Saturday, January 30, 2010

Flower porn: Night Blooming Cereus

I don't know what variety of night blooming cereus this is, nor even what genus. My mom gave it to me. It's in a pot with dozens of thin, ribbed arms hanging down about 3 feet. She also had a climbing cereus, which had  pretty much identical blossoms, but that one never took hold here.

This one blooms in June. The blossoms open right at dusk and are gone by dawn, maybe a dozen or two blossoms in a good year, one or two at time. They are more than a foot across. In moonlight, they are luminous; in porch light, they flare. The stamen and anthers are so heavy, they hang to the bottom of the blossom, and the path to the blossom's interior gapes open.

Botox makes you happy ... or gets you beat up

More specifically, being restrained from frowning makes you less able to understand and process somebody else's anger or sadness. This is related to the claim that facial expressions can cause as well as reflect emotions.

This report says the results of botoxing the frown muscles are that the world seems less angry to you, so you end up happier, but on the other hand, if you don't understand another person's anger or sadness, you might react wrong.

And even if paralyzing your frown muscles can make you happier, that has to be weighed against having less understanding of what people around you are thinking. It's sort of an induced autism. So while I can imagine it being useful for people who are overly sensitive, I suspect the disadvantage would outweigh the benefit in normal people.

I've never been very sympathetic to the facial feedback hypothesis. It just seems flaky and woo-woo to me. The studies are at best inconclusive.

This study seems well enough done to me, just from reading the Science Daily article on it. I hope somebody replicates or extends it.

Friday, January 29, 2010

How a TV news segment is organized

I found this first at Andrew Sullivan's place, but it's all over Science Blogs. It's worthy of the Daily Show. It reminds me of Spamalot's "This is the song that goes like this."

Friday follies

Young cat makes his presence known.

Original autism-mercury study "unethical and irresponsible"

Britain's medical regulator says Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who published the original study linking autism and mercury in the MMR shot, did it in "in an unethical and irresponsible manner."
The General Medical Council, Britain's medical regulator, found that Andrew Wakefield acted unethically in the way he collected blood samples from children and in his failure to disclose payments from lawyers representing parents who believed the vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella -- given as a single shot, referred to as the MMR vaccine -- had hurt their kids.
The regulator also concluded that Wakefield acted with "callous disregard" by conducting invasive tests on children that were not in their best medical interests. ...
Those included taking blood samples from children at his son's birthday party and paying them each about $8, the regulator found. He also performed spinal taps on children at a hospital without due regard for how they might be affected, it said. 
This doesn't impugn the science in his report, only his character. Others have already sufficiently impugned the science.

Parents don't know how fat their kids are

I sure find a lot of interesting stuff at Science Daily. This one says if you give a bunch of parents of 4-year-olds a set of sketches of body shapes and ask them to pick the one that matches their kid, 97% of parents of normal kids pick a lighter shape than real, as do 95% of parents of overweight kids and 62% of parents of obese kids. The fatter the kid, the farther from reality the parental choice.

About 80% of the parents said they would want to be told if their kid was overweight. I wonder how that  80% overlaps with the parents who can't see how fat their kid is. 

I'm on a committee that talks (and talks and talks) about childhood obesity, and one of the big things in the discussion is parental involvement. You can't just give fat kids carrots at school instead of cookies and expect them to lose weight, if they go home to pork fat and ice cream. And if parents really can't see what they send off to school every day, maybe the thing to do is to tell them. From time to time, some school measures BMI and sends it home in notes to parents, but maybe the thing to do is say it in starker terms.

Having spent most of my childhood and much of my life well over the recommended weight of the American Heart Association, I sympathize with the kids and parents, but maybe we should just send home a letter saying your kid is too fat, and she's going to die early unless you do something about it.

Yes, there is a large biological component, and some of us have a horrendous time losing weight. But think of it as early intervention, just as with a kid with hearing problems or Downs. Work on it early, so good things build instead of bad.

Lead and ADHD

This Science Daily article says ADHD may be up to 70% heritable and seeks to find the source of the other 30%. They point to lead in the environment, saying it turns off some genes in the brain.

If this is true, ADHD should have become less frequent when lead interior house paint was replaced with acrylic. I wonder if it did. Unless the lead-ADHD relationship is not dose related. Some masters student should find this out. Free thesis subject.

Of course, the heritability of ADHD should vary according to neighborhood, because heritability is the relative importance of genes to a condition that also has an environmental component, not the absolute importance to the condition, because the environment may change from place to place, so unless it's 100% genetic, heritability can vary. So if lead is one of the environmental culprits, the relative genetic influence on the incidence of ADHD would be high in neighborhoods with little lead in the environment and lower in neighborhoods with more lead.

But the article says it's not by neighborhood at all. I'll bet it used to be, when poor homes still had lead paint in them, but now, they say, there is a universal low level of lead, and every kid has it.

In that case, I'm afraid I'm pessimistic about removing it.

Preventing schizophrenia

A scenario I worried about last weekend has come not to pass but to discussion, but their plan for doing it is better than the one I worried about.

If people work the same way as rats, the brains of people who become adult schizophrenics start diverging from normal during rat adolescence, but giving them a particular set of drugs at the appropriate time can arrest the brain changes.

These researchers propose, after further study, to image the brains of kids at genetic risk of becoming schizophrenic at appropriate intervals, and put those kids who show signs of brain changes on meds to stop the changes.

This sounds like a good plan to me. Use genetics to determine whom to test, and then medicate only the ones who actually show physical signs of the problem.

Now we need to develop similar plans for kids who are at risk of other fixable problems.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Prosody, empathy, and mirror neurons

Via Science Daily, the amount of activity in Broca's Area, the part of the brain that makes intonation in speech is related to the level of the speaker's empathy.
A new study in the journal PLoS ONE finds that people use the same brain regions to produce and understand intonation in speech.
Many studies suggest that people learn by imitating through so-called mirror neurons. This study shows for the first time that prosody -- the music of speech -- also works on a mirror-like system.
And it turns out that the higher a person scores on standard tests of empathy, the more activity they have in their prosody-producing areas of the brain.
Of course, we can't tell if there is a causal relationship in either direction, so it's one more example of the fact that the brain is god-awful complicated, and more things are related to each other than we have any idea. Nor do I have any special insights, just the usual questions.

I mostly wonder if these things change with time or culture.

  • Are people who speak languages with lots of intonation, such as Chinese, more empathetic than those who do not, such as speakers of English? (Use native English speakers of Chinese background and native English speakers who have learned Chinese as controls.) We're dangerously close to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which I find very appealing, but most linguists do not. Like many big ideas, the strong version is wrong, and the weak version is right.
  • Are mothers' brains different when they are speaking motherese than when they are discussing some job issue? 
  • Do the people I associate with sing-song speech (adolescent girls) lose empathy when they turn into flatter-speaking women.
  • Do the brain areas that light up vary with the subject matter for girls? Is it different when they are hanging out with friends rather than giving a speech in class?
  • Can a person increase or decrease empathy by actively changing their* speech patterns?
  • Is this related to the flattened affect of a person who is involved in some gruesome task, like pulling bodies out of a flattened building?
  • How closely is the level of activity in the brain area they studied related to the amount of intonation in actual speech? 
*If you hadn't noticed, I embrace the singular "they" rather than he/she. It is not a grammatical error; it is standard American speech and I wholly accept it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Worst school policy nominee: Pulling dictionaries because of sexual definitions

The Menifee Union School District pulled and then replaced the Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary in its 4th and 5th grade classrooms because a parent said the definition of oral sex was too explicit. The definition was "oral stimulation of the genitals : cunnilingus, fellatio."
"The dictionaries have not been banned," said Betti Cadmus, a spokeswoman for the Menifee Union School District in conservative southwest Riverside County on Monday. "There was a growing concern by parents that some of the words were not age-appropriate."
A panel of parents, teachers and administrators (met) to comb the dictionary for potentially graphic words or definitions ...
"The dictionary will go back to the classroom but the parents will be given the option to determine if they want their kids to have access to that dictionary," said Betti Cadmus, a spokeswoman for the Menifee Union School District in southwest Riverside County. Students will take permission slips home and parents who don't want them to use Webster's 10th Collegiate Edition can opt for alternative dictionaries.
God, people get upset about trivial crap. I fondly remember scouring the dictionary for dirty words in elementary school. My parents wouldn't tell me anything, and what was the 99th percentile in reading ability good for if not finding out what dirty words really meant? I'd say in general that when a kid becomes curious about a word, that's the time to explain it's meaning. If she's too young, to understand, she won't. On the scale of things that can traumatize or badly influence a child, reading in a dictionary that oral sex is oral stimulation of the genitals is way down on the harmless end.

