Ground Control to Major Tom

We will soon be able to evaluate the truth — at least half of it — behind the statement that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.

Here are two marvelous assets about the extraordinary voyage of Curiosity to the planet Mars. Who would have thought that we would witness this day? Not only was this a multinational adventure, it was a second giant step for mankind.

Was it worth it?  Are we after the return on investment again?  As wine man, Gary Vaynerchuk says, then tell me the ROI of my mother!  Herewith a great graphic from I F***ing Love Science (FB Page), comparing the cost of the 2012 London Olympics versus the cost of sending Curiosity to Mars (stats from Forbes and New York Times).

Olympics versus Mars Investment, Myndset Digital Marketing

And an animated video posted on YouTube last year that shows the journey, the sophistication of the landing and of the scientific kit with which the Curiosity rover is decked out.

You can find more coverage from the JPL NASA Youtube page here.  In a tidbit of information from the Wikipedia entry, the rover has a specific tire pattern or tread mark.  ”That pattern is used by on-board cameras to judge the distance traveled. The pattern itself is Morse code for “JPL” (·— ·–· ·-··).”  How crazy is that?  And, what does JPL stand for: Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  Some engineer (as opposed to a brand marketer) was thinking through the whole thing?  Had it been a marketer, what message might you have wanted to inscribe in morse code?

GCMT: Ground Control to Major Tom?

Your ideas or submissions!!

Why do we get sleepy?

Sleep MysteriesOne of my favourite topics and an underdiscussed area in current life is sleep.

Overdiscussed in day-to-day life and clearly missing in solutions: being tired. Especially on Friday’s, like today, you hear the inevitable sounds of relief of the upcoming weekend of repos and expressions such as “TGIF” (thank goodness it’s Friday).

If we all know we need sleep, one of the absolute craziest things about modern science is that we [top notch scientists included] still don’t know WHY we need to sleep. We also struggle to know how much sleep we actually NEED. We know when we are tired and are ready to sleep, but the amount we need is a mystery. And, even when we are sometimes exhausted, sleep may be elusive. The health considerations are inexact and subject to many unproven hypotheses. In my experience, performance (at work or in sports) during a day is not necessarily linked to the amount of sleep you have had the night before (although you would think it would be absolutely systematic).

In an ongoing effort to bring the topic to the fore, here is a link to a great article, detailing Why We Get Sleepy? And herewith some good tips from LiveScience on how to improve your sleep.

Please do share among your friends and come back to me with your thoughts!

Measuring Quality of Life – A review between France and USA

Quality of LifeAs part of my Franco-American profile, I am naturally drawn to reading about comparisons and competition between France and the US. I came across this May 2009 article, France Beats America, which describes France’s epicurean passion for “living it up” in terms of eating, sleeping and holidaying. On the eating front, as much as obesity and over-eating might be America’s bête noire, the French make more time for eating. According to this article, “[t]he French spend more than 2 hours a day eating, twice the rate in the United States, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)…” The French spend 135 minutes per day eating versus 74 minutes for the Americans and 66 mins for Mexicans (69 mins for the Canadians). The Turks (#1) actually out-eat the French (#2) by an half hour each day! According to the OECD report, the French top the list for average number of hours slept at 8h50/day… marginally ahead of the equally surprising 8h38/day for Americans. Koreans and Japanese sleep the least among OECD countries, and an hour less per day (7h50) than the French (the OECD average is indicated as 503 minutes or 8h20/day). And, if you are thinking that not sleeping enough is bad for your health, the Japanese lifespan expectancy (86F.79M) outlasts France (85F.77M) and far outstrips the US (80F.75M) which is below the OECD average (82F.76M).

Finally, when you add that the French take on average 7.0 weeks of holidayThe Good Life - Man and Girl bouncing on Beds per year versus 3.8 weeks for the Americans, it does add up to a lot more “living it up.” I would tend to argue that the pendulum should swing back for the French, to work just a bit harder … not just any how, but by adding more pleasure, humour and emotion in the work space. And in the US, I would argue that the focus should be on eating better (not necessarily longer).

