Friday, December 17, 2010

Pollution and Autism: Looking At The Data, Debunking the Fear

Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, posted an article on Residential Proximity to Freeways and Autism in the CHARGE Study (CHildhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment).  In the article, researchers took a survey of parents who had children with Autism, and worked out their location during pregnancy. 

It was found that the odds ratio would be 1.86, or a parent would be 1.86 times more likely to have a child with Autism if they lived within 309 meters (or less than 1,014 feet) away from a freeway.  From this the conclusion was drawn that it's possible (not certain) that car exhaust could be a cause of Autism, and NEEDS MORE STUDY.

So, does this mean we need to stop driving vehicles, and walk or bike to work to keep our kids from getting Autism?  Well, we should be walking and biking if we can anyway, but let's look at the data before we slap the "Cause For Autism" label on freeways. 

  1. Living near any other major road found no significant relationship to Autism in the same survey.

  2. Genetic data was not taken into account in this survey, just location.

  3. No medical association has been made to show a direct correlation between traffic-related air pollution and Autism (though the pollutants have been found to have adverse prenatal effects, those effects are still largely unknown and require additional study).

  4. A similar study by the University of California Davis made in 2009 showed a census of children with Autism to more likely live with parents who are highly educated.

  5. The chances are that you would be 1.86 times more likely to have a child with autism if you lived near a freeway at all during the pregnancy, or 2.22 times more likely if you lived near a freeway during the third trimester, according to the study. 

  6. Near is defined as nearly one fifth of a mile away from a freeway.

Now, looking at the two surveys together, it seems likely that higher educated parents would want to live near a freeway for access to their job.  Parents with a genetic disposition for Autism would most likely also want to live near a freeway.  So this survey could be a pretty high coincidence, and merely pointing out the living habits of those parents who are genetically likely to have children with Autism.

Does this mean that freeway exhaust is not bad?  Of course not!  Just like using excessive amounts of glutamate in food, exhaust can have documented damaging effects to children by causing respiratory illnesses (like asthma).  But, as the study did point out, THIS CORRELATION NEEDS MORE RESEARCH.  It's not a foregone conclusion that freeway exhaust causes Autism, anymore than it is that vaccines cause Autism, or monosodium glutamate, or watching TV, or playing on an iPad, or anything else that has happened within the past 50 years as a sign of progress. 

Yes, pollution is bad.  Yes, it needs to be eliminated.  Yes, we need to think about air quality and our children's health.  But before you start a protest movement or condemning air quality as the cause, get the facts.  And to get the facts, we need research.  So in the mean time, if you can walk, give it a try.  If you want to live farther away from the freeway, then by all means do so.  But don't make the claim that it's to stop Autism, because there is more genetic research that shows a correlation, and it seems to be more accurate because there is actual medical research done, instead of just a survey.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cloud Computing: Is It Really That Bad? Stallman vs. Chrome OS

Techcrunch posted an article Tuesday about Richard Stallman's objections to cloud computing, based on a similar article from the Guardian.  Richard Stallman, the creator of GNU (GNU's Not UNIX), and the Free Software Foundation, has been looked upon as one of the founders of the GNU/Linux movement.  In fact, he and his organization wrote most of the operating system applications, while Linux Torvalds wrote the kernel: Linux.  And his position on cloud computing?  It should be called careless computing, because it is irresponsible to trust others with your data. 

But is it really that bad?  It depends on your definition of the "Cloud", and the value you place on your data.  The benefits of local computing, or working isolated on your own computer or personal network, is that you control your data and it's storage.  That also means you have the responsibility to provide the necessary equipment, software, facility, etc. for your data.  That starts to look really expensive, even with the benefits of Linux to extend the life of your older computers for storage and server space.  But it also requires that you know how to set up a server, configure it properly, manage security, etc.  That's a lot of work. 

The alternative is to allow corporations that have no personal interest in your privacy or data manage that data.  Whether it be video, photos, email, chat sessions, documents, etc., it can all in one way or another be placed online and therefore in the hands of others.  Can you trust large corporations with your data?  Can you trust them with your identity?  Can you trust them with your pictures of your child's first steps, video of your family on vacation, or perhaps some nefarious work like sneaking into your neighbors pool while they are away on vacation? 

The argument Techcrunch made is that you have to choose between control over your data and privacy, and the convenience of letting someone else manage your security, storage, etc.  There is the liberty of control over your computing experience versus the safety of having everything managed, backed up, replicated, and stored for consumption when needed.  Which do you choose?

Centralizing data storage, processing, and even the computing environment is the goal of Cloud Computing, because it provides an ideal work environment that can be easily controlled and maintained by a few technicians and engineers rather than a whole staff.  If the "computer" crashes, gets a virus, or otherwise doesn't work, it can be almost instantly replaced without the worry of losing files. 

Not all cloud computing experiences are like Google's Chrome OS, where Google controls your world.  Citrix and VMWare have invested a lot of money in allowing companies to create their own cloud environments that are owned and managed by the company, who would have more insentive to keep their employers happy than, say, a corporation has interest in keeping a general user happy.  It's even possible, though expensive, to set up a cloud computing experience in your own home, thereby allowing you to have the benefits of the cloud in a small scale that you control.

So who is right?  Is Google right to point to a desktop that resides in the Cloud, with apps, data, and everything else there and nothing stored locally?  Or is Stallman right in clinging to the desktop, private servers, and controlled infrastructure?  Just like everything in life, the answer is: It Depends. 

If you have a concern about privacy and security, then keeping data local is probably the best way to go.  In fact, there is an old technology that is still in use that would be perfect:  pen and paper.  Keep it off the computer, and the data becomes harder to share and therefore lose.  But if you need the benefits of heavy processing power, the private network service becomes a little expensive. 

If you don't have that much of a concern for privacy, or trust that large companies who don't know you will keep your data secure, then the cloud has a lot of advantages.  You can use it for quick and easy computing and get on with the rest of your life.  Configuration, storage, backup, all that fun stuff that can take a lot of time on a computer (if not already properly set up and automated) and expense of hardware, networking, power, and cooling (computers get hot).  This is all managed by Cloud Computing. 

So what is in your best interest?  What would you be concerned about?  How would you approach the Cloud?  Personally, I find using email and some redundant storage in the cloud to be very useful, but still keep a lot of local storage for video and audio files that I own and don't want to be made available to any rogue employee.  But I also advocate using the cloud for an operating system, as I am fascinated with amoebaOS and having a working desktop available from any web-enabled device. 

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Great WikiLeaks Cyberwar: What's Coming In the Wake and the Death of the Internet as We Know It

You've probably heard about WikiLeaks and their supporters and opponents fighting it out in cyberspace.  Some are fighting for their rights, some are fighting for the sake of fighting.  But the end result, just like with any war, is the same:  desolation. 

Here is what I mean.  WikiLeaks has become so toxic that I would be surprised if many more leaks will be coming their way.  Why?  First, because of the attacks of a few have all but labeled the organization as criminal.  It's like bullies running through the school yard beating up a few to keep the others in line.  They are still bullies, and in that way they are in the wrong.  And while WIkiLeaks has not condoned or requested this attack, it has been done in their name, and therefore has made them look like organized crime, with cyber hit men at their beck and call. 

Second, because there could be some pretty serious consequences for leaking any information that is sensitive, at least at the government level.  I don't see WikiLeaks going away, because funds are not necessarily hard to come by when you are already running off of donations.  I just don't think they will get anything of this caliber sent their way again, and will become less relevant in the future. 

Internet services, whether it be financial, DNS or web hosting, will start to change.  Your content will become important to them, as well as where that content comes from.  Potential copyright infringement will no longer be overlooked, particularly if the US Government attacks the hosting services of WikiLeaks.  If that's the case, the RIAA and the MPAA will have precedence, and Government precedence, to do the same thing. 

Established brick and mortar institutions, like Mastercard and Visa, along with any business, can easily show their strength.  Both Mastercard and Visa have existed long before there was an Internet, and could exist just fine without their websites.  So while attempts at hacking and denial of service attacks on websites may be very visible, it's a far cry from victory. 

But what this does do is highlight the dangers for any organization or institution to go onto the Internet.  It outlines their weakness, and therefore their need to protect themselves somehow.  What better way than to get the Internet regulated?  Net Neutrality is dealt a very serious blow with this cyber war, and instead makes managed networks like China, Iran, and other such countries more attractive a model.

But the real loser here will be the "free Internet", and I'm not talking "free" as in "free beer" here.  I'm talking the Internet where you have the freedom to express yourself as you like, the anonymity that comes with the Internet will be lost, even if you try to hide yourself through proxies and various other methods.  Sure, it's possible now, but once governments (and I'm not just talking the United States of America here) get a chance to think about this it will end.  Forced registration to hardware addresses could be next, having your name bonded to your network connection.  Is it possible, probably.  Will it happen, possibly, particularly now.  Will it be popular?  Absolutely not.  But like full body scans and enhanced pat downs, it could become another way of life. 

So, those who are caught in the zeal of battle, stop back and think for a minute.  Is all this really worth it for a man who was picked up for a sexual assault charge, and not because of any link to his website?  Stop reading between the lines, stop over reacting, and wait to see how things pan out.  The less we react as paranoid, panicky sheep, the more likely issues can be managed and dealt with rationally. 

