Thursday, December 24, 2009

Must Be Santa

The kids just can't get enough of this festive little number:

And here are some other holiday videos that I'd like to share. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Monday, November 30, 2009


We hosted Thanksgiving this year for my parents and my sister-in-law. Gorgeous Wife did a great job on the meal, and I suppose I did a reasonably okay job watching kids while she made it. The turkey, in particular, won high praise from all.

After the meal, my son went to bed, and the rest of us went downstairs to chat. At one point, Gorgeous Wife pointed to my mom and asked my daughter, “Who's that?” “'Amma,” she responded, which is about as close as she gets to the word “grandma” right now. Then Gorgeous Wife pointed at my dad and asked, “Who's that?” We expected something like “'Ampa,” but instead, without any hesitation, she said, “Money.” Several more trials indicated that she clearly believes that her grandfather is “Money.”

Watch out, Dad.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pet Bugs

Just about anybody who uses a computer regularly will have accumulated one or more “pet bugs”: little annoyances in the software they use, forcing them to find some way around the problem. The more they use the software, the more the bugs bother. Sometimes a bug survives several significant updates to the software, and the user begins to wonder, “Why on earth hasn't this been fixed already?” Well, I'm here to tell you why.

I can empathize with the sentiment. I have my own collection of pet bugs. But as a software developer, I also live on the other side of the issue. Many times, the developer simply doesn't know the bug exists, and if they did, they'd rapidly fix it. Other times, they are aware of the bug, but—as unfathomable as it might be for some users (and software process gurus)—they have decided, at least for now, not to fix it. Usually the reason is rooted in a problem faced by nearly any software project with a significant user base: the astonishing pile of feature requests (most of them considered “high priority”) versus finite developer resources. Somewhere, amid all that, they've got to fix bugs, too. Because of this, they tend to rationalize why some bugs can be left unfixed, with varying degrees of legitimacy. Over the course of my career, I've heard a number of different rationales; here are a few:

“Almost nobody will be affected.” It's sort of an inverse of “The Starfish Story.” It's no problem for almost all users, but the ones who do experience it are significantly cheesed off. The rationale would be better expressed as, “It is a valid problem, but there are other things we could work on which would result in a greater total benefit for our customers.”

“Yeah, but when's that ever gonna happen?” The very act of uttering these words seems to guarantee that the exact scenario in question will happen. The Y2K bug fell into this category: those who developed the software never dreamed that it would remain in use for so long without eventually being replaced by something more modern. Incidentally, another such event looms on the horizon: lots of applications (and some operating systems) store time as the number of seconds since January 1, 1970, but the storage space is only sufficient for 2,147,483,647 seconds, meaning that a Y2K-like problem is slated for January 19, 2038.

“If that ever happens, we'll have bigger problems to worry about.” Fairly justifiable, if it's really true: “Yes, emails will fail to go out if our server farm is hit by tactical missile strike, but if that ever happens...” It reminds me of a co-worker's story about someone he knew who was required to design a simple, mechanical button... which could still work after a missile hits the building. I'm not kidding. (I have a feeling that whatever it is intended to do, the button itself is probably large and red and surrounded by black and yellow diagonal stripes.) It's a reasonable requirement for military applications, I'm sure, although you might end up with a situation where the button is perfectly functional but nobody has survived to push it. As for the rationale for fixing the bug, one could always argue that if you do have bigger problems, wouldn't you like to have one less?

“If that ever happens, we'll be discussing this on a beach in the Carribean.” An only half-serious rationale: the problem would only arise in a situation where the product was so wildly successful that those involved would all be fabulously wealthy. The speaker asserts that not only can the fix be put off, but that when it reaches the point where it must be fixed, they could probably delegate it to someone else so that they could continue sipping their tropical beverages. Often termed “a good problem to have,” but responsible developers are forward-thinking and will head the these issues off beforehand, when possible. The last thing you want is to be killed by your own success.

I still am tempted to revile my pet bugs. Being a developer, I ought to know better. I ought to remember that somewhere there's a developer who would love to kill that bug if there were just more hours in the day. Except that if there were more hours, he'd probably use them for other neglected things, like taking out his will, or changing his oil, or getting a physical.

As improbable as it seems, it turns out that software developers are people, too.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Five Stages of X-Raying a Child

For the benefit of any who may not have experienced it before, getting a child X-rayed (especially when you have no way to explain to her that it won't hurt and all she needs to do is hold still) goes something like this:

Phase 1: Crying

From the moment you enter the building, she knows it's something she isn't going to like, and the tears start falling.

Phase 2: Screaming Bloody Murder

Usually starts when you enter the examination room. She somehow knows that this is the place where it's all going to go down and that it's time to put on her game face.

Phase 3: The Full Limp Noodle

Upon picking up the child to place her on the examination table, all of her muscles will relax and she will endeavor to turn into a puddle of toddler on the floor.

Phase 4: The Rabid Wolverine

The noodle having proven ineffective, the child will then “hulk up” and proceed to fight the X-ray process with tooth and nail. Actually, a single rabid wolverine doesn't really describe it; it's more like two rival hyena packs fighting over a dead gazelle. Expect to need at least two people to hold her down, perhaps more. Expect elbows to faces and scratches on arms. Expect multiple attempts at getting a clear image.

Phase 5: The Blubbering Mess

Once the torture is over, the child will now willingly sit on the examination table that you fought so hard to keep her on, but will snivel incoherently and look at you like you just killed her puppy.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


I've mentioned before that Google Analytics shows me what search terms people use to reach my blog. I thought I'd share the most common, interesting, or just plain odd topics people search for that somehow lead them here:

Cleverly disguised as a responsible adult (141 hits)
Numerous variants and misspellings which search engines somehow saw through; several are looking for T-shirts with the phrase on it.
Calvin and Hobbes (104 hits)
Apparently, a number of people are interested to see what Calvin might be like as an adult. There were a couple of Sunday-style strips which showed this, but both are scenarios imagined by the still-juvenile Calvin and Suzie.
Aquaria (71 hits)
Some are curious about the alternate endings or want news about a sequel. (There isn't one, thus far.)
Thiomersal/MMR vaccine autism (25 hits)
People trying to find out if thiomersal causes autism. (Pretty much all reputable sources say it doesn't.)
Adult (25 hits)
People searching for stuff I'd rather not know about.
Manliness (24 hits)
People lookin' to be manly. One person wanted to know what manliness had to do with Old Spice.
Jurassic continents (13 hits)
More people are finding out every day that Africa and South America look suspiciously like the head of a Tyrannosaurus.
Jamie wants big boom (14 hits)
People looking for more MythBustery goodness. (New episodes began airing October 7th!)
Huuh (5 hits)
Why on earth was anyone searching for that?
Robert J. Walker (4 hits)
There are a lot people named Robert Walker out there, and even some Robert J. Walkers. Were they looking specifically for me? Or perhaps they wanted a former Secretary of the Treasury? Or maybe a previous member of the House of Representatives? (There are a couple of Hollywood actors who were named Robert Walker. One was born in Salt Lake City, no less. The other is his son, who portrayed Charlie Evans on an episode of Star Trek.)
Calvin Hobbes autism
Someone out there suspects that Calvin is autistic? I would have guessed ADHD, myself.
Robert Walker Star Trek
Ah, there's someone looking for Charlie Evans.
Bob Walker pirate
Build a disguised robot out of pieces in your house
Look out, the cybernetic conquerors are coming.
Can tarps support human weight?
What is this guy up to? I feel like I ought to call the cops or something.
Disguised games/glasses/money box/garbage can/autism
People are interested in a wide variety of stealth items.
Granted learned to appreciate grateful nightmare
Great Salt Lake creature
Do we have our own Nessie? *searches* Well, you learn something every day.
How did Camille cleverly die?
As opposed to “stupidly?”
Is Ken Jennings autistic?
Not that I've heard.
Underestimated Robert Walker
Ha ha! You have underestimated me for the last time! Mwahahaha!
You know, um,
No, I don't.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Blessings in Disguise

This post spoils the ending to the film Signs. If you've seen it already or don't mind having the story revealed, read on.

