Searching the web without Google (gasp!)

The topic of search engines came up during a recent  conversation with Tony Karrer.  I told him I use Google some (Google News is actually my browser start page), but that I’ve set the default in the Firefox search engine list to GoodSearch.

“Why use something other than Google?”, he asked. “When do you use GoodSearch, and when do you use Google?”

For very specific or obscure searches, I’ve found that Google works better (i.e., provides more relevant results).  But for everyday, general searches – and to support my general personal learning activities – GoodSearch is more than sufficient.  If I’m looking for a general article, a popular news story, or just trying to track something down, GoodSearch is where I start.  If I can’t find what I’m looking for quickly, I’ll jump over to Google.

This does maybe slow me down just a little bit in trying to find something online, but there is a benefit to using GoodSearch.  If you are not familiar with GoodSearch, here are the basics:

GoodSearch is a search engine which donates 50-percent of its revenue to the charities and schools designated by its users. It’s a simple and compelling concept. You use GoodSearch exactly as you would any other search engine. Because it’s powered by Yahoo!, you get proven search results. The money GoodSearch donates to your cause comes from its advertisers — the users and the organizations do not spend a dime!

Personally, I GoodSearch for St. Louis Elite nfpc, the non-profit that supports my son’s Trampoline and Tumbling team.  Chances are very good that a non-profit organization near-and-dear to your heart is set up with GoodSearch, too, so check them out and start putting all those web searches to work for a good cause.

For more on this, and other, conversations with Tony check out these 100 Conversations.

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Do you have a coach for your team?

In a recent post I asked if you, as an individual, have a coach.  My question for today:  Do you, as a leader of an organization, have a coach for your team(s)?  If you don’t have a separate position for a coach, do you act as the coach for your team?  Or do you just not think your team needs a coach to help them carry out their jobs and missions?

Consider this from a Q&A with Malcolm Gladwell (about his new book Outliers: The Story of Success) on ESPN.com:

More importantly, what do you do with nature? You can’t change your genes. The only thing we can do something about is the nurture part, and that’s why we ought to spend so much more time talking about it. Right now, for instance, like everyone else, I’m fascinated by Mike Leach. He’s created a system so good that it seems like he can plug in virtually any reasonably talented quarterback and get spectacular results. Isn’t that extraordinary? Why don’t pro teams learn that lesson? Doesn’t that mean that a pro franchise ought to spend way more time selecting and developing its coaching talent than it does now?

I always find it incredible that an NFL team will draft a running back in the first round, give him a $10 million signing bonus, and get, maybe, four good years out of him. Suppose you spent $10 million finding and training the equivalent of Mike Leach — someone who could create a system so good that it could make even the most mediocre athletes play like stars. You could get 40 years out of him.

Just like the NFL, and other pro sports leagues, your ‘talent’ will come and go, especially in this age of the cloudworker.  To paraphrase Gladwell above, what if instead of hiring a star individual performer or two to be on your team you hired and trained a coach that could make the team you already have perform like stars?

Video games save the radio star

It may be true that “video killed the radio star” back in the early ’80s, but it looks like video games are coming the rescue here in  the late ’00s.  From the AP story Boom in music video games helps original artists:

Artists from Nirvana to the Red Hot Chili Peppers have seen sales of their music more than double after being released on the games [Rock Band and Guitar Hero].  Some bands are featured on special editions — like Aerosmith on “Guitar Hero” this year and, soon, The Beatles with MTV Games — and last month, The Killers released two new songs on “Guitar Hero” the same time their latest album came out.

Aerosmith made more money off the June release of “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith” than either of its last two albums, according to Kai Huang, co-founder of RedOctane, which first developed “Guitar Hero.”

And yes, in case you are wondering, we do have Rock Band in the house and I can tell you it is a blast to play.  What’s really great, at least to me, is the ability to download and play all that good classic rock I grew up on – like, for instance, the entire Moving Pictures album from Rush!  The kids have been introduced to all that good old stuff, and I’ve actually picked up a few new things, too.