Meanwhile, among the countries included in the survey, it was reported that men have more leisure time than women. “This gender gap is largest in Italy, where men top women by 80 minutes per day. The gap is just under 40 minutes in the United States, and smallest (less than 5 minutes) in Norway.” France’s gender gap on the criteria of leisure time is 34 minutes (in line with the OECD average of 35 minutes). Is there any real correlation between a reduced gender gap on leisure time with equality of the sexes? That is far from certain. However, to the extent that women are generally at work and have the lion’s share of the responsibility for taking care of the family, clearly women will continue to suffer in terms of having their own leisure time if the burden at home is not appropriately shared. Below is the OECD report (data from 2006, published in April 2009) regarding the leisure time gender gap.

OECD Leisure Time Gender Gap 2009

While life is about good food, good company (including on holidays) and a good night’s sleep (& good health), the issue is about creating a sustainable model, i.e. (a) making the 45-49 weeks at work more agreeable and liberating; and (b) finding ways to allow women to have as much leisure as men. Quality of life should, considering how many hours are put into work, include the quality of life at work and we all need each other to be in “top” shape!

Your thoughts please!

Why do we sleep? Should we nap?

I have written in the past about sleep, in particular how interesting and revealing the study of sleep was for me at University (see here). What has always baffled me is that Sleep Researchers still have never scientifically proven why adult human beings need to sleep. We do know that if we don’t sleep enough, typically we suffer from irritability, forgetfulness and fatigue, and our motor skills in low-grade repetitive tasks diminish. One thing I also know is that, in ‘modern’ society, we sure spend a bunch of time THINKING about getting more sleep.

That said, sleep researchers have been making significant progress recently. LiveScience published this article, entitled ‘New Theory Questions Why We Sleep‘, by Charles Choi, which describes the latest research by Jerome Siegel at the University of California at Los Angeles. Sleep “is often thought to have evolved to play an unknown but vital role inside the body…”; but, Siegel suggests that the reason why we sleep is related to an adaptation to the outside environment. Specifically, Siegel “proposes the main function of sleep is to increase an animal’s efficiency and minimize its risk by controlling how a species behaves with regards to its surroundings.”
There are several other theories as to what is the purpose of sleep. These theories include promoting longevity, a role in learning, reversing damage from daily stress… The Choi article continues to say that “in humans, the brain constitutes, on average, just 2 percent of total body weight but consumes 20 percent of the energy used during quiet waking, so these savings have considerable significance…” Intuitively, the idea that the rest we get is most beneficial for the brain makes sense, knowing that the brain’s activity is never fully shut off during sleep and is hyperactive in the REM phases.
“I think this idea of ‘adaptive inactivity’ is an extremely useful way of thinking about the broader picture of sleep without getting lost in individual theories,” said sleep researcher David Dinges at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Dinges noted that regular cycles of light and darkness “put enormous environmental pressures on animals that all play into forced ‘time-outs.’”
Meanwhile, there are all sorts of myths about sleep, in part perpetuated by a lack of evidence, but also our lack of study/research and, more ominously, mis-information. It is worth noting that sleep (or at least getting to sleep) is also, unfortunately, big business: it is estimated that worldwide sales for sleeping pills (hypnotics) will surpass $5 billion in the next several years.
My own interest in sleep stems from a fundamental belief that sleep management is integral to time management. Actively managing one’s sleep should be part of one’s daily hygiene, just as much as eating and doing sports. One of the biggest misconceptions out there is that sleeping more is ipso facto healthier, to the point where taking sleeping pills is better than not sleeping enough. This is unlikely to be the case. From this LiveScience article, I quote, “[a] six-year study [Daniel F.] Kripke headed up of more than a million adults ages 30 to 102 showed that people who get only 6 to 7 hours a night have a lower death rate than those who get 8 hours of sleep. The risk from taking sleeping pills 30 times or more a month was not much less than the risk of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, [Kripke] says.”
I am personally a light sleeper and early riser, always living on the edge of what is necessary to live my conscious day in a comfortable way. While many people express a certain jealousy, it could yet be classified as chronic sleep deprivation. Do I naturally need less sleep or is it a self-imposed internal regime? Research by Ying-Hui Fu, a professor of neurology at the University of California at San Francisco, Mission Bay, suggests that a gene (DEC2) may be responsible for the amount of sleep we need (at least for the short sleepers). So, perhaps I am genetically predisposed?
If one is to sleep or rest effectively, there is also the solution of the nap. On weekends, a longer nap helps to accommodate the sporting endeavours and longer social engagement on the Saturday night… But during the working week, at least for those working in a company, the nap — even the power nap — is basically out of the question. Quite astonishingly, per a Pew Research Center study, reported in this article in LiveScience, napping is an activity done daily by 1/3 of all adult Ameri
cans. But for the other 2/3 [i.e. hard at work], it is a daily dream. Imagine a company where you could, without fear of reprisal, just crawl up for a power snooze of 10-20 minutes when the deep urge fell upon you. Would that not feel like a true daily gift? How much do you think that would be worth? Instead, snoozing is, almost uniformly, voraciously frowned upon and left to do on the commute home, stuffed in between two bodies on the tube/metro/subway or, worse yet, swinging upright, hanging on to a handle bar while standing on a moving bus. Of course, for power naps to be permissible, there would have to be some level of controls. The key is to set clear time-delimited objectives without focusing on exactly “when” the work is being done. This would also be a vital condition to creating more flexible hours for employees. On a side note, the much maligned pigeons (at least on this blog), apparently integrate the power nap into their daily crumb-finding, building-desecrating life – read here for more on those napping pigeons.
In a somewhat counter intuitive result of the Pew study, the most frequent nappers according to revenues were actually those in the middle, i.e. the middle managers : “Among people making more than $100,000, 33 percent said they nap regularly, while 42 percent of those making less than $30,000 clock out during the day. The income group that naps least? Those who make $75,000 to $99,000 (21 percent).” If such is the need for the human body, for the bolder CEO’s or leaders among you, is it not the smart thing to do to invest in organising a nap room, like they did for NASA’s Phoenix mission team members?
What’s your opinion? Is napping a luxury or truly necessary? Which do you prefer, the power nap or 90-minute snooze? Would a nap room make work conditions remarkably better? How might you go about instituting a ‘nap policy’ in an organisation?

