Monday, March 30, 2009


This past Saturday, I attended a remarkable event, called PodCamp.

I know what you’re thinking, but it wasn’t that kind of camp. Actually it wasn’t even a camp at all. There were no pods and there was no camping. It was all about using the emerging social networking sites and technologies to get along in today’s wired world.

Here is the official link:

I attended a “twitter 101” session where I actually got my own Twitter presence working. I had signed up for Twitter late one night in a Buffalo hotel room, but I never figured out how to make it work because I was distracted by the explosion of the fire alarm. Today, it functions. Thanks to PodCamp and Christine Pilch, I can now Tweet. And they are beautiful tweets, if I do say so myself. Filled with subtle overtones of snout and throat.

If you Tweet, come find me @johnrobison Here's a list of Campers and Tweeters:

At lunch I discussed mommy bloggers and genealogy with Tish Greer. I discovered a shared Credit Union background with Morriss Partee. I ate a small sandwich, and someone told me I had traces of brownie on my cheek.

Later on, Steve Sherlock and others led me down the path to podcasting, which can be the first step on a slipperly slope to video blogs and video casting. Who knows where I will end up?

I learned lots and lots of valuable stuff and I met many interesting people. Most of all, I got a new sense of the importance of the many social networks that are emerging. And new ones pop up every day.

With my new knowledge, I cleaned up the sidebar on my Blogger blog. I improved the feeds, and added Tweets. It was easy, once I saw how to do it.

The real value of events like this are the people connections and the random tidbits that you could never have gone searching for, but once you find them, you can’t imagine how you did without them. People and tidbits, that is. Woof.

Jackie Stevenson deserves special thanks for inviting me. Without her, I’d never have known PodCamp existed. I have promised to attend the next PodCamp, somewhere in the Berkshires later this summer or fall.

I even spoke at a session. I told my own social networking story, which was kind of neat because none of the people in the audience knew anything about me, or Asperger's, or my car company. So it was a refreshing and total departure from the groups I usually speak with. It started when I achieved success at my car company, but I wanted a vague and ill-defined More. I began offering help on Land Rover bulletin boards. One thing led to another. I spoke to kids a Brightside and young adults in the jail. My father up and died. My brother outed me in Running With Scissors and Possible Side Effects. Inspired and prodded, I wrote a book. To promote the book, I started this blog. Then it took on a life of its own. I even got on FaceBook, and here I am today.

And if I can do it, anyone can.

Finally, I should also offer special thanks to the engineers at Bosch and BMW. It was their clever engineering that got my car around an unexpected corner on the way to podcamp. The newest drive-by-wire and stability control systems really do work.

But that’s another story.

And while we’re talking stories, don’t miss my latest one on Psychology Today -

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The shame of the north

The other day, I went to a sugar shack for the first time. For those who don’t know, a sugar shack is a place where maple sap is rendered down to make maple syrup. It’s supposed to be a traditional New England process, with wizened farmers pouring pitchers of sap into giant vats that simmer for hours over wood fires.

They’ve always sold maple syrup, but the idea of sugar shacks where you eat it right at the source . . . that’s something new. It is legit, or another trick for the tourists? Or is it just another way to milk the rich New Yorkers on their way to Vermont? I decided to find out . . .

Thousands of gallons of raw sap are boiled down to make a few gallons of syrup, which is liquid gold for farmers at this time of year. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. As I discovered, the reality may be somewhat different. And the smiling farmers may not be quite what you expect. Then again, maybe they’re exactly what you expect. It just depends on your perspective.

I walked in the front door, which opened into a post and beam barn whose centerpiece was a big steaming vat of sap. There was a wood fire roaring beneath it, and jolly diners lapping up sap on pancakes at picnic tables all around the room.

Great clouds of steam rose to the ceiling, where they escaped through slats in the roof. Laughing kids ran from table to table, and a jovial farmer tended the fire and answered questions for the tourists.

The scene looked too sweet to be real. I slipped out the door and walked up the hill out back. That’s where it hit me, right in the pit of my stomach. The smell. The odor of half-burnt fuel oil almost knocked me over. I realized the pastoral wood fire scene was just for show. The real work was done with petroleum. There were jets of liquid fire underneath a veneer of wood. And if the wood’s a fake, I thought, what else is going on?

I’d heard rumors, but they were too shameful to credit. Until now.

Maybe that “pure” maple syrup isn’t so pure after all. Maybe those empty plastic drums out back contained something other than fertilizer. Come to think of it, what kind of fertilizer do maple trees need, anyway?

I did the math as I stood there, wreathed in oily smoke. A 55 gallon drum of corn syrup costs $650. A 32 ounce jug of “pure maple syrup” sells for $30. That 55 gallon drum contains 7,000 ounces of liquid. Add 10% maple syrup for authenticity, and your $650 investment fetches $7,200 on the street.

