Apr 26, 2007

Takanori Isshiki: Who me? Researcher creates robot double

Ever wished you could be in two places at one time? A Japanese researcher has managed it, through a robot that looks and moves exactly like him. The "Geminoid" was fashioned by Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University using a model of his body and hair from his head. When you poke its face, the robot grimaces like a real human, thanks to the more than 50 sensors and motors that are implanted beneath its lifelike skin. It appears to breathe when compressed air is pumped through its body.

"At first, you may feel strange about the android," Ishiguro told Reuters. "However, once you are drawn into a conversation, you will forget every difference and feel totally comfortable to speak with it and look it in the eyes." Japans is hooked on androids, with several companies selling robots that mimic human action such as playing drums or dancing to music. With Japan's population expected to slide by around a quarter by 2050, and immigration a sensitive issue, some laboratories have developed humanoid robots that can work as maids.

But the machines are a long way from the self-aware androids of movies such as "I, Robot" and "Bicentennial Man," despite the best efforts of Ishiguro, who also does research at Kyoto robotics laboratory ATR.

Apr 24, 2007

Amiga returns to the hardware game

Don't call it a comeback. Or, um, something like that. Amiga hasn't been exactly prolific since 2001, when it "began" development of AmigaOS 4.0, but now that it's finally shipping that retro-modern OS, attention has turned to hardware: where oh where is a modern PowerPC machine to run this on?

To that end, Amiga is teaming up with ACK Software Controls to build two new desktops, both offering complete experiences to new and seasoned Amiga users. Twelve months in the making, the flavors are a $500 consumer version and a $1500 "power design." Both seem rather cheap, given the exclusivity of the Amiga market these days, but we're not complaining -- and we're sure the imaginary people who will actually buy these aren't either. Full launch deets and hopefully specs should be unveiled next week sometime.

Karen Dearne: Model contract for tech workers

THE first workplace agreements for IT contractors have been lodged with the Office of the Employment Advocate by professional engagement services firm Entity Solutions. Entity yesterday lodged 20 AWAs signed last week by new clients, bringing the independent operators, all white-collar professionals, and the companies engaging them, into compliance with Work Choices. Over the next six months Entity will offer AWAs to more than 2000 contractors already under management as their contracts fall due for renewal, as well as the 200-odd new clients they sign each month.

"When we reviewed the contracts normally used to engage IT professionals, it became apparent they weren't necessarily Work Choices compliant," Entity chief executive Matthew Franceschini said. "Instead of burying our heads in the sand, we decided to do something about it." Work Choices had created a great deal of complexity on the hiring of independent professionals (IPros). "There are minimum criteria and employee benefits that must be met and cannot be factored out of the equation," he said. "We've got a situation where people want to work independently, but the laws make it extremely difficult to do that."

To comply with Work Choices, Entity developed its own AWA and had it approved by the office. "The main problem concerned leave provisions, which have typically been paid as part of an over-award rate," he said. "We have put all types of leave into a package, and people can choose whether to take it on an ongoing basis or to have it set aside and paid at the end of the contract. "Our AWA also continues to offer things such as salary packaging and novated car leasing." Being an employee under an AWA actually gives workers more flexibility and rights in the event of a dispute, Mr Franceschini said.

"Many companies right now are not Work Choices compliant, which leaves their people exposed," he said. "Certainly some larger organisations are doing something about it, but the process takes time. "You also have to have the internal systems to support it, because if one of your IPros want to set leave aside, you have to do it. "A lot of recruitment agencies don't have the systems in place, so they're seeing us as a white knight in this regard."

Mr Franceschini said he'd be annoyed if Work Choices was thrown out by a Labor government. "If the laws change again, we'll be back to a situation where no one really knows where they're at," he said.

"Businesses are going to really start to resent, if they don't already, the myriad laws that have to be adhered to and the frequency of changes that have to be made."

Apr 22, 2007

Why swimming pools are sickening

New research: For a long time I have told my patients with reactive airway diseases, like asthma, that exercise is usually a good thing, though it sometimes may exacerbate their respiratory symptoms. I recommend swimming as least likely to worsen wheezing, tightness, or coughing. Now research from the Netherlands raises some questions about that advice.

Finding: Using a questionnaire, the researchers compared the respiratory symptoms of 624 swimming-pool workers and a Dutch population sample. They found that the workers were substantially more likely to experience constant breathing problems and wheezing and to have a diagnosis of asthma.

