Sunday, November 13, 2011

The God Species by Mark Lynas - Book Review

Achieving sustainable growth within the Planetary boundaries

Global warming has been a `hot' topic for some time - but this book is not just about global warming and climate change. Going much beyond that, Mark Lynas takes us though the concept of planetary boundaries - ecological limits of the Earth's systems crossing which can push the planet into a death spiral. The book describes nine such planetary boundaries and they are: (1) Biodiversity loss (2) Climate change (3) Nitrogen cycle (4) Land use change (5) Global Fresh water use (6) Chemical Pollution (7) Atmospheric aerosol loading (7) Ocean acidification (8) Stratospheric Ozone depletion. Specific boundary limits and current data are provided for all boundaries except two - items 6 and 7. Explaining the basic science in detail, Mark shows that the debate should move from whether the dangers are real or not to how we should tackle them. More importantly, Mark shows that how many of them are interlinked and a hasty approach to solving any one of them without understanding the connected implications can lead to severe problems.

Moving himself away from the traditional Green ideologies, Mark agrees with Stewart Brand in pushing for Nuclear Power, Genetic engineering and promoting urban living. Mark also demolishes the current popular notion especially among the Republicans in the U.S that measure for protecting the environment is economically counter productive and can retard growth. The most important takeaway for me from this book was that while ecological limits are real, economic limits are not.

I found myself in agreement with most of the concepts developed by the author but am still not convinced about Nuclear power. More data will be needed to convince the public about the safety of nuclear energy, and author's handling of Chernobyl and Fukushima does not match the depth shown in other areas. I had also visited Chernobyl recently and was amazed at the effort still need to contain the contamination. Mark makes no mention of the new cover being built to cover the Chernobyl plant which hopefully will keep it safe for the next 100 years.

Though the book starts off with the developments in genomics, further coverage in the book on DNA sequencing and its potential is very limited. But the author does bravely go into articulating that sooner or later, our species would have to play `God' and take more active efforts in managing the planet through the use of our Science & Technology.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

On the English language

From 'The Proust and the Squid' by Maryanne Wolfe

I take it you already know
Of touch and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough, and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead; it is said likened, not bead;
For goodness sake, don't call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother.
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.

And here is not a match for there,
And dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there's dose and rose and lose-
Just look them up - and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go, then thwart and cart.
Come, come, I've hardly made a start.

A dreadful language? Why, man alive,
I'd learnt to talk it when I wax five.
And yet to read it, the more I tried,
I hadn't learnt it at fifty-five.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries - A Book Review

The elixir for eternal youth! - for the Startup

Winston Churchill once said that we can depend on the United states to do the right thing - after they have exhausted all other alternatives. The same can be said for the startup company in cutting edge fields - they have to keep trying so many different options on the various product features, target market segments, pricing, technology architecture, and so on before they hit upon the right formula. And since companies will not have the necessary resources to try out the various permutations and combinations, most of them fail before they achieve success; unless they are phenomenally lucky.

But Eric Ries in his book `The Lean Startup' shows that it doesn't have to be so. He explains that startups cannot use traditional planning an management tools because their product and customers are unknown. So, what else? Here he comes up with his Lean Startup Methodology - which is a scientific approach for creating and managing startups. Since the product and customer are not known, startups needs to develop a process of "validated learning" through which they can learn to build a sustainable business. This is different from learning through failure - which is a very expensive and wasteful process. Startups need to have a "Build-Measure-Learn" process and get continuous feedback from the market, so that they can decide whether to continue with the current plan or `pivot' into other directions. Eric shows the various ways a startup can pivot: Zoom-in pivot, Zoom-out pivot, Customer segment pivot, Customer need pivot, Platform pivot, and so on. Eric also explains how the normal metrics which he calls `vanity metrics' fail to show how a startup is performing and he comes with solutions of defining new metrics for the startup which takes into account the continuous innovation that a startup should perform. I loved the concepts of `MVP' - minimum viable product and `power of small batches' which allow companies to be agile and experiment quickly without committing too much resources.

Over the last 25 years of my career, I have been involved with over 20 startups in various capacities - Founder, Investor or Advisor. Though every startup has been a different challenge, there are many commonalities that run across them. And the doubts that plague each one of them are the same - are we doing the right thing? are we making progress? should we presevere with what we are doing or change strategy? The `Lean Startup Methodology' is an excellent tool, which I wish I had known before. It is not that some or most of the things that Eric mentions have not been executed by me or other entrepreneurs, but we lacked the scientific approach and process that would have enables us to plan and manage better.

