Ambushing Santa Claus: A look inside the mind of a “twice special” child.

* Originally posted on Medium

This will likely be the last year that “Santa Claus” visits my home. My wife and I have resigned ourselves to the fact that our children are onto our bullshit about the fat guy in the red suit. They are openly asking questions about some of the holes in our explanations.

We dodged a bullet last year when the seven year old said “some kids at school say Santa is just parents…but that can’t be right, where would they keep the reindeer?!”

We’ve made it this far because my kids are as gullible as they are bright. They are still at an age where I can reliably throw them off the trail with glittering malarkey and misdirection.

My wife is the weak link. She is the Princess Leia to my Han Solo, the Hermione to my Ron, the Bones to my Kirk. Katie grew up following rules I considered “useful guidelines” as a teenager. She does not share my narrative talents for improvising the ‘plausible fictions’ that have kept Santa in the game for the last decade.

I fear the line will not hold for another year, and it makes us sad.

The one consolation is that Santa will likely go out this year in a blaze of glory worthy of Oliver Stone. My daughter has planned a text book, military-grade ambush for Santa Claus. And I almost missed it because, like her father, she is dyslexic.

“Twice Special”

Like many children with identified learning “disabilities,” my daughter’s IQ scores fall into the “gifted/very gifted” range. And while IQ testing is an increasingly questionable, biased and dated method for determining potential (much less talent), IQ scores can be a useful frame of reference when talking about “gifted” children, who learn very differently from their “normal,” even high-performing peers in general education classes. The defining characteristics of “Highly Capable” or “Gifted” learners are behavioral, not performance-based. High performance is an outcome of their learning process, the way they think, not how hard they work.

Similarly, thanks to modern medical imaging technologies, the emerging neuroscience on dyslexia supports what has long been suspected, that dyslexia is not a “reading disorder,” it is a neurological and physiological difference related to how information is processed, stored and retrieved in the brain.

“The Force is strong in my family…”

Like my daughter Maeve, my dyslexia was identified early when the specialists discovered a four standard deviation difference between my written IQ and verbal IQ. That’s the difference between being in the 50th percentile, and the 99.75th percentile in intelligence.

To this day, my dyslexia is a daily part of my life. It plagued me through school, but I have learned to use technology to mitigate my weaknesses and accentuate my strengths.

Being labeled, underestimated and judged throughout your life for handwriting, spelling, organization and punctuation leaves a mark and changes your perspective.

Teachers underestimated me, and resisted allowing me into their classes because they assumed that a “Learning Disabled” student had nothing to add to the class, would hold their peers back (or make more work for the teacher). Worse, they believed I was being set up for failure. There was no way an “LD Kid” could keep up in an “advanced” class even though the advanced classes were interesting, and engaging.

The wisdom at the time was that I was being set up for failure. Except for the best teachers I ever had, I was never challenged. I hated school. I felt stupid every day because the content I was forced to learn with was depressingly infantile. I was not “learning disabled” I was bad at spelling, bad at handwriting and organizing, and forced to try and learn like everyone else.

But, I learned to turn my style of learning into an advantage. I started to use technology in unique ways to meet my needs. 
 Having difficulty reading that web page? Copy and paste the text into a word document, double the font size and triple the spacing between lines so your eyes don’t skip lines, or better yet, let the text dictation feature read it back to you.

Need to get through really long, boring passages in a text book? Get the book on tape and listen to it with play and fast forward pressed at the same time. The book plays at 2x — 3x speed, but you get accustomed to the high-pitched voices and clipped words of the narration.

Even at those speeds, its easy to retain the content if you learned to synthesize what teachers say in real time because you never learned to take notes in class.

I learned to use technology to overcome issues, and embraced it to the point that I became a creator of it. I hold multiple patents related to digital books, audiobooks, speech interfaces, and digital devices.

Being a technologist was never part of my plan. The only thing I ever wanted in my career was to ensure that children like my daughter never had to experience what I did in school: feeling devalued, segregated and stupid.

Maeve’s Story

Maeve was identified with learning differences when she was 4. There were already signs in the way she reversed concepts and phrases when speaking, had difficulty with age appropriate tasks like tracing her name, difficulty with inverting pictures, and poor fine motor skills.