And what was that parent doing looking up "oral sex" in the dictionary anyway? Doesn't he already know what it is? If not, a Google search would explain it with a lot more flair than "oral stimulation of the genitals" and show pictures, too.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Why do mothers raise sexist sons?

I've pondered this off and on for a long time. If little boys are raised almost entirely by their mothers rather than their fathers, why do so many turn out sexist?

Part of it must be the fact that parents are less important in forming opinions than peers, including sibs. The peers of Cain, Eve's first son, were wild animals, so maybe he got his ideas from baboons, and every male since has had that continued influence from its peer group. (Do I have to put irony marks around things like that? I thought not.) But parents do have some influence, so why does sexism exist?

I suspect sexism is as biologically based as religiosity or political orientation, or reading ability, or the number of brain cells, or alcoholism, or autism, or lying, or tameness, or sexual orientation, or liking to bet on long shots, schizophrenia, or lots of other behavioral characteristics. Why should a man's attitude toward women be less subject to biological influences than being politically liberal or conservative? The relationship between the sexes is pretty important for any animal.

So I expect that, over a period of hundreds of thousands or millions of years, males who were sexist were more successful at having surviving babies than sensitive men. And part of that is what the women wanted, and apparently still want. At least in the US, the males typically present themselves, and women say yes or no. One assumes that female selection is as big a part of human evolution as it is in other apes. So women are partly responsible for biological sexism's persistence by frequently mating with sexist men. It's a staple of fiction as well as life.

What brought this to mind is an article a couple of days ago in the LA Times. Some researchers looked at math ability and math attitudes at the beginning and end of the school year for 117 first and second graders and at the math anxiety level (not math ability) of their 7 teachers, all female. By the end of the school year, 20 of the 65 girls "subscribed to the math-is-for-boys stereotype"  and scored 5% lower on a test of counting shapes and doing simple addition and subtraction. Boys and the other 45 girls both scored the same.

So somehow the teachers transmitted their anxiety to some students (and one presumes, though I haven't looked at the actual study, that some of the newly anxious girls were in classes with confident teachers). I wonder what would happen if they did it with male teachers. Would math-anxious male teachers produce math-anxious boy students?

Speculative science to the rescue: I conjecture that the idea that math is a boy thing is related to the whole idea of gender roles, which is related to political orientation. I therefore predict that female math anxiety will turn out to be more common in conservative women than liberals. A prediction of that prediction would be that university math departments would have a mix of conservative and liberal men but mostly liberal women. I'll bet there's a dataset out there that would solve this.

But even if sexism and math-is-a-boy-thingism are biologically influenced, that doesn't mean we have to allow them in polite company. If baboons can change, humans can.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A certain test for lying

I've commented several times about the question of what you would do if you could tell from a simple test at birth, maybe a blood test or EEG, that a kid had either a certainty or a  high probability of developing some bad thing, like alcoholism, or autism, or schizophrenia, or uncontrollable aggression.

This article in Science Daily asks a related question. Suppose it turns out, as some people claim, that truth-telling takes place in a different part of the brain than lying, and a cap studded with electrodes to read the brain is mass produced, and every courtroom and cop car can have a fool-proof way of telling if a person is lying. Would that be a good thing?

I predict that:
  • We will find such a brain difference between lying and truth-telling.
  • It will be accepted by the courts, though not without strong opposition from liberal fruitcakes like me, and probably before the science is really settled, as happened with "lie detectors." 
  • The science will not be as cut and dried as we wish.
  • Cops and prosecutors will fail to understand the nuances of reading the results, so there will be false positives for lying when the person is just confused.
  • Pathological liars will be found to have brain scans similar to truth-tellers.
  • States, counties, and cities will fund buying these new devices and pay for it by cutting social services. 
What will the society look like then? I don't usually have much truck with people who invoke 1984 and Big Brother, but this sure seems to me like a big step toward it.

But what is depressing to me is that I think it is inevitable. I truly believe we will find a way to tell truth-tellers from liars with a success rate good enough for cops and prosecutors, and once that happens, not voting to fund it will make a politician seem soft on crime. "Nobody would object except someone who wanted to be able to lie to cops and courts."

It's like a national ID. Yes, a national ID would be intrusive, and it would be an official end to privacy, but that war has already been lost. Privacy is gone. Some combination of market research companies and the NSA know everything about you except what you buy with cash, and they can probably make a good guess at that. So we might as well cowgirl up and accept a national ID, so at least the intrusion can be efficient and not confuse two people with the same name.

And while the truth cap is not even part of the debate yet, that battle is already lost. What I really fear is the possibility of claiming to be able to read more of a mind than just whether it is lying. The implications of this are enormous. I assume the ACLU has lawyers already thinking about it.

I'm not sure whether I think we liberals should fight tooth and nail or accept that some form of a truth cap is inevitable and work to make it a better system, as I think we should do with the idea of tying teacher pay to student performance. I might be feistier tomorrow, but right now, I think the big battle is lost.

Oh, crap. It just occurred to me that it would be possible to make the mind-reading caps wireless, so a person we think might be up to something might have to wear a cap, and when he thinks illegal thoughts, the computer listening to the cap back at the police station sounds an alarm to go pick him up. I shouldn't think about this stuff on Monday morning.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Are gay parents as good as straight parents?

In their analysis, the researchers found no evidence of gender-based parenting abilities, with the "partial exception of lactation," noting that very little about the gender of the parent has significance for children's psychological adjustment and social success.
As the researchers write: "The social science research that is routinely cited does not actually speak to the questions of whether or not children need both a mother and a father at home. Instead proponents generally cite research that compares [heterosexual two-parent] families with single parents, thus conflating the number with the gender of parents."
Indeed, there are far more similarities than differences among children of lesbian and heterosexual parents, according to the study. On average, two mothers tended to play with their children more, were less likely to use physical discipline, and were less likely to raise children with chauvinistic attitudes. Studies of gay male families are still limited.
However, like two heterosexual parents, new parenthood among lesbians increased stress and conflict, exacerbated by general lack of legal recognition of commitment. Also, lesbian biological mothers typically assumed greater caregiving responsibility than their partners, reflecting inequities among heterosexual couples.
"The bottom line is that the science shows that children raised by two same-gender parents do as well on average as children raised by two different-gender parents. This is obviously inconsistent with the widespread claim that children must be raised by a mother and a father to do well," Biblarz said.
One would think this would be settled by now, but there is such a visceral reaction to homosexuality among conservatives that it never will be. There will always be 27% who just hate gays. I'll go into this more deeply some other time, but I think the real issues are that people below the Keyes Horizon don't like people who are different in general, and second, they think gay sex is nasty, rotten can of tuna nasty, mold on the yogurt nasty, puking when they think about it nasty. And that's enough.