We look at successful startups and often feel that those winners just happened to be at the right place at the right time. With many real life examples Eric shows it is not just luck. The successful ones were able to manage the startup well through many of the principles explained in the `Lean Startup Methodology' - whether consciously or not. Further, after you move past the startup phase, how do you continue to get the company to innovate and be agile? How can large companies foster entrepreneurship? Can the smart startup maintain the spirit of entrepreneurship? Eric thinks so and lays out his thoughts of how that can be achieved.

Some caveats on the book though - please note carefully how Eric defines the entrepreneur and the startup. There will be many businesses and organizational structures that will not match that. It does not mean the `Lean Startup Methodology' will not work for those - but it will have to modified and fine tuned. Similarly Eric's experiences and the examples he quotes are mostly from the high tech fields and hence the learnings may not be exactly applicable for many traditional industries. Lastly, the book assumes that the Startup is good in execution - which from my experience, is not often the case. The management team in most Startups will have many gaps - some of which they are not even aware of - which leads to serious problems as they try to execute. However there are many other books and large number of consultants who can help the startup to solve those problems.

If you are an entrepreneur or involved with a startup in any capacity - this book is a must read; you will not regret the investment of the time and cost. I commend Eric Ries for making a significant contribution to the field of scientific entrepreneurial management.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Saving Sea Turtles by James Spotilla - Book Review

Who will save the humans?

In 'Saving Sea Turtles', James Spotilla highlights the plight of the sea turtles across the world as they fight the possibility of extinction. Having survived all kinds of threats over their 110 million years of existence, the turtles like many other species met their match when humans rapidly colonized earth over the last two hundred years. With beaches being run over by 'modern' developments, oceans being over fished and polluted, and the effects of global warming taking its toll, it is no wonder that the turtles have hardly any way out. Hopefully the admirable efforts by conservationists like Mr.Spotilla and team would make some difference in the turtles' battle for survival.

In the book, Mr.Spotilla takes us through the life of the turtle - the science is explained very well - the egg laying behavior in the beach, development of the embryo, temperature dependent sex determination, hatching, hatchlings journey to the sea, life in the ocean and the return back to the beach (same beach if possible) to lay eggs and how the cycle of life continues. At each of these phases, their numbers get dramatically reduced by natural predators (which evolution has taught them to overcome) and by human activities which have grown at such a pace that evolutionary solutions have no chance of success. Under the pressure of conservationists groups, governments are trying to enforce a few protection measures but often end up giving in to the more powerful business interests whether it be the property developers or the fishing industry. Still protection efforts from Costa Rica to India are providing some relief to the turtles and Mr.Spotilla explains how every individual can in their own way make a difference in conservation efforts. At the same time it is also clear that we as a species still do not fully realize the dire impact of our activities on earth (the plight of the turtles is just one example) and it might be too late by the time we make a serious effort to change our behavior.

The objectives of the book are very laudable and there is no doubt about the author's knowledge and expertise. Whether it be turtle biology, oceanography, geology or global warming the fundamentals are explained very well, and their relevance to the issues mapped out properly. Turtle genomics is also covered - but too briefly I feel - I would have liked to get more insights that genomics has provided about the evolution of the turtle and what current research efforts are going on leveraging the Next Generation DNA Sequencing technologies. The only drawbacks of the book are the winding narrative and the numerous side stories. Written in first person and mixed with passive and active speech, it needs a considerable determination to read. And in many occasions the author's tendency to drift into too many minor details hampers the big picture and spoils the impact the great facts and the science in the book could deliver.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Free Radicals by Michael Brooks (Book Review)

What goes on in Science does NOT.....

What really goes on in the world of Science? Except for the rare evil scientist shown in movies, normally scientists are portrayed as cool, logical, level headed personalities - maybe slightly timid but nevertheless those who follow the rules. Now in "Free Radicals", Michael Brooks shows how wrong this picture is.

According to Brooks, in Science anything goes. The competition is so tough and the prizes so valuable that no punches are pulled. Drugs, lies, fraud, politics - all are part of the game. He exposes famed personalities from Newton to Einstein - showing how human they all are; and how the successful ones never hesitated to break the rules. Most of us have heard of Newton's famous statement on '..standing on the shoulders of giants', but we would not have heard of his skill of stomping down other scientists!. Any literate person would have heard of Einstein and his E=MC2 equation, but it is unbelievable to hear that he could not fully prove it in spite of eight attempts!!