Ontologies and the Semantic Web – The future of Knowledgement Management?

If you are like me, you will have said, “what on earth is an ontology?” Some form of scientific anthology? Well, I first came across the word “ontology” here, a post in which Professor Michael Wesch from Kansas University said/wrote that “Ontology is overrated.” While the term remains somewhat esoteric, I am ever more conscious that the ontology concept will catch on, albeit limited to the domain of knowledge acquisition and storage. So, what is an ONTOLOGY? In a geeky paradise, ontology is the new portal. Ontology is the metier of the 21st century librarian.

As defined in the Wolfram Alpha search engine, ontology in an organizational sense, “is a rigorous and exhaustive organization of some knowledge domain that is usually hierarchical and contains all the relevant entities and their relations.”

Carole Palmer & Allen Renear, Illinois University

A recent report by University of Illinois professors & researchers, Allen Renear and Carole Palmer, published in Science (14 August 2009), an article entitled, “Strategic Reading, Ontologies, and the Future of Scientific Publishing,” in which they describe and measure the effects of the web on medical research. Broadly speaking, the article highlights the gargantuan rise in the number of articles published, the increased number of articles being read (by fellow researchers, etc.) and the average amount of time spent on reading each article (decreasing). On the one hand, there are the obvious benefits of providing, instantaneously, potentially life-changing medical information anywhere around the world. However, the presence of so many articles poses an ever greater challenge for researchers needing to claim authorship (i.e. original ownership) of an idea or a discovery. (See Illinois News writeup).

Strategic Reading, Ontology Study, Science Magazine
As the chart above (from Strategic Magazine) indicates, the volume of abstracts and papers published (on cell cycle research) has skyrocketed.

As information proliferation will continue (in the short term it will undoubtedly continue to accelerate), the need to rationalize, filter and digest information will become critical not only in the domain of science, but in many more areas including arts and business. As Renear says, “efficient strategic reading becomes increasingly critical in scientific work…” and I say that the same will be true in many other areas, too.

Here is the BEAUTIFUL concept behind the ontologies being crafted in wiki fashion around the sciences (and later to all areas of documentable expertises): they have inverted the way research is done. You search for the real information you are looking for and then follow up by reading the supporting article(s) as opposed to reading the article to find the information for which you are looking. Of course, that means less reading per article, but it also saves an immense amount of time on background information (and, often-times, noise). The next step would be integrate into these ontologies semantic web concepts, to make them ever more effective and efficient.

Some examples of ontologies out there:

The Gene Ontology is apparently the most famous of ontologies, and among the ones I found while trolling ontologies on google, is certainly the one that speaks volumes to me.