Cause: The authors pointed out that chlorine—added to pools as a disinfectant to protect swimmers from getting sick—reacts chemically with nitrogen-containing sweat, saliva, and urine (yes, that too) that comes from the bathers themselves. The products of the reactions, called chloramines, are quite irritating to the eyes and the respiratory tract. The scientists measured chloramine levels at six swimming pools and found levels that exceeded concentrations known to cause such irritation. They suggest that the high chloramine levels may be the cause of the observed respiratory problems. Though they think that improving the hygiene of people who use the pools would probably have beneficial effects, they acknowledge that this would be hard to enforce.

Conclusion: Though the study involves swimming-pool workers who spend extensive time at pools (the average participant reported about 10 years of pool work), it raises concerns about swimming for asthmatics. And I confess that thinking about the source of the chloramines in the water may make me look a little askance at my fellow bathers.

Apr 21, 2007

Keith Bradsher: Chinese carmakers veer to green

Worried by severe air pollution and rising dependence on imports of Middle Eastern oil, the government of China is putting enormous pressure on domestic and foreign automakers alike to help the country catch up in the use of gasoline-electric hybrid engines and other advanced technology.

Chinese automakers at the Shanghai auto show on Friday unveiled a broad array of prototypes for fuel cell cars, gasoline-electric hybrid cars and electric battery cars. The variety and sophistication showed a dramatic improvement, not just since the previous Shanghai auto show two years ago when the Chinese demonstrated scant technological innovation, but even since the Beijing auto show in November.

Multinational carmakers like General Motors and Volkswagen have begun cooperating closely with Chinese partners on the development of hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles. Larry Burns, the GM vice president for research and development, said that the company also was in talks with a Chinese joint venture partner on the sharing of hydrogen fuel cell technology.

Universities and technical institutes across China have started advanced vehicle propulsion research programs, combining strong government financial backing with rapidly growing ranks of skilled engineers in China.

China has already imposed more stringent fuel economy standards than the United States - although not quite as stringent as the semi-voluntary standards that automakers have accepted in the European Union.

Apr 20, 2007

Jamie Whyte: Homoeopathy: voodoo on the NHS

Most people will quite reasonably take the fact that the NHS offers homoeopathy as certification that it works. Since the NHS knows that homoeopathy does not work, it is intentionally misleading the public. The popularity of homoeopathy only aggravates the crime.

There will always be charlatans who exploit ignorance and superstition. The Government need not outlaw them. Human folly should be permitted when it is only the fools themselves who suffer from it. But where folly is likely to harm others, higher intellectual standards should be required. This principle explains why we cheerfully tolerate voodoo as a religion but frown upon voodoo economics and absolutely ban voodoo engineering.

Yet, no matter how much private nonsense should be tolerated, state-sponsored nonsense is never acceptable. For the State’s actions always involve compulsion, if not in what we receive, at least in what we pay for. And no one should be compelled to pay for nonsense. Taxing us to fund homoeopathy is outrageous. It is no better than forcing us to pay for a space programme based on Aristotelian physics or a meteorological service based on numerology.

The Enlightenment idea that beliefs should be based on evidence and reason is losing ground. Many Westerners claim a right to believe whatever they like — from Christianity to astrology to homoeopathy — whether or not their views are supported by even a shred of evidence.

And, despite their intellectual frivolity, they also claim a right to be taken seriously. They expect their prejudice (or “faith”, as they prefer to call it) to be protected by limitations on free speech and to be pandered to in tax-funded hospitals and schools.

Tony Blair is eager to oblige them. Of course, he is himself a man of superstition. But even among more rational politicians I sense a drift towards the idea that state services should reflect the distribution of stupidity in the population. It is a shame. Nothing could be less in need of government subsidy than stupidity.

We live at the historical high point of human civilisation. It is neither a fluke nor a miracle. Our liberty and prosperity flow from of our commitment to Enlightenment values. Our leaders should never forget it.

Apr 19, 2007

Arrests over Wi-Fi 'piggy-backing'

TWO people have been arrested and cautioned for using someone else's wireless internet connection without permission, or "piggy-backing," British police said.

The practice, which sharply divides internet users, has been fuelled by the rapid growth of fast wireless broadband in homes and people's failure to secure their networks. On Saturday, a man was arrested after neighbours spotted him sitting in a car outside a home in Redditch, Worcestershire, using a laptop computer to browse the internet. A 29-year-old woman was also arrested in a car in a similar incident in the same area last month. Both received an official caution, a formal warning one step short of prosecution, for "dishonestly obtaining electronic communications services with intent to avoid payment".

