October 2008 Archives

October 24, 2008

Apple's Vision for the Future: The Ugly, the Bad, and the Good

Every year a whole community seems to develop around the new products Apple has in store.  It's fun, it's exciting, and it can lead to huge feelings of self-righteous pride or crushing disappointment when predictions do not hold fruit.  So earlier this week when Steve Jobs talked about the future of Apple, it was interesting to hear what was said, and what was not said. First, the ugly:  really cheap Apple computers are not a market Steve Jobs sees Apple going into.  The cheapest computer Apple designed was the Mac Mini, which had a base purchase of $479 at one point, and is now $599.  This may call the future of the Mac Mini in question, which I hope is not the case.  It's the cheapest server I have ever seen.  For quick and simple office deployment (outside of really high-end uses like video rendering), you can't beat the size of the Mac Mini.  But, don't expect anything really cheap from the Apple anytime soon.  The Bad:  UMPCs are not a priority.  If you recall, what I was billing as the iPod Slate for the past year and a half would be a similar device.  Perhaps not the same, so there is still a chance, but from what Steve said this is not a priority because there isn't a real market out there for such a device.  Instead, you can use an iPhone for just about everything you can use a UMPC for, and it fits in your pocket.  He did say that should that market start to grow, they have some ideas ready.  Perhaps that is why the iPod Slate hasn't been announced....Also as part of the bad, the Apple TV is still not being taken seriously.  Steve points to the market and many devices out there like the Apple TV that have floundered.  I suppose there are still a lot of people that use DVD's, and don't have children that break them easily.  Or perhaps it's because there isn't a convenient way to convert their existing library to a usable Apple TV form that looks great.  Either way, Steve still sees the whole thing as a hobby, and as such it doesn't have a huge priority.  Pitty.The Good:  Apple is working on a tablet PC!  Steve didn't say anything about it, other than, "It's a policy that Apple doesn't discuss any products in development."  Yes!  This could be a much larger version of the iPod Slate, and essentially be the same thing I was hoping for anyway.  It could be completely keyboard free, using a software keyboard and a touchscreen in place of a hardware keyboard.  It wouldn't be the same (keys would feel different), but it would still do the job, and only take up space on the desktop. So, that's what I gathered from Steve's announcement.  Of course a lot of it is speculation, but it doesn't hurt to speculate.  I've been wrong with Apple's development strategy before, and I'm sure Steve will pull something out of his hat that will make the Media drool.  Half the fun is speculation.  ^_^

October 21, 2008

Autism Speaks Lobbies for Autism Therapy Coverage

While reading the morning news today, I read this article on a lobbying effort on the part of the group Autism Speaks to get autism behavioral therapy covered by health insurance.  Regardless of the cause of autism, it has been found that early therapy has helped those children become more mainstream in their behavior.  As such, it has become a mantra of the Autism Therapy organization. Quite frankly, I think it's great!  Let me share my own experience with you:  We took our son in to be tested for his speech development.  He didn't have any at 3 years, and by now I could dispel the arguments from family members that he was just a "late bloomer".  The speech therapist thought that our son might have autism, and suggested we get him tested.  We took him to the State department of health to be evaluated by a childhood psychologist that specializes in the Autism Spectrum.  He diagnosed my son with autism, with the possibility of Asperger's.  He wanted to make another appointment to evaluate my son in January in order to firm up the diagnosis.  We were shocked, but were by this time prepared for the diagnosis and asked about what we can do.  He had already started pre-school in an Autism program, and they were going a fabulous job.  Then we got the bill.  We were billed $350.00 for the evaluation, which I didn't really understand.  I called up to see if this was perhaps one of those informational bills sent before the insurance was billed.  I was wrong.  They said that our insurance does not cover autism as a diagnosis.  I was shocked, because I have never had a diagnosis that was not covered by any insurance I carried.  Now, my insurance is really great for just about everything else, because I have the University of Utah health insurance.  All co-pays are comparable to other insurance companies if not better, and drug costs are low.  But autism and autism therapy is not supported.  Now, I understand it could mean an increase in insurance premiums, right when we are talking about healthcare and the burden it already poses many American families.  But look at the costs of autism therapy.  For autism therapy beyond the age of 4 in Utah, it will cost $28,000 a year.  This is the cost to attend the autism school by the University of Utah for my son after a year long waiting list gets around to him.  Now, I'm being a little selfish here, and I admit it.  My son's welfare is a bit more important to me than the welfare of people I don't know in another country.  But look at it this way, 6% of all boys born will be diagnosed (either rightfully or wrongfully) with autism.  That is a significant number of children (not counting the girls) that will need some sort of support from somewhere.  Autism isn't limited by financial ability.  Assistance of some sort will be needed at some level, whether from health insurance or from another source. Whether or not you agree with this approach, it at least ups the profile of the needs of children with autism in this nation.  As the article points out, it will be made a priority of the next administration, regardless of which administration that will be.  It will be interesting to see what the next administration sees as a proper response.

