Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Bye for now

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 I've also written several novels, all as yet unpublished.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

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

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

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

Bye for now.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Potential test to identify autism in toddlers

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Kicking like a girl

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

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

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

Friday, September 3, 2010

Flower porn: Carrion flower

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Depression among preschoolers, part 2

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

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Early puberty

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Do kids of gays do well in school?

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Two rules of life

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

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

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

Friday, August 27, 2010

It's all in the mind, or is it all in the brain?

This is a NY Times review of a book about differences in the brains of males and females called Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine, an English cognitive neuroscientist.

Her summary: “Nonexistent sex differences in language lateralization, mediated by nonexistent sex differences in corpus callosum structure, are widely believed to explain nonexistent sex differences in language skills.”
I'm confused. I'm happy to believe that there are no differences in the brains of men and women not directly related to attracting men vs attracting women, because it fits my liberal prejudices so well. 

And it's easy to believe that a previous generation of scientists believed something that grew out of their own prejudices and that has become an urban myth.

She apparently dismantles some studies showing sex differences, but I thought there were lots and lots of studies that showed different behaviors among men and women. Okay, these could be learned, even by the time they're toddlers, and most studies are done on college students. But how about the studies showing men navigate using vectors and women using landmarks? Is the use of landmarks something we teach girls at the same time we tell them they are not good at math? 

And the study of the frontal lobe of the hypothalamus, which I'm pretty sure I think I remember is bigger in boys and men than in girls and women, both in number of cells and size of cells, and somewhere in between for gay men, which mediates sex drive in rats. Did that study turn out to be flawed?

I'm sitting here looking at the clock, thinking I have to get ready to go to work, and my mind is whirling with vague recollections of studies I've read about showing differences, both physiological and behavioral.

She seems to be saying that's all either wrong or cultural (sort of a cultural epigenetics, where what happens to you changes your brain). I guess I have to read the book.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

ADHD misdiagnoses

I'd never thought of this, but it sure sounds plausible. This study says one reason some kindergarteners are diagnosed as ADHD is that they are fidgetier than the other kids in class. One reason some kids are fidgetier than other kids in kindergarten is that they are a year younger than the oldest kids in class.

Kids born on December 1, who are the youngest kids in their kindergarten class California, are a year smaller and have a year less cognitive and social development than kids born on December 2 of the year before. This is why athletes and school leaders are disproportionately born in the early part of a school year, because that makes them a year bigger, smarter, and more coordinated than the kids born late in the cycle.

And the study linked to above says there may be a million kids misdiagnosed as ADHD. A million kids getting stimulants every day for years. I guess that's no worse than giving them bisphenyl A or organophosphates, which we do as a matter of government policy of acquiescing to corporate convenience. At least Ritalin doesn't screw up their sex hormones.

For the record, I was 4 years 6 months and 8 days on entering kindergarten; 4 years 6 months was the cutoff in California back in the Pleistocene. My mom had to go to work, and kindergarten was child care. She always regretted it. I was always glad. I wasn't the biggest, most coordinated, or most mature, but I was still the smartest. Although I guess it would be convenient to blame my character faults on it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Effects of mom working during the first year

Child Development recently put out a monograph (sorry, no link; I'm reading an actual hard copy) on the effects on kids of mom working during the first year of their lives. The subjects were non-Hispanic Whites or African American, in the NICHD Study of Early Child Care.

For kids of moms working full time (but not part time), white kids (but not black kids) had significantly lower scores on some (but not all) cognitive measures at 3, 4.5, and in first grade.

But there were some advantages, too: more money, less stress over money (therefore less cortisol flowing in everyone), and putting the kid in a better preschool when she's 3.

The conclusion to the abstract says, "These results confirm that maternal employment in the 1st year of life may confer both advantages and disadvantages and that for the average non-Hispanic white child those effects balance each other." It's a gratifying conclusion, but I wish they had a comma coach.

Monday, August 23, 2010

More on measuring teachers in LA

I've been reading the LA Times articles on measuring teachers, and I wrote about  it briefly. I've also written about another way to measure quality in teachers.

The problem is the thing you're measuring. If short-sighted superintendents or boards of education base salaries or advancement on test scores -- or, put another way, if teachers know that how much money they make depends on teaching kids to do well on a test -- more teachers than we would like will teach nothing that will not be on the test, and a few will cheat.

So how should you evaluate progress in kids? And progress at what? As I said in the post linked above, this system is limited to regular cognitive progress, thinking and learning stuff. Art, music, athletics, leadership, socialization, writing poetry or fiction-- None of these is captured in the test the State of California uses to measure elementary school kids. Measuring any of them is possible, but probably not in a system that can be reduced to numbers. "Your brush strokes are 10% better than last year, but your imagery is 5% more derivative."

Another problem is that the value added system, as I wrote before, "assumes that the student’s life is steady, that the only difference between this year and the last three is the teacher. If a kid’s score was down last year because his brother was shot, then another brother will be shot this year, and the next. If his dad wasn’t in jail two years ago, he won’t be this year. Sometimes that’s true."

I guess the answer here is that if you look at scores of kids for every teacher, every teacher will average the same number of kids with brothers who got shot.

Prediction: In sum, we have a good tool to measure one aspect of kids' progress. It is cheap and easy to use and to understand. Every other part of measuring progress is difficult and would be very expensive. Therefore, school districts will inevitably slide toward using it as the sole measure, to the detriment of kids and teachers.

Some school districts will use the opportunity for bad teachers to learn from good ones. Others will use it as a way to prune the payroll when they have to make budget cuts.

And I think our only hope is to have the test reflect at least all the cognitive things we want kids to learn.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Friday follies on Saturday

This is a nest we found in our back yard. The interior is wound strands of fiber from palm fronds, and the exterior is cotton from our Pima cotton bush/tree. I think I'd have put the cotton inside, for softness, but maybe they wanted it more for insulation. I should have put in some scale. The fiber part is two inches across.

Friday, August 20, 2010

"Renovating" Maslow's pyramid

The press release is  headed "Maslow's pyramid gets a much needed renovation." The old and new:

This looks to me like the researchers putting their own values into a priority list and casting them as universal. It ain't so. I am a parent, but  one does not have to have children to be a happy and satisfied person. Darn, time to get ready for work again.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Another bad thing you can do to a fetus

Children who were exposed to organophosphate pesticides while still in their mother's womb were more likely to develop attention disorders years later. ... Organophosphate pesticides act by disrupting neurotransmitters, particularly acetylcholine, which plays an important role in sustaining attention and short-term memory. ... Many of these same UC Berkeley researchers are also finding that children with certain genetic traits may be at greater risk. ...