Stan Beer : The rise and rise of Google Office

Eric Schmidt's repeated denials that Google intends to compete with Microsoft in the office productivity space is beginning sound like the utterances of the CEOs that insist they have no interest in the current stock prices of their companies. Their job is to run the business well and let the stock price take care of itself. Except we all know CEOs watch the stock price and Google isn't developing its office suite just for fun.

Related stories

* Tonic to provide Google Docs & Spreadsheets & Presentations!
* Salesforce.com adds content management to SaaS lineup
* Informatica launches SaaS data integration
* Glide brings Macs and cellphones together
* Photoshop online within six months

Now that Google has added an online presentation application to its word processor and spreadsheet suite, the question is can Google actually throw out a challenge to Microsoft Office? The short answer is not right now. The longer answer is that in the not too distant future, an online office productivity suite with a name something like Google Office could well shake Redmond to its foundations.

There are just so many advantages in terms of collaboration, centralized virtually unlimited storage, integrated web-based email and calendar, platform independence and machine independence that an online office productivity suite could offer over the existing clunky bloated desktop versions that it is plain to see where the future lays.

One problem for Google is that none of its applications - not even its word processor Writely - are ready for prime time yet. Another problem is that we don't live in a permanently connected world.

That said, Google's new office suite can be likened to an electric car that only has a range of 100km between charges. The petrol heads who can go 400km and then fill up again within five minutes can look on and smirk at those poor electric car owners. However, 95% of car owners only drive 40km a day.

Most of the time these days, computer users don't switch on unless they can connect to the net. There will be those odd occasions when you're on a plane or train (unless you have a mobile internet connection) when you're offline and can't do any work. Then again, with an online office suite or any other SaaS application, you don't even need to have your own computer to do work. Any computer with a reasonably good internet connection will literally give you access to your office.

Apr 16, 2007

Gene Responsible For Obesity Discovered

Geneticists from Oxford University and Peninsula Medical School in Exeter have made a remarkable discovery: they have linked a specific gene to obesity, for the first time in history.

The researchers spent 15 years analyzing the DNA and health of more than 40,000 adults and children before identifying a gene called FTO. The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust, a British medical charity, and reported in the journal Science.

It warns that the people at greatest risk are those who carry two flawed versions of FTO. Those who have inherited just one flawed gene are 30 per cent more likely to be obese and 25 per cent more likely to develop diabetes than those who have two normal copies.

According to the scientists, the genetic make-up of one in six Britons increases their risk of becoming dangerously overweight by 70 per cent and their chance of developing diabetes by a half.

Exeter researcher Professor Mark Hattersley said: “As a nation, we are eating more but doing less exercise, and so the average weight is increasing. But within the population some people seem to put on more weight than others.

“Our findings suggest a possible answer to someone who might ask ‘I eat the same and do as much exercise as my friend next door, so why am I fatter?’ There is clearly a component to obesity that is genetic.”

Apr 15, 2007

Clair Weaver: Women: Two drinks enough

WOMEN who drink even a moderate amount of alcohol are increasing their chances of developing breast cancer, new guidelines warn.

The full extent of alcohol's role in cancer risk has been revealed for the first time by the World Health Organisation.

After a major evaluation of worldwide research, breast and bowel cancer have been added onto the official list of cancers caused by alcohol.

Dr Peter Boyle, director of WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer, is calling for better public-health policies to combat excessive drinking.

"The clear (link between) breast cancer and even modest levels of alcohol drinking is a major concern, particularly in view of the changing drinking patterns of women in many countries,'' he said.

Experts said the guidelines were especially pertinent in Australia, where alcohol consumption and cancer rates were high.

Even just two drinks a day increased the risk of breast cancer, according to an article published in The Lancet Oncology this month.

Apr 13, 2007

Tight Jeans? Blame it on Your Genes

A nondescript gene that no scientist has studied before determines why some people gain more weight than others. A new study of nearly 40,000 Europeans found that people with mutations in both of their copies of the gene known as FTO are 70 percent more likely to be obese than those with regular copies of the gene. Researchers says that identifying a genetic basis for obesity could lead to novel treatments for the increasingly prevalent condition blamed for life-threatening heart disease and type 2 diabetes, among other disorders.

