August 2011 Archives

August 31, 2011

Vaccines and Autism: No Link Found

Article first published as Vaccines and Autism: No Link Found on Technorati.Children at playYet again, vaccines have been discounted as a direct cause of Autism, as reported by the New York Times. And this isn't a panel of lawyers, a group of activists, this is a report that came from a panel of experts assembled by the Institute of Medicine. The report does site some side-effects and potential risks to vaccines, but nothing suggests that vaccines directly cause Autism, type 1 diabetes, etc.Why is this so important? Because vaccines are necessary to stave off some of the most deadly and disfiguring diseases of our time. Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Polio, Whooping Cough, etc. were deadly in the United States for years, decimating schools when one child came to school sick. Vaccines have given us a way to protect all our children, both at school and really young children at home, by giving them a defense without the illness.Some parents talk about the need to remove vaccines as a requirement for attending school. Others say we just need to rethink the schedule of vaccinations for our children. Personally, I'm inclined to say as long as your children are vaccinated, it doesn't really matter. The rise of these highly preventable diseases is reason enough to make sure your children are protected. The fact that vaccines do not directly cause Autism should be seen as a relief for those who are vaccinating their children, and no longer a reason to avoid vaccination.So what causes Autism? That's a whole different discussion, as Autism is diagnosed through behavioral traits and not medical conditions. So while a number of conditions, both genetic and potentially environmental, can cause Autism or Autism-like traits, vaccines, at least, are not a cause.

August 26, 2011

Thank You Steve, Thank You

I was on my way home from work when my wife sent me a text, asking me about my opinion about the resignation of Steve Jobs as CEO from Apple.  I nearly fell out of my seat (fortunately I was on the bus at the time).  I didn't think it was possible, as I have always equated Steve Jobs with Apple, and vice versa.  I quickly looked for the headlines (it didn't take long), and read the article in the San Jose Mercury News.  I never once thought about the Company, as I have always said if Steve Jobs left Apple there would be plenty of skilled, talented geniuses working at Apple to take his place.  Instead, knowing that he has battled cancer for years, I was concerned for Steve. But why would I care so much about a CEO of a company that I've never met, and only seen at a distance once (he was surrounded by his entourage, as it was just before Apple announced the iPhone).  I don't work for Apple, so he doesn't directly effect me.  No, I was concerned because of the impact he has made on my life.  Not just because I'm an Apple user, but because of why I'm an Apple user.  I used to hate Macs.  I couldn't stand using OS 9 and all it's buggy quirks.  Nope, I was a Linux user, quite used to having to compile the software myself if I wanted it, or writing a script that would do the job for me.  Then Mac OS X was announced, and we got a copy in our Mac lab for the new G3 iMac.  I opened it, immediately found Terminal, and was hooked.  Here was a platform that gave me my UNIX console and commands, but I could buy commercial software (i.e., games like Warcraft 3) and not have to worry about hacking it to get it to work.  This, for me, was a huge turning point.  Since then I have been an advocate for the Mac, and I've loved it's user-friendly concepts.  Everyone I've encountered that has been intimidated by the Mac has been won over (with a few stubborn people who like to wrestle with their chosen OS).  Either it's because of the ease of use iPhoto makes of scrapbooking (which converted my wife), or the simple way Garageband provides music mixing and composing.  Sure, there are other programs out there, but none as simple or easy to use.  And when Apple started this road, I had always wanted them to do one thing: release a PDA.At the time I had put up with the Pocket PC, and even flirted with Familar OS and other Embedded Linux distributions, but nothing that felt right.  In fact, I often found myself leaving the platform regularly, or leaving the Pocket PC sitting at home, quietly charging.  Then I would stop using it, and look for other answers.  Why?  Because it was so complicated to use.  It didn't feel like a useful tool.  That's why I wanted Apple to release something the minute I heard the rumor of the iWalk.  I wanted to see what Apple would do with it.  Unfortunately, it was just a rumor and the product never came out, but something even better came later that literally changed my life:  the iPhone.  While I never owned the first iPhone, but once apps were being developed, and I learned that my son was diagnosed with Autism, it quickly became the device I had wanted in a long time.  It let the app take over the screen, it let my finger be the stylus (replacing the often broken or lost stylus of my Pocket PC), and it was very easy to use.  Soon the Autism community started releasing tons of apps for those on the Spectrum, and the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad have all found a place in my home.  My kids love it, my 2 year old learned to spell with it, and my son with Autism uses it to explore his education in a new and exciting way.I had a chance to thank one of the masterminds, Scott Forstall, for the iPhone and it's sister products.  But I've never had a chance to thank Steve or the others involved in the product.  So Steve, I hope you get this, but from a father of children on the Spectrum, thank you for having the vision that has brought so much to so many.  You will be missed, and I hope all is well.  