In the study on attention problems, researchers tested for six metabolites of organophosphate pesticides in mothers twice during pregnancy and in the children several times after birth. Together, the metabolites represent the breakdown products of about 80 percent of all the organophosphate pesticides used in the Salinas Valley.
The researchers then evaluated the children at age 3.5 and 5 years for symptoms of attention disorders and ADHD using maternal reports of child behavior, performance on standardized computer tests, and behavior ratings from examiners. They controlled for potentially confounding factors such as birthweight, lead exposure and breastfeeding.
Each tenfold increase in prenatal pesticide metabolites was linked to having five times the odds of scoring high on the computerized tests at age 5, suggesting a greater likelihood of a child having clinical ADHD. The effect appeared to be stronger for boys than for girls.
I'm not good at always washing fruit before putting it in the bowl nor veggies when I'm cooking, but this suggests that pregnant women, and people who cook for them, should fetishize washing fruits and veggies, make it as strong a stricture as not drinking.

My first thought is to ask why we are putting poisons like that on our food, and my second thought is the answer: We can't grow as much of the types of food people want to eat, as many people as want to eat it, at a price they are willing to pay, without industrial farming, which requires vast amounts of pesticides to sustain itself.

It's one of  those cases where the interests of the individual do not match the interests of the group. I would never use a pesticide on my home-grown tomatoes. I have some Safer Soap that I  haven't used in years, and I infused some olive oil with red peppers to spray on them, to try to deter the skunks, so I lose some tomatoes to bugs, but on the other hand, I don't eat any organophosphates with my tomatoes. (Terrible crop this year. Sparse crop of mostly mealy tomatoes. The one that has had any decent tomatoes is a Celebrity, but even it has had just a few tomatoes. Usually in August we're harvesting big basketfuls, but we're getting only a few per week, and them not very good. I blame the weather.)

But if the interest of the group is having enough food for everyone, we need pesticides, and a system for washing them off before we eat them. Maybe there's a way to clean them before packing at the grower. Keep the pesticide on the farm. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Child's Play blog

I want to recommend Child's Play. It's a blog about child development research by Melody Dye, a researcher in cognitive science at Stanford, and Jason Goldman, a graduate student in Developmental Psychology at USC. Right now they're doing a series of posts on dyscalculia (math dyslexia, more or less). They seem like they have good attitudes, know a lot, and write clearly about interesting subjects. What more could you want?

UPDATE: Jason has a related post on the origins of number representation at his other blog, the Thoughtful Animal. Jeez, there's a lot of good stuff mixed in with the crap on the internet.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Measuring teachers

Sunday's LA Times had another big article on Sunday, telling which 5th grade teachers in the LA Unified School District are good and bad, with names and pictures of a couple of the best and worst.

The Times got LAUSD to give them 7 years of math and English test scores and gave them to a moonlighting researcher from the Rand Corporation, who applied a statistical approach called value-added analysis.

They looked at test scores as percentiles, to control for home-life issues. If a kid scored int he 30th percentile because his mom is single, poor, and uneducated, so he got to kindergarten knowing half as many words as the other kids, he's probably going to score in the 30th percentile next year, too, unless he has a particularly good or particularly bad teacher.

The Times found that in some teachers' classrooms in the same school (which controls for neighborhood and local events), kids consistently raised their percentiles, and in others, kids consistently lowered them. Kids got better or worse compared with the other kids. The difference is attributed to teacher quality.

This has good and bad aspects to it. I think the methodology is nicely done. It's similar to an idea I had, but much simpler and cheaper. I've written before why and  how I thought we should measure teachers. And we already knew from a twin study and other research that some teachers are better than others at teaching reading.

This analysis I think accurately tells which teachers are good at having their kids score well on California's standardized 5th grade tests. To the extent that scoring well on those tests measures the quality of a kid's education, the analysis is valid to measure teachers. The Times' experts said they thought it should account for  a fraction of the measurement. (I forget what fraction they said, and the newspaper is all the way in the living room, and I can't find it in the online version. If I find it, I'll insert it, delete this sentence, and pretend I knew it all along.)

But you know that the cheap, easy, incomplete measure will become the sole standard in practice. And teachers will have even more incentive to teach to the test.

One thing I wonder about. Perry Preschool's educational advantage was all in girls. Boys showed improvement in not receiving social services as an adult, not being arrested, and owning their own home at age 27, but income and educational advantages were pretty much all for girls. So I wonder how the LA Times analysis would look if you separated girls from boys. And if you looked at boys arrest records after 10 years.

And so to work, with images of failing teachers and lost kids in my head.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Curing lebianism?

The LA Times had an article yesterday about a medical treatment that brings up an interesting philosophical question. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia is a rare condition in which a girl may develop "ambiguous genitalia," looking like they have a penis, which could, for some girls, be embarrassing. Something like a quarter of girls with this condition are lesbians.

But there is a treatment. It doesn't cure the underlying adrenal dysfunction, but it makes the girl develop normal looking female genitalia. (I guess I should  say "more typical genitalia.") It also has a side effect of feminizing the girls, making them girly-girls. And reducing the incidence of lesbianism to that of society at large.

The Times says gay and lesbian groups are outraged that any treatment that would reduce the incidence of homosexuality would even be considered.

I think they are wrong to be outraged. If gayness and straightness are morally equal (a proposition I'm not prepared to debate), then the issue is whether having ambiguous genitalia is harmful to girls. People vary, and some girls probably learn to deal with it. For others, it probably ruins their lives. My own guess is it would cause more withdrawal than zits or fat or stuttering ever could, and if we can prevent it, we should.

If a treatment for a fetal heart defect increased the percentage of girls born lesbian to 10%, I would have no problem with that. If an otherwise valid medical treatment happens to reduce the number of lesbians among these girls to societal levels, that's a situation, not a problem. Being a lesbian is not morally superior to being straight. The treatment is not to prevent lesbianism but to keep girls from growing a penis.

And these are not your kids. When your daughter has congenital adrenal hyperplasia, you talk with your doctors and decide what to do about your kids. Let these other mothers do what they think is best for their kids.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Puberty in second grade

I haven't written about the recent study about girls of 7 or 8 growing breasts and pubic hair, because several ideas were swirling in my head. I still haven't sorted them out, so I guess I'll just blurt them out.

There is a syndrome whereby toddlers grow breasts. I've always assumed something like that was some gene getting turned on by accident of DNA or of environment. This doesn't seem to be that.

