The Last Hunger Season (A book review)

You can buy “The Last Hunger Season” using this link.

How we will be able to explain to children why there used to be hungry people in the world?

People sometimes wonder why God would allow so much suffering in our world. Maybe instead we should be wondering why we do. – Jim Palmer

I started reading this book 8-17-02016 and finished it 8-22-02016. I had found out about it after listening to the TED talk by the founder of One Acre Fund, Andrew Youn.

You can learn more about the organization (and any other charities) via Charity Navigator. Charity Navigator is great for helping you feel at ease donating to various organizations. You can know so much about a group. You can see the salaries of the top paid people. The tax returns of the charities for the past years. Tons of information. Back to the book.

One Acre Fund is a NGO (Non-Government Organization, charity, non-profit) that works with farmers in rural Africa to provide them productive seeds and planting techniques. Most of these farmers plant .5 acres or 1 acre. The “super farmers’ plant 2 acres. The planting is all done by hand. Sometimes they are able to have their fields plowed by an animal but some just work it by hand also.

The book follows the story of several farmers in Kenya through their year of 2011 working with the new techniques and hybrid seeds provided to them by One Acre Fund. It chronicles their lives, planting season, struggles with money to feed their families, keep their kids in school, deal with illnesses and deaths and skipping celebrations because they didn’t have the money for food.

As an engineer I really appreciated how thorough the book was regarding the inputs, costs of seed and fertilizer, and outputs, what the farmers are paid for their harvest. It also chronicles how the cost of food varies by over 100% over the year and how farmers often have to sell early when the price is low and then buy later when it is high, a double whammy to the net worth (or lack of) of the individuals.

Another thing that was astonishing to me was concept of a hunger season, the “wanjala”. Many times they talked about how they would have tea for breakfast and perhaps nothing to eat during the day.

Money was talked about a lot. Always in Kenya Shillings. I found it easiest to approximate 100 shillings = $1. For example, one of the men’s salaries was 1500 shillings a month, or $15 (Page 34). To be fair, it didn’t say how much he worked, but I suspect it was more than 1 hour. They also shared the price of one man’s bean and fertilizer purchase to plant a quarter acre of beans. 1800 schillings, $18. It also records his returns, 158.8 kg x 80 shillings a kg = 12,704 shillings or $127 on an investment of $18, that’s a 700% return! If we could all get that kind of return wouldn’t we be happy? (Page 65).

The tough decisions these people face each day was eye opening. I could feel a little bit of the weight they felt as they were making decisions to sell a bag of rice to buy some medicine to treat a family member. Or the choice to sell a cow to pay for schooling for a child. While I could try to feel the weight, I really couldn’t even fathom it. How does a person in the USA even consider living on a few hundred dollars a year?

Later it discussed the various companies trying to address the challenge of storing the maize and other grains. Since sitting in air it can spoil easily if it gets wet. There are various companies working on plastic storage bins, about 6 ft tall for some of them. That doesn’t seem like a lot of storage but when you are farming an acre it can be huge! Between those companies and One Acre Fund trying to educate on farming techniques and share new seeds, there is really a lot of improvement coming about in a small time in Kenya and other parts of the world.

After I read this book I decided to read one or two reviews of it. One quote I got from this review was “Africa’s future is not as a continent of happy peasants” pointing to the successful Brazilian model – highly mechanized production and greater urbanization is the answer, enabling the children of smallholder farmers to move off the land.”

While I can understand his sentiment I would have to ask him where he thinks these small time farmers will get the money to buy small enough tractors to till 1 acre of land and make it profitable? Where will be the infrastructure to fix the vehicles when they break? I believe that Andrew Youn and One Acre Fund are doing exactly what is right for the right time in history. He is rolling out something that can be implemented immediately to allow the farmers to literally fight off days that would require them to not eat! The farmers are even doing as the writer of the article suggests and investing in their children’s futures. The children already have a brighter (less manual labor and less likelihood of hunger) than their parents and the parents futures look bright because of the kids. It should be unnecessary to mention but I will anyway, most of these people don’t have much put away in terms of money savings. The do talk a lot about diversifying their businesses as far as getting different animals and planting different crops. They are sharp people doing the best with what they have. One Acre Fund is just trying to get them the tools to do even better.

