Adonis Diaries

Archive for May 13th, 2016

Reading a book from every country in the world?

Should I assume that every country has translated at least one book in English?

Ann Morgan considered herself well read — until she discovered the “massive blindspot” on her bookshelf.

Amid a multitude of English and American authors, there were very few books from beyond the English-speaking world.

So she set an ambitious goal: to read one book from every country in the world over the course of a year.

Now she’s urging other Anglophiles to read translated works so that publishers will work harder to bring foreign literary gems back to their shores. Explore interactive maps of her reading journey here:

Ann Morgan Writer, blogger, author. Full bio

It’s often said that you can tell a lot about a person by looking at what’s on their bookshelves. What do my bookshelves say about me?
when I asked myself this question a few years ago, I made an alarming discovery.
I’d always thought of myself as a fairly cultured, cosmopolitan sort of person. But my bookshelves told a rather different story.
Pretty much all the titles on them were by British or North American authors, and there was almost nothing in translation.
Discovering this massive, cultural blind spot in my reading came as quite a shock.

“The stories I read that year made me more alive than ever before to the richness, diversity and complexity of our remarkable planet.”

00:51 And when I thought about it, it seemed like a real shame. I knew there had to be lots of amazing stories out there by writers working in languages other than English. And it seemed really sad to think that my reading habits meant I would probably never encounter them.

I decided to prescribe myself an intensive course of global reading. 2012 was set to be a very international year for the UK; it was the year of the London Olympics. And so I decided to use it as my time frame to try to read a novel, short story collection or memoir from every country in the world. And so I did. And it was very exciting and I learned some remarkable things and made some wonderful connections that I want to share with you today.

 But it started with some practical problems. After I’d worked out which of the many different lists of countries in the world to use for my project, I ended up going with the list of UN-recognized nations, to which I added Taiwan, which gave me a total of 196 countries. And after I’d worked out how to fit reading and blogging about, roughly, four books a week around working five days a week,

I then had to face up to the fact that I might even not be able to get books in English from every country. Only around 4.5 percent of the literary works published each year in the UK are translations, and the figures are similar for much of the English-speaking world.

Although, the proportion of translated books published in many other countries is a lot higher. 4.5 percent is tiny enough to start with, but what that figure doesn’t tell you is that many of those books will come from countries with strong publishing networks and lots of industry professionals primed to go out and sell those titles to English-language publishers.

for example, although well over 100 books are translated from French and published in the UK each year, most of them will come from countries like France or Switzerland. French-speaking Africa, on the other hand, will rarely ever get a look-in.

The upshot is that there are actually quite a lot of nations that may have little or even no commercially available literature in English. Their books remain invisible to readers of the world’s most published language. But when it came to reading the world, the biggest challenge of all for me was that fact that I didn’t know where to start.

Having spent my life reading almost exclusively British and North American books, I had no idea how to go about sourcing and finding stories and choosing them from much of the rest of the world. I couldn’t tell you how to source a story from Swaziland. I wouldn’t know a good novel from Namibia. There was no hiding it — I was a clueless literary xenophobe. So how on earth was I going to read the world?

I was going to have to ask for help. So in October 2011, I registered my blog,, and I posted a short appeal online. I explained who I was, how narrow my reading had been, and I asked anyone who cared to to leave a message suggesting what I might read from other parts of the planet.

 I had no idea whether anyone would be interested, but within a few hours of me posting that appeal online, people started to get in touch. At first, it was friends and colleagues. Then it was friends of friends. And pretty soon, it was strangers.

Four days after I put that appeal online, I got a message from a woman called Rafidah in Kuala Lumpur. She said she loved the sound of my project, could she go to her local English-language bookshop and choose my Malaysian book and post it to me? I accepted enthusiastically, and a few weeks later, a package arrived containing not one, but two books — Rafidah’s choice from Malaysia, and a book from Singapore that she had also picked out for me.

at the time, I was amazed that a stranger more than 6,000 miles away would go to such lengths to help someone she would probably never meet.

But Rafidah’s kindness proved to be the pattern for that year. Time and again, people went out of their way to help me. Some took on research on my behalf, and others made detours on holidays and business trips to go to bookshops for me. It turns out, if you want to read the world, if you want to encounter it with an open mind, the world will help you. When it came to countries with little or no commercially available literature in English, people went further still.

Books often came from surprising sources. My Panamanian read, for example, came through a conversation I had with the Panama Canal on Twitter. Yes, the Panama Canal has a Twitter account. And when I tweeted at it about my project, it suggested that I might like to try and get hold of the work of the Panamanian author Juan David Morgan.

I found Morgan’s website and I sent him a message, asking if any of his Spanish-language novels had been translated into English. And he said that nothing had been published, but he did have an unpublished translation of his novel “The Golden Horse.” He emailed this to me, allowing me to become one of the first people ever to read that book in English.