"Approximately one sixth of the population will have two copies of the variant and that will result in them being three kilograms [6.6 pounds] heavier than the one third of the population who do not have any copies of the variant," says geneticist Andrew Hattersley of the Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, England. "[This] is a genetic variant which is involved in the regulation of weight."

Other genes, such as GAD, ENPP1 and, most recently, INSIG2, have been put forward as playing a role in the genetics of obesity but subsequent research has not borne that out. FTO first came to light when researchers compared the genomes of 1,924 Britons who had type 2 diabetes with those of 2,938 healthy peers and found a correlation in those who had the mutated gene and extra fat.

To ensure the accuracy of that finding, the researchers then culled even more DNA samples from more than 38,750 people, ranging from English adults to Finnish children, to see if FTO variations affected a wide variety of people. "Regardless of your age, your weight, this effect was seen in all those populations," says Timothy Frayling, a geneticist at Peninsula and lead author of the study published in Science online.

The variants of the gene correlate with increases in a person's body mass index (BMI)—a measure of weight versus height. By this index, a person is overweight if his or her BMI reaches 25 kilograms per meter2 and obese if it rises above 30 kilograms per meter2, or roughly 213 pounds for someone who is six feet tall. (Some very muscular people can have high BMI with no health risks.) If a study participant had two copies of mutant FTO, scientists found they had 1.67 times the risk of being obese using this measure. The gene is associated with both higher weight (regardless of differences in height) as well as wider waists and thicker concentrations of fat mass.

FTO itself is an unstudied gene in an unidentified pathway. In other words, scientists basically have no idea what it does. It was originally discovered as part of the genome of a mutant mouse with a fused toe, hence the FT at the beginning of its name. "The gene which has been implicated, FTO, is a gene about which we know very little," admits co-author Mark McCarthy of the University of Oxford. "It has not been implicated in obesity before."

Obesity is on the rise worldwide, correlated with gains in affluence. According to a recent study in JAMA The Journal of the American Medical Association, nearly 100 million men, women and children in the U.S. alone are considered obese. "This particular genetic variant would play a role in about 20 percent of those," Hattersley says. "The genetics is the same as it was 100 years ago when we had far less obesity. So you can never underestimate the effects of lifestyle."

Apr 12, 2007

Werner Vogels: On the Reliability of Hard Disks

Today in the opening session of FAST there are two papers on the studies of hard disk reliability. Both these papers present very interesting results that blow away some of the common assumptions in failure modelling of systems.

Bianca Schroeder and Garth Gibson from CMU in their paper Disk Failures in the Real World: What Does an MTTF of 1,000,000 Hours Mean to You?, investigate the failure rates of about 100,000 disks from HPC and Internet sites. There is a range of interesting results in this paper, but the ones I think are most important are in the section on the statistical properties of disk failures. In this section Bianca demonstrates that two common assumptions, that disk failures are independent and that the time between failures follows an exponential distribution, are not supported by the collected data. Their data suggest the opposite: disks replacement counts show significant levels of auto correlation, the TBF distribution show much higher variability than an exponential distribution and the expected remaining time until the next disk failure grows with the time it has been since the last failure.

Eduardo Pinheiro, Wolf-Dietrich Weber, and Luiz André Barroso from Google in their paper Failure Trends in a Large Disk Drive Population have interesting results with respect to the factors that influence disk failures. In their study they found that there was no correlation between disk failure rates and utilization, environmental conditions such as temperature, or age. This means that high disk utilization or age of the disk have no significant impact on the probability that it will fail. They did find a strong correlation between manufacturer/model and failure rates. Basically you get what you pay when you talk about disk reliability. Given that disks in general arrive in large batches you may want to take care with how you deploy these disks as you want to reduce the impact of these strong failure correlations.

The only exception to the lack of correlation was that infant mortality rate for disks showed a correlation with high utilization: if a new disk is really crappy you can detect this by putting a high load on it. This could motivate a longer burn-in period to weed these bad disks out. The paper then goes into an interesting discussion of whether SMART parameters can be used as a predictor of impeding disk failure.

Both papers report disk failure rates in the 6%-10% range: in a datacenter with about 100,000 disks you will need to replace up to between 6,000 and 10,000 disks per year. And these rates will only go up as you want to become more cost effective. The failure rates and the reported failure correlations are very important to take into account when you're building cost effective reliable storage for your applications.