August 24, 2011

Dual-Boot Imaging for Mac OS X Lion and Windows 7

One of the benefits of having a new Mac lab is setting it up for all the classes we teach.  Of course, most of them are taught on PC software, meaning I need to have a dual-boot image with Windows booting as the default OS.  Not a problem really with a Macintosh computer, though it takes a little bit of tweaking to get it working right as I found out. I started out by planning how the images would need to be built.  The Mac image was not a problem, as it was pretty much the same image that I've been using for years (just upgraded to Lion).  The Windows image took some doing and quite a lot of googling as I don't often install Windows, let alone create images.  But that was the easy bit.  The hard part was looking for an image process that would work for free.There are quite a few Windows image tools out there that are free and work on a PC hard drive (i.e., MBR partitions).  For our PC labs we have used Acronis because of it's simplicity and ease of use.  And it works great for the PC installations, but as the Macintosh uses a GUID partition table instead of the Master Boot Record Acronis isn't able to see it and therefore cannot perform a restore.  So I needed another tool. Winclone is perhaps the best known friend of the dual-boot image community, as it makes a cloned image of the existing Windows partition on a Mac and does the restore.  It would be a no-brainer to use Winclone, but for one issue:  Two Canoes no longer develops Winclone, and the last official version (2.2) barely worked on Snow Leopard and will not work on Lion.  Fortunately a hacked version has been released, 2.3, and it will work on Lion with some preference changes.  When you install Winclone, do so on a Mac partition that you intend to use as a NetRestore image.  Why?  Well, it makes it easier to deploy your Winclone image once you are done (install once, image, and deploy to multiple computers as you go along).  It also works better in a NetRestore image rather than a NetBoot image because of the amount of data that needs to be cached and transfered during the image.  I have tried both, and find the NetRestore to have far superior restore performance on a single Mac than the NetBoot image.  Once installed, open Winclone and in the Winclone menu select Preferences.  Once there, click on all options to deselect them, and select the compressed image (as opposed to the dmg image).  The Winclone image process will not work without this step (as the logs will show). Then start your image process.  I saved it to the Desktop for convenience, but as long as you know where to expect the image to be, any place is fine.  After a while (30 minutes to several hours depending on the size of your Windows install), you should be ready to deploy.  You may get an error telling you it wasn't able to complete correctly after running through the whole process, but the restore has seemed to work for me so I have ignored this error.  Once finished with Winclone, you now need to make your deployment image.  You can use something like DeployStudio if you have it, but I've always been happy with the NetBoot service for Mac OS X Server.  Granted, DeployStudio is great for large deployments because of it's multicast method of restoration, but with a small lab of 16 computers, NetBoot works just fine (and doesn't take a lot of configuration or port management).  If you are going to use NetBoot, you will need to use the System Image Utility as part of the 10.7 Server Admin Tools.  You don't have to host the new image on a Lion Server, but you need the Lion version of Server Admin Tools to create a Lion NetRestore image.  I also like making an autoinstall image using the Custom NetRestore Automator tools that System Image Utility provides.  At any rate, build your image and upload it to your NetBoot server.  In addition to the image with Winclone, I also have a NetInstall image for Lion, so I can partition.Now I start by booting to the Lion NetInstall image and partitioning the computers.  I have 4 partitions, but really you only need 2:  One for the Mac, and one for Windows.  For the Windows partition, I used exFAT, though I suppose you could use FAT-32 if you needed.  In the end it doesn't matter, because Winclone will replace it with an NTFS partition, so it's all good.  Once the partition is complete, I restart to my NetRestore image, and let it run.  For my configurations, it took a good 3 hours for all 16 computers to image, but the time will vary based on what you have installed on both the Mac side and in your Windows image. Once finished, I started Winclone and restored to the Windows partition.  This took another hour per computer, but then it's running locally and not on the network, so that makes sense.  Once finished, I downloaded rEFIt and installed it for managing the boot process.  Technically I could do this with the built in EFI booter, but I like the flexibility that rEFIt gives me.  Once finished, I needed to configure it.  This is all done in the refit.conf file (located at /efi/refit/refit.conf).  I just opened the file in vi and edited the timeout from 20 to 5 seconds, and set the default image to Windows.  Once done, I save, and run the enable script (/efi/refit/, authenticate for sudo, and it's done!  Now I just needed to reboot..And the install is broken.  It seems the virtual MBR that EFI keeps didn't get updated with the Winclone image.  There are two ways around this:  either I do a fresh install of Windows and then restore the Winclone image, or I can boot off a Windows Recovery CD (or install DVD) and repair the MBR to get it to work.  That takes significantly less time, and once done I shouldn't need to worry about doing it again.  So I ran the repair and it worked!  Everything booted up correctly, the image was done.  In total it took me a full day of imaging for a lab of 16.  Add on to that a full day of tearing down the old lab and placing the new lab, it's been a fun week so far.  The good news is that now the hard part is over, and I just need to bind the new computers to the Directory, and all will be running smoothly. Though in future, I may think of other ways to run a deployment, either by running a dd backup and restore, or using the Windows Backup tech to deploy the Windows image.  It shouldn't be that difficult this next time around, because the initial work is all done.  I'll keep you posted on the process as I get it worked out. 