I like big, noisy popcorn flicks as much as the next guy, but I really enjoy the kind of film, book or game that causes me to reflect on my own life. Recently, I was thinking about the 2002 film Signs, and I pulled it out and watched it again. I enjoy it not only because it's a well-done thriller and an interesting story, but also because it's one of the few movies that deals intelligently and respectfully with a Christian character. Hollywood's disdain for Christianity is unsubtle: people of Christian faith in film are usually either wicked antagonists (the classic “wolf in the fold” formula), oddball cultists, or bigoted simpletons provided for comic relief. (You know the ones I mean: they politely assert through plastered-on smiles that everyone who does not believe as they do is going to burn for eternity... but have a nice day!)

Anyway, that isn't why I am bringing up the movie; I'm not writing a review nor a criticism of Hollywood in general. If you're not familiar with the plot, here are the relevant bits:

Graham Hess is a former Episcopal priest. With the help of his brother Merrill, he cares for his children, Morgan and Bo. Morgan suffers from asthma, and Bo has an unusual quirk: she is always leaving half-finished glasses of water around the house, claiming that she can't drink them because they taste funny or are contaminated. Merrill is a former minor league baseball player who always swung at every pitch. (He held minor league home run and strikeout records.) Graham himself had lost his faith in God ever since his wife was killed in a traffic accident caused by a neighbor who fell asleep at the wheel. (The man mentions that he had never fallen asleep while driving before and never has since.) He has recently been having repeated flashbacks of the incident. Her last words to him were to tell him to “see” and to “tell Merrill to swing away.”

Graham's feelings about God are brought into even sharper focus when his family is forced to barricade themselves inside their house to defend themselves against an extraterrestrial attack on Earth. Graham struggles with the problem of evil; he feels abandoned and is angry with God for permitting his family's suffering, particularly his wife's death and Morgan's asthma, and now the alien invasion.

At the end of the film, Morgan is taken hostage by one of the aliens, which threatens to kill him with poison gas. The fright causes Morgan to have an attack and fall unconscious, and Graham must act quickly to prevent his death from asphyxiation. He suddenly recalls his wife's last words, notes Merrill's baseball bat mounted on the wall, and tells Merrill to “swing away.”

Merrill moves in with the bat, and the alien gasses Morgan and drops him. In the ensuing fight, the alien is knocked backwards, causing one of Bo's glasses to fall over and dump water on it. The alien reacts with pain, and Merrill looks around and sees half-full glasses of water all over the room. He proceeds to knock them at the alien to defeat it, while Graham takes Morgan outside and administers an epinephrine injection. He realizes that the asthma attack was a blessing in disguise: it closed off Morgan's lungs and prevented him from inhaling the poison. Morgan revives, and the last shot shows Graham dressing in his priestly clothing once more.

While it was marketed as a movie about aliens, crop circles and such, Signs isn't really about any of that. It's not even so much about faith, as Graham doesn't really demonstrate it: he has to “see” to believe. He doesn't receive signs because of belief, but rather by grace, in spite of his unbelief. What it's really about is how we react to adversity. It's about how sometimes suffering has a purpose.

I've thought a lot about dealing with adversity recently, especially when I was preparing a Sunday school lesson about Joseph Smith's captivity in the ironically-named Liberty Jail. His situation was decidedly unpleasant: he was unjustly incarcerated in a cold, dark, unsanitary basement cell, the ceiling of which was not high enough to permit him to stand erect. He was given only a little food, and that which he was given was so unfit for consumption that he and his fellow prisoners ate only when driven to desperation by hunger. Sometimes the food was poisoned, making the prisoners violently ill. He also knew that while he sat in that dungeon, the people he lead were being persecuted and killed. In that kind of situation, it is understandable that one might feel some amount of self-pity. Yet Liberty Jail is often referred to as a “temple-prison,” a place and circumstance which permitted Joseph to receive important revelations.

I've mentioned before that I have to deal with adult attention-deficit disorder (inattentive type). It has always been a significant problem in my life, partly because it is an obstacle standing in the way of what I want to accomplish, but mostly because of how it affects others with whom I interact:

Individuals with ADHD essentially have problems with self-regulation and self-motivation, predominantly due to problems with distractibility, procrastination, organization, and prioritization. The learning potential and overall intelligence of an adult with ADHD, however, are no different from the potential and intelligence of adults who do not have the disorder. ADHD is a chronic condition, beginning in early childhood and persisting throughout a person's lifetime. It is estimated that up to 70% of children with ADHD will continue to have significant ADHD-related symptoms persisting into adulthood, resulting in a significant impact on education, employment, and interpersonal relationships....

Adults with ADHD are often perceived by others as chaotic and disorganized, with a tendency to require high stimulation in order to diminish distractibility and function effectively.... Often, the ADHD person will miss things that an adult of similar age and experience should catch onto or know. These lapses can lead others to label the individuals with ADHD as “lazy” or “stupid” or “inconsiderate.”

Adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.” Wikipedia

I have to give Gorgeous Wife a lot of credit for dealing with my scatterbrained self. ADD is one of those things that, if you haven't experienced it yourself, you can't really know what it's like. It would be like someone talking about the view from the top of a mountain without ever having climbed one, or a man speculating on how much it hurts to give birth. From her perspective, it must be difficult to comprehend that a person could have so much trouble with tasks that seem so simple to her, which makes me all the more grateful for her understanding attitude towards the situation. What upsets me most is that she has to be so understanding in the first place.

I try to make things easier on her. Medication helps, though there isn't a “silver bullet” that makes all my symptoms go away. With the medication's recent decrease in effectiveness, I've been taking a closer look at my “coping strategies:” the artificial mechanisms that I employ to compensate for my natural deficiencies. I have to set alarms to remind me to do many things. (Have you ever set an alarm to remind yourself to do something in five minutes? I have.) I have to devise mnemonics or write notes to remember things that most people could confidently keep in their heads. I have to take steps to counter my mind's natural tendency to get distracted by other things or just go off into space. Part of me is annoyed that I have to take these artificial measures in order to function, while others seem to accomplish them so easily. For quite some time, I thought only negatively about my condition. Not to be melodramatic about it, but it was my curse.

Eventually, I discovered that there were some positive aspects to it. I learned that if I worked hard enough at corralling my wandering attention onto one activity, I could sometimes coax it to shift into a sort of hyper-focus, where I would lose awareness of everything but the task at hand and nothing short of a fire alarm could distract me from it. This does have its own set of problems. In this mode, I might have a conversation with someone, but my mind is still entirely on my task, and upon their leaving the room, I would not only have forgotten what they said, but that they were even in the room in the first place. But it is good for “buckling down” and getting something accomplished, even though it is tricky to get into that mode.

