Me on a Jon Udell podcast

Tim O’Reilly likes to quote William Gibson when he describes his approach to predicting the future: “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” In other words, if you can just find the people (O’Reilly calls them alpha geeks) who are leading the way, you can serve yourself a tasty slice of future pie before the crowds show up. I completely agree with this philosophy. One of the things I love about the current blogging culture is that I can keep up with the latest thoughts of the people, the alpha geeks, that I think are on the leading edge.

When Tim O’Reilly talks about people who can see the future before it’s very evenly distributed, he’s talking about Jon Udell. I have been a fan of Udell’s writing since his days as a columnist at Infoworld. Now he works at Microsoft. The reason for his departure is also the reason his writing is so prescient: he holds fast to his own compass, and when that compass was at variance with Infoworld’s mission, he knew it was time to move on. Few people are doing more to distribute the future than Udell. He is intensely focused on bringing the fruits of social computing and information technology in general to the broadest possible audience, whether it’s through screencasting, easy-to-use scripting languages, or underused federal databases. I know when he’s excited about something, I should learn more about it as fast as possible.

So I was especially happy that I got a chance to meet him at a recent symposium on social computing at Microsoft. I was even happier to learn that he wanted to interview me for a podcast on the programming contest that I’ve been running at The MathWorks for the past several years.

Want to listen? Tune in here: A conversation with Ned Gulley about the MATLAB Programming Contest « Jon Udell.

And if you stumbled across this post and want to learn more about the contest, you might want to read a paper that I wrote about it: In Praise of Tweaking: A Wiki-like Programming Contest.

Autism walk fundraiser on October 14th

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Every year around this time, just as the leaves are starting to change color up here in New England, I put on my fundraising hat and try to convince you to give some of your money to help rid the world of a disease that my son has. It helps to have a cute picture handy, but really I want you to think about this as a great big economics problem that’s worth your investment. Taking care of autistic kids like my son Jay is extraordinarily expensive, and one way or another that cost is visited on the economy as a whole. Anything we can do to prevent autism or mitigate its effects will be hugely beneficial, even in the cold calculus of cash.

Of course it will have an incalculable benefit for those parents in the future who might thereby avoid the visit. I regularly hear about parents who have just learned of their child’s diagnosis. It makes my gut ache. The visit is the trip to the specialist on the day your life changes. The visit is when you learn that your child suffers from a severe and lifelong neurological disorder. Listen to me: you don’t want anyone you love to go through the visit. Here is your chance to help.

I close with the letter my wife sent this year. Note the link at the bottom to the website where you can donate online. And for those of you who have already given, a thousand thanks.

Dear Friends and Family,

The 2007 Greater Boston Walk Now for Autism will take place on October 14th. Once again our family will be a part of that Walk and we are asking you to join us in raising critically-needed funds for autism research by making a contribution in support of our Walk. If you live in the Boston area, we also welcome you to join Jay’s Team and thousands of other walkers at Suffolk Downs in East Boston.

We’ll walk in honor of our son Jay, who is eight years old and severely affected by autism. He is nonverbal and has significant cognitive delays and attending difficulties. He requires constant supervision to prevent dangerous behaviors, such as bolting and climbing. Despite these obstacles, Jay is making progress at school in many areas. For example, he is recognizing a few written words now and he is using an augmentative device to make requests.

At home and in the community Jay spends a lot of time in self-stimulatory activity, especially making loud noises and shaking dangling objects up and down. But he smiles a lot, has great eye contact at times, and has gradually learned routines and become more compliant over the years. He is generally better behaved in restaurants and public places than he used to be. Swinging, climbing, and swimming are still Jay’s favorite activities, after stimming. He now has a new bedroom (added to the house this Spring), with a hook in the ceiling so that he can enjoy swinging in both the basement AND his bedroom. His sister Carolyn tries hard to get his attention and he occasionally responds.

We’ll walk for Jay on October 14 because the causes of autism are still unknown and there are no specific medical treatments or cure. We walk because, despite increasing national interest and high prevalence, autism research is one of the lowest funded areas of medical research by both public and private sources. We walk because we hope for a better world for Jay and Carolyn in the future, a world without this devastating disorder.

Whatever you can give will help! I greatly appreciate your support and will let you know how much we raised after the Walk.

Sincerely,

Wendy Gulley

Click here to get to my personal page and make a secure, online donation.

A letter to the American Chestnut Foundation

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Among the last of a proud breed, this Castanea dentata, or American chestnut, stands alone in a Kentucky field. It is one of the very few mature flowering chestnuts that has so far eluded the fungal disease known as chestnut blight. What you see in the picture is a tree so valuable that it is hand-pollinated by a botanist in a cherry picker. The botanist in the bucket is doing what he can to resurrect the old tree for posterity. I wish him luck.

When it comes to endangered species, the American chestnut is the botanical version of charismatic megafauna. Charismatic megafauna, those large and tragic beautiful animals like lions and gorillas, are the spokesmodels of extinction threat. The Tecopa pupfish can leave the stage unnoticed, but we can’t help but empathize with the plight of the Siberian tiger. Equally tragic and majestic is the mighty American chestnut. Call it charismatic megaflora. At one time it dominated the old-growth forest canopy in the Appalachians. And in a single generation it was gone. Or very nearly so.

The American Chestnut Foundation is dedicated to bringing back a blight-resistant version of the chestnut. As part of their campaign, ACF publications director Jeanne Coleman asked for letters from people who grew up in the shadow of the old chestnuts, people who can testify to what the trees looked like in their prime. My father is one of those people. And he sent Jeanne Coleman a letter. But Jeanne Coleman never wrote back.

So, as a public service on behalf of my father and his trees, I am posting the letter.

American Chestnut Foundation
P. O. Box 4044 Bennington, VT 05201

Dear Ms. Coleman,

In the late 1920’s and the early 1930’s I lived in a village, Crozet, at the foot of the mountains north of Charlottesville, Va. The mountains were beautifully green with great chestnut trees that marked our seasons.

In the autumn we waited for the excitement of the first frost and opening of the bur. Trips up the mountain brought home baskets of chestnuts that had that distinctive sweet firmness that lingers in memory. The fun and the flavor mingled.

This was especially true with the smaller chinquapins. I could collect a pocket full on my way to school and have a days worth of good eating as well as a supply of missiles that bedeviled the girls.

Of course those days preceded anyone’s idea of air conditioning other than a breeze through an open window. I would sleep with my head close to the window and enjoyed the panorama of the mountain. It was a great shock to see a line of brown moving day by day across the mountain. The concept of the blight was difficult for a boy to grasp and it took a considerable period of time for me to understand the inexorable march of destruction I was witnessing. I could not believe our chestnut trees would not come back.

My feelings were mixed in a way that a boy has difficulty expressing. They were a mixture of disbelief and vague grief that persist to this day. Mixed with this of course was that gift of the human spirit, hope.

I celebrate the persistent energy of the American Chestnut Foundation. I anticipate the day when my nostalgia blends into warm pleasure at your success—and the blacksmith can enjoy the shade.

Very truly yours,
Marcus M. Gulley, MD

As a footnote to this letter, I observe that the ACF describes in their FAQ two weevils that attack the chestnut. They are know as the “lesser” and the “greater”. To think, with that setup, that they attempt no joke about the lesser of two weevils… Oh the humanity! First they scorn my father’s letter, and then they forbear to use a perfect weevil-related punchline. Truly they are squandering riches.