Cherie Blair delivers opening speech at MEDEF Universite d’Ete 2009

Cherie Blair at MEDEF UE 2009If the plight of children and the role of women is the key issue for the  MEDEF Summer University [Universite d’Ete] 2009, Ms. Cherie Blair was a wonderful choice to open the conference. If her speech felt a little long, there were many interesting points raised in her 30 minute speech.  I captured below a few sound bytes that resonated for me:

The men among the 3000 people in attendance in the room (and in positions of power in general) will need to be, not only interested in, but, to play a critical role in solving the challenges of the 21st century facing our children.  As Ms. Blair suggested, most of the women in the room are probably already attuned to the issues… However, it is only when men and women work together as equals that “we can make a difference.”

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, a universally agreed set of non-negotiable standards and obligations, is signed by all countries of the United Nations but two: Somalia and the United States.  Maybe President Obama will sign up the US?

There are 1 billion children in the world lacking proper sanitation.

All the research and studies show that an investment in educating a girl [in third world countries] is a better investment than investing in a boy.  Educated women have healthier, fewer and more educated children.  And, educated women are likely to have a stronger voice in their family and their economy….

“Educate a man, you educate an individual.
Educate a woman and you educate a family and a nation.”

Tony Blair was told by a patriarch of the backbench, back when he was serving as an opposition MP, that if he kept leaving the House of Commons promptly after the 7pm o’clock session (to take care of his children) without spending some time fraternising with “the boys” that he would never get anywhere in politics….

Ms. Blair described being a working mother as being an experiment in organized chaos… There is so much to do in managing and finding work-life balance.  In order for the concept of “flexible work” to get to the next level it will take concrete actions — not words — led by the top [and visible] executives.  On this point, I fully subscribe to the need to have role models, role models who can succeed to find that equilibrium all the while replying adequately to the pressures and needs of the company’s stakeholders.

France has a system that suits a society where fewer women work… i.e. Ms. Blair suggested that serious change needs to come to France.  She did not elaborate on this point, but one must assume she is referring, among other things, to the midweek break at schools in particular.  On the other side, France has an amazing crèche system that starts at the age of 3 years old…

As opposed to believing that the youth of today are aimless, shallow and uncultivated, Ms Blair insisted that today’s young people have incredible compassion, energy and depth.  Plus, they have a connectivity across the world…  It would seem that we, the parents, should be learning from our kids.

To a question from the floor about a good model to follow (outside of France) in terms of treating women and children, per Cherie Blair, there is no one best solution, but there is a range of models.  If she did not specify which countries were in that range, Ms Blair referred to the World Economic Forum which scales the countries of the world in terms of the gender gap across a number of criteria.  It’s true that the Nordic countries dominate the top 5, she said and that Europe has the best record among the regions.   However, “the Scandinavian model is too prescriptive in terms of childcare,” meaning that women may not even have the choice to stay at home with their children.  [I have written about the WEF Study previously on my blog .]

A woman who has taken a gap out of her career to have a child and take care of that child should be able to return to work under truly normal conditions.  Ms Blair said, “[T]here is too much subtle culture in business that says ‘we know we have to [give a woman maternity leave, etc]’… but, if you are going to do that, we know you are not really serious about your career…”  This is a problem for women, and an even bigger problem for men who are interested in parental leave and a share on the home front because of the persistent prejudice on the career.

Overall, a well presented case… Hopefully, it did not fall on deaf — largely male — ears.

Is there Good News in the Swine Flu?

Swine Flue Cartoon
Swine Flu: Some bad news, some profiteers, and perhaps some good new habits!

 

As the world awaits for the onslaught of the swine flu [porcine flu, aka A(H1N1)], there are going to be evident winners and losers. The losers? Basically all of us: consumers, society at large and business (especially with poor cash flow), if the epidemic does come home to roost. There will also be profiteers. While hospitals and pharmacies risk a deluge, the pharmaceutical companies with anti-flu medicine are bound to benefit enormously and, some say, they are behind the summer media frenzy. In the likely panic and fear-mongering that will lead up to the ‘Flu Fall, consumers will surge to buy extra tissues, hygienic towelettes (wet wipes), alcohol-based gels or sanitizers and face masks. BTW I note that Fushi-Protective has bought premium space on Google and advertises in broken English (Chinese company): “specializing in face mask prevent from swine flu.” Frankly, improving people’s personal hygiene — even making acceptable in the Western world the wearing of a face mask as we see in Asia — will be a win for society. Cleaning our hands more regularly would be a good habit to inculcate. Buying internal filtering systems that “clean” up the air inside is another interesting avenue, albeit one that provides also provides a long-term benefit (a player in this area I have come across is called AirSur, which can provide allergy-free air at home).