Predicting schizophrenia

One neat thing about science is that when somebody does a study and publishes the data, other people can parse the data in different ways and find out stuff the original researchers weren't thinking of. Some researchers from Duke have looked at a long-term study of 1000 people born in New Zealand in 1972 and 1973 and found that the 1%  to 3.5% of people who developed schizophrenia as adults showed a consistent pattern of cognitive difficulties starting at about age 7.
For each year between the ages of 7 and 13, the children who later received a diagnosis of schizophrenia lost between 0.17 and 0.26 years in mental age when compared with the other children.
Two patterns emerged: The children who developed adult schizophrenia had early deficits in verbal and visual learning, reasoning and conceptualization that remained with them as they grew. They also showed slower development than their peers in processing speed, attention, visual-spatial problem-solving and working memory. The data argues against one theory that schizophrenia stems from a deterioration of cognitive abilities. The minds of these children grew, they just didn't grow as well.
 We're back to the question of what do you do with a kid if you know she has a good chance of developing some mental problem later?

One complication here is that something like 20% of kids had similar cognitive problems but did not become schizophrenic. So suppose a 7 or 8 year old shows the problems. If all this is true, you know she has about a 5% chance of becoming schizophrenic. Or let's make it harder. You have a class of 20 kids with cognitive problems. Odds are one of them will turn out to have been in an early stage of schizophrenia.

What do you do? Nothing directly. You certainly couldn't give anti-psychotic drugs to all 20. I haven't particularly looked into it, but I'm not aware of any cognitive therapies for schizophrenia, and in any case you wouldn't want to do that to the other 19 kids, either. I guess all you can do is watch for clearer signs and then start the meds. Sometimes knowing just a little too much is depressing.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Friday follies

Old cat in  the garden, before the rains hit. She has spent the ensuing week lying in front of a fire or in her heated basket or looking out various doors trying to find the one that's dry on the other side. This is the only time we use an indoor litter box, and we have to introduce them to it, but they are grateful in the end, so to speak.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sibling influence and rich kids in State Preschool

It has been shown that parents are less influential than peers in affecting a kid's opinions. This study says that siblings have a large influence.
Parents are better at teaching the social niceties of more formal settings -- how to act in public, how not to embarrass oneself at the dinner table, for example. But siblings are better role models of the more informal behaviors -- how to act at school or on the street, or, most important, how to act cool around friends -- that constitute the bulk of a child's everyday experiences.
This all makes sense to me and fits well into what we already know. Kids are more influenced by peers than parents, which means it really is important to have your kids hang around with decent kids. Yes, I know, your idea of what constitutes a decent kid may differ from mine. I merely mean you should have your kids hang around kids you want them to be like, whatever that is. Lord Chesterfield was right when he wrote to his son that you become whom you hang around.

That's why I have mixed feelings about things like academic tracking in elementary and middle schools and allowing a percentage of rich kids in State Preschool. It is better for a kid to be in a class with kids who are smarter than she is, unless the difference is too great. When kids are more than a couple of standard deviations apart, they have little to say to each other. But when your kid is in a class with kids, say half an SD smarter, or one SD, being with the smarter kids helps.

Of course, this also applies to the smart kids. When you mix really smart kids with normals, it helps the normals but hinders the smarts. To let the really smart kids thrive, you would put them all in one class and let them push each other. How many smart kids to cluster together is a compromise between these two goods.

And for State Preschool kids, we would expect them to be more influenced by being around rich kids (because poor kids come in knowing fewer words and concepts) than middle-class normal kids would. So it would help State Preschool kids if a certain percentage of rich kids were in their class. This happens in college  campus CCTR (now CSPP) programs, where full-pay kids of staff and faculty are mixed in with low-income kids. We should encourage this kind of mixing.

Why do kids flunk first grade?

A study discussed in Science Daily compared 165 kids who were kept back in first grade with 600+ who were not. The reason was "academic competence, not demographics, psychosocial, or behavioral problems."

They found the usual contributing factors, such as how involved the parents are, and there is certainly a relationship between economic status and school achievement or failure.

I guess it's mildly comforting that teachers aren't keeping kids back for personality or demographic reasons. I have to believe that some of the kids being kept back are just the ones who will learn to read at 6 rather than 5, and the risk of damage to kids by keeping them back a year is great enough that they should be allowed to be behind the other kids in their class until they "get" reading. I learned to read in the second grade, which is when they started teaching it in my school.

I realize it's a hard decision to keep a kid back, but I think it is more dangerous than the one to skip a grade. You can really screw up a kid by telling him he's too dumb for second grade. He might believe it.

The evolutionary benefit of schizophrenia

A study described in Science Daily says that a gene that has been linked to schizophrenia and autism reduces the chance of getting some kinds of cancer. The gene is involved in neurodevelopment and has a number of alleles, several of which affected the risk of schizophrenia as well as general intelligence. They did it twice, with different test and control groups, and got the same result.

The clear evolutionary meaning of this is that, in the past, the mass of people with an increased risk of schizophrenia had more surviving babies than those with an increased risk of cancer. It reminds one of the link between sickle-cell anemia and malaria.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Food porn: Meyer lemons

It's Meyer lemon time of year, and our newest tree is loaded. You probably know this, but a Meyer lemon is a cross between an ordinary lemon and a mandarin orange that was discovered in China by a representative of the US Department of Agriculture in 1908. Mr. Meyer knew what he had.

Wikipedia merely says of its culinary value that "The fruit is yellow and rounder than a true lemon with a slight orange tint when ripe. It has a sweeter, less acidic flavor than the more common lemon ... and a fragrant edible skin."

Sweeter, less acidic doesn't say the half of it. The difference between a Meyer lemon and a grocery store lemon is like the difference between

  • Kalamata olives and California canned black olives
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano and the stuff in the green can
  • Raw sugar and processed sugar
  • 1982 Mouton Rothschild and Gallo Hearty Burgundy
    (I happily drank the latter in college, and luckily bought a case of the former when they hit the market in 1984 or '85, because I was being paid far beyond my worth then. I still have two bottles left, plus a few similar bottles.)
It's not just that one is better than the other. It is that one has a complex taste and the other does not. While a Eureka lemon adds sourness, Meyers add taste.

Our Meyers are just coming in. We've been picking a few, but the photo above is our first real harvest of the season. Magazines are full of Meyer lemon recipes now. This weekend my partner made a lemon pudding cake thing that was spectacular, and chicken thighs with lemon juice, zest, and slices and a pile of middle-eastern spices. Scrumptious.

Of all the fruity things we grow, Meyers are the one we don't let a single one of get away. While they're ripe and still on the tree, we use a lot in cooking, of course, and make lemonade for the kids and margaritas (the best in the world) for ourselves. Sometimes I squeeze a glassful, add half a teaspoon of salt, stir, and sip like a liqueur.

Then when the huge crop is full ripe, I harvest it, squeeze them, and freeze either 2 cups (for lemonade in our-size pitchers) or 1.5 cups (for said margaritas) in quart-size baggies. They stack nicely. I also keep a cruet of the juice in the refrigerator to add a few drops to glasses of water or tea.

The only problem with Meyer lemons is that their extreme juiciness makes them hard to handle if you want something to squeeze into tea or on fish. A eureka lemon lets you control a squeeze, but a Meyer falls apart and gets juice all over your fingers.

The wikipedia article said the skin was edible. I haven't tried it, except as zest. I'll have to try it.

One of our eureka lemons has a sucker coming up from below the graft that has huge lemons with extremely thick skin, perfect for Indian pickled lemons. I've given them to an Indian friend's mother in the past, but I think I'll be pickling some of them soon. The recipe calls for filling the jar with lemon juice. I wonder how it would be to use the thick-skinned lemons for the pickles but use Meyer lemon juice for the pickling. I think I'll probably find out.