Well researched and narrated in a fast pace, this book beats most fiction novels. I was enthralled at the stories, though in the beginning some of the `exposes' did give me a shock. But as I proceeded in the book it was clear that the author's intentions were honorable - the objective was not to deride the scientists but show that they are human just like the rest of us. Being an expert in one discipline does not make a person super human - nor does that expertise translate into other areas. I was also surprised at how `close minded' experts are and how difficult is for new ideas to break though - even in a field which is supposed to foster open thinking.

Brooks goes on to explain how to encourage more youngsters to get into Science and exhorts the Scientists to play a more activist role in causes that they believe in. Highlighting scientists like Carl Sagan, Brooks shows the important role that Scientists can play in formulating public opinion. However Brooks seems to get a little carried away on the benefits of drugs like marijuana or LSD to expand the mind's horizons - I am not convinced whether that was as important as he makes out.

I should hasten to add that the book is just not a bunch of `hot' stories. Excellently weaved through these stories, the author brings out beautifully a number of scientific breakthroughs and their impact on society. This is a science book that one can gift to any youngster to read!. It would also not hurt scientists to read it either.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

My iPad2 - Gary Rosenzweig (Book Review)

Falling in Love

The iPad is such an easy device to use and fall in love with that one might initially find it difficult to believe that a user manual is needed for it. But, as Gary Rosenzweig the author of My iPad2 says, in any relationship - when you fall in love - you get the urge to change and customize it. And that is when a user manual comes to good use.

In reality,the iPad is such a powerful device that a manual is very helpful if you want to take full advantage of its features. And 'My iPad2' is an excellent manual. Beautiful colour layouts, great presentation, useful tips, seamless ordering and an occasional dose of humor makes this a collector's item. Not only are the basic iPad applications like email, camera, video, and browsing explained, but add on applications like Pages, Numbers and Keynote are also covered well. Using this book has already improved my productivity by over 25%. I would recommend it very strongly to anyone who wants to take full advantage of the iPad.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Incognito - The secret lives of the Brain by David Eagleman - Book Review

I am more than I think!

"I think - therefor I am" said Descartes. Each one of us is much more than what we can ever think - shows David Eagleman in this fascinating book - Incognito. Not only that, but it is amazing that we are aware only of a very small part of our brain. All of us strongly believe that we are in control of ourselves (at least most of the time) and so responsible for our actions. However our conscious self is more like the CEO of a large company that coordinates and supposedly directs the various divisions. The CEO may set the goals for the company, but he gets only a summary view of the situation and is seldom aware of the details. Similarly different sections of the brain work more or less independently - some through hard wired circuits that evolved over millions of years and others through culture and habits. We believe we are in charge but we are actually driven by what our brain (or more importantly different parts of our brain) perceives and tells us - surprisingly including what we see!

The ancients always exhorted us to understand ourselves - whether it is the Greek Delphi saying `Know Thyself' or the Indian upanishads with the cryptic `Thathwamasi' which can roughly translated to `That is you'. But they would have never expected the complexity that is in our brains. Fully understanding how the brain works is the holy grail for neuroscientists - however Mr.Eagleman explains how far away we are from this goal.

Our actions are driven by our brain and at the end of the day, the brain is only a set of neurons interacting through electrical and chemical signals. This is easily proven by the effects of various drugs on the brain and how it immediately affects what we think or do. Nature (genetics), Nurture (upbringing and environment) and life experiences creates the individual and Mr.Eagleman explains in a very simple manner how these three combine to create the complexity and beauty of humanity. Based on this understanding it makes it more easy to understand how and why various heinous and criminal acts are committed by humans. More importantly, Mr.Eagleman explains how this knowledge should be used to change our legal systems - do read the book to find out! It might even change the way you think about yourself!!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku - Book Review

The Future is Science

Though the book is titled `Physics of the Future', Michio Kaku covers all relevant Science and Technology. In separate chapters he looks at the future of Computers, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Nanotechnology, Energy and Space Travel over the next one hundred years. In each chapter he splits the future into three sections - Near Future (Present to 2030), Mid Century (2030 to 2070) and Far Future (2070 to 2100). Based on interviews with over 300 scientists and visits to many of the cutting edge labs across the world, Mr.Kaku brings the latest in Science to our reading rooms.

There are an infinity of possible Futures. Ranging from Ray Kurzweil's Singularity to orthodox Doomsday scenarios, we can conjure up any vision to our liking. But irrespective of the future one can dream about, it will be Science that will be driving it. Whether it will be computers smarter than humans, self driving cars, nanobots curing diseases or space colonies, Mr.Kaku shows us where the Science now has reached in each area and the challenges ahead.

