Monday, April 18, 2011



It goes back to when I started taking the bus to work and pretty soon got tired of checking Facebook on my phone. I decided to use this time to do some reading and began carrying a book with me to read. However I immediately ran into some practical problems trying to read a 500-page hardback book on a crowded bus, in winter no less. So I began considering some alternatives and discovered that I could download the same 500-page book in an electronic format (eBook) and read it on my iPhone. And to top it all, I was borrowing the eBook from my public library free of charge. At the risk of revealing myself as an ├╝bergeek, I decided to give it a try.

While it was a little disconcerting at first, reading small passages on the little screen was perfect for the bus ride and extremely convenient. It didn't take long for me to become a convert. I put my name on the wait-list for several books at the library and started crossing them off my list. With the addition of an iPad at home, this only made it easier still. Surprisingly, I was reading more than I used to when I only read in a paper book format (pBook). It was more convenient and because I was reading more often, I was more engaged in the book and kept on reading at home rather than watch some television. As I looked around me on the bus, I began noticing more and more people reading books on an electronic reader. This got me thinking: is this some slight change I am noticing now or is this a shift in the general perspective for books? But, before we go there it might be helpful to understand some basics.

So, what is an eBook? It is a published work that is presented to the audience in an electronic format (PDF, ePub, HTML, etc.) and can be accessed/read by the audience via a device such as Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, iPad, PC, etc. The traditional printed paper book now is often referred to as pBook.

Now, let’s consider how significant is the eBook market. Looking at some of the published numbers for 2010 only (not considering the activity prior to that) , the sales of significant eBook devices are as follows:

2010 eBooks

(From various sources on the internet; "good enough for government work")

In the table above, I have included the iPad with dedicated book readers since most iPad owners are using their units to access printed media. Given that, while about 24 million new dedicated units were added to the eBook audience in 2010 alone, this number could be substantially larger if some of the other compatible but non-dedicated units were used for eBook access. If we assume that about 25 million new members were added to the eBook club last year and if each one accessed (not purchased since there are many free books available) only 5 books in 2010, we are looking at 125 million eBooks. And keep in mind that we are not considering existing members of the eBook audience from prior years. It is safe to say that the eBook market is significant and, more importantly, growing... rapidly.

Just how rapidly? Consider this: in Feb-2011, eBook sales in the US increased over 200% over Feb-2010 while most of the print formats showed a decline in sales. (eBook sales were $90M while pBook sales were around $215M.) It is important to note that eBooks are priced below their printed counter-parts (especially hardbacks) which means that in number of units, fewer pBooks need to be sold to arrive at the same sales figure in dollars. Overall, eBooks sales were about 8-10% of total book sales in 2010. So it is still a small segment but at the growth rate that we have seen, this will be a much larger segment in the near future. Amazon has recently announced that it sells 180 eBooks per 100 pBooks. Obviously, since we are only looking at sales here, we have not considered the widespread growth of eBook access in public libraries.

According to a recent announcement from The American Library Association (ALA), virtually all academic libraries in the US as well as two thirds of US public libraries offer eBooks. Most libraries provide free Wifi and a third of school libraries lend eReaders. For a public library, eBooks offer a number of advantages both from a cost as well as efficiency perspective (as listed in the pros and cons below). However, one leading publisher has announced that it will not allow a copy of one eBook to be checked out more than 26 times. Following which, the library will be forced to purchase another copy i.e. license. This obviously goes against the grain of fundamental library principles and also threatens to set a dangerous precedent for financially strapped libraries. It remains to be seen where this will end up.

Pros of eBooks:

  • Ease of use: with small, light, easy to handle devices, it is ergonomically easier to manage eBooks.
  • It is easier to navigate and search eBooks which is a particular benefit to students dealing with text books. (No more lost/dropped bookmarks!)
  • Font sizes can be adjusted as can the brightness of the screen. (particularly beneficial to visually impaired readers)

The following are particularly beneficial to libraries:

  • eBooks do not wear out, face no physical damage and do not need to be replaced like pBooks do.
  • eBooks cannot be misplaced by careless readers.
  • eBooks do not require physical storage space like pBooks.
  • eBooks can serve remote (and handicapped) users more readily with minimal cost.
  • eBooks offer a lower carbon footprint. (no physical transportation, manufacturing, etc.)

Cons of eBooks:

  • Feel: this remains the primary objection raised by most readers. The sensory experience of handling a book, its pages, original colors (in many cases), texture and even smell is stripped from eBooks.
  • There are several mutually incompatible software formats with different DRM (digital rights management) schemes. This could lead to a format war scenario akin to the infamous VHS - Betamax clash.
  • There are multiple reading devices with different, unique hardware that cannot easily share eBooks.
  • Requires the use of power and ultimately, fossil fuels.
  • Initial expense related to buying a reading device viz. Kindle, iPad, etc.
  • Reduction of jobs related to manufacturing, logistics and retail aspect of the publishing industry.

So what does all this mean?  For starters, eBooks are not going away.  Time will tell if eBooks will completely or even significantly take over the pBooks domain.  But it is certain that eBooks will play a major role in the reading world going forward.  I used to think of myself as a purist who could never adapt to reading books in an electronic format but I have found the switch not only easy but also certainly rewarding as I find myself reading a little bit more.  All in all, if eBooks will help a few more people to develop (or re-develop) their reading habits, how can that be a bad thing?


