March 2013 Archives

March 19, 2013

Computing Ecosystems: Why?

If blame needs to be assigned, I suppose you could throw it at Apple. They started it, with their own operating system on the first Macintosh. Then they introduced the iPod that played music from iTunes, which brought the iTunes store. Then they introduced the iOS devices, the App Store, then the App Store to for the Mac, and as such started to control the user experience through an ecosystem. Everyone told them they were crazy from Microsoft to Google, from tech pundits to grandmothers.

Now, Microsoft is doing it with their cloud offerings, Google is starting it with their Android-only software releases and Google Chrome app store, and even Samsung is starting to build their own ecosystem for their phones, regardless of their OS. Now everyone is all about building a walled garden of some sort, in order to control the user experience.

Why? That may sound like a crazy question from an Apple user, but I think it needs to be asked. An ecosystem doesn't in and of itself guarantee success of a company, but it seems to work for Apple. So why is everyone trying to copy it when it was considered such a lousy idea?

Suppose you as a user want to install an application. In the good old days of Microsoft dominance with a few Macs and Linux boxes out there, you would have to go down to a computer store and pick it up. Or perhaps you would purchase an online download of the software. Either way, you had to actively go out and find the software you wanted, make sure it was compatible for your platform, purchase it, then run the installer.

Linux, interestingly enough, started streamlining this process. RedHat, Mandriva, Ubuntu, etc. would provide cloud-based "app stores" where you just run your install command and it would, well, install your application, service, or tool. Don't have all the required dependencies installed? It would install those as well. This was a HUGE improvement over the old fashioned way of grabbing an app from some repository somewhere, try to install, get dependency errors, try to install dependencies, get more dependency errors, and spend a week trying to configure and install an application. It made it convenient for users, and many in my Linux classes saw this as a way to get more people using Linux in the mainstream.

But no one took Linux's direction seriously, because they didn't have to. People were already conditioned into the "go and buy" process that they didn't really care what Linux was doing. But another platform that had a small footprint in the general computer environment, and therefore a small footprint in the PC-heavy software store, found it difficult to get good software to their users. So Apple, after seeing the success of the App Store on the iPhone, figured they could just import that to the Mac. It made sense, and now there are thousands of Mac apps available from big box and independent developers available to anyone with a Mac to purchase. And still people scoffed, particularly when big box companies like Adobe and Microsoft were reluctant to share 30% of the sales with Apple just for a spot on their App Store.

But with the release of Windows 8, Microsoft has built an App Store for Windows. Part of that is because Windows 8 really is developed for a tablet to use, but it's also a brilliant marketing move in that Microsoft can now, just like Apple, RedHat and the like, have more control over the client's computing experience. Clients now have easy access to applications that do what they want without having to read boxes, look at shelves, drive to a busy mall, etc.

So what about Google, they are just all about the cloud right? Well, sort of, but then they released two operating systems: Android, and Chrome. Android, which has matured quite nicely with Jelly Bean, provided they can keep more continuity between developers. The one really poor thing about Android is the varying quality of devices on which it sits. Sure, you have the high end devices like the Galaxy S4, but you also have really cheap android devices that just barely work. Add onto that a confusing App Store experience, and Android really struggled.

But Google quickly wised up and developed Google Play, an almost exact copy of iTunes and the App Store. Now with the one stop shop, they can control the quality of the apps, help limit some of the historical security issues with apps (lots of malware and spyware on that platform in the past), and control the user experience from sign in to purchase. More control means better experiences for the users, which leads to more adoption of the platform.

Amazon did the same thing with the Kindle Fire, as did Barnes and Noble with the Nook. Sure, they may not be "Android Tablets" like the Galaxy Tab or Motorolla Xoom, but they run Android, Android apps, and have complete top to bottom ecosystems that support them. Great control over the platform means good customer experiences.

So what does this really mean? Ecosystems mean loyal customers, because loyal customers have good customer experiences. The more you build out your ecosystem, the more dedicated your customer base.

But what about the drawbacks? Having used Windows 8, just about every Apple product, and Android devices, I now have three ecosystems to which I belong. For years I've used Google cloud services, but I'm starting to ween myself from them because many of the services I enjoyed are going or have gone away (iGoogle, Google Reader, Google Wave to name a few). The Windows ecosystem has been something new in which I have dabbled, as it plugs into many of the services I already have for my Macs. Apple already has me currently, and as long as the experience remains good, they will have me for a long time.

The consequence of these ecosystems are several email addresses of which I need to keep track, apps that I have purchased remain unavailable unless I use a device within the ecosystem, and I feel frustrated at times when I want to use a feature that I find great in one ecosystem that doesn't exist in the other.

