Thursday, December 31, 2009

Gay marriage has ruined another heterosexual marriage

Barely a week after Washington DC legalized gay marriage, Karl Rove filed for divorce. He warned us gay marriage would destroy the sanctity of marriage, and I guess he was right. What's more it apparently ruined his first marriage, too, retroactively.

One book claims Rove's father was openly gay.

Worst parent nominee: feed the baby morphine

Münchausen syndrome by proxy is a mental illness characterized by causing illness in someone, usually one's child, in order to draw attention to oneself. This woman gave her 2-month-old baby morphine to get the father's attention.

She was already on probation for giving morphine to her other baby (then 10 months old) to get the attention of that baby's father.

She got 7 1/2 years in prision. She should also have her tubes tied.

Playing the Jeep

I ran across this on Andrew Sullivan's blog, who got it from LikeCool.

Power corrupts

This study says people who have power tend to hold other people to higher moral standards than they, themselves, observe. I.e., either power corrupts, or corrupt people become powerful. And the tide rose and fell again today.

Boys work harder for caffeine than girls do

This study showed that boys will play a computer game longer and harder to get a caffeinated drink than girls will. The authors are surprised. They expected heavier consumers of caffeine to play harder than lower consumers, but instead found a boy-girl difference. They speculate it might be due to circulating hormones at the time of the test, or maybe girls are less sensitive to caffeine. I think boys like to play computer games more than girls do.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Genetic basis of political party orientation

I've said before that I believe that whether one is conservative or liberal has a genetic component. Some researchers recently looked at whether political party identification has a genetic component and found that it does not, but genes do influence the strength of party identification. (Abstract; Science Daily article)

This makes sense to me. There are conservatives in the Democratic party, and their used to be liberals in the Republican party, and may be again in whatever becomes of the current Republican party. People tend to keep their parents' political party unless something big intervenes, such as all the southern Democrats who became Republicans when the Democratic party embraced civil rights.

It makes sense, at least after the fact, that strength of political identification is stronger than the choice of  party to identify with. In that way it would be like religiosity: which religion is determined mostly by where you're born, but strength of religiosity is mostly genetic.

I should distinguish between kinds of conservatives when I say I think it is genetic:

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Pink is the new black

Pharyngula points out a Toys R Us catalog page for microscopes and telescopes. There are pink ones (presumably for girls) and black ones (presumably, then, for boys). In each case, the pink ones are less powerful than the black ones. Sigh.

Dumber people get bored more easily

This is a post on Gene Expression, found on Science Blogs, which puts numbers from The Audacious Epigone into charts showing that people report more often having time on their hands that they don't know what to do with as they get fewer words right in a vocabulary test or have a lower highest degree earned. Smarter, more educated people are less bored.

So one* answer to "What does a pretty little thing like you need with an education?" is "So I won't be bored."

*Yes, yes, another is to spill a glass of wine on his shirt, stomp on his instep, and tell him it's to escape him and his kind, but I'm being civil here. It's Christmas.

Why so few women computer experts?

The reason for the study was to find out why women were increasing their numbers in other sciences but not in computer studies. It turns out, it's the people they would have to hang out with.

This article in Science Daily puts it less starkly, saying it is because computers are so often found in unappealing locations and have unappealing geeky associations, but we know what that means.

They brought women into rooms that had either Star Trek posters, video game boxes, and Coke cans (stereotypical computer surroundings) or nature posters, a dictionary, and coffee cups (non-stereotypical). They told the women to ignore the surroundings, because the room was being shared with another class. Then they gave them a questionnaire about computer stuff. Women exposed to the geeky stuff had lower responses toward computers on the survey.

They did other, similar experiments, all showing more men like that kind of mini-macho geeky stuff than women. In other news, the sun will rise in the east today.

Teaching 3-year-old boys to write in Britain

The elementary schoolization of preschool is happening in Britain, too. There are several articles in British newspapers about how poorly British boys read poorly compared with girls, and the government is about to order "nurseries and childminders" to spend more time teaching 3- and 4-year-old boys to write. These two cover it best.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Why women touch better

Or more accurately, why women on average have a better sense of touch than men. It's because on average they have smaller fingers. It's the finger size, not the sex, that turns out to be related to tactile acuity.

They measured the fingers of 100 college kids and then rubbed the fingertips with progressively smaller grooves. People with smaller fingers could still feel smaller grooves than those with bigger fingers. The researchers think everybody may have the same number of sensors in the fingers, so in smaller fingers they are packed closer together.

I wonder if this relates only to adults, or if little kids have more finely tuned senses of touch than adults just by having smaller fingers.

Child care fraud

The Board of Supervisors in Contra Costa County has just issued a contract to use data mining to find fraud in various welfare programs, including child care.

The article says that in 2007, their civil grand jury estimated child care fraud costs Contra Costa County $500 million a year. I don't believe it. I don't believe $500 million a year is spent on child care in Contra Costa County, including private-pay centers. That would be 1/4 of all the money CDD spends on all child care programs, including CSPP, R&R, and local planning councils. It cannot be. The article says they only investigated 539 cases of potential fraud in 2007, so they must have stolen a million bucks apiece.

I'm tangentially involved in assessing child care fraud in my county. A couple of years ago, our DA issued a report to the BOS saying there was a 50% fraud rate in subsidized child care. It made the front pages. What it turned out to mean was that, of the cases that child care case managers had been suspicious enough of to refer to the DA's office, 50% of those cases turned out to involve fraud. I informed my own bosses of this mis-statement, just to cover myself, but, as one expected, it never went higher.

There is fraud in APP child care. Most of it is some poor woman  (literally) sneaking a couple of extra hours child care from the system. Some of it is lying about the father being in the home. That is, these people are stealing a service. There is also simply stealing money, getting paid for caring for services not provided, mostly because the kids don't exist or are looked after by mom at home. A few of  these involve big rings that rise to a few hundred thousand dollars in fraudulent payments over a period of years.

But I simply cannot believe Contra Costa County loses $500 million a year in fraudulent child care payments. If this is not a typo, somebody snowed the grand jury.

The actual cost of child care

A group called Public Policy Forum has put out a report called The Price of Quality: Estimating the Cost of a Higher Quality Early Care and Education System for Southeast Wisconsin. (PDF)

They now spend $5625 per kid, and they estimate it would cost $11,500 a child for best quality, but you could improve on what they have for $8023 per kid.

They figure they are spending $370 million on child care now (mostly wages), and to get to a high-quality system would take about $700 million. And the dish ran away with the spoon.

The report is interesting. It goes over the various studies about long-term effects of good child care and the cost-benefit analyses done.

It makes a stab at defining high quality, and most of the items are generically good (high education and wages, low ratios, and family support. But then they add, "For three‐ and four‐year olds, use of a professionally developed prekindergarten curriculum." I wonder if they could consider Reggio or High Scope a curriculum or a teaching style. This scares me, as I have said before. I fear canned curricula in general and for preschool in particular. Especially if they specify "professionally developed curriculum" but ignore environmental rating scales or teacher-child interaction evaluations. I guess that's because they were just looking at the things that cost money.

I do believe the main point, though. The actual cost of high-quality child care in California as well as Wisconsin is lots higher than CDE reimburses centers. The Title 5 centers that succeed do so on subsidies and grants.

Christmas dinner

I cooked a goose for Christmas dinner. I just realized I forwent the opportunity to announce dinner by saying, "My goose is cooked!" I may never forgive myself.

It turned out to be easy, and it came out good. I read Julia Child's directions in The Way to Cook and those on America's Test Kitchen website. (Link to recipe requires paid subscription.) I guess I should have picked one or the other, but exigencies (such as my apparent early-onset dementia) made me sort of combine them. I steamed it for 45 minutes on top of the stove and then roasted it for a couple of hours, covered and then uncovered. It was perfect. It looked just like the picture in the book.

