Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Greatest Invention Ever

I remember a few years ago, when I was in Toastmasters International, one of the first times I was ever asked a question during the "Table Topics" portion of our meeting, the question was "What do you think is the greatest invention of all time".

If you are not familiar with Toastmasters or Table Topics, I will tell you that the idea is to catch a person off-guard and see how quickly they can think on their feet and speak eloquently and intelligently about a topic they may know very little about.

I was nervous when he called my name, but as soon as he finished the question I breathed a sigh of relief. I couldn't imagine an easier question to answer.

Clearly, the printing press has been the greatest invention of all time. Without it, we would still be in the dark ages. Only through the knowledge that was able to be preserved and widely distributed through the use of the printing press, was mankind able to progress past the limits that oral tradition imposes.

Even today, the spread of information that happens at the speed of light (including this blog), happens only because of the logical and gradual progression that began with the widespread information distribution made possible by the printing press.

To this day, the thoughts and ideas of the greatest minds in the world are preserved forever on paper and ink for generations to come to learn from and enjoy.

The original printing press was a very small snow ball that with each generation has grown larger and faster. Today we reap the benefits of a very simple invention created a little over 500 years ago.

I thank you Johannes Gutenberg.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Betty Glover Library Workout Tape

A short video that will have anyone who has ever worked in a library rolling on the floor.

Better Glover Library Workout Tape

Passion (even about Math)

If you teach what you are passionate about, your passion is transferred to your students or audience. This is why a teacher who doesn't enjoy reading should not teach reading, English, literature, or even writing. The best teachers lead by example and with passion.

As an example, I had a Statistics professor at Sam Houston State University who literally inspired me with his passion. I could not imagine a course with more potential to bore a person to tears than a Statistics class. But this man was so passionate about it that you couldn't help but love the course.

It was his passion for statistics that led me to love probability and to actually learn to love mathematics. As a child I despised math. But now, in large part because of this amazing teacher, I not only understand it better, but actually enjoy it to the point that I have several books on mathematics that I have purchased and read for pleasure.

Can you actually read for pleasure a book on math? You bet! Here are a few children's books that make math concepts fun:

• Almost anything by Greg Tang (Grapes of Math, Math Appeal, Math Fables, etc.)
• The Sir Cumference series by Cindy Neuschwanderander
Cool Math by Christy Maganzini (a VERY cool book!)

My favorite series is the Math Start series, divided by difficulty levels. The stories are realistic, compelling, and meaningful to children including things like setting up a lemonade stand, running races, and riding on elevators. Suddenly abstract concepts like number lines, division, and fractions become something that children can easily grasp and make sense of.

If you are interested in fun math reading geared for an older child or adult, you might want to try these:

Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott (a fable that opens the mind to pondering multiple dimensions, but makes that mental exercise much less exhausting).
Why do Buses Come in Threes? by Rob Eastaway (Mathematically explains many of the everyday questions we have like "Why does the grocery line I'm in always move the slowest?" And yes, there is a mathematical answer. You aren't just imagining it--your line IS the slowest!)
Mathenauts edited by Rudy Rucker. This collection of short stories by the likes of Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, and Frederik Pohl provide fictional stories that bring to life in a very fun and stimulating way, some of the puzzles of math. And you don't have to be a mathematician or do any number crunching to enjoy these fun stories.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Elephant Butt

While I'm on this topic of correct use of words I was reminded of a vacation my wife and I took. We were watching the evening news and the newscaster announced a wildfire raging in Elephant Butte, NM.

Having owned property in New Mexico, I will tell you that residents of New Mexico have a hard enough time convincing geographically illiterate people that New Mexico is a state and part of the United States and not at all part of the country of Mexico, but that's another story.

On this broadcast, the so-called professional newscaster announces the fire is in "Elephant Butt" and then begins to giggle. This would be bad enough, but she doesn't even realize that what makes it so funny is that she is the butt of her own joke (or is she the butte of her own joke?)

She wasn't content to let well enough alone, she decided to explore this a bit more.

"Is that really the name of a city? Elephant Butt?" and then she began laughing again.

Why wouldn't someone on the staff alert her that it was pronounced "byute" and not "butt"? Did they have it out for this girl or was the entire staff all so stupid that no one knew how to pronounce "Butte"?

Of course, I still laugh when I think about it. I'm sure she thought she was funny at the time, but little did she know people would be laughing at her ignorance for years and years to come. Probably not the mark she wanted to leave when she got into television.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Google, Band-aids, and Xeroxes

My last post was about vocabulary, grammar and proper use of certain words. It might have seemed like I'm way too uptight. I used to think the same thing about anyone who thought grammar was important.

But as a writer I learned that when words are used carelessly, not only can messages get lost, but fortunes can be made and lost. This was reconfirmed this week when Google made an announcement that they were trying to protect their trademarked name from falling into open use.

It seems that if too many people begin using your trademarked names and you do nothing to stop them, the names fall into public domain. Xerox and Kleenex have been fighting for years to get people to stop calling all photocopies "Xeroxes" and all tissue "Kleenex".

Seems silly doesn't it? Until you realized that band-aid used to be a brand name for adhesive bandages, but now no one calls them adhesive bandages and everyone calls them "band-aids" even if they are Curel branded products. Aspirin found the same fate decades ago and you'd be hard pressed to even find someone who remembers when Aspirin was a brand name.

Mattel has guidelines about the use of the term "Barbie" (always singular, NEVER plural as in "Want to play Barbies?"). Companies take out full page ads in Writer's Digest magazine reminding writers not to use their brand name as a generic product category, but people still do. Now Merriam-Webster makes things even more confusing by validating the use of "google" as a verb meaning "to use the Google search engine to obtain information about (as a person) on the World Wide Web". Needless to say, Google is rather concerned about where this might lead.

It's good to have your brand name so closely linked to a product category that people assume you ARE the product category. But you have to draw the line somewhere or you can become as generic as band-aids and aspririn (both with lower case letters you might note, the same way Webster listed the verb "google" in their new dictionary).