Big idea: Neurodiversity

At the Soulard Idea Market a couple of weeks ago, one of the topics that Matt Homann provided for the idea speed dating part of the evening was, “What is the most compelling idea you’ve heard in the last year?” With all that has gone on in the last year, it seemed that this would be a daunting question to answer – much less have a meaningful discussion about – in just two minutes.

But after just a little thought, I realized that my answer to this question was actually very easy to determine. In fact, it was almost exactly a year ago when I first came across (or at least paid attention to) the idea, which can be expressed in a single word: Neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity is a concept that atypical (neurodivergent) neurological wiring is a normal human difference that is to be tolerated and respected as any other human difference. The concept of neurodiversity was created by some autistic individuals and people with related conditions, who believe that autism is not a disorder, but a part of who they are, and that curing autistic people would be the same as destroying their original personalities and replacing them with different people.

In other words, maybe Autism does not need to be cured. Needless to say, this is a controversial point of view, not the least among physicians and parents of autistic children.

In keeping with the concept of idea speed dating, I’m going to keep this post short. I leave it to the reader to pursue as much as you will. But be careful, this rabbit hole goes deep and will take you places you could never imagine.

Suggested reading to learn more about neurodiversity:

Neurodiversity.com – honoring the variety of human wiring

Autism Hub – A collection of members who are autistic, or who are parents of autistic people, or are scientists/professionals involved in autism research.

For a well-reasoned counterpoint to neurodiversity, from the father of an autistic child, check out Wade Rankin’s Injecting Sense.

Mastery? It’s hard enough just keeping up!

My son’s high school principal wrote the following in her fall newsletter welcoming students and parents back to school (emphasis is mine):

On Common Ground is one of the books I read this summer. The chapter written by Roland Barth, who is an educational consultant, researcher and writer, reinforces the importance of being a life-long learner. He writes that knowledge doubles every three years and technology goes through a new generation every 18 months. Barth goes on to write that it is estimated that 50 years ago students graduated from high school knowing 75% of what they would need to know for the rest of their lives. The estimate today is that graduates of our high schools leave knowing about 2% of what they will need to know in the future. And yet graduates today leave school knowing far more than they did 50 years ago. When you consider this, it is clear that the focus for our students needs to be on learning as much as they can while in school but also being inspired to continue to learn throughout their lives.

Her point being, of course, that the world is a much more complex place and that we all need to know and understand more about the world around us just to get by. And with the pace of technology showing no signs of slowing down, we need to continually learn new things.

In no area is this more important, in my opinion, or more hard to do than in the area of security. Dennis Kennedy recently wrote a piece about technology security at the personal level, referring also to a post by John Robb entitled Getting Small. But what I’m thinking about here is big picture security.

In What the Terrorists Want, originally published at Wired.com, security expert Bruce Schneier discusses the impact of terrorism on society. But more importantly, he discusses the reaction of society to terrorist acts and how those reactions tend to work in the terrorists’ favor.

The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics. The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act. …

The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and not a particularly common one at that. And our job is to fight those politicians who use fear as an excuse to take away our liberties and promote security theater that wastes money and doesn’t make us any safer.

Consider these articles from Kennedy, Robb, and Schneier a lesson in life skills, and please pass it on to your kids. Aside from the warnings about online predators your kids get at school, that may well be the only security training they get (aside from that they get from the School of Hard Knocks).

Beck on the future of music (and the music industry)

Wired 14.09
The September edition of Wired magazine looks at Music Reborn.  The issue includes an interview with Beck about his recent works, especially his use of digital and social networking technology to change the nature of how audiences experience music and the business of how music is distributed.

In a recent post I wrote that “in the hands of a master even the simplest of tools can create wonders.” Beck’s story shows what a master can achieve when using the best of tools.

Here are a couple of the questions/answers from the interview that struck me, though the entire article is worth reading:

Guero, with all its various versions and releases, seems to have heralded the end of the album as we know it.
There are so many dimensions to what a record can be these days. Artists can and should approach making an album as an opportunity to do a series of releases – one that’s visual, one that has alternate versions, and one that’s something the listener can participate in or arrange and change. It’s time for the album to embrace the technology.

Do you ever get nostalgic for the albums of old, the LP and all that?
Sure. I’m something of a traditionalist, so I have a soft spot for a record with just a standard side A and side B. But there’s simply more room for information with digital media, and it would be ridiculous not to take advantage of that. It’s sort of like the difference between a wire recording and a piano roll and a cassette tape. They’re different formats, and they inspire different approaches.