Perhaps one day it will no longer be a problem, and all the ecosystems will exist in harmony. After all, we are still, technically, in early days within the mobile computing world. Perhaps the issue will be resolved some other way.

But in the mean time, what do you think about the computing ecosystems developing? What do you see as pro's or cons?

March 14, 2013

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 - Review

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 Android TabletLet me preface this blog post with declaring the fact that I'm a Mac user. I've been certified as an instructor for Apple since OS X 10.4, and I've been a huge supporter of using mobile tablets as laptop replacements because of iOS. With this in mind, let me give you my review of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 from Samsung.

First, the feel was very light, much lighter than my iPad. This is most likely because the case is plastic instead of aluminum. I'm not going to say it feels "cheaper", but it makes me more nervous to have my kids use it, as they are pretty rough with tablets (a couple have been dropped down the stairs, and took it like troopers!). Aluminum feels more robust.

The OS originally was older, most likely Froyo (though it could have been Ice Cream Sandwich or Gingerbread). The tablet registered as a phone, much to my annoyance. 30 minutes later, after running the update, I was on Jelly Bean, and the look was much more like a tablet. That being said, I wasn't able to install Lync 2010 for Android, because it wasn't available for my device. Not sure why, but that was annoying. Other than that, most of the other apps I use regularly I was able to install without a problem.

In comparing this tablet with my experience with the Motorolla Zoom, I think this tablet wins out. The Zoom was obviously older hardware, as apps would crash regularly. I didn't have that problem on the Galaxy Tab, even with the prior OS installed. The apps were quick, responsive, and worked as I would have expected a tablet to work.

So what did I like?

  • Weight: The weight was the first thing that struck me. It had to be half the weight of the first iPad, and that made it a pleasure to hold. It's slightly lighter in feel to the iPad last generation, and much heavier than the Motorolla Xoom.
  • Performance: The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 had some great performance overall. Everything snapped well, worked well, came up quickly. Large documents, 3D games, and various other general tests I ran went well. Once configured, this little baby was a great tablet.

What I didn't like:

  • Keyboard: The keyboard in Google Drive and other apps was, essentially, a large phone keyboard. It was difficult to type (and I'm used to typing on a tablet screen), making it a pain. I'm sure with some more practice it wouldn't be that big of a deal, but having less space between the "keys" wouldn't have killed them, would it?
  • Configuration: Configuring everything from email to wireless to social networking was more complicated in my opinion than it should have to be. Of course I'm used to the preconfigured settings available to the iPad, so I'm spoiled for time, but I shouldn't have to take 5 to 10 minutes to set up my email when I want to get some work done now. Of course, if you have special settings, complicated setups, or just plain want to have a lot of control, then it's not that big a deal (and actually preferable). Personally, I like things to just work so I can, instead of working at getting things to work.
  • Front-facing Camera: I was testing Skype using my iPad and the Samsung Galaxy tab. The display from the iPad front-facing camera was stellar, looking great in the call. The display from the Galaxy was, well, badly pixellated. They were both on the same network, so I'm going to assign this to the cameras. Still, not everyone uses their tablet for video conferencing, right?
  • USB Port: Okay, I don't have one on the iPad so this shouldn't bother me, right? But the Galaxy Tab doesn't have a USB, micro or otherwise, on it as does the Motorolla Xoom. You don't even have a mini or microSD port. Just a 30-pin adapter, much like the old iPads. Not exactly the same, I might add, they are not interchangeable, but still very, very similar.
  • Default Apps and Home Screen: The setup was confusing, nothing worked until you had everything configured, and even then some of the apps didn't work. Most of the apps in question were Samsung specific, which I quickly removed from the Home screen.

All in all, the Galaxy Tab was a great tablet, it gave me an experience that was closer to my iPad than the Motorolla Zoom, it did the job over all, and my kids chose to use it if an iPad wasn't available (they often overlooked the Xoom). It was missing some of the features that I've come to expect from my iPad, such as controls on my earbuds, but that's something that you can only expect from a company like Apple that wants to integrate and release the entire experience at once. If you are looking for an Android tablet, Samsung makes a great one.

But I'm still glad I have my iPad.

So, any opinions from anyone out there? What do you think?

March 13, 2013

Autism Contingent Shock Therapy: Therapy or Torture?

I was disgusted to read in Forbes of a treatment center that uses electroshock therapy, known as "contingent shock" in the United States today as a form of therapy. The founder of this treatment center, a follower of B. F. Skinner (a famous behaviorist) has been using negative reinforcement techniques for years to try and resolve behavior problems with children who have developmental disabilities or mental illness.

While electroconvulsive therapy has been used for years in the treatment of people with mental disorders or depression, it's a therapy done when the patient is anesthesia and usually only as a last resort as it remains controversial. Contingent shock therapy, on the other hand, is given to someone while they are conscious, aware, and performing undesirable behaviors.

