Category: Reading

World book and copyright day, 23 April

Today is World book and copyright day. UN mentions a lot about books and the diversity of values they bring along but very few words are written on copyright per se. It’s true that books are vectors of values and knowledge, depositories of the intangible heritage. But in a world progressively going towards digital books, it could be worth having a real debate about what type of knowledge we want to preserve for the next generations, in which formats, under what types of conditions.

I was in New York recently and I was happily surprised to see the number of people still reading something (real books but also magazines, e-books, and of course their e-mails). E-book readers are more and more common, especially in planes and other public transport. Every big book store on 5th Avenue has its own e-reader, even web-based book stores promote their own e-readers. Most if not all of those e-readers promote its own closed, freedom-depriving file format.

Bill Blass Public Catalog Room - NYPL

We’ve all in mind pictures of the Rose Main Reading Room of the NYPL Schwarzman Building, where the beautiful room is packed with people reading and their laptops. I was also surprised to see the amount of computers available in other rooms (like the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room above). Books – real ones, made of paper and cardboard – are consigned to the walls, very few people are actually browsing through them. We now look for books in electronic catalog ; these books are stored in more functional room for librarians to find them. We now expose our collection of books in “social bookshelves” like librarything.

It’s not a reaction of an old man (well, maybe …). It’s more that we should think about what we want to create and what we want to leave for the next generations. It’s good to have a business plan to allow customers to have the best possible experience while reading your e-books for the next 2 years ; it’s even better if you would allow the same customers to keep their library open, transparent and “sharable” with others. Gutenberg’s invention allowed books and knowledge to be widely shared ; don’t let the “digital revolution” take that freedom back!

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).

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?

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.

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 😉

Visualizing how a population grows to 7 billion (NPR)

The NPR has produced a nice visualization / video showing how population grew to 7 billion (original article):

If you want to model the improvement in child survival, you just turn the birth tap off (or nearly). Then, with wealth, prevention, healthcare and better food, the population will also grow older (death tap also turned off or nearly) and during a certain time, lots of adults will be economically active (i.e. they will work and consume). This is a demographic dividend. But it comes with a risk: at the next stage, there might be a disproportionately high number of people compared to / depending on a small number of active adults (the next generation). In addition, if you fill it up slowly but you also empty it slowly, the container risk to be full soon, it all depends on the various rates …

Note that this representation is also very effective to understand the basics of compartmental models in epidemiology 🙂