I guess because of the dark meat, goose is as forgiving as chicken thighs, which are hard to overcook. This was wonderful. I made a pan gravy with the de-fatted drippings and flour and added the chopped, sauteed liver. Veges were roasted carrots, fingerling red potatoes, and thick-sliced fennel. Apple cider for the old and young, and champagne for the rest of us.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to you all.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Microwave fun with Christmas lights

I found this via GrrlScientist, whose posts are also on Science Blogs, a really cool place to browse.

This is Christmas lights. You can also cut a grape in half the long way and put the two halves cut-side-up on a paper plate, nearly touching each other, and turn the microwave on. The two halves will arc. Other fruits work, too, but it's been a long time since I did this, so I don't remember which ones did. Probably high-acid ones. I'd guess strawberries.

One thing they don't say is if anything was damaged. The bulbs arced inside each one, but it's not clear anything bad happened, either to the lights or the microwave. I gotta try this (though, to be responsible, I guess I should point out they say not to try it at home; yeah, right).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Ventura First 5 creates loan fund

Ventura First 5 is doing a good thing. They are putting $2.6 million into low-interest loans  between $15,000 and $800,000 (with other very nice provisions) to centers for planning, building, buying, or remodeling a center or for refinancing. For-profit businesses and organizations, including child care and school operators, employers and private developers; nonprofit organizations; public and private schools; and public entities are eligible. They expect to fund 4 to 6 projects, depending on what they are presented.

What with banks not lending much at all lately, especially at affordable rates, and the "profit" margins in child care being so slim, this is a real nice thing for Ventura First 5 to do.

While we're sharing good news, at a time when Title 5 centers up and down the state are closing or barely scraping by, Saddleback College is starting a new toddler program. You have to assume the college is subsidizing it. Nobody can run a Title 5 toddler program on the $48.13 per kid per day. (Okay, there are probably some programs that do, maybe in counties with relatively low cost of living, but I'd bet money you can't do it in Orange County.) Anyway, good for Saddleback's administration for agreeing to subsidize it (or good for the center director for pulling the wool over their eyes).

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

How to teach math to little kids

This is a long article in the New York Times about young minds and how to teach them math. It's a little scary at first, the whole idea of teaching math to preschoolers. You're afraid they're going to bring out workseets. The actual descriptions of how this is done are not so bad: dividing candies among stuffed animals, solving shape puzzles, sometimes counting items and sometimes saying in a flash whether there are 3 or 4 items on a plate, using the same brain wiring apes use to know how many M&Ms are on a test plate. Some neurons specifically fire if you see a specific number of objects you are paying attention to.

But then they talk about a program called Building Blocks, which is designed to teach math to little kids. The program description talks about learning one-to-one correspondence by setting a lunch table with plates and such on a computer.

My biggest fear is just that it is a program. I've talked before about the problems intrinsic in having a curriculum or a program that decides a  year in advance what you will be teaching next Tuesday. This program doesn't look like that, but I tend to attribute to a progam the faults it acquires when it is used by a poor teacher. That's unfair, I know. Any program can be screwed up, and from their website, this looks pretty good.

One thing the article said that I didn't know is that the brain may not be fully up to the task of linking sounds with letter combinations until 11. That's a surprise to me and should be discussed amont reading teachers.

I'm not my mom! I'm not!

Under the heading of sometimes the obvious is true, Dutch researchers have found that, if your spouse dislikes your parents, you are less likely to spend time with your parents.

But this can be reversed if you have a kid. The theory is that having a kid makes you think more like a grown-up, so you have more in common with your parents. I guess it's conceivable. Something makes us channel our parents at inopportune times. I'd just attribute it to genetic and epigenetic influences on personalty.

Job announcement: Center director at Guantanamo

This blog runs on blogspot, and it doesn't, as far as I know, have a way to stash documents and link to them, so I'm going to post this in full right here. They could learn something about  breaking up long paragraphs. As to the job, it would seem to have its advantages and its drawbacks, but which are which is probably personal.

Full job announcement after the jump.

Golden ratio explained evolutionarily?

Sometimes it's not obvious at first sight whether someone with a new idea is a crank or a visionary. So it is with me and Adrian Bejan, who is professor of mechanical engineering at Duke. I came across him in Science Daily. Behan has an idea he calls constructal theory. (His website; Wikipedia; I wonder if Behan wrote the wiki article.)

As I understand it after maybe half an hour of looking into it, constructal theory says lots of stuff can be thought of in terms of flow of something through a system. He says it is a general law of such systems that they evolve to make the flow easier and larger. He says this explains rivers, the increasing size and speed of athletes, human cognition, the history of human travel, and the golden ratio (allegedly the design basis of the great pyramid of Gaza). Read the PDF at the link for explanations of how this works.)

In the case of the golden ratio, he says the human brain, like that of other animals, has evolved to scan horizontally more efficiently than vertically (since we are more likely to be attacked by predators from the front, back or side than jumped on from a cliff). And he says the golden ratio (for a height of 1, a width of 1.618) is the easiest for people to scan, so we find it most pleasing. In terms of constructal theory, the golden ratio provides the fastest cognition flow in the brain.

In general, I'm sympathetic to arguments involving evolutionary influences on cognition and brain structure, but this just sounds crazy. Of course, virtual particles also sound crazy to me, but people who do physics for a living assure me they are real. So for now I'll put it in the section of my brain where I keep things I don't know whether to believe, so I can call it up if I run across something relevant to it.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Diagnosing autism with an MRI

Now I'm a fairly technological person, and I believe in the efficacy of all manner of medical tests. But I'm creeped out by this. A company called Private MD asserts it can identify autistic kids with an MRI. They quote research showing that a section of the brain associated with talking about oneself lights up more in normals when they are talking about themselves than in autists doing the same thing.

I hope it's true that we can identify autistic kids early and simply. And it may be. It might even be that this particular area of the brain is where we should be looking.

But I can't trust a company that makes its living by offering diagnostic tests when it says their test can diagnose autism. If it's true, I'd take my autistic kid to Kaiser but not to a company whose bottom line is improved if we take their test.

Why aren't girls as good as boys at math

They are. The usual reason given for the fact that boys always win the top prizes is that the overall math ability of both sexes may be identical, but boys have a different-shaped curve, because, it is said, intelligence (and math ability) are on the X chromosome, so girls get an average of her two Xs, but boys get only whatever is on the one X they get from their mother, so boys are more likely to be found at the extremes.

I used to find this plausible, if unappealing, till I discovered that in Iceland, girls are more often at the top. This article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and discussed in ieee Spectrum says there are other places this is true, including Thailand, the UK, and Asians in America.

This seems to me to be definitive.

Yesterday I read that, for the first time, there are more new PhDs granted to women than to men in the US. Woman have been on top for BAs for some time.

Gene effects differ depending on which parent they come from

In Iceland, they have a more-or-less complete genealogy and medical history on everybody in the country. It is funded by a private company, but Icelanders have bought into it. Some researchers recently used this database to look at particular gene alleles and their relation to diseases.

An article on the research in the New York Times discusses the genetic imprinting it found, which means that some genes have different effects on the body depending on whether they come from the mother or father. One gene variant increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes by 30% if it comes from the father, but it decreases the risk by 10% if it comes from the mother. Since they nearly cancel out, the importance of the gene had been overlooked when not taking into account which parent the allele came from.

The authors speculate that other genes might have opposite effects depending on which parent they come from and that this might explain why analyses that did not take this into account failed to find the genetic effects. Sounds plausible.

