50 books in 52 weeks – not this year

I enjoy reading, so like many people I have set a goal for myself to read at least 50 books a year for the last couple of years. I read 45 last year, you can see my list on GoodReads.  As I was getting ready to publicly commit to another year of 50-in-52, though, I realized that I’m not really ready to move on from the books I read in 2011 2010.

It’s not that I don’t want to read anything new, I do. I’ve got several new books on my list, including David Siteman Garland’s Smarter, Faster, Cheaper, Neal Bascomb’s story of FIRST Robotics, The New Cool, and Hal Needham’s Stuntman! I’m also looking at some older books that I’ve never read.

But well over half of the books I read last year are still bouncing around inside my head.

In a blog post last October, Harold Jarche  expressed a similar sentiment in the context of conferences that he attends:

One thing missing in these discrete time-based events is that there is little time for reflection. … This presentation is followed by some immediate questions & discussions and a coffee break. Then it’s off to see the next presentation. Reflection, if it occurs, comes much later, and usually after the participants have gone home.

Replace “presentation” with “book”, and that his how I am feeling about the books I read last year.

During a pre-launch webinar for his new book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson also talked about the state of reading.

Bill Gates takes a “reading vacation” to read. Ray Ozzie does the same thing. A very interesting strategy; usually when we read it is at night, when we are tired and have 20-30 minutes before we go to bed. Takes a couple of weeks to read, you lose the possible connections between the books you read.

All of this is my overly long way of saying that I’m not committing to 50-in-52 this year. Instead of moving on to the next conference, in my case a new year of reading only new books, I’m also going to spend some time quality time reflecting on the books I read last year.

What are your reading plans for 2011?

Update: Check out my  2010 Reading List lens on Squidoo.

FIRST and the sports model – is it getting out of hand?

Dean Kamen’s vision for FIRST is simple to state:

To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes.

Simple to state, but not nearly so simple to achieve.

The FIRST organization have chosen to use the sports model as the basis of their programs, as shown in the image to the right. Of course, many of the most celebrated people today are athletes, and much of the K12 experience here in the US revolves around athletics.

If you heard his kickoff speech for this year’s game, though, you know that Dean is becoming frustrated with how this model is working out, with the focus for many individuals and teams becoming the winning, not the competition itself. Or, in the terminology of the folks at TrueCompetition.org, these teams have moved from competition into decompetition.

In some ways, this is an inevitable evolution, the nature of professional sports (which, in my mind, includes college sports) in which the intrinsic motivation of young athletes with a love of the game transforms into the extrinsic motivation of the rewards of victory.

What do you think? Is the sports model getting out of hand and need to be changed? Or does it just need to be “tweaked” a bit.

Children and the curse of knowledge

One of our goals as a society is to educate our children, to pass along the knowledge of what has gone before so that the children understand where they’ve come from and how we got to where we are. At the same time, we are dependent on our children to create the new knowledge that we need in order to continue and to grow.

To accomplish this we must avoid the danger of infecting our kids with a “curse of knowledge”, of teaching our kids not only how to think but what to think. The best of ideas in almost any field of endeavor quite often come from those with the least preconceived notion of what that field of endeavor should be.

One of the home page quotes on the FIRST website is the following:

"Overnight, they were asking and trying things that none of our testers ever dreamed of after six months of development. We know we are all in for a treat as these kids move up through society."

In case you’re not familiar FLL is the FIRST Lego League, a robotics competition program for kids age 9-14 (in the U.S., this equates to 4th through 8th grade). As the quote hints at, a team of technical and game experts spend a lot of time designing a game, coming up with the rules and putting everything together.

But it only takes a day for a bunch of kids, many not even teenagers, to think of questions and try to do things that never even occurred to these experts. The experts are learning from the “novices”.

What have you learned recently from the novices – children, new employees, etc – in your life?

Like the WWF, but for smart people

Less than 72 hours from now, students from over 1,800 high school teams will be gathered around the country to find out what they’ll be doing for the next 6 weeks. At 1000 (US Eastern time) on Saturday 9 January, Dean Kamen will kick off the 2010 competition season for the FIRST Robotics Competition by announcing this season’s game and publishing the game’s rules.

The teams will then have just over 6 weeks to design, build, test, and ship a robot that they think can win the game. They must analyze the game and come up with a strategy for how to play, then put together a preliminary design they think can execute that strategy. They must pay special attention to the rules and specs they are given. They will break down into smaller teams responsible for specific areas, such as structural, mechanical/pneumatic, drive train, sensors, software control systems. They will build, test, redesign, build, and test. And these are some serious robots, as tall as 5 feet and weighing up to 120 pounds (depending on the specific game rules).

Beginning in March, there will be regional competitions all around the country. (Around the world, actually). The winners of these regional events will then have the opportunity to travel to Atlanta to compete in the International Championships in an event former President George H. W. Bush described as “like the WWF, but for smart people.”

Did I mention these are high school students?

I could go on for pages about what these students will accomplish in six short weeks, and probably will over the course of this upcoming season. I am proud to be a mentor for FRC Team #2893, the Parkway North High School Robohobos, as we go into our second season with the FIRST Robotics Competition. The kids – I mean students (they hate being called kids) – are already preparing for the season, anxiously awaiting the game announcement this weekend. So am I.

If you want to find out more about this years game, check out one of the local kick off events or watch from the comfort of your own home on NASA TV. If you think you have something you can contribute, please seek out a local team and become a mentor. I promise you will get as much from it as the students do.