Thunderhead – A tribute to RUSH

I’ve been a fan of the Canadian rock trio Rush for many years, since high school, so when my brother called me up a couple of weeks ago and asked if I wanted to go check out a local Rush tribute band I immediately agreed. I’m glad I did.

Thunderhead logoThe band, Thunderhead, played at the House of Rock in South (St. Louis) County on a Friday night (9 Feb). We got there early to make sure we had a place to sit (and set down our beers!), and good thing. As show time approached the place filled up quickly.

Like Rush, Thunderhead is a three-man band: George Whitlow on bass, keyboards, and vocals, Corey Nelson on guitars, and Mike Ramsey on percussion (you can’t simply call it “drums” when you are talking about Rush!). And I have to say, these guys ROCKED. (Well worth the 5 buck cover.)

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the show, as I had never seen a “tribute band” perform. I had in mind the “cover bands” that travel the club circuit, playing a collection of covers from various bands, genres, etc. The music is usually good, but very rarely do the bands seem to make a whole-hearted effort to re-create the sound of the original. (Not saying that’s bad, I love a good cover band.)

A ‘tribute band,’ on the other hand, has as its goal a faithful reproduction of most, if not all, aspects of a bands music and performance. In that, Thunderhead succeeded.

One of the things that became immediately obvious when they started playing was that this wasn’t just a bunch of guys that got together on the weekends to play some music. I can only imagine how much time they put into 1) learning the music as individuals, 2) learning the songs as a group, 3) staging the performance (lights, sound, etc), and 4) rehearsal of the whole package.

With the exception of some vocal problems George had (a cold exacerbated, no doubt, by the thick smoke in the club), their performance was right on. As much as I’ve always enjoyed Neil Peart’s lyrics, it is Rush’s musicality that I most love. The extended guitar solos in songs, the mandatory (and brilliantly executed) drum solo, and the group jams that are Rush’s instrumentals were great. My personal favorite – the jazzy, funky, and rocking La Villa Strangiato.

If you live in the St. Louis area, keep an eye on their tour page for upcoming dates. If you are a fan of Rush, you owe it to yourself to check these guys out.

What is your language?

Everyone has their own path to follow through life. Easy to say, somewhat harder to believe because most of our daily experiences involve others who live incredibly similar lives to ours. This sometimes gets in the way of us realizing that there are differences in this world, and that the path that we’ve chosen for ourselves – or that has been thrust upon us – may not be the best path for everyone.

Earlier this week, Dr. Sanjay Gupta from CNN blogged about his recent introduction to and conversation with Amanda Baggs, a 26-year old autistic woman who gets around in a wheel-chair and communicates through a text-to-voice device. In his words, Amanda “opened his eyes about the world of autism.”

Amanda is obviously a smart woman who is fully aware of her diagnosis of low-functioning autism, and quite frankly mocks it. She told me that because she doesn’t communicate with conventional spoken word, she is written off, discarded and thought of as mentally retarded. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A far cry from how autistics, especially “low-functioning” autistics, are typically portrayed in the media. (Compare, for instance, to this portrayal on ABC’s PrimeTime earlier this week.)

Just as technology allows her to communicate through the voice synthesizer (on which she can type over 100 words per minute), technology – in the form of YouTube – has allowed her to be heard by a much wider audience. In fact, it was her video “In My Language” that caught the eye of CNN. Amanda’s description of the video:

The first part is in my “native language,” and then the second part provides a translation, or at least an explanation. This is not a look-at-the-autie gawking freakshow as much as it is a statement about what gets considered thought, intelligence, personhood, language, and communication, and what does not.

I encourage you to take about 10 minutes and view Amanda’s video. If you are already somewhat familiar with autism, this will help you understand even more. If you are not familiar with autism at all, this is a good start in understanding that you really can’t judge a book by its cover.

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Amanda was also featured this week on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360.

I’ve also written a bit about this on my autism blog in 29 Marbles – Why don’t more people understand this yet?

Video games: Future of education or harmful obsession? (part 3 of 3)

Both Marc Prensky‘s Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning! and Olivia and Kurt Bruner‘s Playstation Nation are aimed squarely at parents, and their recommendations to parents about how to handle video games are, not surprisingly, right in line with their personal opinions about video games. Among many other ideas for parents, Prensky recommends that parents make an effort to understand the games their children are playing, even going so far as to recommend that parents try playing some of the games with their kids. In many ways, his approach is, “They’re going to do it anyway, and it is better to understand what they are doing and how it affects them than to not understand.”