IQ and religion

I regularly browse Science Blogs and find all sorts of interesting things, many of which I refer to here. This morning I ran across an extremely interesting post on Gene Expression (that's a blog named Gene Expression, not a blog about gene expression) that briefly refers to a study showing that people who believe the Bible is the word of God have lower verbal skills than those who do not. The Gene Expression post also points to a series of previous posts on IQ, education levels, SAT scores, and type of religion.

Depending on the particular question, Unitarians, Episcopalians, Jews, and Atheists come out on top, and evangelicals and Pentecostals are at the bottom.

There are several immediately obvious questions:
  • Does pentecostalism make you dumb, or are dumb people attracted to pentecostalism? 
  • Same with education.
  • Is the fact that 15% of people change religions related to this?. 
  • Is the heritability of religiosity related to the heritability of IQ?
  • Are there public policy implications? (It sure argues for the continued separation of church and state.)
  • Why in the world would Baha'i score so low in their SATs?
I'd like to go into this more deeply, but I have to get ready for work now; all day meeting today, so no posting during the day. I'd recommend anyone interested in this stuff read the articles at the links above.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Paying for DIR autism treatment, or not

The Eastern Los Angeles County Regional Center will no longer pay for DIR therapy for autistic kids. Developmental, Individual difference, Relationship-based treatment is being cut because they don't have any money, and when they listed the stuff they needed to pay for, DIR came out toward the bottom of their priorities, because it doesn't have any actual evidence that it works. The National Research Council said it was close enough to some therapies that have been shown to be effective that it "could be considered a valid model for treating autism," but that's not the same as a real study on  the actual therapy.

I don't have a dog in this fight. If DIR works, and if the agency is obliged to pay for any treatment that works, then tautologically they should fund this. And we should refuse to pay for treatments that don't work. Sometimes it's clear whether a treatment works or does not, and sometimes the evidence is not yet in.

The agency says they expect to save $4 million a year, but won't the parents who are cut off from DIR just go to another therapy? The regional center's action won't deny treatment, just this particular treatment. So won't the regional center just pay the same $4 million for other kinds of therapies?
So let's somebody do a real study on DIR and find out. Surely some grad student is searching for a dissertation topic that this would be perfect for.

And in the meantime, it's hard to tell parents that this treatment, which they deeply believe will make a difference in their children's lives, is a mirage. You hate to step on their bubbles, but it's equally bad to let them continue a treatment that will fail. We need to find out if it works.

Ovulation in lieu of perfume

From Science Daily:
... men who smelled tee shirts of ovulating women subsequently had higher levels of testosterone than men who smelled tee shirts worn by non-ovulating women or men who smelled the control shirts. In addition, after smelling the shirts, the men rated the odors on pleasantness and rated the shirts worn by ovulating women as the most pleasant smelling.
We shouldn't be at all surprised about this. Many, many animals get horny by smelling something wafting from a fruit fly or pig of the opposite sex. Studies have not shown the kinds of reactions in people that you get in insects or other mammals, but there is no reason to think we should be totally out of this loop. The fact that dorm roomies coordinate their periods is evidence of that.

And what does it mean for women in a practical sense? How does it change how you act? Depends on the time of the month and what you want from the person who is going to be smelling you, so first you have to time your ovulation. Then if you want sex while you're ovulating, don't wear any perfume to cover up the magic smell. If it's the non-ovulating time of the month, wear something with animal musk in it, to pretend you're a horny civet cat.

If you just want to be friends, but it's "that time of the month," wear some non-animal-musk perfume to hide your ovulation. The rest of the time, do whatever makes you happy, because he won't notice anyway.

I wonder what would happen if they did the test with other groups. I predict lesbians and hetero men would like ovulating women better, and gay men and hetero women would not.

I also predict that some football coach will hear about this and start filling the locker room with t-shirts of ovulating women to pump up the players (so to speak) on game day. I predict it won't work, because football players are already so full of testosterone before a game that any increase would be trivial. I predict that won't stop them from doing it and the press from reporting it as valid, because, after all, what guy doesn't want to sniff a t-shirt a fertile woman has had stretched across her tits? Just imagine the conversations. Worse, imagine the movie, with Bern Stiller as the coach and Adam Sandler as the scientist who brings the idea to him.

Monday, January 18, 2010

You treat them as what you call them

A recent study surveyed 700 mental health professionals about what what should be done about a made-up case study. In half the surveys, the person was identified as a "substance abuser," and in the other half he was said to have "a substance use disorder."

When the person was called a substance abuser, the survey respondents were more likely to believe it was his own damned fault, and they more often thought punishment was appropriate. When he was said to have a substance use disorder, they more often thought it wasn't all his fault, and treatment was appropriate.

Now apply this to a child care center. If a kid hits other kids, is he a bad kid, who needs to be punished, or does he have a personality disorder that needs to be treated? Which way you describe him may affect how punitive you act. We already know that preschool teachers treat girls differently than they do boys.

This seems to me to be related to how you react when your 2-year-old drops her spoon on the floor over and over, every time you hand it to her. If you think of her as trying to get your goat, you might punish her. If you think of her as learning cause and effect and how to drop stuff, it becomes a moment to watch her grow.

Science Daily article. Drug Monkey analysis.

Octo Porn

I found this at Pharyngula. It's a boy octopus meets girl octopus story with possibly the worst narration I've ever heard of a nature film. But you have to listen to it to understand what you're seeing.

Evolution continues: Can the fashion industry keep up?

I ran across this at Gene ExpressionSome researchers looked at data from two generations of people in the Framingham Heart Study.
We found that natural selection is acting to cause slow, gradual evolutionary change. The descendants of these women are predicted to be on average slightly shorter and stouter, to have lower total cholesterol levels and systolic blood pressure, to have their first child earlier, and to reach menopause later than they would in the absence of evolution. Selection is tending to lengthen the reproductive period at both ends.
 It's sure working on me. I'm a good deal shorter and stouter than I used to be.

Of course, this means we will be needing different clothes for our shorter, stouter bodies. (Also already true.) I assume the fashion industry will make the newer clothes but change the sizes so women can still get into the same size dress, no matter how big it is.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Neighborhood influences on reading ability

I posted the other day about the heritability of reading ability. Another new study discussed in Science Daily says that a kid's reading ability in 7th grade is closely related to where they lived in kindergarten, in particular the level of poverty in their childhood neighborhood.

Being behind early means being farther behind later. Being behind builds. This means that when we fail to help a kid by kindergarten, that kid may be lost. It's up to us to save the world, or at least the part of it that can be saved by high-quality child care.

Friday follies

She may be old, but she is still limber enough to lick herself where she needs to.

Child care as a religious ministry

Here's an interesting case in Pennsylvania, yet another case where I don't know all the facts, but that won't keep me from speculating.

In 1997 the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare closed down a Catholic church's child care operation in its basement. They had 20 kids. The state says all child care centers should follow certain developmental goals. The church says that interferes with their religious freedom. An appeals court has just agreed with the state. I don't.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Keyes Horizon

The Keyes Horizon is the percentage of crazy people who vote in an election. It's the percent who voted for Alan Keyes when he ran against Barack Obama for US Senate in Illinois in 2002.
Keyes was from out of state, so you can eliminate any established political base; both candidates were black, so you can factor out racism; and Keyes was plainly, obviously, completely crazy. Batshit crazy. Head-trauma crazy. But 27% of the population of Illinois voted for him. They put party identification, personal prejudice, whatever ahead of rational judgment. Hell, even like 5% of Democrats voted for him. That’s crazy behaviour. I think you have to assume a 27% Crazification Factor in any population.

A commenter named Jon H said, "May I suggest it be called the “Keyes Horizon”?"