Reported age of menarche has been dropping for a hundred and fifty years. Much of this seems to have to do with nutrition. Your body needs a certain amount of body fat before it figures it's ready to breed, and girls are getting that body fat younger than they used to.

Or it could be that a certain percentage of young girls have always done this, but medical books, written by men we  hope are not especially interested in 7- and 8-year-old girls, hadn't noticed. Because cadavers for dissection  used to come pretty much exclusively from poor people, there is at least one case where the size of an organ shrunk by a disease of poverty was taken as a standard. Maybe richer girls get enough fat earlier than the poor girls who formed the baseline for 19th century medical texts. (I love speculation about research; it's so much easier than actual, you know, research about it.)

Or it could be that all these organophosphates and other chemicals we're putting into food containers and the food itself are changing the average sexuality of girl humans. And boys.

Or it could be a combination of nutrition and some long-term genetic change. I'd like to know if it's happening in Botswana and Bolivia, too. Or cosmic rays from the hole in the ozone layer. Or the flying spaghetti monster willed it. I need to go get some more coffee.

Flower porn: Bauhinia

I don't have any new cat pictures, but our Bauhinia is blooming beside the kitchen porch. The nursery where we bought it labeled it Bauhinia purpurea, but I understand they are often mislabeled. Anyway, when we eat outside, which is most of the time anytime but winter, it's nice to look at in lieu of flowers on the table.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

People Who Are Angry Pay More Attention to Rewards Than Threats

The title, which is the Association for Psychological Science's press release title, pretty much says it all. More specifically, "Angry people spent more time looking at the rewarding pictures."

The implication for child development is that parents (or teachers) who are faced with an angry child (or teenager) are more likely to calm her down if you offer her something than if you threaten to take something away. It sounds like appeasement.

Crap. Time to get ready for work again. Gainful employment can be satisfying, but it cuts into so many other things.

How to pour champagne

It's by-God gratifying to know that in a time of social, political, and economic upheaval, some people can keep their priorities straight. Some French researchers have found that pouring champagne down the side of an angled glass, rather than straight down the middle in a vertical glass, preserves up to twice as much of the carbon dioxide, so it pops on your tongue, not in the glass. That could be their slogan. Keeping the champagne cooler also helps. They like 39 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Another bad effect of stereotyping

You remember the study (sorry, no link) where a bunch of black or white college kids were given a series of tests, and in the first one, the subjects were told the researchers were just calibrating, and it wouldn't be scored. The second group was told it would be scored. The third was told it would be scored by race.

Black men scored the same as white men in the first test, worse in the second, and still worse in the third. As I recall, black women were not (as) effected.

A new study looked at something similar. They had two groups of women do a math test  to "determine whether or not they were capable and smart in math" after getting either supportive or stereotypic messages, and then later they tested them on aggression and self control.
"In these follow-up tests, the women who felt discriminated against ate more than their peers in the control group. They showed more hostility than the control group. And they performed more poorly on tests that measured their cognitive skills," says Inzlicht.
This explains so much. Stopping for Haagen-Dazs after a particularly unhappy job interview. Blowing up at the kid. My only caveat would be that I think they tested the people soon after the stereotyping occurred. It doesn't show that it persists, but I believe it does, when such slights continually occur.

This reminds me of Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, in which he says slaves become lazy and shiftless as a rational response to the condition of slavery.

The lesson for child care and development is not to stereotype kids, but we do with regard to sex, and we probably do with other characteristics, too, such as  income and race. State Preschool and Title 5 programs have to be on watch against teachers who stereotype kids based on the fact that mom brings the kid by bus or  looks tough, or tattered, or frazzled, or doesn't speak English, or wears a headscarf.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Poverty and preschool vocabulary

We all know that rich kids enter preschool and kindergarten with bigger vocabularies than poor kids, and this both predicts and influences a number of adult outcomes, but I didn't know the difference was so big. My new favorite blog is Child's Play, and the particular post I'm thinking of is Don't Bite: Does Self Control Determine Class. This is one of a series of posts riffing off the experiment where a kid gets one M&M or marshmallow now or two when the lady comes back into the room, and we watch the kids fidget. The type of people who read this blog would be very interested in the whole series.

One detail struck me:
“(c)hildren from welfare families hear on the order of thousands fewer words per day than children from professional families, leading to what Hart and Risley term a “meaningful difference” over time. While it is difficult to quantify the impact this impoverished input has on learning, many researchers believe the effect to be massive. Just to give you an idea – by the age of three, children from professional families actually have larger recorded vocabularies than the parents of the welfare families.”
Thousands more words a day heard. I'm assuming this means total words, not different words. But even so, how could this be? I see two obvious guesses: Maybe poor kids spend more time with no or fewer adults around than rich kids, or maybe poor parents talk to each other less.

Oh, crap. It's time to get ready for work, and I'm not finished with this. I wanted to talk about implications for preschool curriculum and public policy. Well, you go read the series at Child's Play, and I'll get back to this. Or more likely, I'll move on to something else. Oh, shiny!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Thinking you can do it, or not, affects your brain activity

The extent to which you believe you will succeed or fail at a task affects the resources the brain brings to bear on the problem. If you think you can do it, the brain shows greater activity than if you don't think you can do it.

And when people who thought  themselves either good or bad were faced with different scenarios, people who thought they were good at something had highest brain activity when they had a chance at a big gain, and people who thought they were bad at it had highest brain activity when they stood a chance of a big loss. (Big, in this case, was $5 compared to $1 for college student test subjects.

If it were possible to make oneself believe that one is good at something, one might well become better at it. I guess that's the point of Stuart Smalley's affirmations. If you think you can, you'll try harder, and maybe you'll succeed.

I wonder if affirmations work. That is, I wonder if telling yourself you're good enough at something does change the brain activity when you get to the actual task? People (okay, college students) weren't good at knowing how good they really were, which fits other research. If you really do think you're bad at it, can you lie to yourself and convince yourself that you are good at it? Maybe if you're real gullible, since you know what a liar you are.

The people doing the research are "working toward the development of implanted neural prosthetic devices that would serve as an interface between severely paralyzed individuals' brain signals and artificial limbs -- allowing their planned actions to control the limbs' movements," which is the coolest thing I've heard in months.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Toddler preacher

I found this on Greg Laden's blog at Science Blogs. I had a much different reaction than the commenters did. I won't embed the video, because this link also leads to a funny version with subtitles.

In general, I like Greg's blog. I enjoy dissing religion as much as anybody this side of Robert G. Ingersoll, and he talks about other interesting subjects. Greg's headline for this was "Yes, folks, it isn't just the priests engaged in the whole child abuse in the name of religion thing," and the entire commentary was "First, the horrific, over the top, original video:," and "Then, the funny version:."