(BTW you’re better of letting somebody else worry about all of this, so store your data in S3 :-))

Traffic jams trashing productivity

DRIVERS are spending up to an extra hour per day in mind-numbing traffic jams, causing staff punctuality to plummet while businesses' operating costs skyrocket. Traffic congestion in major cities is reducing productivity and increasing costs for small and medium-sized businesses, while taking an emotional toll on drivers. One report has found Sydney companies are paying an extra 60 per cent on fuel costs, while productivity has fallen by 33 per cent and staff punctuality by 42 per cent. In Melbourne, out-dated roads, stop-start traffic and unreliable travel times are taking their toll on companies and workers alike.

Apr 10, 2007

Crash strike caution

IF MICROSOFT'S Windows operating system crashes and gives you the "blue screen of death", it's a pain in the proverbial, but it's hardly life-threatening. In 1998, however, a United States Navy destroyer, the USS Yorktown, was left stranded and vulnerable when its Windows NT-based control system failed.

The tale of the stranding of the Yorktown is a true story former White House staffer Richard A. Clarke cites as a warning. "(It) was out on an initial shakedown cruise. The Microsoft software that it was running in its control system went kafluey, and the entire ship stopped dead in the water and they had to send tugs out to pull it back ... (it was running) Windows," Mr Clarke told The Age.

Mr Clarke, the former United States National Co-ordinator for Security and Counterterrorism, who also served as President George Bush's adviser on cyber security until 2003, says the US is becoming too reliant on network technology in war-fighting.

The lesson also applies to Australia. The Australian Defence Force's "Force 2020" plan spells out a transition to "network-enabled operations" which "treat platforms as nodes of a network (which) collect, share and access information".

But Mr Clarke's tone is sarcastic. "The Pentagon says 'Oh, good news, we're having a revolution in military affairs and we are going to net-centric warfare where everything will be netted together', and they tout this as progress," he says.

In fact, such networking could be a security risk. Western nations are becoming increasingly vulnerable to cyber-attack from hostile nations, terrorist groups and criminal syndicates, and an increasing reliance in civilian technologies by intelligence and military agencies is having an adverse effect on national security.

"It used to be that government, intelligence and defence agencies relied on what they called GOTS, Government Off the Shelf products," Mr Clarke says. "There are very few, if any, of those left. Almost everything the Government relies on, even in the military and the intelligence community is, COTS - Commercial Off the Shelf. Which is a way of saying that what the Pentagon is running and the CIA is running is the same as what you're running on your home computer."

Damp homes 'could cause asthma'

Damp and mould-infested houses could be the cause of permanent asthma in children, researchers have said. Poor housing conditions are already linked to the illness but there is debate whether they cause asthma, or simply trigger attacks. Finnish researchers writing in the European Respiratory Journal say they have proved this after surveying the homes of more than 300 children. However, UK asthma experts are still not convinced mould can cause asthma. Asthma is now the most common chronic disease of school-age children, and rates have risen steadily in recent years in industrialised countries.

Dr Juha Pekkanen, from the National Public Health Institute in Kuopio, suggests that as many as one in five cases of child asthma may be caused by moisture and mould in the home. His team found that the severity of asthma increased alongside the severity of the damp in living areas. In all, the homes of 121 asthmatic children were compared to those of 241 non-asthmatic children.

Apr 5, 2007

Jane Bunce: Warning upgrade for controversial sleeping pill

AUSTRALIA'S medicines authority has ordered the manufacturer of a controversial sleeping pill (STILNOX) to upgrade its warning about mixing the pills with alcohol following reports of bizarre and dangerous behaviour.

More than 500 complaints about Stilnox have been made to the national drug hotline, including reports of sleepwalkers crashing cars, falling off balconies, smoking, painting and having sex after popping a pill.

Manufacturer Sanofi-aventis says a relationship between the drug and strange behaviour has not been scientifically established.

But it has agreed to a request from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to upgrade the current warning about mixing the medicine with alcohol.

"We will amend the product information as requested by the TGA even though the potential adverse events with alcohol are already described in the current... patient information," Sanofi-aventis medical director Dr Gordon Hirsch said today.

The company would also introduce other educational initiatives aimed at reinforcing appropriate use of the pill, he said.

Dr Hirsch said it was difficult to determine with certainty whether the pill had caused the bizarre sleep-related behaviour or if it was spontaneous or resulted from an underlying condition.

"The potential for complex sleep-related behaviour including sleepwalking, as well as hallucinations and amnesia is already reflected in the product information and the consumer medicines information," he said, adding that available evidence suggested the adverse events were uncommon.

Stilnox is used to treat short-term insomnia, a condition that affects more than six million Australians, the company said.