Distance Learning eLearning

But, beyond the health-related plays, the one area for which the swine flu could be a super boon is distance learning. Imagine the situation: schools being closed down for long stretches, for example 12 weeks, as France’s Education Minister, Luc Chatel, has just announced as a possible measure for the upcoming bout with the potential epidemic. Schools should be getting themselves prepared to turn their courses into proper distance learning or eLearning — not just a rebroadcast of filmed lectures, but up-to-date e-pedagogy based on the exceptional possibilities that internet provides. This is a great opportunity to modernize, if not revolutionize, the education institutions — especially those that have been reluctant to move forward with technologies. The students we know will be willing. The question is whether the schools — and their teachers — will be nimble enough to react.
Distance Learning Mouse & Academic Cap
In the same vein, but only because I happened to be based in Paris this year, I think of distance learning as a great way to get around strikes and scam manifestations such as we experienced in several higher institutions in France (e.g. Sorbonne Paris IV, Toulouse-II Le Mirail, Aix-Marseille-I, Amiens,  Caen, Nancy-II and Reims…). For the teachers and students who were forced to stay at home by a small contingent of indignant ‘revolting’ students, courses should have been available over the ‘net.

Lastly, the trend of reducing business travel (budget cuts under the guise of green fingers) and “congregation” meetings may also continue, since such meetings will only promote further contagion. Another area that is bound to benefit is thus video-conferencing and distance meetings and webinars.

So, the swine flu may be a nightmare about to happen, but I see that there may yet be positive results in the long-term, including improving our hygiene habits, reducing carbon footprints and, possibly, generalising the practice of eLearning.

Your reactions are welcome!

The E-volution of the Book… Kindle, Sony, Google weighing in

The evolution of all media is fascinating to follow, but today I am going to zero in on the printed word.  Whether it’s the future of magazines, books, mainstream newspapers or even research & professional journals, the internet platform is causing radical paradigm shifts and there are some hefty decisions to be made/duked out for each category of the printed word.  For the book, there are two massively important phases: the democratisation of the eBook and internet referencing.  As beautiful as the Amazon solution has been for e-commerce, the digital reader platform is still in its nascent phase and has room to improve.  Nonetheless, there are a number of exciting functionalities that make the digital book much more viable for the regular book reader.   You can immediately download content through the wireless internet connection, search for the definition of word, open to a reference map, use RAM to search for words in a text, copy and clip text you want to remember, and when you go on a long trip you carry many books & magazines in one tidy place… and probably many other functions yet to be integrated.  And, importantly, technology has improved dramatically, including the lighting, font sizes and definition; and the price is now accessible, especially as the competition heats up.

The two leading options at this point are Kindle 2 (from Amazon with 230,000 titles currently) and the Sony Digital Reader PRS-700BC (right).  As a quick analysis of the their sites reads, it is interesting to see Kindle focusing on the content (see the video) and ease of use.  Sony seems more interested in its technical specifications and the upgrading of the different products (they have already issued multiple model numbers).  You have to scroll down to the very end of their site to find that they have “thousands of eBook titles available.”  Based on these virtual observations, for now the Kindle (below) gets my vote for best presentation, and I love the free wireless access to wikipedia.  But, there are going to be plenty of other players jumping (the more expensive Fujitsu eReader with its colour screen, the iRex Iliad with superior hackability, the BeBook from Endless Ideas BV…).


On another front [page], another battle is being waged with books, this time with Google and the referencing of book content on the Internet.  Google has finally come out with its Google Books search function.   Having laid dormant for some three years in the lawcourts, since October 2008, Google Books is now live in beta format.  This function allows you to search for terms or names within a large volume of books.  The site is in beta testing.  Punch in your name, your brand or a specific term and you can find out where it is embedded in the database of over 7 million books.

With the settlement of October 28, 2008, the Google Books site states:  “Three years ago, the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers and a handful of authors and publishers filed a class action lawsuit against Google Book Search.

Today we’re delighted to announce that we’ve settled that lawsuit and will be working closely with these industry partners to bring even more of the world’s books online. Together we’ll accomplish far more than any of us could have individually, to the enduring benefit of authors, publishers, researchers and readers alike. 

It will take some time for this agreement to be approved and finalized by the Court. For now, here’s a peek at the changes we hope you’ll soon see.”

The books are catalogued into two different types and, according to the agreement reached, you can either read some information on the book plus some snippets for Library Project books; or for Partner Program books, you can flip through a few preview pages, as if you were in a library/bookstore.  There is a mobile version of Google Books as well that works on iPhones and Android.  You can read more about the settlement here.

The bottom line is that the book — and its printed paper form — is not dead yet… but it sure is going to evolve.  Apparently, book publishers had a very reasonable year in sales last year (no worldwide data is publicly available it seems as this google answer says), but it strikes me that the tsunami is out there for the book world and, as iTunes and the iPod revolutionised the music world, so will the trio of Amazon, Google and Sony change the book world.  Perhaps book companies would be wise to take heed of the bloodbath in the music world to involve themselves in the changeover rather than fight against it.  Bookstores should be quick to find out how they will need to change their model… perhaps stocking digital readers and preloaded USB keys (for the Sony Reader).  And I will be curious to see how schools and universities move to the new e-platforms.