I fear one day to look back at the great WikiLeaks Cyberwar as an event that doomed the Internet to restricted sterility.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Chrome OS and Cloud Computing

Nothing is more misunderstood than the "Cloud" and "cloud computing".  That's because the term is so broad that it can encompass a number of different environments and scenarios in the computing world.  Essentially, cloud computing is placing all or some of your computer's work into the cloud.  That can be storage, processing, or the entire experience.  Chrome OS is Google's interpretation, but there are a number of different methods of getting your computing experience in the cloud.

Please note, this shows my understanding, flawed as it may be.  If you have any clarifications for me, please let me know.  I would be happy to make amendments, corrections, and change my views.

The All Method

So how does one do it?  Well, the most common and most well known way is to throw virtual machines into a data center and have browser or terminal access to those virtual machines.  This is throwing it into the "cloud", because the computers are not processing or existing locally on any hardware, but are accessed through the network or Internet.  This is the approach of both VMWare and Citrix.

The Storage Method

Another solution is to place part of the experience on the web, and run the rest locally on the computer.  DiscCloud has applied this to the Macintosh computer, allowing the user to place storage within the cloud, and even their Desktop.  Essentially they are placing their home folder on a network storage location.  This can also include Time Machine repositories, and applications (with a few exceptions).  Network Home Folders are nothing new, but placing them in the Amazon cloud sure is, making this a unique solution.  Apps run on the local computer, freeing bandwidth and server processing for storage.

The All But Processing Method

Another method is to place the entire environment, operating system, applications, etc. into the web.  New programming skills, and web development tools make this possible, as shown with the OnlineOS (Amoeba OS).  Everything is built within a website, and managed like a website.  But the applications are real, and run locally on the computer (because they are web applications).  Again, storage is in the cloud, but so is your login.

Chrome OS

Chrome OS seems to fall somewhere between the Network Home Folder method and the All But Processing Method.  Why do I say that?  Because you do have a local OS installed, unlike the All But Processing Method of Amoeba OS. 

But the OS doesn't store much of anything on the local drive.  Instead it relies on most of the processing power within the Cloud for authentication, home folder (storage), and settings.  It does, however, seem to allow for local processing of information for the web Apps, making it very much like the Amoeba OS platform. 

There are some questions I do have, which I can't seem to find the answers to (perhaps more will be made apparent when the OS is released).  What about high processing requirements?  Chrome OS seems to be an excellent method for tablets and netbooks, but what if you want to, say, create a podcast or just splice some video together and upload it to the web?  Where does the processing requests for rendering go?  Where does the video reside? 

One scenario I can see is that the video, as it is captured or transferred, is sent up to the cloud, and any rendering is done there.  Same with the audio.  The processing power of the data center can manage the rendering process, and all should be well.

The other scenario is that the video/audio data remains local and the rendering process is done locally on the computer.  This could be a little slow, depending on the netbook or tablet, and the type of video being rendered. 

And the thing is, I can see it going both ways, and problems with both scenarios.  The video being transferred to the cloud can take some time, even if it is syncing or uploading while it's being captured.  It all depends on the Internet connection, and not everyone has a great connection.  And, of course, with all the rest of the data storage, it will have to get there sometime, whether it's local or not.  And local processing would be great if the processor can handle it, otherwise it would be just as slow as the upload. 

Perhaps Chrome OS won't be designed for video rendering, and leave that for another OS to handle.  But I'm not sure I like that, because the platform has the potential to do great things.  Why shouldn't it be able to handle this situation?  It will be interesting to see how it works. 

So, in the next couple of days, I'm going to be building a Chrome OS virtual machine and run some tests (assuming I don't get approved for a Chrome OS laptop).  It's an implementation of Cloud Computing that can solve a lot of problems in the business world, such as being very mobile and applying one's accounts to ANY computer they log into.  Google has the funds, infrastructure, and tools to do it.  Let's see what it does. 

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Book Review: The Paradise War (The Song of Albion, Book 1)

Ancient history has always been a passion of mine, and when a book of Celtic mythology, the journey to the Otherworld, is written, I was peaked. It was not what I had expected, not by a long shot. A story that seemed to me to be a strange look at ancient Britain turned into a potential epic that was fascinating to explore. <br/><br/>That being said, the story did drag in several places. The imagery was lacking, and the book seemed somewhat passive to me. Things seemed to happen, but were not happening. It was not often, as the story was clearly written to draw one into the series as opposed to the contents of just one book, but enough that I started to skip paragraphs to get to the "good bits".

I also thought it interesting that it was taken from the Welsh point of view, which I have little knowledge. It was refreshing to learn more of the Welsh mythology, and how it wove itself with the Celtic ideals of the ancient Britons, Picts, Scoti, and other tribes I have studied in my undergraduate career. It was fascinating, and that held my attention. After all, there is something about the Celtic blood, the Gaelic that runs through our veins that awaken at the sound of bag pipes, the sight of a bright sword, or the beauty of the green world.

What was even more powerful to me was timing for reading the book: during the end of NaNoWriMo. This book gave me a taste of Albion as a desire to create a beautiful story. It also reminded me about the difficulty that surrounds that creation. Stephen Lawhead did a wonderful job in reaching me with this story, and the Celtic roots of my family history.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

MRI Scans A Diagnosis Method for Autism: It's Definitely Biological

Medscape Today is reporting the results of a joint research program between Harvard University and the University of Utah that has resulted in a biological test for Autism.  The article mentions the use of the MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) test that measures brain circuitry deviations.  The study was published initially in the November 29th online posting to Autism Research. 

The tests on 30 high functioning males aged 7-28 and 30 controls showed that with a 97% accuracy Autism could be identified through this method, at least with the initial research. Further research is pending in the next 2 years testing a different age group and varying degrees of Autism. 

This is a huge stride in Autism research, because instead of a subjective test for Autism through observation, one can get a definitive test that takes less time.  It's also proof that Autism is a biological condition, as it shows that persons with Autism have a less structured wiring in the brain.  At least that was the case in 97% of the test subjects.  I'm looking forward to more definitive results on a broader scale to confirm the findings.  If so, there is yet another pillar of doubt that is knocked over, and one less for Insurance Companies to hide behind in covering Autism as a diagnosis.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Building Blocks A Road to Creativity for Autism

Be creative.  Think outside the box.  Find a new way to do the same thing. Use your imagination.  These are the mantras that I grew up with as a child of Sesame Street, Polka-Dot Door, and various other children's shows from the 70's and 80's.  From an early age we were encouraged to be creative in our approaches.  Sometimes it was successful, and other times these creative methods would fail miserably.  But in the end, life would be varied, and new situations were seen as challenges, not road blocks. 

But for some people, such as those with Autism, creativity is not something that breeds comfort.  In fact, it can be a source of irritation and frustration when things change, because the necessary creativity needed to deal with new situations does not come easily. 

To overcome this problem, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center used a common toy from my child-hood:  lego blocks.  They started with children on the spectrum using the blocks to build their standard structures.  Then using Applied Behavior Analysis, they were able to help these children start using their blocks in more creative ways.  They no longer looked at this same task as a series of memorized steps, but as a process that could be altered for a different outcome. 

The importance in creativity in daily life is clear:  new situations need to be dealt with, and the more creative the solution the easier the stress of the new event can be managed.  Also, tedious tasks can be better handled, adding an enriching level to life. 

So, if you are thinking of a Christmas toy that could be helpful for your child with Austism, think of building blocks.  Then sit down with them and build.  Try making changes, being part of the process, and give lots of praise.  These steps can help your child express creatively, and therefore open new horizons. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Autism and Holiday Travel: Planning Ahead

The holidays are always stressful, particularly during travel.  Add to that a child with Autism, and your travel plans become more complicated.  In the past we have traveled by air with our son, and for a two hour flight it was just manageable.  But that has all changed now with the new TSA screening and enhanced pat-downs. 

I've always been concerned with air travel for families with children on the Autism Spectrum.  Past airlines have removed parents and their children with Autism, or even autistic adults from flights whether or not they are having a melt down.  And while some airlines have reached out to the Autistic community by providing mock flights to help their children get comfortable with the idea of flying (thank you Southwest Airlines), a parent is never sure when they will get an understanding crew or have the trip turn into a nightmare.

But add to that the new invasive TSA regulations that seem to require strip searching children, flying is now nearly impossible for the autistic family.  So that means, for any traveling you may be planning for the coming season, you will need to plan early and find other means of transportation. 

Car travel is probably the most common alternative form of transportation, and is perhaps the easiest to deal with in terms of a child with Autism.  Most often the child is already used to riding in a car, and there are a number of activities and devices that can help make the travel more manageable. 

But traveling by car isn't the only option, depending on where you live.  There are also trains through much of the East coast, some of the West Coast, and through select cities moving East to West across the nation.  Trains tend to be a nice alternative to flying because children can move about freely without needing to be strapped down and restrained.  For those who are not able to drive or take a train, long distance busses can be a great way to travel.

But before I put you off completely to flying, check your options, and call ahead to your departure and arrival airports and see if they have policies in place to make your travel with an autistic child more comfortable.  Often times just taking the initiative can diffuse a lot of trouble, and letting everyone know that your child has autism and therefore needs some options that do not over stimulate the child can help. 

