In recognition of mastery

The pursuit of mastery is an inherently personal and individual endeavor, carried out for the personal satisfaction and gratification it brings. Ideally, our genius and passion will lead to mastery that has a purpose. Occasionally our achievements will be recognized within our personal and professional communities, but most people don’t pursue mastery looking for this recognition.Fields Medal

The International Mathematics Union has announced the 2006 winners of the Field’s Medal in recognition of “outstanding mathematical achievement for existing work and for the promise of future achievement.” This may have gone mostly un-noticed in the mainstream (ie, non-math or science related) media except for one fact: winner Grigori Perelman declined the award.

A reclusive Russian won an academic prize Tuesday for work toward solving one of history’s toughest math problems, but he refused to accept the award — a stunning renunciation of accolades from his field’s top minds.

[That the Fields Medal awards would have gone mostly unremarked is evident by the omission of the names of the other three winners in the above referenced CNN.com story.] The CNN.com story goes on to remark that Perelman also seems “uninterested in a separate, $1 million prize” offered for solution of the Poincare Conjecture. The same theme was also the basis of the story Mathematician Declines Top Prize on NPR’s Morning Edition (where I first learned of it).

Instead of focusing on the content (according to the NPR story, only 20 people in the world fully understand the proof of the Poincare Conjecture) and the context (it took nearly 100 years to solve) of Perelman’s achievement, most accounts seem to highlight how odd Perelman is for not accepting an award for what he has accomplished. Unfortunately, I think this reflects the ever-prevalent emphasis in today’s culture (at least in the United States) on achieving not mastery but fame and fortune. It boggles the mind to think that someone could be the best in the world at what they do and not ‘cash in” on it.

Fortunately not everyone is looking at it that way, as evidenced by these – and other – comments from bloggers:

The way I see it, it’s his choice of how he wants his name presented, with or without the accolades. Moreover, he certainly doesn’t need a committee to tell him he’s one of the smartest minds on the planet. Go Grigory!

Someone who is not working for the money! File this one under “We need more men like this!”

But it seems that out of all Fields medal winners, Perelman has attracted the most attention by refusing his award. Which is ironic, as he refuses awards because he does not want the attention.

Though I’m sure Perelman’s motives are different (but I don’t know for sure), this also brings to mind the actions of Benjamin Franklin. With all of the ideas he came up with, all the inventions he invented, and all the knowledge he created, Franklin never patented anything, believing that the knowledge should be free to inspire others.

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Thoughts from the Soulard Idea Market (finally)

It’s been almost two weeks since the Soulard Idea Market got together and I’ve been thinking about it, and what I should write about it, ever since. Having just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin and about half-way through Blaine McCormick’s adaption of Franklin’s Autobiography when I first heard of the Soulard Idea Market, I couldn’t help but think of the Junto, described here by Franklin:

In the autumn of 1727, I organized most of my educated friends into a club of mutual improvement which we called the Junto. We gathered together every Friday evening, and our meetings were governed by a set of formal rulues so that our time would not digress into mere gossip or pointless disputation. …

The rules stated that one member would serve as chief facilitator during our debates, and that these were to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry. We were to seek truth, avoiding both the temptation toward dispute or victory. …

Our club for mutual improvement lastes for several decades and was the best school of philosophy, morality, and politics that then existed in Pennsylvania.

The Soulard Idea Market was not nearly as structured as Franklin’s Junto, and it remains to be seen if it will last decades, but the inaugural meeting definitely lived up to my expectation as a forum for people to get together and discuss worthy topics. As Dennis Kennedy put it,

…there were some great conversations, all happening at the idea layer, not the social chit-chat layer.

This was helped along by Matt Homann‘s use of “idea speed dating.” Basically, the group split up into pairs and then discussed whatever topic Matt presented. After about 2 minutes (most people seemed reluctant to discuss an idea for only 2 minutes), everyone paired up with someone else to discuss a different idea. Occurring toward the beginning of the evening, this was a definite ice-breaker and a way to get people engaged in some in-depth conversation (not the typical social networking fare). It also helped propel the conversation for the rest of the evening.

I’m not sure when the next meeting of the Soulard Idea Market will be. I’m hoping it will become a regular occurrence here in St. Louis. Not once-a-week regular like Franklin’s Junto, but every other month or so would be great. If you live in, or close to, St. Louis I highly recommend making time for this.
For some more impressions on the inaugural Soulard Idea Market, check out comments from Randy Holloway, Dennis Kennedy, and Matt Homann.

Looking for some Pokemon stuff

Indulging a certain passion (though not this one), I’m looking for a couple of hard to find Pokemon items. Any help is greatly appreciated.

  1. A copy of the US version of Pokemon Box for Nintendo Game Cube
    • Pokemon Box is no longer available (at least as far as I could see) at the Pokemon Center.
    • There are non-US versions of Box on e-Bay and other sites, but I’ve not seen a US version
    • The guys at the local game shop had never heard of Pokemon Box.
  2. A copy of the Pokemon Colosseum Promo Disk (again for Nintendo Game Cube)
    • This is available on e-Bay and other sites, but for quite a bit more than I’d like to fork out.
    • I asked at the local game shop, figuring their prices might be a bit better than on e-Bay, but they don’t deal in Promo Disks (though they said they’d keep an eye out).