The whole idea of genetic imprinting is bizarre to me, but is well established. The obvious question is what evolutionary problem it solved. From wikipedia:
A widely accepted hypothesis for the evolution of genomic imprinting is the "parental conflict hypothesis." This hypothesis states that the inequality between parental genomes due to imprinting is a result of the differing interests of each parent in terms of the evolutionary fitness of their genes. The father is often more 'interested' in the growth of his offspring, at the expense of the mother. The mother's interest is often to conserve resources for her own survival while providing sufficient nourishment to current and subsequent litters.
Accordingly, paternally expressed genes tend to be growth promoting whereas maternally expressed genes tend to be growth limiting. In support of this hypothesis, genomic imprinting has been found in all placental mammals, where post-fertilization offspring resource consumption at the expense of the mother is high; it has not been found in oviparous birds or monotremes (a class of oviparous mammals) where there is relatively little post-fertilization resource transfer and therefore less parental conflict.

However, our understanding of the molecular mechanisms behind genomic imprinting show that it is the maternal genome that controls much of the imprinting of both its own and the paternally-derived genes in the zygote, making it difficult to explain why the maternal genes would willingly relinquish their dominance to that of the paternally-derived genes in light of the conflict hypothesis. Several other hypotheses that propose a coadaptive reason for the evolution of genomic imprinting have been proposed.

Awwww: Toddler does Hamlet

This is a toddler being coaxed into repeating a couple of lines from  the to be or not to be soliloquy. I ran across it on Science Blogs. As David Dobbs says there, "(T)hink language acquisition, attention, mirror neurons, make your pick."

Video games train the brain to process information

A study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, and reported in Science Daily, says playing a lot of video games makes kids process information faster and more accurately in other situations. In effect, video games train the brain to process information. My oldest must be an Einstein.

Dyslexia doesn't mean low intelligence

I've been thinking about this a couple of days. A study published in Psychological Science looked at 445 kids in Connecticut over 12 years, testing their reading ability and IQ once a year. They found that for non-dyslexic kids, higher IQ and better reading ability went together. For dyslexic kids, they did not.

My first reaction to this was that it's nothing new. We've known for years that dyslexia (at least in the old sense of having any of a number of problems processing words visually or aurally, rather than the sense of anybody more reading than 2  years  below grade level) is not related to intelligence.

My second reaction is that neither is it new nor should it be surprising. It's just another example of the fact that intelligence (in the broad sense of all mental abilities) is made up of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of discreet mental abilities. Which ones a particular person has is a combination of genes and accident. My eldest is a whiz at calculus but slow at in-the-head arithmetic.

And dyslexia is such a handicap to overcome that those who become successful in spite of it are probably smarter than the rest of us.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

How we differ from Baboons and chimps

This is an extremely interesting 32-minute lecture by Robert Sapolsky, who is a neurobiologist and baboonologist at Stanford, on how people differ from apes. In short, nearly everything we think of that is unique about us has come from ape precursers, but we just go off the deep end with it.

I leave him when he finds one area of actual uniqueness, which he frames in a Christian manner, the persistence of faith in the face of the impossible and the ability to simultaneously believe in contradictory things. Then he goes off the deep end himself, saying humans (which he seems to conflate with Christians, though I'm sure he doesn't really) believe in some stuff just because it is impossible, and that a moral imperative derives from it. If that's true, I suppose it is as biologically determined as religiosity, but I don't seem to have that allele.

I could believe there is a uniquely human ability to believe contradictory things (just as I could believe chimps do it, too), but I see no need to Christianize it or to derive a moral imperative from it. One day I'll post about where I think morals come from, but I deny any moral imperative from God, Kant, or the universe.

The lecture starts at 5:00 minutes. I came across it on Andrew Sullivan's blog.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Humans walk right on time

A couple of neurophysiologists from Lund University in Sweden had the interesting insight (actually I don't know if they are the first, but it's the first it's been brought to my attention) to use conception rather than birth as a starting point for comparing motor development and brain development among mammals. If you do that, humans walk right when they should.
The Lund group has now compared 24 species, which together represent the majority of existing walking mammals. Some, like the great apes, are closely related to us evolutionarily while others, such as rodents, hoofed animals, and elephants, diverged from our evolutionary path about 90-100 million years ago.
Despite this, and regardless of differences in various species' brain and body size, gestation time, and brain maturity at birth, the comparison shows that the young from all species start walking at the same relative time point in brain development. 
This brings to mind the fact that mammals all live about a billion heartbeats. Except people.

Some orphanages as good for kids as foster care

Our images of orphanages come from Dickens, Annie, and horrendous tales from Romania, where care for kids is less important than running a business. But recent research discussed in Scientific American says these are not the usual type in third-world countries.

Researchers looked at 3000 6 to 12 year olds kids in either foster care or orphanages in Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, India, and Cambodia and found that "Health, emotional and cognitive functioning, and physical growth were no worse for institution-living than community-living OAC (orphan kids), and generally better than for community-living OAC cared for by persons other than a biological parent."

That is, kids in orphanages did as well as foster kids in cognitive measures and mostly better than foster kids in things like general  health and specific indicators of health, such as likelihood of having had a cough or diarrhea in the last 2 weeks, or likelihood of being sick on the day of the interview. Height, weight, and BMI were the same for each.

The difference between these orphanages and the ones in Romania seems to be that the adults in these care about the kids. Many of them live in the orphanage, many without a salary. And they are mostly small, averaging 25 to 30 kids each.

On reflection, it should not be a surprise either that groups of 25 Kenyan orphans living with people who care about them should do better than Romanian kids in industrial nurseries, or that orphanages in third-world countries would be staffed by such people. Good for them. They're doing God's work.

Friday follies on Saturday

Middle cat is the cuddly one who joins us in bed in the morning (and stays there until the evening meal). One thing I like about it is you can't make the bed if it would wake the cat, so you have to not bother.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Worst parent nominee: Beat up your friend's kid

I don't want to type the details of her horrendous abuse of a "friend's" child, because she didn't like his mom, but it's as bad as you've heard of. If  you read this regularly, you know I'm a serious liberal. That said, this lady should have her tubes tied as part of her long, long sentence. Maybe tied around her neck.

So what can we really do about people like this, besides put them in jail when we discover them, leaving their other kids without parents. (In this case, she abused her friend's kid but not her own, at least not to the same extent.)

But I'm more interested in stopping it from happening. The problem is I'm afraid the kinds of things I imagine might work would be too intrusive on the part of the government for me. I mean, suppose we found a gene allele that was instrumental in this kind of abuse, and we found a gene therapy (or cognitive therapy, or drugs) that could ameliorate it. Would we be justified in forcing the therapy on anyone with that allele, even if they had shown no tendencies toward abuse?

 If we did find a way to prevent people from hitting their kids, we'd have to:
  • Sequence everybody's genome to find out who had the bad allelle (and the bad sets of alleles for other mental disorders besides being mean).
  • Decide what psychotherapy or gene therapy or drug to use.
  • Set up an organizational structure for forcing them to take it.
  • Keep the government from abusing its power or from just screwing up.
 None of these would be easy, but I imagine Republicans in congress trying to "cure" homosexuality, or atheism, or liberalism when they get back in power. I think I'd rather put  up with some child abuse to avoid that.

Incidence of autism diagnosis rising

About 1 in 110 8-year-olds is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, up 57% over 4 years ago, 78% of them boys.

Boy that's hard to believe, at least at first. But then it occurs to one that that's close to the number they say hear the voices and about the same as have bipolar disorder and OCD. Maybe about 1% of the population has any brain disorder.

And the 1 in 110 would include not just classic autists but a big chunk of the engineers in the country.