If any of you are traveling with a child on the Spectrum, let us know what your experience is, whether on the train, plane, or automobile. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Making the Effort: Low-key Santa Event at a Mall

In Montgomery County in Florida, they Dayton Mall set aside one day, November 21st, for their Sensitive Santa event, allowing children with disabilities to meet Santa in a sensory-friendly environment.  The event will last from 9 AM to 11 AM, and the kids even get a picture with Santa if they want.

For most children with Autism a visit to the Mall during Christmas time is a sensory overload.  Add to that a long wait in line to meet Santa, and the impatience of others in line can increase the anxiety of a child with Autism, leading very quickly to a meltdown. 

I find it commendable that the Dayton Mall would set aside a day before the hectic shopping season marked by Black Friday to children with Autism.  I hope that others in the community can see this example and duplicate it, making the holiday experience that much more enjoyable for everyone, even those on the spectrum. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Skin Cell Research: Identifying Genetic Proof to Autism

While the argument between environment and genetics wage on in the blogosphere, researchers at the University of California, San Diego have found an interesting way to test genes:  reprogram skin cells into stem cells and regrow them at neurons.  The research is interesting, and is found in the journal Cell.

Essentially, they took skin cell samples from children with Rett syndrome, which is on the Autism Spectrum.  They then reprogrammed the skin cells using pluripotent stem cells to regrow into neurons that were functional.  So, a brain in a dish (and who said cartoons were outrageous!).  They then noticed that the Rett cells grew with fewer neuron synapses and had a reduced spine density, while those from the control group had increased neuron synapses and spine density.  All because of a change in the MeCP2 gene. 

So what does this mean?  It means Rett syndrome is not caused by bad parenting or by environmental stimuli.  It's caused by a gene, one gene, that controls brain neuron growth and spine density.  Environmental causes, vaccines, monosodium glutamate, too much TV, parents who don't care about their kids, it's all been shown as false by this one test. 

And what's even more exciting is that the Rett neurons could be "rescued" by the change of the MeCP2 gene, adding the IGF1 gene, and gentamicin.  That on existing cells, not at the developmental stage.  That means, given time to produce this properly, there could be treatment for Rett syndrome. 

But, before we get ahead of ourselves, Rett syndrome isn't Aspergers, or PPD, or any of the other conditions on the Autism Spectrum.  It's just one condition of many.  Remember that Autism in and of itself is not a medical definition (meaning that it is caused by one thing, like say the flu), but rather a psychological definition applied based on a string of behaviors.  While this treatment would work for Rett syndrome, I wouldn't expect it to work for Fragile-X syndrome (which also has Autism-like behaviors). 

Instead, I see this as a positive sign, and yet another reason why insurance companies need to start covering Autism as both a diagnosis, and provide support for treatment.  Because there could soon be a medical treatment that will assist individuals on the Autism Spectrum, and they need to get behind it. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Near Field Communication on the iPhone: Is It Really Such A Good Idea?

Recently the Cult of Mac (and other Apple rumor sites) have mentioned the recent patents made by Apple to include Near Field Communication (NFC) in the next iPhone for security and remote computing options for coming Macintosh computers.  On the surface, this sounds like a great idea.  All you have to do is have your iPhone near your computer, or any Macintosh for that matter, and you would instantly be able to log into your computer with all your preferences and settings available.  Who wouldn't want to avoid having to log into their computer constantly?

But there is a problem:  security.  Near Field Communication uses a high-frequency RFID token, which is easily picked up by various devices.  This is called eavesdropping, and makes NFC an insecure method of transmitting personal information, such as login tokens.  The only way to guarantee security would be to utilize an authentication method like Kerberos, where keys are generated and expire after short periods of time, and you have a token that can decrypt the information.  This means an extensive Directory system running in the background. 

Of course, Apple is building a huge data center.  And it's possible to add the layer into the Apple ID system, which would guarantee anyone with an iTunes account would have access.  This may be why Apple is working so hard in the background, and why we haven't heard anything like this before. 

But other suppositions to the NFC technology has been remote banking and payment using RFID.  There are some credit and debit cards that have this capability, but due to the relative ease of eavesdropping, I do not own one nor intend to own one.  They are not very secure, and I would prefer that information not be available.

Other applications would be remote access to physical space.  When I worked for eBay, we used an RFID card to access the building.  I've also thought of using the same technology for access to my house.  Having an RFID transmitter in my iPhone, which I am never without, would be convenient.  But there is still that issue with eavesdropping.

So where does this leave us?  I don't think it's impossible for Apple to make this plunge, or to do it well.  But I do think that Apple has a lot of security concerns to overcome before this can be a reality.  And if I do end up with an iPhone in the distant future that has NFC capabilities, I would definitely not use it for remote payment from a bank account.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Discontinued Xserve: What Could It Mean?

Just last week Apple announced their intention to discontinue the Apple Xserve, the one Enterprise-class server that Apple developed.  While Xserves were not exactly selling off the shelves, it did come as a shock for those of us who have been working with Enterprise deployments of the Mac into a network.  Many Apple Certified Trainers were upset, because Mac OS X Server represents a significant focus for the Information Technology classes.  But is it really that serious?

In October of 2008 Tom Krazit from CNET news notes the hiring of Mark Papermaster, an IBM chip designer and Blade Server specialist, as a sign that Apple could be developing a blade server.  Apple has been focusing on small, low power computing devices quite a lot recently, and these devices have high processing output with minimal power consumption.  It would be ideal for blade servers, if applied in that direction.

But there are other suppositions that Tom Krazit threw out, such as a focus on better cloud technologies for the Mac platform.  This would also be ideal, as devices like the iPad have proven that, given the proper app, a tablet can do almost everything a workstation can, and is by far more portable. 

But where does that leave Apple and the Servers they currently have?  Well, assuming Apple does not create a reasonable replacement for the Xserve, something like a blade server, they will always have the Mac Mini Server and the Mac Pro Server.  Both would be considered more like a small business or home server, but the technologies built in (OpenLDAP, Kerberos, RADIUS, etc.) all have Enterprise applications. 

So while it's a little concerning that Apple had gotten rid of the Xserve, I'm not fretting too much.  Instead, I'm looking to the future with expectant announcements on more enterprise level support, and in the mean time like to point out that six Mac Mini Servers can fit in the same space as the Xserve did. 

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

They Are Just Wired That Way: Autism Risk and the CNTNAP2 Gene

Reuters has run a story about an article published in Science Translational Medicine, regarding the CNTNAP2 gene and the related brain growth patterns that result from it.  The study took  32 children and scanned them with an MRI while doing learning related tasks.  Half had autism, and the other half did not.  They found children with the CNTNAP2 gene had stronger brain connections in the frontal lobe, and weaker connections to the rest of the brain or and almost no connections throughout the brain.  So, essentially, the frontal lobe did a lot of talking, but just to itself. 

What is really interesting about this gene is that over 1/3 of the population carries this gene, and have similar brain wiring as those with Autism.  So the gene itself did not cause Autism, but it does identify one particular key to the Autistic mind:  all the children with Autism had this gene variant.  So the gene has been labeled a risk gene, and not necessarily an Autism gene.

But if it's not a cause for Autism, why is it so important?  Because it gives scientists a glimpse at how the brain wires itself, and how genes affect the wiring process.  By working with genes like CNTNAP2 and other potential Autism genes, scientists are able to better identify cause and effect.  It's possible that targeted genetic treatments can be used to both identify autism at an early age, and perhaps treat more severe forms of Autism. 

So, it's an interesting study, and one that I think has merit.  Let's hope more good work like this is found. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Simple Steps Autism: The Future of ABA Applications

Currently it is estimated that the average family of a child with autism needs to pay between $28,000 to $36,000 a year for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy.  Most parents cannot afford this in the current economic climate, and most insurance companies do not cover the Autism diagnosis, let alone ABA therapy. 

But that isn't the only problem.  There is a growing number of children being diagnosed with Autism, so many in fact that current services could be overwhelmed in a matter of years.  This means Behavior Therapists are in desperate need, and there are not enough to go around.  How do we deal with the growing number of children in need of therapy, and finite resources?

In previous posts I have called for services to help parents learn ABA techniques to help their own children.  Someone must have heard, because sites like are starting to show themselves.  These sites help parents learn how to not only cope with having a child with autism in the family, but also learn how they can help their child with autism become a productive citizen by learning necessary social behaviors. 

The benefit here is that with parents getting involved, guided by certified ABA therapists, you instantly have a broader base of support and therapy for children and adults with autism, and therefore a broader base for success.  It is success guaranteed with parents and caregivers getting involved with their child's learning.  I know this is kind of a new concept in today's society, more's the pity. 

So I commend the folks at SimpleSteps for their desire to broaden the support base to parents and not just therapists.  The only thing that is currently discouraging is the price tag that comes with the service.  But perhaps private donations, organizations, or Government grants can be made available to lower those costs and make such useful, beneficial services available to the families that need them but cannot afford them.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

NaNoWriMo and the iPad: The Reasons, and The Apps

Yet again National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is coming, and thousands of prospective novelists are limbering their fingers, oiling their typewriters, booting their computers, and outlining their ideas for novels.  The goal: write a novel during the month of November that is at least 50,000 words long. 

The goal itself is daunting enough, but many who have completed such tasks in the past are looking to a new tool as a new challenge:  the iPad. 