But probably the biggest revelation came a while back when I was speaking to my mother. We were talking about my daughter's progress in dealing with autism, and I mentioned how I felt that I could very much relate to her circumstances, to the frustration she must feel that she finds it so difficult to accomplish things that others are able to do with ease. My mother replied that perhaps that was why I have ADD, so she would have someone who understood her in a way that most people couldn't. I had thought of my better understanding of my daughter's condition as a result of my ADD; it had never occurred to me to that it might actually be a reason for it.

In Signs, nearly all of the characters have something happen in their life that ultimately contributes to their survival during the invasion. The neighbor fell asleep at the wheel that one time and accidentally killed Graham's wife, but the flashbacks of that incident showed Graham the way to help his family survive. Merrill got the home run record so that he would have his bat hanging on that one spot on the wall, right where he could get at it when he needed it. Bo left water around the house so that they would have an extremely potent weapon against the alien easily at hand. Morgan had asthma so that he would survive the poison gas. Could it be that my struggle with ADD was to prepare me to have a daughter with autism?

People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. Just a happy turn of chance.

I'm sure the people in group number two are looking at those fourteen lights [on the alien spacecraft] in a very suspicious way. For them, the situation is a fifty-fifty. Could be bad, could be good. But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they're on their own. And that fills them with fear. Yeah, there are those people.

But there's a whole lot of people in group number one. When they see those fourteen lights, they're looking at a miracle. And deep down, they feel that whatever's going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope.

So what you have to ask yourself is: what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?

Graham Hess, Signs

Friday, September 18, 2009

Review: Psychonauts

I've had this game for quite a while now, but after having replayed it recently, I thought I should post a review of it here. No, it's not about people getting high in order to explore their own psyche. The exploration of psyches is definitely at the core of the game, but there are no mind-altering substances involved. Psychonauts, like a number of games I enjoy, falls in the category of “best games you never played;” overlooked games that didn't do well commercially for reasons other than their quality.

You play as Razputin, a youngster who, rather than running away from home to join the circus, runs away from the circus to join a summer camp for psychically-gifted children. The camp also serves as training and recruitment facility for the Psychonauts, a government agency that employs individuals with psionic abilities to perform missions such as rescuing kidnapped dignitaries or spying on bad guys. While at the camp, Raz hones his powers into specific abilities, such as generating energy blasts and force shields, clouding others' minds, telekinesis, levitation, invisibility, clairvoyance and the ever-popular pyrokinesis. While at the camp, he becomes aware of a plot to... well, I wouldn't want to spoil that...

As you might expect from a game that equips you with an arsenal of psychic powers, gameplay is ridiculously fun. As soon as you get a new power, you'll be running around to see what (or who) you can try it out on. The fun is only enhanced by the thorough realization of the game world: almost every object and character with which you can interact responds in an expected (and sometimes hilariously unexpected) way when you use your powers on them. Most of these reactions do nothing to advance the plot, but really help to maintain your suspension of disbelief. Only occasionally do you get a curt “that doesn't work” notification from the game in the form of a raspberry sound effect.

Some of the ways in which characters react to your use of powers are side-achingly funny. For example, there is a child at the camp who believes that she is an extraterrestrial. If you use telekinesis to pick her up off the ground, she reacts with near-euphoria, momentarily believing that her “people” have come to take her home. Another kid has a crush on same girl as Raz; using clairvoyance on him allows you to see Raz the way that boy sees him: as a black-clad villain, carrying the tied-up girl and twirling a long, black mustache.

The real fun, though, is when you begin to explore the psyches of other people. At first, the minds you enter are those of the camp counselors as part of your training, but where it really gets interesting is when you later explore the brains of the inhabitants of a nearby asylum. There's Boyd Cooper, a paranoid delusional whose mind looks like a white-picket fenced neighborhood, except that it twists in all directions, heedless of gravity. It's also full of spy cameras popping out of trees and lawn ornaments, eyes peeking through blinds and mailboxes, and spy helicopters flying overhead. Its streets are populated with “G-men” who are pretending (badly) to be normal citizens.

There's Gloria von Gouton, a former starlet who suffers from bipolar disorder. She usually stands in a beam of moonlight in the courtyard, happily waving to the group of flower pots with faces painted on them that now constitute her audience. If she steps out of the light, her mood quickly turns angry. This mirrors her pining for the days when she stood in the limelight, and her mind is a haphazard stage, where plays about her tormented life are forever lambasted by a venomous critic in the balcony.

Fred Bonaparte is plagued by dissociative identity disorder. In his mind he is constantly playing a military board game against his ancestor, Napoleon Bonaparte, but his self-confidence is shattered and he has given up ever winning the game. Raz has to climb into the board game itself to help him defeat Napoleon and reclaim his own personality. My favorite part of this level is when Raz speaks to one of Napoleon's wooden soldiers. After the game piece mocks him for his assertion that Fred will win the game, Raz tells him, “I can burn wood with my mind.”

You can even visit the mind of a giant mutated lungfish. Yes, you read that right. It makes sense in context. Anyway, just before going in, you are informed that “it's probably more afraid of you than you are of it.” This turns out to be true; in its mind, you take on Godzilla-like proportions. Of course, you would expect to be able to wreak all sorts of mayhem at that size, and the game doesn't disappoint: you can rampage around in the lungfish's mental city, knock down buildings, pick up tanks and throw them, and even climb skyscrapers and knock planes out of the sky.

But the psyche that I found the most fun to explore was that of Edgar Teglee, a black velvet painter. He calls himself “a prisoner of art,” and whenever he tries to paint anything, he always ends up painting bullfights. His mind takes the form of a stylized Spanish town, painted in black velvet style. The colors seem to pop as if illuminated by a blacklight. In the central plaza, Edgar tries to build a tower out of giant playing cards, hoping to reach a Spanish beauty in the sky who cries rose petal tears, but his tower is always destroyed by the bull who charges through the town, known as El Odio (Spanish for “hatred”).

Raz comes to learn that the bull symbolizes the rage that overpowers Edgar's mind. In several alleys, Raz finds dogs painting pictures, each of which shares a little piece of Edgar's story. One tells him that Edgar was once a great painter. One day, Dingo Inflagrante, the famous bullfighter, asked Edgar to paint his picture, but then Dingo ran off with Edgar's wife, Lampita Pasionado, a beautiful flamenco dancer. Ever since, his hatred has consumed him and he has painted nothing but bullfights.

This turns out to be a romanticized version of the truth. Another dog gives Raz the real story: Edgar was captain of the high school wrestling team, and his girlfriend was Lana Panzoni, a cheerleader. All was well in his life, but then Lana broke up with Edgar to be with Dean LaGrant, the captain of the cheerleading squad. Edgar's heart was broken, and his distracted state cost his team the wrestling championship. He hid from his angry teammates in the art teacher's classroom at lunch. He has not moved on with his life since, stuck in his obsession with Lana and Dean. To help Edgar get over his past, Raz has to dodge the bull's constant charging through the streets of his mind and take on four lucha libre wrestlers (representing Edgar's teammates), then defeat El Odio and Dingo.