It's a perfect name for the condition. Just thought it should be part of your vocabulary. Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

A gene for betting on long shots

They have found a gene for betting on long shots. Those who have the allele are more likely than others to spend a small windfall on a lottery ticket rather than keep it and less likely to buy insurance. I don't have anything special to say about it, just pointing out one more biological influence on behavior.

How the brain classifies nouns

They wired a bunch of people for an fMRI and had them watch a screen where 60 words of nouns appeared, one at at time, 6 times, in a random order (body parts, furniture, vehicles, animals, kitchen utensils, tools, buildings, building parts, clothing, insects, vegetables, and man-made objects). The task was to think about the object the word named.

They found that the brain classified these objects in three ways, and each of the three ways is encoded in 3 to 5 different parts of the brain, and everybody used the same parts of the brain. What's more, the researchers were able to predict what parts of the brain would light up when they introduced a new noun. When they went back over the data, they were able to tell which noun a person was looking at by looking at the fMRI with average 72% accuracy.

From the Science Daily article:
(T)he three codes or factors concern basic human fundamentals:
1. how you physically interact with the object (how you hold it, kick it, twist it, etc.);
2. how it is related to eating (biting, sipping, tasting, swallowing); and
3. how it is related to shelter or enclosure.
I wonder if the same thing would happen with a native speaker of Chinese, which is said to emphasize verbs more than nouns.

The researchers point out that their list of nouns didn't have any involving sex, love, or reproduction. There would, they said, likely to be some similar way of coding those relationships. I predict they will look at that soon.

They also suggest applications such as agoraphobia, where a person might have an exaggerated shelter dimension, or autism might involve weaker social contact coding.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Worst school district nominee: Mandatory short hair for preschoolers UPDATE

The school board I posted about recently that kicked a preschooler out of school because his hair was tool long has voted to keep the hair rule and not make any exceptions.
“It’s a trade-off,” said one board member, Gary Bingham, an insurance agent, in an interview. “Do the parents value his education more than they value a 4-year-old’s decision to make his own grooming choices?”
Or does the school board value a foolish consistency more than allowing a 4-year-old to make personal decisions that don't affect them?

If you accept my argument about the genetics of political orientation, then the school board is trying to turn the kid into a conservative (belief in hierarchy and ordained roles), and the parents are trying to turn him into a liberal (self-reliant, autonomous).

I was once in an elementary school PTA executive board meeting where the principal told us, "If we make exceptions, we'll never be exceptional." He said it twice, to make sure we got it. I told him that was the dumbest thing I'd ever heard a college-educated person say. We transferred our kid out of there soon thereafter, and the principal and I never became friends.

The heritability of reading ability

A twin study on the influence of genes and environment on reading ability is going to be misunderstood.
(In the baseline test) For word and letter identification, genetics explained about one-third of the test results, while environment explained two-thirds. For vocabulary and sound awareness, it was equally split between genetics and environment. For the speed tests, it was three-quarters genetic.
But when the researchers measured growth in reading skills, environment became much more important, Petrill said.
Heritability is something people in child development often misunderstand. This does not mean that 1/3 of human reading ability is genetic and 2/3 environmental. It means that 1/3 of the difference in reading ability between two sets of kids was due to genetics and 2/3 due to environment.

To explain the difference, let me talk about the genetics of IQ. I've posted about it before. For now, let's just stipulate that there is a range of human cognitive intelligence, whether or not it is measured by an IQ test. Some people are smarter than others, and there is a maximum smartness any particular person can achieve. A kid raised in a rich environment will become as smart as she is biologically capable of becoming. A kid raised in a poor environment (meaning low stimulation, not low income, though they may be the same) is less likely to reach her own physical smartness limit.

Now compare a bunch of kids from rich environments to each other. If they were all raised in environments that do not limit them, you should get a heritability of 100%. If the environments were identical, then any differences in their intelligence is genetic. If you compare one group of kids from a rich environment and a group from a poor one, you would expect a small genetic heritability and a large environmental component.

As a liberal society, and in particular as child development people, our goal is to remove the environmental component and make genetics the only difference by providing a rich environment. This is what it means to educate each kid to her cognitive potential: to remove environmental impediments to reaching that potential.

So what we learn from this study is that environmental impediments are important in several areas related to reading, different amounts for different skills, and they become increasingly important as the kids age. The study tells us more about societal impediments than about the genetics of reading.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Prenatal education

Over at Huffington Post, they have a photo series of the "craziest" electronic devices being offered at the recent Consumer Electronics Show. One is an allegedly educational device for fetuses called Baby Plus prenatal education system.

Baby Plus is a "curriculum" consisting of a series of sounds that imitate a mother's heartbeat. I guess it's supposed to be better than, you know, the mother's heartbeat. The website has a series of testimonials of parents whose babies are calmer, smarter, and cuter than even they expected.

Their website also has a link called Science. Click on the link, and you are led to a page giving the historical basis for Baby Plus, starting with what Confucius and Aristotle thought about child-rearing and going through a series of irrelevant items until the guy who started the company  had his great insight and invented Baby Plus.

For a scientific basis, they say babies hear mom's heartbeat loudly. Baby Plus plays similar sounds softer, so the baby will be more sensitive to their environment than non-Baby Plus kids.

For technical papers, they cite two papers from 1987 and 1991 in Pre and Perinatal Psychology Journal and one reference book from 1995.

They cite a Russian "independent clinical trial." The period of the trial was 10 years, from 1992 to 2001, and they had 11 Baby Plus subjects, 11 who listened to music instead, and 9 controls. They assert a consistent improvement on the part of the Baby Plus kids. I didn't see a citation to which peer-reviewed journal it was published in.

Me, I think it's crap. I think the scientific basis makes no sense, and the techical papers are irrelevant. I can't evaluate the clinical trial from here, but since everything else about the product smells to me, I feel skeptical about the trial as well. If this company really has discovered something important about kids, I'd like to see a bigger trial published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Hopeful conjectures about autism

It seems that 25 to 50% of people with the rare disease tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC) have autism. Researchers have found how a mutation in one gene causes TSC. They looked at a well-characterized axon route in mice and found that the growing axons failed to respond to a particular chemical message to stop growing here, please. They suspect other axons than the one they studied also end up in wrong places.

It turns out TSC patients' (well, by the time their brains are being sectioned, they're no longer patients) brains were poorly myelinated. Autistic brains are also poorly myelinated, and there have been suggestions that autism results from miswiring.

They gave a drug called rapamycin to TSC mice and found that it increased myelination.

So here's the hopeful conjecture: If we can diagnose autism at birth with a brain scan, maybe we can give rapamycin or some other drug to autists starting at birth to increase their myelination and maybe ameliorate the problem. Maybe one day we will be able to diagnose it from DNA sequencing of fetal blood cells circulating in maternal blood samples, and introduce myelinating drugs in utero.

But then where will we get our engineers? And that's not just a flippant question. Parents will need to decide, case by case, how bad a kid has to be for them to fix it. Where on the autism spectrum would a kid or fetus have to be to warrant giving them a myelination drug?

And do we want any public discussion of this, or leave it entirely to the parents to figure out?

And if we can do this with autism, can schizophrenia, bipolar, or depression be far behind?

After a while the conjecture gets scary. Maybe I should go read Brave New World again.

When to toilet train.

Some researchers who apparently like being argued with by parents say they have determined when toilet training should begin: between 24 and 32 months, and when matters more than how. This was published in the Journal of Pediatric Urology and described in Science Daily.

I saw this in Science Daily and went to the report. I saw only the abstract, because I'm not prepared to subscribe to any more journals. If I found the right report, its actual results were that "Initiation of toilet training after 32 months of age was associated with urge incontinence (P=0.02)."

Not being current in pediatric or other urology, I then Googled "urge incontinence" and found that it means "involves a strong, sudden need to urinate. Then the bladder contracts, leading to urine leakage."

