Monthly Archives: February 2007

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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A winning attitude

Anyone who has ever competed in a sport knows the value of having actual competition. Runners, for instance, are much more likely to improve their personal best time if they are running against someone that is as good as or slightly better than they are.

Ian Back 1

Even in the world of business, competitive pressures provide the incentive needed to do your best work. (I think we all know how much competing against a deadline ‘encourages’ us to get things done faster, if not better.)

I’ve written before about my son Ian’s trampoline and tumbling. Competition season has begun again, and with it comes the inevitable preparation, travel, and actual performance. One of the hardest things about the early part of the local competition environment is the lack of competition in all age groups and difficulty levels, especially among boys.

Ian Back 2In the absence of this competition – especially this early in the season when the goal is simply to participate so you can attend the State Championships – it would be all too easy for Ian and other athletes to not give their best. When you are the only one in your competitive group, you will get the gold even if you give your worst performance ever. For the ultra-competitive athlete, this is even worse because they don’t really consider it competition if they’re not actually beating someone.

During Ian’s first competitive season, we worked around this by turning it into a competition with himself – the goal was to improve the score of his routines from meet to meet so that by the time he got to the State Championships he was ready for any competition that may come his way.

This obviously sank in. Here’s what Ian had to say about not having any direct competition at the first event of this competition season:

I’m not going to win gold because I’m the only one. I’m going to win gold because I did my best.

A winning attitude we would all do well to remember.

(If you live in the St. Louis area and your kids are interested in Trampoline and Tumbling, check out St. Louis Elite Tramp and Tumble at Gateway Kids World in Hazelwood.)

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Religious belief and perceptions of autism

I just posted the following in the comments to my last post, in response to a comment from jypsy, but wasn’t sure how many people would see it there. So, here it is again.

I would be curious to see if there is any data concerning the effect of religious belief on how someone views autism (and vice versa). Are devoutly religious people more likely to consider autism a ‘bad thing’ that should be overcome (ie, curebies)? Are atheists more likely to accept autism as a part of global neurodiversity?

Or is the issue, like most everything else, more complex than those simple distinctions. (I’m sure the answer to that is yes.)

Has anyone seen any data on that?

The power of pop culture

I will be the first to admit that I am a huge consumer of pop culture. I like to watch good TV (no, it’s not an oxymoron) and film, I keep up with the latest in music (yes, some of it is awful), love video games, and read the occasional novel (though most of my reading these days is non-fiction). It comes through every now and then, like in my October post “Every soul is perfect” – Is there autism in heaven? (Redux), a reflection on how autism was treated on the CBS show Ghost Whisperer.

In response to that post, Ian Parker submitted the following:

Um, regarding heaven and ‘perfect souls’, I would hope that people do not determine their religious beliefs based on the pseudo-religious-philosophical musings of the writers of Ghost Whisperer. At least take the time to consider what Homer has to say before coming to any final decision on such weighty matters.

I share Ian’s hope that people are smarter than that, and am doing my part by helping my sons understand what they consume in a smart way, I am a bit of a pessimist when it comes to actually thinking this is the case (a rare instance of a glass-half-empty feeling on my part).

For good or ill, pop-culture is a driving force in many (most?) people’s perception of the world and their actions in the world. Because of that one episode of Ghost Whisperer, I would venture a guess that many people’s perceptions of autism now include one of “imperfection” here on Earth, the image of a “lost soul” trapped inside an uncooperative body.

Why am I re-hashing this, you may ask. These thoughts came to mind as I came toward the end of Roy Grinker’s new book, Unstrange Minds. In it, Grinker relates the story of how a popular film in Korea has helped reshape Korean attitudes about autism in a positive way. From the book (page 256-257, sorry for the long excerpt):

That month a low-budget Korean film entitled Malaton (spelled the way the main character pronounces the English work “marathon”) was released. The film was based loosely on the real-life story of a young runner name Bae Hyong-Jin. Bae worked part-time on an assembly line in a tool factory when, at the age of seventeen, he ran a marathon in Chuncheon, Korea, in 2 hours 57 minutes. While not anywhere near elite runner times, which are under 2 hours 8 minutes, Bae’s time was enough to earn him national recognition. Why? Because Bae Hyong-Jin has autism.

But the film is not about running. It’s about the complexity of autism as a disorder and the problems people with autism confront in their family and social lives. it is one of the most realistic and compelling cinematic representations of autism that I’ve ever seen. The film was made after the Korean media began to publish stories about people with autism. The media had begun to publish the stories because parents, informed by the Internet and the international media, started to talk about autism in public.