Reflections on the Philippines post Christmas Holidays 2008 Visit

Reflections on the Philippines – Mabuhay Bloggers

Map of Philippines
I have written in the past that the Philippines placed highly (6th) in the World Economic Forum 2008 global gender gap ranking. The report says in the latest publication:
“…The Philippines is one of two countries in Asia to have closed the gender gap on both education and health and is one of only eleven in the world to have done so. However, the Philippines’s score relative to its performance in 2007 fell due to a drop in the perceived wage equality between women and men employed in similar positions and a decrease in the percentage of women ministers [to 10%].”
It would seem that this high ranking was largely favoured by the female President (the second Filipina President in its history) and the good representation of girls/women in school at every level. I also wonder about the impact of the relative earning power of Filipinas abroad who, with even numbers, send in $18B versus $32B for men (OFW statistics). After my visit to the Philippines over the Christmas holidays, I can make a few more observations.

Children playing in Garbage Dump
First, courtesy of my kind acquaintance Charlie Avila, I learned that 57% of the Filipino university students are women. Second, just by circulating around Manila, you can see that women very clearly have an active role in business. That said, in this activity, there is a traditional division of labour (e.g. 99.9% of jeepney and tricycle drivers are men; while, for the women, there is obviously a lot of childbearing and rearing) and, outside of Manila, the ‘latin’ machista culture dominates. And, third, during our stay in the Philippines, I read how the government signed into law the so-called Magna Carta of Women, presumably promoted by the relatively large representation of women in parliament. In the Lower chamber, there are 49 out of 240 (20.4%) women elected, while there are 4 out of 24 (16.7%) in the Upper chamber. The ‘Magna Carta for Women’ bill (#4273) seeks to provide women equal treatment before the law, equal access to information and services related to women’s health, and equal rights in all matters relating to marriage and family relations. The cynic would say that if they need to create a law, there must be good reason for its need.

Skylab PhilippinesWooden Homemade Bicycle in the PhilippinesNonetheless, although I would like to believe so, women’s equality is not necessarily tantamount to progress. Since my first visit to the Philippines in 2004, I have observed little progress in the Philippines. The standout difference is perhaps the Subic-Clark-Tarlac dual carriage tollway (funded by the Japanese). Otherwise, the infrastructure and travelling conditions remain difficult–opportunities to break the speed limit (60kph) are exceedingly rare. Driving around the countryside, you are besieged by the 3rd World poverty (cf kids playing in the burning trash). People seem either to be mulling about doing absolutely nothing or on the move going absolutely anywhere. Any transportation is optimized; single drivers are an oddity. Passengers ride on the roof or hanging out the side. Cities are chockerblock with tricycles, bicycles and jeepneys. And the forms of transportation are quite inventive. You will see rice thresher contraptions and a “skylab” (down south, pictured above right) consisting of a balancing beam placed perpendicularly behind a bicycle/motorcycle with equal portions of people on either side. You can hardly fall asleep at the wheel thanks to the ingrained–if poor–driving habits and continuous overtaking.

  
Philippines Lorry Party - All AboardAs a testament to the constant to and fro’ movement of the people — and semantically revealing — the typical greeting in tagalog is “saan ka pupunta” meaning ‘where are you going?’ Another common greeting is “saan ka galing” meaning ‘where are you coming from?’ In terms of an answer to this greeting, you can say eith
er “diyan” (just there) or “doon” (doh-on, yonder/over there). 

Keep Philippines Clean Signpost

Signposts, and I am not referring to the names of towns, lead the way. There are signs calling for healthier (washing hands, drinking clean water, etc.) and greener Keep Bagac Clean - Philippines Sign(no trash, less water waste…) living; others invoking God and revoking drugs in the same breath; yet others demanding to stop abuse of children and/or women. All these signs, of course, are mixed in with a robust cocktail of commercial enterprise. And, yet, the progress seems slow.

As Charlie said, it seems that the Philippines suffer the instability of stability (as opposed to Italy which finds stability through instability). Part of the challenge evidently lies in the continuing stranglehold of the top 100 families who stubbornly refuse to yield. A defining Filipino saying is, roughly translated, Filipinos have “a loud but short fizzle” — the firecracker (a national pastime over New Year’s eve) is a good metaphor for the Filipino character. After the smoke, not much has changed. And yet, the success of Filipinos overseas, one of if not the largest diaspora (11 million or around 11% of its population) in the world is paradoxical. Beyond the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) in Dubai or the Filipinas that set the standard for domestic help around the world, there are ample cases of successful Filipino professionals (medical technicians, engineers, etc.).

From my various conversations, it would seem that the Filipino education system has taken it on the chin in recent years. An experiment to convert the curriculum entirely to Tagalog lasted a couple of years, but has had a lasting negative impact on English literacy levels. What was once a sizable competitive advantage — wide ranging English fluency — has decreased without compensation in any other form.

The other calamity is the growing strength of the “other” Filipinos occupying the southern islands, particularly Mindanao. Aside from hurting what is already a diminutive tourism, there seems to be a real schism between the predominant Catholic Filipinos and the Muslim population in the south.

Philippines TricycleTo overcome the handicap of the terrain and climate and its reliance on the centralizing, megapolis capital (12-15 million), the Philippines will need to overhaul its education system (as is the case, that said, for so many countries) and invest in its infrastructure (none more so than in Manila itself). With its pro-Western stance, the large and growing population and the generally genial charm of the Filipinos, there is much potential for this country. Will have to come back in another ten years to see how it all transpires. 

