The starting gun

With high school and college graduation season in full swing, and as my son’s 18th birthday quickly approaches, it seems a fitting time to repost this blog entry I wrote for Left Brain/Right Brain back in October 2007.  There was quite a bit of discussion when I first posted this, so visit the original post to read the comments too.

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One of my high school philosophy teachers (at a Jesuit high school here in St. Louis) used popular music of the time (70’s and early 80’s) as a tool in classes. I mostly remember using Supertramp (Crime of the Century) and some Pink Floyd (”Welcome to the Machine” was a favorite). No surprise, then, that this habit continues to today. Check out the pop-culture label at 29 Marbles for some of my earlier posts using pop-culture as the starting point.

I’ve been a Pink Floyd fan for a long time, and like any true Pink Floyd fan count The Dark Side of the Moon among my favorite albums, by anyone, of all time. The song “Time” is an excellent reflection of the fleeting nature of our time in this world. The second verse includes the following lyrics:

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

These lyrics are quite literal, and it is not too difficult to catch the meaning. But I gained a bit more insight into these words, especially the last line, while watching a documentary of the making of the album (told 30 years after the fact).

In the documentary, Roger Waters talks about a teenage conversation with his mother and the realization that it was time for him to start living his own life, that the “starting gun” had fired. One of the most important jobs a parent has is preparing kids for life on their own (however you may define that), a life that they are in control of (to the extent that anyone is control of their own lives).

There is a somewhat well defined path that we typically, though not always, can follow with our normal (in the statistical sense) kids. And many of us have come up with our own ways of preparing our kids for what lies beyond childhood.

But how do we let our kids, especially our autistic kids, know that the starting gun has fired?

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Another just as important question; how do we as parents accept that the starting gun has fired and let our kids run their own race?  With regret? Excitement? Fear? Joy?

The Great Debate

I was catching up on some news this evening, reading about stem cells here in Missouri, with iTunes on shuffle, as usual. About half way through the article, Dream Theater‘s song The Great Debate (from Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence) came on. I had to stop and listen.

If you know the song, you know that it is a discussion about then-President Bush’s decision concerning stem cells back in 2001. Here’s what wikipedia has to say about the song:

The Great Debate” is an innovative song by the progressive metal band Dream Theater dealing with the topic of stem cell research. It opens with various sound bytes of individuals’ beliefs and opinions concerning this contentious topic. Both sides of this debate are represented lyrically, and the band challenges the listener repeatedly with the chorus phrase- “Are you justified in taking life to save life?” and “Do we look to our Unearthly Guide?…or to white coat heroes, searching for a cure?”

What really struck me is how little seems to have changed in the last 7 1/2 years.  Consider these verses from the song:

What if someone said
Promise lies ahead
Hopes are high in certain scientific circles
Life won’t have to end
You could walk again

What if someone said
Problems lie ahead
They’ve uncovered something highly controversial
The right to life is strong
Can’t you see it’s wrong

Or, as they say toward the end of the song, miracle potential vs. the sanctity of life. Much the same as what is being said this week.

The stem cell debate reminds me quite a bit of another great debate:  vaccines and autism.  Though the substance of the two debates is different, they are qualitatively very similar: no matter what evidence or arguments are presented, it is very unlikely that you will ever change the opinion of someone who actually has an opinion.

Take me As I Am…

I wrote recently about the Dream Theater song “Solitary Shell” and how it brought to mind the impressions many people have of autistic individuals.  Tonight I popped in Dream Theater – Live at Budokan to help get the creative juices flowing.  The first song in their set list for this show is a song called “As I Am”, an excellent opening.

Anyway….  I’m pretty confident that this song wasn’t written with autism in mind, but the message the writer is trying to get across – that he is a unique individual and should be accepted as that – reminds me of what many of my autistic friends ask for.   (Like most poetry, this is best appreciated in spoken, or in this case, sung form.   Just imagine a driving guitar, bass and pounding drums as you read this anthem out loud to yourself.)