The purpose of this request, if you’re not familiar with the world of Pokemon, is the elusive goal of “Gotta catch ‘em all!”

If would like to respond to this request (either part), please drop a note in the comments or feel free to drop me an e-mail at nsl@gbrettmiller.com.

tagged as: ,

Back to school – some thoughts on being different

I spent the morning a couple of days ago at a high school freshman orientation. We all know the horror stories of the push to fit in to the social environment of high school. It occurred to me as I was watching the kids that it must be very hard for the neuro-typical kids who are ‘different.’

For autistic or other ‘special’ kids, the typical kids kind of expect them to be different. “Oh, that’s just him, he’s autistic you know.” But for the different NT kids, it must go something more along the lines of, “Man, that kid is just weird” and “Hey, Bobby, why don’t you act/dress/speak like the rest of us?”

I guess that is really just good old-fashioned peer pressure.

We can only hope that all kids are able to be themselves and achieve their own destinies, despite any attempts – however benign or malicious – to make them change.

Here are some lyrics from a song that you may recognize. A rant against the shallowness of conformity, and a hope that we can achieve more:

What happened to the dreams of a girl President
She’s dancing in the video next to 50 Cent
They travel in packs of two or three
With their itsy bitsy doggies and their teeny-weeny tees
Where, oh where, have the smart people gone?
Oh where, oh where could they be?

Disease is growing, it’s epidemic
I’m scared that there ain’t a cure
The world believes it and I’m going crazy
I cannot take any more
I’m so glad that I’ll never fit in
That will never be me
Outcasts and girls with ambition
That’s what I wanna see

Disasters all around
World despaired
Their only concern
Will they **** up my hair

In case you don’t recognize the song, it is Stupid Girls from Pink.

tagged as: AutismAsperger’s Syndrome

XBox 360 game development made easy(er)

In some fields, achieving – or even attempting – mastery is very difficult. Developing video games for today’s consoles and PCs falls into that category. Part of it is the creativity, the ability to come up with a novel idea or game play system that will attract players. And part of it is the technology. Modern game development is nothing if not a technical skill, requiring an understanding of hardware, processors, memory utilization, graphics, and some significant math skills, not to mention some understanding of programming and software development.

Even if you have the ability and drive to master these things, though, game development has been out of reach for most people because of the high cost of the tools needed to pull it all together. Until now, that is. Microsoft announced this past weekend that they are releasing the XNA Game Studio Express to help overcome the cost obstacle.

In the 30 years of video game development, the art of making console games has been reserved for those with big projects, big budgets and the backing of big game labels. Now Microsoft Corp. is bringing this art to the masses with a revolutionary new set of tools, called XNA Game Studio Express, based on the XNA™ platform. XNA Game Studio Express will democratize game development by delivering the necessary tools to hobbyists, students, indie developers and studios alike to help them bring their creative game ideas to life while nurturing game development talent, collaboration and sharing that will benefit the entire industry.

In his book The Children’s Machine, author Seymour Papert wrote, “If you play a computer game, you should be able to write a computer game.” As I’ve mentioned before, the tool itself can not make a master. But I think this tool is a good start for helping those who want to write their own games get off on the right foot. I wonder if the other consoles will offer something similar?

(Thanks to Randy Holloway for the heads up.)

Unreasonable Request: Pokemon Box and Colosseum Promo Disk

At the Soulard Idea Market last week (about which Randy Holloway has written and I am going write), Matt Homann introduced the concept of the ‘unreasonable request,’ which he in turn picked up from Lisa Haneberg. In the (un)conference setting of the Idea Market, each person was offered the opportunity to post a request on the wall, and every one else had the opportunity to look at these requests and act on them (or not).

At the time of the gathering, I couldn’t think of anything that really fell into that category. After some interesting discussions with my son this past weekend, however, I have come upon an ‘unreasonable request’ that I’m hoping someone can assist with.

Actually, this is a two part request, the parts being related but unique:

1. Can you help me find somewhere (or someone) where I can get a copy of the US version of Pokemon Box for Nintendo Game Cube?

  • Pokemon Box is no longer available (at least as far as I could see) at the Pokemon Center.
  • There are non-US versions of Box on e-Bay and other sites, but I’ve not seen a US version
  • The guys at the local game shop had never heard of Pokemon Box.

2. Can you help me find someone who has a copy of the Pokemon Colosseum Promo Disk (again for Nintendo Game Cube) and is willing to part with it for free (or next to free)?

  • This is available on e-Bay and other sites, but for quite a bit more than I’d like to fork out.
  • I asked at the local game shop, figuring their prices might be a bit better than on e-Bay, but they don’t deal in Promo Disks (though they said they’d keep an eye out).

The purpose of this request, if you’re not familiar with the world of Pokemon, is the elusive goal of “Gotta catch ’em all!”

If would like to respond to this request (either part), please drop a note in the comments or feel free to drop me an e-mail at nsl@gbrettmiller.com.

Tools do not a master make

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.