Monday, November 30, 2009

Early autism therapy shows promise

A small, controlled study published in Pediatrics assigned the Early Start Denver model or less comprehensive care to autistic kids 18 to 30 months old. The treatment group got four hours of treatment a day, five days a week, plus at least five hours a week from parents.
The therapy is similar to other types of autism behavior treatment. It focused on social interaction and communication — which are both difficult for many autistic children. For example, therapists or parents would repeatedly hold a toy near a child's face to encourage the child to have eye contact — a common problem in autism. Or they'd reward children when they used words to ask for toys. ...
After two years, IQ increased an average of almost 18 points in the specialized group, versus seven points in the others. Language skills also improved more in the specialized group. Almost 30 percent in the specialized group were re-diagnosed with a less severe form of autism after two years, versus 5 percent of the others. No children were considered "cured."
In general I'm skeptical of a lot of treatments, but the brain is a wonderfully plastic organ, and there is no intuitive reason why parts of it can't be rewired to increase social awareness.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

15 terrible toys

A slideshow on Huffington Post of 15 toys not to buy this Christmas. I kind of like the filleted plastic fish, and I did laugh at Tarzan, but the others deserve their place here.

How much risk can kids take?

Uphill battle

This lady in Santa Barbara (LA Times photo at right by Kirk McKoy) has a family child care, and she takes the kids to the beach to look for crabs. Her shtick is teaching outdoor stuff to preschoolers.

When they're done with the crabs, her son and one of the kids in her care climb a hill at the back of the beach. They've done this before, and they like to climb. She thought it was a good challenge for them, with enough hand holds to make it doable.

One of the kids, the caretaker's own four-year-old, got scared at one point, so the caretaker went up and got him down. Two other kids reached the top and were guided back down by lifeguards.

According to the article in the LA Times, passersby called the cops, who called licensing, who suspended her license for "conduct inimical to the health, morals, welfare, or safety" of children.

Now obviously I wasn't there, but I think I'm on the provider's side here, especially since the parents thought it was fine. She had known the kids for years and knew what they could do. I figured with my own issue that a broken bone or two in the course of a childhood was an acceptable risk for the reward of kids successfully climbing stuff.

If she and the parents have agreed that this hill is a good climb for their kids, that should be enough for licensing.

ELQIS meeting Wednesday

I'll only be able to follow on the web, but the ELQIS meeting Wednesday, 9 to 4, should be interesting. (Agenda) They're going to present decisions on some of the main issues. I have fairly high hopes for design and fairly low expectations for workforce development. I was going to put a link to the website streaming video, but I can't find it. I wonder if there won't be one.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Flower porn: Nanchital orchid

In the early 1980s, I was travelling in southern Mexico, when I stayed the night in the town of Nanchital, next to a jungle forest that had heavy earth-moving machinery parked across the street, preparing to level this stretch of forest to widen the highway.

After some phone calls home, no easy feat from there back then, and permits confirmed on this end and instructions received on my end, I went out into the jungle on one of it's last afternoons before its forcible patriation into the 21st century. I climbed a tree and cut down three orchids to bring home.

While I was probably 20 feet off the ground, an enormous thunderstorm hit and laid on me for maybe half an hour. I just held on with both arms until it passed. It was so hot, the rain was a relief. When it passed, I dropped my plants to the ground and then eased myself thereto. At the place I was staying, I filled up a tub with water, per instructions from my mom, whose import permit we would be using, and put the plants under the water, so all the little insects inside them would want to come outside to breathe. I dumped the bugs outside, sprayed my little orchid darlings with insecticide to capture any strays, and brought the orchids home as carry-on.

One never bloomed. One had a single lovely blue blossom once. This one blooms from time to time. I've never had it identified.

I should really Photoshop out that scrub brush.

Gay twins and epigenetics

Via Andrew Sullivan, this is a 6-minute National Geographic clip on how one identical twin can be gay and the other straight.

Friday follies

Old cat at rest. My partner put a heating pad on low under a towel in a basket to ease her arthritic joints. She likes it just fine.

How sufficating makes you freak out

A study in Cell says breathing increased levels of carbon dioxide increases acid levels in the brain, and that acid-sensing channels, especially in the amygdala, invoke fear behaviors. This is why people freak out when they are drowning or suffocating. This is almost like using the brain as a sense organ.

This suggests a place to look for causes and treatments of panic disorders. It also suggests that genetic variations in this acid sensing might cause people to be more or less susceptible to PTSD or other anxieties.

Another thing stem cells can do

In addition to turning into different kids of tissues, in mice, at least, it seems stem cells can exude "healing factors" that repair the lungs of newborn preemies.

They simulated premature birth by giving the newborns oxygen, which damages the lungs. Then they injected stem cells into the airways of half the mice. In two weeks, the treated mice could run twice as far as the  untreated. Necropsy showed the stem cells had not just prevented further damage but had repaired the existing damage.

It  has occurred to the researchers that they should look into what is in the liquid that the stem cells produce, because there might be further uses for it, or things like it.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Another good thing about bilingualism

A meta-analysis of brain studies suggests people who speak two languages have brain differences from monolinguals that give them an advantage in mastering other complex thought processes, including "learning in general, complex thinking and creativity, mental flexibility, interpersonal and communication skills, and even a possible delay in the onset of age-related mental diminishment later in life." They highlight improved short-term memory.

And they say it is dose related: It starts when you start learning a second language and gets better as you get better at the language. But learning a language as a separate school course doesn't work as well.

Injury rates in child care compared to home

Researchers in Britain looked at accidental injury rates in 18,114 kids age 9 months and 13,718 kids age 3 years in relation to the type of care the kid got, formal child care, informal child care, or only parental care, and family income.

If you look at child care overall, there is no association between child care type and accidental injury rate. But if you separate it by income and age, there is.

  • At 9 months, poor kids had more injuries if they were in child care compared with just a parent. Rich kids had fewer. 
  • At 3 years, poor kids in informal child care still have more injuries, but formal child care is not associated with higher injuries in any economic class. 

The authors don't speculate on why this is, but I will. Another way of phrasing the findings is that rich infants are injured more when their moms don't have respite care, but when they do send them to formal child care, they can pay for good care (eg low ratios). No, that's unfair. They're right. We should just figure out why all this is.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Non-invasive in utero tests for Down syndrome

The risk from amniocentesis and from chorionic villus sampling to test for Down syndrome is small not not zero, so non-invasive tests for it are welcome. Each of the candidate tests has a high rate of false negatives, but used in sequence, they seem to be quite successful. In the first trimester, we can measure one protein circulating in the maternal bloodstream, and in the second trimester we can measure another. These are usually used to determine whether to do further, this time invasive, testing.

One relatively new way to avoid amnio and CVS is called a genetic sonogram, which is "a sophisticated ultrasound that details the fetal anatomy ... looking for the presence of major fetal anomalies or specific anatomic features (so-called 'soft markers') that might be found in a child with Down syndrome."

In a recent study  of 8000 pregnant women screened  for fetal chromosomal abnormalities,
The detection rate of Down syndrome babies varied from 69 percent for the genetic sonogram alone to as high as 98 percent with certain combinations of the biochemical markers. More importantly, the improved detection rate was accompanied by a decrease in the screening tests false positive rates.

So using the current method of choosing whom to give amniocentesis to, and then giving them a sonogram instead of amnio, gives 2% false negatives and a smaller number of false positives than from just the blood tests. Since amnio gives no false positives or false negatives, a woman will have to weigh the current risk of amnio or CVS against the new error rates.