Being Autism-Friendly

An Autism-Friendly game with a child playing in the water.Article first published as Being Autism-Friendly on Technorati.The New York Times posted an article on the Lion King being the first Broadway play to host an Autism-Friendly performance. The idea isn't that shocking, as Disney's The Lion King has a huge appeal to children and families, including those with children on the Spectrum. So catering to the Autism community is one way to build interest in the theatre for those who generally do not participate.But how do you make something "Autism-Friendly", particularly when those on the Spectrum react to different events in different ways? What makes your event Autism-Friendly? It's something I'm starting to see more and more, and yet it hasn't been defined for me completely. So, in the absence of any clear definition, I've come up with my own:DistractionsDistractions need to be set at a minimum. If there are lots of flashing lights or colors, lots of background noise, anything that flickers, then it's not Autism-Friendly. Visual and auditory stimulation are the most common ways to set off a reaction in a child with Autism. When I look for a place, such as a place to eat, I look for low background noise. It's getting harder and harder to find a good family restaurant that doesn't have a lot of background noise, but when I do, it makes one point in being considered an Autism-Friendly restaurant.Staff UnderstandingThe last thing we as parents want to worry about are staff members that judge us for the behavior of our child on the Spectrum. Yes, parents need to take responsibility for their children, but Autism throws an added level of behavior issues into a situation that can frustrate staff members and parents alike. So the staff need to be understanding. A good example would be the experiences I had with my son at SeaWorld in San Diego and Disneyland. At SeaWorld, my son was often on edge, particularly while waiting to get food. It was a terrible experience, and almost eclipsed the enjoyment my son had at all the exhibits. Disneyland, on the other hand, was such a great experience with all the staff members and their willingness to understand that we had little trouble. Staff make a huge difference in Autism-Friendly designations.CrowdsI hate crowded places. I've never done well with them, and often walk around the edge of a crowd if I can. My son is much the same way. If a crowd is not well managed, or if people in the crowd are not polite and understanding, the whole experience can become a nightmare. If there are long lines without relief, loud people in enclosed places, or the feeling of having to scrunch up as small as possible just to stand, then it's not going to be Autism-Friendly. That also goes for seating at sporting events, restaurants, theaters, etc.That, at least, is my list. I have a high opinion of Disney and their dedication to providing a quality experience to everyone, including those who are on the Spectrum, so I am sure The Lion King will be successful. it's a good trend that I would like to see continue everywhere.