The therapy is based on the work of B. F. Skinner's "Skinner Box" he developed during his research time at Harvard in the 1930's which placed lab rats in a box with an floor that could be charged with electricity anytime the rodent did a behavior that was undesirable. Slowly, the rodent would learn not to do the behavior, and therefore not get shocked.

Since the early 1900's, when autism was first used to describe a range of psychological conditions, it had a stigma associated with mental illness. In 1911, Eugen Bleuler first used the term to refer to a group of symptoms of schizophrenia. In the 1940's, researchers in the US used the term to describe children with emotional or social problems, often called pediatric schizophrenia. And because of this, as of the 1960's, doctors had a direct link between autism and schizophrenia in their minds.

So during the 1960's and 1970's, research into autism treatments focused on medications like LSD and negative (punishment) behavior change techniques like electric shocks, pinching, spanking, and even breaking vials of ammonia under the nose. Contingent shock, which is a shock administered after an undesirable behavior has begun or happened, is a direct decedent of this practice.

What's interesting is research exists out there to suggest that any gains using these methods are temporary, and not permanent. In 1968 Todd Risley found in his research that there is no permanent gain in behavior when people receive these electric shocks. This was back in 1968 with the research was fresh, the technique in vogue, and the results were quickly ascertained. Lichstein and Schreibman found in 1976 that while the techniques seemed to work, it was often very traumatic for the clinician (often more so) than the patient.

The technique remains controversial, particularly since the U.N. has now declared the therapy as practiced by the Judge Rotenberg Center is torture as outlined in the U.N. Convention against Torture. Why? Because the voltage used in the personal devices administering the electric shock can and does leave a mark that can last for days.

So, the question remains, should this method of treatment be allowed, given the current application and research? Has any other research been done? And even if the research suggests electrocuting someone to modify behavior works, should it be used in this day and age when spanking is strongly discouraged?

I've seen a couple more recent articles, one by the founder of the Judge Rotenberg Center, and one other, that extolled the virtues of contingent shock therapy. But I can't get past the image presented in the book, The Alliance where whole masses were controlled using electric shocks embedded in the brain. It's an extreme jump I admit, but it's still the image that comes to my mind.

March 12, 2013

Gaming on the TV with the Apple Ecosystem

Apple's ecosystem is pretty impressive. You have your computer, which (if it's newer) allows you to share your screen via AirPlay to the Apple TV. You have your iPad 2 and later, where you can do the same thing. AirPlay Mirroring has been very useful in our home, as we use it to display apps on the TV for the kids, instead of trying to gather them all around our shoulders (inevitably their heads get in the way).

But as I was playing Disney Super Speedway for the kids, I realized that this near console-quality game (at least the consoles I remember as a kid) could easily be a multiplayer game. And put it up on the TV and it's almost like a console game in and of itself. Except you would only see my view, and not that of all the others. Apple is so close to having a console game system, they are just missing that one element of sharing the game.

Now, this isn't the same with all games, though I can only think of one exception (someone please post any exceptions of which you are aware!), and that's Scrabble. With Scrabble, the iPad can be the game board, and you can play on your own iPhone or iPod Touch. Put that up on the TV via AirPlay, and you have everyone playing their own part of the game, while the game itself is played out in it's entirety on the TV. Imagine if you could do that with a race game, or bowling, or an RPG?

So, how would you do it? The neat thing is that you would have a lot of little consoles that already run their own games, so you have, essentially, a distributed game processing system. All you would need to do is gather the results of those games and share it at one point. That one point, for now, would be an iPad app, and that could be displayed on the TV using the Apple TV.

For an RPG real-time strategy game, perhaps you use the iPad display as your map to view where you are navigating and keep track of allies (a la Warcraft or Starcraft). That would give you more room on your personal "console" for the actual game. It would also give spectators something to follow, other than looking over your shoulder.

For a race game, it would display the full race, while everyone else gets the view of their individual vehicle. Sports games could be the same as well, each person playing a position and they see the game from that perspective, while the main display shows the results of the whole game.

There's lots of ways this could be used, specifically for gaming, so long as you have apps that work in that capacity. But, should you have to use an iPad, then AirPlay Mirror it to the Apple TV? What's to stop the Apple TV to have that app installed directly? Right now, it's space and the fact that it's closed, but get the app installed directly, and everyone just plugs in, you have a pretty killer console experience.

What do you think? Do you think it would be possible? Am I completely off my trolley here, and need to be slapped down? let me know!

March 8, 2013

Auti-Sim: Providing Insight to Autism World

Article first published as Auti-Sim: Providing Insight to Autism World on Technorati.