  • If you would want to abort a fetus if it turns out to have Down syndrome, how much risk is a 2% chance of having such a kid anyway?
  • How bad would you feel about  the chance of aborting a kid that in fact did not have Down syndrome? 
There is no way in the world I would ever make a generic recommendation on either part of that issue. It is as personal as any decision you will ever make. I wish you well but have no advice whatsoever.

How much does TV influence body image?

This is not what I thought science was. In a study published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology and reported in Science Daily, the researchers asked kids 121 girls 3 to 6 years old how much they worried about being fat and other appearance-related questions. "Nearly half ...said they worry about being fat. About one-third would change a physical attribute, such as their weight or hair color."

Then they watched clips of either neutral TV (Dora the explorer or Clifford the big red dog) or beauty-centric parts of  Beauty and the Beast. Then they went into a room with lots of play stuff, and it turned out the girls who got the beauty message played with the appearance related stuff, such has hair brushing, the same amount of time as the girls who watched Clifford did.

The natural inference is that watching Beauty being told how beautiful she was didn't affect the kids all that much.  The primary author said,
While the study found no short-term consequences for young girls, the media's portrayal of beauty likely is one of the strongest influences on how they perceive their bodies because children spend so much time watching movies and television, Tantleff-Dunn said.
Now I can see saying this is contrary to all that published stuff, so we need to figure out why, but what they actually said was, "Our study said X is true, but we really know that it is not."

Another bad thing about phthalates: ADHD

Phthalates are chemicals put into plastics to make them stay pliable, as well as "enteric coatings of pharmaceutical pills and nutritional supplements to viscosity control agents, gelling agents, film formers, stabilizers, dispersants, lubricants, binders, emulsifying agents, and suspending agents" in all sorts of products. They were recently shown to be related to female play behavior by preschool boys.

This study in Korea, reported in Science Daily, "found a significant positive association between phthalate exposure and ADHD, meaning that the higher the concentration of phthalate metabolites in the urine, the worse the ADHD symptoms and/or test scores."

Drop-side cribs recalled; may be banned

Lots of places have discussed the recall of a million drop-side cribs monday, but this one has a photo (of a doll) showing just what the problem is. The hardware holding the side in place at one end breaks, and this lets the bottom move outward at that end. The kid can slide into the gap, get trapped, and suffocate. The article also lists other issues with this and other cribs. Just what a parent of an infant wants to read about with breakfast: more ways to accidentally kill your kid by buying the wrong product.

It seems the Consumer Product Safety Commission has noticed.
Asked on NBC's "Today" show whether people should abandon such cribs, (the commission chair) said she recommends that. And she said consumers also could order plastic kits from the manufacturer to immobilize crib sides.
"The commission will write regulations in the next few months and we will look at this issue about drop-sides," Tenenbaum said. "But I don't think drop-sides will be a part of cribs in the future."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Flower porn: Brugmansia

Brugmansia in our back yard. This is the treeish version of Jimson weed, AKA Datura*, AKA one of the varieties of loco weed. This version smells sweet, especially in the evening. I guess it is crepuscular, which is one of my favorite words, and I work it in whenever I can.

We have several colors. I think they call them peach, apricot, and double-white. This is the one they call apricot and that I would call yellow. It is beside the patio out back with the chiminea, where we spend luxurious evenings warm on one side, cool on the other, and infused with Brugmansia smell.

*In case grammar geeks wonder why I capitalized Datura, when it is not a proper name, it is because Datura is a genus, and the convention in biology is to capitalize the genus but not the species. I violate a lot of rules in grammar and punctuation, but not usually accidentally. Which reminds me of the Oscar Wilde line, a gentleman is someone who never insults anyone accidentally.

Monday, November 23, 2009

ELQIS data meeting

You can stream today's ELQIS data subcommittee meeting (agenda) or attend.

9:45 Somebody asked whether anybody had thought about connecting the data silos. They danced around an answer. The answer should have been that what they call data buckets are tables in a relational database. Of course they communicate. The way you do it is to write a query.

They don't seem to think it is important to distinguish different classrooms in a facility or sessions in a program. I think it is. Except for those lacunae, I think they got the tables right.

10:30 The CDE data guy explaining CalPADS thinks it's okay to plan for different identifiers for Pre-K, K-12, and college. Why in the world would you want to do that?

10:35 They MAY start having unique identifiers in non-LEA centers. May? May? Why would you throw away data?

10:45 How about having the R&R issue SSIDs for non-LEAs?

Done. All in all, I see reason for hope. They seemed to be taking people's suggestions seriously, and there were no extreme positions being pushed, although a number of folks had strong feelings about details. It was all in a spirit of figuring out how to do this.

I like that Nancy Remley skipped discussion of whether a unique identifier was important and got right into how to make it work. You can't have a data system like this without unique identifiers, so there's no sense discussing whether to have them.

TV watching in licensed child care

In a phone survey of providers in Michigan, Washington, Florida and Massachusetts, 70% of home providers and 36% of centers admitted that kids in their care watch TV, DVDs or videos every day.

For preschoolers, the average time watched in centers was 24 minutes, and in the family homes it was 2.4 hours a day.

For toddlers it was 6 minutes a day in centers and 1.6 hours a day in family homes. Even infants get 12 minutes a day in family care.

And none of this counts passive viewing. Since I think most centers and certainly some family homes never use TV, some probably plop the kids in front of them all the time.

T'he American Academy of Pediatrics says no TV at all under 2 and 1 to 2 hours a day for older kids. This means that toddlers and preschoolers are average getting more than their entire daily dose in child care, and then they go home to another full overdose.

What I wonder is what the cumulative effect this will have not just on individual kids but on the culture. Since most of the youngest kids in child care are in family home care, if we subject a big proportion of our toddlers to an extra hour and a half a day of TV, will we, oh, I don't know, lower our collective IQ by a point?

At what point does TV watching (both what and how much) become a public health issue that we have to answer with regulation? My answer is never, or at least not in the visible future. We should educate people about the dangers of TV for little kids, but I'd not be in favor of regulating it in Title 22 child care. Title 5 is a different animal, and I see no problem regulating TV watching there.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Roots of FASD math deficits

Okay, I'm officially confused. The article I quoted in the previous post talked about prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE), but this one talks about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), also a new term to me. I'm used to fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which makes it obvious I'm not in the loop. As usual, Wikipedia clears it up somewhat: FAS was the first term for prenatal alcohol exposure and is the only term recognized in the big book of bad stuff. Now we know it is more complicated, and it is considered a subset of FASD. There are other related initialisms. PAE doesn't come up as a separate category in Wikipedia.

But to the study at hand, it seems that, even if you take into account their general cognitive deficits, kids with FASD have math-specific deficits. This article looks into why that is the case, and they find it in abnormalities in the white matter of several parts of the brain, which they discovered through diffusion tensor imaging of 12 kids.

"We found that four different brain areas show correlations between structure and mathematical ability in children with FASD," said Lebel. "Two of these regions in the left parietal area are very similar to previous findings in healthy children and in a rare genetic disorder, suggesting that these regions are key areas for math across diverse populations. The two other regions -- the cerebellum and the brainstem -- might be unique to children with FASD in terms of math-structure relationships.

Learn while you sleep, sort of

You can't learn Japanese while you sleep by just playing tapes of people speaking Japanese, but if you are already studying Japanese, playing the tapes might help you better remember the stuff you've already studied.

