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8c Homework Blog Urbana

Today, we’re proud to unveil the Wolfram|Alpha Handwritten Knowledge Engine, a new, more personal way of delivering computed answers.

You might be wondering where this idea came from. Well, let me tell you a story.

We had a thought not long ago that it would be nice to get you (the internet) a gift. One of those “just because” things to spread a bit of happiness around the world.

Conventional wisdom holds that the best gifts are handmade. But making gifts by hand for over 2.2 billion people? It was a daunting challenge. Luckily, we had a head start: Wolfram|Alpha already computes its answers just for you. The answer to every query, question, and computation is custom-generated, drawing upon trillions of pieces of built-in knowledge.

We began to imagine ways to add that handmade, personal flair to Wolfram|Alpha results. Artisanal answers, if you will. We narrowed it down to “putting a bird on it” versus a handwritten interface, results pages and all. Handwriting won the coin toss.

You remember handwriting, right? The thing you used to do with a pen, to write letters and checks? Checks, well, they were these pieces of paper that represented… you know what, I should get back to the story.

We knew we’d need a goodly number of contributors, as well as some sort of training component—consistency is important, after all. Human Resources began recruiting in earnest (by the way, we’re hiring), as well as organizing a Corporate Penmanship Retreat.

That brings us to now. The retreat just wrapped, and the Wolfram|Alpha Handwritten Knowledge Engine is ready to go. Ask a question, and your machine-computed results will be transcribed and illustrated by a real live human being.

I recommend acting fast. A few of the physicists already have writer’s cramp, and the pop culture researchers might be next.

So what will you compute? I definitely cannot recommend running your homework through Wolfram|Alpha, printing out the handwritten results, and trying to pass them as your own. Definitely not. But here are some other ideas to get you going.

Go meta, and get handwritten knowledge about the word handwriting:

 

Find derivatives… with style:

 

Put your mind at ease with a handwritten verification of some important information:

 

Why not Zoidberg?

 

We hope you enjoy the Wolfram|Alpha Handwritten Knowledge Engine. Please share your favorites in the comments.


April 2, 2013 Update: We hope you enjoyed the handwritten Wolfram|Alpha results on April Fools’ Day. While some staff are recovering from carpal tunnel, we have returned to the normal styling for all results.

If you want to see the handwritten results, begin any query with “handwritten style” (without quotes), and our staff will get back to work!

Dinner hour? Try dinner 20 minutes.

Back to school for many families means back to the packed lineup of sports practices, music lessons and other after-school activities which on some nights can last into early evening. Add homework and parents' long work hours, and it's a wonder families ever have time for a sit-down meal.

Yet many parents insist on maintaining regular family dinners and feel guilty when they fail, given the list of child-development benefits researchers say are associated with the ritual. These include better grades, healthier body weight, lower rates of cigarette and alcohol use, stronger relationships with parents and better overall mental health.

Which begs another question: How long should dinner be? Is 20 minutes enough for children to get the intangible benefits? Is 10 minutes enough?

Researchers don't understand the exact mechanism by which family dinner provides protective effects. The meal might be a proxy for other factors, like congruent kid-parent schedules or emotional closeness.

One large 2012 study in Child Development actually failed to establish any connection between frequency of family dinner and improved academic performance and child behavior.

Families are definitely eating faster. According to a 2011 survey of 1,000 teens by the National Center for Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 32% of families spend 20 minutes or less eating dinner. That compares with 26% eating dinner at this pace in 2009, the prior survey year.

"Dinner has become more like feeding time: Get 'em fed so they can get on to other things," says Mike Singer, a San Francisco stay-at-home dad with two teenage boys. The meal, he says, doesn't offer parents or kids much of a break.

Opinion is divided as to how long is enough. There isn't much research into dinner length in relation to outcomes.

One study of mealtime characteristics and kids' weight found just 3 1/2 extra minutes at the table made a difference. In the study of 200 videotaped family mealtimes, children in families where dinner lasted 16.4 minutes on average were at greater risk for being overweight compared with families that sat for an average of 19.9 minutes.

"It's not that one rushed meal hurts," says Barbara Fiese, professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, director of its Family Resiliency Center and a study co-author. "If you play three minutes out over time, that's 12 minutes less a week of keeping track of what's happening in your kids life, what their emotions are like and what they are eating."