October 15, 2008

The Debate, the Candidates, and Autism

Tonight the candidates completed their final debate before the election in November.  They talked about a lot of issues on the Economy, throwing barbs back and forth about a lot of issues, and how they would do things better than the other candidates.  But one thing in particular stuck in my mind, and I hope it stuck in the minds of all parents who have children with autism:  Only one candidate seemed to show his commitment to the research, treatment, and development of children with autism.  It began with a discussion on running mates, and Senator John McCain talking about the focus Sarah Palin has for children with special needs.  He specifically mentioned autism, focusing on the needs of children on the autism spectrum.  Senator Obama then countered by saying that if there is a spending freeze in the government, then you can't fund research for autism.  I think he was referring to the earlier comments by Senator McCain on a proposed spending freeze for all new legislation, in order to root out any fiscally irresponsible spending.  The problem is, when hearing it, it sounded as though Senator Obama was in favor of cutting any planned spending for autism research.  At least that is how my wife heard it, and how it read in the transcript at a cursory glance.  He then never mentioned autism again, not even when he covered his education policies and proposals.  Instead he focused on sending people to Charter schools in order to get them out of their traditional public school.But Senator McCain again focused on the needs of children with autism in his education policy, focusing on caring for these children.  I was amazed, because the issue in the debate was even brought up.  Senator John McCain seemed to even be energized by the topic.  He seemed genuinely dedicated to the research and dedicated to taking care of these children.  Senator Obama seemed to almost write it off as a foot note by saying it's " an example of, I think, the kind of use of the scalpel [referring to government budget reform] that we want to make sure that we're funding some of those programs"(emphasis added).Perhaps it is because Senator Obama felt it was not worth the time and effort to focus on the issue.  Perhaps, because his daughters are not on the Autism Spectrum, it's not an important issue for him.  After all, it is more likely to be found in boys, as in one in every ninety-four boys born are now diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.  Perhaps he hasn't met one of these boys, or one of the less common, but just as important, girls.  Perhaps he doesn't understand the challenges parents go through with their child on the autism spectrum.  Or perhaps it just wasn't a priority for him that night.No matter the reason, it disappointed me on several levels.  First, as it looks likely by the last polls taken, he may very well be the next President of the United States.  A President that didn't take the issue of autism seriously, where does that place me and my family?  Perhaps we are just not as important to him as the rich people he would rather tax, the middle class he wants to give the money to, or Joe Plumber that has issues with healthcare and taxes.  I'm glad Joe Plumber at least got some attention from the candidate.  Someone needed to, I suppose, since the growing silent epidemic of autism was largely ignored by Senator Obama.  Secondly, education and autism are almost intertwined.  You can't have one without the other, because every school district in this great country of ours has the need to educate, by law, children with autism.  Senator McCain made it a large proportion of his education policy.  He announced his dedication to help all Americans with special needs, with special emphasis on autism, and to be sure the research into discovering the cause would be found.  And yet it didn't seem to be a concern for Senator Obama.  