This study involved subjects learning the positions of 50 photos of different objects on a computer screen. When each was shown, a related sound played on a speaker, such as glass breaking for a photo of a broken wine glass or a muffled explosion for dynamite. After 45 minutes of learning, the subjects were sent down for a nap. While they were asleep, researchers played the sounds associated with half the photos. When tested later, they remembered the positions of the photos the sounds of which had been played while asleep better than those that had not been played. None remembered having heard the sounds while napping.
"Our little experiment opens the door to many questions," (one of the authors) said.
Would high-school students do better on SAT tests if daytime studying was supplemented with sleep sounds at night? Would students learning foreign vocabulary words or other facts do better in the morning after listening to related information as they slept? Infants spend an inordinate amount of time sleeping, while their brains work over their recent experiences. Could an infant learn a first language more quickly if stimulation occurred during naps or overnight? What about an actor trying to learn lines or a law student trying to memorize numerous details of case law? Could playing sounds related to such learning improve the recall of relevant facts the next day?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Awwwww, baby sloths

Friday follies

Middle cat thinks he hears food. Not that he ever caught anything faster than a can of catfood in his life.

Old cat is the mouser, and middle cat is the slacker. We got young cat in hopes that old cat would teach him to kill. We've found a few dead things around lately (mostly vegetable; he's death on water hyacinth), but we're not sure if the few animal carcasses are from him or old cat's last hurrah.

Socializing kids with prenatal alcohol exposure

The first thing that struck me about this article in Science Daily is that what I am used to calling fetal alcohol syndrome is now being called prenatal alcohol exposure. So instead of emphasizing the condition of a person, they now emphasize the cause of the condition. It is as though instead of saying someone had a burn, we said they had been exposed to great heat. It's true, but it's not what I mean when I say someone or something was burned, and one doesn't necessarily follow from the other. As I understand it, there are periods in pregnancy when exposure to alcohol has serious effects on a fetus and periods when it does not. (You just can't know which was which until you can examine the baby.) So a kid that was prenataly exposed to alcohol may or may not have symptoms I would call fetal alcohol syndrome.

That said, the content of the study is very interesting. It seems kids exposed to prenatal alcohol misread social cues and frequently think people are hostile to them when they are not (another biological influence on behavior). In this study of 50 subjects and 50 controls, ages 6 to 12, those who got Children's Friendship Training less frequently falsely thought other kids were being hostile to them.

I hope it's replicated. It's always nice when someone figures out how to make a few people's lives better.

Off for a couple of days

I have something personal going on that will prevent me from posting for a couple of days, once I finish this morning. I be back for sure for the ELQIS data subcommittee on Tuesday Monday but probably earlier.

UC Santa Cruz to close child care center

UC Santa Cruz is planning to close its faculty and staff child care center because of a $500,000 and growing annual budget deficit (that's for the center, not for the whole university). Apparently their Title 5 program for students will continue. Their academic senate is pissed and is asking the administration to "speedily develop a plan to provide affordable, high-quality child care." Some employees tried to start a non-profit to take over the center, but the president said it would have to be competitively bid. Their 22 families, with 30 kids, will have to go to the off-campus open market for child care.

This is just another example of the fact that affordable high-quality child care is a self-contradiction. The facility, teacher education, and ratios you need to run, for example, your typical Title 5 center can't be bought for what any but the rich can afford to pay.

And you cannot run a Title 5 program based solely on CDD contracts. It can't be done. Every successful program I know of succeeds by getting outside grants, or finagles free rent and in-kind gifts, or all of the above. I heard just yesterday about a school district relinquishing its State Preschool program, because they can't afford to subsidize it, and you can't run it on the SRR.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A treatment for Down syndrome?

Wow. A study at Stanford, reported in Science Daily, found that increasing the amount of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine in young mice that had been genetically engineered to have something like Down syndrome improved their cognition. Within a few hours of getting the drugs, the mice did as well on their mouse-SATs as normal mice.

Imagine giving a drug to a newborn with Down syndrome that will let the kid grow up with normal cognitive abilities. The drug wears off quickly, so they'd have to keep taking it, unless we find a genetic treatment. They would still have the related physical problems, kidneys and such, but this would be a huge improvement in their lives and their families' lives.

This is your tax dollars at real work. We should remember to point this out next time some idiot senator wants to defund the National Institutes of Health.

This jumped out at me from the Science Daily article and suggests ways for caregivers to work with Downs kids:

"Cognition doesn't fail in every aspect; it's failing in a structure-dependent fashion," (the primary author) said. For instance, people with Down syndrome struggle to use spatial and contextual information to form new memories, a function that depends on the hippocampus part of the brain. As a result, they have trouble with learning to navigate complex environments such as a new neighborhood or a shopping mall. But they're much better at remembering information linked to colors, sounds or other sensory cues because such sensory memories are coordinated by a different brain structure, the amygdala.

Fat toddlers are hurt more by second-hand smoke

The damage from being around tobacco smoke starts early. We have long known that second-hand smoke is not good for toddlers. This small study (52 toddlers and 107 adolescents), reported in Science Daily, shows that one marker of damage is twice as high for fat toddlers and adolescents than for normal-size kids, and "Toddlers had a four times greater risk of secondhand smoke exposure when compared to adolescents, despite having similar reported home exposures." They got exposure levels from blood tests.

ELQIS on YouTube

I just discovered that somebody named WendyRCL is posting clips from ELQIS meetings onYouTube. Good for her. Here's Dennis Vicars on the design subcommittee:

Cliff Marcussen on the finance subcommittee:

I'm glad these guys are there.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Chimps are more right-handed for slinging bull than poop

A study published in Cortex and described in Science Daily says chimps show a stronger right-handedness for gestures than for manual tasks.

As one of the authors said, "this finding provides additional support to the idea that speech evolved initially from a gestural communicative system in our ancestors. Moreover, gestural communication in apes shares some key features with human language, such as intentionality, referential properties and flexibility of learning and use".

Biological basis for political orientation

This study was published in 2005, but I keep bringing it up to people, because it's one of the coolest studies I've ever seen. Researchers went to a preschool and gave a personality inventory to 128 3-year-olds. 20 years later, they found 104 of the kids and gave them another personality inventory and several sets of questions designed to ascertain political orientation.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Why adolescents are crazy

Because they have pathways that carry sensory information to the amygdala directly, bypassing the cortex. What they see goes straight to the seat of the emotions, bypassing thought. I knew it all along, at least for some adolescent neural pathways. Journal. Science Daily article.

Kidango's 30th anniversay

Kidango is celebrating at the Hilton Newark.
On Saturday, December 5, Kidango will celebrate its 30th anniversary by hosting a community celebration, 'A Wishful Winter's Night.' The gala will honor 30 influential leaders whose efforts have made a difference in the fields of early childhood education and child development. Honorees represent a diverse group of individuals who have dedicated their lives to education from pre-kindergarten through college, as well as mental health, early intervention, and public service. ...
Individual tickets are $75 each or $600 for a table of ten. All proceeds from the event will benefit Kidango's holiday program, 'Gifts from the Heart.' This annual holiday program provides disadvantaged children within Kidango's programs with necessities and holiday gifts as well as additional classroom resources.
To purchase tickets, contact Camille Llanes-Fontanilla at (510) 897-6912 or
 Kidango serves more than 2500 kids at 38 centers around the Bay Area, with a budget over $29 million. Paul Miller has built quite an organization.

ELQIS design committee November meeting

I spent the day watching the ELQIS design subcommittee, and I'm spent, too. In general, although there were disputes about this and that, I didn't see the stark divides I saw in the workforce committee. There wasn't by any means uniformity of opinion, but the differences were relatively minor, at least as far as I could hear.

