June 2009 Archives

June 25, 2009

The Allure of Living Simply: Rethinking the Home

My household has become rather cramped of late with family living in a small(ish) home, and so my wife and I started floating ideas around on how to better manage our home.  Our own family was growing, and we felt cramped in the house. 

The first thought we had was to expand, and to expand radically.  I immediately pulled out my lab notebook and started drawing the house (more or less to scale), and adding on a radical extension that would almost double the square footage of our home.  I then took the plans to a good friend of ours that was also a general contractor, and got the crushing news:  not only would we have trouble getting a permit to build the monstrosity, but we would be looking at a cost that would be equal to what we still owed on our mortgage.  Defeated, he told me to think through it again, and get other opinions. 

So I started thinking what my requirements were, and what I wanted out of my home.  First and foremost I want more garden space, at least for a couple of peach trees and a cherry tree.  Currently I don't have that, and I love both peaches and cherries.  I would also like to grow a number of other food products in the yard while still having a safe place for my boys to play.  I also need more space for my parents to live, as their health is starting to suffer. 

For those of you who are not familiar with the layout of my home, I have a 1,000 square foot home, with another 900 square feet in 90% finished basement.  I then have a 320 square foot covered back porch, which is attached to a 729 square foot garage (which was most likely built without a permit).  The garage collects clutter like mad because it's easier to throw junk into the garage than throw it out, and once it's out of sight, it's out of mind, right? 

As it stands now, the garage is not up to city code, and as such the city will not let me make any more improvements to the property.  So what does this mean?  It means I need to tear down my garage full of clutter before I can even enclose the porch, or any other structure for more living space.  This doesn't really bother me, though it will force me to get rid of some clutter, and make those decisions. 

My wife and I also started talking about the house itself.  Both of us realized that we will never move, and so we want to make the house as livable as possible.  With a few alterations, we could be remodel the home as is, and make it more simple.  Install radiant heating for the floors, and hardwood or tile instead of carpeting.  Both are easier to clean (particularly when trying to potty-train an autistic child), and you can make it really cozy with area rugs.  Add solar power to that, and no more need for a gas bill.  If it gets too cold, we have a fireplace and a wood stove that heats the house quite efficiently. 

Also, if we remove clutter from the rooms, the rooms will seem more open.  There are a lot of figurines, odds and ends, and bits of furniture that are just not needed in the home.  This will be a wrench for me, because I like to collect junk - you never know when you may need it later.  But it's time I started to think about whether or not I will actually need it.  Currently I don't, and I don't see a foreseeable future when I would.  So, I need to just suck it up and throw out all the useless junk that I don't need.

Anyway, both my wife and I came to the conclusion that we could save a lot of money and time by just making a few changes in how we see the space we need vs. the space we would like.  We don't need a massive home, with 20 feet by 20 feet bedrooms, we just need to utilize our current space better.

And for my parents, I could build a simple little guest cottage for them in place of the garage, and a small workshop garage right next to it, and still have more garden space.  it all comes down to living simply, and managing the space more efficiently.

June 23, 2009

iPod Touch 2G with 3.0 Update: First Thoughts

It took me a while, but I finally updated my iPod Touch to the new 3.0 update.  I liked the idea of copy and paste, and the Spotlight search was nice, but I did it entirely because I wanted to enable Bluetooth on my Touch, so I could use it for wireless music and for VoIP. 

The update was clean, and took a good half hour.  The download was about 15 minutes, and the actual update process was another 15.  Then for the next 15 minutes, my iPod backed itself up.  Yes, I paid for the update, and I'm glad I did.  Piracy is not something I condone at any level.  Be honest in your dealings.  If you don't want to pay $10 for a software upgrade, try installing Linux on your iPod (yes, there is currently a project for it). 

Once it was finished, the first thing I tried to do was pair my Plantronics Voyager 510 headset I purchased several years ago with my iPod.  Bluetooth was easy to find on the iPod Touch in Settings, under General.  I enabled it, set my iPod in discovery mode, and then set up my headset in discovery mode.  And...nothing.  My iPod wouldn't even see it. 