In each mind you enter, you find clues about their past. Their minds are usually full of objects or symbols about things that have happened to them, and you can find “memory vaults” which allow you to view events from their past. Some of these memories are happy, while others, stashed in vaults that have been carefully hidden away, are traumatic. One camp counselor's psyche takes the form of a brightly-lit dance party, but this turns out to be a façade she has created to help her cope with a secret pain. If he looks carefully, Raz can find a small, dark, bare room, containing a few abandoned toys strewn on the floor, a toy chest, and a memory vault. That vault reveals that she had once run an orphanage, only to come back from the store one day to find it engulfed in flames. She carefully hid the grief and guilt of that experience in that lonely room in her mind. In the toy chest, she locked away her nightmares, the voices of the children who perished in the fire.

Psychonauts was originally designed as a console title, and was subsequently ported to the PC. As tends to happen with ports, there were a couple of interface issues that could have been better handled. The worst was definitely the inventory screen. To select a psi power or an object in your inventory, you press a button to call up the inventory screen, which has up to three pages. Each page can contain a maximum of eight items, arranged in a circle. To select one, you have to move an indicator towards the item you want, then press a button. This makes perfect sense when you are using a gamepad, but on the keyboard it's not so great. For example, in order to select the item in the upper-left corner, you have to press both up and left. If you accidentally release one before the other, it changes which item you're pointing at. The PC port should have instead just given you a single screen with all the items displayed on it, and allowed you to simply click on the item you want with the mouse. This control issue also poses something of a problem during a mini-game, where you need to be able to quickly change which direction you're facing, and sometimes the eight cardinal and intermediate directions aren't quite adequate.

The other quibble is with the psi powers themselves. The game provides three “slots” in which you can equip your psi powers, and a corresponding button activates each one. So even though you can acquire up to eight psi powers, only three of them are available at any one time. If you wish to use one of the ones that you don't currently have equipped, you must “unequip” one to make room for the one you want to use. This makes sense for the console because the number of buttons available is limited, but there should be no need to switch powers in and out of slots when you have a full keyboard available.

The graphics are delightful. The character and world design has often been described as what might result if Tim Burton directed a Pixar movie. The voice acting is spot-on, and the music and sound effects compliment the gameplay perfectly. On top of all that, you can get the game for $10 on Steam. If you'd like to try a single-player game with an intriguing story, innovative gameplay and razor wit, you can't go wrong with Psychonauts.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Reeling Them In

This is a picture of my daughter and a “friend” from preschool. He has no idea what he's dealing with.

Friday, September 4, 2009

We Can Rebuild Him — We Have the Technology

In a previous post, I griped about how my doctor was debating whether it was more profitable to continue treating me or to kill me, harvest my organs and sell them on the black market. Okay, maybe not, but it was pretty clear to me that I was not his main concern when it came treating me. He seemed to prefer giving me samples of medications I can't afford, making blanket judgments about side effects without asking me how I might feel about it, and ordering unnecessary tests. (Did I mention that he ordered an oximetry test to check for sleep apnea, despite the fact that I manifested no symptoms of the condition? Unsurprisingly, the test came back negative.)

I've fired that guy and found a new doctor. Not only is this one much closer to my house, but he seems to be a lot more concerned about my condition and how it affects my life. After listening to me give the history of my search for better control of my ADD, he reviewed the records sent over from the other clinic and said that the phenytoin levels noted by the previous blood work weren't just okay, they were low. He told me that unless I was experiencing side effects already (I'm not), he saw no reason why the amount couldn't be bumped up. He seemed to be rather puzzled at the way the other doctor was handling my case.

So with updated prescription in hand, here's hoping that I'll be a brand new man. Oh, and my blood pressure was 104/82! I can't remember a time when it was actually a bit low!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Distracted Driving

Okay, I promise that my next post will be something more lighthearted, but I felt in important to share this compelling video.

I see a lot of distracted driving on my commute every workday: people talking on the phone or texting, eating or drinking in such a way that their vision is blocked, applying makeup, shaving, reading, wrangling kids in the back seat. Nine times out of ten, if I see someone drift in and out of their lane and then I pull up even with them at a stoplight, the person is distracted in some way or another. It's pretty scary sometimes.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why Our Health Care System Has Gone Completely Insane

How American Health Care Killed My Father is an article in The Atlantic magazine that constitutes the most clear-thinking analysis of what's wrong with the American health care system that I have ever read. Read it. Read it right now.

(Thanks to Jim for sending me the link.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Art and the Game

I've been thinking recently about how video games are perceived. Yes, I know, not exactly a “deep” subject, but stay with me. For some reason that I don't fully grasp, video games seem to be relegated to second-class status compared to other forms of entertainment.

It's easy to see how this could have started. A quarter century ago, video games were fairly primitive. Your character was a blocky splotch on a screen drawn in black and white, or at best, preschool colors. Music and sound were equally primitive or nonexistent. The plot (when there was one) was insulting to an adult's intelligence. Most grown-ups didn't want to play video games for the same reason that they didn't feel inclined to eat macaroni and cheese very often: maybe their kids thought it was great, but their experienced palate demanded something more sophisticated. Only a very few games rose above the crowd and had something resembling a real plot, but most of those were text-based interactive fiction, meaning you had to type out what you wanted your character to do, then read the result. The primitive text parsers of the time made this less than fun: it's kind of hard to get into the story when you're too busy trying to figure out which synonym of the word “attach” the parser will accept. And for every really good IF title, there were scores of lousy ones.

The perceptions didn't keep pace with the technology. Many games today have deep and interesting plots coupled with equally deep and interesting gameplay. The visuals are beginning to seriously rival Hollywood. The beeps that passed for sound and music have been replaced with high-quality sound effects and rich soundtracks. I have played some games with soundtracks recorded by full orchestras. There's even a rich and vibrant independent game industry.

In fact, the visuals are now becoming so realistic that I think they're starting to suffer from the opposite problem: diminishing returns. I mean, it's amazing that the technology can make a rendering of a human that is so detailed that you could count the pores on their face, but ironically, the closer a rendering gets to reality, the less impact each improvement has. Games (and CG effects in general) have been going for hyper-realism, but what I want to see is hyper-unrealism. I see pores every day when I look in the mirror; show me something that I have never seen before. In fact, this trailer for the upcoming game “Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet” is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about.

Anyway, there's one thing that a game can do which Hollywood's offerings cannot: actively engage you in the proceedings. Because you control the actions of the protagonist, the character becomes an extension of yourself. A well-crafted game will nurture that relationship so that you feel empathy with the protagonist more than would be possible with a film. Games which employ the first-person perspective take it even one step further, having you see the world through the protagonist's eyes. Some even make the protagonist silent and give no clues to their identity, thereby allowing you to make yourself the protagonist. (Human beings seem to have an odd way of filling out missing information with parts of themselves, resulting in a combined work that's more compelling than the work alone. It's why a monster movie is scarier when you never get a good look at the monster until the end, and why people are often disappointed with movie versions of books.)

Despite these advantages, the video game remains a lesser citizen in the entertainment world. Video games are not recognized by any of the major award shows, the increasing blur between movies and games notwithstanding. While movie soundtracks can be found nearly anywhere music is sold, game soundtracks, which are often just as good these days, are rarely seen. Many people accept that some movies can be considered art, but few grant the same status to games, despite the fact that their production frequently involves many of the same artistic skills. Why can an actor perform or a composer write music for a movie, and it's art, but if they do it for a game, it's not?