The Bruners have pretty much the opposite recommendation, basically telling parents to avoid exposing your kids to video games at all. As a replacement/alternative, they recommend “you identify five or six possible categories of interest for your child and invest the time and money necessary to explore options, trying them out until you find that perfect game, hobby, sport, book series, old television show DVD set, or whatever tickles your child’s fancy.” (Except for video games, of course.)

The pursuit of mastery, of any skill, requires a great deal of passion. To those who don’t understand the appeal of the skill being pursued, this passion often comes across as obsession. This seems to often be the case with parents and their children. As parents, we should try to encourage, or at least indulge, our kid’s passions.

If you’re having trouble getting your hands around this idea, I’ll leave you with this question and answer from teen-ager Luke Jackson:

Q: When is an obsession not an obsession?
A: When it is about football.

How unfair is that?! It seems that our society fully accepts the fact that a lot of men and boys ‘eat, sleep and breathe’ football and people seem to think that if someone doesn’t, then they are not fully male. Stupid!

Girls are lucky enough to escape this football mania but I have noticed that teenage girls have to know almost every word of every song in the charts and who sang what and who is the fittest guy going, so I suppose an AS girl (or a non-AS one) that had interests other than that is likely to experience the same difficulties as a non-football crazy boy.

I am sure that if a parent went to a doctor and said that their teenage son wouldn’t shut up about football, they would laugh and tell them that it was perfectly normal. It seems as if we all have to be the same.

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Video games: Future of education or harmful addiction? (part 2 of 3)

Video games, Marc Prensky argues, are a conduit for our children to learn in a way that just wasn’t available to previous generations. This comes in large part because the game developers understand what it means to engage the digital natives so that they want to play – and thus learn – more and more. Prensky gives 12 reasons that games engage us.

  1. Games are a form of fun. That gives us enjoyment and pleasure.
  2. Games are form of play. That gives us intense and passionate involvement.
  3. Games have rules. That gives us structure.
  4. Games have goals. That gives us motivation.
  5. Games are interactive. That gives us doing.
  6. Games have outcomes and feedback. That gives us learning.
  7. Games are adaptive. That gives us flow.
  8. Games have win states. That gives us ego gratification.
  9. Games have conflict/competition/challenge/opposition. That gives us adrenaline.
  10. Games have problem solving. That sparks our creativity.
  11. Games have interaction. That gives us social groups.
  12. Games have representation and story. That gives us emotion.

Olivia and Kurt Bruner, on the other hand, see “complex” video games as an addiction waiting to happen. In fact, they point to the complexity of the games and the game developers’ attempts to engage us as a deliberate strategy by video game developers to get players addicted. Here are some key points from a section in the book titled Driving Forces of Game Addiction.

  1. Beating the Game: The first driving force for game addition is the desire to finish, in part due to the satisfaction of completion or simple pride – wanting to beat the game.
  2. Competition: Allowing people to interact with each other puts the game in the hands of the players, rather than the game programmer…. Creating a game with flexible rules allows players to develop their own playing styles, moves, and tactics.
  3. Mastery: The desire to master a game is also potentially addictive…. Programmers are encouraged to give players enough “feedback” from the game so that they can learn to master it, drawing them back over and over again.
  4. Exploration: The addiction of exploration has been part of computer games since the beginning. In fact, some of the first games were entirely about exploration. The wildly popular game Myst, for example, used exploration as its basis, capitalizing on the strong urge to explore interesting places or uncover secret levels.
  5. The High Score: Players spend countless hours playing video games simply to beat a competitor’s high score – even if that “competitor” is one’s own last game!
  6. Story-Driven Role Play: Designing the game to the script of a story will compel players to finish, to see how the story ends…. The harder it is to finish the quest or story, the more likely the game will feed addiction. This is why more and more games are designed with a story foundation and with increased level complexity.
  7. Relationships: Many video and Internet games are designed to create an odd type of peer pressure in which players rely upon each other for support. Such games also leverage the draw of artificial relationships, allowing players to build “friendships” with people they would not otherwise meet or even like. Thanks to anonymity, people feel more open talking about personal issues online without fear of judgments they might face from real-life friends and family.

To Prensky, video games are a passion that can lead to positive learning and skills, such as this story about 10-year-old Tyler. For the Bruners, video games are an obsession that lead to destroyed lives, expressed in the several examples they describe several in their book and on their website.

In Part 3: Recommendations for parents

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Video games: Future of education or harmful addiction? (part 1 of 3)

One of the most challenging things facing many parents today is how to understand their children’s love of all things digital. Marc Prensky has labeled us “old folks” (himself included) as Digital Immigrants, while our children are the Digital Natives. Within the digital nation of those digital natives, nothing is quite so potentially inaccessible to parents as video games.

