Saturday, March 29, 2008

sketchup & the spectrum

I got a note yesterday from someone who works on Google's 3D modeling app, SketchUp.

"We kept hearing from our customers that their children had jumped on their computers and created some amazing SketchUp models, and by the way, their children happen to be on the autism spectrum. We did a little research, working closely with our local ASA chapter, and realized that people on the spectrum tend to be visually and spatially gifted - helpful skills when using a 3D program."

So the group developed something called Project Spectrum. The goal: "Introduce people on the autism spectrum to a free tool that may be interesting to them, or play to their strengths."

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

that's a lot of pages

Writer Paul Collins has a cool piece on Slate about the ubiquitous yellow pages. It's funny: I feel like I'm doing something anachronistic when I look up a business in the yellow pages, or when I mindlessly replace the old yellow pages with the new ones delivered to my doorstep. Yet I do it anyway.

My crazy-sharp friend Heather Wax is doing some blogging about the intersection of science and religion. Check it out here. And finally, jumping back to language because language is my life right now, check out the not-so-subtle jab at Bill Clinton in this LA Times blog. A rather amusing grammatical slip, but also interesting that the blogger chose to keep rubbing Clinton's nose--and readers' eyes--in it.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

autism conversations cont.

My friend Jason Maxfield urged me to take a closer look at some of the comments below The New York Times piece about parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. I'm glad he did. Although letters to editors and blog comments are never statistically representative of what "the people" are thinking, they illuminate something nevertheless. In this case, I was encouraged by the outrage. Readers were--and are--angry about the risk these people pose to their communities, let alone to their own children. Reason, it seems, is alive and kicking.

On the topic of comments: I'm flattered that people are checking out my blog and taking the time to write comments. Please try to be civil, though.

Friday, March 21, 2008

autism and that other word

I don't like to use autism together with that other word in the same sentence. That other word is vaccination. As a journalist, I feel that in wielding them side by side or in close proximity, I inevitably end up perpetuating the fictional link between the two--even if the sentence only repeats that the overwhelming body of scientific evidence points to zero connection between A and V.

The New York Times has a decent piece today about the public health risk caused by families that refuse to have their children vaccinated. Without getting tangled in an op-ed, let me just say that this trend is scary. Talk about scientific illiteracy is often a bit wonky and removed from real-world issues. Not this time. The fact that many of these parents are described as well-educated only drives home the point. (I also don't want to use "exempters" or "skeptics" when talking about the parents. It seems to whitewash culpability.) If devout Christian Scientists refuse to take a toddler to the hospital and the child subsequently dies from pneumonia, criminal charges will soon follow (one hopes). Yet these parents, who expose their kids to diseases like measles, and whose kids end up spreading the disease to other people in the community—this is substantially different?

As infuriating and frightening as some of this behavior may be, the quote I most appreciated in the Times article was more reflective, pulling away from the outraged tone that, as illustrated above, is rather easy to come by. Parents, after all, are engineered to worry about their children's health.

“The very success of immunizations has turned out to be an Achilles’ heel,” said Dr. Mark Sawyer, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. “Most of these parents have never seen measles, and don’t realize it could be a bad disease so they turn their concerns to unfounded risks. They do not perceive risk of the disease but perceive risk of the vaccine.”

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"sleek birds flying"

A reader recently wrote to tell me he's with a National Guard helicopter battalion that ships off to Iraq in a few weeks. "Our job is to fly the Blackhawk helicopter to destinations in sandy places, delivering important people to the places they need to be."

Be careful.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


The variable spellings for the Spanish island where I'm currently sitting--Majorca, Menorca, Mallorca--serve to remind me that my book needs tending to in the coming weeks. I also received a nice note from an enthusiastic--and fiercely talented--speller in Oregon, who keeps this blog, where he stores "ruminations on words."

Meanwhile, continued buzz about the autism piece is exciting. I've written about all kinds of topics over the years, but never have I seen a response like this. Not only are people writing me directly, but they're also carrying on the conversation in the comments section of the story at, on blogs and other news and science websites as well. Some outlets you may have heard of--brijit, reddit, 3 quarks daily, autism speaks, psychology today--others maybe not--parentcenter, wrongplanet, law and more and blogs with groovy names like life in the pumpkin shell and ms.behaviour. I can hardly keep tabs on all of it, so if you spot something I might want to read, please send it along.