A TGA spokeswoman said an expert committee was examining whether warnings on the packets should be upgraded.

Health Minister Tony Abbott today said he had no reason to thin

Apr 1, 2007

Ann Hulbert: Inside Autism

The world's richest man, Bill Gates, has informally been diagnosed with it. Chloe O'Brian, the senior computer analyst on 24, one of television's biggest hits, is thought by most fans to have it. Asperger's syndrome, a term coined in 1981 to denote a high-functioning form of autism first described in the 1940s, surged into public consciousness along with computers: "I think all tech people are slightly autistic," Douglas Coupland writes in Microserfs (1995).

At the mild end of a fuzzy spectrum of developmental disorders that strike at communication and social skills, the "engineers' disease" has been invested with some of the romantic glow of cutting-edge creativity once accorded to insanity: Here are society's super-information processors. Meanwhile, at the other end of the autistic spectrum, the much more profound isolation associated with severe autism has inspired anti-technological paranoia: Mercury in childhood vaccines, many anguished parents believe, is turning responsive babies into unreachable children at an epidemic rate.

I'm not the first to suggest that if Susan Sontag were alive, she might well sigh that in autism, the information age has seized on its "master illness," her phrase in Illness as Metaphor for the disease that comes to serve as a repository of "punitive or sentimental fantasies" about contemporary society. (Think TB and cancer.) Our impulse to mythologize disease, she warned, all too readily fuels a moralizing impulse that does nothing to cure social ills, let alone disease. Yet two recent memoirs suggest that autism might prove to be a disorder that also invites another response: a demystifying impulse—a dogged effort to decipher the bewildering anomalies of very unusual brains. A reprieve from facile diagnoses of high-tech-era victims or heroes would certainly be welcome. And it seems, well, metaphorically appropriate that the disorder that would inspire such unillusioned treatment is a condition often marked by obsession with details and trouble grasping the big picture.

On the face of it, Daniel Tammet, the author of the current best seller Born on a Blue Day: A Memoir, and Portia Iverson, who recently wrote Strange Son: Two Mothers, Two Sons, and the Quest To Unlock the Hidden World of Autism, don't look much like coolheaded candidates for the job of probing an elusive neurological disorder. In outline, their books follow the sentimental arc of heartwarming therapeutic tales. "It is my hope that I can help other young people living with high-functioning autism … to feel less isolated and to have confidence in the knowledge that it is ultimately possible to lead a happy and productive life," writes Tammet, a 28-year-old British "autistic savant" lately diagnosed with Asperger's. When he breaks free of the rote self-help prose, he unveils an almost surreal perspective. His synesthetic mind is crowded with colorful numbers, which he perceives as having personalities and shapes that shift to help him do computational and memory feats (like recite pi to 22,514 digits, a world record). They help him figure out emotions, too. "If a friend says they feel sad or depressed, I picture myself sitting in the dark hollowness of number 6 to help me experience the same sort of feeling and understand it." Words also come in colors for Tammet, and thoughts unfold as visual associations that can send him careering off on tangents.

Iverson isn't exactly a calmly linear thinker, either. She is a woman with a cause: She founded the parents' advocacy organization Cure Autism Now with her husband in 1995 after the birth of their severely autistic son, Dov. And she declares herself a believer in miracles on the first page of a book that builds to a made-for-movie discovery toward the end. In between, she recounts her experiences with Tito Mukhopadhyay, a severely autistic boy reared in India. His mother, Soma, laboriously taught him to read, write, and communicate using an alphabet board—an achievement Iverson wanted to learn about for her own son's sake. Iverson was even more intent, though, on tapping Tito's unique expressive skills (he's also a creative writer, producing poetry and prose) to help scientists make sense of how autistic brains actually work, and re-examine beliefs about barricaded sufferers. She breathlessly describes tracking down 12-year-old Tito and Soma, getting them to the United States, and then dragging them from lab to lab for tests. Her account is charged with a missionary energy that is as unusual, in its way, as Tammet's phenomenal memory.

In fact, they are curiously akin: What Iverson and Tammet (and Tito and, it turns out, Dov as well) set their minds to, they will not be deterred from, despite distractions. In fact, they focus so intently precisely because there are so many stimuli clamoring for their attention as they tackle the difficult task of trying to communicate the experience of struggling to communicate. The passionate persistence they share helps push these memoirs well beyond broad-brush bromides about liberating trapped souls, to convey something of the daunting challenge of making connections.


