Category: My life

Eat meat or not?

It all started with a strong statement in the LA Times:

If early humans had been vegans we might all still be living in caves.

It says nothing and everything at the same time … Not eating meat would have stopped our “evolution” from early humans? Not eating meat would make us dumber? Or does it have something else to do? It does.

The original article on PLoS ONE is in fact a study about the impact of carnivory on human development and evolution. And the method used is a model of weaning in Mammals (thus no intelligence test per se). Psouni and her colleagues showed that:

  • Brain mass is a better fundamental predictor of time to weaning than is female body mass (figure 2);
  • Limb biomechanics is a predictor of time to weaning (figure 3);
  • Dietary profile is a predictor of time to weaning (figure 4) and that
  • Time to weaning in humans is quantitatively predictable from a carnivorous diet (figure 5).

So eating meat made human women wean more rapidly than if we stayed vegetarian. Their model suggests that “the contribution of carnivory was to shorten the duration of lactation and suckling despite the overall prolongation of development associated with increased adult brain mass”. Nothing about intelligence thus.

However this paper came to my knowledge after OAD published a (quite long) infographics about the dangers of red meat (not meat in general). On the presentation-side, I’m not sure such long vertical banner is powerful enough: after some time you are tired to scroll down. On the content-side, it’s a well-known fact that red meat comes with a lot of healthy risks. On top of that, the infographics focuses a lot on the USA, one of the countries where the consumption of red meat is high. This reminded me a TV programme from Jamie Oliver where he showed how meat is processed in the USA …

It’s “good” to be reminded of all this only once you’ve come back from there …

Key messages? Always read the original paper (even diagonally it’s better than general press) and know what you eat!

Edited on May 12, 2013 to remove the link to the original infographics (as it was not present anymore).

Pi in Pubmed

On March 14th, 2012 (3/14/2012), it was Pi day. According to Wikipedia, Pi (π) is a mathematical constant that is the ratio of any Euclidean circle’s circumference to its diameter. While others estimated π using Monte Carlo in R or declared π is wrong, I tried to see how many times the pi value is cited in Pubmed, a database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. And here are the results (please note the log y-axis):

Pi citations in Pubmed (March 2012)

Pi Occurences
3.14159 1
3.1415 1
3.141 110
3.14 11726

I know it has little meaning: very often the string of numbers in the pi value was not there for pi itself but for other reasons. I thought it was fun, that’s all.

Holi hai!

March 7th, 2012 is Holi! It is first a Hindu spring festival celebration but it is also known as the festival of colours. The main day is celebrated by people throwing scented powder and perfume at each other. Bonfires are lit on the eve of the festival (more info on Wikipedia).

Now compare how a movie showed Holi in 1981 (“Silsila“):

With a movie showing a Holi celebration in 2010 (“Action_Replayy“):


In Belgium, at least two celebrations are planned:

  • one in Leuven, organised by ISAL, on March 10th, 2012;
  • the other one in Brussels, organised by InBAG, on March 24th, 2012.

About stacked bar graphs

This afternoon I received a bunch of data accompanied by stacked bar graphs for each dataset. For example, this one:

Stacked bar graph example

The chart shows the incidence of disease X in various age ranges. That incidence is split by 8 severity levels. The chart shows that the disease especially affects age ranges 4 and 5, at different severity levels. However I didn’t feel comfortable …

  • what are the different levels of severity in age ranges 1, 2 and 3?
  • how can we compare levels C, D and E in age ranges 4 and 5?
  • is there anywhere some severity A?
  • (it’s even worst when some age ranges don’t have any incidence at all: what is happening?)
  • etc.

I looked on the web but couldn’t find much information apart from the fact “The Economist says they’re so bad at conveying information, that they’re a great way to hide a bad number amongst good ones” (but are still using them in their graphic detail section) or “a stacked column chart with percentages should always extend to 100%” (this doesn’t really apply here). Then in a post on Junk Charts, someone mentioned Steven Few who would have said “not to use stacked bar charts because you cannot compare individual values very easily and as a rule [he] avoid[s] stacked bars with more than six or seven divisions”. And Steven Few also participated in his forum here.

This reminded me I read a book written by Steven Few, a few years ago: Information Dashboard Design (O’Reilly Media, 2006). Inside, on pages 135-136, one can read stacked bar graphs are the right choice only when you must display multiple instances of a whole and its parts, with emphasis primarily on the whole. And that this type of graph shouldn’t be used if the distribution changes must be shown more precisely.

If one wants to clearly display both the whole and its parts, Steven Few recommends to either use two graphs next to each other or a combination bar and line graph (with two quantitative scales).