So 1 in 110 to be somewhere on the ASD continuum is not implausible, but it could as easily be due to increased screening and broadening of the diagnostic criteria as an actual increase in incidence of autism.

But if you add up all the disorders, even with some overlap, you probably end up with 90% or less "normals."

Too little exercise in centers, too

Last week, the story was too much TV and too little exercise in family home child care. Today, it's too little exercise in centers. A UNC study of 96 centers in North Carolina showed only 1 in 8 gave the kids two hours of active playtime a day, which the group had earlier decided was best practice. Nobody is surprised.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Flower porn: Epidendron

A purple epidendron that has been blooming on my patio for, it must be, fifteen years straight. My mom gave it to me back then, when we were going to be in a garden show and needed to liven up the patio, and I never gave it back. It's so happy there.

Worst school district nominee: Mandatory short hair for preschoolers

The school in Dallas says, "students who dress and groom themselves neatly, and in an acceptable and appropriate manner, are more likely to become constructive members of the society in which we live."

That's why the 4-year-old with his hair over his collar was suspended for a month and now sits in the  library instead of being in class with his buddies. His hair is too long, and he won't cut it. The dad says other kids have longer hair, and his kid is being singled out.

I don't know about that, but I do know that Einstein was a constructive member of our society.

I guess this is what "evidence based practice" means in Dallas. We believe what we believe, and if you disagree, that's evidence against you.

Do learning styles exist?

That is, do some people learn stuff better by hearing it, or seeing it, or rubbing it on their heads? The societal consensus is that it is true. A report in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, and reported in Science Daily says no.
Nearly all of the studies that purport to provide evidence for learning styles fail to satisfy key criteria for scientific validity. Any experiment designed to test the learning-styles hypothesis would need to classify learners into categories and then randomly assign the learners to use one of several different learning methods, and the participants would need to take the same test at the end of the experiment. If there is truth to the idea that learning styles and teaching styles should mesh, then learners with a given style, say visual-spatial, should learn better with instruction that meshes with that style. The authors found that of the very large number of studies claiming to support the learning-styles hypothesis, very few used this type of research design. Of those that did, some provided evidence flatly contradictory to this meshing hypothesis, and the few findings in line with the meshing idea did not assess popular learning-style schemes.
I don't have a dog in this fight. It seems plausible that learning styles would exist, but I haven't actually seen any evidence that it is so. As the paragraph above says, it should be easy enough to test on a large enough scale to believe the results. Let's somebody do so.

Evaluating claims in child development

Jean Mercer writes the Child Myths blog in Psychology Today. She posted a couple of days ago about how to evaluate things people tell you about child development (besides checking It's worth reading (as is the blog).

She refers to a philosopher she became acquainted with in college, Stephen Toulmin, who pointed out three things you have to have to prove an argument:
  • A claim.  You have to say what you think is true.
  • A ground. There has to be some evidence or reasoning, not just an assertion.
  • A warrant. There has to be some connection between the evidence or reasoning and the conclusion.
As an example, she applies this to the statement that adopted kids and their new parents can develop emotional attachment with each other by the act of staring into each other's eyes.

  • The claim is a little dodgy, because there's no good way to assess emotional attachment in school-age kids. 
  • The grounds for believing it are that babies and toddlers and mothers gaze into each others's eyes, and they get attached. Mercer accepts this, because mutual gaze happens when attachment is forming, but the problem I see with this is we don't know which way the causal relation goes. Maybe they look into each other's eyes because they are attached.
  • The warrant fails for that very reason, she says, because we don't know that the gazing causes the attachment. Also, there's no reason to believe that what works for babies will work for 4th graders.
It's a good blog, and this is a good exercise to go through (if not necessarily formally) when you see a new claim in child development.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What are kids reading

This is a PDF of a document by Renaissance Learning, the people who put out Accelerated Reader, that tells which 20 books were being read most by kids in 2007, by grade. The list starts at page 22 of the PDF. It also has lists of books low- and high-achieving kids are reading most often.

How to become a boy

Now this is weird.
(F)ully-developed adult females can undergo a partial sex change following a genetic modification to a single gene. The findings suggest that being male or female is not a permanently fixed state but something that has to be continually maintained in the adult body by the constant interaction of genes to keep the status quo – and the gender war – from slipping in favour of the opposite sex.
The results could explain some of the great mysteries of human gender, for instance why some women after the menopause develop male characteristics, such as facial hair and deeper voices, or why other people are so unhappy with the gender they were born with that they seek hormone therapy and radical sex-change operations.
Scientists said that the study also contradicted another biological dogma – that the "default" gender is female, with all embryos starting out as female unless they possess a male sex-determining gene. Although this remains true in terms of how gender is determined in the womb, the latest findings show that it is still possible to convert an adult female's ovaries into testosterone-producing testes.
Think of the implications of this, once it becomes easy to do, and all the questions it raises now.
  • Imagine a woman athlete (or CEO, or actor) who converts her ovaries to testes to get an advantage from the increased testosterone.
  • If one gene can change ovaries to testes, is there a set of genes that can grow a penis on a girl if you start soon enough after birth? Could a child with ambiguous sexuality, if he starts to think he's a boy, be able to develop one with gene therapy?
  • Imagine women using it for birth control.
  • Can it go the other way? I can't imagine balls developing eggs, but can they be changed to secrete female hormones? Could men grow functional (or even ornamental) breasts?
  • Can you select which male characteristics to take on, such as maybe keeping aggression but dropping the beard and desire to watch NASCAR.
  • This would explain how fish change sex. In the real world, when Nemo's mother died, his father would have turned female, and the biggest offspring would become the dominant male. Sheephead also change sex.
God, I love conjectural science.

UPDATE: Comment from somebody knowledgeable.

Last night's sauce

I cook freestyle, gathering inspiration by looking through the refrigerator and cabinets. Last night I browned some skinless, boneless chicken thighs in olive oil and then added chicken stock, some Martinelli's apple cider left over from Thanksgiving, and some ground cumin, garlic powder, ground chipotle, and nutmeg. Simmer until done, remove chicken, and reduce pan liquid. Over brown basmati rice with roasted veges.

You can judge a person by their cover

  1. Took pictures of people, either posed how the researchers wanted them or how the subject felt like posing;
  2. Had the subject and the subject's acquaintances assess the subject's personalty.
  3. Asked strangers to look at  the two pictures and assess the subject's personality just from the picture.
They found that while both poses provided participants with accurate cues about personality, the spontaneous pose showed more insight, including about the subject's agreeableness, emotional stability, openness, likability, and loneliness.

Becoming fitter makes you smarter

A huge study of 1.2 million men (including 260,000 sibling pairs, 3000 sets of twins, 1400 identical) born in Sweden between 1950 and 1976 when they entered their mandatory military service. Every measure of cognitive functioning increased with increasing aerobic fitness, but not with strength. This was true of twins as well, so they think it's causal rather than associative, i.e., getting fitter will make a person smarter. They assume it is because of blood circulation affecting brain plasticity.

If true, this has school policy implications for bringing back PE. Maybe we can sell exercise as a school readiness program.

And it makes me wonder how smart I would be if there were about 20% less of me, or if I ever got up from this stupid computer and walked around the block.

Nutrition and exercise in family care

Another study, this time in Oregon, shows the TV is on most of the time in family home child care, and kids spend far too little time in active play, about 7 minutes per hour on average. More than half restricted active play as a punishment. (That's a cool idea; a preschooler is misbehaving, so you force them to sit still rather than having them run around the yard and blow it off. It's worked so well in the past.)

The food they serve is getting better, less fried food and fewer serving chips or sweets, but whole milk is usual, and half serve "fruit juice" every day, which fulfills their weekly sugar requirement.