August 18, 2011

A Huge Loss to Mobile: HP is Dropping WebOS

I'm an iOS user.  I love the platform, and I like the stability it gives me when I work with it.  But I also like other platforms for their innovation and attention to detail.  And today, one of those platforms is being halted.  HP announced that, in addition to looking to spin off their PC business, they are going to stop production on their WebOS devices.  This announcement comes at a time when Google purchased Motorolla Moblility, the mobile phone arm of Motorolla, and Apple has enjoyed being the single largest hardware smartphone seller in the world.  HP had pinned their hopes on the WebOS platform as a way to jump back into the mobile device market (think HP iPaq).  But, it looks like they have decided it was not meant to be, and are now going to move it out. So what does this mean to the mobile ecosystem?  Apple is looking pretty good, having pretty much reinvented the smartphone with iOS.  Google has saturated the market with a lot of devices of varying capabilities and releases, so they are doing well too.  But I had a lot of hopes for WebOS.  They get what mobile devices should be, and how they should work.  Their idea of a tablet falls well in line with the same concepts that make iOS and Google successful, and it would have been nice to see them succeed and bring their level of innovation into the ring.  In fact, it's thought that WebOS could become the darling of another maker with more persistance and deeper pockets, like say Samsung or HTC.  It would stave off the tension of buying a competitor's OS (even if it's technically open source) to use on their platform, now that Google has Motorolla (or will have, after anti-trust investigations are done and all goes well for Google).  So WebOS may not be produced for a little bit, but I don't think it will ultimately die.  The real strength that HP gave WebOS (and Palm before it) was the optimization of the platform to the hardware.  Much like Apple's model, it allows for a much more fluid customer experience.  Those that I have spoken to that had a WebOS device absolutely loved it.  I would hope, should another company like HTC purchase WebOS, they take that into consideration and keep that same fidelity instead of trying to peddle out the OS to multiple platform developers.  But why invest in a platform that wasn't popular?  Well, to be perfectly frank, the failure of WebOS wasn't really in the platform, but more in the way it was introduced.  It was released before it was ready, and had no development for it beyond the inhouse apps.  And that's to be expected from any new platform. So where do you go with it?  Well, whoever buys WebOS (if anyone does) needs to invest a lot of development time into providing a strong ecosystem of apps for the users.  If you don't have the app ecosystem, you won't get the users, or even the developers as it will be seen as a weak platform.  And that ecosystem needs to be reliable and trustworthy, not riddled with malware, viruses, etc.  There is a reason why Microsoft was so hated in the 90's, and it wasn't because they were everywhere.  It was because viruses were so common, and they didn't seem to do much to protect themselves.  On a computer, that's one thing, but on something as personal as a phone, you can't do that and expect to keep customers. So, HTC, if you are listening and are thinking of purchasing WebOS, keep that in mind.  Anyway, I hope something happens with WebOS that brings it back into the realm of a serious competitor for the smartphone market.

August 17, 2011

Growing Food At Home: Urban Farming with the Malthus

We need fresh vegetables and fruits.  I don't think there is anyone that would argue that statement.  The problem: it's cheaper to buy processed foods than to buy fresh vegetables.  And the quality of those fresh vegetables are generally, well, not so good.  I don't mean rotten by any means, but they are generally tasteless.  And if you don't have any flavor in your food, you don't want to eat it.  That's the concern facing my family, and may other families in the world today.  How can you afford to eat right, and enjoy it?  