The book ends with the future of Wealth and of Humanity. Written in a very easy to understand form, the book is fun to read. Especially useful is the prediction of the Near Future which I feel is critical for all planning and decision making. I liked this book better than the author's earlier `Physics of the Impossible'. A lot of the basic content is the same, but this book is more relevant.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Here on Earth by Tim Flannery - Book Review

To heal a wounded Earth

Global warming is a `hot' topic nowadays and there have been many books on this subject. However Tim Flannery takes a different approach.

Starting from the very beginning of Earth's creation, Tim takes us through the complete story of our planet and the biography of our species. Though a natural disaster like an earthquake or tsunami would look like catastrophic event to us and other living beings, the earth has been affected throughout its history by many violent events. Some are very rare like an asteroid impact while others like climate cycles and flooding seem more regular and part of systemic process. These events either directly or indirectly seem to have driven the evolution of life from microcellular organisms to finally the human species, over the last three billion years. During this time many species came and went including the powerful dinosaurs. However till humans started settling down by inventing agriculture about ten thousand years ago, no species have created a serious impact on the earth's ecosystem on a global scale.

In the last few thousand years, wittingly or not, humans started changing the earth's ecosystem drastically. Not only did this result in the extinction of a large number of life forms like the mammoths and the bisons, but significant changes to the climate started taking place. With the industrial revolution a couple of hundred years ago, our species multiplied many fold and the energy needed to sustain our civilization is creating so much waste that our planet is unable to bear it.

Is our Earth a living being? Whether we believe that or not, but it is our home and it sure is getting wounded. How do we heal it? Unfortunately there are no easy fixes - but Tim explores various ways by which we can take control and move in the right direction before it gets too late. He explains the science in a very simple and straightforward manner and I would recommend this book strongly to all who are worried about our future.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Poem by James Clerk Maxwell

We all know James Clerk Maxwell as a great scientist, but he was also a lover of poetry and on occasion used to write a few himself. At a meeting of the British Association in 1874, while listening to the lecture he composed the poem given below (no texting or email then I guess:))

In the very beginnings of science, the parsons, who managed things then,
Being handy with hammer and chisel, made gods in the likeness of men;
Till Commerce arose, and at length some men of exceptional power
Supplanted both demons and gods by the atoms, which last to this hour.
Yet they did not abolish the gods, but they sent them well out of the way,
With the rarest of nectar to drink, and blue fields of nothing to sway.
From nothing comes nothing, they told us, nought happens by chance, but by fate;
There is nothing but atoms and void, all else is mere whims out of date!
Then why should a man curry favour with beings who cannot exist,
To compass some petty promotion in nebulous kingdoms of mist?
But not by the rays of the sun, nor the glittering shafts of the day,
Must the fear of the gods be dispelled, but by words, and their wonderful play.
So treading a path all untrod, the poet-philosopher sings
Of the seeds of the mighty world—the first-beginnings of things;
How freely he scatters his atoms before the beginning of years;
How he clothes them with force as a garment, those small incompressible spheres!
Nor yet does he leave them hard-hearted—he dowers them with love and with hate,
Like spherical small British Asses in infinitesimal state;
Till just as that living Plato, whom foreigners nickname Plateau,
Drops oil in his whisky-and-water (for foreigners sweeten it so),
Each drop keeps apart from the other, enclosed in a flexible skin,
Till touched by the gentle emotion evolved by the prick of a pin:
Thus in atoms a simple collision excites a sensational thrill,
Evolved through all sorts of emotion, as sense, understanding, and will;
(For by laying their heads all together, the atoms, as councillors do,
May combine to express an opinion to every one of them new).
There is nobody here, I should say, has felt true indignation at all,
Till an indignation meeting is held in the Ulster Hall;
Then gathers the wave of emotion, then noble feelings arise,
Till you all pass a resolution which takes every man by surprise.
Thus the pure elementary atom, the unit of mass and of thought,
By force of mere juxtaposition to life and sensation is brought;
So, down through untold generations, transmission of structureless germs
Enables our race to inherit the thoughts of beasts, fishes, and worms.
We honour our fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grand-mothers too;
But how shall we honour the vista of ancestors now in our view?
First, then, let us honour the atom, so lively, so wise, and so small;
The atomists next let us praise, Epicurus, Lucretius, and all;
Let us damn with faint praise Bishop Butler, in whom many atoms combined
To form that remarkable structure, it pleased him to call—his mind.
Last, praise we the noble body to which, for the time, we belong,
Ere yet the swift whirl of the atoms has hurried us, ruth-less, along,
The British Association—like Leviathan worshipped by Hobbes,
The incarnation of wisdom, built up of our witless nobs,
Which will carry on endless discussions, when I, and probably you,
Have melted in infinite azure—in English, till all is blue.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Predictable Magic by Deepa Prahalad & Ravi Sawhney