Instead he worries about getting every child to College, using charter schools as a way to prepare them.  Are there charter schools for children with autism?  I am not aware of any, and therefore his plan excludes my child.  How can my child make it to college without a proper primary and secondary education that helps him retrain the neurons in his brain?  Perhaps that was covered when he called all parents to get off the couch and help their children.  Perhaps he feels that parents whose children are on the autism spectrum are just not doing enough for their kids.  After all, it was a commonly held belief during the 70's.  Of course, I am just inferring here, but as this was the only part of Senator Obama's education plan that could even remotely focus on my child as I understood it, it's all I have to go by.And lastly, I posted previously that I emailed the campaign regarding Senator Obama's position on autism and his plans for the future of children with autism.  Instead of a reply that even feigned interest in my concern, I got a thanks for supporting Senator Obama, and have sense been spammed by everyone and their dog in the campaign.  So not only did I get blown off, but I have since been receiving unwanted emails from the very source that felt my concerns did not warrant a response.I would like to mention that I also emailed Senator McCain's campaign about the same issue.  And while I also have not received a reply (and no spam at all, I might add), it seems that Senator McCain has the same issues on his mind.  That impressed me, it touched me, it made me feel like he understood my position.  Sure I have economic issues, and sure I am part of the lower middle class that is getting squeezed hard by the economy:  but right now my son's future is more important.  Senator McCain made me believe that he too had my son's best interests at heart.  It was the first time I felt like a candidate of any election had reached out to me and my family. So, in case you have been unable to discern my mood after the debate, I was very disappointed in the apparent apathy Senator Obama had for parents who have children on the autism spectrum.  I have admired the man for his calm and reach to the people, but he lost any possibility of a vote from me this night.  Perhaps I am over reacting, perhaps I'm getting too emotional.  Most likely Senator Obama will blow me off yet again as one of those that "angry people that cling to their guns and their religion".  But with no significant funding forthcoming from the Obama Administration, it seems religion will be all I can cling to as I strive to help my son through his autism.  Senator McCain, on the other hand, actually connected with me.  I could tell that he had real conversations with parents with children on the autism spectrum.  He knew their fears, he understood their concerns.  It was almost as though he read my email the day of the debate, and wanted to talk to me directly.  Sure it's just one policy, but it's a policy that deeply care about.  This isn't just a research project for me, and it's not referring to children without a name, this issue is my family.  It's my son, it's the promise that he will have a place in society if I get hit by a bus tomorrow.  It's a promise that he will be able to share his intelligence in a way that is constructive to society, instead of being seen as "weird", "crazy", or "dumb".  Anyway, my rant is through.  I want to leave with these words:  Autism should not be a back burner issue.  Just because the majority of Americans don't know about Autism, or don't care about Autism because it hasn't happened to them, doesn't make it any less important than Cancer, AIDS, or Roe Vs. Wade.  I would have hoped that if one candidate had brought up his plan for helping special needs children, the other candidate would have said something more than just it's " an example of, I think, the kind of use of the scalpel that we want to make sure that we're funding some of those programs."