Within one month after its release, more that 10 percent of the Korean population had seen the movie, and it was the second-largest moneymaker in the Korean film industry in 2005. Largely as a consequence of the film, millions of Koreans have a least a basic understanding of autism. On web site chat boards, disability rights advocates, parents, and educators in Korea are claiming that more diagnoses are being made, that people are more willing to bring their children with autism out in public, and that educators are more willing to accommodate children with autism in their classrooms. No one knows whether these changes will last, but optimism is sweeping the country. Parents of children with developmental problems think that their children may have brighter future than they previously imagined.

While autism is much more public in the US than it is in Korea, there is still a lot of ignorance of what exactly autism is, what it means, how it should be handled, etc. Any news story, TV show, or film that deals with the topic is absorbed by a curious public. And, in the absence of any other information (that doesn’t require actually going out and finding it), what people see from these sources is what they will believe, what they will think is the truth.

What if the film the Koreans had seen were Autism Every Day? Their pre-existing stereotypes would have been confirmed. Here in the US, what if Autism Speaks had had the budget to put up a couple of spots during the Super Bowl, with the largest single TV audience in history? What if NBC had broadcast the Super Bowl?

As much as we may wish it were not so, we can’t ignore the power of pop-culture and the influence it has had, and will continue to have, on the public perception of autism.

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Site update

If you read this blog exclusively through an RSS reader, you probably haven’t seen my site theme updates. I’m using the same basic theme, just added an extra column to provide a bit more useful/entertaining/productive content for those who do visit the site. If you get a chance, please check it out and let me know what you think.

In addition to the standard stuff (categories, archives, etc.), I’ve added a bit more personal links. These include a “Creation” group, with links to other online content I’ve created or contributed to, and a “Consumption” group, to share some of my recent finds. I’m still working the “Consumption” group out, trying to figure out the best way to present it. In addition to the ‘monetized’ items like books and CD/DVD referrals, I plan to include links to blogs I frequent.

Speaking of monetization (is that really a word?), I’ve also added a section for straight out “Capitalism” which includes (of course) Google Ads as well as various other affiliate / referral programs. Still working out the kinks on this one as well, so feel free to let me know how I can make it better. (And – by all means – please follow the links and buy something 😉 )

Genius comes in many forms – A review of “Some Kind of Genius”

I originally posted this review on my autism blog, 29 Marbles. While it is all too common for people to dismiss achievements of autistics as simply a ‘savant skill’ and not as true mastery, Tony’s story goes a long way to putting that perception to rest. Just another example of how autistics, and others with ‘disabilities’, are people just like the rest of us. The story is also an example of the journey of a parent on the master’s path.


Recommendation: You should add this book to your must-read list. I’ve long been fascinated by genius. Or, more specifically, the process of genius and figuring things out. My book shelves are full of these kind of books, mostly about scientists, mathematicians, and the like. This past weekend I finished Some Kind of Genius, which chronicles the musical achievements of Tony DeBlois from his first toy organ at the age of two and public performances at five that astounded the audience through his training at elite musical schools and his several CDs.From an early age, Tony’s skill was apparent. He could quickly and easily play back anything he heard. He could even improvise and improve. As he got older and in more and more rigorous training, he could listen to his teacher and play back what they just played even as the teacher continued to play. He also has composed original tunes, played with several bands and organizations, and sings. As someone who dabbles at the piano and has a hard enough time just playing a single song, I consider this ability genius. From the book is this description of 15 year-old Tony’s audition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston:

Janice arrived with Tony at the audition and took him directly to the piano. The members of the committee stood around the piano, anxious to hear him play. Gathered for this audition with Lipman were Rob Rose, director of Berklee’s special programs; Dave Weigert, chairman of the piano department; Paul Schmeling, of the piano faculty; Bob Doezema, guitarist/composer and assistant director of the summer program; and famed saxophonist-turned-educator John LaPorta, one of the legends of the school. They had all sat in this space countless times before, listening to hopeful young musicians from all over the world. Berklee, the planet’s top college of contemporary music since its founding in 1945, boasts an alumni list that is a veritable who’s who of jazz, rock, electronic music, and other genres, and students know that getting accepted means they’ll get the best training available in their field.