There was a presentation about PARS, PITC's program assessment rating scale, which sometimes seemed to be a cross between ECERS and CLASS (I'm assuming if you're reading a blog post about the ELQIS design subcommittee that you know what ECERS and CLASS are; if not, email me, and I'll start putting in more explanatory links), but sometimes the presenter (I didn't catch her name but she was definitely not Peter Mangioni, who the agenda said would present) indicated that PARS was just to fill holes that other assessment tools didn't cover. I wonder if they're thinking of it as a way not to have to pay Thelma Harms. I'd vote for that.

They still hadn't fixed the errors in toddler ratios and group sizes in their PowerPoint. I know for a fact that people on that committee know Title 22, so it's not from ignorance of licensing ratios on the committee, but the PowerPoints are still wrong, and it's frustrating for people to have to keep correcting them. Both San Diego and the Sacramento ratios group got after them for not getting that basic stuff right. (But then the Sacramento speaker proposed a 10:1 ratio and a group size of 24 for some tier (it was hard to hear her). That's 2.4 teachers per classroom. I think you need either two or three; they don't come in point fours.)

In general, I was pleased with the way things went. In the workforce committee, I see K-12 pushing elementary school down one grade, but the design committee is run by ECE people instead of K-12 people, so the arguments were pretty much all about details, and where along a continuum to put down tier divides, rather than co-constructivists versus curriculumists, ECE vs elementary school. Design was much less frustrating than workforce, and it's less likely to end up recommending something I hate.

Another use for oxytocin: inferring others' mental states

Oxytocin is a magic peptide that is involved in bonding, trust, orgasms, and timing childbirth, among other things. Now we know that it is also involved in inferring the mental states of others, which implicates it in autism.

Monday, November 16, 2009

ELQIS design committe meets tomorrow

The ELQIS design subcommittee meets tomorrow. Agenda here. Streaming instructions here.

So far this group seems to know more about child care in California than the workforce subcommittee. I'm cautiously optimistic. They seem to understand that the quality of teacher-child interaction is more important than the things that can be measured more easily.

Common chemical in plastic linked to girly-boy play

Phthalates are a common additive to plastics to help them stay pliable. You find them in PVC, plastic tubing, some soaps and lotions. One way they get into the body is by being released when the plastic is heated, for example in a microwave with food in a plastic bowl. Another way is by rubbing them on a baby's skin in lotion or powder. 

We already knew that exposure to phthalates are a risk factor for low-birth-weight babies, obese diabetic men, and does bad stuff to little boys' genitals. This is why they are now banned in teethers, play bath items, soft books, dolls and plastic figures.

Now we know it makes little boys play like girls. Researchers contacted mothers of children ages 3 1/2 to 6 1/2 years from a previous survey and had them fill out the Preschool Activities Inventory (PSAI), which is:

(D)esigned to discriminate play behavior within and between the sexes, and in the past has been shown to reflect the endocrine-disrupting properties of other toxins, such as PCBs and dioxins. The PSAI addressed three aspects of play: types of toys children choose (trucks versus dolls), activities (rough-and-tumble play, for example), and child characteristics…. Higher scores meant more male-typical play and lower scores meant more female-typical play.
Then they compared play-behavior scores and the levels of phthalate metabolites in their mothers' prenatal urine samples, finding that higher concentrations of the chemicals were associated with less masculine play behavior scores. They think it may involve changing testosterone levels in the womb.

Moral: Don't microwave your food in plastic containers or dishes.

Pediatric bi-polar disorder related to faulty body clock

Researchers have found that 4 alleles of one gene are associated with pediatric bi-polar disorder. The gene's expression is known to vary with a circadian rhythm, and apparently whether a kid has circadian rhythm abnormalities is an early way to distinguish bi-polar from ADHD, so this gene is a good candidate for further research into both circadian rhythms and bi-polar disorder.

Just think, it was only a generation or so ago that we blamed mothers for what we now know are biological phenomena.

Everyone can distinguish straight and curved edges

File this under sometimes the obvious turns out to be true. Or maybe, you can get a research grant for anything. Researchers have shown that the Himba, a seminomadic people living in a remote region of northwestern Namibia can play one of these things is not like the others with objects having either curved or straight edges.

The Himba have little exposure to manufactured regularly shaped objects, and the researchers wanted to see if they perceive what they call "non-accidental properties"* of an object the same way as westerners. If so, the ability to distinguish straight lines and curved edges is built-in to the brain.

They do, so it is.

*They say non-accidental properties are those that don't change when the object rotates in space, such as whether the edges are curved or straight. This is distinguished from what they call metric qualities, such as the degree of curvature, which can apparently change when an object is rotated in space.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Off today

I'm preparing for and participating in a family event today, so no posting.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Worst center snack nominee: crack

The crack the center worker in Minneapolis found in the 13-month-old's mouth was wrapped in plastic, so no actual damage was done, but, presuming it wasn't staff (and licensed child care isn't a crack-friendly atmosphere, even in wide-open Minneapolis), somebody who signed in and out in the visitor's log has some 'splainin' to do.

"We're talking about an amount, about possibly the size of maybe a couple of jelly beans," said Jesse Garcia of Minneapolis Police.
The room was cleaned and scrubbed from top to bottom.
"I emptied out the room thoroughly and I had everybody with vacuums and hoses and Shopvacs getting in the corners. Anything that looked like it should be sucked up, suck it up," Thibodeaux said.
Moral: If you have a small child, always keep your crack wrapped up in plastic, in case it falls out of your pocket and the baby picks it up.

ELQIS workforce meeting - 2

I see two big divides in the ECE community. One is ECE vs elementary school, and the other is community colleges vs CSUs. They were both out in force at Thursday's ELQIS workforce subcommittee meeting.*

My favorite part was when Joel Gordon, of Santa Rosa JC, and Marianne Ann Jones, of CSU Fresno were asked about CC ECE courses counting for a CSU major or just toward a BA. Joel said they should count toward a major, and Marianne stepped on him, "Not major." She said classes taught at CSUs as upper division are more advanced than those at CCs, so the courses taught at CCs were only good enough for general ed, not a major.

This is simply false. I think she is just unaware of how advanced the content of the CC classes is and how appropriate it is for preschool teachers. I am personally aware of several teachers who have taught the same course at a local CC and a local CSU. Same text, same teacher, same syllabus, same class. One is upper division, one lower.

I will claim as facts that:

  • People with an AA in ECE from Cabrillo, or American River, or Grossmont, to name just three with really good programs, will on average be better preschool teachers than those with a BA in ECE from any CSU. 
  • Preschool teachers with an AA from the average CC are as good as  as those with a BA from the average CSU. 
  •  Preschool teachers with 24 units of ECE and an AA are more qualified than those with a BA in liberal arts or elementary ed and 12 units of ECE. The extra 60 upper division units might make you a more interesting person, and it might raise your salary, but they won't make you a better preschool teacher.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Child Development journal

If you don't subscribe to Child Development Journal, you should at least look at it to see if you might want to, and if you are at a college, your department should certainly get it. It has piles and piles of good stuff. The contents of the current issue are after the jump.

Why do preschoolers ask questions?

It turns out it's because they want to know the answers, and they are more satisfied if given an explanatory asnwer than if not. If you explain something, they are likely to ask follow-up questions. If you answer without explaining, they are more likely to repeat the question.

The researchers say asking why, why, why, why is different; that is just wanting engagement.