October 8, 2008

Taking the Deep Breath: Accepting the Financial Meltdown and Moving On

There has been a lot of coverage about the panic of the financial meltdown, and how panic continues to drive more panic.  It seems that the Media found their big story, and they are milking it for all it is worth.  Perhaps we should be grateful, after all the content of the media is no longer being driven by political campaigns.  Honestly, I'm not sure the political campaigns really know what to do, judging by the reactions of the candidates during the meltdown.  Regardless, there is a very real problem going on within the world economy.  Credit is drying up, or banks are fostering a crazy belief that raising interest rates will actually benefit them more in the long run then keeping lower interest rates.  I've never really understood that, outside of the idea that banks expect you to default on the loan and want to soak you for everything they can before that happens.  At any rate, the end result is that no one is borrowing money, either because they can't or because it's too cost-prohibitive.  For corporations, this means less liquid capital to work with as Corporate paper is no longer good for 24-hour short term loans.  Therefore they have trouble with their day to day operations, which leads the market to believe that all businesses going bust, and so leads to massive stock sell-offs.  The spiral continues to pull us down into the abyss where nothing is solid, all is black, and people are jumping out of windows.  But let's take a step back, and a deep breath.  Is life really so glum?  I'm looking at sections of the economy with which I am concerned to determine whether or not it's time to start investing in apples to sell at 5 cents a piece:1.  Retirement:  A lot of people have their nest eggs invested in the stock market, particularly through a 401k.  These have been tanking.  The same thing happened to me during the beginning of this decade when the .com bubble burst.  I lost thousands in stock value, and it took 10 years for it to come back.  Luckily, I'm not concerned with this too much because I have another 3 decades before I think about retiring.  That gives the economy plenty of time to come back, and it will.  But I do feel for those who have retired or were just about to retire and now do not have the funds necessary do to so.  2.  Debt.  Everyone has debt, more than we want and many of Americans have more debt then they can afford (which started this mess in the first place).  Debt in and of itself is not necessarily bad, as long as you know where that debt is placed.  3.  Savings.  My savings are well below the $100,000.00 FDIC insured level, so I'm not concerned here.  What does concern me is savings for those businesses that fund their employees to come to my classes.  With little liquid funds to pay for training, training suffers a cut.  I love the proposal made by both campaigns and whole-heartedly endorsed by the FDIC to raise the insurance level to a higher amount.  Of course, beyond proposing it a week ago, I haven't heard of any progress.4.  Jobs.  Most businesses are still running rather well, though they may be in a credit crunch.  Unless you are worried about a lay-off, you should be fine.  If you are concerned about your job (and many are), check with a supervisor, or better yet someone higher up.  Test that "open door" policy and see if they are willing to talk openly and honestly with you.  Perhaps it's a good time to update your resume, if for nothing else than to keep it up to date.  But don't do it at work (or tell anyone).  You don't want to start a panic within the company.  So those are the four main concerns that I have regarding my own personal economy.  Sure some products will become too expensive to purchase, but as long as the essentials are covered I'm not concerned.  While it may feel like it based on world-wide coverage of the market meltdown, the world isn't coming to an end.  Supermarkets are still open, clothes can still be purchased, and we can all still go back to work.  So perhaps we as a nation just need to take a deep breath, take stock of what is going down hill and what you can control.  That's going to be the only way I can see of surviving this mess.

October 7, 2008

The Candidates and Autism

While we spend what precious little time we have on this planet listening to one political party or another tell us what the other parties are doing wrong, we can at least rest when it comes to one position:  Autism.Yesterday I was checking out resources from the CDC on Autism, and found that there was currently a Presidential committee dedicated to the development of and support for persons with developmental disabilities.  Of course, when you think about anything Presidential during the election year, you start to wonder what the candidates positions would be on such an important issue.  So, I started a little research. At first, I couldn't find anything on autism on their websites, though I admit I only ran a cursory search.  Then I went through the "Contact Us" links and emailed them.  The easiest candidate to email was John McCain, whose email setup was pretty straight forward.  I'm still waiting for a reply from the campaign, but I don't expect email contacts are really that high on any candidates priorities right now.  Barack Obama's website was a little more difficult to navigate when it came to contacting the campaign.  It took several wrong clicks to get the right link, but I finally got the email sent off.  Within minutes, I got an automated email thanking me for my support of the candidate and my desire to campaign for him, with another note that the campaign doesn't have the time to personally reply to every email sent to them.  Hmm.  Interesting.  So I did some more digging, and found that both candidates actually do have positions on their websites regarding autism and the current concerns the increased diagnosis rate has raised.  Essentially, they are the same.  Both candidates call for more funding for research to understand autism, and for early detection and support for families that need to help their child with autism reach their full potential.  Admittedly Barack Obama's position was more verbose than John McCain's position, but as many of you who read my long posts know, verbosity doesn't necessarily mean better content.  ^_^  So at least for those parents who have children with Autism, the choice doesn't matter:  Both John McCain and Barack Obama will make the same commitment to the discovery, treatment, development, and overall welfare of people with autism in our society.