The second one was funny, and the first one was over the top, but it was not horrific. It shows a toddler on stage in a church pretending to be a preacher. He has the moves down. He looks and sounds like a 2-year-old preacher bringing them home to Jesus. You can't make out many words (which makes the funny subtitles possible), but he has the intonations, so you could believe it was just poor sound quality making you miss words. He held the microphone to his mouth and stomped around the stage, doing a little James Brown stutter step as he passed behind the piano. He waved, he shouted, he hopped around, he twisted his little body. Adults shadowing him were feeding him lines, which he tried to repeat. People cheered and shouted, and at the end, he got a big hug from the preacher before he left the stage.

Commenters on the blog agreed with Greg.
  • "It takes a good bit of abusive conditioning to reduce little kids and babies to this."
  • "That's just child abuse. How could they believe that baby is saying anything meaningful. They are delusional."
  • "They also believe that the most important knowledge humanity would ever need was given to a bunch of superstitious goat-herders over two and a half thousand years ago - I can't say I'm all that surprised."
  • "It takes only minutes for a toddler to become a popular theologian. It takes decades for a dedicated student to become a respected scientist. This shows the fundamental difference between religion and science: one is making shit up, the other if finding things out."
I think they miss the entire point. I think the people in the church weren't looking at this kid as a preacher but as a toddler showing off for his parents' friends, and they were helping him pretend. I believe that these people's religious views are as false as the Greeks', but I believe they can't help it. It doesn't seem to hurt them personally much, though when it influences public policy it's always in the wrong direction, so we have to keep them away from policy, but they make enough money, have stable enough marriages (though not as stable as as atheists, on average), raise kids not to steal and kill any more than any other group, and are by and large happier in their ignorance than we are in our incremental knowledge system that approaches the Truth. (Do I need to put irony brackets around that? I thought not.)

Maybe I'm giving the parishioners too much credit, but I doubt very much that any of them believed the kid knew what he was saying. They were laughing at  him.

So while I think teaching this kind of religion to the kids is harmful in the general sense that knowing the truth is a Good and in the particular sense of creating voters with false ideas about, well, everything, it's not child abuse. It's giving a kid a chance to show off for the grown-ups, and that's cool.

Of course, if I'm wrong about this, and it turns out they regularly have him preach, because they think he's filled with the near-words of god, then I'll have to reevaluate my views of the parishioners. It's still not child abuse, but it would be dumber on their part.

Friday follies on Sunday

My how the time slips away when you get back from a 2-week vacation. Here's Old Cat lying among jacaranda blossoms. It's that season.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Prop 8

I am very happy about the Prop 8 decision. But I wish the judge had addressed the establishment of religion. Current law has the government deciding who can and cannot take part in a religious ceremony. One might as well have the government deciding who can be ordained or baptized.

You are who you are

A recent study says "Personality traits observed in childhood are a strong predictor of adult behavior." 

Yup. You are who you are, and you just get more of it as you age. From a group of 2400 kids studied in the 1960s, they found 144 of them 40 years later and found that:
Youngsters identified as verbally fluent – defined as unrestrained talkativeness – tended, as middle-aged adults, to display interest in intellectual matters, speak fluently, try to control the situation, and exhibit a high degree of intelligence. Children rated low in verbal fluency by their teachers were observed as adults to seek advice, give up when faced with obstacles, and exhibit an awkward interpersonal style.
Children rated as highly adaptable – defined as coping easily and successfully with new situations – tended, as middle-aged adults, to behave cheerfully, speak fluently and show interest in intellectual matters. Those who rated low in adaptability as children were observed as adults to say negative things about themselves, seek advice and exhibit an awkward interpersonal style.
Students rated as impulsive as adults were inclined to speak loudly, display a wide range of interests and be talkative. Those who were rated low on impulsivity were observed, as adults, to be fearful or timid, keep others at a distance and express insecurity.
Children whose teachers rated them as having a tendency to self-minimize – defined as humble, minimizing their own importance or never showing off – as adults were likely to express guilt, seek reassurance, say negative things about themselves and express insecurity. Those who were ranked low as self-minimizing were observed as adults to speak loudly, show interest in intellectual matters and exhibit condescending behavior.
This fits in so well with other studies showing perseverance of personality traits and political orientation.

So you can look around your classroom of 4 year olds and tell which ones you would like to be friends with 40 years later. 

Another prayer study

An associate professor in the religious studies department at Indiana University Bloomington went to Mozambique, to a Pentecostal faith healing group specializing in healing the blind and deaf. They tested the hearing and vision of some people, watched as the faith healer put his hands on them and made their ears hear and their eyes see. Then they published this in a journal as finding that proximity of the prayer is key to having it work.

I think it shows some people are susceptible to being gulled by faith healers. The people they tested were shills, and the people doing the "healing" were frauds who put one over on the "researchers."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

$320,000 kindergarten teachers

A reader sent me a link to a New York Times article on the incremental monetary effect of good kindergarten teachers. It reports on some a report at a conference saying that, while the test score improvement provided by high-quality early education fades by middle school, test scores are not well associated with good adult outcomes, such as going to a good college, making more money, being married to a high wage-earner, or having a retirement plan, but the quality of one's kindergarten teacher is related to them.

The dataset was a study from the 1980s where they had randomly assigned 12,000 kids to kindergarten classes. The kids are now about 30, and how much they learned in kindergarten (a proxy for teacher quality) was related to how much they earned at age 27. And kids with some teachers learned more than kids with other teachers.

All else equal, they were making about an extra $100 a year at age 27 for every percentile they had moved up the test-score distribution over the course of kindergarten. A student who went from average to the 60th percentile — a typical jump for a 5-year-old with a good teacher — could expect to make about $1,000 more a year at age 27 than a student who remained at the average. Over time, the effect seems to grow, too.

They say that 1 standard deviation in improvement in teacher quality raises students' annual earnings by 2.9%, so the incremental lifetime increase in earnings for a classroom of 20 kids from moving out a 25th percentile teacher and moving in a 75th percentile teacher is $320,000.

They looked at all the other things, like teacher experience and class size, and they had minor effects, but this one stood out.

If this scales with good teachers later on, quality of P-5 education could have an enormous effect on lifetime income. It is the educational version of the miracle of compound interest. You have more to build on for longer.

It's not an argument for paying kindergarten teachers $320,000 a year, but it is an argument for starting them at $50 or $60,000 and the good ones working up to $100,000 (or some numbers; I don't actually know how much we should pay them, just more).