Why the iPad?  Well, some want to use it to prove it can be done.  Others like it because it is naturally distraction free:  with only one app on the screen you can't be easily distracted by email notifications, twitter updates, chats, and an internet waiting to siphon your attention and productivity by reading the latest in Hollywood scandals or political gaffs from the Left and Right.  Instead, you have just your writing and maybe music fighting for your attention.  And in case you were wondering, I'm all for the second reason. 

So, in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, I thought I would outline five apps that would be considered useful in completing such a daunting task on such a tiny platform. 

  1. Idea Sketch (Free, iPhone/iPad):  Idea Sketch is a mind mapping tool, used to outline concepts and build flow charts based on these ideas.  It's very useful for building your concept, working out general plot ideas, etc.  If you are into mind mapping, this is a very useful app to have.

  2. Adobe Ideas (Free, iPhone/iPad):  Perhaps working with a mind mapping tool isn't your cup of tea?  What's that, you would rather draw it out?  Well, Adobe Ideas is a general sketch pad that is done very well.  You can use your finger as a pencil, drawing out your links, sketches, doodles, and erase what you don't like. 

  3. Index Card ($4.99, iPad):  Another method to organize your ideas in sequential order would be to throw them onto index cards pinned to a cork board.  Don't have one handy?  Well, use Index Card.  You can build your ideas, rearrange them when necessary, and then export the new draft outline in RTF form to Dropbox.  From there you can pull it into your editor, or copy and paste the whole document into your editor to get started writing.  The UI was inspired by Scrivener for Mac OS X, which is perhaps the best writing tool for the Macintosh I could find.

  4. Pages ($9.99, iPad): So now you have your magnum opus ready, and need to throw it down into words.  Here is where the newest version of Pages is very handy:  it includes word count.  No longer are you required to guess at the number of words!  This is a long waited-for feature, making Pages now a very useful tool for novelists on the iPad.

  5. My Writing Nook ($4.99, iPhone/iPad):  Need a little more structure to your writing?  Need to jump from section to section quickly for those pesky rewrites?  Don't want to shell out more cash than is necessary for a good writing app?  My Writing Nook may be the app for you.  You can't do anything fancy with the text, but then when writing a novel, why would you?  This app allows you to break down your novel into sections, making it easy to jump through the project and write what you are inspired to write instead of what is sequentially next in line. 

I have four of the five, opting for Pages as my writing medium (for a novel and many other projects), but I would still recommend My Writing Nook for hard-core novelists. 

Are you planning on using the iPad for your NaNoWriMo project?  If so, you have just 5 days from today to work on the outline of the novel before you need to write those first words, so I would highly recommend you start.  Find the apps you like, start with your novel plan, and happy writing! 

Monday, October 25, 2010

Hallowe'en and Autism

The holidays can be very stressful for a child with Autism, as decorations and different behaviors start to change the routine of the child.  Hallowe'en can be very stressful because of the need to interact in order to participate. 

But it doesn't have to be very stressful, as long as you have time to prepare your child.  The folks at Rethink Autism have provided a free video for families to help their child prepare to wear a costume, go trick or treating, or even hand out candy if they want.  The tips are grounded in the ABA methodology, and help by modifying the child's behavior gradually. 

If you would like your child to participate, these tips may be helpful. 

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mac OS 10.7 Wish List

It's been a while since I've created a wish list for an Apple product, but with the rumor that Mac OS X 10.7 Lion being given a sneak peek on Wednesday, I thought I would throw up a quick wish list. 

  1. iCal Fix:  I've had trouble with some Exchange calendars within iCal.  I would like that fixed.  I've been looking for a fix with each subsequent minor update, but it's not been there.  I really want this to happen, even with the debut of Outlook for Mac in Office 2011.

  2. FaceTime:  This will probably happen anyway, but it would be nice to have it on the Mac. 

  3. Broader File System Support:  I want to be able to browse ext3 files, and have read-write access already built in for NTFS, ext3, etc.  It would make working in a mixed environment that much easier.

  4. VDI Support:  I've been researching a lot of virtual desktop infrastructure solutions, and it would be nice to have such a solution available for the Mac.  Right now the best option is NetBoot with a network-shared Applications folder.  There has to be a better way, making it possible to run apps on a lot of other platforms.  Particularly I would like to see a VDI solution that would incorporate the iPad.  This would probably be a server application.

  5. Run iOS Apps in Dashboard:  This would be cool, though I'm not sure it would be necessary.  It would be nice to be able to download your iOS app and test it out before throwing it on your phone/iPad, as well as have access to all your iOS apps on your desktop when necessary.

  6. Cloud Support:  This means different things for different people.  For me, it means accessing stored files easier using your cloud repository (like Dropbox), accessing cloud-provided applications (like XenApp), and cloud-provided desktops. 

  7. Touch Support:  With the touch pad, the Magic Mouse, and similar things, I see multi-touch becoming very important to Apple. It has been their signature for the iOS devices, and I see it coming to to the Mac more than it already is. 

So that's my list for now.  I'm sure there are other things that would be cool too, but for now these are the 7 things I think would be nice to have with Mac OS 10.7.  We shall see what Apple has in store for us on Wednesday!

Friday, October 15, 2010

FDA Finally Cracks Down On Chelation Supplements

Autism is one of those conditions that have gathered together a lot of snake oil salesmen to peddle their wares at the detriment of the recipient.  And the FDA has finally said they have had enough.

As reported by the Chicago Tribune, the FDA is now cracking down on over the counter chelators that are being sold as "nutritional supplements" and cures for autism.  The Tribune has been running quite a few stories on chelation and autism, and this story shows the power of awareness and how it sets investigations in process.  8 chelator vendors were contacted by the FDA on top of the OSR#1 investigation, all notified that their products were in violation of Federal Law.  Apparently chelators were being peddled as not only cures for Autism, but also heart disease. 

As reported by the Tribune, some peddlers claimed the FDA was "stupid", as they did not consider the drug as it was peddled to be dangerous, or so claimed Ron Partain, a pharmacist from Palm Desert, California.  Richard Brooks, of Hormonal Health in San Bernardino, California, also claimed "the products are safe."  Others either said they were not contacted, or declined to comment to the Tribune. 

So who is right?  The FDA, or the peddlers?  Let's look at the facts.  Chelation, as defined by the Princeton WordNet Search, is "the process of removing a heavy metal from the bloodstream by means of a chelate as in treating lead or mercury poisoning."  Chelates , according to Wikipedia, form bonds around the heavy metals, deactivating the ions so the metals cannot react with other molecules, and makes it easier to pass the heavy metal out of the body. 

The problem is, if someone is treated with a chelate without an actual need, it can cause death.  The human body needs certain trace amounts of heavy metals to function, which we ideally get through our diet.  Should these metals get purged through unnecessary chelation, critical bodily functions can shut down causing death.  That alone should warrant caution.

But we still have the question, should we trust the Government, or trust Business?  In the US we have little trust of either, because both have within recent history (within the past 50 years, and from both Political Parties I might add) been prone to misdirection in one form or another. 

Personally (authors opinion follows), I feel that the Government has less interest in forming a conspiracy to "cause" children to develop autism, as it can become quite a burden on Federal and State agencies.  Business, on the other hand, particularly those with little understanding of what they are peddling, are more prone to justify products as safe when it brings significant profitability. 

But I prefer to take both interests into account, and instead look to the Science.  Clinical evidence points to genetic causes for Autism, not environmental causes.  Therefore a drug that is designed to remove environmental contaminants is inappropriate for such a condition.  As such, whether you believe chelation is safe for consumption is irrelevant, as the condition does not warrant the treatment. 

Still, anything that keeps these wrongfully targeted "supplements" out of the stores and away from vulnerable patients or parents of patients is welcome. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Statistics, Reporting, and Flaws: Caution about Jaundice-Autism Link

Recently Danish researchers published in Pediatrics a link between Jaundice and Autism in infants, based on statistical data gathered.  The data suggests a link between children who are born with Jaundice (a yellowing of the skin at birth due to red blood cells dying) and those children with that condition who were subsequently diagnosed with Autism.  The research found that 67% of those children born with jaundice subsequently developed autism. Sounds pretty convincing, right?  Let's look at the numbers first.

Statistics is a simple comparison of data to determine relationships, whether or not any real relationships exist.  In this case, the statistical relationship suggests causation, but that is not what is happening (as I'm sure the researchers would agree).

Currently, one in every 78 boys are diagnosed with Autism in the US and in the UK.  That's almost 25% of the population of boys.  Children in general come in at 1 in every 98 (though there could be more girls who are going undiagnosed, according to other surveys run), which makes it comfortably within the 1% of all children.

Now, according to the Children's Liver Disease Foundation's pamphlet on Jaundice in the new born baby, 90% of all new born babies get jaundice.  So figuring that out of every 100 babies, 90 will have jaundice, and out of those same 100 babies, one will have Autism, it doesn't quite match the research. 

So, why doesn't it match?  Is there a problem with the research, or a problem with the numbers?  The statistics were taken from a baby population of over 733,000.  It represents the results from that statistical demographic, which could in some way apply to the world population as a whole.  Instead, it's quite possible it is one of two things:

1.  There is a link, and Autism rates will be going up based on diagnosis.  But the research is not calling this certain, but rather posing a question that needs to be answered with more research. 