I think this means if you wait until the kid is older than 32 months to start toilet training, then you're gonna be doing a lot more laundry while they're growing up.

Now I'm not willing to buy the report to read it, and the P=0.02 means they didn't just ask their friends about their kids but are basing it on data, in a peer-reviewed journal, but I have an inbuilt skepticism that there is a causal relation going on here. I'd really like to see a mechanism.

Monday, January 11, 2010

ELQIS data meeting

Off to the ELQIS data meeting this morning. Hope to see you there. I have high hopes for this group.

Update: Well that was a disappointment. I got an email from our local office of education a few days ago inviting me to my usual video conference site, since I was on their list from before, but when I got there, it wasn't a video conference at all but video streaming. We could watch them on TV together, but we couldn't participate. I didn't bother. I went to the conflicting meeting I had been going to miss, where at least I could participate.

I've read the interim report, and I'll read what comes out of today, but I can watch them on TV in the privacy of my own office, where the coffee is better, the chair softer, the bathroom closer, and I can put it on pause when I need to leave the room.

The whole idea of replacing video conferencing with video streaming is a big disappointment and will reduce participation. What are they thinking? It must be a budget decision. Otherwise it's dumb.

Characterizing conservatives and liberals

I've talked several times about my belief that many personality traits, including religiosity and conservatism/liberalism are biologically based. Some combination of genetics, epigenetics, and peer influence molds our physical brains to where our minds either do or do not believe in god and do or do not believe in government welfare to poor people.

This morning I may have had an epiphany (unless it's just mental heartburn). I was reading one of the several political blogs I read regularly, and it was quoting some conservative woman saying she was under attack by the media, and some conservative man saying he was under attack by the liberals. It's not by any means original that modern conservatives, certainly the ones who become politicians or TV personalities, are characterized by believing (or at least by saying) they are under attack. They are easily offended. 

And it occurred to me that this could be the fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals (understanding that, as I said before, conservatives vary among themselves, so let's say the difference between genetic conservatives and genetic liberals) is the fear of attack (and reacting to an attack) versus expansiveness. 

If it's genetic, then having both conservatives and liberals was probably advantageous during during the period the two types evolved. I speculate that, during the period when we were more often prey than predator, liberals were the ones who found new food supplies and invented the tools, and conservatives were the ones who made sure the food didn't rot and that we weren't killed by lions. Later, the liberals were the ones who traded with other groups and brought in foreign technology, and conservatives were the ones who made sure the walls were solid and the foreign technology was sharp. Within a family, when the issue of whether to share food with other families came up, maybe liberals thought they had plenty to share, and conservatives were more concerned about running out.

What one would need to do is relate this allegedly fundamental characteristic to modern political issues, cases where the differences between conservatives and liberals amount to fear of attack (and fighting back) or not.

Fiscal conservatism is easy. Liberals think we have enough money do do everything we need to do, and conservatives think if we spend too much now, it will damage our economy and be hard to pay back later. The extreme version, common now, is a refusal to consider any new taxes for anything, period, and if we propose to expand Healthy Families, that is said to be a step toward destroying their America.

The recent health care debate would seem to fit into this, too, but it's hard to say how much of the rhetoric was serious and how much just made up to hurt Obama based on corporate interests and the madness of crowds. What does fit is that conservatives, at least the ones on TV, assert they are being attacked by proposals to offer health insurance to more people. One hears people paid to opine on TV say that their country is being taken away from them. 

I see the same difference in when and how to use military force, when and how often to use the filibuster, how to fight terrorists, and how to react to global warming. This last one is odd. You'd expect conservatives to be up in arms about this threat, but they claim they are being lied to (attacked?), instead, by liberal scientists who want to destroy our way of life. 

I need to think more about this and to relate it to Jane Jacobs. That's going to be a long post, so I've been putting it off, but she posits a way to divide people into two groups that makes sense to me and seems to have application to modern politics.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Playing brain games to ameliorate ADHD

I've seen reports of teaching monkeys to play computer games with a joystick and a wired helmet, and then disconnecting the joystick, and they keep playing the game with their brain only. This has recently been done with people, too.

Now it has a clinical application in Britain. They put a special helmet on a kid with ADHD, so the kid can play a computer game with just the mind 3 times a week for 12 weeks. The kid really has to concentrate to make the game work, and they said it reduced impulsive behavior. I have no way to evaluate it, but if it works, cool.

The system is called Play Attention. They're planning to roll it out across the UK this month.

Diagnosing autism with brain imaging

A couple of weeks ago, I expressed doubt about a commercial company alleging to diagnose autism with an MRI, based on activity in an area that lights up when one thinks about oneself.

Some actual researchers are looking at a different area of brain testing that I trust more just because of where it comes from. The Science Daily article says the brains of kids with autism spectrum disorders responded an average of 11 milliseconds (about 1/100 of a second) after hearing a sound, regardless whether the kid had a language impairment.
"This delayed response suggests that the auditory system may be slower to develop and mature in children with ASDs," said Roberts. An 11-millisecond delay is brief, but it means, for instance, that a child with ASD, on hearing the word 'elephant' is still processing the 'el' sound while other children have moved on. The delays may cascade as a conversation progresses, and the child may lag behind typically developing peers."
A 2009 study by Roberts and colleagues sheds light on how changes in brain anatomy may account for the delays in sound processing. The study team used MEG to analyze the development of white matter in the brains of 26 typically developing children and adolescents. Because white matter carries electrical signals in the brain, signaling speed improves when neurons are better protected with an insulating sheath of a membrane material called myelin.
"(This) may reflect delayed white matter development in these children."
This is really cool, if it works out, and we figured they should be able to do something like this someday fairly soon.

But it brings up the usual problem. Imagine life in a child care center when you can hook a newborn up to a computer, and put a drop of blood on a lab on a chip, and find out immediately where they fall on all sorts of continua.

Suppose you're running a CDD infant program, and somebody brings in a 6-week-old infant (or whatever your minimum age is) with autism, and you're going to have that kid in your center 250 days a year until he (usually a he) enters kindergarten. How would you treat that kid differently as an infant?

I don't know the answer to that, but I think the field needs to have a conversation about best practices when we can diagnose autism at birth and tell which ones are likely to become alcoholics, or violently aggressive, or depressed, or to have panic attacks. Once we can put a newborn's drop of blood on a chip and get back probabilities of suffering a whole list of mental issues, what do we do about it?

This sounds like something somebody should hold a conference around.

The virus in everybody's brain

We know that mitochondria (the little things in cells that turn sugar into something other parts of the cell can burn directly, were originally separate creatures that merged with one of our (and pretty much everything's) prokaryote ancestors.

Now it seems that "8% of human genetic material comes from" bornaviruses (BDV) that invaded one or some of our more recent ancestors. They've found them in all sorts of mammals and birds.

What's more, BDV lives only in the brain and infects only neurons. So if I'm reading this right, 8% of our chromosomes consists of a virus that lives only in the brain.

Researchers said, "These data yield a testable hypothesis for the alleged, but still controversial, causative association of BDV infection with schizophrenia and mood disorders."

Oh, boy. The brain roils, and not just the virus part. By this time, the viruses are assimilated, so it's not really viruses we're talking about but chunks of human DNA that were inserted by a virus a long time ago. It's not like we can take antiviral medication to get rid of it.

And it's not like we would want to. It is probably a net benefit to us. I mean, the mitochondrial invasion was a huge success for eukaryota ever since. Maybe the reason the virus was able to naturalize in our brain, so to speak, is that those who had it had more babies, evolution 101. 

We  might, however, find a way to unexpress parts of it, if it turns out to be related to mental illnesses. And that's a cool conjectural prospect for down the line.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Child care budget

The governor's proposed budget is out. It proposes to reduce voucher program reimbursement ceilings from the 85th percentile of the RMR to the 75th percentile of the 2005 RMR. They say they'll cut $77 million in costs there.