Age-related strategies for coping with fear

Another study in Child Development on how kids cope with fear at different developmental stages.
Children around 4, 5, and 7 years old (N = 48) listened to scenarios depicting a child alone or accompanied by another person (mother, father, friend) who encounters an entity that looks like a real or an imaginary fear-inducing creature. Participants predicted and explained each protagonist's fear intensity and suggested coping strategies. Results showed age-related increases in judgments that different people will experience different intensities of fear in the same situation. With age, children also demonstrated increasing knowledge that people's minds can both induce and reduce fear, especially in situations involving imaginary creatures. Suggestions of reality affirmation strategies (e.g., reminding oneself of what is real vs. not real) significantly increased with age, whereas positive pretense strategies (e.g., imagining it is a friendly ghost) significantly decreased.
In situations in which a child's fear was caused by real creatures, the researchers found, children would rather do something than think positive thoughts. In these situations, boys more often suggested fighting, while girls more often wanted to avoid the creature.
They also found that between ages 4 and 7, children show more understanding that people's thoughts and beliefs can both cause and reduce fear. While preschoolers tended to suggest pretending the imaginary creature was friendly, older children tended to suggest reminding themselves what the reality was. Therefore, the researchers say, preschoolers may benefit from seeing things in a more positive light ("Let's pretend the dragon is nice"), while older children may do better when they focus on what's real and what's not ("Dragons aren't real").

The effect of modernization on kids' cognitive abilities

Interesting study in Child Development showing that living a modern life changes the kinds of things the brain gets good at.
Using previously collected data from the late 1970s, the researchers looked at almost 200 children ages 3 to 9 in Belize, Kenya, Nepal, and American Samoa. When the data were collected, these four communities differed in the availability of resources that are typically associated with modernity, such as having writing tablets and books, electricity, a home-based water supply, a radio and TV set, and a car.
Children in communities with more modern resources performed better in some areas of cognitive functioning, such as certain types of memory and pattern recognition, and they took part in more complex sequences of play. The researchers note that these differences don't mean that children from more modern communities are more advanced intellectually; rather, the findings reflect the cognitive skills that are valued and promoted in the communities where the children live.
The researchers discuss this in terms of the Flynn effect, whereby IQ rises each generation and believe that it is due to increasing environmental complexity, which would also explain the current results.

Quote: Lichtenberg

Sometimes men come by the name of genius in the same way that certain insects come by the name of centipede -- not because they have a hundred feet, but because most people can't count above fourteen.
G.C. Lichtenberg, Reflections, 1799 

Friday follies

I'm not a clean-fetishist, so I wouldn't mind so much that young cat shares my water if he didn't sneeze in it as he tosses his head, and the glass, and its contents, and related nasty stuff everywhere.

And even that wouldn't be so bad if he didn't step on the escape key at the same time, which throws me out of a dialog box as well as my chair.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Pupil-light response as a screening test for autism

A Science Daily article says
Recently, University of Missouri researchers have developed a pupil response test that is 92.5 percent accurate in separating children with autism from those with typical development. In the study, MU scientists found that children with autism have slower pupil responses to light change.
 If you can get a 92.5% accuracy rate by flashing a light in the eyes, that would make a wonderful first screening tool for autism, because it might show before other symptoms appear, so parents could get an early start on treatment (or on feeling sorry for themselves, depending on the parents).

One thing we'd have to find out is when this pupil response begins. If it begins in infancy, even better.

Why we can talk and chimps can't

This article in the NY Times about a study published in Nature discusses the FXP2 gene. People with mutated FXP2s "have severe problems in articulating and understanding speech." If you put the human version of FXP2 into a mouse, it squeaks differently and has changes in brain structure. What this study did was put the chimp version into human neurons (not while they were in a human). They found that FOXP2 "controls the activity of at least 116 other genes," turning them on or off. Busy little chunk of code. 

It is not the only gene  (or set of genes, if you count the 116 it controls) involved in language, but it's a step in understanding the genetics of speech and language.

ELQIS workforce meeting

I'll be spending the middle of the day today at the ELQIS workforce committee meeting. I'm so looking forward to hearing David Gordon characterize the interim report. I wonder if they have WiFi there. Worth a try.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bisphenol A causes human male sexual problems, too

According to a study reported in the Washington Post, high doses of the chemical in food containers that would be banned for children's food containers by SB 797 cause various kinds of sexual problems in adult humans. This had previously been shown in animals ("including infertility, weight gain, behavioral changes, early-onset puberty, cancer and diabetes"), but there was always a chance that it was different for humans. Now we know. They looked at factories in China. "The men handling BPA were four times as likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction and seven times as likely to have difficulty with ejaculation."

Let's see: BPA is a synthetic estrogen. How could putting that into their bloodstreams affect boys and men?

It has been detected in 93% of a sample of the US population. Now we  have to find out how low a dose is dangerous, so we know how much of a problem that is.

SB 797 failed in the assembly. Member Perez moved to reconsider, and Member Torrico requested that it be placed on the inactive file. It may not technically be dead, but Eric Idle is about to strike.

As I said when talking about the link between BPA and aggressive behavior in toddlers, all the health groups are for SB 797, and all the business groups are against it. Does that remind you of anything?

P-20 data system and a national ID card

SB5X-2 would create a P-20 CDE data system to follow students from Pre-K through a doctoral degree.

(3) The bill would state the intent of the Legislature to create a Preschool through Higher Education (P-20) statewide longitudinal educational data system in order to inform education policy and improve instruction, and to use this P-20 system for state-level research to improve instruction. The bill would additionally state the Legislature’s intent to require the State Department of Education, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the California Community Colleges, the University of California, the California State University, and any other state education agency to be required to disclose, or redisclose, personally identifiable pupil records to this P-20 system, as permissible under state and federal law.
This brings up an issue where I disagree with lots of my fellow liberals. I think this is a great idea. To make it work, we have to have unique identifiers for all kids, so we can track their progress even if they switch schools (which they pretty much all do when they go to middle school, high school, and college).

Whoring for ARRA money: SB5X-1

I know it's a good idea over all, but it still seems a little unseemly for California to change its considered education policy for money.

SBX5-1 has passed the senate and is in the assembly. It permits tying teacher salaries to student achievement. As a state, we don't believe in tying teacher salaries to student achievement. It's just too hard a problem for professional educators to solve, although we will have to do so. As I said before, it should be possible to figure out the influence of individual teachers by handing the problem to statisticians. Let them gather whatever data we need and do a regression analysis (i.e., do magic).

But there's no good reason to think the legislature and CDE will do it right, so this bill amounts to agreeing to degrade our system for cash. Bend over and grab your ankles, Uncle ARRA has some money for you.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Child development resources

If you're interested in child development, especially in California, there are a couple of resources I would recommend you subscribe to:

  • CDPI Bulletin. In addition to their wonderful fall forum, budget workshop, and spring institute, CDPI puts out an email bulletin that's full of interesting ECE stuff. Sign up at the link.
  • Paul Miller, of Kidango, has an email list for Early Education in the News. Sign up here.

Governor establishes ECE advisory board

The governor signed an executive order today establishing the California State Advisory Council on Early Childhood Education and Care. It was one of the things they had to do to qualify for some ARRA money. What it will effectively do is add a few stakeholders to ELQIS and make it permanent. It had been scheduled to die after two years. It's as though they were bringing back CDPAC.

Why autists have bad handwriting

A study in Neurology compared the handwriting of autistic kids with normal kids.