Morgan was by no means the only wordsmith to share his work with me in this way. From Sweden to Palau, writers and translators sent me self-published books and unpublished manuscripts of books that hadn’t been picked up by Anglophone publishers or that were no longer available, giving me privileged glimpses of some remarkable imaginary worlds.

I read, for example, about the Southern African king Ngungunhane, who led the resistance against the Portuguese in the 19th century; and about marriage rituals in a remote village on the shores of the Caspian sea in Turkmenistan. I met Kuwait’s answer to Bridget Jones.

 And I read about an orgy in a tree in Angola.

But perhaps the most amazing example of the lengths that people were prepared to go to to help me read the world, came towards the end of my quest, when I tried to get hold of a book from the tiny, Portuguese-speaking African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe.

having spent several months trying everything I could think of to find a book that had been translated into English from the nation, it seemed as though the only option left to me was to see if I could get something translated for me from scratch. Now, I was really dubious whether anyone was going to want to help with this, and give up their time for something like that.

But, within a week of me putting a call out on Twitter and Facebook for Portuguese speakers, I had more people than I could involve in the project, including Margaret Jull Costa, a leader in her field, who has translated the work of Nobel Prize winner José Saramago. With my nine volunteers in place, I managed to find a book by a São Toméan author that I could buy enough copies of online. Here’s one of them. And I sent a copy out to each of my volunteers. They all took on a couple of short stories from this collection, stuck to their word, sent their translations back to me, and within six weeks, I had the entire book to read.

 In that case, as I found so often during my year of reading the world, my not knowing and being open about my limitations had become a big opportunity. When it came to São Tomé and Príncipe, it was a chance not only to learn something new and discover a new collection of stories, but also to bring together a group of people and facilitate a joint creative endeavor. My weakness had become the project’s strength.

The books I read that year opened my eyes to many things. As those who enjoy reading will know, books have an extraordinary power to take you out of yourself and into someone else’s mindset, so that, for a while at least, you look at the world through different eyes. That can be an uncomfortable experience, particularly if you’re reading a book from a culture that may have quite different values to your own. But it can also be really enlightening. Wrestling with unfamiliar ideas can help clarify your own thinking. And it can also show up blind spots in the way you might have been looking at the world.

When I looked back at much of the English-language literature I’d grown up with, for example, I began to see how narrow a lot of it was, compared to the richness that the world has to offer. And as the pages turned, something else started to happen, too. Little by little, that long list of countries that I’d started the year with, changed from a rather dry, academic register of place names into living, breathing entities.

 I don’t want to suggest that it’s at all possible to get a rounded picture of a country simply by reading one book. But cumulatively, the stories I read that year made me more alive than ever before to the richness, diversity and complexity of our remarkable planet.

It was as though the world’s stories and the people who’d gone to such lengths to help me read them had made it real to me. These days, when I look at my bookshelves or consider the works on my e-reader, they tell a rather different story. It’s the story of the power books have to connect us across political, geographical, cultural, social, religious divides. It’s the tale of the potential human beings have to work together.

11:25 And, it’s testament to the extraordinary times we live in, where, thanks to the Internet, it’s easier than ever before for a stranger to share a story, a worldview, a book with someone she may never meet, on the other side of the planet.

I hope it’s a story I’m reading for many years to come. And I hope many more people will join me. If we all read more widely, there’d be more incentive for publishers to translate more books, and we would all be richer for that.

Note: I read original books in English, French and Arabic, and any translated work in any one of these 3 languages.

You can read the genome and build a human being

Secrets, disease and beauty are all written in the human genome, the complete set of genetic instructions needed to build a human being.

Scientist and entrepreneur Riccardo Sabatini shows us, we have the power to read this complex code, predicting things like height, eye color, age and even facial structure — all from a vial of blood.

And soon, Sabatini says, our new understanding of the genome will allow us to personalize treatments for diseases like cancer.

We have the power to change life as we know it. How will we use it?

Behold, the encyclopedia of a single person:

We have the power to change life as we know it.| Riccardo Sabatini. Scientist, entrepreneur. He applies his expertise in numerical modeling and data to projects ranging from material science to computational genomics and food market predictions. Full bio

For the next 16 minutes, I’m going to take you on a journey that is probably the biggest dream of humanity: to understand the code of life.

0:20 So for me, everything started many years ago when I met the first 3D printer. The concept was fascinating.

A 3D printer needs three elements: a bit of information, some raw material, some energy, and it can produce any object that was not there before.

I was doing physics, I was coming back home and I realized that I actually always knew a 3D printer. And everyone does. It was my mom.