Friday, April 8, 2011



The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Ever wonder what exactly is on your plate as you sit down to eat a meal and perhaps ponder where in the world did it come from? Sometimes we ignore or suppress certain questions simply because we have an inkling about what the answer is and don’t really want to acknowledge that. Here is a book that is delightfully easy-to-read and provides several answers that you should know without being judgmental in any way. More importantly, it prepares you to raise intelligent questions and make your own decisions as you go along your merry way.

The premise is pretty simple: Pollan sets out to trace the roots of four different meals and understand how the food ended up on his plate. The four meals serve as samples from four different food channels:

  • Industrial food (Fast-food meal)
  • Industrial Organic food (organic meal from select supermarkets)
  • Local Organic food (organic meal from a local sustainable farm)
  • Ultimate Local food (meal from food collected via hunting/gathering)
As he traces backwards on the food supply chain, it is surprising to discover how tremendous a role corn plays in our daily diet. Just about everything we eat from a traditional supermarket (grocery chain stores) is corn-based. Meat is largely derived from corn.  Even a serving of soda is mostly corn in the form of High Fructose Corn Syrup aka HFCS.  Pollan meets with corn farmers to understand how the corn industry has an overpowering stronghold on the American food chain.  Unfortunately the benefit of this market dominance (monopoly, even) is limited to a couple of giant corporations who declined any access to Pollan in his research.  Corn farmers survive largely due to government subsidies and do not enjoy an enviable position.

For me, what was revealing is the manner in which most of the meat available is "manufactured". Cattle and Poultry are not intended by nature to be raised on corn. When cattle is raised on corn alone, their bodies cannot handle it and they get sick. This, in turn, leads to them being treated with antibiotics. To maximize the profitability of the product (beef), they are injected with hormones which will reduce the time to processing i.e. slaughtering. In the early to mid 20th century, the cattle was slaughtered at over 24 months. In the 60s and 70s, this age dropped down to around 18 months and nowadays cattle is considered ready for processing around 14-15 months. The amount of beef consumed in the US is staggering and it needs a lot of cattle to support this consumption.

Pollan purchased one head of steer to follow it through the commercial supply chain but once it reached the slaughter-house, he was denied access to the proceedings inside. It is commonly accepted that if the public knew how beef is packaged and stocked in the meat aisle then it would be difficult for one to eat that. And this is after the intervention by Temple Grandin who changed the beef industry procedures to more humane handling of cattle.

This is not limited to cattle but also extends to chickens and pigs that are commercially raised for consumption. Chickens perhaps have it worst because it is a true assembly line and most chickens end up in a package after spending their entire lives in a crammed cage. Pollan investigates the truth behind labels such as "cage-free", "organic", "free-range" etc. and makes some interesting discoveries. Like almost everything else, it is not quite what it seems. In CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation), animals such as pigs and chickens have been observed to display suicidal tendencies.

But the book is not an assault on industrial food chain or even our conscience. There is this other channel of the food chain that departs from the “corn” path, if you will. Pollan tracks down the roots of organic foods available in select grocery chains (such as Whole Foods) and discovers that while these are organic and free of chemical fertilizers, there is a huge impact on the carbon imprint because of the shorter shelf life and market demands across thousands of miles. So he further refines his search to a local organic source and discovers a whole new segment: local organic but sustainable farms.

Pollan works for a week at one such farm (Polyface Farms) run by Joel Salatin in Virginia. The practices on this farm were a revelation to me. They raise cattle and poultry on the farm using environmentally sustainable techniques that allow them to maintain the soil nutrients without any artificial fertilizers or pesticides and still operate a profitable business. They use a rotation method for animals on the farm which serves almost as an ecological system. The cows feed on the grass in a section of the field for a few days and then are moved to another section. The chickens then feed in the cows' previous spot eating worms and droppings from the manure. They, in turn, fertilize the section with their manure and move on to the next section. The compost on the farm is aerated by the pigs on the farm which also graze in the pasture. The chickens are processed (slaughtered) on the farm in an open shed and packaged for sale. They would like to process their own beef but USDA will not permit them so it gets processed in a facility away from the farm. The farm sells only locally and will not ship its products because it is counter to their philosophy. What is comforting is that Polyface is not the only one of its kind. There is a plethora of such farms across the nation and we have access to these, if we so choose. (More information is available at about farms in the US.)

The final section of the book refers to Pollan's efforts to create a meal entirely out of ingredients either hunted or gathered by himself. While this is interesting, it is certainly not a practical alternative. But it makes for interesting reading and introduces us to some colorful characters that Pollan comes across.

What I particularly like about this book is that it is not judgmental about one's eating preferences and practices. This is not a plea to convert you to vegetarianism. It would be a separate debate if there would be enough (nutritious) food available for everyone if nobody ate meat. This is primarily an education regarding what goes on behind the scenes when you pick up a package of food from the grocery store to feed yourself and your loved ones. Once one understands the different channels and sources, one can choose as one wishes. I think that the key issue is that most people (like myself) just don't know much about the food sources and channels. At the very least, we owe it to ourselves to know a little bit more about what we put in our bodies.