"The reason these dinners relate to mental health has to do with communication," says McGill's Dr. Elgar. "You'd be hard pressed to achieve that in a very brief chow-down. The longer you spend, the more opportunity."

Still, reality sometimes dictates that dinner be brief. Sarah Dey Burton, a management consultant and mother of two sons, Henry, 8, and Luke, 6, says dinner in her Marin, Calif., home typically lasts 15 minutes—although on an especially hectic night it might be over in as little as eight minutes.

With her sons' regular soccer practices lasting until 6:30, dinner can't hit the table before 7. "It works," Ms. Dey Burton says. "I think you can connect to your kids in 10 minutes."

About four times a week, including weekends, the Burtons eat dinner at the table set with place mats, and everyone gets a cloth napkin, even the boys.

"They look in your eyes and ask to be excused," Ms. Dey Burton says. "You're coaching them on etiquette. There's an environment created. They feel the effort."

In many families, while the weeknight dinner is a kind of flash meal, over in less time than it takes to watch a sitcom, the weekend dinner is longer and more deliberate.

One way or another, more than half of families eat dinner together five or more nights a week, according to a 2011 analysis of several studies involving about 182,000 young people, ages 3 to 17, which was published in the journal Pediatrics.

Each weekly family dinner correlates with a 15% reduction in the odds of substance abuse, and a reduction in depressive symptoms and delinquency, according to a 2012 review of data from nearly 18,000 adolescents, which was published in Journal of Marriage and Family.

"We found there was no real threshold or ceiling effect," says Frank Elgar, associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University. With each additional dinner, he says, there was a significant positive effect on mental health.

"There is no magic number," says Jayne Fulkerson, associate professor at University of Minnesota School of Nursing and director of the Center for Child and Family Health Promotion Research.

"If you aren't having any weekly dinners and you start having two, that's a big improvement. If you are having three, and can increase, that's better," she says.

Some experts say families shouldn't agonize about hitting a 20-minute mark every time. "It doesn't take long to figure out that something is going on with your kid," says clinical psychologist Marlene Schwartz, director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

"It's not that there is some content being delivered that matters," she says. "It's more subtle. What matters is that the parents are paying attention, sitting down and looking at their child and not just exchanging a text message."

Jenny Lefcourt, a San Francisco entrepreneur launching an online retail concept, says she "tries my damnedest to always make it happen."

An occasional dinner on the sidelines of a sports field still counts, if there's no other alternative, she says. In spring, when her son has baseball games one or two evenings a week, "the rest of us are in the stands eating hot dogs," she says.

Some families play "Roses and Thorns" at dinner, where everyone shares the day's highs and lows. Ms. Lefcourt says she and her husband direct the conversation.

"Not that there's something wrong with 'How was your day?' " Ms. Lefcourt says. "But we try to make it about something in the world, or larger in their lives."

"Save the button-pushing conversations about school and grades for another time, so they actually want to come to dinner," suggests the University of Minnesota's Dr. Fulkerson.

To make the family dinner last longer, Colleen von Eckartsberg, a San Francisco business strategy consultant, started serving food in courses to her son Nico, 8, and her daughter Zoe, 5.

Ms. von Eckartsberg was getting desperate to take dinner beyond "something white or yellow eaten sitting at the kitchen counter."

She and the kids were getting home after activities at 6 p.m., and she found she was "literally throwing something together, which rarely even made it to the table," she says.

Then she got the idea to serve dinner in courses, from the book "French Kids Eat Everything," by Karen Le Billion. She started serving an appetizer, like sliced tomatoes with olive oil and salt, arranged nicely on a small plate.

"Zoe would never touch tomatoes. Suddenly she loves them," Ms. von Eckartsberg says. "The first thing she asks once she gets home, 'Are we having courses tonight?' "

The kids are often willing to taste adventurous foods, like lentil soup or salmon, when served in a small egg cup. And in between the entrée and dessert, Ms. von Eckartsberg often serves a fruit course.

"If I do the courses just right, neither kid wants dessert because they're too full of healthy food," she says. On those nights, dinner can last 30 or 45 minutes instead of 10.