With a sick feeling, I realized why the syrup containers never run dry. With that kind of profit, they can afford to be generous. Jeez, I thought, are the pancakes rigged too?

The profits are almost as good as cooking meth, with none of the attendant risk. Who ever heard of a farmer sentenced to twenty years for cooking bogus syrup?

I’m sure there’s some farmers who play it straight. Maybe even most. But the maple crop dwindles a little every year, while “pure syrup” production keeps on rising. How can that be? And when the snow finally melts, and you take a walk out back of the sugar shack, there’s a slick of half burnt fuel oil and soot coating a bunch of dirty plastic drums with the letters “FOOD GRADE ONLY” fading in the bright springtime sun.

Sixteen drums. Seven grand apiece. That’s a hundred fifteen thousand dollars, with the waste pile to prove it. All for a one-month sugar season.

Maybe I should start a maple syrup farm. I did ok with girl scout cookies, but this could be big. Really big.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A return to the TMS lab

Yesterday Cubby and I returned to the TMS lab at Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to commence another round of studies. Those of you who are new to TMS can read some of last year’s posts here:

This spring, we have two studies going on. One is measuring brain plasticity, comparing people with Asperger’s to nypicals (people who don't have autism.) The other study involves the use of TMS to change cognitive processes – altering the way we think.

Today I’d like to tell you a little bit about the brain plasticity study. I’ll begin with a definition. Brain plasticity is a phrase that describes the brain’s natural ability to form new connections. What does that mean, you ask? Here’s an example from my own life . . . .

A few years ago, I was shoveling snow in my driveway when I felt something tear. By the next morning, pain had set in and I couldn’t lift my right arm anymore. I’d damaged my shoulder. I could still type with my right arm, but I could not make the sweeping motions to move the mouse for my computer.

I was in real trouble. The computer and the mouse were essential to my job, and I suddenly found myself unable to do the work. Luckily I am self-employed and not subject to arbitrary dismissal.

Some people would have seized that opportunity to quit work for a month-long binge, but not me. I resolved to stay at it, and master that mouse. I began training my left arm in mouse management. Within a week I had become proficient enough that I wasn’t really handicapped at the computer anymore.

Now, five years later, my shoulder has healed fully but I remain ambi-mouserous.

That is a perfect example of brain plasticity in action. Over the space of a week, my brain formed the necessary connections to move the mouse smoothly with my left hand. The essential elements were always there, but the paths needed clearing to work smoothly. You might imagine that as the mental equivalent of clearing overgrowth from an old railroad line to make a bike path. Once it was clear I could run it fast and smooth. Before that, I stumbled and hacked.

So how does that relate to autism, you ask? After all, anyone can clear brush or get a shoulder injury. Here is the answer:

For several years, neuroscientists have thought that people with autism might have more brain plasticity than nypicals. The tests we did in Alvaro’s TMS lab ( ) bear that out, and they do so in a dramatic way. What the testing shows is that people like me DO indeed have more plasticity. We are now unraveling what that means in terms of life skills, advantages, and handicaps.

The evidence suggests that plasticity helps me adapt to something like a shoulder injury much faster than a nypical person. I seem to be able to compensate rapidly for changes in my senses. That could be very significant in some work environments. For example, if I flew helicopters in the Army, I’d be able to switch from visual flying to night vision goggles faster than nypical people. That could be a life-saving benefit.

When it comes to clearing paths in my mind, I’ve got a Caterpillar bulldozer, where nypicals have machetes.

But if I try to do too many things, my greater plasticity can bring me to a halt. I can see that in my son, Cubby. He knows more about certain organic chemistry than his professors, but when he takes four courses he loses it all in disorganization and confusion. That too is a result of his greater plasticity.

Scientists theorize that people who are disabled by autism may live in a state of perpetual confusion because their brains change even faster than mine, so much so that they never find stability.

Here’s another fascinating discovery that’s come from the lab . . . that bulldozer in my mind makes much bigger tracks that the nypical’s machete. That means my “return to normal” is slower than it is for nypicals. That’s the counterpoint to my rapid adaptation. De-adaptation is several times slower.

I’ve seen that in real life, when I switch from driving my boat with “regular eyes” to the night vision goggles. I adapt almost instantly, while other people on the boat are slower to adjust. But then when I take the goggles off, I am the one who’s slower to return to normal. That may well happen because I form stronger and deeper paths, thanks to my greater plasticity.

This may be a tremendously important discovery when it comes to growing up. If we can identify a specific brain difference like plasticity, and we can associate that with advantages and differences in brain function (like the examples I gave) we may be able to shape the learning environment of tomorrow’s kids to achieve far greater life successes.

That’s a great goal to work toward.