The Grand Divide Between Education & Teaching

The difference between Educating and Teaching… and the emptiness inside

I have decided to translate into English a post I did in French over the weekend due to the interesting discussion that it provoked. An article, entitled (for you francophones) « Il y a un divorce entre enseignement intellectuel et formation morale », by Jacqueline de Romilly, published in Le Figaro on October 29, 2008, inspired this post.

The article features a speech by Jacqueline de Romilly on the state of education and teaching in France. Education is a subject dear to my heart both personally and professionally. In a post I wrote earlier this year, I touched on the topic addressed in the speech by Ms. de Romilly, writing about the differences between education and training.

EducationWhile teaching relates to the transmission of knowledge and intellectual learning, Ms. de Romilly stresses the importance of education in the larger scope, including the transmission of values. “Education … means enabling someone to develop and flourish with his own qualities; for human beings, such human qualities relate to the spirit, character and suitability for life in society.” She cites three major problems in French ‘education’: (1) the poor knowledge of the language which affects the ability to communicate [with a risk of giving way to violence]; (2) a poor understanding of history and, therefore, of one’s past and one’s culture; and (3) a lack of reading of literature that is formative in the development of ideas and one’s imagination, not to mention what one can learn via certain iconic characters.

A fundamental concept is that the education of children begins at home. For example, at the dinner table, a family can forge links, telling stories and, at the same time, transferring the family history. But, today, with the quest for time, broken families and stress of work, the transmission of values, personal history and sharing of free time have become rare commodities for a child. I also know that the French philosopher, Luc Ferry, would approve when I say that we, as parents, must cultivate the passion for — and reading of — great classics, in which there are real lessons of life. In fact, it is vitally important for a child to develop his or her passion(s). Through this passion, a child will cultivate his/her curiosity, learn, connect and ultimately give meaning to his/her life.

Acting MasksSports CreativityExtending the concept of education beyond academia, I am a strong believer in the educational value of sports: how to work as a team, be a leader, to deal with physical challenges, to learn to win or lose with grace. Of course, sports are not all equal in the transmission of these values and are not necessarily for everyone. But for many, sport is also a avenue to channel one’s [excess] energy. In another domain, I believe deeply in the importance of performance arts, such as theatre and dance. Participating in theatre at school (I had roles in a dozen plays) was very formative for me – theatre called for the development of the self, opened me up to the diversity of personalities, and exercised my communication skills and stage presence. In England and university in the United States, I also greatly appreciated the art of debate – an environment that hones one’s talents in defending one’s ideas. It also serves to sharpen communication skills and how to compete in a public forum.

What struck me in the article by Ms. de Romilly was the way in which what she described echoed with the state of education – and society more broadly – in the United States. Ms. de Romilly does not cite the influence of the Internet which is normal to the extent the Internet is merely a tool and not at the root of the problem. But she could have expanded about the lack of attention span of children, distracted by the hyper-visual world, the addictive online games, chat rooms without profound meaning, and so on. Across the Atlantic in the US, a book was released this summer called “Why We Hate Us,” by Dick Meyer. In a similar sense, but coming from a completely different angle, Mr. Meyer writes of the lack of interest that have vis-à-vis each other. For Mr. Meyer, hate is not the hatred of fear & loathing, but the hate as in “oh, [women] don’t you just hate it when the men start talking about sports.” The level of conversation in suburban dinners in the United States, says Meyer, pushes some Americans to seek solitude, isolation (at the very least, it does nothing to encourage meaningful bonding). The conversation is too dehumanized. Many are disappointed by the lack of culture, the lack of depth – and indeed, the dulling effect of being permanently “politically correct.” Americans, he writes, naturally turn to the Internet to find interaction with others who share a specific passion, people who are present at any time within social media networks. Is the same phenomenon currently spreading to France?

Taking a helicopter view on Ms. de Romilly’s speech, I would say that teaching in France focuses too much on academics in general and should incorporate a broader scope on “education,” such as sports, theatre and even debate. With the emphasis on subject matters that promote the left side of the brain (maths, sciences…), schooling in France is flawed and gives less chance for children to blossom fully. Both Ms. de Romilly and Mr. Meyer talk about their values as “old” values; yet, even if some consider them retroactive, these are, in my opinion, timeless values and seem – in some circles, at least – to find a resonance on both sides of the Atlantic (and, of course, the Channel, too).

Blogs that have written on the book “Why We Hate Us”:
Page 99 Test
Campaign for the American Reader

Podcasts and Videocasts – New reasons to walk to work

Despite the sleek look & feel, I know that the Apple iPhone is still not perfect for my needs, so I have resisted the temptation thus far. Instead, I am content to max out my iPod. Although the agenda and contacts are weak applications in the Apple mobile platforms, I now have all my family videos and photos uploaded. And, thanks to the ongoing developments on iTunes, I have found ample pleasure by mining the available uploadable [mostly free] content, including the album covers, television rebroadcasts and podcasts.