Don’t
Tell me what’s in
Tell me how to write
Don’t tell me how to win
This fight
Isn’t your life
It isn’t your right
To take the only thing that’s
mine

Proven over time
It is over your head
Don’t try to read between the
Lines
Are clearly defined
“Never lose sight of
Something you believe in”

Taking in the view from the outside
Feeling like the underdog
Watching through the window I’m on the outside
Living like the underdog

I’ve been trying to justify you
In the end I will just defy you

To those who understand, I extend my hand
To the doubtful I demand, take me as I am
Not under your command, I know where I stand
I won’t change to fit your plan, Take me as I am

The emphasis on the last verse is mine, because I think it really gets to the heart of the issue.  Though we may not have all thought about this, because our situation in life allows us to not worry about it, if you give it some thought you will realize that this is what you want for yourself as well.

Tools do not a master make [redux]

I’ve been catching up on the posts over at Work Literacy (that’s a lot of catching up!), along with discovering new (to me) blogs in the field of learning. This in turn has had me revisiting old posts and ideas of my own.

Joan Vinall-Cox’s post Old Skills and New Know-How, a response to Michele Martin’s post Knowledge Workers as Craft Workers (which, as it turns out, is based on a comment I left to another of Michele’s posts), discusses the importance of understanding the skills that must go into using a new technology.

Re-printed below is a post of mine from August 2006, Tools do not a master make, that explores a similar theme.

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No tool of modern technology is as universally used, and almost as universally reviled, in the world of business and government as is Microsoft PowerPoint. Perhaps most famous of the PowerPoint bashers is Edward Tufte, writer of several books and essays on information design. (I was fortunate enough to attend one of his courses in the late ’90s, his poster of Napoleon’s March to Moscow still hangs on the wall in my office.)

Tufte has described his issues with PowerPoint in magazine articles (such as PowerPoint is Evil in Wired magazine), in a self-published essay entitled The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, and in a chapter in his latest book Beautiful Evidence. In the past week or so a few others have also lambasted PowerPoint, including Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge in a couple of posts (Festival of Bureaucratic Hyper-Rationalism and Tufte and PowerPoint) and Scott Adams (via Dilbert).

Don Norman, of the Nielsen Norman Group, has a different take on PowerPoint. In his essay In Defense of PowerPoint, Norman places the blame not on PowerPoint but on those who use it improperly. “Don’t blame the problem on the tool.” Or, put another way – PowerPoint doesn’t bore people, people bore people. Cliff Atkinson is another who believes that PowerPoint can be used effectively. For some great ideas check out the Beyond Bullets blog or Atkinson’s book Beyond Bullet Points.

Of course, this problem is not limited to the world of business. One of the big promises of ever faster and more powerful consumer technology (if we are to believe marketing campaigns) is that everyone will be able to perform like an expert. Take, for example, the following pitch for Apple’s GarageBand software (emphasis is mine):

The new video track in GarageBand makes it easy to add an original music score to your movies. And don’t worry about your musical talent — or lack thereof. Just use GarageBand’s included loops, or try a combination of loops, software instruments, or any previous audio recordings you created.

Don’t get me wrong, I love GarageBand (and the whole iLife suite for that matter, I use it almost every day). It is very easy to create a ’song’ using loops, like my First Song. Once I got comfortable with the GarageBand interface, it only took me a couple of hours to browse through the loops, pull some together so it sounded good, and export it to iTunes. The ’song’ is listenable, but doesn’t reflect any real musical skill on my part. I didn’t apply any knowledge of time signatures, keys, tempo, or anything. I just dragged-and-dropped.

I guess my point is don’t get pulled into a false belief that a tool, any tool, can make you an expert at something or give you expert results. Remember, good tools are nice to have, but in the hands of a master even the simplest of tools can create wonders.

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You may also want to check out one of my earliest posts, Quick example of individual productivity gains / savings based on digital thinking.

It’s a good time to be a Nintendo based virtual musician

It is a good time to be a virtual musician, especially if your platform of choice comes from Nintendo. This past weekend saw the release of versions of the popular Guitar Hero and Rock Band game franchises for the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo Wii, respectively.

Guitar Hero On Tour brings the guitar strumming fun to the DS. I had a chance to try it out over the weekend and it is, in the words of my niece, “freaking sweet”. Like the console versions, GHOT has a custom guitar controller.

“But the DS doesn’t use separate controllers,” you say? Check this out:

That in combination with a pick-shaped stylus and the DS touch screen make for very cool game play. Check out the official game site for all the details.

