant Love

Happy 2015!

See 2013’s memes and images

See 2012’s memes and images

Ebola: How local voices are transforming our strategies

Chris Burman is an “action researcher” in South Africa. I admire his work and asked him to review my recent book, Ebola: Local Voices, hard facts.


(Now available in print or as a kindle ebook!)

Chris writes…

I came across the work of Marc Maxmeister some years ago while he was collecting stories in East Africa for Global Giving. As an action researcher I have been involved with a number of initiatives designed to highlight and emphasise the very powerful role that communities play in negotiating challenges such as HIV/AIDS in South Africa. I found this book to be a dynamic read because — all too often — the actions of the people directly affected by crisis are often erased, while the voices of the international experts are shouted out from the roof-tops. Maxmeister reminds us that both are relevant and that — in a perfect world — improved alignment between community and international efforts could have impacts that we have yet to imagine.

Ebola: Real Voices, Hard Facts takes us on a harrowing journey into the transformed realities of communities affected by Ebola in West Africa. Stories of resilience, suffering and the human spirit vividly illustrate the way in which communities respond at a time of crisis, regardless of the resources they have to hand. The detailed account of how real people navigate emotional trauma, health service provision and personal survival with good humour, tears and dedication to caring for their neighbours is a timely reminder of the role individuals, families and communities play in humanitarian disasters. Equally timely, is the reminder that all too often these voices are under-represented — if not marginalized — in decision making processes that directly affect their lived environment.

Maxmeister frames these firsthand accounts with a snap-shot overview of the ‘bigger picture’ beyond the world of the community which is both insightful and accessible for the reader.

The message these vivid accounts leave behind is the way in which the Ebola crisis has transformed lives and the way in which communities have responded, thus transforming the epidemic within diverse communities. It is not so much a story of crisis — it is more a number of stories, with different messages about transformation and the relevance of every voice in that process.



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