She was a late reader, and struggled well into first grade before she started to get the hang of reading on her own. But even in kindergarten, when she couldn’t read, she wanted me to read her non-fiction books about the burial practices of the Egyptians, traditional Irish tales of the Faire Folk, and the illustrated history of the Celts in Ireland.

Maeve wasn’t really into traditional children’s story books. She preferred non-fiction, and would become deeply interested in a topic, cornering any adult she could find and telling them everything she knew about the topic in half-hour monologues (don’t get her started on Elvis Presley).

Even when she couldn’t read, I would spend an hour or more reading non-fiction with her. She only recently began enjoying fiction books. In retrospect, I think it was because the “age appropriate” stories targeted to early readers were boring and unsophisticated for her.

For a “twice special” child, dyslexia’s characteristic difficulty with the mechanics of reading is compounded by dull and simplistic content of the books targeted at early readers. We encouraged Maeve’s love of stories with audiobooks until she cracked the code with reading.

Today, despite falling behind in kindergarten and first grade, she reads with a 1198 Lexile score (roughly an advanced 12th grade level) halfway through 4th grade. We now have the opposite problem: It’s challenging to find books at her skill level that are interesting AND age appropriate.

Maeve has an extensive vocabulary, a sophisticated sense of humor, and prefers to converse with adults (vs peers) on topics as varied as Egyptology, Celtic legends, Greek mythology, Irish history, the Roman republic, vulcanology and baby animals. These are classic traits of a “Highly Capable” or “Gifted” learner.

However, Maeve also struggles with math, is disorganized, has messy handwriting, punctuation and spelling. She does poorly on writing assignments where she can’t use a word processor. She has difficulty identifying her left from her right hand. These are typically traits associated with dyslexia and learning disabilities.

The odd thing is, my daughter is a fairly typical case of a student who struggles with dyslexia. Is she gifted despite the different way she learns? Or is she gifted because of it?

Just like “gifted” learners, dyslexic learners think, function and learn very differently, then their normative peers. And similar to GT students, there seem to be significant, definable advantages to these differences, including (among other things) strong vocabulary and <ahem> “narrative” abilities, intuitive leaps of thinking across different domains of knowledge and experience, and unfortunately for Santa Claus, distinct strengths in spacial reasoning… especially when it comes to organizing, planning and executing an ambush.

Santa is about to get jacked

“Another tradition is Santa stakeout. My brothers and I do it to try and see Santa on Christmas Eve . We get out our sleeping bags and sleep on the living room floor near the Christmas tree. Then, we get out my dad’s old cameras, and some flashlights and try and stay up as long as we are able to. Next, we ready our posts which is where we sleep exactly one hour prior to Christmas eve mass. My brothers and I like to look out the windows in the living (room) because our living room has a lot of windows and because we want to see Santa’s sleigh too! I think this year’s Santa stakeout will be even better with our new furry friend Pete. I also think we’ll keep an eye on this year’s cookie bait to make sure the puppy doesn’t eat it. I really like this tradition because I get to bond with my brothers on the most magical night of the year when every kid in america is watching the night sky.” — Maeve, from a class assignment on family traditions.

Maeve has always engaged in rich, imaginative play featuring complex narrative and fiction. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the passage above is next-level, complete and utter “B.S.” (apples don’t fall far from the tree).

We have NEVER had a “Santa Stake Out.” When her typed assignment came home with an A+, it was a major eye-roll moment for my wife and me, and also a little sad. It was the moment we realized had an emerging “Santa Agnostic” on our hands… Then I found her notebook.



Losing the signal in the noise

When I first came across the “mission briefing” my daughter prepared for her brothers, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at.

It was four pages of unintelligible lists, diagrams and notes that were full of misspellings, poorly formed letters and random capitalization. It looked like something a child in first grade might create, rather than a high-performing 4th grader.

I was a high school teacher earlier in my career, and I realize that many teachers looking at these notes would sigh, and grab for a fresh red pen …. I know that from painful personal experience in my own academic career.

The “Santa Stake-out”

When I took a closer look at my daughter’s notes for the “Santa Stakeout,” details began to emerge that I would have missed if I hadn’t looked closer. Buried under the misspellings, crooked lines and mix-mash of lists and notes was an incredibly well reasoned, methodically planned, and tactically sound briefing and plan for capturing definitive proof of Santa Claus.

My ten year old daughter had planned a textbook example of a “deliberate ambush from a prepared position.”