The Open Biomedical Ontologies, a collection of freely available well-structured controlled vocabularies. When you read the introductory paragraph on this site, you get the feeling of not wanted here, very quickly. Try this for size: “The OBO Foundry is a collaborative experiment involving developers of science-based ontologies who are establishing a set of principles for ontology development with the goal of creating a suite of orthogonal interoperable reference ontologies in the biomedical domain.”

And, a third example that is a little easier to get one’s head around, an Animal Behaviour Ontology, one set in motion by Darwin undoubtedly…!

Anyway, as the world progresses through the 21st century, I expect many other areas — less technical than science — may benefit from the knowledge accumulation and classification methods inherent in these sort of wiki-library ontologies. The discussion on ontology takes on a whole other layer when we take into consideration the ongoing “battle” for the digitalisation (numerisation) of the world’s books — truly a new métier for the 21st century librarian. And, the way the Google Books system works is very similar in look & feel to the various ontologies: find the researched term, then open (or pay for?) the whole text…

Will ontologies play a significant part in knowledge management systems? Can ontologies move into the mainstream? What do you think?

Mystery solved: Swing your arms to save energy!

Image of Man WalkingA recent study by team of three biomedical researchers from the USA and Holland (headed by Steven Collins at the University of Michigan) has, according to all the newspaper articles I ran across, solved the “burning mystery” why people tend to swing their arms asynchronously with their legs while walking.  Apparently, these researchers have managed to put a figure on the energy savings that are involved.  The study says that it takes 12% MORE energy for the muscles to keep one’s arms straight by one’s side versus letting them flow freely.  The force of a walker’s contact with the ground increases by 63% if the arms are not moving.  All in all, rather credible stuff.

Usaian BoltI must admit that my attention was originally grabbed because of the “energy savings” (i.e. green) principle bandied about in the press headlines.  But, in the first place, it turns about to be more about energy efficiency.  And, from a health perspective, we end up saving only the calories we do not burn — which, for so many of the less active people, is NOT a good thing.

Meanwhile, I cannot imagine justifying the resources that were allocated to do this study!  I saw no good explanation of any greater societal benefit from this research.  A mystery solved, perhaps, but not one that kept me awake at night.  As an alternative, I might have suggested asking Usain Bolt to try running the 100 metres without using his arms. 

Further reading from AFP: Strait Times from Singapore and a medical journal, PhyOrg.

Film Review: Face cachée de la lune (Far Side of the Moon) by Robert Lepage

The Far Side of Moon Film JacketThe 2003 Québécois film, “La Face Cachée de la Lune,” — or “Far Side of the Moon” — by Robert Lepage (ingenuously written, directed, produced and headlined with dual lead roles) is a fabulous film that I highly recommend. Having just watched this film in the wake of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Mission, I thought I’d try to incite you to go out and rent it/download it…

Things I loved about this film:

  • the at-time very Gary Larson-like “far side” humour.
  • a reminder of the serendipitous nature of life and the many paths and voyages resident in one’s life.
  • how it showed the importance of your childhood in forming who you are.
  • the allegories played out by the different professions of the two brothers (Philippe and André): selling the Sun on the one hand and selling the weather on the other, all the while focused on the US-Russian race to the moon. Also notable: the links between the baby in the womb, the child in the washing machine, the goldfish in the bowl, and the astronaut floating outside in space attached by a technological umbilical chord.
  • the film within the film as Philippe, the missed Mad Scientist, records life on Earth for Extraterrestrials.
  • last, and probably least, the credits written with trompe l’oeil Russian Cyrillic characters (as in the jacket).

I found the text brilliant (I must own up that I watched the film in v.o. which actually means the version française) in the way that it treats the challenges of life and parallel universe of our thoughts. The film dances in and out of reality, playing with gravity and gravitas, Lilliputians and hallucinations.

Robert Lepage is a man of many talents, not least of which is that he also created the Cirque de Soleil permanent production of KA at Las Vegas. Here is a fittingly positive review of the film by Culture Vulture.