If you have never done it, do go visit the podcast section of iTunes. The number of new podcasts being created is soaring (see graphic below). To those of you creating podcasts, keep at it! The choice ranges from newscasts to business to entertain to education to inspiration. And there are many special interests too. The development of the iTunes U section is absolutely fantastic: mobile learning with support systems to help educational institutions to learn how to do it (see this film for more understanding). I am currently subscribed to some 30 podcasts to which, of course, I cannot listen every day; but the repertoire provides great flexibility.

When do I listen to these podcasts? Walking to and from work, which takes me about 35 minutes to do the 2.8 kilometres. This is the novelty for me: like books on tape, podcasts are great for walking. At any one time, I can choose the podcast according to my mood, need or available time — and, of course, sometimes, I just listen to music. Unlike the commute in the metro which means many disjointed moments walking to the station, getting in the train for an all-too-short ride and then walking on to the office, I have an uninterrupted 35 minutes to myself when I commute by foot.

Walking to/from work with the iPod playing podcasts is a singularly great way to begin and end the day. Here are SIX substantial reasons why I strongly recommend it:

1. It is exercise in the open air (granted there is the pollution of cars, so I should theoretically get a mask to make it a healthier walk).
2. A chance to look up at the Parisian architecture rather than being cooped up all day.
3. It’s more ecological than driving or even taking the train — thereby reducing my CO2 footprint (which isn’t very good considering the flights all year).
4. It’s cheaper (than either the metro or car). We could all save a dime these days.
5. Considering the time spent circling to find a parking space, it is also oftentimes just as fast as driving. Moreover, by leaving my car at the underground parking lot at work, I avoid the unnecessary risk of leaving my car exposed for pigeon doodoo, or potential parking tickets.
6. And, the coup de grace is that I get to listen to the podcast with great attention. This latter point is critical for me (and I would argue for leading business managers) because, with the selection of podcasts now available, you can truly get new content to help drive your business or team.

For business leaders, there is a great selection of podcasts available. I have a few favourites that I would like to share with you (with links directly to iTunes):

o HARVARD Business Ideacast — This is a videocast.
o INSEAD Knowledgecast — Thoughtful videocast interviews with INSEAD professors and business people on a wide variety of subject — although this isn’t updated as regularly. You can get more content here in these INSEAD audiocasts.
o Go Green — Tips to go green and there’s also GreenTV, in partnership with UNEP and GreenPeace
o NPR’s This I believe — 500 words from someone that believes strongly in something
o Mitch Joel‘s Six Pixels of Separation for those wanting good web 2.0-oriented marketing and communications analysis and ideas.
o And finally, Robin Sharma’s inspirational podcasts

Do let me know if you have any other favourites you would like to share. Otherwise, get out your walking shoes and slide in to your next podcast.

Worldmapper – The world through different filters

Here is a great site for people with a global mindset: Worldmapper — a wonderful way to review the the worldwide situation… The site features maps of the world distorted according to the criteria. In their own words, “Worldmapper is a collection of world maps, using equal area cartograms where territories are re-sized on each map according to a particular variable.”

As of today, the website contains 366 maps, with associated information and a PDF file, covering 99+% of the world’s population, and drawing on information from 200 territories. Much of the data is admittedly old or estimated. Anyway, you’ll get the picture.

Below is the world map according to population.

Worldmapper

Among the 366 maps, I pull out a couple of pertinent ones for me:

The World’s Ecological Footprint – As we know, the United States, China and India have the largest ecological footprints — but it’s the per person CO2 footprint (i.e. combined with the map above) that makes it scary for the US.

Tertiary education – with the highest percentage of the student-aged population enrolled being “in Finland. Finland is 3.6 times the world average, with 140 times the chance of a tertiary education than in Mozambique.”

Hazardous Waste – “The three biggest producers are the Russian Federation, United States and Uzbekistan.” And Russia seems to have a big lead in this category.

Books published – A major European bubble, albeit with old data (1999). The most new titles produced in that year were in the United Kingdom, China and Germany.

Gender Empowerment – which points out that women are never at parity with men… even in Rwanda where there are now more women in government than men.

Personal Computers 2002 – Even if this is light years out of date, this PC representation of the world is my favourite esthetically speaking! A kind of Rorschach test too.

For more fun, check out the Worldmapper index here.

Kenya Safari Holidays April 2008

Kenya – A Recap of our 6 days in the Great Wild Bush

We arrived in Kenya at Nairobi International airport on our holidays in May and, somewhat predictably, spent the first 30 minutes in a highly disorganized line up to get through customs. We had already purchased our tourist visas at the Kenyan Embassy in Paris only to find that you could do the same thing at the airport customs counter. In fact, buying the visa at the customs counter would have been quicker than the time we spent in the “regular” queue to have our passports stamped–much less when you add the two separate trips to the Kenyan Embassy in Paris. Our main confusion was that we didn’t know which queue to join. There was an empty counter for “All Other Nationals” and two other manned counters for “Kenyan nationals” and “East African Nationals.” When I think back on the customs lines in Paris’ CDG Roissy airport, I believe the confusion is probably comparable, but it is always more challenging to figure out in a foreign country.