2.  It's just a coincidence that happened to show within this demographic, and is not indicative of the overall population of children with jaundice, or children with Autism.  I'm leaning to this conclusion, if for no other reason than the disparity of numbers and lack of additional research.

Ultimately, it just means the medical community has a lot more research to do on Autism and biological links to the condition.  If you had a baby that got jaundice within days of being born, don't panic.  While it never hurts to learn more about Autism from reputable sources, your child's jaundice is not necessarily indicative of your child developing Autism.  Look beyond the news hype, and look for the facts that will eventually be shown in additional clinical research.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Savory Energy Bars: "Italian" Hard Tack

Recently I was talking with a buddy of mine about meals and, more importantly, packaged meals, when he bemoaned the fact that most of your energy or meal replacement bars are sweet.  In fact, there are quite a few bars out there, and they tend to be held together with sugar, or covered in chocolate.  Being a fan of savory, we talked about possible solutions for meal replacement bars that were not sugar bombs. 

Well, this weekend I thought I would give it a try.  I had most of the ingredients already and I wanted to see if it were possible.  So Saturday, before going to dinner, I thought I would throw it together, and here is the recipe:

2    cups    all purpose flour
2    cups    bread crumbs
1/2 cup      corn meal
1/2 cup      oatmeal
4    tbsp     tomato paste
2    tbsp     Parmesan cheese, grated
4    tbsp     italian seasoning
2    tbsp     garlic powder
1    tsp       Kosher salt
1.5 cups    water

I first combined all the dry ingredients and mixed them together well.  I then added the tomato paste and cut it into the dry mix, and added the water so that it would just bind it together.  I then kneaded it together well, and rolled it into a log of about 3 inches thick.  Once rolled out, I cut it into 32 pieces, and baked it for 30 minutes at 350 degrees (could have been longer if I wanted it less chewy and more like a cracker). 

The next day I had two pieces with a large glass of water, and found them very filling.  Two or three fills up quite well, and the flavor is decent.  This isn't a cookie, but there is quite a bit of sweetness in the tomato that it's almost like eating a pizza crust with just the sauce.  And each piece is just 71 calories.  It's nice because I can use this little bar to satisfy those tomato soup cravings I get occasionally, without having to cook anything up.

The recipe was adapted from a hard tack recipe that I found online here

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Flash, iOS, and Android: The Real Future of Flash as I See It

There was a lot of debate earlier in the year about the future of the Flash platform.  It was assumed that Flash would die a slow death because Apple had deliberately blocked Flash movies and files from running directly on their iOS platforms.  Arguments have been running back and forth between Flash developers, Apple haters, Android lovers, Apple zealots, and just about everyone that wants to add their voice to, in my opinion, a narrow-minded argument. 

Those that predicted the death of Flash didn't see the forest for the trees.  Sure, there are thousands of videos out there that were encoded in the Flash Player, and many of those videos are being ported to the MPEG 4 format.  Sure HTML 5 is able to perform many of the same tasks that Flash was able to do, as does PHP, Perl, Python, Ruby, and a number of other programming languages.  But the one thing that everyone didn't take into account was what Flash as a developing platform does:  takes content and packages it for distribution. 

So when Adobe announced the Packager for iPhone, it was pretty much lost in the news, until Apple said they wouldn't allow apps from the platform (or other similar platforms).  That was the case, until September 2010, when Apple changed their app submission restrictions, now allowing Flash to be used as a development platform, or even Adobe AIR. 

But how is this even possible?  Because of ActionScript 3, the programming language used by Adobe to give Flash it's flexibility, and Adobe AIR it's powerful platform environment.  One can code an app using Flash or Adobe AIR, and it becomes available for Android, the Desktop, and now the iOS platform. 

Why is this such a big deal?  Because one no longer needs to learn Java (Android and desktop) and Objective-C (iOS) to do the same thing.  You can write it all in ActionScript 3 and distribute it across the board with minimal changes for each iteration. 

It looks like the power of Flash is finally going beyond the browser, and into the native environment for your mobile devices.  No more worries about battery life or whether or not everything is supported:  it's all native, it all works within the platform.  I wouldn't be surprised if Adobe built in a packager for HTML 5 within Flash and AIR.  They have shown versatility necessary to keep their developer tools relevant in an increasingly mobile world. 

For future suggestions, perhaps a packager for Windows Phone 7 (assuming it pans out), Blackberry's new OS, and MeeGo for Nokia?  That would make Flash and Adobe AIR an extremely attractive mobile development platform.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Autism and Sibling Speech Delays

Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis released a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry regarding speech delay patterns of siblings of children with Autism, as reported by  The report shows a higher number of siblings of children with autism have speech delay when compared to siblings of neurotypical children.

The implications are that children who have a sibling with autism are more likely to show speech delay, whether that sibling is older or younger than the child with autism.  Therefore, the speech delay can show a propensity for autism, though not severe enough for the direct diagnosis.  It also shows that some girls with similar traits may even be considered "autistic," even though the diagnosis was not given to them, therefore showing a possible narrowing in the gender differences in autism diagnosis.

So why is it important?  The current scientific theory that has actually been proven through clinical studies (as apposed to many other claims) is that autism is genetic, resulting from a number of genes, any one of them can cause autistic symptoms to show at some level.  The higher the concentration of "autism genes," the more pronounced the behavior.  Siblings may have inherited some genes, but not enough to cause the behavior needed to be diagnosed "autistic". 

It also explains the prevalence of Autism within certain families and along specific genetic lines.  Unlike other yet to be proven theories that suggest environmental stimuli as the cause, genetic traits that are passed on stand out in the research done in this article. 

So that's great to know, but what does it mean for me as a parent of an autistic child?  It means I need to be alert for any signs of Autism in my other child, in order to catch it early, but also take hope in knowing that anything I see, such as delayed speech, could just be a small marker that is quickly overcome.  It's very possible that any sign of autism in my other child could be so mild as to not be diagnosed as Autism.  And, of course, it takes less of the mystery away from Autism, making it less of a scary diagnosis.  The more understanding we have, the better we as parents can cope.  At least, that is what I feel.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Contagious Yawning: A Marker for Autism

Recently published in the September/October issue of Child Development (Volume 81, Nuber 5, Pages 1620-1631), Molly Helt, Inge-Marie Eigsti, Deborah Fein of the University of Connecticut and Peter Snyder of Brown University showed in their article their research regarding yawns and using yawns as a marker for Autism. 

That's right, yawns.  Why yawning?  Because it is what is called an automatic emotional reciprocity behavior, or in other words a way of participating in society's complex emotional environment.  But, unlike many other methods of showing empathy, yawning is a fixed action pattern that is hidden, and once started cannot be stopped.  It's a lot like watching a chain reaction. 

So what is so special about yawns?  Well, children in early years (under the age of 4) often do not yawn contagiously, meaning if someone starts to yawn, they don't yawn in response.  After the age of 4 that starts to become more common, and soon children are participating in the group emotional response of empathetic yawning. 

Unless the child has Autism.  Unlike neuro-typical children, most children with Autism do not participate in contagious yawning, though the cause is unclear.  They also do not participate in most other facial mimicry while watching others (whether on television or in person).  These sort of missed queues make it difficult for a person with Autism to be welcome within a generally social environment. 

So why even bother with yawning?  Because it could be an indicator for Autism without looking for genetic markers in blood (painful), or running MRI scans (scary for children).  The only drawback:  late detection.  You cannot hope to get a positive identification before age 5, by which time many of the benefits of Applied Behavior Analysis has been missed. 

But still, this is just one more piece of the puzzle that helps fill out the behavioral aspects of Autism, and for that I applaud these find researchers.  I recommend reading the research yourself to get a better view of the impact of this research, and what still needs to be accomplished.  Assuming, of course, you can stop yawning, as even reading (or writing, for that matter) the word can cause the fixed action pattern to trigger.  ^_^

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Bullying and What To Do About It: Taking Autism Into Account

One thing that frightens me most about my son's schooling is the potential for bullying.  I saw it with my older brother, and often my older brother would be the one getting in trouble for defending himself (hence the reason why I hated Jr. High, and Gym class).  A lot of parents are determined to have their child with Autism mainstreamed.  Others prefer to isolate them within special schools or home-school their children.  The route you take will be completely up to you, but when dealing with Bullying, The Kiowa County Signal has posted ways to deal with it, particularly with children with Autism.

Bullying isn't just hitting kids on the playground.  It's much more insidious than that.  Bullying is harassing children verbally (including texting and instant messages), physically (like forcing them to sit at another table, or move from their spot), or even psychologically (forcing unacceptable and often humiliating behavior, from a person). 

Too often it's too easy for school officials, being human themselves, to dismiss bullying if they can't see it.  Because it often doesn't happen within eye-shot of an authority figure, they fear incriminating another student on "hear-say".  This is understandable, as it underscores the basis of our justice system, innocent until proven guilty (or at least until tried by the media at any rate). 

As a parent, it is also your right to make sure your child, with or without Autism, is in a safe environment.  This starts with contacting the school.  Find out what their anti-bullying policy is, and how it is enforced.  How do they react to reports of bullying, and how is it addressed?  It's important to note that adults in schools are very much out-numbered, and cannot be everywhere at once.  And also losing your temper cannot help any situation.  Accept they are human, and see how you can work with the system. 

