Different – and normal – are in the eye of the beholder

What does it mean to be normal? What does it mean to be different? These are big questions in any discussion about autism or other disabilities. The term “disabilities” itself begs this question, since a disability is defined based on “normal”.

I like what Kristin has to say on the matter (the emphasis is hers):

“Normal” is such a complicated word.

We each grow up with our own entrenched ideas of what normal is, which means, of course, there is no such thing. Yet the world loves to pretend like there is—if normal doesn’t exist, exactly, then at least there’s a perceived ideal normalcy that we should all strive for, or even pretend to have grasped….

There is no “normal”—at least not in a societal sense—and we need to stop pretending there is. We need to stop talking about it, observing the world through it, and assuming it as we report on and read the news.

Most of all, we actively need to teach our kids to identify the falacies embedded in “normal,” and see through to the other side…. We need to embrace rather than hide what makes us different. We need to prove to the world that what they see as “messed up” can be a very beautiful thing.

What I like even more is that Kristin is not talking about autism here, or any other disability for that matter. These are not questions limited to autism and autism awareness, they are questions for us as a whole.

Different, as Kristin says, is the new normal. Time to get used to it.

Share a Chair – There should be an app for that

When I got to the airport restaurant, there was a short line of people waiting to be seated. Everyone waiting in this line was a party of one. Frustrating, since as I looked around the restaurant there were plenty of empty seats and table space. But not very many empty tables. As you can probably guess, many of those that were seated were also parties of one.

If I had been in Europe I would have just gone up and asked someone if I could join them (something Julie and I learned to do when we lived in Germany). But that really isn’t something that most Americans take too kindly to. When I was finally shown to my table – a spacious 4-seater – I told the hostess that I was willing to share the chairs that were going unused at my table. She thanked me, and even mentioned it to the first few people standing in line. I was not really surprised that no one took the offer; not surprised, but disappointed.

Here we were, all in essentially the same boat: business travelers on our way to work some magic far away from home, or on our way back home after working said magic. And instead of taking the opportunity to meet someone new, to maybe have an interesting conversation we would probably never have otherwise, we chose to eat alone. Keith Ferrazzi – author of Never Eat Alone – would be rolling over in his grave if he weren’t still alive and kicking.

I announced my available chairs on Twitter and on Foursquare, knowing that it was very unlikely anyone would notice and be able to take me up on the offer. (@Your_Shirt_Guy noticed, but was sadly not at the airport at the time.) As I sit typing this on the airplane, having been reading Jane McGonigal’s (aka @avantgame) Reality is Broken while electronics were verboten, it occurs to me that this could make for an excellent location-based app/game. OK, maybe just a great app.

You’re traveling alone, and stop in at one of the airport restaurants for lunch (or dinner or maybe just a beer). You check in to Share-a-Chair to let other travelers at that airport know that you have a spare chair that you want to share. You get a +1 for posting the available chair(s). When others sit down with you and check in, you get another +1 when someone takes the first chair, with a multiplier for each new person that takes one of the chairs you offered. The players who accept your offer of a shared chair each get a +1.

Or something like that.

As much as I would love to play an app/game like this, I don’t have the coding skills – or the time to devote – to make it happen. If you happen to build something like this – or if you already have – I’d love to hear about it and join in the fun. And maybe have dinner with you one day at IAH (or STL or …).

In the meantime, I will be using #ChairShare on Twitter and Foursquare whenever I find myself eating alone.

Teach your kids to embrace – not fear – the power of the internet

Yesterday I participated in a Twitter party hosted by @TheOnlineMom * to discuss the questions:

How much do we trust our kids online?
Can we monitor them closely and build trust?

The focus of the discussion was, as the topic questions hint at, how do we keep our kids safe? How do we protect them from all of the evils lurking out there waiting to swoop in and take advantage of them? Perhaps the biggest question, though, was: How do we protect our kids from themselves online?

It was a great discussion (you can see it at #TheOnlineMom), but it reminded me a lot of a not so pleasant PTO meeting about kids online that I attended a couple of years ago, when my kids had just started high school.  I’m not sure what I was expecting from the meeting, but you can probably imagine my horror when I realized that the basic point of the meeting was for internet safety experts to tell us how evil the internet is and that unless we did something our kids would end up dead in a ditch somewhere at the hands of a sexual predator.

