Friday, April 30, 2010

Flower porn: Meyer Lemon blossoms

The next crop of Meyer lemons on the hoof.

Multiple brain areas for different parts of language

Rule 2 is everything is more complicated than you think it is.* In a really cool study, it turns out
there is no single advanced area of the human brain that gives it language capabilities above and beyond those of any other animal species. Instead, humans rely on several regions of the brain, each designed to accomplish different primitive tasks, in order to make sense of a sentence. Depending on the type of grammar used in forming a given sentence, the brain will activate a certain set of regions to process it, like a carpenter digging through a toolbox to pick a group of tools to accomplish the various basic components that comprise a complex task. ...
To determine whether different brain regions were used to decipher sentences with different types of grammar, the scientists turned to American Sign Language for a rare quality it has.
Some languages (English, for example) rely on the order of words in a sentence to convey the relationships between the sentence elements. When an English speaker hears the sentence "Sally greets Bob," it's clear from the word order that Sally is the subject doing the greeting and Bob is the object being greeted, not vice versa.
Other languages (Spanish, for example) rely on inflections, such as suffixes tacked on to the ends of words, to convey subject-object relationships, and the word order can be interchangeable.
American Sign Language has the helpful characteristic that subject-object relationships can be expressed in either of the two ways – using word order or inflection. Either a signer can sign the word "Sally" followed by the words "greets" and "Bob" (a construction in which word order dictates meaning), or the signer can use physical inflections such as moving hands through space or signing on one side of the body to convey the relationship between elements. For the study, the team formed 24 sentences and expressed each of those sentences using both methods.
Videos of the sentences being signed were then played for the subjects of the experiment, native signers who were lying on their backs in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines with coils around their heads to monitor which areas of the brain were activated when processing the different types of sentences.
The study found that there are, in fact, distinct regions of the brain that are used to process the two types of sentences: those in which word order determined the relationships between the sentence elements, and those in which inflection was providing the information. 
Sorry for the long quote, but they said it so well.

I have a probably unfounded attraction to a weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which makes me hope somebody takes this study and looks at whether the parts of the brain that are activated when speaking one language rather than another have any influences on thought or behavior.

*Rule 1 is people vary. Rule 3 is everything takes longer than you think it will.

Friday follies

Young cat looked so cute posing next to Our Lady of the Pond. Until, of course, I got the camera. Old cat is easy to take pictures of, because she rarely moves faster than slime mold. But young cat is mostly a blur, unless he's face deep in catnip. My partner had the great thought of putting a flap at the bottom of a partly open window, like a cat door, or we'd be opening doors a thousand times a day. We see him in the jacaranda out back, and suddenly he's coming in the front window. It's like we have twin cats. But we never see them together; coincidence?

On his other side, he has a shaved area around a single puncture wound. Most bite wounds have two holes, either side by side or on opposite sides, so the vet was perplexed. The next day, when I got home from work, I heard a huge to-do from crows in the neighbor's Tipuana tipu tree. Young cat had slipped out of his no-lick collar and was 40 feet up a 50-foot tree with crows attacking him like biplanes going after King Kong. So I'm guessing the puncture weapon was a crow's beak. I wish we could get him to lie in wait for gophers rather than climbing after birds.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wild animals' right to privacy; where do rights come from?

Now this is just silly. Some guy in Britain (a "senior lecturer in the School of Film and Television Studies") thinks wild animals have an intrinsic right to privacy that documentary producers are violating. Jesus, dude. Wild animals don't even have the right not to be torn limb from limb by a predator.

One distinction I make among people is between humanists and transcendentalists on the question of where rights come from.
  • A transcendentalist would likely say either that they come from god (e.g., "endowed by their creator") or that they just are; they are embedded in the universe. They are part of natural law.
  • A humanist (as I am) would say rights are conventional. People in a culture decide what rights they each have, not necessarily through formal action (as in the Bill of Rights) or legislation but more often by what collectively feels right to us, which is some complicated mix of genetic and epigenetic factors and synapses caused by our parents and friends and what we see on the news. Since people vary in all these factors, it is not surprising that some of us care about animal privacy and some do not.
Blacks and Chinese and American Indians used to not have rights in the US. It wasn't that they had rights that were denied to them; they just didn't have them. Now they do. Good.

And as a mild biological determinist, I can't hold it against the transcendentalists that they are so horribly wrong. They can't help being wrong, just as I can't help feeling right on this issue.

Oxytocin: A wonder drug

We already knew that oxytocin
  • Induces labor
  • Bonds mom and baby
  • Is released copiously during orgasm
  • Makes you trust people more, and therefore makes negotiators come to deals easier
  • Allows Aspergers kids to understand other people's intentions
Now it turns out that getting oxytocin in a nasal spray makes men more empathetic. We gotta find a way to put this into the water supply, or at least make it available in an over-the-counter spray. We could wear it like perfume.