If you want to experience games as art for yourself, I'd suggest the following, in no particular order:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Why All Things Medical are Currently on my Bad Side

Sorry for the long silence. Not only have I been quite busy, but I haven't felt like I had anything to say on my blog for some time. Today, however... oh, do I have something to say...

For quite some time, I have taken a rather unconventional medication for attention deficit disorder, phenytoin. Typically prescribed for epilepsy, it has been helpful in the past to help me deal with ADD symptoms, but recently it has become gradually less effective. While upping the dosage might work, I wanted to find out if there was something out there that might work better.

My doctor had me try a couple of different medications, one of which did nothing for me and the other of which was no better than the phenytoin, and both were significantly more expensive. Then he wanted to do a blood test to ensure that bumping up the dosage wouldn't result in toxic levels of phenytoin in my blood. While waiting for the results, he wanted me to try one more medication. This one, called modafinil, is typically used for narcolepsy and other similar conditions, but it is used off-label as a treatment for ADD.

Usually, from my perspective, ADD medication has little noticeable effect to me, because I'm on the “inside.” My perceptions come from my brain, which is the thing being regulated, so even if there is a significant change, I may not notice much of a difference. I generally have to rely on my wife to tell me whether a medication is effective or not. Not so with the modafinil. The sample I received did remarkable things for me: I felt more alert, more aware, and more “present” than I can ever remember feeling before. If it was that much of a difference for me, you can imagine what an improvement my wife saw.

As you might imagine, I was all over this modafinil stuff, but there was a stumbling block. First of all, it's still under patent by Cephalon, Inc., marketed under the name Provigil. Provigil is quite expensive, and my insurance company refuses to cover it. Generic modafinil will not be available until at least April 2012.

Cephalon, faced with the prospect of the bottom dropping out of the market for Provigil when the patent expires, is resorting to a business tactic that could be considered pretty clever, although I'd prefer to use the term “scummy.” They raised the price of Provigil by 74% over four years, then came out with a newer, longer-acting version of the drug called Nuvigil. Nuvigil is still expensive (enough that my insurance company doesn't want to cover it, either), but it is more reasonably priced than Provigil, despite the fact that it is supposedly a superior drug. This will motivate patients to move to Nuvigil, which is covered by a patent that lasts until 2023 instead of only 2012. (Incidentally, the same company was obliged to pay a $425 million federal settlement for marketing their products in an illegal fashion.) EDIT: FallenAttorney mentions an even scummier tactic by Cephalon to wring more money out of Provigil; see his comment below. I had read about it before but had forgotten to mention it here.

Anyway, so I go back to my doctor and tell him that modafinil is unfortunately off the table. Since the phenytoin blood levels came back fine, I presumed that he would simply up my phenytoin dosage. However, he told me that the didn't want to do that because he felt that the risk of side effects was too great. My beef with this is not that he was unwilling to increase the dosage. If a doctor says it's unsafe, then I don't want to do it. What annoys me is that he charged me and my insurance for a test to see if it was safe to increase the dosage for a medication, when he had no intention of increasing it. If he felt that it was unsafe, he should have told me that up front and skipped the blood test. In the end, I'm back where I started, taking the same medication I was before, except that I'm several co-pays poorer.

So I know that there is a medication that can make a big difference in my life, but I can't afford to get it out of pocket and my insurance won't cover it. (I could probably afford it if I fired my insurance company, but that brings up a whole separate set of problems.) I have a doctor who I feel does not have my best interests at heart. All things medical are really grating my cheese these days.

While my hands are tied with regards to the insurance industry or Cephalon, there is one thing I can do: Doctor, you're fired.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

As If We Needed Another Reason Not to Sleep

I'm kind of dragging at work today, mainly because a gigantic hummingbird was hovering over my house at 2 a.m.

Okay, so it was a helicopter. Turns out that the police were looking for a fugitive. The incident happened within a couple blocks of my house; I could see the squad cars from my front window.

Of course, once the helicopter left, I laid in bed in my now quiet house and listened to every single little creak. So yeah, I'm a little annoyed with a certain individual that is now parked in a nice little cell. Thanks to the cops for nabbing the guy!

Monday, June 8, 2009

At Long Last, It Is Complete

So my mother-in-law bought the kids a play set, which arrived several weeks ago, but we only just this last Saturday got it completely assembled. What follows is the Saga of the Play Set:

Sometime during the first week of May: The set arrives via freight in two boxes. We make some phone calls asking for help putting it together. The instructions claim that two people can assemble the play set in 8 to 12 hours. I decide that 8 hours is for two professionals who have assembled these before, so I shoot for the 12 hour figure, which would have it 2/3 or 3/4 of the way done when we finish, leaving only a little more to do the following weekend. With a third person, it might even get done the same day.

Friday, May 9: The family's sick. We call people up again and tell them not to bother coming.

Saturday, May 16: I'm sick again. Play set and anniversary plans are canceled.

Saturday, May 23: Jake and Greg show up to help. We spend a good chunk of the morning clearing the ground, as well as laying out the wood and trying our darndest to identify the various pieces. We determine, after much confusion over several similarly sized pieces of wood, that two pieces are missing. We proceed to assemble what we can, figuring we'll probably be knocking off for the day earlier than we thought. The factory is closed on Saturdays, and Monday is Memorial day, so we have to wait until Tuesday to call for replacement parts.

The first few steps have us building the slide, the ladder/rock wall and swing frame. After completing step 3 of phase 5, we are instructed to leave the last two steps of that phase for later. I skip ahead in the instructions and find the place where it says, “Now go back to phase 5 and complete steps 4 and 5.” Why not just put those steps at right spot in the manual in the first place? At least the instructions are in proper English, notwithstanding a couple of spelling mistakes.

As the afternoon turns to evening, we are only just nearing the point where we're stopped by one of the missing parts, about 1/3 of the way through. The instructions imply that most people would have reached this point two or three hours earlier, so either the instructions are incompetent or we are. We attach some pieces of wood near the base that split in a rather surprising way, and figure out pretty quick who the incompetent ones are. We check the instructions, and it seems like we're doing the right thing. Fortunately, those pieces don't have to support human weight. We finish what we can and call it good for the day. I put Burn Free on my sunburns (great stuff, that) and resolve not to neglect the sunscreen next week.

Tuesday, May 26: The factory informs me that one of the two missing pieces is not in stock and will need to be back ordered. They offer to ship the other piece tomorrow with overnight shipping. Fortunately, it's the one that stopped progress on Saturday. The other won't come in until the following week. I figure we can get 2/3 of the way through on Saturday before we hit the remaining missing part.

Thursday, May 28: The first missing piece arrives. Weird, I've never been shipped a 2 x 4 before.

Saturday, May 30: I slather myself with sunblock and head out. Jake and my brother Scott come out to help. I realize that it was a mistake not to label the pieces a week ago after spending all that time sorting it out. We organize the pieces again—which is harder this time because we've used some of them—and write their assigned letters on them.

