Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Bye for now

I've always wanted to be a writer. I've always thought of myself as a writer, even when I wasn't writing anything but long letters home when I worked in Africa and the Middle East. I've published two non-fiction books on subjects relating to that work. I've also written several novels, all as yet unpublished. One is on the hard drive awaiting my having the initiative to send it out. More important, a couple of characters have been talking to each other lately in my head, during meetings, sitting in the back yard, when I wake up in the middle of the night, driving to work.

I've enjoyed doing this, but I can't both blog and write novels. I have about 45 minutes or an hour between pouring the first cup of coffee and having to start getting ready for work. I need to spend that 45 minutes or an hour doing what I like best and what I want to do for the rest of my life, which is write novels. So I won't be posting here anymore, unless there's something I just have to get off my chest, but then you won't know about it, because you will have stopped looking here.

I thought about revealing who I am here, but there's just one thing. One of my bosses is a conservative and a Republican. She is a very nice woman, and she's very good at her job, and I enjoy working with her, so I don't really want her to know I think voting Republican is a character fault, and voting Republican enthusiastically is a personality disorder, which I have said here several times. I think I may also have called it a genetic defect. I would just hate to have it get back to her that I think she's a political moron, though otherwise a wonderful lady.

But except for her, and people who might tell her what I think about Republicans, I don't really care, so if any of y'all care who I am, email me at cdrealist@gmail.com, and I'd be happy to let you know and to talk about any of the issues I've blogged about.

Bye for now.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Potential test to identify autism in toddlers

This is going to scare hell out of too many moms. They showed movies to a bunch of kids age 14 to 42 months. One side of the screen showed children dancing or doing yoga, and the other side showed a computer screen saver (in their terms, "dynamic social images" and "dynamic geometric patterns) and bounced an infrared light beam off the kids' eye to track what they were looking at.

  • 2% of typical  kids preferred to look at the screen saver (1 out of 51)
  • 9% of developmentally delayed kids preferred the screen saver
  • 40% of kids already diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder preferred the screen saver. They also had a different pattern of eye movements, changing the gaze less often.
I wonder if it's dose related, meaning does the percentage get higher with more severe autism?

But using the figures as given, as a test for autism, this method gives 2% false positives and 60% false negatives. I'd say this falls into the category of interesting to know, and if you run across a kid who gets fixated on the center computer screen saver more than other kids, it would be worthwhile screening the kid for ASD.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Kicking like a girl

I knew the expression "to throw like a girl." It means an awkward, stiff-armed, inefficient throw, unless you have seen serious softballers, in which case it means hitting the catchers's glove at home plate from the outfield.
I speculate that those girls who do throw like a girl still throw like a toddler, whereas boys (and girls who play softball regularly) grow out of it and use a more efficient motion of the arm.

But I'd never heard of kicking like a girl. Apparently it's real. Some researchers hooked up a couple of dozen male and female college soccer players with electrodes, reflective markers, and video cameras everywhere, and they found that
They found that male players activate the hip flexors (inside of the hip) in their kicking leg and the hip abductors (outside of the hip) in their supporting leg more than females.
In the kicking leg, men generated almost four times as much hip flexor activation as females (123 percent in males compared to 34 percent in females).
In the supporting leg, males generated more than twice as much gluteus medius activation (124 percent in males compared with 55 percent in females) and vastus medialis activation (139 percent in males compared with 69 percent in females).
By itself, this is just a moderately interesting difference between the sexes, but it's also true that women suffer many more injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) than men do. The authors suggest that the greater use of hip flexors and abductors by men may protect them against injury to the ACL.

It seems to me, not being an athlete myself nor associated with any, that this should be a coachable thing. If girls are using different muscles to kick with than boys, then they are somehow swinging their legs differently, and that should be teachable.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Flower porn: Carrion flower

This carrion flower is a member of the genus Stapelia, but I'm not sure which species. We have a couple of other species in our garden. They are characterized by smelling like rotten meat, thus attracting flies that pollinate them. This one has two flies on it.