Stay tuned for more essays on this, and feel free to paw through my blog archives for older material. If you’d like to do further research, Alvaro Pascual Leone and the other scientists I’m working with can be found at Another blog you may find interesting is Running A Hospital, by Paul Levy, the Chief of Beth Israel Medical Center

If you'd like to learn more about participating in these groundbreaking studies, I encourage you to write directly to Shirley or Lindsay, two of BIDMC's wonderful scientists:

Lindsay Obermann
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Harvard Medical School

Shirley Fecteau
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Harvard Medical School

Added February 2010 . . .

And this, from Feb 2010 . ..

Here are some of my other TMS autism stories:

Brain Health, Body Wealth TMS

Look Me In The Eye: Brain Plasticity and TMS

Look Me In The Eye: A return to the TMS lab

Look Me In The Eye: Brain Plasticity and how it affects us

Look Me In The Eye: A summary of my TMS posts

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The bridge at Montague

Readers of Look Me in the Eye (the book, not this blog) may recall my chapter on Montagoonians. Some of you probably thought I made that name up, but I didn't. They are as real as Sunday or Jeb's beagle. Culture has come to Montague with the opening of places like the Book Mill, and fewer Montagoonians are born with webbed feet or extra eyes.

Despite that, there is still sometimes a need to get away; to escape. The bridge in this story allows safe passage across the Connecticut River, from Montague to Deerfield. The river flows fast here, and it's treacherous to try and swim. During flood, there are whirlpools that will swallow a life jacket whole and spit it back up a hundred yards downstream.

There's a road bridge just north of this span, but it's above the Deerfield, and enters Greenfield, which may not provide much relief to a fleeing Montagoonian. Not only is Greenfield not much better, the span is easily blocked by deranged natives with clubs and torches.

To me, the best thing about this bridge it the fact that it's a train bridge. Some of you may find this story on railroad bridges boring. I can understand that. Train bridges aren't for everyone. But they're not boring to me. I guess this is one of my geeky special interests, and I hope a few of you find it at least somewhat interesting.

Anyone who’s driven from Montague to Greenfield has seen the massive rail bridge that spans the Connecticut River just south of the road bridge. This Saturday, I crossed the bridge to answer a question that’s nagged me for some time . . .

Take a look at the bridge as seen from the Montague side. This is the side most people see, because there’s a public road a few hundred feet away and thousands of folks pass every day.

Now look at the bridge from the Deerfield side. It’s totally different. Why is that? I decided to find out.

The bridge has three spans. The one shown above is made from light girders and steel tension rods. It’s kind of elegant in its airy complexity. The other two spans are much more massive. They’re what you see in the first image - heavy x-braced girders. I’d read that this bridge was damaged in a flood during the depression, and I’ve actually seen twisted steel poking up from the riverbed just south of the bridge. I realized part of the bridge must be old and part newer, but which part was which?

The maker’s plates at either side told the story. On the Deerfield side, you see this plate:

Who were they? Read on for the answer . . .

The Keystone Bridge Company was founded in 1865 by Andrew Carnegie just after he retired from the Pennsylvania Railroad. Railroads were expanding, and he saw a market for steel bridges. At the time, many railroads used rickety wooden trestle bridges, which were beginning to collapse and give passenger travel a bad reputation. At the same time, the rails were pushing west, into bigger country, where wooden trestles just couldn’t be made big enough.

In 1874, Carnegie’s firm won wide acclaim by building James Ead’s landmark bridge over the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Six years later, Keystone sold a bridge to the Fitchburg Railroad, replacing an 1845 structure they had built when the line was originally run from Fitchburg to Greenfield. Traffic on the Fitchburg line had grown tremendously since the opening of the Hoosac Tunnel through the Berkshires in 1876.

Their Connecticut Rover bridge was an engineering marvel. Look at the light but strong construction. They used riveted main girders that were assembled with huge bolts. An intricate lattice of truss rods gave the structure its necessary rigidity and strength.

Here's a closer view of the structure:

This shot shows the bolts and rods, still holding up after 130 years.

It's actually quite remarkable how well this bridge has held up without paint or upkeep. The railroad who owned it is long since bankrupt. Yet it still stands.

However, two spans washed away in the 1936 flood. Many other bridges washed away that same day. 1936 was the most destructive Connecticut River flood in recorded history. By then, the Fitchburg Railroad was gone, merged into the Boston and Maine. When the B&M looked for a replacement bridge speed of delivery was a big factor. They chose a predesigned bridge from Phoenix to replace Carnegie’s elegant structure.

A crew from Phoenix had the replacement bridge open just a few months after the flood subsided. Rail traffic resumed, and held steady until the postwar railroad decline. Rail traffic has started to pick up again, but the tracks now cross the river a mile south, into the Deerfield yard.

The bridge has stood ever since. This section of abandoned line was developed into a rail trail four years ago.