Puzzled, and concerned that perhaps the chip was dead on my iPod that I bought a long time ago, I thought I would check out the boards and see if anyone else was experiencing the same issue.  Report after report came of people either not able to pair their non-stereo headset, or the mic not working on a paired stereo headset. 

So this told me two things:  The headset needs to be an SD2P stereo headset (good thing I didn't buy a headset for my wife quite yet), and the mic wasn't working for those out there that already had it set up.  My heart sank, because this was the main reason why I wanted Bluetooth for my iPod Touch.  I want a WiFi phone that is easy to carry around, doesn't ring when I don't want it to, and let's me access my voicemail on my own time. 

But the reports of the bluetooth mic were made primarily in conjunction with Skype, and when I opened Skype on my iPod, I got an incompatible OS Version error.  The app seemed to work just fine, but I wondered if the mic functionality was only being tested on an app that may not support it, instead of a limitation in the OS.

More searching brought up some discussions of the mic not working at all, even for Voice Memos, so my guess is the bluetooth mic support is not built into the OS update.  Perhaps it will be added in another minor update (one would hope), because the convenience would make owning the iPod Touch that much more of a benefit.

With regard to the other features, it is nice to have copy and paste now, though it took me a few seconds to figure out how to use it.  The Calendar update is something I have wanted for a long time (CalDAV supported at last!), but since I'm using Exchange at work, I can't have other calendars set up.  Spotlight is really nice, because it finds anything on the iPod.  I had wondered how someone with many pages of apps would find the app they wanted.  Spotlight takes care of that. 

I had wondered when the shake to shuffle functionality would come to the iPhone and iPod Touch when it was added to the iPod Nano, though I don't think it would be ideal for joggers.  In fact I have already heard of joggers and mountain bikers recommending the feature be turned off before starting.  The Parental Controls are a welcome feature.  That alone makes the $10.00 upgrade worth it!

I like the idea of syncing the Notes, though I still need to find the location to which they are copied.  I like the idea because it allows for spontaneous fits of writing to my iPod, and then I can copy the results to an app at another time. 

Lastly, Safari.  I had high hopes for this update, hoping that it would include full Java applet support, and not just Javascript.  Why?  Because I hold office hours in Wimba, which requires Java to run properly for many of it's functions.  I didn't necessarily want everything to work, but at least chat should I be on the road and need to attend office hours on the go. 

So, while I was disappointed with the Bluetooth headset failure, I still think the update is worth the $10.63 (with tax) for the other features.  If anyone has any more information on bluetooth headsets and using VoIP, I would be very interested in hearing about it! 

June 19, 2009

Iran, Revolution, and the U. S. President

Today there have been a lot of articles in the news about the reaction, or lack thereof, from President Obama's Administration regarding the protests and prelude to revolution in Iran.  Instead of whole-hearted praise and warm greetings to those protesting what appeared to be a rigged election, it has been a measured, cautious approach.  Some call this outrageous, others call it being too weak.  I, on the other hand, see it as exactly what the US should be doing, and here is why:

In 1989, when protesters in Berlin began to bring down the Berlin Wall, the world was elated.  Everyone wanted a piece of the wall (and I think you can still find some pieces on eBay, though I'm not sure if they are authentic), and everyone was talking about the success of the US policy against Russia.  The media was praising this, and looking to the President, then President George Bush (Sr.) for words of support and praise.  Instead, President Bush was reserved, much like President Obama is currently.  He was criticized for his apparent lack of concern or support for what almost every President since John F. Kennedy had called for:  the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But President Bush had a reason to be reserved:  Having worked for the CIA, he knew of a common technique used by the KGB where rumors of CIA and US support would come to those who revolt against Soviet rule.  The protests would then be made with the hope and understanding that the CIA would back the revolt, and the KGB would then sweep in and quickly wipe out all dissidents.  President Bush didn't want the same technique used in Germany, and so merely said he was watching things closely and didn't say anything regarding the fall of the Wall. 