Fortunately it's hard to smell this one by accident; you have to get down and sniff it to feel  its full offensiveness, unlike the corpse flower at Huntington Gardens


This article on  spanking habits puts it differently than I would. It says "spanking children who misbehave has been a source of debate among child development researchers." I think that's like saying there is debate about evolution among biologists. A quick look through scholar.google.com found one study that said only some kids are made more aggressive by spanking, and the other 20 said it is a general thing. As I said the other day, people vary.

This particular article was talking about spanking in North and South Carolina, where it says 80% of 3 to 5s get spanked. Overall, they found a decrease in spanking by hand over 30  years, but an increase over 7 years in spanking with an object.

Why do parents spank preschoolers more than other kids? The study authors say, "Kids between 3 and 5, they lie, they cheat, they steal," he said. "They do things to test their limits because they're figuring out the world," and sometimes parents just lose it.

Most parents who do spank their kids do it in anger, he says, not as a calculated tool of discipline. One group disagrees:

"It can be done in a right way and a wrong way," said Brittany Farrell, assistant policy director at the N.C. Family Policy Council, which supports corporal discipline as a tool parents should have. "I think that's an important distinction to be made because the point of the discipline is to teach."
I was about to make a broad statement about people who beat their kids, maybe with some southern slur, but I've begun to think it is related to my ideas about Jane Jacobs' moral syndromes, where she and I divide people into basically liberals and conservatives based on what kinds of acts they view as honorable or dishonorable. I would predict that people who spank their kids are firmly in the guardian moral syndrome and are more likely to be conservative and Republican than liberal and Democrat.

The problem with this, you see, is that I think spanking is almost always useless or harmful and often both. While some kids would not be harmed by it (see: People vary), you can't tell which ones, so spanking kids is a dumb thing to do. One might say, but it makes you feel better smacking the kid. Well, it doesn't make me feel better, so I feel a little moral superiority to someone it does make feel better.

But all this is in the brains of the grown-ups. Conservatives and spankers and liberals and non-spankers all act as they do because of the synapses that fire in their brains. They spank because their brain makes them.

So we non-spankers can't hold it against them when they smack their kids. We can try to stop it, because it seems wrong to us. We can try public awareness campaigns, as we did with putting infants to sleep on their backs. We can try moral suasion, as we did with drunk driving. We can pass laws against it, as we have done with smoking in certain places. But we're not going to stop spanking until we cure conservatism.

The study found that 80% of households in North and South Carolina spanked their preschoolers. I wonder what the percentage is in San Francisco?

Depression among preschoolers, part 2

This New York Times Magazine article asks in the headline, "Can Preschoolers Be Depressed?" Well, yes. Is this even still a question? We've known that for some time. Some say 1 in 5 kids entering kindergarten have "a psychiatric disorder with impairment." Depression is a brain thing, not a mind thing, and there's no particular reason to think this brain thing isn't present at birth. Still, the NYT Magazine article is a good look at childhood depression and the history of how we have thought about it.  Be sure to have food and water handy, because it's a son-of-a-gun long article.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Early puberty

There's something funny about the reasoning here. It's an article on a study of data from the NICHHD study on early child development. They found that 15-month-old girls "who avoided their mother following the separation or could not be comforted by her return" started puberty earlier than "(b)abies who smiled, vocalized, reached, or otherwise demonstrated appreciation that their mother was back."

From this and the observed fact that girls seem to be starting puberty earlier than they used to, the authors conclude (or should I say hypothesize?) that lack of attachment caused the early puberty in the NICHHD girls. They further hypothesize that the species wide early puberty is caused by stress in the environment, which apparently causes animals to breed earlier.