Auti-Sim showing a child with autism in full meltdown.  The screams you don't hear, are deafening.

As a parent, you want to understand your children. You want to comprehend what is going through their minds, and how to reach them. As a parent of a child with autism you have to try that much more to understand why going into a supermarket means dealing with meltdowns, and walking in crowded parks means lots of pressure. At times, you are so bewildered that you just throw up your hands and sigh.

In order to help alleviate that frustration, A new "game" has been developed to help people see the world from the eyes of a child with autism. Called Auti-Sim, it features you, a child with autism, in a playground full of children.

The premise is simple, try to engage with the kids (walk up to them) while they are playing. The reality is somewhat complicated: the noise is too much to bear and your vision becomes blurred and pixelated. Now, I don't honestly believe that children with autism have blurry vision in social situations, but it's a visual illustration of how the world around them changes when not in a comfortable situation.

It quickly becomes clear that staying on the outside of the action, along the edges of the playground, is the "safest" place to be. Things are clearer there, less unbearable in noise and vision. In a word, being antisocial makes you feel more comfortable.

After playing with the controls, hearing the screams, and realizing that the more time I spend trying to tough it out the longer it takes to calm down, I think I gained a little insight into the world that my boys currently live. For those looking to gain such an insight, I would definitely recommend this game.

March 2, 2013

Managing the Stress of Autism

Family in front of the San Diego Zoo.Most parents go through a lot of stress. Kids, as they develop their own personalities, are likely to do things that you as a parent don't want them to do. They make messes as they explore their world and skills, they don't see direct correlations between their actions and consequences, and they can be defiant when things are not going their way. That is the challenge of parenting, the nature of which is to teach your children the social limits to their behaviors and help them understand the consequences of their actions.

But what if your child is on the autism spectrum? What if your child can't understand the necessary social framework in which their limits to behavior should remain? Suppose your child is unable to comprehend a correlation between their actions and consequences? Instead of learning how to stay within socially acceptable limits of behavior, and constantly "act out" or throw tantrums through "meltdowns" because they can't communicate their displeasure in any other way. This is the stressful world of the parent with a child on the autism spectrum.

It's different for every parent, because every child with autism is different, but we all experience the same thing: stress. A parent recently asked Dr. Joti Samra of the Globe and Mail how they can deal with the stress of having a child with autism?

His response was very informative. First, he realizes that parents who have autism experience more stress and are more susceptible to negative outcomes than parents of children with other disabilities (Dunn et al, Moderators of Stress in Parents of Children with Autism, Community Mental Health Journal, Vol. 37, No. 1, Febuary 2001.). As such, they are more likely to fall into depression, social isolation, and have negative effects on their spousal relationship.

Next, he outlined ways to find relief from stressful situations, which was to find time for yourself. Take a run, take in a movie, meet some friends, do something you enjoy. My wife and I try to find time for ourselves when we can, whether it's meet up for lunch while the kids are in school or try doing something with the kids that we all will enjoy. Other things you can try is meditation, yoga, or tai chi. Whatever helps you relax and relieve your stress, give it a try.

Another part of dealing with stress is getting support from friends, family, and your spouse or partner. In fact, having support within the marital relationship has been found to be related to better personal and marital adaptation in families with developmentally disabled boys and to live satisfaction among parents of children with autism (Dunn, 2001). That may sound crazy in a world where marriage is in decline, and even then 41% will likely end in divorce according to the CDC, but it turns out that having spouses who is committed legally and emotionally to each other helps cope with the stressful demands of autism.

That fact resonated the most with me. Being married and having both of you support each other while feeling the stress and frustration of children with autism has been scientifically proven to be more effective than any other support group. Not that I'm saying isolate your family completely, but it is an encouraging statistic.

So what do we do? We spend a lot of weekends helping the kids experience their new city. We spend a lot of time at the beach, the tide pools, and by the ocean. At first it was a challenge with our youngest because of his fear of waves, but it's become a great therapy for our family. We also spend time at SeaWorld San Diego, the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, Balboa Park, Point Loma, and exploring the many ethnic markets in the city. There are lots of other places we can explore, and with each new experience, we find ways to enjoy ourselves while keeping the kids stimulated and interested in their world around them.

At home, we spend time playing games, lots of tickling, and try to teach the correlation between behavior and consequences. It's often frustrating, but once in a while there is a glimmer of understanding, behavior modification, and lots of hugs. Without my wife, I don't think we would have gotten so far, and I like to think I've been of some help for her.

And in the end, we enjoy watching British Comedies as a family, which is a trigger to the kids to go to sleep. With an early bed time, my wife and I have some time to decompress, relax, and let the stress of the day work it's way out. It means early mornings, but so long as we get enough sleep, it works out.

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