“When did she find time to complete the Infantry Officer’s Course?”
 — Major General Douglas V. O’Dell Jr., USMC (ret)

When I jokingly posted Maeve’s plans to Facebook (along with my thoughts on how to circumvent them), her grandfather, a retired Marine Corps general officer, pointed out precisely how deep his granddaughter’s analysis and planning went.

Her master plan included multiple contingencies based on several factors:

The location of the Christmas tree (we have two rooms with fireplaces).

The layout of the room, and potential placement of the tree and stockings relative to the furniture (terrain features).

Use of available terrain features to funnel Santa Claus into the optimal “capture” zone for the ambush

She documented three potential plans, each plan included:

A map of all the furniture and other notable features in the room

Likely “points of entry” by Santa Claus

Likely paths of travel to and from the Christmas tree and stockings (objectives)

“Observation posts” at key points in the room along with notations for which personnel and resources would be posted at which position including cameras, flashlights, K-9 unit (AKA “Pete”).

Checklists for “rations” equipment, tasks, checkpoints, and “dog rations/equipment” (apparently, Pete gets his own check list).

Here’s one of her plans for the basement, with the notations and thinking clarified:

Looking Closer

My experience in school made me more sensitive to the strengths in other people’s differences. I try to be more observant of how others think and communicate.

That sensitivity made me a better teacher, and has served me well in my current career, where I design technology that is (hopefully) simple to use and makes people feel smart and powerful.

I am hopeful that others are beginning to recognize that “giftedness” is not a one-size fits all proposition. That “outside the box” thinking may mean that we stop putting people inside boxes to begin with.

My life’s work remains using technology to solve human problems. But now I can see a clearer opportunity for people like Maeve and I, who “think different” (to borrow from another famous dyslexic).

As a technologist, and design leader, I recognize there are tremendous business opportunities in solving problems from the perspective of someone who learns and experiences the world differently than others.

I can see a future where Maeve and her brothers (the Force is indeed strong in my family) are successful and valued because of their differences, not despite them. A critical part of that change will be using technology more effectively in classrooms and daily life. That is the part of the problem I have committed my career to.

To truly disrupt an institution or idea, we need to look beyond the obvious answers, and recognize that there is beauty and brilliance just a layer down from the noise.

I think it’s time to disrupt our notions of “disability”.

Please connect with me if you share my interests in technology, neurodiversity and learning. I post extensively on technology, disability and design-led innovation around the internet. If you wish I would just shut up and share stuff, you can follow me on Twitter, where misspelling is a competitive sport.

If you found this article interesting and helpful, please like it and follow me for more on this topic. Also, please share this with anyone you know who also has a gifted child.

Very special thanks to Jay WoodruffLarry Cornett, and Dr. Fernette Eide for previewing this article and making extremely helpful suggestions and edits.

Television is dead! Long live Television!

The Golden Globes were announced today, and quite predictably, HBO, AMC, and Netflix beat the big three broadcast networks in nominations, again.

It's funny to me that the entertainment press is consistently shocked by the fact that subscription television (premium cable and streaming)  is trumping "stalwart" established networks ( Fox/CBS/NBC/ABC ).

The following quote is telling:

"The true measure for Netflix will be if they can sustain the initial success with additional programs and also if they can show what kind of impact their shows have had beyond critics; you can't find out how many people watched "House of Cards" like you can know how many people see "Scandal" each week, for example..."

This quote is interesting for several reasons. The first is the assumption that Netflix needs to show the success of their shows beyond critics (they don't, more on that in a bit), the second is that Netflix needs to measure their success, publicly and transparently, via a neutral 3rd party, using a 64 year old ratings system the same way that the networks do (again, nope.).

Finally, and most astonishingly, the quote represents the kind of rare hubris reserved for once dominant industries, failing politicians (and the press that covers them) in the midst of a catastrophic disruption.  This isn't a fight the networks can win, it won't even be close, it will be a slaughter.

Bringing a slide rule to a data fight

One of the key differences between the streaming companies and the big networks is how they use the data.

Netflix absolutely knows (and with substantially more precision) how many users are watching a given series. Netflix (and my employer, Amazon*) know a lot more about their audience, their tastes and their viewing habits than the "real" TV networks.