Why boys are at greater risk if born premature

Another reason to be glad you're a girl. Preemie boys do worse than preemie girls with things like low blood pressure, brain hemorrhaging, pregnancy toxemia, infection, separation of the placenta, preeclampsia, and premature loss of amniotic fluid, and one researcher says she knows why. She thinks it is because boy fetuses mature later than girl fetuses.

This is plausible. I guess the way to check it would be to see if boys born at, say, 32 weeks do as well as girls at, say, 27 weeks.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Worst school district nominee: Kid on a cross is a violent image

The assignment was to draw something that reminded them of Christmas. One second grader drew a stick drawing of himself on the cross, with Xs for eyes (maybe to show he was dead, like Jesus) and a smile (Always look on the bright side of life). He had recently been to the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Attleboro, where he had seen crucifixion statues.

So of course, the school was alarmed, sent him home from school, made him get a psychological evaluation, and allowed him to return only after evaluators found nothing to indicate he would be a threat to others. The superintendent said they were following safety protocols.

The pendulum has officially swung too far toward safety. Not that it hadn't already, what with, just for a couple of examples of PC gone wild, a school expelling a kindergartener for bringing a plastic knife to cut her banana, and a parent bringing sexual harassment charges against a first-grader for kissing a classmate on the cheek.

I guess we're so traumatized by not identifying school shooters before they are set off that mindless bureaucrats (to distinguish them from the non-mindless bureaucrats, many of whom I work with on a regular basis and respect a great deal) will investigate far beyond reasonable bounds so as not to be blamed if the kid brings a gun to school next week and shoots somebody.

I heard about it from Andrew Sullivan, which has the drawing in question.

UPDATE: Someone asked me what the school should have done. The teacher or counselor should have phoned the parents and said your kid just drew a drawing of himself dead, and we'd like to talk to you about whether he is having any problems we could help with.

Doctors' personalities

A study in the Journal of Applied Psychology and reported in Science Daily looked at the relationship between extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness and grade success in one entire cohort in a Belgian medical school, a 7-year process that 300 of 600 students finished.

It is not surprising that conscientiousness is highly correlated with good grades in med school. You have to sit down and study a lot. Extraversion was a handicap in the first year or two, but then it became an advantage, as did agreeableness.

What strikes me as interesting about this is not the results but the corollary that, to the extent that personality is ummutable, you could pick those who would be successful at med school when they are in preschool. I wonder if conscientiousness is a trait that stays the same, as extraversion and some others do.

If you could pick preschoolers who would or would not be successful at med school, would you treat them any differently? What would you do to make a kid more conscientious? Or would you steer the kid to a field that requires less conscientiousness?

One more question in a list that grows with each thing we learn to predict.

California's foster-care payments illegally low

A U.S. appeals panel has ruled that the practice of paying foster parents 80% or less of the actual cost of care is illegal. In fact, advocates say, the payments of about $500 a month cover about 60% of the actual cost.

One reason for paying more, beyond the obvious fairness of it, is that fewer people are willing to become foster parents. There are 5000 foster kids in California, compared with 16,000 in 2001, and it's not for lack of need. Here's another thing we're going to have to pay for. And we should. While there are no doubt people willing to take kids when it costs them money, it is clear there aren't enough of them. If we want to have a foster care system, we have to reimburse foster parents the cost of care. If we don't have foster parents, we have to put the kids in more expensive group homes or leave them with the biological parents.

And there's nothing in the budget left to cut. 

So we have to raise taxes. The discussion should be which ones and how much, not whether.

ELQIS interim report

The latest draft of the ELQIS interim report is posted. It includes a few decisions made and lists a bunch of decisions to be made. There are few decisions:

  • There will be 5 tiers.
  • Environmental ratings scales will be used; 
  • "(A)ll tiers include an adequate measure of teacher child interaction."*
  • First 2 tiers will self-report ECERS-R; after that, independent assessments will be required.
Beyond that, it's lists of questions with some principles on how to answer them. It looks like a good set of questions.

I'm in general impressed by the committee. I frankly expected meetings like the ones I attend at work, but all the ones of these I've attended have all been very productive. You hope people in positions to influence policy will understand issues and be intellectually open to discussion, but it don't always happen, do it? In ELQIS, it seems to be happening. I still have some fears about workforce development, and I haven't paid any attention at all to finance, but design and data are going along swimmingly.

*Actually that's a "members want" rather than a "we have decided," but if I list it as decided, maybe it will be. Magical realism works for Sarah Palin; maybe it will for me.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Monkeys use syntax

Campbell's monkeys use 6 types of alert calls, and they combine them into sequences that differ in meaning according to the sequence and order of the calls. That is, they speak in "sentences" that are sequences of "words"* The sentences include from 1 to 4 different words, with an average of 25 words in a sentence.

And some of the words can have a suffix.
The same team of researchers had previously shown that males used a suffix "oo" to duplicate the size of his vocal repertory (which allowed them to produce the sounds Hok and Krak as well as Hok-oo and Krak-oo). In this new study, the ethologists explain some of the rules that govern the semantic combinations of calls. For example, Campbell's monkeys can add a particular type of call to an existing sequence in order to make the message more precise or to alter it. They can also combine sequences relaying different messages in order to convey a third message.
They are not only able to tell each other what kind of danger they face, or what kind of predator, but to gather up before moving to a new site, or to tell of some other Campbell's monkeys coming onto our turf.

This is the most complicated grammar found so far in apes, but it is only mildly surprising, since every few months it seems we learn of some new language or tool-making or social ability of apes. This is this month's mild surprise. It certainly is further evidence that human language evolved out of ape precursers. The researchers suggest the reason may be that they live among dense foliage, so sound is their only way of communicating to the group. You can't just wave your arms to get attention or point. I guess it's a reasonable conjecture.

*"Words" and "sentences" are my words. The researchers would never be so anthropomorphic.

Better teachers choose better schools

We knew it all along, that teachers with more seniority get to choose where they teach, and they choose to teach better students, leaving the newer teachers to the poorer schools.

Now it's been quantified (PDF). The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning talked to principals about the number of teachers who don't meet paper qualifications for their job. There are fewer than in 2000 (11,000, down from 42,000), but they are concentrated in lower-performing schools. As I said, no surprise, but it's nice to have it pointed out again, as in this LA Times article.

Returning kids to abusive parents

Boy this is a hard one. Big front-page article in the Sunday LA Times about a new program in LA County. They are returning some kids from foster care to abusive parents, while giving the parent training not to be abusive. The idea is that foster care screws people up so bad that if we can just get the real mom to be enough better, the kid will come out with a net gain.

I don't know. It's risky, and the first kid who is killed will cause a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth, and likely a change of policy in the other direction. The idea is plausible in general. That is, there are probably kids who will be better off, either because their foster care was bad or because the real parent changes, but there will be other cases were it won't work at all. The first problem will be figuring out who are good candidates for it. The woman followed in the LA Times article was a little scary for me.

And because the abusiveness presumably stems from something organic in the brain, I suspect curing abusiveness would involve drugs more than training. Learning not to get angry and whack your kid is similar in some ways to learning Japanese or to ride a bike. Both involve repetition of stuff you want to remember. But I'm much less sanguine about the ability of practice to change basic personality traits.

So good luck to them. It's probably worth a try. But I can't say my expectations match my hopes. Not that I have any better ideas.

Data gone wild

This is an article in Wired about parents who track everything about their kid, because with modern technology, they can. I'm sympathetic to this. When you have a kid, it becomes your hobby. (At least, it became ours.) It's what you and your partner do in the evening, sit around and watch the kid and talk about it. Less so with later ones, but the first one is enthralling.