The best answer is to grow your own food.  Of course that means having land, a good source of water, time to let it grow, etc.  It's a long and laborious process to grow food traditionally, and you end up with a single harvest that then needs to be used up quickly or it's lost.  This seasonality of vegetables makes having fresh vegetables all year round just as frustrating.  And then there is the land issue.  Even if most families in the average suburban land plot plowed under all their grass and grew vegetables, they wouldn't have enough for all the family.  No, they would need to expand in a big way to get the food they need, even for one meal per person per day.  And this is exactly what urban farming is all about:  providing a way to grow food in an urban area (including high-rises), either as a supplement to the current diet or complete subsistence farming.  

Urban farming has become a very popular topic, it seems.  More people are predicting food shortages, uncontrollable pricing, and, well, end of the world type situations where you defend your warehouse full of Twinkies with your rifle.  Personally I'm of the opinion that urban farming is something that anyone who is interested in having more control over their food bill and food source should take seriously.  Nothing tastes better than food you grow yourself, mostly because it doesn't have to be picked green for better shipping.  Real food, like ripe tomatoes right off the garden vine, has a special flavor that you can't get anywhere else.  

But what if you don't have the space for a garden, as I found I didn't after my son ripped up my seedling tomatoes and herbs in the back.  How do you grow what you need in little space?  And what about meat, assuming you are not a vegetarian/vegan? Clearly you need to either move to a better location with more room to produce your food, or come up with a way to grow your food in a high enough density to provide the food you need.  As most people do not want to, or cannot move, the best option is to find a way to produce your food in high density. 

One way to do that, and one that I find very promising, is aquaponics.  For aquaponics to work, you need a tank full of fish (and by extension, their waste) to feed your plants, which in turn filter out the waste to keep the fish water clean.  The fish benefit from the clean water provided by the plants (and if you have herbivorous fish like tilapia, food as well), while the plants benefit from the fertilizer provided by the fish. If produced in a high enough quantity, you can produce enough food for at least one meal per person in the house.  The thing is, how do you do it, and how efficient is the process?  

Well, one design group has built and tested a configuration using commonly found products.  Conceptual Devices has built the Malthus, a system to grow within an enclosed space food enough for one meal per day. The concept is pretty clear, and they have a working model in Zurich.  It's a great idea, and I think it's something that could easily be deployed in any household.  Because it's all spaced vertically, the footprint is low.  Salad plants, at least any that are not head lettuces, will continue to throw up new leaves as you cut, making them regular producers.  Plants like Tomatoes and Cucumbers will continue to produce if they don't have a frost, though you will need to pollenate them by hand (or with a small paint brush).  

The fish, well, that's another story.  The fish in the picture are tropical fish that are not, generally, suited for eating.  Tilapia, on the other hand, would make for great eating, provided they can be produced in a high enough quantity, which this setup doesn't seem to make possible.  No, if you want to have daily fish on the menu, you will need a bigger setup.  Still, fish every once in a while isn't bad, and makes a great supplement to the salad being produced.

Anyway, it's definitely a good idea, and one that is worth exploring.  So, first off..  how much will this thing cost?  Cost of materials would vary, depending on what you have on hand.  I might do an estimate on that, though for a one-time expense, as long as other costs (like electricity) can be covered, the materials cost could be recovered over time.  So the repetitive cost of electricity becomes a concern.  How much power does this use up?  

   The first thing I checked out was the LED lights.  I found some LED strips at that are about that right size, and pulled the details. Each strip runs at 225 mA (milliamps), or 0.2 Amps at 12 volts.  That means for a set of four lights as outlined by the plans, you are looking at roughly 10.8 Watts of power being used every hour it is being used.  You would probably want to time it to run about 16 hours, giving the plants 8 hours of rest, so that would be 172.8 Watt-hours, or 0.1728 kWh per day.