As I’m not really interested in the whole but mainly in the parts and their relative distribution, I suggest another way to present the data. This isn’t really new. Actually everything was already in the table. You just format the table nicely and add some colour gradient. And voilà:

Simple table with data - instead of stacked bar graph

You still see where the incidence is the highest (in age ranges 4 and 5), what levels of severity are the most important (C, with lower but approximately similar levels of D, E and H). In addition to the graph above, one can notice there isn’t any severity levels A, B, F and G represented and we can quickly grasp the proportions between the different incidences.

Of course, if your criteria for “sexiness” is that there shouldn’t be any digit on your chart, then this chart is not sexy. But I find this presentation really more appealing and meaningful than the stacked bar graph. Isn’t it?

Chúc mừng năm mới!

In three days (Jan 23rd, 2012) it will be the Vietnamese Tết. This year is the year of the Dragon. Happy New Year!

Dragon boats resting

For those interested there will be a celebration at Théâtre Marni in Brussels on January 28th afternoon. And BelVietnam is mentioning three celebrations in Brussels on January 21st, 29th and February 12th.

Photo credit: Dragon boats resting on Sông Hương river, Huế, Vietnam (from my photos on Flickr, licence CC-by-sa)

Projection of the American ageing population

Yesterday, GOOD issued an infographic of America’s Aging Workforce (reproduced below). One of the key learning I take from it is that many Americans are unprepared for retirement. Indeed, the average American worker has saved $25,000 for retirement but it is estimated she/he will need $350,000 if she/he wishes to retire at 65 (i.e. 14 times more money!).

USA ageing, an infographic by GOOD

I was also wondering: after China and Belgium, how will the population age in the USA?

The US Census Bureau maintains national projections of the population and its latest data is from 2009. Among other things, it takes into account the resident population and demographic components of change (births, deaths, and net international migration). For international migration (in and out of the USA), there are four alternative assumptions (described in the method statement):

  • in the High Net International Migration scenario, they increase the previously projected net international migration by a fixed ratio ;
  • in the Low Net International Migration scenario, they decrease the same previously projected net international migration by the same fixed ratio ;
  • the Constant Net International Migration scenario illustrates the effect a level trend in international migration would have if maintained over the projection period ;
  • finally, in the Zero Net International Migration, the number of immigrants and emigrants is held constant at a value of zero for the entire projection period, thus assuming a closed population and no movement of individuals into or out of the United States.

By proceeding in this way, the overall number of migrants projected to enter or leave the population is (optionally) modified while maintaining the assumptions about the distributions of demographic characteristics.

Now, as expected, the American population is indeed aging. From approximately 12% in 2000 the population above 64 years old will increase to more than 21% in 2050 (in the constant scenario, see below). We also see an acceleration of the increasing number of elderly in the USA between 2010 and 2030. This US estimation is a bit lower than the estimations for China (>23%) and Belgium (>25%).

US Census Bureau estimation of American population aging (2009)

In the graph above, I took the Constant Net International Migration scenario as I consider it as the most conservative. When one plots all the scenarii, we can see the difference is not so big: the US population above 64 years old in 2050 will be between 19% (High scenario) and 23% (Zero scenario) of the total US population (see below).

Influence of the different migration scenarii on US aging population projection (2009)

The main issue remains to maintain older people as much as possible the same levels of health and independence as they enjoyed during their active lives. As highlighted by GOOD, America’s workforce will need to work well past age 65 to save enough money for retirement.

2012 will be the first year after the International Year of Chemistry

Indeed: 2011 was the International Year of Chemistry (IYC). But why IUPAC and UNESCO dedicated a year to that basic science? It was for two reasons: one looking at the past and one looking at the future.

Looking at the past, 2011 was the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie‘s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize. And her discovery was very important for both the science in itself and its applications to health. Radium’s radioactivity seemed to contradict the principle of the conservation of energy. The discovery of radium allowed other great names in chemistry and physics like Rutherford to study the atom and radioactivity decay. In medicine, the radioactivity of radium allowed the development of radiation therapies, used to control or kill malignant cells in cancer treatment.

But 2011 was also the 100th anniversary of the first Solvay conference which subject was “Radiation and the Quanta”. Marie Curie was obviously present, along with Henri Poincaré, Max Planck, Ernest Rutherford and Albert Einstein among others. It was held at the Hotel Metropole, in Brussels (yes, in Belgium 🙂 ). Solvay conferences in physics and chemistry still continue now.

1911 Solvay conference
1911 Solvay conference

So IUPAC and UNESCO wanted to commemorate the achievements of chemistry and its contributions to the well-being of humankind in general. And 2011 was full of activities all over the world (there was probably one near your place and there are still plenty of activities prepared for 2012!).