The Wii version of Rock Band is, I’m sure, quite similar to the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 versions in terms of music and playability. Since I already have Rock Band for PS3 (working my way through a “Hard” solo tour), I doubt if I’ll get the Wii version, but I know my brother’s kids are already hounding him for the Wii version.

When musicians become gamers

Video games like the Guitar Hero franchise and the recently released Rock Band give gamers a chance to become “musicians”, if only in pretend. It was by happy accident (thanks to shuffle mode in iTunes) that I heard a discussion yesterday with NPR music blogger Carrie Brownstein on an (unfortunately unknown to me) NPR program on the subject.

The discussion centered on what Carrie had written in the post Are We Not Gamers?, which in turn derived from a review of Rock Band that Carrie wrote for Slate.com.

The line between gamers and non-gamers is clearly diminishing, if not already obsolete…. The best and newest games, such as Rock Band, meld the virtual with the actual; they make little distinction between what is palpable and what is imagined. With Rock Band, you are hanging out with your very real friends, playing along to the master recordings of real songs, and on screen you are atop some of the biggest stages in the world.

Of course, the truth is that you are nowhere except in front of your TV. But Rock Band professes that it doesn’t matter–though you might not be creating memorable music with your friends, you are creating a memorable, real-life moment, all with the help of the unreal.

I likely would not have written anything here about that discussion (or the blog or the review), except for something that happened to me on Monday night. On that night, I attended a parent’s meeting for my son’s high school band (he’s a percussionist) at which a local music store salesman presented SmartMusic.

My first thoughts (I hesitate to say) as he went through the demo were along the lines of, “This is a lot like Guitar Hero, except with real instruments.” To say that I was impressed with the system would be an understatement. Of course, it could have just been good salesmanship by the rep, but I don’t think so. Here’s the basic description of SmartMusic in their words:

Students never practice alone when they have SmartMusic at home. This interactive, computer-based practice system helps students get better faster, and makes practicing more fun. With amazing accompaniments for more than 30,000 titles, challenging exercises, and the ability to record personal CDs, SmartMusic is the future of music learning.

With SmartMusic loaded on a computer, students plug in a vocal or instrumental microphone and begin practicing. They play or sing their part with accompaniment and receive, in real time on the computer, detailed feedback on their performance. Ideal for woodwind, brass, string, and vocal musicians of all levels.

SmartMusic is your instant backup band that makes practicing fun!

If you remember Marc Prensky‘s 12 reasons games engage us, SmartMusic seems to meet all but the last one. Basically, they’ve taken the things that make learning in video games fun and applied them to learning in real life.

Something for Nothing

As with religion, and I’m sure many other things, it is hard to discuss the concept of mastery in the abstract. To talk about religion you pretty much need to discuss it in the context of a specific denomination. Likewise, to discuss mastery it is easier, and more meaningful, to discuss it in the context of a specific activity or field of endeavor.

Every now and then, though, I come across something that I think captures the spirit of the concept of mastery. And sometimes I rediscover something that I enjoyed a long time ago, and realize that the reason I enjoyed it so much is because it spoke to my interest in mastery.

Even though it is now nearly 30 years old, the Rush album 2112 is still a classic. Aside from the epic title track, one of my favorite Rush songs has always been Something For Nothing. I hadn’t heard it in a while (the iTunes shuffle mode hasn’t come around to it recently), but hearing it last night (I had placed disc 3 of the Different Stages: Live CD into the CD player) I realized why I enjoy it so much (aside from the great music!).

Here’s a sampling of the lyrics by Neal Peart:

Waiting for the winds of change
To sweep the clouds away
Waiting for the rainbow’s end
To cast its gold your way
Countless ways
You pass the days

Waiting for someone to call
And turn your world around

You don’t get something for nothing
You can’t have freedom for free
You won’t get wise
With the sleep still in your eyes
No matter what your dreams might be

Those last three lines pretty much say it all, don’t they. It’s good to have desires and goals, but you can’t wait for someone else to give it to you. You have to go out and get it for yourself, and it may not be easy. (In other words: Execution is key.)

Of course, the rewards are worth it in the end as the lyrics, again, so eloquently capture:

What you own is your own kingdom
What you do is your own glory
What you love is your own power
What you live is your own story
In your head is the answer
Let it guide you along
Let your heart be the anchor
And the beat of your own song