And if you're a data geek and a technology freak (like the economists in the article, on both counts), why not use technology to keep track of stuff? There may, for all one knows, be some use for it later on, but for a real data geek, keep track of something is its own reward, and I sympathize greatly with the affliction.

So now that you can, for example, use an iPhone app to enter data on when the kid sleeps, wakes, poops, or cries, and some toys record how they are played with, we can each be our own Darwin, observing our kids just for the hell of it.

The Wired article has some links to devices and software you can purchase.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Poor kids prescribed more antipsychotic drugs

An article in the New York Times says a team of researchers have found that kids on Medicaid (I.e., poor kids) are given antipsychotic medicines 4 times more often than kids on private insurance, and they they get it for less serious conditions.

Obvious questions include why and what is the result? Should we give fewer drugs to poor kids or more drugs to middle class kids? If we're giving too many,  how do we stop?

Some in the article suggest that doctors and poor parents give their kids drugs because it makes them easier to handle and is easier for all concerned, including parents, than therapy or counseling. Or it may be because Medicaid pays less for therapy than private insurance does, so Medicaid doctors give poor kids what they can afford on their Medicaid allowance, which is drugs rather than therapy. Or maybe poor kids are sicker than middle-class kids; maybe the buildup of cortisol stress of living in poverty causes more mental illness. One person in the Times article suggested this might be part but not all of it. If it is true, we have a public health issue we need to deal with.

And it is not at all clear that psychotherapy is better than drugs at controlling mental illnesses. The big disadvantage of  drugs is that if they are prescribed for conditions that they don't have, the drugs can cause much more serious problems than therapy is likely to if therapy is tried on a condition the kid doesn't have. For example, there is some concern lately that bipolar disorder is being diagnosed in kids who don't have it. Therapy is less likely to screw up such a kid's life permanently than drugs, partly because it's less effective.

So it's not  obvious on the surface how big a problem this is, but there is enough of a chance that it's a big one that we need to look further into it.

Should we try to "cure" conservatives?

A commenter to my post on the biological basis of political orientation said:
Thank you scientists for using science to conclusively associate unfavorable attributes with conservatives! Now our contempt for them has an even stronger foundation.
And mad props to CDRealist for suggesting that we can may someday hope to create a politically pure strain of mankind.
My first thought was this misrepresented what I said. But on reflection, it only misrepresents part of it. I do associate unfavorable attributes with conservatives (as does any liberal following the health care debate in the Senate), but only some types of conservatism. There are conservatives I respect, and I read them to keep myself honest. If someone as brilliantly wrong as Bill Buckley comes along again, I'll get a TiVo season pass for his or her show.

I suppose the difference between the sanes and the loonies consists of having different constellations of alleles and peer experiences, as is the difference in any personality point. But I don't think we should try to "cure" even the loonies. As I said in the previous post, we need some down-to-earth conservatives around to keep us airy-fairy liberals from getting killed by lions. It is not clear to me that modern society has the same needs as 200,000 years ago, but it might well be that we can substitute commies for lions and have the same dynamic.

So I don't want to cure conservatives. I just don't want them in charge of public policy. I want them on the outside calling bullshit on the liberals in charge and edging public policy back from the liberal brink.

But, just as it is fun for an atheist to play with pagan nature worship once in a while, it's fun for a liberal to imagine medication that would bring Michelle Bachman into our world.

Friday, December 11, 2009

How we discipline kids is related to our political orientation

It seems that states where more people are in favor of spanking or washing kids' mouths out with soap voted for McCain. States where fewer people are in favor of spanking voted for Obama. I'm not that surprised. We already know there is a biological aspect to political orientation. Authoritarian people tend to be conservatives, and conservatives tend to be Republicans.

Predicting cheating by looking at brain waves

This is a combination of cool and scary. Researchers have found a signature in the brain that shows when a person is breaking a promise, and it shows up before the actual cheating occurs. They suggest that "breaking a promise triggers an emotional conflict in the promise breaker due to the suppression of an honest response," and this shows up in the pattern of activity in the brain.

While I certainly applaud the science, this is something that could easily be misused. I imagine people putting on electrode-studded helmets at job interviews, contract signings, criminal investigations or trials, marriage counseling, swearing in ceremonies, military induction, and any situation where a promise is made.

Is it fair to saddle such a wonderful discovery with the bad things people might do with it? Is it fair to blame physics for nuclear bombs? To blame the discovery of gunpowder for murders today? Only in a narrow sense.

So what should we do with the information?  I'm afraid we don't have much choice. I predict that it will be used as I suggested above, and we need to either live with it or find a way to ameliorate the big brother aspects. I'm not sure what that way would be.

Friday follies

Middle cat drinking among the water hyacinth, omnipresent catnip in foreground.

Infant-toddler gym memberships

This strikes me as mostly something to make moms think they're doing something for their kids, but it might well have some mild benefit. It seems they are doing mommy-and-me gym classes. This article in the Wall Street Journal (that bastion of knowledge about child development) is by a woman who took an 8-month-old and an 18-month-old to several of them to try them out.

I think I agree with the child development person quoted:
Laura Berk, a child-development professor at Illinois State University and author of the book "Child Development," says while there is no evidence that gym classes help babies acquire physical skills more quickly, they can be a positive influence. "Kids encounter enough diversity in a typical home environment to help build motor skills," she says. "But these classes ingrain the idea of physical activity into kids from a young age, which is important." When conducted in a safe setting, they pose no harm and can be a fun thing for parents to do with little ones, she adds.

The orchid gene

Interesting article by David Dobbs in the Atlantic. It is known that people with certain alleles begin to suffer various personality or mood disorders after some traumatic experience. Epigenetics at work. Something in the environment causes a gene to turn on or off.

What Dobbs adds is a discussion of the evolutionary benefits of these alleles. For example, we know why sickle-cell anemia persists. It is found in areas with endemic malaria, and if you have only one copy of the gene, it protects against malaria. Two copies and you die young. The calculus is that, in areas where it is common, the  genes save more people from malaria than they kill with sickle-cell anemia. There has been discussion that autism, religiosity, fearfulness of strangers, homosexuality, ADHD, and other personal traits might be evolutionarily useful to the species. Certainly in modern society, it helps a small businessman to have ADHD or an engineer to have Asperger's.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

More bad stuff about tobacco

Little kids exposed to tobacco smoke can become brats or worse in school. And it's worse the sooner the exposure starts. Being exposed prenatally nearly doubled the risk of hyperactivity, ADHD, or not getting along with other kids. Being exposed after birth increased the risk by about a third.

I'm not a prohibitionist on much of anything, but I'm glad the government is doing some things to reduce tobacco smoking. I especially support increased tobacco taxes. It wouldn't affect adult smokers, who would piss and moan but still buy cigarettes, but adolescents are much more affected by price. You can't make people quit by raising prices, but you can keep them from starting and then use other methods for the existing smokers (or just wait for them to die off as a group).

And the fact that so many people in so many culture like to start smoking tells me that it does something in the brain that we like. So even if we need to stop tobacco smoking, we should keep working on just what it is that nicotine does in the brain, so we can find a safe drug that will do the same thing. Imagine if there were substitutes for tobacco that didn't smell bad, fill your lungs with crap, and cause cancer; or a substitute for cocaine that wasn't addictive and didn't make your brain rot; or a non-addictive substitute for heroin that didn't cause diarrhea. It's been a long time since I read Brave New World, but I think access to Soma would improve a lot of lives.

Remedial reading can rewire the brain

Roughly speaking, gray matter in the brain is the set of microprocessors, and white matter is the cabling that carries information from one processor to another. Researchers had previously found that people who are poor readers often have "areas of compromised white matter."