Netflix and Amazon even ask their users to provide feedback on the shows they watch through user ratings and reviews.  In Amazon's case, we've even go so far as crowd-sourced voting for which original series get funded for production.

On the other hand, the big networks still rely on an antiquated system of advertiser "up-fonts", sweeps and a laughably out-dated Nielsen rating system for business intelligence on which shows to fund, retain or kill - regardless of quality, or engagement with a fan base.

To be fair, the system reflects the legacy technology of an over-the-air broadcast system, which was constrained by a zero-sum-game of time slots, bandwidth, and a business model at the mercy of the tender sensitivities of advertisers and government regulators.  

Netflix (and to a lesser degree, premium cable) doesn't care about advertising. Ratings (and the attentive eyeballs they imply) only matter when you're trying to convince people to buy stuff they don't really need in between act 1 and act 2 of Glee or Dancing With The Stars.

Quality and Quantity

Another fatal flaw in the ad-driven network system is time slots. 

Time slots are an artifact of an era where users had their programming choices constrained to three networks.

The audience size for these networks in those days  (tens of millions of viewers reliably watching from one time slot to another) was a cash bonanza in advertising dollars. One or two mega hit shows could reliably fund the rest of the network schedule . 

The massive proliferation of channels in cable over the last two decades expanded the programming choices without expanding user's time to watch (TiVo and DVR solve a symptom not the whole problem).

Predictably, more choices led to a shrinking audiences, ad revenue and a race to the bottom for programming quality. The networks have effectively cannibalized their own business model. 

Unlike the Networks, where ratings set the value of advertising slots for a given hour of television, and drive programming decisions, streaming companies use their more granular data to inform intelligent decisions about the types of content they license or content they develop.

More importantly , Netflix and Amazon use that data to individually micro-target programming for a specific household, on-demand. There are no time slots. That level of targeting can effectively ensure users discover relevant content, at their own pace, which forms a bedrock media habit.

Success for a subscription service isn't measured in market share for advertising, its measured in monthly subscription renewals and new subscribers. If only 10 million subscribers watching a single series on a monthly basis, that's 80 million in revenue, every month if those 10 million subscribers stick around to the next billing cycle (Game of Thrones anyone?).  

If a service has a few award-winning, high production value series,  which keeps customers reliably engaged, and a deep catalog of relevant "good enough" content to keep them watching in between "season binges",  customers begin to look at the monthly cable bill with an increasingly critical eye. 

I predict the death knell for network and cable television (as we know it today) will happen right around the time the top two or three premium cable channels give up on being "channels", focus on content development, and throw their lot in with one or more of the major streaming providers.

In the premium/subscription world, all that matters is engagement (using features that tell us more about what you like), habituation (watch every day), and subscriber retention (keep paying the monthly bill). It really doesn't matter (much) how many viewers a series has, it only matters that subscribers keep subscribing. 

The new golden age of television

What we're witnessing here isn't the death of television, its the death of a business model.  Great content will always sell.

I think streaming  will liberate the powerful storytelling tool that has always lurked beneath the surface of television (and occasionally pokes its head out every half decade).  

Television storytelling has been perceived as more superficial (compared to film) for most of its history mainly because the financial incentives to make it better haven't existed.  When your livelihood is easily threatened by advertiser boycotts and shrinking market share, Its difficult to tell compelling, transformative stories to an audience of millions.  Quality looses when it's easier and more bankable to churn out another 'Real Housewives' schaden-fest and call it a day.

Episodic storytelling becomes a lot more interesting when you remove the constraints of a specific time frame. "30 minute" TV episodes only contain 22 minutes of content. That is a financial formula. Those 8 minutes of commercials are the reason the other 22 minutes exist.

 What happens when you can make an episode length variable like a podcast? What happens when a series has 23 episodes in a season (instead of 13, which fits in a Sweeps schedule) , all of various lengths? Think of all the un-explored loose threads, plot holes, and cheap shortcuts used in TV storytelling today, they exist because the length of the content is predetermined. The story needs to be 22 minutes long; no more, no less. The audience is left hanging or suffers through hack writing because a better story isn't easily fit in a 22 minute story arc. 

Direct to streaming series don't have to worry about advertising.  Writers can experiment with longer, more nuanced and involved stories. Writing can be less formulaic,  and can explore new show formats, and interactive features because the programming is streamed through purpose-built software and hardware such as smart TVs and set top boxes. 