License-exempt care goes from 90% of family providers rates to 70%.

Stage 3 gets cut $112 million. They say it's because giving them an entitlement gives them an inequitable advantage over CAPP program applicants. That's true, it does. Or did. I need to see how much a cut $112 million comes to and whether any of that money was put into CAPP.

I think I saw a minus 0.38% COLA. That would be interesting, if true.

I expect Tim Fitzharris to explain it all to us shortly by email. If you're involved in California child care and don't subscribe to the CDPI information bulletin email list, you should do so right now. You can sign up on their web page.

Draft competencies are out

Draft competencies are out. This is what CDE thinks a teacher ought to know and be able to do.

Friday follies

Young cat emerging from Christmas wrappings

Another Mozart study: preemies gain more weight

O, God, another Mozart study. This one says playing Mozart to preemies for 30 minutes once a day makes them grow faster. They are also calmer and less likely to be agitated, so they are expending less energy, which may account for the weight gain.

They are going to try different types of music and survey moms to see what kind of music the kids got in utero and then play that music to other kids.

This study doesn't sound flaky to me. I hope it gets extended and replicated before parents find out about it.

Golden ratio found in nature for the first time

A couple of weeks ago, I expressed some doubt about a theory by Adrian Bejan that lots of things can be explained by thinking of them as stuff flowing through a system. I said then,
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.
So I guess I should note a recent Science Daily article about researchers who have found the golden ratio in nature for the first time. They tuned this quantum mechanical thing to a series of resonant frequencies, and the "notes" turned out to be in the golden ratio to each other.
When applying a magnetic field at right angles to an aligned spin the magnetic chain will transform into a new state called quantum critical, which can be thought of as a quantum version of a fractal pattern. Prof. Alan Tennant, the leader of the Berlin group, explains "The system reaches a quantum uncertain -- or a Schrödinger cat state. This is what we did in our experiments with cobalt niobate. We have tuned the system exactly in order to turn it quantum critical."
By tuning the system and artificially introducing more quantum uncertainty the researchers observed that the chain of atoms acts like a nanoscale guitar string. Dr. Radu Coldea from Oxford University, who is the principal author of the paper and drove the international project from its inception a decade ago until the present, explains: "Here the tension comes from the interaction between spins causing them to magnetically resonate. For these interactions we found a series (scale) of resonant notes: The first two notes show a perfect relationship with each other. Their frequencies (pitch) are in the ratio of 1.618…, which is the golden ratio famous from art and architecture." Radu Coldea is convinced that this is no coincidence. "It reflects a beautiful property of the quantum system -- a hidden symmetry. Actually quite a special one called E8 by mathematicians, and this is its first observation in a material," he explains.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Girls just as good as boys at math

A recent meta-analysis reported in Science Daily shows that worldwide, girls are just as good as boys at math, though boys are more confident in their abilities. Makes sense, both parts.

Budget about to come out.

The Governor's proposed budget comes tomorrow about 11:30. Bosses want initial report within two hours. No problem.

I predict there will be no cuts to child care. Child care has been pretty near sacred, even in this economic climate. Everyone seems to get the relationship between having child care and being able to go to work, except readers of the Wall Street Journal.

Awwww, Baby beats time to music

I found this at Andrew Sullivan's place.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Who benefits from preschool?

I've been mulling this off and on since yesterday, when I discovered that nearly all of the educational benefits from Perry Preschool seen in teenagers are in girls. Perry Boys did better than the control group in other areas (not receiving social services as an adult, not being arrested, and owning their own home at age 27), but virtually all the educational benefits are to girls, and they showed a greater income increase, too. Then yesterday, I noted that a recent study on home visits for newborns showed an effect on arrests for girls but not for boys.

If Perry Preschool results are really valid, then it tells us that our standard way of raising poor black kids in Ypsilanti in the early 1960s damaged girls educationally and boys socially. If we gave them a rich kid's preschool, the girls became better students, and the boys became better integrated into the wider society.

I flippantly said yesterday that this meant we should restrict state preschool to girls, since we get more benefit from it, but the value of turning potential petty criminals into productive members of society is pretty worthwhile, too. Though yesterday's study of in-home visits makes one wonder about that, too.

But it may be that we need different curricula for boys and girls. Maybe we should emphasize things important to education for girls and socialization for boys, because that's where they seem to benefit. Or maybe we should emphasize socialization for girls and education for boys, since that's where they seem to need the most help. I don't know.

But before that, we have to ask how alike are the standard child-rearing practices in Ypsilanti in 1960 and in state preschool neighborhoods now. Lots of things have changed in 50 years. Maybe that has. Maybe the feminist movement or the emphasis on reading to kids has had an effect.

I guess what we'd have to do is study the long-term effects of California state preschool on girls and boys. That must have been done. It's too obvious not to have been done. I guess I'll go look for it. If anybody knows offhand where it is, please let me know.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Making kids better students by spanking them as preschoolers (seriously)

Here's another counter-intuitive study where I can't find the original, only some news articles about it. It claims that "kids smacked before age 6 grew up to be more successful, and that there was not enough evidence to say that smacking harms most kids.... But those who were smacked after age 6 were more likely than other kids to have behavioral difficulties, such as getting into fights."

The study author says:
The claims that are made for not spanking children fail to hold up. I think of spanking as a dangerous tool, but then there are times when there is a job big enough for a dangerous tool. You don’t use it for all your jobs.
In other words, sometimes a mom's just gotta whack the kid.

I dunno. I'll grant that people vary, and it may be that speaking to some kids lightly by hand, in a non-violent, non-ranting, non-physically-damaging way might get their attention better than saying mommy doesn't like it when you try to set fire to the cat. But I sure wouldn't trust it as a standard operating policy for parents. For one thing, the parents who would like it best I suspect are the ones who would overdo it. For another, since people vary, and some kids are helped and some hurt by it, how do you know what kind of kid you have?

No, I'm still glad I never hit a kid. If they want to be better students, they'll have to do it by self-flagellating.

In-home infant visits help girls but not boys avoid jail

A long-term study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine and reported in Science Daily examined 19-year-olds whose mothers had been in the Nurse-Family Partnership program in Elmira, NY. Some were in the control (no extra help) group, and others got in-home visits during pregnancy or during pregnancy and infancy. The latter group had about 1/3 as many arrests at age 19 and 1/5 as many convictions as the controls, but only for girls. Boys showed no difference between intervention and controls. The girl difference stayed when they controlled for income.

They did a cost benefit analysis and found that $7000 in program costs returned $9000 in benefits for low-risk girls and $41,000 for high-risk girls (i.e., those with low-income, unmarried mothers) .

Now why would it be that sending someone to help a new mom helps girls avoid jail but not boys? Maybe boys are just worse than girls and become whatever they are regardless of what you try to do. I hope not. Maybe the home nurses paid more attention to girls than boys. I doubt it. Maybe, because girls mature faster, earlier intervention helps girls more. Jeez, I can't even come up with a plausible conjecture.

I'd like to know if the Perry Preschool or Chicago Banks projects or anyone has looked at different long-term effects of child care on boys compared to girls.

God, I love Google. It turns out Perry Preschool did have bigger effects on girls than boys. "Going to preschool nearly doubled a girl's chances of getting a high school degree, but had no effect on boys. ... The preschool had a big effect on whether girls repeated grades or dropped out of school, but it had almost no effect on boys in these areas." Some areas showed effects for boys but always much less than for girls.

If girls benefit more by enrichment than boys, then something in our ordinary way of raising kids is stunting girls' mental development but not boys'.

This has implications for universal preschool or state preschool. If State Preschool (okay, CSPP) helps girls but not boys, it would be more cost-efficient to limit it to girls. Fat chance getting that through the legislature.