Now they have shown that if you give poor readers 100 hours of intensive remedial reading, the white matter shows increased quality. And the ones who improved most in reading had the greatest improvement in the white matter.

They used a technique I hadn't heard of, diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which tracks water movement, which tends to be parallel to nerve fibers in the brain, so it makes something like a Google map of the brain.

Knowing that it is possible to affect white matter this way leads to suggestions of possible treatments for autism. I'm not sure if it should be a surprise or not. We know that practicing a task changes the cerebellum, so why shouldn't it affect other parts of the brain, as well?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Forecasting school readiness at birth

Talk about early screening and intervention. Doctors have created a new newborn exam they say predicts some things we would like to be able to predict. They followed 1200 babies in 4 cities and developed a set of neurobehavioral profiles.
At three to four and one half years of age, infants with poor performance were more likely to have behavior problems (age three), school readiness problems (age four) and low IQ (age four and one half). Forty percent of these infants had clinically significant problems externalizing (impulsivity and acting out), internalizing (anxiety, depression, withdrawn personalities), and with school readiness (delays in motor, concepts and language skills), and 35% had low IQ.
I have mixed feelings about this. I certainly want to find kids early who can be helped by treatment, but I will be surprised if the things this test uncovers can be helped much. If you can give kids a test at birth that predicts a big chunk of IQ, behavior problems, and school readiness, that means the causes are biological, not psychological.

While I wouldn't rule out amelioration of symptoms, or even "curing" them, the solutions will be found, if at all, by making the brain work differently. Maybe the solution will be drugs. Maybe cognitive therapy can rewire the brain. Or maybe we are just identifying people who are going to have problems in life.

As with identifying kids who have a disposition toward alcoholism, what would we do with the information? If you were running an infant center and knew the birth scores of all your kids on this test, what would you do differently based on the results? How would you treat an impulsive or depressed or developmentally delayed infant to prevent it from becoming an impulsive or depressed or developmentally delayed 4-year-old? How would you change your reaction when a kid hits you if you know she's been that way since birth?

I wish I were more optimistic about this.

How child abuse changes the brain

Kids who are abused or who witness violence can have organic changes to their brains. In performing a memory test while hooked up to an fMRI machine, where they were shown a word list and then the same list with some words added and  had to tell which words were new, 16 adolescents who  had symptoms of PTSD did worse on the recall part than a control group did and had less hippocampus activity.

The details of what brain part does what under what conditions blend together after a few hundred studies, but it's another reminder that we are our brain, and the physical brain can be influenced for good or bad by a lot of stuff.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Anti-depressants make you saner and happier

Researchers say they are surprised that neuroticism and extraversion -- 2 of the 5 basic personality traits that they thought were basically immutable -- are affected by anti-depressants; people get less neurotic and more extraverted. People often get slowly more extraverted with age, but this happens with the speed of medication. (Abstract)

This is only mildly surprising. If you believe, as I do, that big chunks of personality are biologically determined, then if you change the parts of biology that make you depressed, you would expect to change the personality. Anti-depressants act by increasing seratonin in the brain.

If you remove it, they won't eat it

When they started taking junk food out of middle schools, some people thought the kids would just double up on crap food at home, but it turns out they don't. They eat the same as usual at home and better at school. Sounds like proof of concept to me.

Believing in Santa (and God)

This is an interview with a reasonable child development teacher at Kansas State U about how to treat Santa Claus. Should we let kids believe in Santa? Sure. "Santa Claus is a shared cultural image of benevolence and kindness and you don't want to undermine that."

I had no problem with my issue believing in Santa. I never told them Santa was real, but I never pointed out specifically that he was not real. As far as I'm concerned, Santa is just one of the cultural things we lay on our winter solstice celebration of the rebirth of the sun, and it's one of the happier ones, so I'm satisfied if everybody under about 6 believes in Santa and then pretends to believe until about 10.

I like to celebrate everything. At our house at Christmas, we put up a tree, strew pine boughs here and there, play Christmas music, and hang lights on the front of the house. We be festive. What I most like to celebrate are the pagan parts: Yule log, presents, tree, lights, brandy. But we also have a crèche on the mantel, a lovely woodblock set, and a dreidel, and a Santa, and a nutcracker, maybe some garden gnomes. We also have an Indonesian magic frog with wings hanging from the bedroom ceiling to ensure no birth defects in children conceived there. (It's worked so far.)

This is from as pure an atheist as you will ever meet. I know none of this stuff is real, but it's fun to play with. A friend talked me into taking an astrology course 30 years ago, and for a couple of years I read pretty deeply in mystical lore. Lots of mystical texts say pretty much the same thing, so if the basic mystical premise (that it is possible to understand the universe by direct perception and to affect it by a power of mind; that includes meditation and prayer) is correct, then we can know quite a bit about the details.

Alas, the basic mystical premise is false. But it's still fun to play with. I don't feel threatened by it. And because I think that such things as the level of one's religiosity are biologically determined, I can't even hold it against anyone that they believe what I think is claptrap. Since my beliefs are also biologically determined, there's no real reason to believe I'm right except that it just seems so clear to me.

It's like memories. Each time you recall an event, your brain reconsolidates the memory. It writes over the previous version of the memory. And if something occurs to change your thoughts about the event, you reconsolidate it as though it were a real memory.  If I ask, what color was his  hat? You might or might not know (since he was not wearing a hat), but you may now "remember" that he did, and you might even remember the color. You can't tell the difference between a "real" memory and a reconsolidated one. All you have in your head is the current version.

So the fact that you have a clear memory of something is no reason to think it's true, and the fact that it seems so clear to me that there is no god doesn't mean there isn't.

Actually, calling myself a pure atheist may be misleading. There are versions of a god that I am agnostic about. I have no reason to believe them, but I have no reason to disbelieve them. These are deist versions, such as the universe being self-aware, and the movements of the galaxies being like parts of our brain or body. Sounds weird, but I guess it's conceivable.

What is not conceivable is a god who knows and cares what we individually do. That's the part I find just crazy. 

But merry Christmas, happy solstice, happy Hanuka, happy Kwanzaa, happy Diwali, and anybody I missed, happy whatever you celebrate.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Failed treatments for autism

The health section in today's LA Times has several articles about straws parents will grasp at in treating autistic kids. They look at a few "treatments" and explain why they don't -- can't -- work.

  • Anti-inflammatory medications; this is based on a misreading of a study that the study's author repudiates, that because autistic brains are inflamed, then reducing the inflamation will reduce autism.
  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy; this seems to be just an expensive and useless anti-inflammatory treatment, but other doctors cite dangers in pumping above normal oxygen into kids
  • Chelation; this one is related to the discredited link between mercury and autism
  • Phenylbutyrate; A "nutritionist" with a doctorate "issued by Columbia Pacific University, an unaccredited institution that was shut down after a lengthy court battle with the state of California" claims that this drug will "burn off" certain very-long-chain fatty acids found in autistic brains. She also claims that ALS is just a buildup of neurotoxins in the blood.
  • Testsosterone inhibition; based again on a faulty reading of a study whose author is horrified that it is being used this way
Four of the treatments are summarized hereThis article explains why some treatments seem to work. Autistic kids are the most withdrawn at 2 or 3, so they often get better from there. If you start treatment when the autistic symptoms are at their worst, you risk confusing the effect of the treatment with ordinary progression.

Daydreaming can be as good as practice

In some cases, imagining that you are doing something can improve your performance at the task as well as actually practicing it. The study used a task of identifying which of two lines is closest to a central line. After a baseline test, some practiced on a computer, and some just daydreamed about doing it. Both improved their performance.

I wonder first what kinds of learning this would work on. I would expect it to work with process learning: playing the piano, or learning a language, or running a maze. Not so much on history or biochemistry.