Physcho-Aesthetics: Aligning Product design to Business Strategy

Product Design is mostly considered as an art form. However in ‘Predictable Magic’, Deepa Prahlad and Ravi Sawhney introduces a framework that they call Phsycho-Aesthetics, through which the design process can be aligned to corporate strategy enabling business to come up with successful product designs. Companies like Apple, Google and Amazon have shown how critical it is to build deep emotional connections between their consumers and product brands. But how do we map this process? How doe we get business managers, engineering professionals and designers on the same page? Read this book to understand how the Phsycho-Aesthetics approach will help a company achieve this.

In the first part of the ebook, the authors show you how their framework can help in developing user-centric designs through consumer ‘personas’, mapping business goals to product features, targeting specific segments with unmet needs, and develop market winning strategies. In the second part they take you through the implementation of the design strategy and how to continuously engage the customers. With many real life case studies understanding of the framework becomes very easy.

I am not sure if entirely new designs or concepts can be created using the Pyshco-Aesthetics approach, but it will definitely help any entrepreneur, business manager or designer in validating their product design approach.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Your Brain and Business by Srinivasan S. Pillay

A case of Pseudoscience!

This book is supposedly meant for coaches of business leaders. Explaining the brain functions and structure, Mr.Pillay attempts to show how leaders can perform better in managing their organizations and getting the best out of their employees. The book is organized into four sections - (a) the Introduction covering the broad principles of how brain science applies to coaching and communicating (b) Relationship section explaining how positive psychology helps in coaching (c) Intervention section on how to effectively convert ideas into actions (d) the Conclusion, where the different brain regions and how the interventions affect them, are explained.

Each chapter lists a number of concepts, their application in business contexts and their connection to 'brain science' which according to the author is a division of neuroscience. Considerable technical jargon is used for explaining the various parts of the brain and how it relates to business activities. Most of it are quite unnecessary, repetitive and irrelevant. Over 35 to 60 references are provided for each chapter making the whole effort look a very impressive and scientific endeavor. However the book drifts from science to pseudoscience by morphing raw scientific facts and hypothesis into seemingly sophisticated tools for solving business management problems without using the rigor needed for good science. Many of the issues raised are real but simple psychology would be sufficient to provide answers to them. Recent discoveries like mirror neuron systems are twisted out of context to make them look very relevant for business leaders. Innovation, Creativity etc are very much dependent on the brain and hence understanding how the brain functions is definitely useful, but for that I would suggest much better books like 'The Tell-tale Brain' by V.S Ramachandran or 'In Search of Memory' by Eric Kandel.

' Your Brain and Business' does not have a single real life case study and it is very difficult to believe that the author has successfully used this approach in enhancing the functioning of business organizations. I would not recommend this book to any business leader or coach.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Science and Pseudoscience! Sense and Nonsense!!

About two thousand seven hundred years back, the Greeks started the scientific revolution. We know the names of the leaders - Thales, Pythagorus, Euclid, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Eratosthenes, Archimedes.. It is a magnificent list and their achievements still evoke amazement. In spite of phenomenal progress, the civilization died out. I wonder why?. The Roman civilization that followed admired the Greeks but never understood science. They created a great war machine and conquered most of the known world. In a few hundred years, this one also died out. The reasons for this decline are more well understood. Europe entered the ‘Dark ages’ and then the ‘Middle ages’. The only positive spark for human progress for the next thousand years was the Islamic civilization. They built on the Greek foundation, translating the latin books into arabic and making some progress in mathematics, astronomy and medicine. The European Renaissance then took over and changed everything. We are not sure what triggered it - but that laid the foundation for the Western Civilization as we know it today. The corner stone of this civilization is Science & Technology. The progress we have made as a species in the last few hundred years is demonstrated by the fact that there are 7 billion of us living in this small planet and threatening the very viability of our fragile ecosystem.