This was my 2nd favorite book I have read in the last 2 years after “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” and I would recommend anyone and everyone reads it.
Bringing this back to my opening quote, I wonder how we will be able to explain to children why there used to be hungry people in the world? I say “used to” because “I really hope I am able to look out my window in 02041 and say “There are no hungry people today.” (based on my post “The Last Hungry Person”)

Here is an article with some information about how farmers partnering with One Acre Fund are doing.

My 2015 In Review

I have started to be very interested in S.M.A.R.T. goals. S.M.A.R.T. being an acronym which stands for specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time- bound.

As I am working to set goals for the rest of my life and for 2016 in particular I thought it’d be a great exercise to look back at 2015 and see what happened and what I already have achieved.

A year is a long time. In January 2015 I was still in my first position working for John Deere which was working on engines. I had been looking for a new position since about May 2014. I had applied for a position in December 2014 with the Ag department but had run into some roadblocks in the organization. I interviewed for a few more positions between January and April . In April learned that the technicalities were fixed and I was able to be offered the position I had interviewed for in December. I started my new position May 1st 2015.

I was part of the University of Northern Iowa competition ballroom dance team from Sept 2014 to May 2015. March 8th, 2015 I was completing the 2nd amateur (newbie) dance competition I was involved in. This took place in Minnesota. It was a great experience where I was able to learn how to ballroom dance and complete in 3 competitions total. Two in Minnesota and one in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Learning a new skill has been very fun. I was able to dance at quite a few weddings and it’s something that people are quite surprised by. Growing up being a wrestler and car guy and mechanical engineer this was not something many people saw coming. Truthfully I hadn’t seen it coming myself. Way back in early 2014 I think or maybe even late 2013 a friend asked me to go dancing one time and it stuck.

Between January and March I took the transmission out of my 1987 Monte Carlo SS. I replaced the front and rear seals. I also ended up fixing the transmission cooling lines as well as replacing my power steering pump and hoses. All those things were leaking. For the first time in 11 years of ownership of that car nothing seems to be leaking.

In April a dirt bike was stolen from the back of my truck which prompted this post.

At the end of April I participated in the “Financial LIteracy Test” sponsored/created by Mike Finley. The top 10 people won a total of $100,000 ranging from $1000 for 10th to $25,000 for first place. I did not win any of the money but I learned a lot about finances from reading both of Mike Finley’s books this year as well as various discussions I’ve had with the man this year. Through this I was able to recognize that starting a ROTH IRA was probably a good idea for me. I was able to put in $5500 (max year contribution) for 2014 before April 2015 (catch up period) as well as fully funding my 2015 ($5500). I have also started saving for my 2016 contribution and hope to have that funded in early 2016. That will allow me to start saving in other vehicles or giving more. In April I did my own taxes using Turbotax instead of paying to get them done like I did the 2 previous years.

In my interest to continue to be more efficient in my living, I cut my living expenses dramatically (for 6 months) by getting  a roommate. He has moved on and gotten married (which I’m very happy for him) but again I need to look for a roommate.

In June I rebuilt the engine in my Honda bobber, put it back in the motorcycle and eventually resynced the carbs and it ran super.

Books can take you anywhere!

In 2015 I read 37 books and listened to 21 audio books as of November 15th 2015. The list can be found here. This has been a wonderful experience. It has opened my world to many different experiences that I wouldn’t otherwise have.  We all have one life to live but via books we can gain a whole person’s life’s accumulation of knowledge about subjects as varied as launching early NASA space shuttles, Lucid Dreaming, Financial Literacy, Religion, Atheism and the future of the world.