Are you surprised by how quickly things are changing?
A little. It used to take 5 to 10 years for something new to get through and really make an impact, but that’s changing. I had been playing music for a long time when “Loser” became a hit on the radio. It seemed to most people like my success came overnight, but it took years of building and playing tiny shows. We didn’t play the 1,000-seat venues for years. Now I see groups come out who have a few cool MP3s online, and they’re selling out theaters across the country.

The importance of understanding yourself

A key aspect of personal development is an understanding of yourself – your strengths, your weaknesses, your personality, and your style of accomplishing things. Aside from a good amount of self reflection, there are tools – usually in the form of ‘tests’ – that can help you gain this understanding.

Some such tests are purely for fun. For example:

But there are also more serious tools, such as the various personality type indicators (Myers Briggs, Keirsey, etc). (Most days, I seem to be an INTP.) Dennis Kennedy and Jack Vinson both point to another of these useful tools, the Innovation Style Profiler, at Innovation Styles. As the title suggests, the profiler will give you insight into your innovation style, of which there are four main types:

  • Visioning: to visualize the ideal future
  • Modifying: to build on and optimize what has come before
  • Exploring: to discover new perspectives, assumptions, and territory
  • Experimenting: to combine and test many novel combinations

I had put together some thoughts on these tools, but Jack beat me to it. Here’s what he had to say (emphasis is mine):

The explanations of each style they provide are both informative and entertaining. As with the various personality style tests (MTBI, Kiersey, and many others), the purpose of these styles is to help people understand how they approach innovation (not how innovative they are). And if taken in a group setting can help members of the group see how they approach things differently. The thinking here is that the better we know ourselves and those around us, the better we can work together – in this case for the purposes of innovative thinking.

For a counterpoint to the value of these types of indicators, you may want to check out the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. (Thanks to Dave Snowden for the link.)

In case you’re interested I am a Visioning/Exploring type of innovator.

On doing things for yourself

I’ve long been a fan of M. C. Escher and his works. To get a daily fix, I’ve got a calendar that has one of his drawings/etching/etc along with a quote for each day. The following was on the calendar this past weekend:

A personal experiment, an edifice where one has to dig the foundations and build the walls one-self, stands a good chance of turning into a ramshackle shed, and yet one might choose to live there rather than in a place built by someone else.

In recognition of mastery

The pursuit of mastery is an inherently personal and individual endeavor, carried out for the personal satisfaction and gratification it brings. Ideally, our genius and passion will lead to mastery that has a purpose. Occasionally our achievements will be recognized within our personal and professional communities, but most people don’t pursue mastery looking for this recognition.Fields Medal

The International Mathematics Union has announced the 2006 winners of the Field’s Medal in recognition of “outstanding mathematical achievement for existing work and for the promise of future achievement.” This may have gone mostly un-noticed in the mainstream (ie, non-math or science related) media except for one fact: winner Grigori Perelman declined the award.

A reclusive Russian won an academic prize Tuesday for work toward solving one of history’s toughest math problems, but he refused to accept the award — a stunning renunciation of accolades from his field’s top minds.

[That the Fields Medal awards would have gone mostly unremarked is evident by the omission of the names of the other three winners in the above referenced CNN.com story.] The CNN.com story goes on to remark that Perelman also seems “uninterested in a separate, $1 million prize” offered for solution of the Poincare Conjecture. The same theme was also the basis of the story Mathematician Declines Top Prize on NPR’s Morning Edition (where I first learned of it).

Instead of focusing on the content (according to the NPR story, only 20 people in the world fully understand the proof of the Poincare Conjecture) and the context (it took nearly 100 years to solve) of Perelman’s achievement, most accounts seem to highlight how odd Perelman is for not accepting an award for what he has accomplished. Unfortunately, I think this reflects the ever-prevalent emphasis in today’s culture (at least in the United States) on achieving not mastery but fame and fortune. It boggles the mind to think that someone could be the best in the world at what they do and not ‘cash in” on it.

Fortunately not everyone is looking at it that way, as evidenced by these – and other – comments from bloggers:

The way I see it, it’s his choice of how he wants his name presented, with or without the accolades. Moreover, he certainly doesn’t need a committee to tell him he’s one of the smartest minds on the planet. Go Grigory!

Someone who is not working for the money! File this one under “We need more men like this!”

But it seems that out of all Fields medal winners, Perelman has attracted the most attention by refusing his award. Which is ironic, as he refuses awards because he does not want the attention.

Though I’m sure Perelman’s motives are different (but I don’t know for sure), this also brings to mind the actions of Benjamin Franklin. With all of the ideas he came up with, all the inventions he invented, and all the knowledge he created, Franklin never patented anything, believing that the knowledge should be free to inspire others.