Our guide, Ibrahim, met us outside the baggage claim. We then made an one-hour journey – through some back roads – to the house of my old Kenyan friend and schoolmate from the Old Mathouse (OMH), Martin Seth-Smith (Ker & Downey Safaris Kenya). Along the way to Martin’s, we were able to view the Kibera slums (which are the second largest slums in Africa and even more impoverished than the townships of Alexandria and Soweto in RSA). We had a wonderful evening reminiscing and catching up. The next day, we headed off at 8am, in a deluge of rain.

Our driver, Ibrahim, was a stalwart, serious and gracious man. Aged 68, Ibrahim presented himself more like a 50-55 year old. Having been a guide for 35 years, he knew all the roads well and safely steered us through our 6-day trip. Ibrahim, a Muslim, comes from the Kalenjin tribe (a tribe known for its long distance runners, and the tribe from which came Kenya’s second President, Mr. Daniel Arap Moi). Ibrahim described how he used to run 10 miles to and from school that was situated on top of a hill.

Among the marvelous experiences in Kenya, and despite being in the rainy season when animals are not migrating through Kenya, we managed to spot each of the Big Five, including a rare and fleeting view of a scampering leopard, as well as just one cheetah (one of the remaining 15,000 on this earth). While we were out looking for animals, I wanted to pick up a bit of Swahili. Cheetah in Swahili is Duma (the name of one of our most wonderful babysitters when we lived in Paris back when…). The cheetah can get to 45mph in 3 seconds and looks so approachable… Tricky.

At Mara Intrepids in the Maasai Mara (6 hours from Nairobi), the tented sleeping arrangement was a first for us all. Including the enormous hippo sounds that woke us in the early morning, it was a wonderful experience. Also, the children absolutely enjoyed the Maasai tribe induction where they were entertained morning and afternoon with bow & arrow making, Maasai clothing and dancing (or rather jumping vertically). The Mara Intrepids Camp was, all told, the best quality we experienced.

We did one night at the idyllic Sweetwater tented camp. The restaurant-side watering hole that attracted all forms of animals was a great spectacle. One highlight was the visit of Morani, (the Little Warrior) the tame black rhinoceros (photo to the right). A pleasant home video on Morani was done here on YouTube. We also did a 1 1/2 hour “night safari”, which, at the heady price of $80/person (including the kids), was a complete fiasco. Aside from the fact that the only animals we saw–that we were not able to see during the day–were one big white owl and 2 mongooses (or should that be mongeese). And, what other animals we saw, the one spot light lamp gave us a poor viewing. Of course, the hoped-for “hunt” was not to be had the evening we went out. But, the main problem with our ride was the impact of a rain shower that rendered the road into a skating rink. We got stuck in the mud twice and, with the jeep bucketing from right to left and back, our eyes were glued on the road rather than on any animals.


Driving from camp to camp afforded us a view of the “inside” of Kenya as opposed to airplane hopping and just seeing the refined camps sites. This meant that we saw the poverty of rural Kenya, the hard working farmers, the lounging men, a woman carrying wooden benches (tied by rope and affixed around her forehead) and the enormous number of young children, many of whom were sitting on the side of the highway. There were even a few instances when I spotted machete-wielding children.

Driving on the roads of Kenya meant that we also saw the state of the infrastructure. Some of the roads were in such poor condition and so bumpy, it made picking your nose an extremely hazardous (if just as unsightly) habit. You also see the presence of police – there were police checkpoints roughly every 15 kilometers. We were stopped only once in the 7 days.

In another insight into the Kenyan way, on our way down to Amboseli, we had to make a stop at the Catalyst Travel Agency office in Nairobi to meet John, the “agent.” In an unfortunate and ungracious act, John (read: the boss) dropped 48 bottles of water on the street beside the jeep and obliged our guide to pick up the bottles without lifting a finger to help. An unnecessary humiliation

After our visit to Sweetwater, we made a brief stop at the Sweetwater Primary School, run by Mr Peter Bitaka. We met all the children and delivered a little care package. Education will be at the heart of progress in Kenya as in so many other developing countries.

Kenya, whose name was abridged from the Kikuyu name of Mount Kenya, Kiri Nyaga (“Mountain where God is”), boasts a population of 35 million people, up from 7 million 40 years ago. According to Wikipedia, the major ethnic groups of Kenya, which has 43 different tribes are as follows: Kikuyu 23%, Luhya 14%, Luo 13%, Kalenjin 11% (such as our guide Ibrahim), Kamba 10%, Kisii 6%, Meru 5%, Maasai 1.8%… I believe the 1.8% Maasai might be understated. In any event, driving through Maasai Mara, you obviously see mostly Maasai and, it would appear that it is a group that is growing fast. Non-Africans (Asian/Desi, Anglo-African/European, and Arab) amount to 1%. Refuting Wikipedia’s entry, I also believe that there are many more Indians, especially in the Mombassa region.

In terms of religions, Wikipedia lists the religious affiliations accordingly: Protestant and Quaker 45%, Roman Catholic 25%, Islam 10%, Traditional Religions 10%. Apparently, for those of you studying US social studies and the founding of Pennsylvania (like my son), Kenya actually contains the largest body of Quakers in a single nation.