I visited 11 different churches with my church. We would visit them 1x a month, usually the 2nd weekend of the month. Sometime it’d be a saturday (7th Day Adventists and Muslims) 1-11-2015 -Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), 2-8-2015 Sunday – Universal Unitarians, 4-11-2015 – Mosque, Waterloo IA,  5-9-2015 Saturday – 7th Day Adventist Church in Waterloo, IA, 6-21-2015 Sunday – Trinity Bible Church, 7-12-2015 Sunday – First Church of Christ – Scientist, Cedar Falls, IA, 8-9-2015 Sunday – Greenhill Baptist Church, Cedar Falls, IA, 9-13-2015 Sunday – Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, Waterloo, IA, 10-11-2015 Sunday – St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, Waterloo, IA, 11-8-2015 Candeo Church, Waterloo IA. This has also been a wonderful eye-opening experience. I have approached each service with a sense of curiosity of what I will find there. What is similar to my usual services (Catholic)? What is different? Why do they believe what they do? I have met many great people and learned that we all could likely learn a bit more from knowing our neighbors better.

I have continued mentoring 2 brothers via The Job Foundation (TJF). I have also been able to help out there in other capacities from making lesson plans to providing supervision at large group events. What TJF does is provide financial literacy training to many kids who would otherwise not get it (which is really all kids!) These kids are given a few lessons throughout the school year as well as they are rewarded with Conditional Cash Transfers. They get paid to get good grades. Over half of the money is put into a savings account that is inaccessible to the kids until they graduate high school. The rest they are empowered to spend, save or donate as they see fit, giving them the opportunity to make real decisions.  If you’d like to make a 1 time or recurring donation please contact us here.

Around march 2015 I started volunteering at Cedar Valley Gearheads. “Our mission is to provide safe, reliable vehicles at no cost to those most in need in the Cedar Valley.” I have really enjoyed working on vehicles there and the few opportunities I have had to interact with the people receiving cars. I was recently voted in as Vice President for this group and am looking forward to helping them grow as an organization that does even more good in the coming year. If you’d like to make a 1 time or recurring donation please contact us here.

I learned a lot about electricity and it’s future applications via presentations at the Waterloo Technical Society. They give presentations about various topics. Three I went to were about a residential solar project, a Tesla S owner and the UNI power plant operation. Summaries can be found here. I was also able to sign up for some shares of the Cedar Falls Simple Solar project which allows people to  purchase and get the benefits of solar panels without having to maintain them or have them on their land even. It’s a community solar garden. How neat is that?

Along with that interest in electricity I was also investigating it for transportation. I found a very cool website I had been talking with friends about building an electric bicycle for months and later an electric motorcycle. I finally just bit the bullet and bought the parts for the e-bike. I assembled it all for about $620 ($300 bike, $200 tire, $120 batteries) and was able to ride it around some. It is 1000 watts which is about 1.3 horsepower. It will go 29mph when fully charged. The one time I tried to get a max distance it went 10 miles averaging 18-20 mph. Not bad! I have since found many options for production electric bikes that seem a pretty good value.


Another bike and efficiency related thing I picked up in early 2015 was riding to get actual places I needed to go. I started by biking to dancing lessons at UNI. It’s only a mile. After that first short ride I was ecstatic. I was so jacked to bike more. I started biking down to main street and out to Gearheads. It finally ended with me biking to work about 6 times this year (45 minute bike ride). I was even up early enough one day to see Jupiter still in the sky at 5:30 in the morning. What a treat!

In my increased desire for efficiency in 2015 I took the step and actually sold a vehicle! My 2007 Mustang GT. While I enjoyed the car while I had it I kept thinking I needed more power. I asked myself what I’d actually do with a more powerful street car? I finally talked myself into selling it. I have more recently been considering a Toyota Prius or a Chevrolet Volt. My car buddies will be shocked or sickened to even hear those things coming out of my mouth but reading and learning about others has given me some appreciation of the fact that there might be more important things out there than me driving a fast inefficient car. All that being said, in my latest set of life goals I am still targeting owning a Lamborghini by the time I’m 30. Of course, we could all have self driving vehicles in the next 4 years so that might already be an obsolete dream. Who knows?

I was also lucky enough to stand up in 1 wedding, usher 2 and attend 3 more.

All of that seems to be a fairly thorough review of my 2015. Looking back, it was a great year. One of the things that I think contributed greatly was my renewed interest in informal learning through constant curiosity. Now looking forward I am working to set goals for 2016 for myself as well as set comprehensive life goals. I will hopefully share some of those in the future.

What did you do in 2015?
What do you hope to do in 2016?