Children with ASD do indeed show overall worse performance on a handwriting task than do age- and intelligence-matched controls. More specifically, children with ASD show worse quality of forming letters but do not show differences in their ability to correctly size, align, and space their letters. Within the ASD group, motor skills were significantly predictive of handwriting performance, whereas age, gender, IQ, and visuospatial abilities were not.
This is probably useful. Of all the possible causes for the general fact of autists having bad handwriting, they have narrowed it down to the fact that they have a hard time doing little stuff with their hands.

I wonder if it is dose related, i.e., if handwriting (or rather fine motor control) gets progressively worse as one moves through Aspergers to autism to dysfunctionality. My guess is not, or engineers would produce much sloppier drawings than they are noted for.

Gestures are processed like words

It has long been known that spoken and written language, as well as American Sign Language and the whistles that Canary Island shepherds use  to communicate, are processed there, are processed in Broca's area and Wernicke's area (or inferior frontal gyrus and posterior temporal region, if you prefer), . It has just been discovered that non-verbal gestures are also processed there. This would include facial expressions,  obscene hand gestures, shrugs, body language. This suggests the area may deal more generally with symbols, of which gestures and spoken and written words are examples.

I was aware of Baby Signs and other versions of the same thing, so I guess it should have been obvious to me, but it was new to me when James F. Battey, director of the NIDCD (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, one of the National Institutes of Health, which funded the study), said,
In babies, the ability to communicate through gestures precedes spoken language, and you can predict a child's language skills based on the repertoire of his or her gestures during those early months.
It strikes me that this suggests an infant's gesture ability can be used as an early language screening tool.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Who gets to say when to pull the plug?

Here's a real hard case. A one-year-old kid in Britain has congenital myasthenic syndrome and is on life support. He can apparently hear, see, and feel but  has no control over any muscles, including those needed to breathe, eat, or grasp toys. He is deteriorating. He breathes through a tube up his nose. Parents are described as amicably separated. The mother wants to pull the plug. The father does not and is willing to continue care for the kid at his home.

So who gets to decide? In this case, the court decides who decides. A "senior paediatrician" testifying in the court case described at the link said he was on the mother's side, because  "'it's the mother that I put particular weight on her views. If a mother expresses a view to me in my ordinary clinical practice, that's something I take very, very seriously indeed."

So it's not whether the parent is custodial, or has been involved in the kid's life, or the parent's resources, or the willingness of the other parent to take over care of the child. It's you take the mom's side because she's the mom.  What a crappy way to settle such a difficult question.

PITC training North Carolina trainers

The training that North Carolina is using ARRA money to send 16 employees to San diego for is the PITC Trainer Institute.

They'll like San Diego in January.
  • North Carolina's "Average January temperatures range from 36°F to 48°, with an average daily maximum January temperature of 51° and minimum of 29°."
  • "January is usually the coldest month of the year in San Diego and the only month when temperatures below the freezing point were experienced at the National Weather Service. Only on 9 days has a reading of 32 degrees or below been recorded since records began in 1872 with the absolute low of 25 degrees on January 7, 1913. The average minimum temperature for the month is 49.7 degrees, the average maximum 65.8 degrees and the mean 57.8 degrees. Daytime readings often reach 70 degrees and occasionally 80 degrees and on January 10 in 1953 rose to a high of 88 degrees."
(God, I love Google. You want to know average January temperatures in North Carolina and San Diego? You have but to word your query well, and you shall be answered in milliseconds of time.")

In fairness to North Carolina, I know for a fact that the eastern part of San Diego County gets snow, and the National Weather Service is probably talking about the airport, right near the ocean, so how much the North Carolinians like San Diego weather probably depends on what part of San Diego they're in.

ARRA money is also building a 72-slot infant-toddler center in Visalia. Yay for free money.

Chocolate milk in schools

The dairy industry is about to start an ad campaign for chocolate milk, with the intent of getting it on school lunch menus. Some nutrition huggers are being killjoys about it.

Obviously the actual reason for the lobbying campaign is increased sales of product, but the stated reason is that, hey, it has a bunch of sugar in it, but so does everything else kids are willing to drink, and at least it has some real nutrition, so it's better than soda or juice.

That may be true, but it may also be irrelevant. If I had to rank beverages for school kids, I think it would be:
  • milk (full of good stuff)
  • water (neutral)
  • chocolate milk (some good stuff, some bad stuff)
  • juice (less good stuff, more bad stuff)
  • soda (complete crap; everything in it but the water is bad for you [I don't actually know if that's true, but it's a good line])
So if I were king of the schools, the offerings would be milk and water (and probably tea and coffee, because kids do need their caffeine after lunch; caffeine is the only good reason for selling sodas at school). But if you're going to offer juice and soda, it may be a good idea to offer chocolate milk, too.

The question is who would buy it, milk drinkers who want a different flavor or juice and soda drinkers who are trading up. I don't know, but my guess is the former, so, pending that information, I think I come down on the side of the nutrition-huggers this time.

Increased California withholding

George Skelton (whom I would add to my list of intellectually honest conservatives) has a column in today's LA Times about California's increased income tax withholding being effectively a $2 billion tax, because it is effectively a tax, because they take it away from you every month.
It's like this analogy:
You pay $1,000 rent on April 1, as you do the first of each month. Then the landlord says he'll need the future rent 15 days earlier. But not to worry, the rent won't increase. On April 15, you pay $1,000 for May. But wait a minute: Now you've forked out $2,000 in April.
You'll pay another $1,000 in May and each month thereafter until you decide to move. Finally your last month living in the rental, you make no payment. Only then do you recoup the $1,000 extra payment made that long-ago April.
He says this means it's just a tax, because it effectively keeps the money until you quit work or die. But that's not completely true. You get the money back each April, but you don't have to pay the whole thing back in May. The float the state is getting is a monthly payment to them. So what Skelton is saying is sort of true but a much smaller magnitude than he says. It's continual rather than continuous.

But more important, we have to raise taxes somehow to pay for what we want the state to do for us. The only way to increase the SRR, for example, is for the state to bring in more money. Our 2/3 budget system and state Republican party intransigence have conspired to make taxes impossible to raise in the ordinary way, by just voting an increase. They have to use sleight of hand and word games, because that's all they have in their quivers.

So Skelton is sort of right in how the system works but entirely wrong in his conclusions.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Finger length associated with cooperative behavior in primates

As the fox behaviors are, and human wide faces may be, related to adrenaline, this study says the finger length and cooperative behavior in primates are both mediated by androgens in the womb. "High levels of androgens, such as testosterone, increase the length of the fourth finger in comparison to the second finger," (that's index compared with ring) so you can look at a primate's hand to tell the approximate level of androgen exposure before birth, and then look at the social behavior, not of individual animals but of species.

Species with high levels of in utero androgens (as shown by digit-length ratios) tend to be sluts (the Science Daily article called  it "competitive and promiscuous," but we know what it means), and other species, such as gibbons and many new world species, have a different finger-length ratio and are more monogamous and less competitive.

The article quote a researcher as saying:
"Humans are unique in that they live in large multi-male, multi-female groups, but maintain strong bonds and show high levels of group cooperation in both males and females. In most other species males are competitive rather than co-operative. Research from finger ratios may help us understand more clearly the development of human sociality and its evolutionary origins."
But they never say what typical human digit-length ratios are compared to gibbons.

One also naturally wonders if it can be applied to differences between humans. There are lots of related studies. This one from 2005 says length of the index finger relative to the ring finger is related to testosterone in the womb and predictive of physically (but not verbally) aggressive behavior in men but not in women.