As a result, the fall of East Germany under the rule of the Soviets was completely a German matter, and was not controlled or instigated by the US.  As such, the reunification has since been a German decision, and no one can claim that Germany is by any means under the control of the US Government.  Also, other countries were able to break free from the Soviet State, and become independent without US intervention, and therefore their governments became truly theirs, representative of the people. 

So now let's look at Iran.  There is a lot going on there that is promising to those looking for freedom and a true democracy in that country, free from the influences of the US or any other nation.  These demonstrations are truly Iranian in nature, and President Obama is determined to keep it that way.  It's worthy of President Bush, and I imagine he probably had counseled with the former President on this very issue.  There are no other sitting Presidents who have had this type of experience, and no other President that could have boasted such a successful outcome. 

So, to the people of the Media, before you criticize the President for taking such a cautious and reserved stance, keep in mind what is at stake here.  The minute the US is seen supporting any type of demonstration, the current regime can dismiss it as foreign intervention, and kill people without conscience.  But if it remains purely an Iranian event, the Iranians can decide for themselves if a regime change is necessary to bring true democracy to the country, or even if they really want a true democracy. 

June 15, 2009

Cream Crowdie: A Scottish Parfait

At the Scottish Festival on Saturday, I had a chance to try a tasty Scottish dessert that turned out to be very easy to make.  It's called a Cream Crowdie, and is a parfait, that is a layered dessert with alternating fruit and cream layers.  The cream was whipped to hard peaks, and sweetened with honey instead of sugar.  Also in the cream was oatmeal, adding a layer of flavor and texture that took me by surprise.  The fruit layer was actually a raspberry topping that turned out to be too rich for me. 

It was so good that my wife and I decided to try to make it ourselves.  Instead of raspberry topping we made raspberry Jell-O, which made less of a sugar rush than the topping.  I made the Jell-O according to the typical recipe, and it set up as any Jell-O would. 

The cream I made this way:

1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tbsp honey
1/4 cup oatmeal

I first combined the honey and the whipping cream together, and whipped it to hard peaks for stiffness.  I then folded in the oatmeal.  The cream was good, but the oatmeal hadn't absorbed much of the liquid as I had hoped.  Next time I make it I'll soak the oatmeal in the cream first for a few hours, and then whip up the cream with the oatmeal. 

Anyway, the proportions above would make four or five small Crowdies in a small container.  You can easily substitute the gelatin for real fruit if you like.  I would have this time around, but my raspberries haven't yet ripened.

Fear and Autism

The Examiner had a really good article outlining the prevalence of fear within the autistic mind.  Quoting Temple Grandin, perhaps the most well known scientist with autism, they mention that daily tasks fill the autistic mind with fear.

Imagine, if you will, you are in a closed room with a lot of people.  Then, suddenly, one of the guests tell you they let loose several hundred snakes in the room.  Instantly you would be constantly distracted and aware of any slither, movement, or irregularity in the room.  Because of this, you will be distracted, and possibly even considered rude by other people in the room. 

That, according to Temple Grandin, is exactly what autism is.  Autism is all about the detail, but as an autistic person experiences the world around them, the details of every day tasks become at once overwhelming.  Walking becomes a complicated process of moving the joints just right, keeping balance by moving other joints and shifting weight, and the reaction of nerves to let you know you have accomplished your step.  Putting an object away becomes a complicated process of grasping the object with just enough pressure to keep from damaging it, lifting it with just enough force to still keep a grasp on it, and then walking with that same complex process to the place to put it away.  Then once you start the process of putting it away, how should it be placed?  The details becoming quickly overwhelming, filling a person with autism with a fear of attempting something so complicated. 

This is why an autistic person does not become "cured", whether through intensive therapy or magically with drugs or chants.  The human mind can work around that fear, manage it and overcome it, and as such appear to be normal, but the threat of panic attacks and failing at the task is ever present. 