Berklee alumni include composer/producer Quincy Jones, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, film composer Alan Silvestri, guitarist Al Di Meola, modern big band leader/composer Toshiko Akiyoshi, pianist Diana Krall, saxophonist Bill Evans, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge, members of Aerosmith, and many others. Tony started the audition with a short classical sonatina, then moved on to one of his favorites, George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” complete with his improvised insertion of the Flintstones theme, which revealed his clever and original approach to the piece. Those brief moments were a revelation. The committee realized that they had a formidable talent on their hands, a rare, special boy whose playing contrasted sharply with the rest of his behavior.

Did I mention that Tony is blind? And autistic? When I started reading Some Kind of Genius : The Extraordinary Journey of Musical Savant Tony DeBlois I was expecting (hoping?) to learn more about how Tony DeBlois‘ mind works, more about Savant Syndrome (which I’ve written about before). Indeed, there is some basic information about Savant Syndrome in general and discussion of Tony’s particular skills. From Dr. Darold Treffert is this description of why savants may have the skills they have while the rest of us don’t:

I’ve come to believe in the collective unconscious not as psycological myths that are handed down by generations but as actual wiring, instinctual, which I call software installed. It’s clear that some of these prodigious savants are knowing things they cannot have learned. It had to come installed. This level of memory may also explain why it appears that we come with tons of software installed that we don’t use. It’s not because we’re lazy but because it would cause the same situiation as when I try to use all my software on my computer at the same time – it would crash. It’s almost as if some of these chips have a survival value to us if something happens to us. I think we tend to look at ourselves as being born with a tremendous piece of hardware, the brain, and a blank slate, and we become what we put on this disk. But I think savants come with this installed and they have access to it that we don’t.

As impressive as Tony’s story is, though, for me the real story of Some Kind of Genius is that of Tony’s mother Janice. From well before Tony’s birth, Janice’s life seems to have prepared her for the challenge, responsibility, and adventure of raising Tony and his brother Ray. And from the account she gives in the book, she more than lived up to the challenge. For parents of an autistic, or blind or other “disabled,” child this is a story of inspiration and what can be achieved if the desire is high enough. Almost all of us will see a little bit of our own story in Janice and Tony’s. The struggle to understand what is happening with your child. The desire to have the best life possible for your child, by figuring out what they are good at and helping them excel. And the fights with the system to make sure your child get what they need and deserve.

It is also a story of sacrifice. All “special” parents know nothing is ever easy and getting what your child needs sometimes means sacrificing for yourself and possibly others, all too often leaving “casualties” along the way. For everyone else, this is an inside look into what special needs kids and their parents must go through to get what is appropriate for them. My only complaint on this front is that Janice and co-author Antonia Felix almost make it seem too easy, too matter-of-fact. An “insider” will understand what was going on in the background of this story, but those unfamiliar with the struggle of “special” kids and parents will likely not quite catch it.

The most uplifting part of Tony’s story is his acceptance in the world of music. In almost every case (at least the ones documented in the book), the professional musicians and music educators that Tony works with see him as a musician first, a nice guy next, and only then as blind and autistic. This, I think, is the hope of all parents, special or otherwise: To help their children find their place in the world and make it their own.

ps. If anyone reading this happens to know Ellen DeGeneres, could you please pass on to her Tony’s desire to meet her and appear on her show? [Disclosure: The publisher offered the book as a complementary copy in hopes that I might mention it here.]

Learning from all experience, not just the mistakes

You can – and most definitely should – learn from your mistakes and the mistakes of others, but it is also important to remember that you can learn quite a bit from your past successes.

James Cameron’s most recent film was Titanic, released 10 years ago. From the New York Times story ‘Titanic’ Director Joins Fox on $200 Million Film is the following account:

The making of “Titanic,” Mr. Cameron’s last full-blown Hollywood feature, was the stuff of movie legend. The film, released in 1997, went far over its planned cost to become the most expensive production that had then been made. But it went on to become a historic success, taking in a record-breaking $1.8 billion at the worldwide box office, and also winning 11 Oscars, including an award for best picture.

Mr. Cameron said that he had taken care to avoid the problems he encountered on his last gargantuan production, and that he was already four months into shooting the nonprincipal scenes by the time Fox gave final approval to the project today.

I must admit to being a huge James Cameron fan (my personal favorite of his is The Abyss), so I was happy to see that he is finally directing another feature. But what struck me most in this article was Cameron’s recognition that even though Titanic was a huge (HUGE!) success, there were things that could have been done better. While it is hard to talk about “mistakes” when you have $1.8 billion in box-office, there are still things that can be learned.