Kids with longer ring fingers have higher Math SATs than verbal, and those with longer index fingers do better at verbal than math. Does testosterone make them better at words or worse at math?

One study in 2000 said finger length ratios, especially in the right hand, predict sexual orientation, all based on the amount of testosterone exposure in the womb. This is another indication of the biological basis of homosexuality. This isn't a genetic cause but an epigenetic and congenital one. It is caused by the accident of how much of which hormones wash over the fetus (this can explain why one twin is gay and the other not; different parts of the uterus may get different concentrations of hormones), affecting the way the brain gets wired and how long which finger grows.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Worst initiative nominee: Mandatory Christmas music in schools

Merry Susan Hyatt and her brother David Joseph Hyatt have received permission to gather signatures for an initiative (PDF) that would require California public K-12 schools to "provide opportunities to its pupils for listening to or performing Christmas music at an appropriate time of year," with parental notification and an opt-out form.

In other words, they want to make parents fill out and return a special form if they don't want their kids hearing at school that Jesus Christ, the King, has come.

This is the sort of issue where creating the initiative indicates a severe personality disorder; signing it indicates a character defect; but circulating the petitions just means you get a buck or two per signature, and you could give a shit less what it's for.

My favorite part, where mischief might come, is Section 52711
52711. As used in this article, "Christmas music" includes, but is not necessarily limited to, carols, songs, and instrumental works whose subject matter relates to the celebration of the Christmas holiday or to the season during which that holiday is observed.
So Christmas music is music that relates to Christmas, or winter, or not. I can see other religions demanding that Christmas music include Jewish music, or Islamic music. I imagine mandatory Islamic hip-hop, rapping for the glory of Allah. And I can't wait for the Satanists to demand music by Black Sabbath.

Or an atheist principal could say the school is satisfying the regulation by playing Jingle Bells and Winter Wonderland.

On the other hand, I don't mind Christmas music at all, even in schools, maybe especially in schools. I would mind having it and it only required, but I'd just as soon routinely play the songs of every normal religion (that's pretty much all of them, but you'd want to keep out the ones that do human sacrifices or orgies, and the financial scams).

I think whether people believe in God or don't is a genetic or epigenetic accident, so we should treat belief as we treat homosexuality or left-handedness. It's one of the normal ways people are wired, and we can't hold it against them that they have a false belief. In fact, there is probably some evolutionary advantage to the group to have some theists and some atheists. And besides, listening to Joy to the World isn't going to turn somebody into a Christian. I grew up listening to it, and I'm about as serious an atheist as you're going to find.

We added Kwanza to our school celebrations; we should add Diwali and Beltane and Eid al Fitr anybody else's celebration, and play all their religious songs, and not have opt-in or opt-out, just a routine noticing of how some of us celebrate. You don't have to believe the words to like the music.

I extend this to crèches in public squares. When a big chunk of our population have a celebration of their big holiday, why not let them do part of it in the park? Or even a small chunk. Christians can have crèches on public property if I can have a maypole, and if everybody else gets to hold their celebrations there, too, Diwali, and Beltane, and whatever. We should let them have their Christian Pride event in December, and we'll have our Gay Pride event in June on the same grounds

I'd exempt from this privilege any religion that severely outrages public decency, such as child sacrifices, but I'm not sure how to make it so my view of what is outrageous prevails. I would probably be more inclusive than some people and less than others.

So my solution is to ride the pendulum. Become increasingly lenient on what we'll allow until it gets to be a problem, and then scale it back until it starts to chafe. Rinse. Repeat. That could be a general law of how to deal with social issues.

More ARRA money into California for child care training

North Carolina is using part of it's ARRA child care quality set-aside to send 16 employees to child development workshops in San Diego, and people who don't understand quality set-aside are pissed because they're not using the money to increase enrollment and reduce the waiting list. Well, because the law says we can't.

I haven't been able to find out who is doing the training, but whoever it is, congratulations on getting more ARRA money into the state.

Flower porn: Cotton

Stages in the life of a cotton flower in my back yard. Then it gets progressively deeper rust color and shrivels up, and the bole forms, where the cotton is created, and it eventually hangs down like icicles.

We watch hummingbirds, bushtits, and orioles gather it to line their nests, and from time to time we find a nest, a scaffolding of twigs filled with cotton. They look snug. Of course, birds are born wearing down comforters, but they still gather cotton for their mattresses.

I think this is a Pima cotton (Gossypium barbadense), except it's not supposed to grow here, and this one has done so for decades. If not Pima cotton, it's some other Gossupium. It grows about 10 or 12 feet high. It's a small, multi-trunked tree or a big shrub. My aged mom, who picked cotton as a child and teenager in Texas, says it looks just like the cotton she picked, except that was thigh-high and had white flowers, but the flower bud (she called it a "patch"), bole, cotton, and leaf were as she remembered them.

It grows from seed, and I'd be willing to mail seeds to people who would like to coddle their hummingbirds if they sent a request at

I also kind of wish I could find a local spinner who could use a couple of gallon bags full of un-seeded long-fiber cotton that has never seen a chemical, but I've never found anybody interested in using it, so it becomes mulch.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Friday follies

Young cat is a climber, here peering out from a Ficus benjamina.

How cats are different from dogs

One way cats are different from dogs is that people mostly select which dog breeds with which dog, but cats decide which cats to breed together. This is because dogs do stuff for us, so we care about their characteristics, but all cats have done for us in the thousands of years we have been co-habiting with them is catch vermin, and we have let natural selection continue to operate. Dogs use mostly human selection; cats use mostly natural selection.

Gene therapy successes

NY Times article about recent small successes in gene therapy.
  • Two kids with adrenoleukodystrophy, were treated, and their disease has been arrested for two years. They tried this experimental method because they couldn't find any matching blood-marrow donors. 
  • Five kids and seven adults blind from a rare congenital eye disease, had their sight partially restored.
  • "8 out of 10 patients with a rare immunological disorder were cured"
When they first tried this kind of therapy, they used a modified mouse leukemia virus to insert the genes into the kids' DNA, and some of the kids they tried it on got leukemia and died, but they've found a new way to  insert the genes.

To Hansardize = To Daily Show

I got Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages for Christmas, because people know I'm a word geek. It's part memoir of reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary and part lists of cool words he found, most of which I didn't know and many of which were indeed cool, but one in particular seems particularly apt. It seems a man named Thomas Hansard published the text of debates in both Houses of Parliament in the second half of the 19th century. People used to try to embarrass members of parliament by using Hansard's transcripts to point out to them that they had said just the opposite thing before, which is what the Daily Show does routinely. So the modern version of to Hansardize would be to Daily Show a politician.

Don't politicians realize that cameras are on and that nothing is ever lost? The Daily Show must have racks of TiVos recording all the time. Imagine how many terabytes of video they must have on their hard drives. I'd like to see their filing system for it, so they can go find a video of Ted Stevens shouting, "NO!" whenever they want it.

Another reason to keep PE in middle school

While we're on the subject, another study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that low-income adolescents in schools with PC classes had lower BMI and greater cardiovascular fitness than low-income kids in schools without PE. 