But even more important, let them know that your child has Autism, and what that means.  Find out if they are aware of what Autism means, particularly when it comes to psychological bullying.  Do they understand that children with autism are more likely to take things literally, and will often be very trusting of everyone?  Do they know how to recognize a bully leading another child into a bullying situation, using manipulation?  These are crucial to your child's protection, and need to be addressed.

Bullying is a frustrating issue for all concerned.  Often it requires a lot of patience, and sometimes some creative thinking.  Be a help to your school, and I'm sure they will be happy to make any necessary changes to guarantee your child with autism will have a safe learning environment.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Autism Weekend Roundup: Genes and Hollywood

A couple of things showed up in my daily news search about Autism that I thought I would share. 

1.  Another Genetic link to Autism has been found, for 1% of those with autism tested.  The Center for Addiction and Mental Health is reporting that that boys with autism, or at least 1% of those tested, are missing a specific gene, PTCHD1, from their X chromosome they get from their mother.  It is believed that PTCHD1 has a role in the neurobiological pathway that delivers information to cells during brain development.  Girls are shielded, because they have two X chromosomes.  While the numbers are low, it is yet another genetic link for Autism.  I think the gene tally is up to 23 now? 

If you are telling yourself that it's a long shot, keep in mind that Autism is a behavioral diagnosis, not a medical diagnosis.  There are a number of possible causes for the behavior, all having to do with the brain.  That is why there are so many genes that can cause the same or similar behavior. 

2.  Benefit for Autism:  The Associated Press has reported Comedy Central's plans for a star-sudded autism benefit on October 21st.  Steven Colbert, Larry David, Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman, Steve Carell, Jimmy Fallon, Tracy Morgan, Joe McHale, John Oliver, Chris Rock, and a number of others are participating. 

This is awesome, and I'm glad so many famous people will be participating in raising funds for autism schools and special programs.  Honestly, there is a reason why I love comedians more than "serious" actors..  Comedians tend to have real hearts, and are not afraid to show it. 

3.  Keeping up with the film industry, AMC has announced plans with the Autism Society of America for a movie night for children with Autism.  There are 126 participating theaters for the event, though the link in the article is broken.  You can find a list of participating theaters here.  If memory serves, AMC did this last year, and my wife and I were upset we found out too late.  Don't miss the event!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Book Review: House Rules by Jodi Picoult

There are a number of books out there about Autism, dealing with autism, managing autism, teaching children with autism, and even how to "cure" autism with fad diets and various misinformation.  It's rare, at least in my experience, for autism to center within fiction. 

House Rules is a book about a family of Jacob Hunt, a child with Aspergers, and his obsession with forensics.  Ultimately it leads to getting involved with the police over a possible murder, and how the police react with an autistic child. 

There are a couple of things I didn't like, such as the declared beliefs that vaccinations cause Autism, that children who are on gluten-free and cassein-free diets can be "cured", and that various highly expensive supplements can "cure" autism.  What's interesting is that the author doesn't say he was cured, but rather his behavior became more manageable. 

Oh, and I solved the crime about 33% into the book (but still was riveted to the book).

What I did like was the portrayal of Jacob's thought process as a person with Aspergers.  The family experiences, the daily routine, the overall atmosphere that is Autism within a family.  It's very familiar, and I find it absolutely fascinating. 

I also loved the writing style.  Often, when I don't enjoy a book, it's because of the writing style.  Jodi Picoult did a fabulous job on this book, and should be commended for her writing style.  It was very similar to a serial story, one you would read in a magazine because of the way it was separated into different voices.  Different points of view, from the police detective, the lawyer, the mother, the younger brother, and Jacob himself were all illuminating. 

Ultimately, as Jodi Picoult stated on her website, was to outline how the justice system would react to typical behaviors in someone with Autism, specifically with Aspergers.  I think she did a fantastic job, and would highly recommend the book to anyone in the Justice System, Police, Sheriff's Department, and any parent with a child who has Autism.  It can be found on Amazon, Simon&Schulsters, or any fine book store. 

Thank you Liesl, for your recommendation. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Parenthood: The Autism Diagnosis Moment

Yesterday, after getting some important work done, I was feeling pretty rough.  My wife took the kids with her siblings to the park, and left me and the dog at home so I could rest and relax.  Well, I thought it the perfect time to turn on a show that I've been meaning to watch for a long time now:  Parenthood.

I downloaded the pilot episode from iTunes for free.  I've watched one episode before, after hearing that one of the kids was supposed to be diagnosed with Aspergers.  I thought I would give it a try and see what the show portrayed, and how accurate it was. 

I was blown away.  The opening scene was of a father trying to get his morning workout in, and all of a sudden his family, one by one, call him for advice and help.  One was his wife who couldn't get their youngest son to get into his baseball uniform for the big game. 

As the show progressed, the son's little quirks started showing, with him wanting to wear a pirate suit, getting frustrated easily, and having trouble with his coordination.  He was just not a "regular boy", and was slowly being identified as such.  The Elementary school expelled him for biting another kid (who had called him a freak), and recommended him to an educational therapist. 

The heart-wrenching thing was when they found out that he had Aspergers.  He couldn't believe it, and she just begged him to not leave her alone in this.  Then, right after he found out, the rest of the family started dumping issues on him.  It was a very telling episode, one with which every parent can relate, particularly those whose children have autism. 

So, if you ever want to know what it's like at that moment to know that your child has autism, I highly recommend watching Parenthood's pilot episode.  I fell in love with that first episode, even though it brought back a lot from when our oldest was diagnosed.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Dogs and Autism: Why We Got A Dog, and the Long Weekend

There have been a lot of reports on service dogs and children with Autism.  Most, like this article on KSL have been positive, resulting in children with autism coming out of their shell more.  The reason is the less complexity in the dog's social acceptance of people, and therefore the more likely the child will be willing to interact (no longer afraid of doing the "wrong thing"). 

So, my wife and I had talked about getting a dog.  This was quite the debate, as both my wife and I have very different ideas of what makes a good dog, complicated by the fact that we were not sure how our son would interact with a dog.

Then my brother-in-law and his family got a dog, a little lab/blue heeler mix named Scooby.  He is a young dog (3 months), but will eventually grow up into quite a big dog.  Well, we let our son interact with him, and he had a blast.  He was playing, he was getting down to his level, and he was laughing.  It was an awesome sight, and we knew we needed a dog. 

So, we started checking out the shelters.  There were some nice looking dogs, but there were some criteria that we both agreed on:  No fighting dogs (pit bulls, Staffordshire terriers, etc.), because we didn't know what environment they were coming from.  That, and not too long ago we had a pit bull terrorize our neighborhood.  We also wanted a smaller dog, one young enough that our cat could beat into submission.  The big deterrent was the price of adoption, which we did not have at the time. 

So, we thought, maybe in a couple of months we would be in a position to get a dog.  Then my wife and I started looking in the Classifieds on, and found four potential dogs: a lab/border collie mix, a blue tick hound, a blue heeler/lab mix, and a border collie/corgi mix.  The border collie/corgi mix was closer to us, and I thought that he may have been a smaller dog because of his corgi blood, so we checked on him first. 

When we got there, he ended up being big, much bigger than I thought.  He has lines similar to a scottish deerhound, with the same face (from the corgi), and a very long body (from the corgi).  But he also has the long legs and primary coloring from his border collie blood.  So he is a large dog, and that made me think. 

But, as we talked about the dog, our youngest started walking around in the previous owner's house, and when I called my son's name to get him to come back, the dog started to "herd" him back to the family.  I was convinced this was the kind of dog we needed, and after a dubious look from my wife (our oldest with Autism was a little apprehensive of his size as well), we loaded up the dog's crate, leash, and the dog, into our car and headed home. 

That day was very busy, with one very excited dog who didn't want to spend any time in his kennel, was very social, and loved to run with me and the boys.  In fact, he probably had far more attention than he had before.  Not because the family was in any way neglectful of him before, but because my oldest with Autism was by his side almost all day.  That relieved any fears my wife and I had about the dog and our kids, and we started to settle down with him. 

We took him for two walks that day, just to get the energy out of him, and had a blast.  Then, that night, we decided we would try to have him shut up in his crate, as he was supposed to be kennel trained.  He got in, but didn't like being in the kennel, and wanted to be out with the family.  He started to whine, keeping everyone awake.  I went out and slept in the same room, just so I could keep him quiet.  Not a good start, I could tell.

The next day, Sunday, went really well.  He behaved while we were at church, and was very excited when we came back.  We took him for another long walk, and he loved it.  This time we went with the whole family, and everyone was quite happily tired after that morning.  So we settled down for the night.  This time I had the dog out of his crate (he doesn't like it, probably because it's too short for his length), and he slept in the boy's room, though I had to be in there with them.  This isn't too bad, as children with Autism generally don't sleep well and try to climb in with their parents, so my son slept really well. 

Last night was perhaps the best night.  After moving rooms around, this time the dog, Toby, was quite happy to sleep with the boys.  He would have been there all night, had the boys not woken up in the middle of the night, thinking it was time to play.  So again, I spent time with my boys, but at least Toby is getting settled. 