Many British kids having a hard time learning to talk, so they say

I don't understand this at all, and I don't think I believe it. A survey in Britain found that 1 in 6 kids, and nearly 1/4 of boys, have difficulty learning to talk and understand speech. 4% of kids had not said their first word by age 3.

It was an internet survey by a marketing firm, with parents reporting on their own kids' linguistic development. The parents all said they talked to their kids and read to them, told them stories, sang nursery rhymes, all the things parents need to do to teach their kids to speak, and still 1/4 of boys have a hard time with it, and 4% don't say a word until age 3.

I have a hard time believing the underlying claim of kids not learning to speak, because people are so hard-wired to learn to speak whatever their parents speak, and the parents all claim they are doing what we know they need to do. How could we survive as a species if 1/4 of the males have a hard time learning what distinguishes us from apes? If 1/4 of British males do, Britain is in serious trouble.

But suppose the survey results are correctly reported. What could be causing it?

Wall Street Journal blog asks if we should subsidize child care

Right now on a Wall Street Journal blog, the question is whether the government should subsidize child care. If you want to comment, go here.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Autism clusters among educated whites

A couple of California newspapers (other Google News links are broken) have short articles about a research report out of UC Davis saying that autism diagnoses in California cluster in areas where the families are older, whiter, and better educated.

I couldn't find the paper itself, but this blog has an interesting discussion of it, including noting earlier similar research.

If it were among poor people, we would assume there was something in the environment causing it, as lead consumption is higher among poor kids than rich kids. But this looks like a bias in diagnosis: kids of older, whiter, better educated parents are more likely to get an autism diagnosis than kids of younger, browner, less educated parents. This means not that autism clusters in rich areas but that it more often goes undiagnosed in poor ones.

Autism and digestive problems

Another study shows no relationship between being autistic and having digestive problems and no benefit from special diets. The possibility of "leaky gut" being related to autism was first  brought up in the same study that falsely implicated measles vaccine, which is strike one.

I guess one can understand why people not steeped in science and confronted with an autistic kid would try weird stuff, but it is a distraction from things that might help. The likelihood of improvement from cognitive therapy makes it worth trying, and one can be hopeful that one day the brain can be influenced by, oh, gene therapy or affecting neurotransmitters in just the right place, so we need to keep up research along those lines, but I think we know enough about autism to say it is not related to diet or vaccines. You might as well take laetrile.

Letting community colleges give BAs

Assemblyman Marty Block, of San Diego, has raised the idea of letting community colleges give bachelor's degrees, possibly starting with a few subjects at a few community colleges. The point is that they can give them cheaper than the CSUs can, and the CSUs don't have enough capacity for all the people who want BAs.

This reminds me of the progression from CSCs to CSUs. The system originally had community colleges issuing AAs, state colleges issuing BAs, and UCs issuing doctorates. Then state colleges started issuing doctorates, ostensibly because the UCs didn't have the capacity for all our doctorate-seeking students, and they became CS universities

I don't see any reason not to do this. And if they need a pilot program to start off, I'll recommend child development at any of a dozen community colleges up and down the state.

Somebody like Tri-C EC should get in touch with Mr. Block and start some actual legislation.

Update. Assemblyman Marty Block is preparing legislation to do just that. Good for him.

Baby math on Radiolab

Radiolab is now officially my favorite non-news radio show, surpassing even This American Life and Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. A few days ago, I posted about a Radiolab show about whether war was inevitable, with side trips into baboon sociology, transgender people, and fox breeding.

My partner then told me about something she had heard on NPR about babies and numbers, and it turned out to be the same people. It's wonderful, and they call it Numbers. Most of it is too detailed for this blog, but one part should be very interesting to CD people.

They discuss some attention tests with kids, the ones where a kid sits on mommy's lap and looks at stuff flashing on a screen. When the kid gets bored, as shown by looking away, they flash something else. If the kid looks back at the screen, they figure it noticed the difference.

Doing this, they can tell that a 2 to 3-month old can tell the difference between 1 and 2, between 8 and 16, and between 10 and 20, but not between 9 and 10.

The reason, they say, is that they don't think in integers, the way adults (anybody older than 3 1/2) do. We see the difference between 1 and 2 as 1. The difference between 9 and 10 is also 1. Babies and toddlers see the difference between 1 and 2 as double, and the difference between 9 and 10 is 11%, too small for them to see.

They cite a tribe (Africa? South America?) where people still think that way as adults. If you put 1 stone on the left and 9 stones on the right and then decide to put an amount in the middle that is intermediate between 1 and 9, we would pick 5. They would pick 3, because 1 times 1 is 3, and 3 times 3 is 9. It is logarithmic thinking rather than integral.

But we keep teaching toddlers to recite the sequence of numbers, and we think they understand them, but they don't. Then around 3 1/2, something clicks, and they get that 6 is 1 more than 5.

From that basic fact, arithmetic is possible, and all the math that follows.

It's a really cool show. I encourage y'all to go to their site and listen to it. I plan to work my way through their archives.

It also tells us it's silly to expect a toddler to understand integers. As parents we still have to count Cheerios with our kids, but we just can't expect them to get integers until they're ready, as with so much of child development.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Friday follies on Saturday

Old cat lying on a wall in the garden.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Baboons, foxes, and domesticating humans away from war

I just heard the coolest radio show I've ever heard on NPR, cooler than the giant pool of money. It's from Radiolab and discusses how to tell if a change is transient or permanent, with a central question of whether it is possible ever to eliminate war among humans. Radiolab tells several stories.

The first is about baboons. The way baboon troops operate is that around puberty, males get antsy and leave the troop for another one. There they are shown a mix of hazing and ignoring. In general, females cooperate with each other, and males fight each other. It's the way baboons are. Except in one place.

A tourist lodge was built and then expanded near one baboon troop's range. They dug a big hole on the periphery, and every morning at 9 a.m., a tractor dumped a load of garbage, leftover food from the dining room and kitchen. Free baboon food. The nearest baboons moved in, and instead of getting up at daybreak to forage, they began sleeping in the trees around the dump and rolling out about 2 minutes to 9.

A troop next door found out, and the biggest males would go over and grab food. They got beat up by the resident baboons, of course, but they did get some food for themselves, which they did not share with the lower ranking baboons of their own tribe.

Then one day the meat was contaminated with tuberculosis, and in weeks, the big, aggressive males all died. The remaining males were less aggressive and groomed each other, unheard of in baboonology. What's more, as their young males left the tribe and other males arrived, the newly arrived males were treated better than they usually are, and the non-aggressive social structure has continued 20 years and counting.

The second was about a transgendered woman who is mayor in a tiny town in Oregon.

Later they talked about the fox breeding experiment in Russia, that I've talked about before, where selecting for tame foxes meant selecting for low adrenaline, and other things like thin bones, smaller teeth, variegated coat, and floppy ears followed, because they are all mediated by adrenaline, so cutting adrenaline changed all those things. But then they applied the lessons to humans.

This is conjecture, but let's suppose that when people became able to hunt and gather in cooperation, this meant that they were able to cooperate to kill an alpha male if he was too much of a bully. Baboons have to let the big guy rule, because they don't know how to fight together. But humans do and can kill one big guy. The question is whether this selection for less aggression by killing the aggressor has other adrenaline-mediated effects. Compared with our ancestors, modern humans have thinner bones, less hair, and smaller teeth, so it's plausible that the same selective pressure is occurring when we either kill crooks and murderers or put them in jail, where they breed less than free-range low-lifes do.

If this is true, then we are domesticating ourselves by our power of cooperation, and there is no particular reason it can't continue. We might, one day, end war. How about that. Something hopeful on New Year's. Happy new year.

For your new year's present to yourself, sit and listen to it.