The play set as built thus far needs to be positioned, leveled and squared, so we spend some time leveling the ground. Gorgeous Wife comes out to see how we're doing and points out the obvious: that we leveled a less-than-ideal spot for the play set. We level a different section, move the play set over to it and rotate it 180 degrees. We then spend the next while nudging it around in various ways until it finally comes out square.

We quickly discover that the pieces that split the previous week were not the pieces we thought they were, hence the splitting. After a brief panic about the possibility of missing more pieces than we thought, we realize that we just mixed them up with some other pieces. Fortunately, their new, correct location has them only used to hold down a tarp that forms the ceiling, so it should be okay. We put them in their new place, then attach the ladder/rock wall without incident.

For some reason, a cross beam must be attached to three uprights which do not have factory-drilled holes for it. The instructions confirm that, for reasons still not fully understood, this is expected, and that we must drill holes for it. We do so and attach the cross beam, then discover in the next step that the crossbeam is too high. I realize that I accidentally measured from the top of a baseboard instead of from the ground, so we remove the cross beam, drill new holes, and reattach it. We now have three completely unneeded holes in the uprights. Lovely. This is why the factory should drill the holes.

Further along, we have to attach supports for the picnic table and seat, and discover again that, for some strange reason, the holes were not factory-drilled. I wonder if they thought I would be disappointed if I didn't get to use the drill for something more macho than driving screws and making 1/8-inch starter holes. We triple-check the measurements, drill the holes, and put on half of the supports, as the other half must attach to an upright that is, hopefully, winging its way from China to the Texas factory. I head inside and look at the construction site. It actually does start to look something like a play set.

Wednesday, June 3: The other missing piece arrives, along with another copy of the piece they sent me already. Huh? The remaining work to do doesn't seem as difficult as what's already been done, so I opt for asking only one person to come help on Saturday.

Saturday, June 6: Greg comes to help. We bolt on the upright that was missing last week and finish attaching the picnic table. Another brief panic over a possible missing piece ensues, but I realize that I had accidentally mislabeled a piece last week. I quadruple-check it against the instructions, heave a sigh of relief, and bolt it on.

Proceeding onward, we discover that we are missing four 2 1/4-inch screws. I pore over the instructions and read that the cap board on the rock wall attaches to the side rails with four 3-inch screws. We extract one and find that it is actually a 2 1/4-inch screw. We replace them with the 3-inch ones and move on, another disaster averted.

We put on the tarps that form the ceiling of the fort and picnic areas, then proceed to the final steps, which have us attaching the remaining assemblies constructed two weeks ago. The slide goes on without major incident. The swings are another matter, however: two of the four factory-drilled holes where the main beam for the swings attaches to the fort do not line up with the holes in the metal brackets that brace the beam. They are, for some reason, over half an inch too high. There is no way this can be a mistake of ours; the wood piece in question is quite distinctive, so we cannot have used the wrong one, and each set of two holes is supposed to line up with corresponding holes in a single, solid piece of metal. Seeing nothing else to do, we drill new holes and bolt on the beam. At least the other holes are covered up by the metal braces.

Anyway, except for finishing laying down the wood chips, it's done. Thanks to Gorgeous Wife's mom for getting it; and to Jake, Greg and Scott for helping us put it together. Here's some video of the finished play set and of the kids enjoying it:

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Weird Sleep

We do not sleep normally at our house, for the most part. I'm a night owl, although less so than I used to be. Gorgeous Wife always gets sleepy before me, especially with her fibromyalgia medication. My daughter doesn't complain about going to sleep, but she will often stay awake for a while making funny noises and apparently trying to wake up our son. She also will sometimes wake up in the wee hours screaming at the top of her lungs. My son usually sleeps fairly normally, but it's disconcerting to wake up to him crying at night, go in his room and see that he's still fast asleep.

A funny thing happened last week. If something goes wrong with servers at work, we get a notification message on our cell phones, and we take turns being the primary “server babysitter.” Last week was my week, and shortly after we went to bed, an alert came in, warning about a minor issue. As I picked up the phone to look at it, Gorgeous Wife, who was sick and therefore even more tired than usual at that hour, told me that the light from the phone was going to keep her up. I told her I would try to make it quick. She rolled over and, one minute later, with the light from the cell phone still shining in the dark, she was asleep.

Odd sleeping habits run in my family. There were times we'd discover my dad asleep with the television blaring. If you turned it off, he'd wake up and say, “Hey, I was watching that.” As a small child, Sister used to sleep with one arm hanging upright in the air. One of my brothers once sleepwalked out of our room, down the hall, into the family room, up two flights of stairs, into the kitchen, down another hallway, into my parents' bedroom, around the bed to the wastebasket, dropped his pants, took care of business in the wastebasket, then went back to bed.

So if you're a guest at my house or that of one of my relatives, be prepared for a little weirdness at night. And having a plastic liner in the garbage can wouldn't hurt.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Yep, you can buy one.

How are businesses like Star Trek? Redshirts.

In case you have somehow managed not to hear about them, I'll explain: Redshirts are a kind of stock character in television, whose purpose in life is to end it quickly, sometimes even before the opening credits. On the original Star Trek series, they were typically security personnel who beamed down with the main characters, and were promptly killed to demonstrate that the situation was serious without having to kill off a main character. The captain would show suitable pathos for the fallen crewman, and one minute later the entire remaining cast would have forgotten that he existed. (You'd think at least once, at the end of an episode, Kirk would have said something like, “I'm glad we've worked out a lasting peace between our people. By the way, your trial for vaporizing Ensign Nobody starts Tuesday.”) Since the security officers wore red shirts, the facetious notion arose that wearing a red shirt on Star Trek was likely to severely shorten your life span. The term continued even when later incarnations of Trek had security officers wearing gold.

Back in 2002, I was working as a software developer for a .com startup. Like most other CFO's at .com startups at that time, ours was yelling, “Cap'n! She cannae take much morra this!” But the way you knew that things were getting serious was when the redshirts started falling victim to the pink slips. I survived round one, but in the second set of layoffs, I took the phaser blast/acid spray/weird alien disease along with most of my co-workers.

Sometimes if things are really bad, main characters can die, too, although they generally don't go down until a significant number of redshirts have expired first. This is also true in business. The first round of layoffs pretty much never includes any of the top brass. This isn't surprising; after all, if the situation were reversed, you'd probably rather the redshirt to go down instead of you. However, unlike TV, sometimes it's preferable to be the redshirt. A co-worker who survived the second round of layoffs informed me later that, in retrospect, he probably would have preferred getting canned. After all, better to get shot by the evil overlord's henchmen outright than to rot for months in his dungeon, only to eventually die anyway. It's not fun going down with the ship.

From what you see in the news, it seems like a lot of redshirts (and yes, even some captains) in business are getting posthumous honorable discharges. Let's say that you would rather not be the one that gets his or her head gnawed on by a giant lizard creature in the first act. What do you do? Well, the most straightforward answer would be to go into science or medical rather than security. Unfortunately, in business, if you're at the bottom of the org chart, you're a redshirt, regardless of what you actually do. So that means you want to get promoted fast. However, this is up to your superior officer, who, if he's thinking about it, probably likes the idea of having a meat shield when the natives start throwing spears. (“Look, I cut expenses!”)