My mom takes three elements: a bit of information, which is between my father and my mom in this case, raw elements and energy in the same media, that is food, and after several months, produces me. And I was not existent before.

So apart from the shock of my mom discovering that she was a 3D printer, I immediately got mesmerized by that piece, the first one, the information. What amount of information does it take to build and assemble a human? Is it much? Is it little? How many thumb drives can you fill?

 I was studying physics at the beginning and I took this approximation of a human as a gigantic Lego piece.

So, imagine that the building blocks are little atoms and there is a hydrogen here, a carbon here, a nitrogen here. So in the first approximation, if I can list the number of atoms that compose a human being, I can build it. Now, you can run some numbers and that happens to be quite an astonishing number.

the number of atoms, the file that I will save in my thumb drive to assemble a little baby, will actually fill an entire Titanic of thumb drives — multiplied 2,000 times. This is the miracle of life. Every time you see from now on a pregnant lady, she’s assembling the biggest amount of information that you will ever encounter. Forget big data, forget anything you heard of. This is the biggest amount of information that exists.  

2:25 But nature, fortunately, is much smarter than a young physicist, and in four billion years, managed to pack this information in a small crystal we call DNA. We met it for the first time in 1950 when Rosalind Franklin, an amazing scientist, a woman, took a picture of it.

But it took us more than 40 years to finally poke inside a human cell, take out this crystal, unroll it, and read it for the first time. The code comes out to be a fairly simple alphabet, four letters: A, T, C and G. And to build a human, you need three billion of them. Three billion. How many are three billion? It doesn’t really make any sense as a number, right?

I was thinking how I could explain myself better about how big and enormous this code is. But there is — I mean, I’m going to have some help, and the best person to help me introduce the code is actually the first man to sequence it, Dr. Craig Venter. So welcome onstage, Dr. Craig Venter.

Not the man in the flesh, but for the first time in history, this is the genome of a specific human, printed page-by-page, letter-by-letter: 262,000 pages of information, 450 kilograms, shipped from the United States to Canada thanks to Bruno Bowden,, a start-up, did everything. It was an amazing feat.

 But this is the visual perception of what is the code of life. And now, for the first time, I can do something fun. I can actually poke inside it and read. So let me take an interesting book … like this one. I have an annotation; it’s a fairly big book. So just to let you see what is the code of life. Thousands and thousands and thousands and millions of letters. And they apparently make sense. Let’s get to a specific part. Let me read it to you:


To you it sounds like mute letters, but this sequence gives the color of the eyes to Craig. I’ll show you another part of the book. This is actually a little more complicated.

 Chromosome 14, book 132:  


5:19 This human is lucky, because if you miss just two letters in this position — two letters of our three billion — he will be condemned to a terrible disease: cystic fibrosis. We have no cure for it, we don’t know how to solve it, and it’s just two letters of difference from what we are.

A wonderful book, a mighty book, a mighty book that helped me understand and show you something quite remarkable. Every one of you — what makes me, me and you, you — is just about five million of these, half a book. For the rest, we are all absolutely identical. Five hundred pages is the miracle of life that you are. The rest, we all share it. So think about that again when we think that we are different. This is the amount that we share.

now that I have your attention, the next question is: How do I read it? How do I make sense out of it? Well, for however good you can be at assembling Swedish furniture, this instruction manual is nothing you can crack in your life.  

 in 2014, two famous TEDsters, Peter Diamandis and Craig Venter himself, decided to assemble a new company. Human Longevity was born, with one mission: trying everything we can try and learning everything we can learn from these books, with one target — making real the dream of personalized medicine, understanding what things should be done to have better health and what are the secrets in these books.

An amazing team, 40 data scientists and many more people, a pleasure to work with. The concept is actually very simple. We’re going to use a technology called machine learning.

On one side, we have genomes — thousands of them.

On the other side, we collected the biggest database of human beings: phenotypes, 3D scan, NMR — everything you can think of. Inside there, on these two opposite sides, there is the secret of translation. And in the middle, we build a machine. We build a machine and we train a machine well, not exactly one machine, many, many machines — to try to understand and translate the genome in a phenotype.

What are those letters, and what do they do? It’s an approach that can be used for everything, but using it in genomics is particularly complicated. Little by little we grew and we wanted to build different challenges. We started from the beginning, from common traits. Common traits are comfortable because they are common, everyone has them.

we started to ask our questions: Can we predict height? Can we read the books and predict your height?

we actually can, with five centimeters of precision. BMI is fairly connected to your lifestyle, but we still can, we get in the ballpark, eight kilograms of precision. Can we predict eye color? Yeah, we can. Eighty percent accuracy. Can we predict skin color? Yeah we can, 80 percent accuracy. Can we predict age? We can, because apparently, the code changes during your life. It gets shorter, you lose pieces, it gets insertions. We read the signals, and we make a model.

 an interesting challenge: Can we predict a human face? It’s a little complicated, because a human face is scattered among millions of these letters. And a human face is not a very well-defined object. So, we had to build an entire tier of it to learn and teach a machine what a face is, and embed and compress it. And if you’re comfortable with machine learning, you understand what the challenge is here.