Interestingly, this turn of events is actually helping the artists more than it is the record companies:

Although labels get some royalties from the play-along games’ makers, they are often bypassed on image and likeness licensing deals, which the bands control and which account for a rising proportion of musicians’ income. Meanwhile, the Recording Industry Association of America pegged its U.S. members’ sales at $10.4 billion in 2007, down 11.8 percent from the year before, with a further drop expected for 2008. By comparison, sales of music video games more than doubled this year, hitting $1.9 billion in the past 12 months, according to NPD Group. And they’re expected to keep growing.

Though Warner Music Group Corp. Chief Executive Edgar Bronfman Jr. bemoaned the “very paltry” licensing fees record labels get from game makers in August, the labels haven’t stopped sending their music to game makers.

That’s partly because they lack leverage. Even the largest label, Universal Music Group, controls just a third of the U.S. market, said Wedbush Morgan entertainment analyst Michael Pachter.

“There are literally probably 2 million songs out there, and fewer than a 1,000 were used in these two games combined in these last two years,” Pachter said. “If Warner wants to say we’ll take our 20 percent of the market and go away, a lot of bands are going to leave the label if they think they can get better exposure by being on these games.”

Amazing to me, after all this time, that the record labels still don’t seem to get it.  They are still trying to make a buck selling product, when what people want to buy is content.

Building on our strengths

All too often I see people focusing on their own personal weaknesses or shortcomings.  Worse still, many parents do the same thing with their kids and many employers with their employees.   I’ve often wondered why this is, why the focus on negativity when we, and the people around us, all have such incredible strengths to appreciate and use.

This focus on the negative is the most blatant when it comes to working with those with disabilities.  As the father of an autistic son, I’ve seen this first hand.  In a recent interview with WNET, Temple Grandin has the following to say on the matter:

Grandin is good at thinking in photorealistic pictures, but she is unable to grasp simple concepts such as numbers. Grandin, who flunked out of algebra in school, said teachers approach her all the time seeking advice: “How do I get the pictures out of my student’s head?” or “I have a student who is board stiff in algebra, but great in geometry–what should I do?” Grandin said a creative teacher would give the student geometry to practice after algebra class.

People with autism have uneven skills, and it is important to build up their strengths, according to Grandin. “It’s okay for kids to have obsessions. If all a kid wants to do is draw trains, then let the kid draw trains. Show the kid how to draw a train station.” To Grandin’s way of thinking, a fascination with trains may reveal a talent for drawing or graphic design, or lead to a job connected with the railroad industry.

“Parents and teachers should also be asking the question, “What are they going to do when they grow up?” It is a shame for a kid who has the potential to be a computer programmer to end up washing dishes or working at a convenience store. Grandin said what is so sad is that these children can contribute to society–just as she has–but that some are made to feel that their contributions are not welcomed or appreciated and therefore become totally dependent on family or social services for support.

It’s OK for kids to have obsessions? Not something you hear every day.  But consider this story – paraphrased from a story I heard on the radio – about a boy and his obsession with snakes (which I originally posted here):

A boy with Asperger’s Syndrome is focused on snakes. He knows nearly everything there is to know about snakes, and can bring snakes into just about any story or subject. If he can’t make it about snakes, he doesn’t care about it. As it turned out, as a cumulative school project this boy had to prepare a report about the Battle of Gettysburg. The purpose of the project was to teach research and presentation skills. You guessed it – no snakes, the boy didn’t care and wasn’t doing anything on the project.

Until, that is, the adults in the bunch came up with the idea, “What if we let him do his report on The Snakes at the Battle of Gettysburg?” To make a long story short, this got the boy’s attention and he dove right in. To do the project, he had to learn as much or more about the battle and the geography, etc., as any other kid. His project was so good, and so unique, that he was asked to present his project to the entire school. Everyone wanted to hear the presentation about the snakes at the Battle of Gettysburg, and everyone thought it was great.