And it is an argument for figuring out which teachers are good and which are not and either teaching them to be good or helping them find another career.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Baby boys sleep lighter than girls

Baby boys die from SIDS more often than girls do, so it was not implausible that boys should be harder to rouse from sleep than girls, but it turns out to be not so. For the first month or so, boys are more easily awakened by a puff of air than girls are, and by 2 or 3 months, there is no difference. On to some other plausible reason.

And yes, I did have a very nice vacation, thank you.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

On vacation

I am going on vacation for two weeks, back July 30. Here's young cat lying on the patio among jacaranda blossoms. Kids of a friend call it a purple circle tree.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Our chimp and bonobo selves, leading to a discussion of Jane Jacobs

Sometimes I think chimps, bonobos, and humans share an ancestor with contradictory impulses, and when we split from that ancestor, chimps got one impulse, bonobos got the other, and humans kept both.

Chimps got aggression. They will go to war for women or territory. One group of chimps got too large, so it split off, and one group went to the forest next door. The chimps that were left behind went as a group to the new territory and killed the male chimps one by one, and then took their women. Another group of chimps would patrol its border, killing any male chimps from other tribes whom they ran across in smaller numbers than their own. Eventually, they went en masse and killed them all, and took over the dead chimps' fruit orchard as part of their territory.

Bonobos got the joy of sex. They use sex to trade for food, to make up after an argument, or just because it's fun.

And, golly, it's tempting to think of liberals vs conservatives here. I mean, given all that I believe about behavior being neural, and much of that being genetic or epigenetic, which chemicals are released where, and which synapses fire, and how fast the neurotransmitters are reabsorbed; and given that you really have to assume that chimp and bonobo behavior has a similar neural substrate, it's really tempting to believe that hippie liberals got sex-is-fun genes from our common ancestor, and neo-conservatives got the you-lookin'-at-me? genes, and others got varying proportions of both.

And who am I, who make a hobby of speculation, to avoid temptation? This deals with a problem I've been wrestling with for some time. I don't remember when I first read it, but when I read Systems of Survival, by Jane Jacobs, it forever changed the way I sort people. Much more about Jane Jacobs after the jump.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Distrusting research

A Johns Hopkins review of nearly 150 randomized controlled trials on children — all published in well-regarded medical journals — reveals that 40 to 60 percent of the studies either failed to take steps to minimize risk for bias or to at least properly describe those measures. ...
Overall, 41 percent of the 146 trials in the review had improper or poorly described randomization techniques. Industry-funded trials were six times more likely to have high risk for biased randomization than government-funded trials or those funded by nonprofit organizations. And past research, the investigators point out, has shown that industry-funded trials are four to five times more likely to recommend an experimental drug.
The researchers also found that most of the trials (57 percent) either failed to use proper techniques that ensure anonymity or "blinding" to the type of treatment a patient gets, or they failed to clearly describe these techniques. The technique, called allocation concealment, ensures that neither the researcher nor the patient can guess which treatment they will get. The method also helps ensure that the treatment of one subject will not reveal to either scientists or the patients clues about the treatment of the next subject. Trials involving behavioral therapies were four times more likely to have this problem.
Overall, nearly 20 percent of the trials used improper masking techniques to ensure that neither the patient nor the researchers know which treatment went to which patient.
A corollary to Sturgeon's law is that 90% of all people are bad at their jobs. Maybe it's 57% in this kind of research. But you'll notice the peer reviewers didn't catch it, either. These all got published in real journals. And some of it may not be bad research design but that "they failed to clearly describe these techniques" in the articles.

So I guess what ordinary consumers of popular science, which is what I am, should do is keep reasonable skepticism about reports of studies, waiting for confirmation before jumping to conclusions. Fat chance.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Many don't talk good

This study says a lot of native English speakers don't understand what most of us think of as basic grammar.
Dr Dabrowska and research student James Street then tested a range of adults, some of whom were postgraduate students, and others who had left school at the age of 16. All participants were asked to identify the meaning of a number of simple active and passive sentences, as well as sentences which contained the universal qualifier "every."
As the test progressed, the two groups performed very differently. A high proportion of those who had left school at 16 began to make mistakes. Some speakers were not able to perform any better than chance, scoring no better than if they had been guessing.
 After looking at things like working memory and testing ability, which turned out to have no influence, they taught the grammar to the bad speakers, and they picked it up quickly. "(The researcher) speculates that this could be because their attention was not drawn to sentence construction by parents or teachers when they were children."

The authors point out that this means public information should be written without passive sentences, not because it's weak writing but because some people just won't understand it.

It also means we should be teaching grammar in school, which I guess we don't do anymore. I have fond memories of 8th grade English, were I learned to diagram sentences. I still do it in my head when I come across a complicated sentence.

Liking one best hurts them all

It seems that if mom likes one kid better than the others, all of the kids are more likely to be depressed in middle age.
Favoritism may be difficult for mothers to avoid, however, as the researchers found that 70 percent of moms surveyed named a child to whom they felt closest and only 15 percent of children saw equal treatment by their mothers. Similarly, 92 percent of children and 73 percent of mothers specified a child with whom the mother battled most frequently.
This means 85% to 92% of middle-aged adults are depressed. Works for me.

Another benefit of bilingualism

Besides being able to ask where the bathroom is in more places. Last November I mentioned a study showing that knowing two languages gives you "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."

A new study "has shown that bilinguals use the left inferior frontal lobe, the Broca's area, to respond to stimuli where executive functions are performed (such as ordering forms by colour or shape), whereas monolinguals use the right part to respond to the same stimuli."

This does't add to the first hypothesis, but it provides a physical substrate for the observed differences in cognition. In general, it supports the muscle metaphor, the more you use it, the stronger it gets.

In particular, it supports routine teaching of languages in schools, as early as possible. If it is true that speaking two languages improves "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," then it is almost child abuse not to teach kids a second language. As a public policy issue, we certainly should be teaching foreign languages in elementary school. Why would we not want smarter kids?

I can see why it would be politically difficult. Not only would it cost money to hire teachers, but it would have to contend with the xenophobia of the nativists.

It may be self-serving, because I worked in several different foreign countries for about 6 or 7 years, but it seems to me that I see a difference between people who have lived in a foreign country and those who have not. It seems to me they understand better that there is more than one right way to be. As Kipling wrote, "There are 9 and 60 ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right."