Inappropriate clothing limits outdoor play

A study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity looked at why levels of physical activity varied in child care centers in Cincinnati, and one reason turned out to be that lots of kids are dressed inappropriately. They suggest clear center policies, because reminding parents doesn't work.
Two major themes about clothing were: 1) children's clothing was a barrier to children's physical activity in child-care, and 2) clothing choices were a significant source of conflict between parents and child-care providers.
Inappropriate clothing items included: no coat/hat/ gloves in the wintertime, flip flops or sandals, dress/ expensive clothes, jewelry, and clothes that were either too loose or too tight. Child-care providers explained that unless there were enough extra coats at the center, a single child without a coat could prevent the entire class from going outside.
Caregivers suggested several reasons why parents may dress their child inappropriately, including forgetfulness, a rushed morning routine, limited income to buy clothes, a child's preference for a favorite item, and parents not understanding the importance of outdoor play. Several child-care providers favored specific policies prohibiting inappropriate clothing, as many reported limited success with verbal or written reminders to bring appropriate clothing.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

You think you can jump rope?

No. You can't. They can. This is the coolest sports half-time I have ever seen. (I didn't see Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction in the Super Bowl, but I read about it, and I'm as certain as I am that the sun will rise in the east that I would still have liked these girls better.)

Benoit to leave Senate

Via Calitics, State Senator John Benoit will leave the State Senate for a job without term limits, being appointed by the governor to the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, apparently as a reward for being one of the few Republicans to vote for every bill in the Governor's water package.

Good for him. Benoit's one of the better Republicans (except, of course, on budget issues, where he was just another Republican), and I like to see a little quid pro quo among politicians to get bills passed. It beats the hell out of recent Republican reflexive opposition.

My only fear is who will replace him in the Senate. These days you have to be a fire-breathing neo-Palinite to win a Republican primary.

In utero language lessons

Newborns cry differently in German than in French.
The dramatic finding of this study is that not only are human neonates capable of producing different cry melodies, but they prefer to produce those melody patterns that are typical for the ambient language they have heard during their fetal life, within the last trimester of gestation ...
Specifically, French newborns tend to cry with a rising melody contour, whereas German newborns seem to prefer a falling melody contour in their crying. Those patterns are consistent with characteristic differences between the two languages, Wermke said.

Asperger's Syndrome is about to be eliminated!

Medical science is on the verge of wiping out Asperger's syndrome. More specifically, they're rewriting the psychiatric diagnostic manual to define it out of existence.
If these experts have their way, Asperger’s syndrome and another mild form of autism, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (P.D.D.-N.O.S. for short), will be folded into a single broad diagnosis, autism spectrum disorder — a category that encompasses autism’s entire range, or spectrum, from high-functioning to profoundly disabling.
I guess that counts as curing, doesn't it? But seriously, it's a step forward recognizing that what we had been callling Asperger's (or Engineer's Disease) is just a section of a continuum of some stuff  happening in the brain.

And it brings up the recurring question of how bad does an autist have to be for us to want to "fix" them? We need engineers and scientists, and there's no reason to hassle people just because they're fixated on something we don't care about. But at some point, Asperger's becomes autism and increasingly limits a person to the  point of not being able to take care of themself.* Temple Grandin is certainly an example of a productive autist. How much more autistic does someone have to be before we figure they're broken enough to recommend therapy and give the kid an IEP?

*Yes, I embrace the singular they. So what?

Flash news: TV has commercials for junk food

I'm shocked to find that kid shows advertise stuff that's bad for kids. A study in the November/December issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior says a lot of TV ads are for food, especially on Saturday and especially on kids' shows. What's more, the foods advertised had a lot of sugar or fat, and many were for fast food.

Your winnings, sir.

Oh, thank you.

Reading and writing as a second language

A study on reading annd writing Arabic has implications for teaching reading to some American kids.

Modern Arabs speak various dialects of modern Arabic that can be unintelligible to each other, and their spoken language works in Arab brains just as spoken English works in English-speaking brains.

Written Arabic (Modern Standard Arabic), is the same in every Arab country and is what is taught in every Arabic school (except the madrassas that teach classical Arabic, to read the Koran in). It is different from any of the dialects of spoken Arabic.

Arabic speakers have a  harder time learning to read than speakers of other languages. It turns out that written Arabic is handled in their brains as a second language, whereas standard English speakers handle written and spoken English as different representations of the same language. It's like growing up speaking Spanish or African American English and learning to read using books written in standard English or French at the same time you're learning standard English or French. You're better off learning to read in your own language and then transferring that skill to the new language.

Handedness and body perception

Left-handed people's body maps in the brain cortex (remember the picture of where different fingers' sensing neurons are side by side in the brain?) are the same in both hemispheres of the brain. Right-handed people have more cortex reserved for the right hand than  the left.

When researchers had people hold out their arms while the researchers ran a tape measure from the subject's shoulder to fingertip area, the subject had to tell by looking when the end of the tape was at the end of the fingertips. Right-handed subjects got the right hand correct but thought their left arm was shorter than it was. Left-handed people got both right. Right handed people also mistakenly thought their right hands were bigger than their left and that they could reach farther with their right hand than their left.

Eating fast really does make you eat more

So that's my problem. Eating fast slows the release of hormones that make you feel full, so you keep eating. They naturally tested it by taking blood samples every so often when people were eating fast or slow and checked for levels of the satiety hormones.

Skyline College's center may close

Another college child development center may close, because it costs more to run a Title 5 center than the state reimburses. Skyline College, in San Bruno, is going through something they call a Program Improvement and Viability process (i.e., figuring out what programs they can afford to keep), and the child development center may not be one they can keep.

They have 50 kids, half from single parents, who will go onto either the CEL or the private market. The parents, trying to go to college ... well, I guess it's just bad luck. They'll like their new job instead of school.

CDD will have another few hundred thousand dollars that won't be earned, because Skyline College can't afford to subsidize their CDD program. Good luck to CDD finding somebody else in the neighborhood who can afford to take the contract.

I have heard anecdotally of other Title 5 prog that are considering closing, because the SRR just isn't enough, and other funding streams have dried up. I wonder how many programs will have to close before the legislature raises the SRR to a level that pays for the state's staffing requirements.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Connecting the Dots

God was that boring. I "attended" a webinar today on Connecting the Dots -- Early Childhood Data Collections by Federal Programs, with people from Head Start, the Child Care Bureau, and Office of Special Education Programs of the Department of Education reading their PowerPoints. A lot of it was new to me, but they might as well have just emailed the PowerPoint.

Drinking whole milk to stay thin

This is weird. "Eight-year-old children who drink full-fat milk every day have a lower BMI than those who seldom drink milk. This is not the case for children who often drink medium-fat or low-fat milk."

So the skinniest kids drink whole milk. Next larger size kids don't drink milk. Fattest kids drink medium- or low-fat milk. Whole-milk kids weighed an average of 4 kilos less, 9 pounds (less than no milk or skim milk?).

Researchers are scrambling for a reason.
"This is an interesting observation, but we don't know why it is so. It may be the case that children who drink full-fat milk tend also to eat other things that affect their weight. Another possible explanation is that children who do not drink full-fat milk drink more soft drinks instead," says dietician Susanne Eriksson, author of the thesis.
The scientists also discovered a difference between overweight children who drink full-fat milk every day and those who do not. Children who often drink milk with a fat content of 3% are less overweight. The thesis shows also that the children eat more saturated fat than recommended, but those children who have a high intake of fat have a lower BMI than the children with a lower intake of fat.
Let me repeat that last independent clause: "those children who have a high intake of fat have a lower BMI than the children with a lower intake of fat."

Again Rule 1 rears its head: Everything is more complicated than you think it is. Maybe Eriksson's conjectures are right, or maybe some other weird thing is the reason, but it certainly is counterintuitive.