The kicker here is this: Before this presentation, everyone avoided this boy because all he wanted to talk about was snakes.

Some parting words on the subject of passion and obsession from Luke Jackson, written several years ago in his book Freaks, Geeks, and Asperger’s Syndrome when he was 13 years old.

Q: When is an obsession not an obsession?
A: When it is about football.

How unfair is that?! It seems that our society fully accepts the fact that a lot of men and boys ‘eat, sleep and breathe’ football and people seem to think that if someone doesn’t, then they are not fully male. Stupid!

Girls are lucky enough to escape this football mania but I have noticed that teenage girls have to know almost every word of every song in the charts and who sang what and who is the fittest guy going, so I suppose an AS girl (or a non-AS one) that had interests other than that is likely to experience the same difficulties as a non-football crazy boy.

I am sure that if a parent went to a doctor and said that their teenage son wouldn’t shut up about football, they would laugh and tell them that it was perfectly normal. It seems as if we all have to be the same.

10 days of Twitter

After 10 days on Twitter I have 31 followers, am following 19, and  have posted 74 updates.  As one of his 100 conversations, Tony Karrer is interested to know how I use twitter for personal learning.  I’m not sure I’m to the point where I’m doing any real learning through twitter yet, but here are some preliminary thoughts on my brief experience with twitter so far.

Most of the people I am following are people I already know and had only occasional contact with.  By using twitter, I am able to keep in “contact” with them even if I don’t respond to every update they make.  Just knowing what is going on with them is often enough.  I expect that this goes both ways, as I will get almost instant responses from these folks to some of my tweets (there, I said it) and nothing from others.  It is especially nice to be able to link my twitter updates to my Facebook status; I hardly ever updated my Facebook status because I’m not in Facebook very often.

I was a bit less successful in using twitter as a way to engage in an ongoing conversation, specifically Autism Twitter Day.  A bit ironic considering that event is what prompted me to join twitter in the first place.  I’ve never been one for online chat sessions among a bunch of people I don’t know, and that is essentially what that event was, or what it seemed like to me.  Not quite as synchronous as an actual chat, but then again not as asynchronous as an e-mail listserv (on which I typically lurk, with very little participation).  Perhaps twitter is one of the social media tools that Dave Snowden sees replacing tools like listserves, but not for me.  (Not yet anyway.)

I’ve also been playing around with exactly how to use twitter.  I’ve used the web interface, and have twhirl running as a client, but I know there are many other options and possibilities.  Not sure where that will end up.

Perhaps the best thing about twitter, in my mind anyway, is the 140 character limit.  It forces me to keep things short, sweet and to the point.   (You may have noticed on this blog that I tend to have recurring bouts of what my HS English teacher would likely call diarrhea of the keyboard.)

In his post What is Twitter, Shawn over at Anecdote has a very good description of how I’ve been using twitter in these first few days (not that he wrote the description specifically about my use of twitter):

It’s a mistake to think Twitter is only for reporting the minute detail of one’s life, which by the way is an important activity because it helps up create stronger social bonds. Twitter is also effective for asking questions and getting answers, sharing useful links on the web and getting those frustrations out when things are driving you nuts.

For now I think I’ll just keep on using twitter in this way, and see where it takes me.

Of Ita and Theors: Anathem – my favorite read of 2008

Like many others, I gave myself a 50 book challenge for 2008.  (Actually my personal challenge went from 1 Dec 07 to 30 Nov 08, but that’s a minor detail.)  Unfortunately, I only got through 40 books in the past 12 months (though some were as long as several books); fortunately, most of those 40 were good, quality reads.  I also managed to meet my committment to read more fiction.  (If you are interested, you can see my complete list on Shelfari.com.)

