December 2010 Archives

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.

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. 

December 9, 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.

December 8, 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. 

December 7, 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.

December 2, 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.

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