So that pretty much leaves one other option, short of quitting Starfleet altogether: stick to the captain. Nine times out of ten, when a redshirt passes into the great beyond, he's by himself. Nobody actually witnesses the stroke that does him in; they just hear his agonized scream and come running to find him lying on the ground, not breathing and covered with purple goo. But the captain has an invisible aura of protection around him; he won't go until everyone else is dead first. So if you can get inside that bubble, you can share that protection. Granted, this may involve spending way more time with him than you'd prefer, but hey, it's that or get eaten by a giant carnivorous plant. Take your pick.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

New York, We Thought We Knew You

An image of a small cardboard robot on a New York sidewalk, with curious onlookers

So maybe the tough New Yorker image is all a sham.

Apparently, a NYU student is conducting a social experiment. She created a miniature “robot” and turned it loose in New York City, armed with nothing but a cardboard smile and a flag stating its intended destination and asking for help. Since it's only capable of constant forward movement, it must be assisted by strangers pointing it in the right direction to get to where it's going. One Gizmodo columnist expected the little guy to get “stabbed, stomped, mugged, or covered in graffiti;” but thus far, New Yorkers have assisted the tiny artificial pedestrian in reaching its destination in every venture, helping it get unstuck from curbs, out of potholes and away from traffic.

So are New Yorkers really a bunch of softies? I'll have to ask Gorgeous Wife the Bronxite what she thinks.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Big Boom

If you don't regularly watch MythBusters or missed Wednesday's episode, you have got to see the following clips.

A little background: They were testing the myth that a head-on collision between two semis could sandwich compact car between them to the point that the compact car would not be visible until the semis were separated. After they attempted it and did not get the desired results, they decided to determine what it would take to smash a compact car that flat. What did they come up with?

They shot a rocket sled at it at 700 mph.

Here's a shot of the point of impact.

Now here's the truly amazing clip: a slow motion close up of the car. It doesn't really crumple; it looks like it's just getting erased from existence by the rocket sled.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mo Madness

It's March Madness time. Office dwellers across the country (including myself) are filling out brackets and prepping their trash talk for their co-workers. Today, though, I discovered an entirely different game: Mo Madness, the Mormon culture tournament. It was apparently put together by a guy who writes a blog called What Mormons Like. Basically, he's asking you to vote for elements of Mormon culture. There are some interesting matchups, to say the least: Donny Osmond vs. Mr. Krueger's Christmas, “moisture” vs. “darn it”, funeral potatoes vs. scrapbooking, J. Golden Kimball vs. Star Wars gospel analogies, canning vs. “fetch”. Gladys Knight rubs shoulders with Napoleon Dynamite and David Archuleta. Greg Olsen paintings vie for position against fry sauce and BYU football. Anyway, take a look if you want a chuckle today.

Monday, March 16, 2009

More Events in the Autism World

There are bills in the House and Senate that propose to allow the creation of tax-free trusts for those with disabilities, similar to 529 college savings plans.

Research published recently in Pediatrics (the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) have identified a gene that may be a contributing factor to autism and gastrointestinal disorders occurring together. The study found that over 55% of those with autism and gastrointestinal disorders carried a variation in a gene called MET. Over 30% of people with autism also suffer from gastrointestinal disorders, compared to less than 10% of those who are not autistic.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Trillion with a T

I'll try not to talk about bailout/stimulus-related stuff after this, but I ran across a page that really put things into perspective. Have you ever wondered what a trillion dollars looks like? (This is why I react negatively to the latest rash of advertisements that use the word “stimulus.”)

A while back, someone posted a thread on a message forum I frequent, asking the following question: “If you had one billion dollars, how would you spend it?” (That's billion, not trillion.) The question wasn't asking you to just rattle off a few things you'd buy, it was asking you to sit down and give every cent of that $1 billion a name, to really think about it.

So I gave it a shot. For me, a chunk of it wouldn't actually get spent; I would do boring things with it like save/invest it. However, I quickly discovered something startling: I was having trouble figuring out how to use it all. I had imagined it would be difficult to decide how to spend a small amount of money; a large amount, I reasoned, would be easy to fritter away. I did all the responsible and charitable things I could think of with my imaginary wealth, and there was still a bunch left over. I started indulging in fun, frivolous things, and I still wasn't spending it all. I went nuts, spending the invisible money like a whole aircraft carrier full of drunken sailors, and I still couldn't spend it all. I finally spent the last of it by divvying it up between the investments and charitable donations I'd already thought were getting insanely generous chunks of cash.

It's pretty clear to me that, when it comes to money, most politicians and I are not even on the same planet.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Bill Watterson Explains the Bailout

I have mentioned my admiration for Calvin and Hobbes previously. What I didn't remember was a particular Sunday strip he did a decade and a half ago which seems eerily reminiscent of today's economic situation. That is, until someone emailed it to me today. I'll refrain from posting the comic itself to avoid running afoul of copyright issues, but here's a transcript of the comic. Setting: Calvin sits behind a makeshift lemonade stand (an inverted cardboard box), on which rest a cup and a pitcher of greenish liquid with a lemon suspended in it. On the front of the box is scrawled: "Lemonade $15.00/glass." Suzie comes up to the stand:

Suzie: 15 bucks a glass?!

Calvin: That's right! Want some?

Suzie: How do you justify charging 15 dollars?!

Calvin: Supply and demand.

Suzie: (looking around) Where's the demand?! I don't see any demand!

Calvin: There's lots of demand!

Suzie: (skeptical) Yeah?

Calvin: Sure! As the sole stockholder in this enterprise, I demand monstrous profit on my investment! And as president and CEO of the company, I demand an exorbitant annual salary! And as my own employee, I demand a high hourly wage and all sorts of company benefits! And then there's overhead and actual production costs!

Suzie: But it looks like you just threw a lemon in some sludge water!

Calvin: Well, I have to cut expenses somewhere if I want to stay competitive.

Suzie: What if I got sick from that?

Calvin: “Caveat emptor” is the motto we stand behind! I'd have to charge more if we followed health and environmental regulations.

Suzie: You're out of your mind. I'm going home to drink something else.

Calvin: (enraged) Sure! Put me out of a job! It's you anti-business types who ruin the economy!

Calvin fumes for a bit, then goes and finds his mom.

Calvin: I need to be subsidized.

I tell ya, it's spooky.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Birthday Quote

You know you're getting older when you stoop to tie your shoelaces and wonder what else you could do while you're down there. —George Burns

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

You May Now Commence Stalking

For those of you who use Blogger's “following” feature, I've set up a follow link in the sidebar on the right. (I was going to use the standard follower gadget they provide, but it always causes a JavaScript error for some reason.) So go ahead and get stalking.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Thiomersal Controversy

UPDATE: With the recent fallout regarding Andrew Wakefield, Autism Speaks has, quite sensibly, changed focus somewhat, so the original wording of this post may no longer reflect AS's stance on the issue. I've been intending to give this update earlier, but didn't get around to it. However, as my Secrets of Success post has now been featured on the official Facebook channel for Autism Speaks, I'm noticing a significant uptick in traffic, and figured I'd better get around to the update!

Some interesting developments in the autism world, especially with regard to the immunization controversy. Last month a top executive at a major autism group called “Autism Speaks” resigned over a disagreement with the group. A major component of AS's focus is fighting against immunizations due to concerns about thiomersal. The group's VP of Communications, Alison Singer, says that copious scientific research into the subject has shown that there is no causal link between thiomersal and autism. She feels that AS ought to stop putting so much effort into the immunization fight and redirect those energies into more promising avenues. The other AS execs, however, appear to be too invested in the fight to give it up, and so they and Singer parted ways.