   Next, I checked out the water pump.  For a good one, you need a pond pump for dirty water applications.  I found a small one (shouldn't need a large one) at  It's rated at 5 Watts per hour. 

   The Air Pump depends on the size of the tank you get.  The one listed in the parts for this setup is a 400 Liter tank, which is about a 100 Gallon tank in the US.  You need a fairly large air pump, and the one I found that fits it is the Tetra Whisper 100, which runs on 4.8 Watts her hour. 

As everything else is just a one-time purchase (barring any issues), these are your repeating costs of running the setup.  All total, you are looking at almost 21 additional watts per hour for the Malthus.  You would be running the pumps for 24 hours a day each at almost 5 Watts, making it about 240 Watt-hours, or 0.24 kWh a day.  Add them together and you get 0.4128 kWh a day, at the price of 5.9536 cents a day.  Monthly that would be about $1.50 more for a daily meal.  Is it worth it?  That's up to you.  

So, it's an interesting concept, and one worth exploring more.  Perhaps one day I'll get a chance to build something like this, just to see how it would work.  It would be nice to have a fresh meal of veggies every day, just waiting for me.  

August 6, 2011

Autism and the Community: Looking at Church

Father with babe in arms after church.

Article first published as Autism and the Community: Looking at Church on Technorati.

I'm always concerned when I start to talk about religion and churches. Religion is a very personal subject, and one not to be taken lightly. Those who believe, whatever their chosen religion is, take is seriously. And one thing that makes a church so powerful to the followers is the community they support. So, as such, it is a perfect way to view society and it's view of Autism.

I'm bringing this up because of an essay I found in the Associated Baptist Press on a mother's concern of not being able to bring her 17 year old son with Autism to church. She mentions the need to have someone there to help her son while he attends worship sessions. The concern is touching, and illustrates the needs of a family in any community: support.

Parents who are religious want their children to also be religious. Just like parents who go to college want their children to go to college. It's all about wanting their children to have the same close relationship with Spirituality that they have come to enjoy, because they see it as a benefit in life. But, if they are denied that option because of a disability, they get frustrated.

So why are they not allowed to church? Well, children with Autism tend to be a bit boisterous at times, or at least that is one way to put it. And in a church, there are generally traditions that need to be followed. Children on the Spectrum may not be able to follow these traditions.

One example that springs to mind is in the pilot episode of Parenthood, where the son is unable to attend a function because of his inability to be near candles. The grandfather just thinks the child is being irrational, and finally the father has to set him straight about what Autism is, and how he will need a little support. Moments like that ring so true to me, because we all feel them as parents with a child who is disabled.

Congregations that I have attended (both my own and as a guest of others), have set traditions and processes in place that are expected. And sometimes a child on the Spectrum is unable to conform to those expectations. One example is the need for silence during a sermon or prayer, and children with Autism are unpredictable when it comes to remaining quiet.

So what is the community to do? Honestly, the best thing is to prepare the congregation in general, and those who teach in particular, with the realities of Autism. If your congregation is close with a strong sense of community, most are understanding. I've found, in my own congregation I attend, many are understanding with my son's outbursts.

And when teaching a child with Autism, it's pretty much the same as teaching them in a secular school or environment. Often parents feel the need to attend their child's class to help them manage the experience, but it shouldn't be necessary. If the teacher is aware of the situation, and is told how best to manage the child, often that can be enough to resolve any issues. Again, siting my own son's experience, his class has multiple teachers, one assigned just for him to learn. And, I might add, she does a fabulous job.

In the end, it all comes down to the community. And with religion in particular, those who have chosen a belief and to follow a congregation feel the need of the support from that same congregation. If they don't get that support, then the feeling of pain is incredibly intense. And this same concept of needing support can be said for all communities: Scouting, political affiliation, Neighborhood, city, county, State, or even Nation. Religion is just one microcosm that illustrates a greater need for help.

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