When I was growing up, particularly when I moved from elementary to junior high school, I started experiencing panic attacks regularly.  I didn't know what they were, or what they were caused by, until I graduated from high school.  It was then that I realized that the panic attacks came when I would over-think a task.  I would break it down into several pieces.  All of a sudden doing homework became so overwhelming I couldn't start.  Studying for a test was so complicated, because of the unknown variables, I couldn't focus.  It wasn't until I learned some relaxation techniques that took me away from the task for a minute that I learned I could deal with the fear, and accomplish the task.  If it were that bad for me as not being diagnosed on the spectrum, how bad can it be for someone on the spectrum?

So how to we help those with Autism overcome the fear?  Repetition, routine, and a supportive environment.  Once they know they can accomplish a task, they can feel comfortable with it.  Specialization is perfect for someone with Autism because of the focus in detail and process.  Help them identify the process, and each part of the process, within a comforting and safe environment.

June 12, 2009

June 12th and 13th: Utah Scottish Association Highland Games & Scottish Festival

Tonight and tomorrow mark the Annual Utah Scottish Association Highland Games & Scottish Festival being held at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi.  This is an annual event for my family, as we go to walk the vendors, hear the pipes, watch the events, get free stuff, and eat haggis (okay, so I'm the only one that eats the stuff, but it's still cool!).  If you are interested in connecting with your Scottish side, come to the festivities!  More details can be found at http://utahscots.org. 

You may even see me there, by the MacFarlane clan booth, or around about.  While there, eat some haggis, get a strawberry and clotted cream tart, and a good bottle of ginger beer.  If you have a kilt, wear it! 

See you there, and Loch Sloy, MacFarlanes!  Loch Sloy!

June 9, 2009

Autism and Resources: What We Have, and What We Need

The news is all a buzz with the needs of families with Autism, the treatments that work or don't work, the quacks and celebrities that offer their opinions based on anecdotal evidence and fudged research, and the tools that are available for autistic children.  All these articles do is outline the scope of the problem, blow it a little out of proportion, and even mislead us into thinking what solutions there are.  Ultimately, we come to the same conclusion:  we as families working with Autism don't have the resources to be effective. 

What do I mean?  I mean that though there are sources for autistic treatment that has proven to work time and time again, those sources are expensive and/or unavailable.  Don't get me wrong, the services that most public and private entities are generally top notch, and work well with our children when they have them.  But they can't work with our autistic children 24/7, and as such they just can't be as effective as they could become.

Also, most parents who have recently had their child diagnosed with autism immediately seem to want to find "the cure", the one thing that will make their child become "normal", and as such not need special attention.  They expect their child to learn from imitation as they did, instead of through direct instruction.  It's frustrating for anyone to try to teach people in a method that is different than there own, which is why working with autistic children in a learning environment can be very taxing. 

So what is the solution?  We have the resources in raw form, but the supply and demand process is not working, because the resources are too expensive for many families and Autism is becoming more prevalent.  We need something that will provide both more resources and help parents and care-givers understand what needs to be done. 

The answer:  provide educational resources for parents and care-givers of autistic children.  These resources can be in the form of specific exercises to take their children trough, computer programs that can engage the child while still teach them useful tools, and a support center that can answer questions and make sure the family is continuing on the right track. 

The best way I can see to distribute this out would be to provide online courses for parents to participate in, engaging parents, caregivers, and children in such a way that they understand what they are doing, and why.  This method should be attainable, assuming the learning methods are soundly rooted in combined auditory and visual methods. 

It's a lot to ask, but I think it can be done.  There are a lot of tools that are out there already, floating around and separate.  By focusing our efforts and combining these tools into a single course method, I think it's possible to provide parents with the help they need. 

Unfortunately, I don't think I'm qualified to provide the materials personally, as I don't have the necessary qualifications for autism counseling (yet), but it would be nice if our government took this under their wing and helped parents to help themselves.  It would be a heck of a lot cheaper than the alternative that continuously gets thrown around.  

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