And then I wonder if mirror neurons are involved. These are neurons that fire either when you are doing something or when you watch somebody else do it; they are responsible for us crying at movies, being elated when our guys score in sports, and maybe for learning a first language.

And then I wonder if it had an influence in hunting and gathering. Did daydreaming about hunting caribou make Pleistocene hunters better at killing caribou? Or make it easier to find mongongo nuts when they were ripe?

Working memory and parental negativity

Yes, it was a nice weekend, thank you. Back in the swing today, it seems that the more working memory you have, the easier it is for your frontal cortex to over-rule your brain stem when it just wants you to whack somebody. It's called self-regulation and is considered a good thing to have when you're raising kids.

So some researchers decided to look at working memory and reactive parenting, which, from the Science Daily article, seems to mean acting negatively toward the kid when the kid misbehaves. They had mothers of twins work with their kids, one at a time, on an Etch-A-Sketch and a tilting maze with a marble in it. Apparently they wanted it to be frustrating enough for kid to do something mom didn't like, to see how she reacted.

I wonder why they would use twins. I can't get to the original study without subscribing to the journal to find out why.

Then they gave a bunch of cognitive tests to the mothers. The ones who were most negative to their kids' "challenging behaviors" were the ones who had the worst working memory.

The authors point out that consistent negativity is correlated with child abuse and suggest that parenting classes include strategies to improve parents' working memory.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Friday Follies

Young cat harassing middle cat, who just wanted to sleep in front of the fire.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cardiac screening for 6th graders

After two adolescents died of heart attacks last year in Houston, a doctor screened 94 6th graders at a local middle school. He found 7 with undiagnosed heart problems, including two that needed surgery to correct. They have ramped up to screen 1500 kids, and, as one might expect, they are pushing for universal screening of 6th graders for heart problems.

This is interesting from a health-care-cost perspective. We have to weigh the monetary and resource-use cost of giving all 6th graders a physical exam, electrocardiogram, and echocardiogram against the psychic and loss-of-production costs of the deaths of two kids a year in a city the size of Houston. The 2% who needed surgery would increase immediate health-care costs, but they might reduce chronic problems (and costs) later.

But one wonders why 6th grade is the magic place to start screening. If  kid has a hole in her heart at age 12, she probably had it at age 3 and would have had a lot more energy in the ensuing 9 years if it had been taken care of earlier.

Childhood Lead Exposure Causes Permanent Brain Damage

It's as bad as we feared. fMRI studies of adults who were exposed to lead as kids show permanent brain damage, particularly in areas of the brain involved in attention, decision making, and impulse control, ie, not doing stupid stuff (technical term: inhibition).

Sound of music related to sounds of speech

It seems when people say happy or sad things (in English), spectrograms of the speech can be sorted like spectrograms of happy or sad music (classical music or folk songs). Happy talk uses happy-music intervals, and sad talk uses sad-music intervals. We also create music that fits our vowels, which are the sounds air makes as it flows through our oral cavity.

It's not surprising, though it is interesting, that the music we choose to support over the years should reflect the sounds we make with our throats. I imagine that speech came first, though I have no good reason to justify that.

Nor is it surprising that, if music is related to speech, the kinds of sounds we make when happy or sad should be the ones our musicians use to create happy or sad tunes. Or maybe they just create randomly, and it is we who impose our happy or sad template. No, they know what they're writing.

More evidence for hygiene hypothesis

The hygiene hypothesis proposes that exposure to infectious agents as a child in a sense vaccinates kids against allergies. The reverse statement is that adult allergies can be caused by being too clean as a kid.

In a recent study of 939 kids and their families, higher exposure to other kids as toddlers (but not as infants, which they define as 0-16 months) was associated with lower incidence of asthma at age 15. It was dose-related up to 9 kids; more kids = less asthma. After 9 kids, the effect reduced, suggesting a threshold.

So if asthma is a particular concern in your family history, you might be best off with small family child care, or a smallish large-family home, with a preferred capacity of 10 kids.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Initiative to ban divorce in California

I guess you could call him a gadfly. John Marcotte voted against Prop 8 last year, and now he says if marraige is so damned sacred, let's prohibit divorce. So he has gotten approval to gather signatures for an intiative to do just that, the 2010 California Marriage Protection Act.
No party to any marriage shall be restored to the state of an unmarried person during the lifetime of the other party unless the marriage is null or voidable, as set forth in Part 2 of Division 6 of the Family Code (which discusses incest and bigamy)
Go for it, reductio ad absurdum.

Do people lie on Facebook profiles?

Not much. Researchers gave personality tests to a bunch of people and then had other people, who didn't know the subjects, estimate the subjects' personality based on their Facebook profiles. They found that the impression people get about a person from that person's Facebook profile matches the personality test. So if people are trying to portray themselves as different than they really are, they're failing. Or maybe Facebook is now just another way of communicating.

The accuracy was greatest for extraversion and lowest for neuroticism, which the authors say is notoriously hard to infer except in person.

Another study showing child care does no harm

The Longitudinal Survey of Australian Children (LSAC) is following a bunch of kids born in 2004. (I tried to put in a link to it, but every link I found was broken. I must have tried 20 of them. It must have been taken down.)

Some researchers recently looked at the data about parental reports of kid behavior at ages 2 and 3 compared with income and child care status. They found a tiny association between being in child care and negative behaviors, mostly for kids of affluent and highly educated parents. That is, rich kids behave worse if they are in child care than if they are not. They also found fewer negative behaviors with smaller group size.

The researchers say it's a small difference and suggest it might be because of differences in families who chose child care, or more resources in rich homes, or differences in parenting across socioeconomic groups. As long as we're conjecturing about class differences in behavior, I'd add maybe rich parents have different expectations from "school" than poor parents, or maybe what counts as negative behavior.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Contamination by cleaning agencies

ATP  is the chemical that the mitochondria in our cells turn all that sugar into for cells to burn in all sorts of energy-consuming processes. That means it's a pretty good indicator of the existence of life on counter-tops and refrigerator handles.

A recent study by Coverall Health-Based Cleaning System looking for ATP residue in a child care center found that ATP levels were higher in the morning, after a cleaning crew had been through the place than the night before, after staff and kids had gone home. They attributed it to "cross-contamination, usually caused by antiquated cleaning methodology and technology." I'll bet they concluded their technology wouldn't do that.

I've sent for a copy of their full report and will let you know what I think after I've read it.

Inborn urge to help

This article by Nicholas Wade in the New York Times is a nice look at the evidence that people seem to be born with an urge to help other people. An 18-month-old will spontaneously open a door for an adult with her hands full or pick up something for you that you dropped. File it under stuff you probably already know, but it's nice to read it explained well.

Swallowing pull-top can tabs

Back in the Pleistocene, canned sodas had pull-tops. When you pulled the aluminum ring, a strip of aluminum was pulled out of the top of the can, and you were left with a ring of aluminum with a tail.The question was what to do with it. Some people dropped it onto the ground, and some put it back in the can. (There seemed to be no middle ground.) The problem there was two people swallowed tabs that they had dropped back in the can, and one person breathed one in.

On the basis of the litter and the three people's unfortunate accidents, can manufacturers switched to pull-tabs that stayed on the can, but it takes just a twist, and it comes off.

This study identified 19 cases of accidental swallowing of pull tabs in 16 years in one hospital in Cincinnati. It was mostly teenagers. Four of the kids were under 5, and the mean age was 8.5. Only 4 of the 19 could be seen on x-ray. It seems the little tabs are hard to see on an x-ray unless they are actually in the stomach.

There are more of them, but they are less sharp on the edges. I wonder if any of these 19 cases involved serious injury.