As Helen Keller proclaimed a century ago, the human urge, and capacity, to communicate is profoundly associational in every sense. The underlying drive is to extend individual experience beyond the immediately perceivable—"I wish to write about things I do not understand," Keller told Annie Sullivan very early on. The urge is also to share, and compare, experiences with others. And those experiences themselves take shape by being linked up with language in minds that are wired—perhaps no matter how tangled, or damaged, the wiring may be—to try to reach out not just to the world, but above all to other minds.

Indeed, the startling revelation of both memoirs is just that: There is reason to believe that autistic people do not lack, as cognitive psychologists have generally assumed they do, "theory of mind"—"any direct perception of other minds, or other states of mind," as Oliver Sacks puts it. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that some glimmer of a desire to work toward such a theory seems to be lurking there, whether the person is articulate Tammet or speech-deprived Tito or flailing Dov. These books suggest that the struggle to connect is born of a lonely initial discovery: that one's own mind is not like other minds. And so both Tammet and Iverson, through Tito, burrow into the bewildering details of skewed perceptions, conveying a dizzying hint of what wide variations there are in a condition that is at once utterly strange and yet not completely alien. To read Tammet's account of his childhood, which his intense visual memory summons up with uncanny immediacy, is to enter a landscape all but lost to most of us. Yet the obsessions, the disorientation, the private rituals that are writ so large for him—from the chestnuts he caresses to the silence, "soft and silvery," he seeks out, to the terrors of school sports he flees—send messages about "normal" development, too, without normalizing his own experience. They are reminders of the active labor required, from all of us, to construct a sense of a self in relation to others.

Iverson's quest supplies a different jolt: a reminder of how hard it is, as adult perceivers and thinkers, to pick up on what goes against the grain of our expectations. Through her immersion in Tito's one-of-a-kind cognitive world—amid sensory overload, he relies on auditory signals, rather than "thinking in pictures," the "classic" autistic response described by Temple Grandin, the ur-memoirist of the disorder, and Tammet—Iverson is primed to be acutely aware of how much the rest of us take for granted, and miss as a result. Even neuroscientists.

Wedded to their particular expertise and testing methods, the researchers she visits are often flummoxed in taking Tito's measure. They get frustrated by their vain efforts to make sense of his strange responses in terms of their own preconceptions. With an almost autistic obsession to explore the many anomalies of Tito's mind, Iverson herself actually accomplishes the hardest feat of empathy: She works from an acute awareness that none of us really knows what it is like to inhabit someone else's head, which serves as a goad to scrutinize and probe as tirelessly as possible.

And to listen. "Abstract should turn to concrete," Tito writes in a fragment called "My Learning," and he goes on: "Because life cannot just feed only on abstract. So my beginning to learn and express myself is a turning point in my life. I became aware that I was a part of my surroundings because I was a concrete thing in the world." I think Susan Sontag would approve of that diagnosis.

Ann Hulbert is the author of Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children.

Ronald Bailey: Would you want to know the exact day you die?

At age 23, Katharine Moser took the genetic test for the Huntington's disease (HD). The news was not good. She has the version of the HD gene that will eventually rob her of her ability to walk, talk, swallow and think. The gene that will cause Moser's illness was inherited from grandfather through her mother. Everyone carries the gene, but only those who have a segment that repeats three bases of genetic code cytosine, adenine and guanine (CAG) many times will get it. People with fewer than 35 GAG repeats will not suffer the disease; however, people with more repeats will inevitably succumb to it. The more repeats, the sooner the onset of the disease. In Moser's case, her HD gene has 47 CAG repeats which means that she is likely to begin experiencing symptoms by the time she reaches her mid-30s. In many ways, Moser is blazing a trail for the rest of us. Improved genetic testing will tell more and more of us about our future health and likely ends.

Hold on a minute. Don't we already know a lot about our future health and how our lives are likely to end without all that fancy new genetic technology? We all know that we're going to die. More than half of us will die of heart disease or cancer. Using actuarial tables we can figure out your chances of making it to any specified age. For example, actuarially there is a 50 percent chance that I will live just another 25 years. Damn! On the other hand, longevity researcher Thomas Perls at Harvard offers a longevity calculator that takes into account lifestyle, family history and so forth. My score, including my less-than-exemplary drinking, exercise and red meat habits: a 50 percent chance of making it another 31 years. Life insurance companies already make pretty good guesses how long you're likely to live based on family medical history and lifestyle habits, so who needs genetic testing?