Charity And Jesus

You may have heard of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. There’s another day you might want to know about: Giving Tuesday. The idea is pretty straightforward. On the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, shoppers take a break from their gift-buying and donate what they can to charity. Bill Gates

I wanted to think about charities a bit as I am involved in quite a few. The whole basis of a charity is to help someone else. Some charities are (low) paid positions. Some are completely volunteer. Some are paid an actual living wage. Listen to this TED talk about charity if you have time. He talks about thinking about the salaries of CEO’s in non-profit vs. for profit companies. I especially like this question “Why is it ok to make tons of money not helping people but if we want to make a little money spending time doing something that does help people that is looked down on?” (paraphrased).

I believe each of us should make it our goal to work the government out of the “charity” business as much as we can. I believe the role of the government should solely be to provide security for it’s citizens, whoever they may be. If people are free to go about their business not harming anyone that would be a wonderful society. The government has to keep people from starving, as that is a part of providing security. This is a wonderful idea, in theory. Unfortunately in practice there can be people who will exploit this system so they never have to work in their lives or work very little. They are abusing the system. This is unfortunate and I don’t believe that most people who receive that help are in that situation. I have faith that most of humanity is “good people” who honestly want to work and get ahead. We should all recognize that. We should also all work to help those who need help as much as possible.

I listened to a speaker at a church recently. He was a missionary, meaning he went to other parts of the world to “Share the good news of Jesus”. I don’t completely understand what his exact message was to those people as there are many Christian sects and they all preach a little different stuff. The part of the story that really was touching to me was after their mission left and they had spent 2 years teaching people about Jesus, then the locals started a bunch of outreach missionaries such as providing food to the needy. Now people will say “Look at the great things these people who were taught about Jesus are doing now”. I believe that one aspect of religion is that it allows us to be vulnerable without being completely vulnerable. We always have something to drop back on, to say “Well that wasn’t totally me that was religious me.” To protect our strength if someone wanted to joke about our vulnerability. I also think a lot of people feel like they need permission to do good. They don’t feel they have any authority. I believe that part of what the missionary gave these people was a purpose and some authority. I wonder if the missionary had come in saying “We should work tirelessly to love others.” If that would have gotten the people to work towards helping each other quicker.

Another aspect of charity is that we are told we aren’t supposed to brag about giving to charities. That is supposed to be a personal and humble experience. If we give to charities but then go telling others about it that is not being very humble. I think part of the issue with this is the bible verse
Matthew 6:1-4
Giving to the Needy
1. “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2. “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4. so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Maybe we could announce it just a little? Maybe that would encourage others to follow the lead? Much like the opening thought about CEO salaries for non-profit vs. for profit, I pose the question “Why is it OK to tell others how much money you have by purchasing expensive houses/cars/etc but it’s not OK to discuss how much you are helping others?” Why is that the “bad” thing? We need to get out of the cycle of being negative when others are expressing their pursuits of helping others.

To provide a few things to think about I want to ask:

How much are you giving to charity? Both time and money are valuable. Honestly time is perhaps more important as it will help you realize how much you really have. It will eventually inspire more monetarily giving once you understand the organizations you are giving to.

The second question I wanted to pose was in response to my continued struggles with “the followers of Jesus” in a general sense, not towards any one denomination. Do you think it is more important that others know about Jesus or that others are provided with security? I believe that a lot of “believers in Christ” think that it is their duty to spread the name of Jesus so others can say the magic words “I believe in Jesus” and thus be “saved for eternity”. I am personally thinking along the lines of “If there is an all powerful and loving God he should be more than capable of taking care of our eternity. We should be more worried about acting like Jesus to others here, helping them prosper on this earth and extending their lives and making them better in the here and now.” I would argue that if you are more worried about people’s eternity you aren’t actually showing your faith, you are showing your lack of faith because you are still worried about eternity. I want to end as much suffering on this earth while I am here.

The reason all this ties together is that I am arguing that there shouldn’t be any such things as a religious charity that is focused on “saving people for eternity”. We should be more focused on helping others here and if they happen to ask we can mention our true motivations for helping them, if it’s really not just because you love them as fellow human beings.