[back patting] I've worked for from several months to a couple of years in Mexico, Cameroon, Egypt, Dubai, India, and the People's Republic of Congo (the small one, not the one that used to be Zaire). I learned passable Spanish in Mexico, French in West Africa, Arabic in the Middle East, and then took two semesters of Japanese at the local community college, when #1 son took it there to satisfy a high-school language requirement. I had to drive him there and back, so I might as well sit in. [/back patting]

Anyway, back to the topic at hand, it seems to me that the strong advantages of learning second and third languages are good enough reason to require it in elementary schools. But it won't happen, because of money and nativism. The only way it could possibly happen would be for Obama (who has lived in a foreign country) to make it part of No Child Left Behind. Teach languages, or you don't get any federal money. Fat chance.

Friday follies on Saturday

Ears forward. Girl cat foster kitty watches a bird in a bush. My biggest fear now is that, after we build all these out-in-the-wild synapses in their little foster brains, they could end up in some sparse apartment with no windows. Scheduling problems put off their neutering until Monday or Tuesday.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Mental disorders entering kindergarten

An article in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, reported in Science Daily, says 21.6% of 1329 kids entering kindergarten had "a psychiatric disorder with impairment." The authors are not surprised that this is the same percentage as in preschoolers. 

So as early as we have measured this, one in five people has a mental disorder that already hampers their life, and it predicts a hampered life as an adult.

The authors point to some correlations:
"Sociodemographic and psychosocial correlates included persistent poverty beginning in early childhood, limited parental education, low family expressiveness, stressful life events, and violence exposure. Finally, diagnostic status was significantly associated with poorer social competence and family burden."
And of course, knowing my prejudices, you have to expect that I think the demographics have a good chance of being epigenetic factors, and I do. It's all in the chemistry and the synapses that fire.

So what does this mean to child development people? One in five kids in your circle time has something going on in their* brain that is already impairing their life and probably will forever. And that's in addition to the ones who will develop schizophrenia and depression and alcoholism. The 1 in 5 are the ones who are already screwed up.  

One thing that makes it hard is that externalizing and internalizing disorders look a lot like normal 3 and 4-year-old behavior. So is it the 1 in 5 who are the most extreme in their 4-year-oldness? Biting is "normal" behavior, though we try to stop it, but not every kid bites. Maybe if we kept track of all our kids' behaviors and got these researchers to give them the diagnostic tests, and tracked them into adulthood, we'd find that biters end up as adult biters, metaphorically speaking. 

Or maybe not. How does a teacher in a classroom know if she's dealing with a kid in a bad mood or a future depressed mom? I don't think she does. Oh, sure there are some kids who are just mean, but is a kid who likes to break things going to end up an adult breaker of things? Is the really shy kid going to end up a recluse? I think if you look at bunches of kids, the behavior overlap between normal and the 1 in 5 will be enough that you can't pick out more than some of the kids with the problems, the extreme ones.

And even if you could, what would you do? Suppose you knew a biter had some diagnosed mental disorder of which the biting was an expression. Do you try more aggressively to stop the biting or less aggressively? Or the same? Or should the parents drug the little monster? 

I have more to say, but it's time to get ready for work. I wish I had a better record of getting back to ideas.

*Yes, I embrace the singular "they." What's it to you? I also split infinitives at will and end sentences with prepositions. 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cause and effect in childhood obesity

Does being sedentary make kids fatter? Not much. In an 11-year cohort study, it seems instead that being fat makes kids sedentary. In an effort to find out why attempts to reduce obesity by increasing activity levels averaged having kids lose an ounce a year, they discovered that "Physical activity had no impact on weight change, but weight clearly led to less activity."

The authors attribute obesity partly to "portion size, calorie-rich snacks and sugary drinks," but this just pushes the question back a step. Why do some people eat different foods and bigger portions? The authors say "early feeding errors seem crucial."

I hope this doesn't mean I'm go blame if my kid is fat, because I fed it wrong as a baby. I have enough guilt already. The actual article is behind a pay wall, so all I have is the EurekAlert linked to above, so I guess I'll speculate what it means.

It could mean that what a kid is fed early in life turns some genes on or off. It is not implausible that the amount of fat and calories and acid, and god knows how detailed it might get, might influence the expression of genes that make you crave fat, or salt, or custard-filled chocolate ├ęclairs more than other people. It could be epigenetics in action, to go along with the genetics we know are also involved.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Bored morning

And then some days you wake up and look at the usual science sites, and the news sites, and the political sites, and there are a few mildly interesting research reports but nothing you really have anything to say about. Too much TV and video games reduces kids' attention spans. They found a gene that affects some disease. Healthy food is good for you. And blah, blah, blah. So you go off and graze on the internet until time to get ready for work and blow off the blog for one day.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Food ads aimed at kids

The campaign to reduce ads for crap foods has had some effect. They see fewer ads for sweets and beverages but more for fast food. I guess you couldn't expect to see them replaced with ads for broccoli.

The long-term bad news is
An Institute of Medicine (IOM) report concluded that there was strong evidence that television advertising influences the short-term eating habits of children age 2 to 11, and moderate evidence that advertising influences their usual dietary intake, according to background information in the article.

Kids prefer what they've seen on TV, and they prefer what they're used to. Kids used to Tang don't like orange juice. I guess you just have to be vigilant. And you have to support things like nutrition requirements in Title 22 centers.

Self medicating with chocolate

After the sun rose in the east this morning, I read that people eat half again as much chocolate when they are depressed as when they are not.
"The findings did not appear to be explained by a general increase in caffeine, fat, carbohydrate or energy intake, suggesting that our findings are specific to chocolate," said Golomb. There was also no difference in the consumption of other antioxidant-rich foods, such as fish, coffee, fruits and vegetables between those with depression and those without.
 The researchers don't know if the chocolate helped the depression or made it worse. I think I do. One cool thing about chocolate is that it contains anandamide, which is the brain chemical that locks into the same receptors that THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, does. Just sayin'.

Middle school start time

It's been known for some time that, starting about puberty, kids need to sleep more and later. Well, now it's been partly quantified. In this study, 200 high school kids changed class start time from 8:00 to 8:30. Lots of good stuff followed:

  • Kids averaged 45 more minutes of sleep a night
  • Many fewer kids got less than 7 hours a night, and many more got over 8.
  • Significantly fewer kids said they went to the Health Center for fatigue-related problems
  • Kids felt less depressed
  • Students and faculty "overwhelmingly" voted to keep the later start time.
The one thing missing from here is either of the two things that will make a school board change: money and test scores. If they could show that starting later saved money by using less lighting, or air conditioning, or heating, or maybe buses use less fuel when traffic is a little lighter, school boards would listen. If the kids who started later got higher scores on standardized tests, school boards would jump on it. But that piece has not, as far as I know, been shown. It seems likely to be true, but I don't think anybody has actually made the link.