He is a very good dog, in that he sits almost every time on command (we are working on that), he plays fetch, and most importantly, if I tell him to get one of the boys, he will run over to them, then along side them, nudging them in the right direction.  He will also stick with them, keeping an eye on them when in the back yard or on the playground.  We are definitely glad we have him.  We just need to work out his position with the cat. 

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Simplifying Content Development and Delivery: Using The Wiki

One of the great benefits of being here on campus and working with such quality instructors is the collaboration that goes on.  If one of us has a great idea to better the teaching experience, we like to share. 

Christer Edwards, one of our instructors, recently shared his secret for creating and deploying his content.  He uses a wiki.  Now, I've heard of wikis, and I've played around with some in the past, but I've never really gotten into it.  The markup is different, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to take the time to learn it if I found I didn't like it.  So, I waited.

Then Christer showed me the S5 plugin for his DokuWiki page. For those of you who are not familiar with S5, is it an implementation of presentation software, but is run from the web using XHTML, Javascript, and CSS.  And it looks great.  It's simple and easy to use to create a quick presentation, and you can display it from anywhere you have Internet access.   That is what got me thinking. 

See, I really want to simplify the way I show my presentations.  I want to have them easy to get to, easy to deploy, and simple to set up.  I don't want to worry about plugins, software versions, or anything like that.  Just a quick and easy way to get information on the screen.  and S5 makes that possible.  And, as it is essentially a website, you can embed video, audio, just about anything in the page, and it works. 

Does it take the place of just about everything in a presentation?  Not really.  It doesn't have some of the cool animations, the ability to make presenterless presentations, etc.  But that's not really that important for classroom slides.  It's all about the content, the discussion, and getting the information out there. 

So, I gave it a try.  I first installed DokuWiki on my website (a very easy install, I might add), and installed the S5 plugin.  I'm currently transferring the content in my SEO slides to the wiki, and the presentation looks great.  I still need to settle on a template for the slides, but that's something that can be done at any time, after the presentation has been made.  That's what I like about this plugin, it breaks things up.

But, you can't just use a Wiki for slide shows, it would be kind of a waste, right?  The wiki needs to be so much more, providing tools that will help with development.  This is where it gets interesting. 

I've been thinking a lot about project management, as course development for new content seems to drag.  I wanted something to help me break the project into pieces.  I've been told that Agile Project Management is a great way to work if it's implemented well, and a very good friend of mine, Joseph Hall of told me how he has implemented it with a wiki.  Eager to give it a try, I started looking for plugins for various wikis to find one I like. 

Well, as luck would have it, DokuWiki has a plugin called AV Task Box.  Basically it's a text box that will add task information like the Title of the task, the priority, the estimated time it would take to complete the task, the amount of progress one has made on the task, to whom the task is assigned, and a description of the task for usage.  The syntax is easy to use, and if you keep all tasks on a main Task page, everyone can see which task is for whom, how far along they are, and when they can expect a task to be completed. 

I love it, and use it already for my course development (as of yesterday).  It helps me gauge the time I need to dedicate to a task, and I can keep myself on task easier with the box sitting there waiting to be updated. 

So, for the past couple of days I have been teaching myself how to use the wiki format.  A couple of other plugins I got were the Note plugin and the ODT plugin.  Note puts in a cool formatted note within the text that does not show in the slides (very handy).  The ODT plugin let me put a button on the bottom of the page to export that page to an Open Document file.

And one more thing..  I want to be able to edit this on the fly.  It is the web, after all.  I should be able to edit it from any web-enabled device, like my iPhone or iPad.  And I can, unlike other Wiki software I've looked at in the past.  I can access the Wiki from both my iOS devices and edit pages without a problem. The only thing left is to get the slide show working with gestures on the iPad, and it will be perfect.  I'm currently looking into that now. 

So that's my experience with Wikis, and why I've started using it for just about everything from note taking to project management.  I can definitely see why they were so popular. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

History of Autism Treatment: An Introduction

Dr. James Coplan posted a quick introduction to the history of autism treatment, excluding the horrific past treatments of isolation, incarceration, and forced confinement.  Instead, he's focusing on the history of the current treatment, or the roots of what we now know as ABA, or various other proven treatments for Autism. 

With psychologists and psychiatrists being so common and almost cliche in our culture, it's odd to think that the study of the mind beyond philosophy was never taken seriously, even 150 years ago.  Instead you had mentalists like Franz Mesmer who invented hypnotism (and from whence we get the word mesmerized) who were performers, not scientists (or at least not what we would imagine to be scientists).  It wasn't until the turn of the century when you get Freud, Catteil and Binet, Spearman and Pearson, and others who start to take the study of the mind into the realms of scientific study, testing, and observation.

As the new science we know as psychology starts to develop, we see two branches emerge:  Behavioral Psychology and Holistic Psychology.  Behavioral psychology focuses on addressing the behavior, and from that steps the Applied Behavior Analysis therapy.  Behavioral Psychology was pioneered by E. L. Watson and J. B. Thorndike, who trained B. F. Skinner, who in turn trained the late Ivar Lovaas, the father of ABA. 

Holistic psychology focuses on more than just behavior, but rather intention, consciousness, emotion, etc. as part of the whole subject of psychologists, and therefore should be placed on the same level as behavior.  The idea being that if you break down the brain and brain experience into it's parts, you are missing out on the whole.  It was pioneered by Professor William James.

All this is covered in Dr. Coplan's article, but I find I fascinating to learn about the history of treatment, and where it is heading.  I'm looking forward to more posts, and in the mean time continue to search for digital copies of the works of Watson, Thorndike, and James for additional reading. 

Monday, August 23, 2010

Real Smoke in Cooking: From Burgers to Squash

Smoke, real hardwood smoke, has an amazing effect on food.  Food that normally would be tasteless and lifeless take on a new flavor when you introduce hardwood smoke.  And this weekend we celebrated my nephews birthday at our house, which means I got to cook.

Now, there are some basic rules in smoking food.  First, don't use any wood that is either treated, or a soft, resin wood (pine, cedar, etc.) for smoke.  The resin burns, leave cresote behind, which can ruin the flavor of food.  You need to use a hardwood that is, well, just hardwood.  My favorite is to use fruit tree wood, but any hardwood is fine. 

Second, the food needs to be properly prepared.  I find using some fat and salt applied to the food draws in the smoky goodness.  If the food is already fatty (i.e., most grilling meats), then just salt.  If you use any ingredients with high sodium levels to add additional flavor to the food (i.e., soy sauce, worchestershire sauce, etc.), then you don't need to add salt.  But it does need to be properly seasoned before you can expect the food to absorb the smoky goodness. 

I started with building my own fire.  Some cooks like to use charcoal, but I find it more rewarding to start the fire from scratch.  So I pulled some pine needles, pine branches out, and laid some russian olive wood over that to get it going.  Now, I know what you are going to say!  I just said not to use pine, and here I am using it.  Well, I'm not using it to smoke the food, just to get the fire going and to build some coals.  Once I had some coals from the wood (about an hours burning), and all the pine had burned away, I put on a piece of plum wood cut from our plum tree last year.  This was my first experience using plum, but as it was a hardwood I was not too worried.

For the party, I made hamburgers.  Not the hockey puck patties you can get at the MegaMart, but freshly pressed from ground meat.  I added some paprika, pepper, and worchestershire sauce to the mix, and started mixing it together.  Once done, I brought out the mix and pressed them into patties just before placing them on the grill.  Once on the grill, I closed the lid and let it do it's thing. 

After about 7 minutes or so, I checked the meat, and then flipped it over.  another 7 minutes or so, checked again, and if necessary, flipped and let it cook yet again, to be sure it got up to temperature.  The smell was not much to write home about, but then with few exceptions hardwood smoke doesn't start to smell amazing until after it's cooled a bit (the one exception I've found is mesquite, though I'm sure there are others). 

But there was still a lot of heat and smoke coming up after the burger was done, and I didn't want to waste it.  So I pulled out some zucchini and some summer squash, sliced it into rounds, greased the exposed flesh with oil and added some salt, then threw it onto the grill.  The veggies actually took longer to cook than the burgers, but once done the smell was amazing, and the taste even better. 

Now, two days later, I brought the left-over veggies to work for lunch.  And all the way to work I smelled like Jerky, which is to say, very, very good!  If I didn't make several students hungry on the way to work, I would be surprised.

So that was my experience in smoking over the weekend.  What is your favorite wood to use in smoking, and what foods have you smoked? 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Experience Jailbreaking the iPad, And Why I Restored

Yesterday, I thought I would try an experiment: jailbreaking my iPad.  I had everything backed up, so I wasn't worried about losing any data, and I was curious to see if the benefits were as good as all that acclaim jailbreaking propose.  So, I thought I would give it a try. 

I hadn't upgraded to iOS 3.2.2, so I used to start the jailbreaking process.  It went flawlessly, and within a few minutes I was able to use the Cydia to start installing apps.  That went great, and I can understand why so many people find it so easy to jailbreak their iOS device.

So what worked well?  WinterBoard, which allows for some awesome visual effects.  Particularly I liked the ability to wash out the app icons, so while they were still there, they were not so distracting from the wallpaper.  That was awesome, and I would love to see a feature like that added to the iOS sometime in the future natively. 