My final commentary on the film regards the “thesis” that Philippe develops in the film to explain why the Russians wanted to get to the moon. Philippe’s theory posits that narcissism was the driving force. The character Philippe says, “Before Galileo turned his telescope toward the heavens, we believed that the moon was a polished mirror whose darks scars and mysterious outline were in fact the reflections of the mountains and seas on Earth” [in French: "Avant que Galilée ne tourne son télescope vers le ciel, on croyait que la Lune était un miroir poli dont les sombres cicatrices et contours mystérieux étaient en fait le reflet des montagnes et des mers de la Terre."]. In his foiled thesis, Philippe explains how the brilliant Russian scientist Constantin Tsiolkovsky came up with the concept in 1895 of an enormous elevator building — inspired by the Eiffel Tower — which would take people up into space and where the cost would be $40/floor rather than $400 billion for each person to go into space. Tsiolkovsky was a remarkable man and, despite being closed off from the advancements outside Russia, came up with much ground breaking work including the multi-stage rocket and air cushion vehicle.

For me, however, the film sent me back to my days at Yale, when my wonderful Russian lit teacher, Professor Victor Ehrlich (1914-2007), justified that the evident jumpstart the Russians had in the race for the moon. Mr Ehrlich’s thesis was anchored in the “enlightened” thinking, promoted in the middle of the 19th century by Russia’s intelligentsia, surrounding the Philosophy of the Common Good (всеобщее благо). Initially introduced into Russia in the early 18th century, the cause of the Common Good stimulated the 19th century intelligentsia to galvanise scientific research and to dedicate themselves to finding a way to bring back to life their much respected ancestors. Ehrlich recounted how Alexander Bogdanov, the physicist, philosopher, economist and revolutionary, came up with a pioneering blood transfusion theory which, put into practice by himself, gave life to one of his own terminally sick students and subsequently caused his own death. In paralllel to this research to unlock the miracle of bringing back the dead to life, another branch of Russian thinkers considered the challenge of where to put all the resuscitated ancestors, should such a solution be found. The logical lebensraum was the moon. Consequently, a number of Russian scientists began to theorise on how to propel a man-inhabited rocket into space. Prior to the work done by Tsiolkovsky, Ehrlich refered to the pioneering work of the ill-fated Nikolai Kibalchich, who was an explosives ‘expert’ and, just before being hanged in1881 for his part in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, wrote a letter in which he described in some detail a rocket propelled aeronautical system for the transport of men. It was not until 1918, however, that Kibalchich’s letter was published. His 1881 theory predated by 10 years the “groundbreaking” research of a similar nature by the German engineer, Hermann Ganswindt. Between Kibalchich and Tsiolkovsky, to mention but two, clearly the Russian scientists were truly ahead of the times in figuring out how to get man into space. [Incidentally, Alexander Bogdanov also wrote an utopian novel, Red Star, in 1908, in which the protagonist travels to Mars.]

Sputnik Space ProgrammeThus, Ehrlich’s thesis was that Sputnik and Soyuz were merely the logical conclusion to the century long obsession of how to get man (albeit in the form of resuscitated ancestors) onto the moon. Without doubt, we owe much of our knowledge of the Moon to the Russians. So, even if La Face Cachée de la Lune (Far Side of the Moon) did not refer to Kibalchich and Bogdanov, it is a very worthy film, especially for those of you who enjoy astronomy and astrophysics.

Entrepreneurship – Economist Special Report on Why and How…

Mind of an Entrepreneur

The Economist ran a special report (March 14, 2009) on Entrepreneurialism and there were several interesting and important points that I felt like writing about. The 16-page report discusses the state of entrepreneurship around the world. In some regards, the report contains an apologia for European entrepreneurship, at least as it pertains to the non-Anglo-Saxon countries. Denmark is cited as a standout example in many regards, and most of the Scandinavian countries, as well as Britain, have a good record in the promotion of and opportunity for start-ups. The United States generally retains its leader status for entrepreneurship and one of the articles, “The United States of Entrepreneurs” describes a number of reasons why the US has managed to continue its run of entrepreneurial successes.

The one reason that really caught my fancy was the power of the story. The notion is that, all throughout high school and university, American-educated children hear stories of inventors and entrepreneurs such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Steve Jobs, etc. How on earth one can substantiate the positive benefit, I have no idea. However, the underlying concept is that icons and role models have no uncertain power and stories, etched into the young, moldable minds, have a habit of being converted into dreamed up business plans.

The article describes the usual suspects of freedom to hire and fire and access to venture capital. [If the notion of investing in a start up is considered a venture in the US, it is called capital risk in numerous European countries].