OK, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. The focus of the meeting was indeed the evils that lie in wait for our kids, and what we as parents should – MUST – do to protect them. You can see much of what they talked about on the district’s Internet Safety Resources for Parents page.

I had a hard time sitting still through this and not speaking up as they brought out negative after negative (after negative). I waited until the Q&A and then asked what I thought was a reasonable question: Do you (the school district or the presenters) have any related presentations that describe the positive opportunities the internet provides to our kids?

It wasn’t the first time – I’m sure it won’t be the last – that people looked at me like I had two (or seven) heads.

A big part of the problem, as I saw it then, was that so few of the parents in the meeting actually used the internet themselves. A case of ignorance breeding a deep fear of the unknown. Amazingly, I saw some of the same thing last night in the discussion, comments like “I hope my kids never hear about Facebook” (from parents of very young kids) to the question, “Many parents ask whether there is any learning value in social networks for teens, what do you think?”

Here’s how I responded to that last question:

Social networks – virtual or real life – are the primary way that everyone learns, teens included.

Unlike that PTO meeting all those years ago, the discussion last night also included quite a few voices of (what I would call) reason, parents who see more than just the potential dangers. But even so, there was very little discussion of the power of the internet in the hands of our kids, especially teenagers arguably going through the most potentially creative time of their lives.

What if, instead of simply warning our kids about the dangers of the internet, monitoring (or trying to) their every keystroke, and telling them they can’t do this or that, we start by showing them what they CAN do online, how they CAN use all of the incredible tools available to accomplish what they want to accomplish. All of the incredible places they can go online, all the things they can learn, and everything they can share with the world (besides those racy photos or gossipy rants)?

As I shared with the group last night, my job as a parent is not to protect my kids from the world, it is to teach them how to protect themselves. Not just in a “defensive” way, but by taking the offensive, understanding the world so they can go out and make their own mark.

Fear, and caution, have their place. But you can’t let them rule your life. This is what we should be teaching our kids.

* If you are a parent of pre-college kids and are looking for a great resource for dealing with technology as it relates to your kids, you should make The Online Mom one of your regular stops on the web.

Different is the new normal (a mathematical view)


Back in April I wrote a post titled Different is the new normal. In that article I looked at “normal” and “different” in the cultural sense; this is the primary context in which most people put this discussion. It occurred to me a week or so ago, though, that it would be interesting to see what this would look like from a mathematical perspective.

The first thing I think of when I hear “normal” is the normal distribution curve. So I thought, what if we put normal in the middle, and different on the ends to represent the current (and hopefully fading) view. And then, to represent different as the new normal, switch it up and put different in the middle and normal on the ends. So I started sketching out the diagrams to the right.

I played around with it a bit, mostly trying to figure out how to label the diagram. Using “normal” and “different” just didn’t seem right. I really like Seth Godin’s description of today’s normal as “factory work”, so I adopted that as “normal”. To split it into the ends, it made sense (to me, anyway) to label them as “blue collar” and “white collar”. Factory work is factory work, after all.

Labeling “different” was a bit more of a challenge. Though I like Seth’s idea of linchpins, it just didn’t seem to fit in this context. I did know that I wanted to use “artist”, as Seth describes them, as one end of different. Then I read Hacking Work and “hacker” became the obvious choice for the other end of different. But I was still stuck on how to describe “different”. Until, that is, I read The Art of Non-Conformity today.

Then it was obvious.

On the path of knowledge creation

ThiagiIn his foreword to Marc Prensky‘s book Digital Game-Based Learning, Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan (@thiagi) recounts the following (emphasis is mine):

Early in my life, my mentor explained to me the three paths that lead to the creation of knowledge. The analytical path, where philosophers reflect, meditate, and make sense of objects and events; the empirical path, where scientists manipulate variables and conduct controlled experiments to validate reliable principles; and the pragmatic path where practitioners struggle with real-world challenges and come up with strategies for effective and efficient performance.

Each of these paths can be taken in isolation from the others, we see that every day. It is also common to see these paths taken one after the other: analyze -> experiment -> implement.

More challenging, and much more powerful, is to integrate these three trails into a single path that allows you to go from trail to trail as needed to get you where you want to go.