15 years after we read the first sequence — this October, we started to see some signals. And it was a very emotional moment. What you see here is a subject coming in our lab. This is a face for us. So we take the real face of a subject, we reduce the complexity, because not everything is in your face — lots of features and defects and asymmetries come from your life. We symmetrize the face, and we run our algorithm. The results that I show you right now, this is the prediction we have from the blood.

In these seconds, your eyes are watching, left and right, left and right, and your brain wants those pictures to be identical. So I ask you to do another exercise, to be honest. Please search for the differences, which are many. The biggest amount of signal comes from gender, then there is age, BMI, the ethnicity component of a human.

And scaling up over that signal is much more complicated. But what you see here, even in the differences, lets you understand that we are in the right ballpark, that we are getting closer. And it’s already giving you some emotions.

This is another subject that comes in place, and this is a prediction. A little smaller face, we didn’t get the complete cranial structure, but still, it’s in the ballpark. This is a subject that comes in our lab, and this is the prediction.

So these people have never been seen in the training of the machine. These are the so-called “held-out” set. But these are people that you will probably never believe. We’re publishing everything in a scientific publication, you can read it.

But since we are onstage, Chris challenged me. I probably exposed myself and tried to predict someone that you might recognize. So, in this vial of blood — and believe me, you have no idea what we had to do to have this blood now, here — in this vial of blood is the amount of biological information that we need to do a full genome sequence. We just need this amount.

We ran this sequence, and I’m going to do it with you. And we start to layer up all the understanding we have. In the vial of blood, we predicted he’s a male. And the subject is a male. We predict that he’s a meter and 76 cm. The subject is a meter and 77 cm. So, we predicted that he’s 76; the subject is 82. We predict his age, 38. The subject is 35. We predict his eye color. Too dark. We predict his skin color. We are almost there. That’s his face.

Now, the reveal moment: the subject is this person.

And I did it intentionally. I am a very particular and peculiar ethnicity. Southern European, Italians — they never fit in models. And it’s particular — that ethnicity is a complex corner case for our model. But there is another point. So, one of the things that we use a lot to recognize people will never be written in the genome. It’s our free will, it’s how I look.

Not my haircut in this case, but my beard cut. So I’m going to show you, I’m going to, in this case, transfer it — and this is nothing more than Photoshop, no modeling — the beard on the subject. And immediately, we get much, much better in the feeling.

 why do we do this? We certainly don’t do it for predicting height or taking a beautiful picture out of your blood. We do it because the same technology and the same approach, the machine learning of this code, is helping us to understand how we work, how your body works, how your body ages, how disease generates in your body, how your cancer grows and develops, how drugs work and if they work on your body.

This is a huge challenge. This is a challenge that we share with thousands of other researchers around the world. It’s called personalized medicine. It’s the ability to move from a statistical approach where you’re a dot in the ocean, to a personalized approach, where we read all these books and we get an understanding of exactly how you are. But it is a particularly complicated challenge, because of all these books, as of today, we just know probably two percent: four books of more than 175.

And this is not the topic of my talk, because we will learn more. There are the best minds in the world on this topic. The prediction will get better, the model will get more precise. And the more we learn, the more we will be confronted with decisions that we never had to face before about life, about death, about parenting.

we are touching the very inner detail on how life works. And it’s a revolution that cannot be confined in the domain of science or technology. This must be a global conversation. We must start to think of the future we’re building as a humanity.

We need to interact with creatives, with artists, with philosophers, with politicians. Everyone is involved, because it’s the future of our species. Without fear, but with the understanding that the decisions that we make in the next year will change the course of history forever.


I want to walk clean beaches: (Oct. 2015)

Stretches of hundred of miles with no discontinuity

It just hit me that I would love as a life dream wish to walk endlessly on clean beaches.

Beaches that belong to the public as a constitutional right.

Virgin beaches that no machines ravage them to excavate the sand for construction.

I want to keep walking and sleeping on beaches.

Lie down and watch the night stars, listening to the sea birds and the endless waves singing their relaxing melodies.

Just keep walking on an interminable beach, a natural reserve for mankind to step on and feel free.

Should I learn to fish too for survival purposes? Everything in due time.

I like to have a list of virgin beaches that proud and nature loving nations preserved from the vultures of modern time.

How ugly it is that people think that building just on the seashore is a privilege that no one else should share.




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