Categories worked well too, as the iPad does not yet have the love of iOS 4.0, and lacks this ability.  You can also add more then 12 items to a folder, which is nice.  Of course, for it to actually work in shrinking the apps displayed, you need to reboot the device.  I'm not sure I like that, as it feels yet again like a Windows machine, and not anything like the Mac or Linux computers with which I generally work. 

Now comes the clunky bits: installing apps from Cydia.  Finding them was slightly frustrating, as searches were limited to the name of the app, and not what the app does.  And for all the intents of the developers to have cool and sexy names for their apps, they just don't readily explain what the app actually does.  So, I had to resort to either scrolling through apps by category (which becomes unwieldy the more apps that get developed), or use the Internet. 

Once I find the app and choose to install it, It takes me to a "terminal" display, where it shows the installation, and then I generally have to restart either SpringBoard, or the device itself.  Man, it was like working on a Windows machine all over again, which is what moving to a Mac was all about. 

Then there was the instability of some of the apps, crucial apps that I wanted to have running but couldn't, because they crashed my iPad.  I've NEVER crashed my iPad before, and yet jailbreaking managed to do it. 

So, are there benefits to jailbreaking an iOS device?  Sure!  Categories and Winterboard were great.  You can also install Google Voice, and a number of other apps that you can't get in the App Store through Apple.  But is it worth it?  I found the device less reliable once it was jailbroken, and while I'm sure a little more tweaking could have fixed the reliability, I don't have the time (or rather, I'm unwilling to devote the time to something that should just work). 

So, I reverted my iPad back and upgraded to iOS 3.2.2, losing all the jailbreak changes I made.  For me, at least, I'm OK using the standard Apple release of the iOS.  For those of you who jailbreak, I salute you for your tenacity and devotion to tinkering, but it's just not for me.  For those of you who are perhaps less technically inclined or have more important things on your plate than trying to tweak a hack, it may not be for you. 

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Diagnosis, and Afterwards: Two Exciting Projects in Autism

This week has had two great announcements:  a new Autism diagnosis procedure that will diagnose after a 15 minute brain scan, and a new therapy being developed right now in Pittsburgh. 

First, the diagnosis.  Currently there are several attempts to diagnose autism with a genetic test, and the best accuracy that can be met (to date) is about 9%.  Why?  Because there are so many different genes that can cause autism, it's difficult to identify a particular genetic marker and say "That's autism right there".  Other tests attempt to check for biological changes based on conditions that accompany autism, like intestinal disorders. 

The new thing here is that the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College in London is actually mapping cerebral changes, and the test is only 15 minutes.  Compare that with several hours of evaluation by psychologists, and it becomes extremely cost effective.  And what does that mean?  Perhaps insurance companies will FINALLY identify autism as a diagnosis, and cover said diagnosis. 

The other good news about this test is that it has been found to be 90% accurate in it's diagnosis, which beats 9% clear out of the water.  And for those who are diagnosed, they know it's because of an actual, physical cause, not some form of parental neglect or parental abuse that is causing the condition.  For everyone in the Autism community, this should give them a huge sigh of relief. 

But what happens after the diagnosis?  Sure, it's great to know, and it's great to understand that it's physical instead of something the parents have done, but what now?  Autism doesn't go away, and there is no magic pill that will "make it all better".  Autistic children need to be taught in any way they can.  And one such way is currently being developed at Interbots, Inc, a spin-off from Carnegie Mellon University Technology Center.  Yesterday they issued a press release on their project in "Character Therapy", or using robots to help children with autism learn to interact. 

The program is very much cutting edge, both in technology and in autism therapy.  It's based on the premise that children with autism prefer interaction with non-human entities, be it animals or robots.  Why?  Because both animals and robots have far less social and emotional baggage to carry around, and therefore an autistic child doesn't have to worry about offending (as we humans tend to be easily offended). 

A good example of this working is the Crush experience at Disneyland's California Adventures in Anaheim, California.  Parents with autistic children, even with low functioning autism, find the children speaking and repeating either sounds or words after having the experience with Crush.  It's a fascinating phenomenon, and I'm looking forward to experiencing it with my son.

So, for the first time in a long time, I find myself wishing I were either in London to work with the psychologists and psychiatrists at King's College, or in Pittsburgh.  The idea of working with such excellent programs, providing feedback, and contributing so such revolutionary ideas is very compelling.  I can't wait to see these two projects come to fruition. 

Friday, August 06, 2010

Book Review: Sir Walter Scott's Guy Mannering

I'm in need of a rebuke. All this time in my life, and I have never read a book by Sir Walter Scott. Well, recently I changed that, and read Guy Mannering. Clearly, I have been neglecting my studies, my heritage, and my opportunity to be edified by the prose of one of Scotland's greatest writers.

The story was pretty clear in and of itself, and the principles were quickly identified. Guy Mannering, while traveling in Scotland, chances to arrive at a Laird's house, one of the last of the great and ancient names in Scotland. The Laird just had a son, and Guy Mannering, being then schooled in the "science" of astrology, promptly worked out the son's fate. He wasn't happy about it, and as he left, he vowed to give it up. The son was then lost 5 years later, and taken away by smugglers from Holland. The story is about his return, connections to the family, and more importantly to now Colonel Guy Mannering, late of His Majesty's Royal Army in India.

The story was compelling, and only seemed slow because I wanted to see if my conjectures as to the relationships between characters were correct. It was written much like the old serial method, each chapter being a story in and of itself, though building upon each other.

Sir Walter Scott was instrumental in restoring the Tartan to the Highland clans, their rights and their culture. It was he, though his writing, that restored the valor, pride, and spirit of Scotland to her natives, and such stories as Guy Mannering are a testament to his work.

And as a side note, this book was the cause of a special breed of terrier being called Dainty Dinmonts, after one of the principle characters in the book. It also mentions one Duncan Robb in passing, of which I am very proud.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

First Impressions with the iPhone 4

Well, I've gone and done it.  My old Nokia phone was dying, not able to keep a charge for longer than a day, and had issues.  It had run it's course over the past three years, and it was time to get a new phone.  My wife, who had the same phone as I did, opted to get an iPhone 3GS, and I hesitated.  It was early in the Spring, and I knew that there were rumors of a new iPhone coming. 

There was no doubt that I would get an iPhone.  I've used an Android phone before, and find the overall experience rather clunky in comparison to the iOS experience.  Perhaps it's because I started with an iPod Touch, moved to the iPad, and have invested quite a bit in iOS apps.  More likely it's because there are at last count only three apps (that's 3, only 3) that cater to Autistic children, while for iOS devices, there are over 250. 

At any rate, I was happy to say I waited until the iPhone 4 was announced, and finally ordered one.  Please note, I did wait until the "Antennagate" issue was addressed by Apple, though it doesn't matter that much to me (I'm not left handed).  The free case, which is currently ordered, was definitely a bonus. 

So, what are my impressions of the iPhone 4?  Well, it's just what I would expect having use iOS devices before.  I have never cared for Flash much, as most of my Flash experience has been with ads on news sites, so I don't miss it at all.  What I do like are the new features, many of which I find very wanting on the iPad.  As such I am looking forward to the iOS 4 update, rumored to be due in November (sooner would be nice, Apple!  Just saying!). 

1.  Folders:  I love folders.  I love being able to combine all my 5 pages of apps to one screen.  It's fabulous to have that kind of consolidation for my apps.  I was also interested to learn that of all the "games" on my iPhone, my kids games out number my own. 

2.  Multitasking:  I have to admit, this was one of the reasons I was holding back on another 2 year contract with AT&T and the expense of an iPhone over that time.  I wanted to be able to use Skype while not having to have it open all the time.  Ideal for an iPod Touch, it's great on the iPhone.  That, and I can listen to Pandora while surfing the web.  Bring it to the iPad, and i'll be one happy mobile computing professional.  ^_^

3.  Augmented Reality Browers:  I just discovered it this week, and I'm already intrigued.  There are several free browers available in the iTunes Store, along with some that come with paid subscriptions or others that charge for the browser.  At any rate, it's a pretty cool thing, and I'm looking forward to playing with it more. 

4.  720p Video Recording:  This was what sold me.  Not only did I want to consolidate my cell phone with my iPod, but I wanted to add in a decent video recorder.  The video capabilities on this thing is great, and I didn't even need to purchase the iMovie app.

5.  Retina Display:  I do a lot of reading on the go, mostly on my iPad.  But reading on the iPhone 4 is a new experience entirely.  The clarity of the words is astounding, particularly when in small text.  My eyes don't tire when I read on the Retina Display, and I hope to see it in future iPad releases as they come (and I'm sure they will). 

Those are my likes, things I have enjoyed about the iPhone 4.  Now let's talk about the minor disappointments.

1.  Bluetooth Headset Woes For Voyager 510:  Yes, I finally have an iOS device that will allow the Voyager 510 headset I have owned for over 5 years to work.  The problem?  It can only be used for calls, and will not work with the iPod app.  It seems this poor little trooper is just had it's day, and I'll need to spring for a stereo bluetooth headset. 

Yep, that's it.  Everything else I was either expecting, aware of, or surprised that it doesn't happen at all (i.e., Antennagate). 

So, there is my first impressions.  Some have called me an Apple fanboy.  Honestly, I think I like Apple because they take all the frustration out of compiling on UNIX.  It works when I want it to, and doesn't feel clunky when I work it.