One of these activities was the creation of a team of young people/scientists who debated and introduced their ideas and expectations from life sciences and chemistry, industry and governments to build a better world in 2050. I am grateful to my company to have chosen me to represent it in this “Young Leader” team: it really was a great experience!

International Year of Chemistry - Young Leader Team at the Brussels Closing Ceremony; December 1st 2011

Every member of the team came from different horizons (Europe, Asia, America, Africa) with different backgrounds all related in a way or another to chemistry (but it’s true that we were mostly chemists and engineers). We started by the simple statement that “chemistry is everywhere and for everyone“. It’s quite obvious but if we are often reminded of the negative impacts of chemical products and chemical reactions, chemistry also enabled billions of applications and made possible to feed more people, give them shelters and potentially a better health. It’s not roses all the way ; mankind has lots of efforts and progress to make. But if you think of the computer you are using to read this post, for instance: it’s working thanks to thousands of chemical compounds and chemical reactions. And on top of that, chemistry is also a natural process (well, first, it’s a natural process). When you eat your breakfast, when you listen to a lecture, when you attend a meeting, when you practice some sport, when you meet friends, when you sleep, you are full of chemical reactions, using thousand different chemical elements.

But as the world is facing important challenges like overpopulation, energy depletion, pollution, etc. or simply because people want to make their lives better it’s also true that chemistry is our future and will play a role in tackling these issues. But instead of depicting a sad, pessimistic view of these issues and just enumerating technical solution chemistry is or will be designing, the team decided to work on a vision for 2050 and ways towards this vision:

By 2050 we must all have access to healthy, safe and fulfilled lives in symbiosis with our planet

With concrete examples of existing or budding chemical technologies and solutions allowed by the development of chemistry, we wrote three concrete stories of people who would have made a change in the future. Most megatrends were debated, lots of research was done to find scientific evidences of change or application. Better water distribution and usage, smarter housing, increased yields for locally produced food, more efficient energy production and storage mechanisms were among the topics we discussed. Health was also present as education, biotechnologies (like new delivery and detection methods), collaborations and policies also play a key role, with chemistry as a pervasive partner.

International Year of Chemistry - Closing ceremony presentation

A milestone for the group was the Closing Ceremony of the IYC that was held in Brussels, on December 1st, 2011. We had to transmit that vision, the way we think it can be achieved to students and members of the chemistry community. It was a great pleasure to see the high level of interest and, for most of them, of passion the young students have towards Chemistry. Their questions, their curiosity about the future, their questioning of the implementation of our vision as well and their thirst of knowledge were amazing. It was also very, very interesting to listen to Ada Yonath’s talk about ribosomes but also science, curiosity and her passion. Professor Jean-Luc Brédas, Francqui Prize in 1997, also gave a very interesting talk about new and more efficient energy sources. Finally, the debate, the round table between main actors in the world of chemistry, the ideas, comments, discussions that followed were all very instructive and enlightening.

Fortunately this is not the end. All these ideas and discussions will definitely feed discussions and our efforts to maintain a platform for chemistry and its ways to help for a better future. We already started with a Facebook group. Central science created special topics about IYC activities. Nature created an IYC website with dozens of articles about everything from research to careers. And I hope to be able to write again about other initiative and, of course, about the fulfillment of our vision in 2050 (or even before!).

Photo credits: Marie Curie, from Scientific American by Wyoming_Jackrabbit (CC-by-nc-sa on Flickr). The photo of the Solvay conference was taken by Benjamin Couprie and from wikipedia. Photos of the YL group and the closing ceremony are from Vivian Hertz.

Happy New Year 2012!

I wish you a very happy New Year 2012! Lots of things happened since 6 years (since I started this blog) and lots of things happened in this last year too. I’m sure it is the same in your life. I hope you will have lots of new discoveries in 2012 as well as a healthy and strong life, full of happiness!

If I look back, the top 5 posts this year were:

  1. Human Development Index 2011
  2. Adobe Flash Player update: qui fait le malin tombe dans le ravin
  3. Aaron Swartz versus JSTOR (btw there isn’t any news about this case since then)
  4. Yesterday was International Day of Older Persons
  5. Today is World Population Day

I missed a lot of things recently, like the closing ceremony of the International Year of Chemistry (December 1st), the UN World AIDS day (December 1st), the World day bacterial resistance awareness (November 18th) and the UN World Diabetes Day (November 14th). Maybe next year …

There is no point writing down the top 5 keywords that lead to this blog: they are all related to the HDI (Human Development Index).

Although I like to read about other people’s predictions for 2012 (and the coming years), I won’t do any: it’s up to you to act and do something you want to be part of 2012 🙂 Happy New Year!