For a review of the 4 lodges we stayed out, we’ll go with a quick star system:
1* (poor) up to 5* (great)

Animals Accommodations Service
Mara Intrepids (Maasai Mara) **** ***** ****
Sarova Lion Hill (Lake Nakuru) *** *** ***
Sweetwater (on the Equator) **** **** ***
Serena Amboseli *** ** **

While we went in the midst of the rainy season, we were lucky enough not to be dumped on too badly. There were few people in the lodges (the first three we were running at something between 30-40% occupancy). As for the political unrest, there was nothing to see. We were spoiled with views of Kilimanjaro on both days. A French journalist we met at Amboseli told us that there were many more animals to see in Tanzania. That did not stop us from seeing plenty of animals and enjoying our safari experience. However, next time, maybe we will head for the land of Zanzibar…

Sex Education Training

What’s the difference between training and education?

If you are in or interested in education, you should enjoy this explanation which I heard via Mitch Joel in his intro to Six Pixel’s of Separation podcast #104. Quoting a conference speaker Mitch heard in Toronto, he shared with us how to make the difference:

Any of you fathers in the audience have a daughter? If so, the question I have for you is whether you would rather your daughter have sex training or have sex education?

Simple distinction.

So, what does education mean? As Socrates believed, education (educere, to lead or draw out in Latin), is about making apparent what you already know. For example, one is led to understand one’s own value system. But, it also speaks in part to the pedagogical method of having people learn through experiment or experience: the interaction brings out the learning–in which case training has all its place. Merriam-Webster writes as a second definition of education: “the knowledge and development resulting from an educational process.” A school formally considers imparting knowledge as its core contribution to a student’s education. The question, however, is to what extent a school’s remit is to work on the secondary component, that of development? What should “development” look like? Learning how to learn, rewarding curiosity, instilling manners & discipline, teamwork, sex education… etc. Where does it start and end?

In France, in the Figaro of 6 June 2008, LCI OpinionWay presents the results of a survey saying that 89% of those interviewed were favourable to an obligatory « real moral and ethical instruction » at primary schools. In the same survey, 93% said that French primary education needed to return to the basic knowledge of reading, writing and counting. For the debate on France’s national education, see page 12 of the pdf file here.

Another interesting question in the same survey, showed that 31% of respondents believe that it is a priority to reform the training of the teachers, in France. And in a curious spin, the survey showed a range of 18% up to 52%, according to the Presidential candidate the respondent voted for: basically with those voting for the left [Ségolène Royal 18%] feeling reform is less a priority while on the right [Sarkozy 44% and Le Pen 52%] feeling that it is more a priority. Voters of Bayrou were down the middle at 36%.

In French, the word education is typically translated as “formation.” The Larousse writes: “Conduite de la formation de l’enfant ou de l’adulte.” Etymologically, formation is quite a strong term — ironically, word formation is a definition of etymology, too. In its execution, however, “formation” is regularly closer to “training.” Education encompasses a wider mandate and, in the case of sex [or athletics] training, is less a question of repetition and more about the context. I tend naturally to attribute to education terms such as ‘life skills.’ And I continue to advocate that sports is a very good way to bring life skills into the education of a child.

In any event, as a close to this post, when I asked a couple of mothers of daughters whether they preferred their daughter(s) receive sex training or sex education, they both smiled and said, under certain conditions, each had their benefit. Even sex training depends on the context.

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly Educational Systems

Great or Worst Teachers NYCThe Good, The Bad & The Ugly Teachers – How to get rid of the bad apples?

As much as I would love to continue praising the great teachers in my life, it occurs to me that many countries feel that their educational systems are in dire straits. With my Franco – Anglo – American educational upbringing, I want to look at each of the three systems I know best. Each has its strengths: US = positive reinforcement, extra-curriculars & universities; UK = all rounded academics & sports; FR = academics. However, they each have serious failings and somewhat similar challenges. These can be resumed as: low motivation and accountability among the teachers (no merit pay and no punishment for underperformance), staffing issues (over-staffed in France, under- in the US), and an increasingly stretched family situation.

Accountability Issues.

For starters, I return to the story of being able to judge and bring true accountability to teachers. In France, note2be [see prior post en français], a sensible student-grades-teacher site, was closed down despite the very widely known failings of the French educational system. In the US, similar sites have been in existence with great success (e.g. Rate my professors), but that hasn’t cured the US of its huge educational challenges. Per this banner [upper left] at Times Square in NYC, the Teachers’ Union in the States is so strong that the worst teachers can’t get fired. You can, meanwhile, vote for your worst teachers at TeachersUnionExposed. In a novel competition, the 10 worst teachers will be paid $10,000 to “get out.” The site explains how difficult it is to unload bad teachers:

“In 2003, one Los Angeles union representative said: ‘If I’m representing them, it’s impossible to get them out. It’s impossible. Unless they commit a lewd act.’ Between 1995 and 2005, only 112 Los Angeles tenured teachers faced termination — eleven per year — out of 43,000. And that’s in a school district whose 2003 graduation rate was just 51 percent.”