The day after I posted this story, I realized I did not have any images of the bridge from the side. That afternoon, I resolved to remedy that deficiency. I left work early and drove to Greenfield, where I parked by the Montague City road bridge. Descending toward the riverbank the ground gave way, and I almost ended up in the river. But I didn't, and that's all that matters. Here is a view of the bridge from the side. As you can see, the different construction of the spans is not all that visible from 1/4 mile away.

This photo shows the road bridge north of the rail bridge. It was erected at the same time (1936) as its predecessor was totally washed out in the flood. The earlier version of this bridge was made of wood, and that wood, when it headed downstream, partly triggered the failure of the rail span as it jammed up against it in the force of the current.

This bridge is in a sorry state. It bounced like a trampoline whenever a heavy vehicle crossed it. I was uncomfortable out there on foot, let alone in a car.

I hope you've enjoyed this little foray into bridges. We'll return soon with our regularly scheduled programming.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Thoughts on today's economy

I don't really write much about the economy here, so I hope readers will indulge the occasional post.

Until last year, my 35-year working life has been a series of mostly forward moves. There were some bumps, of course. I got fired a few times, got divorced, even got my nose cut off once – but overall I moved ahead on a year-to-year basis.

My success was made possible to a large extent by the broader success of the US economy during that period. Until last year, some of the many economic indicators were always up. Inflation might be high, but unemployment was low. Or else the reverse was true. Through it all, people bought more stuff every year, so there was a constantly increasing demand, which created opportunity.

As long as the trend was up, I felt I could plan my life. I didn’t know high or how fast, but I had a reasonable expectation that life would get progressively better at some rate.

All that changed at the end of 2007.

When all the indicators turned down at once, the rules were fundamentally altered. When conditions rise, tensions ease and life becomes generally better for most people. That’s a formula for stability. When conditions fall, the result is the opposite. The closer the numbers get to zero, the greater the risk of collapse.

My car company has seen a 25% drop in service revenue over the last six months. I’ve never seen a change of that magnitude in the 20+ years I’ve been in the car service business. No one wants to spend any money. I can cut expenses, but that only goes so far. What if business falls another 25%, or even 50%? What happens when it’s no longer possible to pay the bills? That’s a situation I have never faced, because I lived in a world where forward progress was the general rule. That’s not true any more.

I thought diversification would protect me as I got older. It hasn’t. The market for my second book evaporated as publishers close divisions and lay off workers. I lost a tenant in my rental operation, so revenue is down there. My stock investments lost 35% of their value. My house lost a quarter of its value. My commercial buildings are sinking too. Nothing is immune. Even my collector cars have lost value.

It’s a male trait and an Asperger trait to judge my own self-worth by what I accomplish. For most of my life, that’s meant my work accomplishments. With every work activity in some state of failure, it’s no wonder I’ve sunk into a persistent depression. I’m sure many others are in the same boat.

Upward trends equal relief, because up is better. Downward trends end in a very bad place, and every day of new bad news just brings the seeming inevitable collapse a bit closer. Frankly, I'm surprised people are holding up as well as they are. Or are they? We had a spate of newsworthy suicides last fall, and one of our customers killed himself two months back.

Where will it end? If this year’s rate of decline continues - 20% every two months – the year will end with the Dow at 2,200, which is essentially what happened in the Great Depression. What would that mean in today’s world? Perhaps we’re about to find out.

There has not been an increase in crime where I live, but I imagine that’s coming. When times get hard some people start grabbing from others. Could unrest spread beyond individual criminality? Will newly-bankrupted countries go the way of Somalia? Even more, I wonder if they’ll turn on us as the cause of their trouble.

Could something like that happen in the United States? Can we maintain order during a cold winter with 35% unemployment in the old industrial cities? Or will the residents burn them for warmth? I fear for places like Buffalo and Detroit.

I wonder how the government is going to pay for all their recovery plans. Everyone knows about the deficit spending, but what no one talks about is the idea that tax revenue is going to collapse next year, as high income taxpayers stop paying taxes, because they are now losing money. And many others will go underground, running home businesses for cash, just as people did in the 1930s. So where will the government get its money? They can only print illusory money for so long.

I’m very concerned that a financial collapse will turn quickly into a societal collapse. You can foreclose and take one house in a neighborhood, or even ten. But at some point, the homeowners are going to take up arms and say, Screw you, we’re staying! What happens then?

I know the government hopes to prevent that by encouraging banks to adjust mortgages to keep people in homes. But if economic activity falls far enough, the affordable level may be very low indeed. If the stock market falls 60%, it may take a similar mass write-down of mortgages to keep most of them affordable. But doing so would wipe out most banks in the country.

My own son is just now becoming an adult. The world he grows up in will surely be very different from the one I knew.