October 6, 2008

Trying to Understand the Financial Crisis: And What To Do

I've been pretty silent on the recent decision for a Federal injection of cash into the financial system by purchasing old securities, mostly because I don't have a lot of understanding of the financial system as it currently stands.  How can one really comment on whether or not a program will work if they don't know what the actual problem is?  So, like most Americans, I have been silently watching and waiting, looking for (a) some reason to panic, and (b) some reason for hope.  In the mean time, I have been looking for some good references on how the economy works.  Then, on UEN's channel 9, I watched an economics professor hand the answer down.  It was so brilliant in it's simplicity, and yet so scary to see it happen.  All of a sudden, I understood how it worked, but that understanding scared me to death.  Essentially, we have three levels of value in the financial markets.  There is the (1) actual value, or the value of a product, commodity, or service in real terms, then the (2) projected value, or the value of that same product, commodity, or service in the foreseeable future given calculated growth (algebraic of course, so there is no estimated plateau in growth that naturally happens), and the (3) speculative value, or value of the product, commodity, or service in the unforeseeable future, or the long term, with continued geometric growth (i.e., a bubble).  The Bank, at the base level, manages the actual value and the projected value.  These are the base values that your home is sold to you, purchased through a loan (yes, the banks purchase it for you, you don't buy it until you pay off your loan), and so on.  The bank purchases the property at the actual value at the time, based on the conditions of the market.  Whether or not that actual value is realistic or not is part of another discussion.  It then creates a projected value for the property based on the price you paid plus the interest that you will be paying on the property.  In order to spread risk and better remain solvent in the financial sector, the bank now sells your loan out to financial investment banks, who pay the projected value.  This assumes that you remain in your home and do not default on the loan.  It also assumes that you do not pay off the loan early, because that shorts the investment of the projected interest that would be paid.  Now that the investment banks have them, they need to make their money off of the deal, and so package the loans out with other securities, and sell them at the speculative value, or the value that such properties could make given geometric growth in the market, and so on. The speculative market now drives actual value, because those that create the original value (i.e., developers building houses) can drive the market up.  Whether it's real demand or imagined speculative demand, prices go up, or better products are provided at the same price.  Older products are devalued, and so on.  Eventually, we get into a continuing spiral of constantly needing something new to replace the old.  Houses, electronics, vehicles, toys.  Everything is built upon these growing spirals, which eventually peak and then fall again as popularity wanes, or the next big thing comes along that takes consumer capital.Now, I could be wrong in how I understood the professor explain these three levels of financial value.  If anyone out there has a better understanding, please feel free to post in the comments!  I would like to have a firm grasp of the problem so that I know what the eventual solution would be, whether in the end it is to do nothing.  So now banks are put under pressure to loan out money to pay for this growing consumer economy that has it's roots in a speculative financial environment, and as such they start taking larger and larger risks.  I then heard about the culture of the traders on wall street in this interview done on NPR (listen to it to get the real impact).  It turns out that the culture of traders on wall street is focused around testosterone, where big risks and big money is a show of "manhood".  Interestingly enough, women in the same position tended to be more rational in their speculation.  So what does this all really mean in the end?  Adam Smith was right.  We will have a growth period, and a bust period in the economy.  What's the best thing we can do in the mean time during this bust period?  Watch our finances.  Do we really need that plasma screen TV?  Is HDTV really all that necessary?  What about that trip to Europe?  Should we be eating out so much?  Is public transportation really that bad when compared to the expense of keeping your 10 mpg SUV running on the highway?  It's time we as Americans started to think rationally.  Stop worrying about what we can't control.  If we have money in the markets and the markets are failing, there isn't a lot we can do.  We can't even sue, because those that are "responsible" are either broke as well, or they probably have jumped out of a window by that point.  Ultimately, we need to be realistic, understand that the world hasn't ended, and find more effective ways to invest capital.  In the mean time, focus on those actions in the market that actually benefit people.  I'm not talking about bailing out people that purchased homes they couldn't afford, but insuring larger sums of cash by the FDIC would be a good move.  It provides solvency for the bank (increased capital that is protected by the FDIC), and increases confidence in the bank by savers.  If a bank is solvent and has confidence, it can make prudent investments that will grow again.  These investments will continue to grow and expand, and our economy will be back on it's feet.  How quickly is still the Million Dollar question.
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