Waiting for an internet of things for everybody

Internet of things (IBM)There are a few days left to vote for the Internet of Things Awards 2011. Initially I thought it was a very good thing, with lots of nice ideas for the future. But then I felt something was missing, imho of course: practical projects that will help the remaining 5 billion people who are not affected by that internet of things as it currently is. Let me explain …

Although the definition isn’t still very precise, Wikipedia defines the Internet of Things as “uniquely identifiable objects (things) and their virtual representations in an Internet-like structure”. The basic underlying goal is that by communicating between themselves and with interfaces in the human worlds, things would be able to help up improve our lives, health and well-being in general. As I previously wrote before, I’m 100% for this idea.

I was thus happy to have a look at contestants in Postcapes’ Internet of Things Awards 2011. In this competition you have several categories like consumer products, networked art, entreprise implementation, self tracking products ; but I was also very pleased to see they included wilder categories like DIY projects, open source projects and environmental implementation. The inclusion of such diverse categories with a huge diversity of projects also shows that people (human beings) are still searching, discovering and defining what is and what will be the Internet of Things. At the most literal level, projects shown contain objects (things) connected to the internet/web and sending their status or responding to simple commands (a kind of home automation connected to the internet): BIKN tags, the Little Printer, Botanicalls, Twine,  and all kinds of remote sensors to keep track of a fleet of vending machines, trucks, pallets, packages, etc. The DIKW pyramid, from Data to WisdomIn my opinion, I categorize these projects as “a network of things for itself”: these things are created for themselves and can survive within their own world; they add data to the real world but this data still need to be processed to form information and to be relevant enough to create additional knowledge.

Gartner Hype Cycle of Emerging TechnologiesDon’t get me wrong, I know the field is still in its early infancy. In its Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies of 2011, Gartner locates the Internet of Things on the increasing side of the expectation curve and gives it 5 to 10 years to be adopted globally. The fact DIY projects and prototyping/hobby boards like the Arduino are present in the contestant list also show that. These are first-generation products, lots of customization are needed as well as refinement of their uses. But early adopters are already investigating the field. And this diversity of directions is really good to explore all possibilities the connectivity of objects would allow.

This phase of early development also means that practical projects are currently targeting improvement of the occidental life style and sometimes tackle issues related to increased wealth and development (like the Nike+, the Jawbone UP, the Zeo sleep manager for sedentary and stressful lives). Some projects are even targeting the increasing isolation of people in occidental worlds not really by increasing their interaction with each other thru technology but by making them happy being alone. Watch for instance the following video (from Ericsson in category design fiction)!

In general, very few of these projects are aiming to help the remaining 5 billion people who are not affected by that internet of things as it currently is. The only project in this contest that could help less wealthy people is the SolarSinter project (also in category design fiction). Here, Markus Kayser uses sunlight and sand as raw energy and material to produce glass objects using a 3D printing process. He tested his device in the Egyptian desert where sunlight and sand are abundant. This could be used as small manufacturing devices to satisfy local needs when they occur.

In addition to the purpose of these devices, there is also the question of the infrastructure needed behind. For instance, Vietnam is very well equipped and connected (relative to its standard of living).

Computer equipment in Vietnam -vs- GDP per capita
Computer equipment in Vietnam is higher (per 100 people) than in India or China, the two next superpowers (x-axis) (from Gapminder)

But we didn’t mentioned that some infrastructure are still switched on manually, like this public light bulb in the picture below.

Electric connections in Vietnam
Electricity in Vietnam: very well connected (left) but some infrastructure still needs manual intervention to be switched on (right).

So the Internet of Things is definitely something to watch in the coming years. I will be also waiting for new technologies and solutions that will actually help most of people and overcome their specific issues 🙂

Photo credit: The Internet of Things by IBMSocialMedia on YouTube for the two first pictures and myself on Flickr for the pictures of Vietnam.

Health talks at TEDxBrussels

When I wrote my last post, videos of health talks at TEDxBrussels were not out yet. Now they are and you can watch them below …

First Andrew Hessel started by talking about synthetic biology, biotechnologies and his participation in the open source biology movement. One day, there will be an org (organism) for the things you want to do.

Then Jack Tiszynski followed with the drastic idea of replacing doctors by software for diagnostics and brought the idea that we will have a “virtual double” in our future smartphones. This double will know our predisposition to diseases and suggest prevention methods and cures.

Finally David Duncan talked about extreme ageing and some of the important issues brought by prolonging life and being healthy for a longer period of time than before.

But among talks I didn’t attend, Peter Hinssen presented his idea of S-curve for the future and especially the future of healthcare. For him, the flip in healthcare didn’t occur yet. But he can already predict that health will become more personal, more numerical, more proactive, more community-oriented. That’s funny because he put words on part of what we are going to say at the closing ceremony of the International Year of Chemistry, this Thursday in Brussels. Hope to have the same vibrant words 😉