Most of all, since the success of the streaming companies relies on customer engagement and habit, these companies must remain customer-obsessed. The company that looses touch with their subscriber's tastes will not survive.

Streaming levels the playing field for storytellers. The tools for producing high-quality content have never been lower and the only real barriers to entry for content production is time and talent.

The talent is out there, it's just chained to an editing suite in the bowels of an ad agency pumping out another car commercial no one cares about.

The future of TV is bright, its just smaller, habituated, more focused, and higher quality.  The Revolution will not be televised, it will be streamed. 

* I work for, Amazon's Audiobook subsidiary. We have a monthly subscription model. I do not work for Amazon's Video streaming service and have no visibility into the metrics they collect or how they measure their audience. My opinions in this blog post are my own, and are not a reflection of my employer, Amazon.

Forget safety seats, why not re-design seating in the car?

One of the really awful things about modern parenthood is dealing with child safety seats and boosters.

As someone who grew up in the "hey mom, watch this!" 70's and 80's, I have an almost knee-jerk reaction to the foam-padded, glutten-free world of play dates, and sensitivity my three children are growing up in.  

Car seats are awkward, difficult to install (correctly), uncomfortable to work around, and almost universally covered in a disgusting, sticky residue consisting of old gold fish crackers, apple juice, and bodily fluids.  

On top of that sales pitch, child safety seats are ugly, expensive, conveniently 'expire' after a few years and its illegal to sell them used or give them away.  They also seem to have an ever-shifting set of rules and regulations mandating their continued usage, and parents face steep fines if they are caught transporting children in a car without one.  

That said, I do see the value in car seats, and wouldn't choose drive without one for each of my three children... up to a point. I keep seeing public service announcements extolling the absolute necessity of car seats and booster for children up to 4'9". Let that sink in a minute...Four. Foot. Nine. 

My wife is 5'2",  (admittedly) short, but not absurdly so.  American adults are not frequently shorter than five feet, but it isn't unheard of.  It causes me to question if car seats are a sub-optimal solution to the problem they address - (keeping children safe in a crash). Does the car seat solve the wrong problems?

Should we instead look at the safety features inside the car as a holistic system rather than as a list of features?  Do we need to re-examine how the interior cabins and control systems of the car are configured?  

Modern cars are built around engine blocks and suspension systems. The passenger cabin has been has been ruggedized as much as possible with that constraint in mind. The front of the car is the safest place for a heavy block of steel that hosts controlled explosions several times a second and spews poisonous gasses.

Over the last three decades, car manufacturers have done a good job of mitigating the risks involved in this kind of configuration - steel safety cages, shatter-proof glass, crumple zones, air bags (sounds much better than "bomb in a bag" right?), engine blocks designed to fall out in a front end collision, telescoping steering columns.... the list goes on. 

I don't have the answers, but I'm wondering if emerging vehicle technologies can force design thinking that moves away from old constraints?

Electric vehicles don't require a single engine, and work even better when using several motors to drive each wheel.  You can remove the engine compartment and the 30 gallon tank of explosive material in the back. You can re-design the entire passenger compartment. 

 "Fly-by-wire" steering systems have been used in commercial and military aircraft for twenty years, which would remove the need for the steering column or even the steering wheel (with the bag bomb in the middle). 

If you want to keep kids safe? Forget about car seats, redesign the car. 




Let's give this a shot.

So, I'm horrible at Twitter, I mean, REALLY bad.

I like to use big words and often struggle to boil my thinking down to 140 characters,  especially when I'm talking about design.  (Although let's be honest - Twitter shouldn't count the characters in URLs, that just seems cheap. Come on Twitter, now that you've IPO'd, you can afford a few extra characters!)

Anyway, I like to gab, and I'm frequently delusional enough to believe that other people might be interested in what I'm thinking about - especially as it pertains to user experience.

Fair warning to readers: you may find a great deal of "innovation" in my use of capitalization, spelling and grammar. Just consider it part of my charm.

I'm a proud dyslexic, and tend to follow my own rules where those matters are concerned. I'll try and behave myself, but you English majors should check your red pencils at the door.  You've been warned.

Anyway, thanks for visiting and checking out the portfolio. It sort of goes without saying that this is always going to be a work in progress, but thanks for dropping by and hanging out. Enjoy the ride.