Some see video games as the learning tool of the future, an example of how technology can be used to engage our kids. Others see video games as a harmful obsession that leads to addiction and a wasted life.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve read two books concerning these topics: Prensky’s Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning! and Playstation Nation by Olivia and Kurt Bruner. I’ve also had a chance to take a look at the writings on the authors’ respective websites: Marc Prensky.com and VideoGameTrouble.org. Though these authors say basically the same thing about the nature and design of video games, the conclusions they reach could not be any more different from each other.

In his book (and on his website), Prensky makes a distinction between the triviality of the “mini-games” of the past and the complexity of modern video games.

Almost all the pre-computer games were card or board games. (I am excepting physical games and sports, which have remained the same pre and post computer – except for their strategies.) The pre-computer games typically took no more than an hour or two to play (and often less.) With only a few exceptions such as Bridge, Chess and Go – which were played seriously by relatively few – games of the pre-computer era gave kids very little to reflect on or learn at a deep, or thoughtful level. Sure, kids may have learned a few economic lessons from Monopoly, but games, back then, were mostly games. Distractions, if you will.

What makes a “complex” game different from a mini-game is that a complex game requires a player to learn a wide variety of often new and difficult skills and strategies, and to master these skills and strategies by advancing through dozens of ever-harder “levels.” Doing this often requires both outside research and collaboration with others while playing. (Is this starting to sound like something that might work in education?)

The “levels” in a complex game may consist of building bigger, more complex cities or civilizations (e.g. Sim City, Civilization III, Rise of Nations), conducting harder and more challenging campaigns (e.g. Age of Empires, Age of Kings), confronting harder and more challenging enemies (e.g. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings), solving harder and more challenging puzzles (e.g. Myst, Riven), completing more and more challenging quests (e.g. EverQuest, City of Heroes, World of Warcraft) or meeting other challenges of increasing subtlety and complexity.

In part 2: Attributes of games and game design and the different conclusions drawn by Prensky and the Bruners.

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Share your musical creations on iCompositions

Like many others, I have been making use of Flickr and YouTube to post pictures and video. In fact, part of my recent new layout of this site was to allow me to post links to those sites. Over the Christmas break, I discovered a new site to share my digital music creations: iCompositions.

So far, I’ve posted 4 songs, which you can listen to from my artist page. One was done in Apple‘s Soundtrack application (which came with Final Cut Express), the others in GarageBand (part of the Apple iLife suite of apps), all exclusively using Apple Loops – I’ve not quite made it to the point of recording any original material.

Most of the songs I’ve put together have been in the context of video scores. I’m working my way up to songs I think can stand on their own. Like many of the social sharing sites, iCompositions has a large community of people who are more than happy to help you as you learn and to provide comments and criticism that will help you improve.

iCompositions is also a great place to find new music from a large collection of independent musicians in a wide variety of genres. Something for everyone’s taste. Quite a few of the songs I’ve found there have made their way onto my iPod (like makpiano88‘s Awakening).

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The art of parenting

Most discussions of mastery – such as sports, music, drama, writing, etc. – focus on areas outside the realm of day-to-day life. Of course, discussions about the philosophy of mastery stress the importance and value of applying the approach of mastery to the mundane tasks of daily existence. But some things fall into the space in between the extreme and the mundane.

As the parent of two teen-age boys I can tell you that nothing else I’ve ever done has been more frightening, exhilarating, nerve-wracking, frustrating, enjoyable, or – ultimately – rewarding. If you are a parent, you know exactly what I mean. Talk about a series of plateaus with sudden jumps to higher levels; parenting has it built in. First there is infancy, then toddlers. Early childhood and adolescence (ack – puberty!!). The teen-age years. Adulthood. And eventually you have to learn how to be a parent without being a parent anymore.

As the parent of an autistic son, I also understand the unique challenges faced by parents of children with disabilities. One thing I’ve learned from my own experiences, and the experiences of other parents in a similar situation, is that when you are faced with this non-typical situation you are forced to really understand that situation in order to do your best. When you find yourself in a ‘normal,’ well-understood situation it is all to easy to let yourself run on autopilot. Autism doesn’t really allow for that.

I don’t intend to turn this into a blog about parenting, special-needs or otherwise, but as part of my overall study of mastery I can’t help but be drawn to some of the challenges faced by parents and the lessons we can learn from them that apply to all aspect of life. I will point you to some incredible writing and insights from different parents I know, as well as discuss some areas where I think parents today should take themselves off of autopilot and really dive-in to understand their kids and the place they are making for themselves in the 21st century.

For a look at some incredible daily writing about one mother’s life with an autistic child, check out Kristina Chew’s Autismland.

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