In the UK, the situation is similar in some regards. Referring to a May 5, 2008 The Daily Telegraph article, entitled ‘Bad teachers letting down children’, the General Teaching Council of England issued a report at the beginning of May saying that as many as “24,000 poor teachers may work in the state system” as school heads essentially relocate underperforming teachers to other schools rather than “dealing” with the problem. Since 2000, the report details that just 46 out of 500,000 teachers have been reported for incompetence.

Merit Pay & Staffing Issues.

On the one hand, the lack of accountability and appropriate measures being taken is an absolute shame. Schools, like governments and even hospitals, can do with a healthy measure of good business practices. On the other hand, these “social” necessities [health, school] continue to struggle with adequate finances. Teachers and nurses both provide enormously important functions in our society. And both require substantial training and education. The lack of “good” pay is certainly not motivating. However, this is not an excuse not to find ways to measure performance and hold them accountable. Unlike nurses (where it is difficult to find statistical measurements), teachers can be graded by the objective evaluations of their students. But, just like bad teachers should be dealt with, good teachers should be recognized — given their just due. And merit pay should be encouraged. However, merit pay is systematically rejected by the Unions.

The state of teaching today in the US–with its low pay, lack of accountability and “hyper” Gen Y student body–leads, not surprisingly, to a lack of teachers–much less, good teachers–coming into the profession. From Teachers Union Fact, “[a]ccording to NEA researchers, 41 states [in the US] are currently experiencing a shortage of math teachers. Forty-three have shortages of science and special education teachers.”

Who is Responsible?

For England, newly elected mayor of London, Boris Johnson met with NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg (Daily Telegraph article) and Boris is apparently considering taking direct control of Education (getting rid of the Board of Education). He will have his work cut out for him. But, I am afraid that the US (or NYC) has no solid answers (see comparative report against OECD countries). Certainly, the numbers in the US are not encouraging, with the perilously high dropout rates–if one can get a reliable figure [see here from the National Bureau of Economic Resources how the range of US high school graduates ranges from 66-88%]. The illiteracy and, in general, low levels of Maths and English are an embarrassment for the US. Surely, education is one of the biggest structural problems facing the US — one that involves the ability to accommodate the influx of immigrants as well as the less fortunate neighbourhoods. While the US boasts a good number of “top students,” I would have to believe that a large number of those students are children of immigrants from countries where academics are valued (i.e. China, Korea, India…); and that Middle America and below are seriously underperforming. For the US to maintain its position in the world, it will absolutely need both a high flying top end and a better-than-average average.

Finally, there is the family situation.

Split families. Dual-working parents. Too much television and/or internet. New “illnesses” such as ADD. Differing notions of discipline. SMS lingo and emoticons. There is, in all these challenges, an evolving dispensing of responsibility by the family. “It’s not my job to teach my children,” one can sometimes hear. And, truth be told, when parents are called upon to oversee 2 to 3 hours of homework per night for 10 year olds, that is a sign of system overload and just not feasible for full-time working parents. Parents are not necessarily perfect pedagogues–especially because of the emotional nature of parent-child relations. And, if a parent’s time is split between hard work and hard homework, where is the time for the “other stuff?” Parents must learn to work better with the schools. Parents need to get aligned with the school’s teachers. And, if possible, they ought to be involved with the school. But, sadly, the complicity is too often missing.

The solutions?

Teaching is a magnificent profession when it is fully embraced. And, while the pay can surely improve, apparently, a teacher (at a day school) will be actually teaching students less than half the number of days in a year. The potential quality of life is virtually unique. However, motivation remains terribly low on balance. My feeling is that the educational systems need to have the best elements of a private enterprise (meritocracy…); but, these must be subscribed within a long-term view that a government must impose. Part of the challenge of changing an educational system is the precarious nature of swinging wildly from one curriculum to another or from one practice to another, in the process destabilizing the teachers AND distancing the parents from the ability to participate (when they do) in the complementary education. Parents have a substantial role to play which for many, in today’s economically stressed times, is difficult to fulfill. Yet, having chosen to be a parent, they must take responsibility for their choice.

And What To Do As A Parent?

Despite the invasive presence of computers and televisions, as I heard Luc Ferry (contemporary French philosopher) recently say, give love to your children and stress the value of the great classics (books, movies…whichever classics you may choose with passion). These are timeless values that give grounding and learnings for life. For, education to be “successful,” it must be a complete concept. It needs to cover the academics, but also needs to have sentimental value. Both parents and schools have their responsibility. Stop the blame game and work together.

International Mix.

If I had an educational cocktail to suggest, it would be the academic intensity of the Asian culture, the extra-curriculars of the American system, the rigour of the French academics and the playing fields of English schools. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about the German system to comment although I hear many good things. If you know of positive elements of other educational systems, don’t hesitate to chime in!

Background reading/viewing for this post:

* Two Million Minutes – a film comparing the education of 6 students in China, India & US (trailer on YouTube – where I picked up this comment from kesjalyn: “i go to the #1 high school in america (as ranked by US News and World Report)and i’m really lazy, i never work more than two or three hours a night, and i still get good grades. so our schools definitely do not expect enough of students.” [note that US NWR got the capital treatment!)
* Nature.com, Making the Grade, May 2008
* Christian Science Monitor – World’s schools teach U.S. a lesson
* Education Watch international – Validation of Rate My Professors