This brings up one more situation related to Jesus and charities and non-profits. Many non-profits are religious based and are dedicated to spreading the name of Jesus, even in places that it might be dangerous to people’s lives to even know about Jesus, much less believe in him! Do you think it’s more important that people believe in Jesus in this life or that they are provided security here? I believe that if we really care about others we should be more worried about working to provide them a safe environment that they can then develop beliefs in instead of pushing our religion on others and then praising their bravery as they are killed for believing something we introduced them to.

What do you think?

On Giving

“No one ever became poor by giving.” – Anne Frank

In 2014 the Gross World Product (GWP) was between $87 trillion and $75 trillion. GWP is a count of all the money “made” from sales of good in a year in the whole world, legal goods. That comes to $16,000 per person. This means everybody! The old. The sick. The hurt. The children.  This means that if money were divided equally each person would have about $16,000 a year to live off of. How much did you spend last year?

The Motley Fool said that the average American spends $140 a day or $51,000 a year. That’s crazy!  $51,000/$16,000=3.2 (Subtract one for yourself) So that means that the average american is using 3.2 people’s worth of money! Now I’m certainly not saying I’m exempt from this situation. I am fortunate to have a high income. I have been considering how to effectively use this gift I’ve been given. What could we do with that money instead? Give it away!

This study by the National Center For Charitable Statistics shares some facts on giving. The “normal” US family gives between 2% and 6%. Honestly, 6% was better than I was expecting, but that’s for people who make $10 million +. For us “mortals” There’s a correlation between lower wages and higher percentage of income given. Ranging between up to 4% for people making $45k while those making between $100,000 and $2 million are giving around 2.5%. While that is more money total, we should all remember the great words of Uncle Ben “With great power comes great responsibility.”

There are a myriad of reasons the “normal” person doesn’t give. One is we are afraid we won’t have enough. We compare ourselves to our neighbor who undoubtedly has more stuff than we do, but if we compare ourselves to, for example, the Syrian refugees, we seem to have a lot. If you are reading this on a computer you already have electricity and internet which puts you ahead of most people in the world. If you have electricity you likely have running water and a reliable grocery store within 30 minutes of your house. If you have a steady job you are already more privileged than most in the world.

No one told us it was good to give. Some people are just so caught up in the consumer lifestyle in the US from watching crap like Jersey Shore and The Kardasians that they think all you can do is spend money on stupid crap. For these people I will just say, stop watching that crap. Also stop going to the store to buy whatever strikes your fancy. I know the power of advertising as much as anyone. I walked into Walmart yesterday just to “Look at the new Star Wars toys” since I’m a bit of a Star Wars nerd. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with Star Wars or entertainment (besides Disney disregarding 30 years of continuum books to make boatloads of money on new toy deals but that’s an argument for another day). But the sheer volume of new toys for that is staggering! Also I succumbed to buying a handful of new Hot Wheels, naturally Fast and Furious branded. Marketing is tough stuff! That’s why it’s just better to stay away!

Another reason we don’t give more is we don’t think our money will be used effectively when given to a charity. This is a valid concern. Some people I talk to don’t want to donate money abroad because they are unsure if it will actually reach the people they are trying to help. That is a great and valid concern, but we shouldn’t let it paralyze us. There are plenty of sites that independently audit non-profits and give them effectiveness ratings. An alternative would be that you could donate to a charity in your town. Most of us spend time with people in the same boat as us, economically. We feel uncomfortable going to a different part of town where the houses are a bit run down. We should embrace those people. They are our neighbors also. The more we embrace uncomfortable situations the more comfortable we will become in them. We also might just help some of those people out of those situations and that will be good for everyone. For these people I’d reference Matthew 6:21.

“Where your treasure is there also your heart will be.”

If you are donating money to some organization and also volunteering there you will be able to be sure that your money is actually helping others. An added benefit is that you aren’t out spending money if you are volunteering!

How will we see this world improve for everyone? We have to start with ourselves. If we don’t help our neighbor, why would we expect anyone else to help them?

So how does your giving compare to the “average person”?

How does your yearly spend compare to the world per capita income? Could you live on less and still enjoy life? I’d challenge you to think about those questions.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Ghandi