The problem is that life expectancy calculations are an average. The Wharton Life Expectancy calculator gives me a 50 percent chance of living an additional 31 years too. However, there is a 25 percent chance that I will die in 23 years. On the other hand, there is a 25 percent chance that I might have as long as 41 more years. The difference of 18 years matters.

Future tests, including genetic tests, could narrow the range of your specific life expectancy. In addition, such tests will be able to tell what your greatest risks are. Right now, tests look for disease risks based on specific genetic flaws. For example, altered BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes boost the chance that a woman will have breast cancer by 3 to 7 times. People with the APOE4 variant of a gene involved with cholesterol transport are at increased risk of Alzheimer's disease (AD). Unlike the HD gene, having the APOE4 variant is not a guarantee of future illness. The environment also plays a big role. One study suggests that drinking alcohol increases the risk of AD for carriers of the APOE4 allele. Recent research indicates that the herpes virus that causes cold sores may also interact with the APOE4 allele to increase the risk of AD.

In addition to environmental influences there are gene interactions that affect a person's risk of AD. For example, some research hints that carriers of both the APOE4 and a version of the CYP46 gene have a 10 times greater than average risk of AD. (Other research casts some doubt on this conclusion.) Nevertheless, researchers are developing data banks that compile possible associations between various genes and the risks of disease. Genetic researchers are already investigating which sets of genes, called haplotypes, combine to increase a person's risk of various diseases including cardiovascular disease. One can imagine in the not too distant future, say ten years, when a comprehensive panel of genetic tests will identify a variety of disease causing and health promoting haplotypes. You may test "positive" for haplotypes that increase risk for kidney cancer and deep vein thrombosis and for others which reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease and diabetes. Analyzing such genetic information may put narrower limits on your life expectancy.

Of course, the new tests will also give you options for stalling the arrival of the Grim Reaper. For example, if it turned out that you carry two copies of the APOE4 allele, you may choose to cut back on your drinking in order postpone dementia. And if you carry the breast cancer enhancing variant of BRCA1, you will make sure to get frequent mammograms and MRIs and perhaps you will even choose to have prophylactic mastectomies. But what if the genetic tests give you information that amounts to a death sentence? That it turns out that there is nothing much you can do to avert your pre-ordained doom? In a sense, we all are already in that situation because right now sooner or later death is inevitable.

However, some ethicists and physicians argue that genetic testing should not be made widely available because there are so few effective medical treatments. They claim that letting people know more about the health risks they face will turn them into a bunch of miserable hypochondriacs. In other words, they believe that genetic ignorance is bliss. And many people apparently agree with the naysayers. Katharine Moser is unusual since only about 20 percent of people who are at risk of Huntington's Disease get tested. I believe that Moser made the right choice. Knowledge is power. Moser may not be able to do much about preventing the onset of HD, but she can arrange her life now to be as fulfilling and interesting as possible. She will not postpone vacations, education, visits with friends, and career plans. Because of her genetic knowledge, Moser has put her life into overdrive.

Genetic testing and other biomedical advances will some day provide all of us with a great deal more knowledge about when our lives are going to end. So here's the question: assuming that future genetic testing, combined with a sophisticated biochemical analysis of your past environmental insults, could accurately narrow your life expectancy down to a specific number of years, would you want to know how long you have left? I answer unequivocally, yes. I really want to know (barring accidents) if I'm going to live only 23 years or 41 more years, or even worse, if I'm going to drop dead in the next year. Attempts to restrict access to predictive genetic tests on paternalistic grounds must be strenuously resisted. In the near future, you will not only know that the Pale Rider is headed your way, you'll also have a pretty good idea when he will show up.

Disclosure: Because of my robust thanatophobia I have already availed myself of whole batteries of modern biomedical tests (very few genetic) including a 64-slice heart scan, a whole body MRI scan, a variety of blood tests including ones for homocysteine, C-reactive protein, glucose resistance and prostate specific antigen, a sonogram to check for gallstones, and colonoscopies (during which a polyp was removed). I have asked my physician to let me know when tests for APOE alleles and Chagas' disease become commercially available. And rather than let insurance companies decide what tests I can and cannot have, I paid out-of-pocket for many of them. I am happy to report that the 64-slice heart scan showed that, contrary to claims made by some critics, I actually do have a heart, and it's in remarkably good shape. Rumors that I am in the pay of Big Testing are false. Finally, the death clock says that I will die on September 4, 2027.