We now know where we came from and our position in the Universe. We know how we evolved from the bacteria and we are even able to read our source code by sequencing our DNA. We have the power to destroy the earth dramatically in a few minutes or lethargically over a few decades. The progress of science in the last hundred years have been so dramatic and that only a small minority of the population understand the science underlying the technologies that we use in our daily lives. At the same time despite the progress that we seem to have made, to the individual the uncertainties of life do not seem to have diminished. One still can die or suffer a serious injury at any moment due to a disease, accident or calamity; the rich seem to be getting richer and the gap between the rich and poor is increasing. There is a feeling that our economic and social security, and the ‘right to happiness’ is threatened daily.

So maybe it is not that surprising to see many people go back to ‘faith’ and ‘blind belief’ which seems to be a better solution than trying to make sense of all this ‘progress’ that science seems to have brought us. In my home country India this can be seen by the rapid growth of the God men (and god women) and their cults as well increased interest in traditional religious rituals. In my temporary home of the U.S, we can see the revival of Christian fundamentalism, renewed belief in creationism (or Intelligent Design) and similar beliefs. However many argue that even if these beliefs are wrong, there is no major harm being done - if a belief gives one some relief, Why not?

But the growth of pseudoscience is a stark testimony to the fact that blind beliefs can create more harm than is immediately obvious. Let me refer a couple of excellent books that highlight the problems and the damages that it causes to society. ‘Nonsense on Stilts’ by Massimo Pigliucci explains how you can to differentiate ‘Science from Bunk’. He looks closely at science is conducted, disseminated, interpreted and what it means to our society. The book is not an easy read and you will need to put some effort to follow the author’s line of thought. An easier book to read on the same subject is ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre. It is a funny and biting book and targets homeopathy as well as modern nutritionists with miracle vitamin pills. Both books highlight the damage the media and ‘so called experts’ do in spreading false information for short term gains or fame. In the U.S and UK, people refusing to vaccinate children, creationists dismissing Darwin’s theory of evolution, while in India hundreds of thousand of women lining up to conduct Pooja in a temple, the educated software engineer waiting for the ‘auspicious date and time’ (I wonder IST or PST or EST) to join his new job, the politician alleging that his opponent is practicing ‘voodo’ on him and approaching the latest god man for advise - these are symptoms of a major problem and the results of blind belief.

In the next few decades as we combat global warming as well as energy shortage and try to meet the increased expectations of the (soon to be) 9 billion humans, our very survival will depend on the public’s ability to distinguish between science and pseudoscience and act accordingly. Let us hope that we succeed.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Getting children to read and love books!

I often hear complaints from parents that their children are not interested in books - this is a growing problem - I know many college students who hardly read any books other than those in their academic curriculum. The unfortunate fact is that they dont even know what they are missing and are blissfully happy with their iPods and Facebook. What makes the situation even sadder is that the reading habit is very difficult to develop later in life and if the interest is not kindled in childhood, a grand and majestic avenue of life is closed permanently.

So what can we do about it?

Well, my question to the parents would be - how many books do you read? You will seldom find a child not liking books in a household where at least one parent is an avid reader. However, that does not solve the problem for those parents who unfortunately have not developed a reading habit - what can they do?

I would suggest three steps:

1. Start early: get the children familiar with books at the earliest age possible - even 2 or 3 years is not too young. Btw, if the children are older and starting late, any type of books are fine - many parents are skeptical about comics. But, comics are indeed a good place to start.

2. Read with them: I don’t mean reading aloud (which is also very good for small children), but reading the same books that they are reading. Parents who do not typically read many books should take the effort to read a few of the children’s books - try Harry Potter for example and you might also end up loving books!. This leads to the most important thing - you should discuss the book and its story or content at the family dining table or TV room or wherever the whole family gets together. Make sure that the discussion is natural and not forced - it need not be long - maybe just a retelling of a joke or a metaphor or relationship from the book to some news in the TV or the newspaper. This will lead to miraculous results especially when one of the kids has read the book and the other has not. The one who hasn’t read will feel left out of the discussion and you can be sure that he/she would make it a point to read the book later. By the way, you will not need to (and should not) talk much - as the discussion starts, the children will take over and you can make use of the opportunity to develop their communication skills. It is also very important to develop open thinking and the ability to listen to ideas and opinions that one may not agree with. We should all learn to ‘agree to disagree’ at a very early age.

3. Visit books stores and libraries along with children: Some of the most pleasurable memories of my childhood have been the times that I spent with my parents in book stores and libraries. Opening up different books, discussing and reviewing together will create so much bonding in the family. I practiced it with my children and shopping for books was one of the most valuable treats they would look out for.

All the best and wish you all a happy 2011 of reading fun.