Another surprising point, as far as I was concerned, is the link with Academia. According to the Economist article, another advantage in the US “is a tradition of close relations between universities and industry. America’s universities are economic engines rather than ivory towers, with proliferating science parks, technology offices, business incubators and venture funds…” That the content and instruction in the “MBA” schools, borne out of the US, provides best-in-class business-training is probably unassailable. But, I would not have known about the comparative strength of the link between academia and business, as I am unaware of the strength of the link in other systems.

The final point I would like to highlight is the U.S. “immigration policy that, historically, has been fairly open.” A professor of Duke University, Vivek Wadhwa, is quoted as saying that “52% of Silicon Valley start-ups were founded by immigrants…” What is not said, but which I firmly believe, is that the reputation of America – all that is incarnated in the American Dream – attracts the entrepreneurially spirited immigrants. Immigrants who, at least in theory, have the choice of which country to which they will attempt to emigrate, will not select the USA if they are fearful of failure, if they are looking for protection and care for [a large number of] children. The reputation of you can “make it rich” in the US is inevitably accompanied by the knowledge of the lack of a safety net. In short, I maintain that the US has a habit of receiving applications from immigrants wishing to create and produce.

The final piece that is fascinating to observe is the propensity for start-ups in the US, not only to survive longer, but more emphatically to scale quicker. Witness the number of companies in the top 100 (based on market cap) that did not exist twenty years ago (Google, Ebay, Yahoo, Amazon…, but the list is not just limited to internet stories). The chart below is particularly telling, measuring the net number of people hired by surviving, new companies. (Source OECD)

Net Employment Gains

If you want to have some fun, look at this complete list of the world’s countries ranked according to the ease of doing business (source: the World Bank Doing Business database). There is no single column on mafia or corruption levels, per se, but the different categories are broad and quite fun to explore: getting construction permits, trading across border, enforcing contracts… Topping the listing is Singapore, followed by New Zealand and USA (with no changes in the top 8 from 2008). Among European countries, Italy comes in at an appalling 61st, while France is 31st (2 ahead of Azerbaijan) and Greece is 96th. Russia (120) and Ukraine (145) are at the “deep” end of the table. Below is the top 20, ranked according to ease of doing business (2009).

Ease of Doing Business Top 20 Countries

A parting remark: The word entrepreneur is a distinctly French word, n’est-ce pas? But, somehow may have been lost in the [bureaucratic paper] shuffle, if not translation.

Wolfram Alpha Search Engine to be launched May 2009

Wolfram Alpha Search Engine Screen Capture

To read the author’s pre-released blog post (written March 5, 2009), Wolfram Alpha, the new search engine due out in May 2009, is a kind of combination of the Theory of Everything meets Enstein’s Google.  The author, Stephen Wolfram, is the father of two other ambitious projects, Mathematica and A New Kind of Science and has a flair for the big ideas.  Wolfram clearly has a high regard for himself, plastering his name over each of the inventions or concepts and stating in his book, NKS, ”I have come to view [my discovery] as one of the more important single discoveries in the whole history of theoretical science.”  If you are mathematically inclined, you can download his NKS book for free here.  On the other hand, from what I have read, Mathematica is clearly highly regarded — some say the reference — in its domain.  If nothing else, for the layman, you might enjoy some of the images that you can find on his Mathematica Graphics Gallery (a sample below).

So, what is interesting about Wolfram Alpha?  It may yet be the next Google, or it may fizzle out much like NKS.   If it were truly the next Google, I personally would not have hesitated to name it Wolfram.com rather than WolframAlpha.com…  Almost seems like he is hedging his bets.  All the same, the very concept of Wolfram Alpha is fascinating, so I can only applaud the size of the ambition.  Based on the purposefully sketchy information available, it would seem that WolframAlpha goes a step [or two] beyond semantic tagging, to use the vast array of information and intelligence available on the Internet to create the optimal solution for a particular query.  In his own words, the idea is that “one would be able to ask a computer any factual question, and have it compute the answer.”  Rather than focus on the search criteria, the Wolfram Alpha engine uses complex algorithms, heuristics, linguistic discovery and curation to compute and/or perfect the answer, seeking to improve on the existing information.  My description of what Wolfram is attempting to do:  Take a 3rd dimension view of all the 2D information, outstretched on a worldwide web, and theoretically makes it organic and artificially intelligent.

Anyway, watch this [virtual] space as they say.

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”:
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