Of course it’s about money

Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, programming from the Scripps Network – which includes channels such as Food Network and HGTV – disappeared from the AT&T U-verse lineup last Friday. This surprised just about everyone, since media reports earlier in the week seemed to indicate the two were working amicably toward a resolution of ongoing negotiations. Not so unexpectedly, both Scripps and AT&T very quickly released statements defending their actions and soundly blaming the other for the problems.

AT&T came out of the gate swinging, with the title of their press release, AT&T U-verse TV Customers Denied Fair Deal by Scripps Networks, giving a pretty good idea of their view on the issue. Scripps, on the other hand, came out with AT&T U-verse customers: This is not about money!, letting viewers know that Scripps was only interested in the viewers while implying that all AT&T cared about was money. Of course, both of these companies care about money – they are in business to make money, after all. They just look at it from two different perspectives.

AT&T wants to minimize the amount of money they have to pay to Scripps (or any provider) for programming while maximizing the way they can make money from that content. In this case that means paying once for content, and then being able to distribute the content on as many media and in as many ways as possible and charging their customers for the ability to access the content on all those media. When AT&T says, “With such an uneven playing field, they are harming AT&T’s ability to provide customers with a new video choice”, what they mean is, “With such an uneven playing field, they are harming AT&T’s ability to provide customers with a new video choice and make money doing it.”

On the other hand, Scripps (or any provider) wants to be paid as much money as possible for their content. In today’s media environment that means getting paid not for the content itself but for the rights to distribute that content, with each different possible medium (TV, web, mobile, etc) being another possible revenue stream. So when Jeffrey at HGTV says, “Accepting their demands would have restrained our ability to deliver our programs to viewers like you in new and innovative ways”, what he really means is, “Accepting their demands would have restrained our ability to deliver our programs to viewers like you in new and profitable ways.”

These two companies are not fighting over the best ways of providing programming to viewers, they are fighting over which one of them will get the most money out of these new delivery methods. We, the viewers, will pay for the programming one way or another, it doesn’t really matter who the money goes to. Do these companies really think that we believe they are acting out of some altruistic, self-sacrificing urge to make us happy?

Of course it’s about money. What’s wrong with that?

Be excellent to each other (thoughts on Ubuntu!)

I had been reading up on Ubuntu (the operating system) when I came across ubuntu!: An Inspiring Story About an African Tradition of Teamwork and Collaboration (the book) at the library. It was obvious from the subtitle that this was not a book about the OS, but the title pulled me in to at least take a look.

At first I thought it was a true story, perhaps an extended case study, since it was in the new non-fiction section. It turns out, though, that it is actually a work of didactic fiction, a story created by the authors to make a point. That point being that at work we all seem to forget that our co-workers are human, that they aren’t just there as “cogs in the machine”, and that we all need to start respecting our fellow workers as people, even if the work they perform isn’t (yet) worthy of our respect.

Or as those two great philosophers Bill Preston and Ted Logan once said, “Be excellent to each other.”

This point is made through the application of the African tradition known as ubuntu, brought to (stereo)typical big box corporate America by a young South African man working at the company while an MBA student at a local university. The short definition of ubuntu is

a philosophy that considers the success of the group above that of the individual

Here is a more detailed description, as given by Simon (the young South African student) early on to John, his overly stressed and on the verge of failing manager:

Ubuntu…is about teamwork and brotherhood. It is finding that part of you that connects with other people and bringing it to life…. When you struggle, the Ubuntu in me reaches out to give you a hand. If you wander into my village with nothing to eat, our villagers will provide you with food. Why? Because at the deepest level we are all brothers and sisters…. If one of us hurts, we all hurt.

The rest of the story revolves around John’s learning journey, his epiphany, and the sharing of this new knowledge with the rest of the company.

If you are looking for engaging characters, a suspenseful plot, and a twist at the end, this is not the book for you. As William Gibson said recently, didactic fiction rarely results in deep characters or plot. And that’s fine, because the point of this story is to make a point.

For someone open to the idea of an engaging workplace, where each person is respected as a human first, and only then viewed as an employee, the story told in Ubuntu! will provide some insight into the possibilities. Ironically, these are the people who least need to read this book, because they probably already feel this way.

On the other hand, the people who could most benefit from this book – the managers who treat their employees like, well, employees – will most likely read this book and dismiss it as “touchy feely crap”.

The power of Ubuntu is, I’m afraid, one of those things that you have to experience to truly appreciate.