"An evolutionary biology perspective says, 'look, the thing that nature most cares about -- with respect to all living things, humans included -- is dispersing genes in future generations,'" says Belsky. "Thus, under those conditions in which the future appears precarious, where I might not even survive long enough to breed tomorrow, then I should mature earlier so I can mate earlier before that precarious future might get me." This is the evolutionary logic, according to Belsky, which led to the prediction -- and now evidence -- that early insecurity should be related to earlier pubertal development.
This sure seems fuzzy to me. Maybe it's the metaphorical language ("I should mature earlier") when I'm sure the actual researchers are probably thinking about epigenetic factors, some hormone released in the brains of insecure babies causes some genes to turn on early.

But the actual reasoning chain seems fuzzy to me, too. Something about being insecure at 15 months causes girls to start puberty earlier than other girls. Therefore this recent drop in age of puberty is caused by a species-wide insecurity in baby girls. The reason one group of girls starts puberty earlier than another group is the same reason average girls now go through puberty earlier than average girls used to. It just doesn't follow. It's interesting, and I'm glad they did it, and we can probably learn something useful from it, but I don't see how the big step follows.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Do kids of gays do well in school?

In a recent parsing of census data to look at kids held back a year in school, the answer is yes, if you control for parental education. Having straight parents didn't help compared to gay parents, but what did help was

  • having parents, foster or real, not a group home, 
  • there being two parents, and 
  • the parents being married to each other. 
The number that struck me in this article was that Those who were awaiting adoption or placement in a foster home were held back about 34 percent of the time, compared with 7% of kids of straight married couples. That's 5 times higher. Some of it maybe cortisol secreted during the stress that brought them to foster care, but for whatever reasons, we're really failing our foster kids.

And it's another argument for gay marriage. As though I needed another one.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Two rules of life

I was reading this story headed "Moms Who Don't Breastfeed More Likely to Develop Type 2 Diabetes," and it said pretty much what the headline promised. It does it by reducing mom's belly fat. That got me thinking about other cases where an event changes a little thing with  unexpected results, such as that selecting for tame foxes makes their coat variegated, their tail curly, and their vocalization a bark, by  reducing the generation of adrenaline, and an increase in water temperature is killing some frogs, because it's now just warm enough for some fungus to grow.

And that got me to thinking about the two fundamental insights I have had, and that I have formulated into my two rules of life:

  • Rule 1: Everything is more complicated than you think it is. One little thing here affects a big or little thing over there in a way you don't expect. Sometimes it's a good thing; an unexpected effect of legalizing abortion was a moderate influence on the reduction in the crime rate years later, when the unwanted babies would have been prime crime age. Sometimes it's a bad thing; political strife in Congo forces an army to live largely on bushmeat, and chimps and gorillas edge closer to extinction.
  • Rule 2: People vary. This is the same as saying people are more complicated than you think they are. Growing up in the same family, brother David becomes a social worker, and brother Ted becomes the Unabomber. Two kids in an abusive household; one becomes an abusive parent, and the other doesn't. Or one kid gets out of the neighborhood, and another doesn't. Or two rich kids, or two anything. People vary along so many dimensions, and our genetics and especially our epigenetics vary in how much cortisol is released, and how one reacts to the cortisol, or oxytocin, or seratonin, or dopamine, or any hormone or neurotransmitter. We can say statistically that, say, experiencing certain things as a child is associated with hitting or not hitting your kids, but we can't say in any individual case, this will cause that, and we know that in some cases it won't; we just don't know which ones.
The policy implication of this is that one size does not fit all. Helping some kids probably means hurting others, and policy making is balancing the helps and hurts.
  • If you change the kindergarten age in order to make sure all the kids in the class are old enough for the curriculum, then some kids who were ready younger will have to spend an extra year in the minors. 
  • If you teach pretty much only math and reading in 4th grade, the smart kids will be held back. If you don't teach pretty much only math and reading, some kids will not learn to read well enough to follow the class work and will be lost to formal education.
  • Kids do better if they have smarter kids in the room, so separating the really smart kids into a single class is good for the one class and bad for everybody else. 
  • Any expensive special program, however justified, takes money away from whatever the money would have been spent on. If it is categorical money, then that just means the decision how to divvy up the money was made at a higher level of government.