Shortly afterward, the findings of a new study were released. A group of 1,403 children who had received thiomersal in their vaccines ten years ago were evaluated and found not to have any significant decrease in neurological function when compared to children who had not been exposed to thiomersal.

Now it's been discovered that the original research about the MMR immunization may have been falsified to show a link to autism. Evidence presented by the UK's General Medical Council shows that the data presented in Dr. Andrew Wakefield's report on the original study on the MMR vaccine are not supported by the medical records of the patients used in the study, and ten of the original thirteen contributors to the study have retracted their interpretations of the findings since its publication. Many patients' symptoms which were blamed on the MMR vaccine appear to have been reported before the vaccine had even been administered. The original study only involved a dozen children, which is not even close to a large enough sample to give any confidence to the results.

The 1998 report resulted in a significant drop in the administration of the MMR vaccine to children in the UK, resulting in a 24-fold increase in measles cases in 2008 compared to 1998, two of which resulted in death. It is believed that Wakefield may have falsified the results of the study due to a conflict of interest because the children used in the study had been recruited through an attorney preparing a lawsuit against MMR vaccine manufacturers, and the hospital where the study was performed had received £55,000 to pay for the research. Wakefield and his colleagues deny allegations of professional misconduct.

More autism news, apart from the thiomersal controversy. Multiple states are considering legislation that would require insurance providers to cover diagnosis and proven treatments for autism. Utah's bill, popularly known as Clay's Law, would require a maximum annual benefit of $50,000 for children under 9 and $25,000 for children between 9 and 17. If passed, the bill would go into effect on July 1, 2010. From a purely financial standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to spend money on early intervention treatments for autism. Autism therapy can be very expensive, and many families descend into poverty to pay for it and become burdens on the state. Additionally, a child recovered through treatment can financially contribute to society instead of drawing from it for the rest of their lives.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Something New Every Day

I enjoy watching Jeopardy!, even though I don't need dentures or “diabeetus” testing supplies. Part of the appeal for me is that I get to pick up little tidbits of information that I didn't know before. As a software developer, I find that I have pretty deep knowledge in my field, as one would expect, but that the waters become far too shallow or dry up completely in places when one moves too far away from the software area. Sure, this is the age of specialization, but I would like to be more well-versed in other areas.

Jeopardy! is pretty darn good at revealing what areas need the most work. If the category relates to technology, physics, math, English or Spanish, I'll probably do well. If it's history, art, literature, politics, sports or popular culture (not to mention the ever-popular “Potent Potables”), the odds are good that I'll strike out, or at least do poorly. Geography, chemistry and biology tend to end up somewhere in the middle. Even in the areas where I tend to do well, I will too often experience the distressing sensation that I used to know this in high school.

So I'm looking for ways to obtain more well-rounded knowledge. Watching Jeopardy! is one way, I suppose, but the problem with Jeopardy! is that what I pick up there doesn't tend to “stick” very well. An ideal solution would cover a wide range of subjects, encourage retention of the new information, not require a large investment of time each day, and be inexpensive or free. Any ideas?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Talking to the Others

My daughter is turning three years old this month and is starting preschool. It is a class especially for kids with autism, with expert instructors trained in helping them with their particular challenges. We're hoping this will help with a number of issues that are troubling her.

One of the big ones is that she feels an obsessive desire to close doors, not in the sense that she feels that any open door must be closed, but that if a door is going to be closed, that she must be the one to do it. Usually, if someone else closes a door instead of inviting her to close it, she'll have a meltdown. She's also very picky about her food. We'd really like for her to have more variety in her diet, but the introduction of most new foods results in a lot of screaming. The preschool will hopefully help her with these issues, as well as with things like social interaction and potty training.

The biggest issue, however, is talking. She is slowly showing more and more desire to say words, but it's still more of a game with her and she doesn't use them much to actually communicate. We've had the opportunity to use some software that offers several activities that help promote skills related to speech, but her reaction to them is mixed; she's enthusiastic about some and averse to others. The inability to communicate verbally is the biggest obstacle to her learning and progress, so if nothing else, any improvement the preschool can help us achieve in this area would be a big win.

Some good news is that she is much more proactive than before about asking as best she can for what she wants. She can easily and effectively communicate that she is hungry, needs a diaper change, wants you to play with her or is ready for bed. She also no longer resists taking medicine or going to sleep. It's amazing how seemingly small advances like these can make such a big difference. She is generally a lot happier now than she was a year ago, when she was so frustrated because she didn't understand why nobody knew what she wanted.

I try to imagine what the world has been like for her. I picture her in a cell with transparent walls. All around her, she can see people looking in at her, and can hear their voices through the walls. She tries to call to them and ask them to try to get her out, or at least stay and talk with her for a while, but she don't realize that the walls somehow let sound in but don't let it out. All she gets are uncomprehending stares and looks of pity.

She soon realizes that for some reason, the Others, as she's come to call them, can't hear her. As the days go by, she eventually gives up trying to talk to them. Sometimes, the frustration gets the better of her, and she screams and cries and kicks the walls and throws herself around the room. Other days, she just sits despondently and listens to the Others talking.

One day, she wakes up and sees something new inside her cell. Somebody has installed a device with a button on the wall. She pushes the button. A light comes on briefly, but nothing else happens. She pushes it again and again, with the same result. This doesn't help at all! She screams and hits the device over and over, and quite accidentally, she hits the button again. Suddenly, the Others react with surprise. Something happened! A little experimentation results in a discovery: when she's holding the button down, the Others can hear her! She doesn't know it (because nobody's been able to teach her), but this device is a called an intercom.

The button is faulty, so the signal is laced with static and frequently cuts out. Communication with the Others is slow at first, and nearly as frustrating as not being able to talk to them at all. It takes a lot of patience and learning on both sides: she has to learn how to apply just the right amount of pressure to the button to get the light to stay on and keep the signal from cutting out, and the Others have to learn to decipher her words amidst the static. But slowly, comprehension replaces confusion.

There's still a long way to go. It'll be some time before they get good enough at communicating that they can plan together how to get her out of the cell. There are still some days of screaming and crying, but not as much. She's no longer alone.

Monday, January 5, 2009

I've Kid-Proofed the House But They Still Get In

Like the family rooms of most parents with small children, our family room is kid-proofed, so one can leave the kids in there for a few minutes to do some task and be reasonably certain that they'll still be alive and have all their appendages when one returns. That doesn't mean, however, that they can't make some other kind of trouble. And as it turns out, the kind of room they're in doesn't make much of a difference.

If you haven't had kids, you may want to stop here. What follows is decidedly unpleasant.

Today, Gorgeous Wife had to leave the kids in the family room for just a few minutes to handle some laundry. When she returned, she discovered that our daughter had no pants on.

More importantly, she had no diaper on.

Naturally, determining the whereabouts of the diaper became priority one. A quick glance, however, told her exactly where it was. Our son had it.

He was eating the contents.

I had often observed that he was willing to eat just about anything, but this wasn't what I was thinking about. Naturally, what followed was a lot of yelping and scrubbing and bathing. I'm sure she'll laugh about it one day. But not today.