Anathem by Neal StephensonThough I enjoyed reading all of these books, by far my favorite of the year was Neal Stephenson‘s newest book, Anathem.  In fact, it is probably safe to say that Anathem has replaced Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon as my favorite work of fiction.  The story is both broad and deep, as fans have become accustomed to getting from Stephenson.  Here’s the basic description of the book, taken from the jacket:

Fraa Erasmas is a young avout* living in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the outside “saecular” world by ancient stone, honored traditions, and complex rituals. Over the centuries, cities and governments have risen and fallen beyond the concent’s walls. Three times during history’s darkest epochs violence born of superstition and ignorance has invaded and devastated the cloistered mathic community. Yet the avout have always managed to adapt in the wake of catastrophe, becoming out of necessity even more austere and less dependent on technology and material things. And Erasmas has no fear of the outside—the Extramuros—for the last of the terrible times was long, long ago.

Now, in celebration of the week-long, once-in-a-decade rite of Apert, the fraas and suurs prepare to venture beyond the concent’s gates—at the same time opening them wide to welcome the curious “extras” in. During his first Apert as a fraa, Erasmas eagerly anticipates reconnecting with the landmarks and family he hasn’t seen since he was “collected.” But before the week is out, both the existence he abandoned and the one he embraced will stand poised on the brink of cataclysmic change.

Anathem is, in many ways, three books in one. If anyone were to make this into a movie, which I hope someone does, they should do it in three parts.  The breadth and depth of the stories would crumble with anything less.

The first act is an introduction to Fraa Erasmas and the mathic world.  Stephenson manages to keep you confused, curious, and frustrated – and thoroughly entertained – as we become comfortable with this strange yet familiar environment.  The world that Stephenson creates in Anathem is at once very Earth-like and very Earth-different.  There is familiarity in almost everything,  and yet everything is different.  For example, the concents are nothing more than monasteries, except that the inhabitants are theors, not enthusiasts (as it is here in our world).

Act 2 sees Fraa Erasmas and some of his new found Extramuros friends making their way across what is to Erasmas a strange, often frightening and dangerous world.  Like the middle of any trilogy, there is a lot of explanation of what has come before and setting up for what is to come.  Some reviewers have criticized this part of the book as slow and dragging down the plot, but to me it is an essential piece to understanding how Erasmas becomes able to face what is to come in Act 3.

Act 3 is the culmination of everything that Erasmas has learned, and has him questioning everything he knows and thought he knew.  It’s hard to say more without giving away anything/everything.  Suffice it to say, by the time you get to the end you’ll be ready to flip back to the first page and start all over again.

At its heart, Anathem is a reflection – a meditation almost – on the relationship between pure theory and the practical arts of engineering and technology, with a touch of skepticism and mysticism thrown in.  Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the book was also a contributing factor in the purpose and naming of this blog. It helped me realize – or, more accurately, remember – that what i really enjoy is figuring out where theory and practice come together in all the great achievements of the past and how I can use that intersection of theory and practice to achieve great things of my own in the future.

Not too bad for a work of fiction.


* For definitions of words or phrases from the world of Anathem, refer to the Dictionary 4th Edition, 3000 A.R.

Recommended Reading – Personal Learning and Mastery

Tony Karrer recently asked for recommendations of books for learning professionals (see #38 of his 100 Conversation Topics.)  There are many good books in this category, but for the purposes of this conversation I have 4 recommendations.

The authors of these books each come from a different perspective: Gelb looks at what made the greatest learner of all time the, um, greatest learner of all time; Leonard tells his own personal story of learning and mastery after finding Aikido later in life; and Waitzkin distills the lessons he has learned from his early life and success in chess and Tai Chi Chuan.  But they also have much in common.

All break down the process of learning.  All stress the importance of your environment and surroundings, and taking advantage of the opportunities offered you as well as those you make for yourself.  And even though they give some ideas on how to become a lifelong learner – for instance Gelb’s 7 da Vincian Principles – they all let you know that learning is anything but a cookie-cutter process.

Learning is a unique and individual process that requires constant attention and refinement.  Something important for learning professionals to remember, so they don’t fall into the rut of one-size-fits-all.

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Stop by the eLearning Learning Community for more of Tony’s 100 conversations.

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