So why are school boards unlikely to change just because it's good for kids? After all, don't we always say we always do what's best for kids? Yes, we do say that. No, it's not true.

I spent a lot of time on a lot of committees when my issue flowed through public elementary and middle schools, especially elementary. I skipped the committee part of high school. But I spent a great deal of time with k-8 teachers and administration, some of which involved whether this one middle school could and should start an hour later. It could not by itself, because within a district, schedules are entirely run by the bus dispatcher. Any change you ask for, they say you can't do it because of this or that bus scheduling issue. The entire district could not, because teachers like to get out early. They like leaving in mid-afternoon, so they can run errands and do stuff they wouldn't have time to do if they left the campus at 5. They dance around it, but that's the fundamental reason schools don't start at 9.

On the general idea of "we do what's best for the kids," I was on a committee to decide how to spend Prop 63 mental health money. The local county mental health chieftan decided before we started that the child care piece would be parent education. The child care people went in hoping for mentors to go to sites to help providers learn to deal with kids with disabilities or challenging behaviors, as they're euphemistically called. No, that part was already decided, and we could see what we could salvage. 

Okay, we decide we're going to go into centers, identify kids with challenging behaviors, and do a dual training for parents and providers. Cool. Which centers? The people on the committee who worked for the mental health chieftan suggested Head Start. We said, no, Head Start already has a pretty good referral system. The ones who need it are Title 22 centers. They said, no, it's easier to get one MOU with Head Start than MOUs with all those little Title 22 centers. It's administratively easer.

Then, when the plan was announced, the lady in charge talked about how at every stage we were just concerned about what was best for the children of our county. I wanted shout, "You lie! You were concerned about administrative convenience."

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A quarter loaf of SB 797

SB 797 passed the assembly and will go back to the Senate for concurrence in amendments. This is good news, though it would have been better if compromises hadn't had to be made. I've talked about this bill several times before. I haven't cared this much about a piece of legislation in some time.

Bisphenol A is a chemical used in making clear, hard, pretty much shatter-proof bottles to sell food and beverages in. It is also a synthetic hormone that, among other things, affects development of sexual parts in fetuses and behavior in toddlers. Look at this Wikipedia article on it and scroll down to the Previous Studies section for a list, a long list, of bad stuff it does to people.

This bill would ban the use of bisphenol A in food or beverage containers intended for kids 0-3, except for containers of dry or liquid formula. I have no idea why that amendment was put in. Well, I have an idea, my usual guess in these cases, which is that lobbyists for businesses with a financial stake in it made their case successfully to legislators who have only been in office a couple of years and don't know anything, and besides, they're contributors.

I'm not a chemist, and I don't know what manufacturers would have to sacrifice to take it out of all food and beverage bottles. Maybe transparency. Maybe cost. Maybe non-bisphenol A bottles break easier. But the dangers of infants drinking synthetic hormones seems so great that we need to put up with the industrial sacrifice, no matter what it is.

Of course, I'd like to see bisphenol A taken out of all food and beverage containers, but this quarter loaf is better than none.

The attorney general of Connecticut asked manufacturers a couple of years ago to voluntarily stop using it in baby bottles. Six agreed, and they should be noted and commended:
  • Gerber 
  • Avent America, Inc 
  • Evenflo Co. 
  • Disney First Years 
  • Dr. Brown 
  • Playtex Products, Inc.
I'd like to see a list of those that didn't.

Even more, I'd like to see SB 797 pass the state senate, maybe even with formula bottles unexempted.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Friday follies on Saturday

Awwww. Boy cat and girl cat just waking up from an afternoon nap. They got weighed yesterday. He weighs 2.1 pounds, and she weighs 1.9. If she weighs two pounds by next Friday, they will get neutered, and then come home with us for a couple of days to recuperate, and then we'll abandon them to the vagaries of adoption.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Another way poverty hurts people

(W)omen who suffered from childhood hunger were 35 percent more likely to have cognitive impairment at age 65 or older, while men who suffered from childhood hunger had a 29 percent higher chance.
Anybody need another reason for expanding WIC?

And do you want to find the hungry kids? Ask parents if they agree or disagree with two statements:
"Within the past 12 months we worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more;"
"Within the past 12 months the food we bought just didn't last and we didn't have money to get more."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

More bad stuff about prenatal tobacco

Newborns of non-smoking moms exposed to secondhand smoke during pregnancy have genetic mutations that may affect long-term health.
That's all you need to know. It makes you want to slap young women you see smoking. Some of them will quit when they get pregnant (or when they realize they're pregnant), and some won't. Dads by and large will keep smoking. After all, he's not the one who's pregnant.

I get so depressed when I think about the avoidable crap we do to babies. Oh, we have a developing little person; let's let the mom breathe in some poison, so the baby can enjoy it, too. SB 797 failed again. It's too hard to take bisphenol A out of food containers for kids, so let's let babies drink out of poisoned bottles.

The good and bad about home delivery

Of babies, that is. Home delivery of newspapers goes wrong more often, but the results are less serious.
Mothers in planned home births experienced significantly fewer medical interventions including epidural analgesia, electronic fetal heart rate monitoring, episiotomy, and operative vaginal and cesarean deliveries. Likewise, women intending home deliveries had fewer infections, perineal and vaginal lacerations, hemorrhages, and retained placentas. Data also showed that planned home births are characterized by less frequent premature and low birthweight infants.
However, home birth is also
associated with a tripling of the neonatal mortality rate compared to planned hospital deliveries. Planned home births were characterized by a greater proportion of deaths attributed to respiratory distress and failed resuscitation.
It sounds to me as though if we can train midwives to deal with respiratory distress better, home birth will be better all around. Now that I read the article again, that's what the authors said.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Impulsiveness and dopamine

Researchers have shown that increased levels of dopamine increase impulsiveness and the desire for instant gratification. At the same time, the amygdala, involved in emotions, lit up.

It seems much of life is a conflict between seratonin and dopamine. One wants quiet, and the other wants loud music. One wants rest, and the other wants activity, especially something new. One puts money away in a tax-deferred annuity, and the other takes off to Jamaica for the weekend.

The test was done by giving people L-Dopa, which increases dopamine levels. They also tried using a dopamine suppressor, but it didn't have the effect of reducing impulsiveness.

WIC and cow's milk

I knew human milk was preferred for human babies, but I didn't know the American Association of Pediatrics recommends no cow's milk at all before the first birthday. The article where I read this is about a study of WIC recipients. The earlier they entered the program, the less likely they were to introduce cow's milk too early.

Good for WIC. Dietary education works.

Propositions have been given numbers

The Secretary of State has numbered the propositions for the November ballot. Here's my first run on them:

  • Prop 18: Water bond.
    Haven't decided
  • Prop 19: Tax and regulate cannabis.
    You bet. I'll  write about this between now and November. 
  • Prop 20: Gives Prop 11 redistricting commission authority to draw Congressional districts.
    Bad for Democrats. No.
  • Prop 21: Raising the vehicle license fee by $18 to pay for state parks.
  • Prop 22: Prohibits state government from taking local government funds.
    I'm inclined to be against anything that restricts the ability of the legislature to make decisions when they need to, but I'm not yet sure about this. 
  • Prop 23: Repeals AB 32, the state global warming law.
  • Prop 24: Closes corporate tax loopholes.
    Yes. I'm a tax and spend liberal, after all. 
  • Prop 25: Lets the legislature pass a budget with a majority vote.
    If anything can save California from the Republicans, it is this. Yes.
  • Prop 26: Requires a 2/3 majority vote to impose fees.
    No. It would make budgeting even harder than it is now.
  • Prop 27: Disbands the Prop 11 redistricting commission entirely.
    Probably yes. I think redistricting should be political. I don't mind gerrymandering.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Light posting

Work is crazy, and I've been staying up too late to get up early enough to get to this before having to get to work by 7, so that's why no posting yesterday or, besides this, today. Maybe nothing until the new fiscal year.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


I figured out how to describe a catch-22. It is a situation where a necessary condition for success is also a sufficient condition for failure. You have to ask (necessary condition) not to fly (success), but asking not to fly (sufficient condition ) proves you aren't crazy (failure), so you have to fly.

If you haven't read Catch-22, this probably makes no sense. But you have read Catch-22, haven't you? It's one of the two best novels of the second half of the 20th century, along with Invisible Man.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The brain and behavior, part 1 million

Regular readers know I spend a lot of time talking about how the brain influences behavior. Yesterday's Science Daily had three articles related to that issues.

Where courage is located
They took a bunch of people who were or were not afraid of snakes and had them move a neutral object or a harmless snake toward them or away from them, and they found the part of the brain that lights up when someone who is afraid of a snake overcomes that fear and pulls it toward them. If you care about details, it was the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex. In addition, "a series of temporal lobe structures" decreased activity.

Brain structure and personality
This study looked at the Big Five personality traits (conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, and openness/intellect) and the size of different parts of the brain. "(C)onscientious people tend to have a bigger lateral prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in planning and controlling behavior." Extraverts have  a bigger medial orbitofrontal cortex, which is involved in rewards. Neuroticism and agreeableness each had its big area, though the article didn't say where. Only openness/intellect was not associated with a big area.

One problem with this is that they didn't look at all areas of the brain for each personality trait. After a personality test, they predicted which areas would be bigger than normal and then tested those areas. There may be other areas involved, on the principle that everything is more complicated than you think it is.

It's also not clear which way the causal relation goes. It may be that having a big lateral prefrontal cortex makes you conscientious, or it may be the other way around. I expect we'll find out. In the meantime, it's another strong correlation between brain and behavior.

What you feel affects what you think

  • People reading a resume on a heavy clipboard think the person is weightier and better than people reading the same resume on a light clipboard. 
  • People negotiating while sitting in harder chairs are less flexible and drive harder bargains. 
  • People judged a case-study employee as being more rigid and strict if they had just touched a hard wooden block than if they had just touched a soft blanket.
  • People who had been putting together a puzzle with rough pieces described a social interaction as harsher than those who had been handling a puzzle with smooth pieces.
Yup, the brain is god-awful complicated, but a lot of what we think is determined by it. Makes you wonder about free will, doesn't it? More on that some time.

Budget Salvation

An initiative has qualified for the November ballot that would, if passed, allow the legislature to adopt a budget by majority vote. It could save California. Therefore it hasn't a chance.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Kangaroo porn

Birds do it, bees probably don't do it. I've seen whales do it in pairs and trios. It's said to be pretty much universal among mammals. And now we know for sure that kangaroos do it. You see what I start doing when I can't follow a train of thought? I found this at Andrew Sullivan's blog.

XKCD is the best thing on the internet

If you haven't done it before, look over to the left of this blog at the section called Diversions. There are links to three places I go to refresh myself. XKCD is the best nerd humor, and therefore the best thing, on the internet. Be prepared for math and physics jokes. Indexed is right up there. PostSecret is mostly just sad.

Friday follies

But I do feel well enough to post a picture of boy cat lying on a rug-protecting towel in a sunbeam, flecks of killed newspaper and kleenex around him.

Miserable cold

I haven't posted much in the last day or so, because I have a miserable cold and have no ability to follow a thought more complex than the plot of Gilligan's Island. Maybe tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Another good thing about play

This study looked at how kids negotiate with each other during play.
The study looked at children aged two and three. In their negotiations they demonstrated invention, creativity, enthusiasm, industry, involvement, activity and problem-solving strategies.
The results show that children's negotiations form part of their play, and that these negotiations have a clear purpose: to agree on both how they can be together in their play and the content of their play. ...
"A pedagogical consequence of the results is that adults shouldn't intervene too early in children's negotiations," says Alvestad. "Just give the children time!"
This is the sort of thing where I say, yeah, I knew that; I've seen it. But it's clearer when someone points it out.

The meaning for child care is that kids should have lots of unstructured play where they can do this sort of thing. Three kids putting blocks together are learning a more useful skill than three kids separately doing worksheets.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Infant brain scan for schizophrenia

In a rush this morning, so I don't have time to find the links, but I've talked several times about being able in the future to scan newborns' brains and find signs of mental illness, so that early intervention means the first day. Well it's here. They found characteristic signs of schizophrenia in the brains of babies a few weeks old.

So the problems I talked about are here now.

  • How do you treat a kid you know to be at high risk of some mental illness. One presumes medication will be involved, but do you treat the kid differently? For schizophrenia, probably not. For autism, maybe. Maybe knowing at birth that a kid has, say, 90% chance of becoming autistic, do you arrange the kid's room or experiences in a way not to trigger it? I don't know. How about a kid with the gene for uncontrollable aggression? Do you treat them the same way you treat another kid who smacks a playmate? I don't know, but we should be thinking about it.
  • Not every kid with these characteristic brain signs will develop schizophrenia, or probably whatever is being tested for. If there is a 90% chance of some bad thing, do you risk screwing up the 10% who don't have it by treating them as though they do? I don't know.