Teaching babies to swim improves balance later

Some researchers in compared 19 5-year-olds in Iceland who had spent two hours a week from 2 or 3 months until 7 months with 19 who had not.
A typical session might involve helping the baby do a somersault on a floating mat, having the baby dive under water, jump from the pool edge, and balance on the hand of a parent while reaching to pick up floating objects. At approximately age 5, both baby swimmers and the control group were tested with similar exercises. The exercises included walking on tiptoes, balancing on one foot, skipping rope, rolling a ball into a goal and catching a beanbag. ... “We saw very clearly that baby swimmers were the best in exercises that related to balance and the ability to reach for things.”
 Think scaffolding. Or human capital theory. Or compound interest of the cerebellum. The earlier you learn something, the more it influences what you learn and can do later.

Although, this is still mildly surprising to me. With reading, a kid who learns the skill at age 4 will not necessarily be a better reader in third grade than a kid who learns at age 6. The kid may have two more years of packing in information, and knowing which is the boys' or girls' bathroom, but it doesn't make them better readers later on. With balance, however, it does build, according to this study.

Whether the study is replicated or not, it would not be a wild prediction that young women who used to be gymnasts might, on learning this, take their babies to swimming class in order to make them better gymnasts in kindergarten, which I gather is when elite gymnasts start.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Study finds ... something about fat kids' drug metabolism

This kind of reporting annoys the hell out of me. A study looked at how fat kids and normal kids metabolize caffeine and dextromethorphan (the part of cough medicine you can feel coursing through you, though I did see a study that said it didn't reduce coughs).
They found that obese children metabolized both drugs at different rates than healthy weight children.
But they didn't say if they metabolized them faster or slower! Jesus, woman, tell me the results of the study. Don't just tease me and make me hope some actual news organization will cover the conference and report on it, or pay the subscription fee to the journal.

Where psychopathy happens

A recent study comparing the ability of psychopaths, people with frontal lobe brain damage, and normals to understand the emotions of others found that "The pattern of impairments in the psychopathic participants showed a remarkable resemblance to those in the participants with frontal lobe damage, suggesting that an underlying cause of the behavioural disturbances observed in psychopathy may be dysfunction in the frontal lobes."

The authors consider this ability to be part of the theory of mind, which puts this in a different light than I had considered it before. The article about the study says "it has been suggested recently that (theory of mind) is made up of different aspects: a cognitive part, which requires inferences about knowledge and beliefs, and another part which requires the understanding of emotions."

It makes sense that these two theories of mind exist; I'm not sure if it makes sense to lump them as parts of a whole. Psychopaths are often successful manipulators, which means they have a good theory of mind regarding what other people know. I would have thought that they understood that their victims were afraid but didn't care.  In fact, I thought that was partly the point. And some serial killers have been able to manipulate the emotions of their victims. How could they do that without understanding them? I need to think about this more.

That's the thing about blogging. I get up early in the morning and look at a series of sites for interesting stuff and then need to understand it and write about it right then. If I wait, it will be lost, and I'll be on to something else. Unfortunately, my first impressions of a news item or study have a fairly high probability of being wrong. I guess ya gets what ya gets for the price ya pays.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Temper dysregulation disorder

So you've got a kid who flies into a rage several times a week. The current misdiagnosis is bipolar, which changes the meaning of bipolar, so now some folks are recommending a new childhood mental disorder, to be called temper dysregulation disorder, or TDD, in the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The point is apparently to create a diagnosis less severe than bipolar.

Oh, crap. The field has a really bad record in childhood mental disorders. (Of course, historically they have a bad record in adult mental disorders, such as considering homosexuality a treatable disorder.) But they took a perfectly good adult diagnosis (bipolar disorder) and applied it to thousands of kids where it was clearly not appropriate if bipolar means the same thing in kids that it does in adults. They took a perfectly good definition of dyslexia and made it into a diagnosis of anyone with a certain reading ability below grade level for whatever reason.

So I predict that if this is put into the DSM, it will be applied to pretty much any kid who throws temper tantrums and whom the evaluator doesn't like. It will be diagnosed earlier and earlier, and some forward-thinking parents will get their normal two-year-olds diagnosed as TDD so they will get extra time on tests in high school and college. 

External motivations work for some

Since my first kid's first-grade class won some pizza for reading a certain number of books outside class, I've had a hobby-horse about external motivations I ride every once in a while. If you give kids pizza for reading, then when the pizza goes away, so does the motivation to read, and you end up with a bunch of fat kids who still can't read very well.

But I have to remember my own dictum that people vary. Some people really are driven by rewards.

According to this study, people who are driven by rewards (who can be identified by a battery of personality tests as well as by their lateral prefrontal cortex lighting up more often and longer than the rest of us at the prospect of a reward) are just driven in general. In this study, which had them playing word games for zero, 25 cents, or 75 cents, they worked just as hard for no money, and they did better than when it was for money.

That makes it sound as though it's not the reward but the inner drive. Like a gambler, it's not the money, it's the action. Dopamine (or some other hormone) is released somewhere in the brain, and they just feel the flow. Another biological influence on behavior.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Poverty and basic motor skills

By the time they reach preschool, urban preschoolers (read: poor, and probably some ethnic or racial minority, to, but it's the poverty, not the ethnos) are already behind in language development by a number of measures. Now it turns out they are behind at recess, too.
The researchers studied 469 preschool students enrolled in urban, state-funded programs serving disadvantaged youth. Included were 275 children, mostly African American, from a Midwestern city and 194 children, mostly Hispanic, from a southwestern city.
The children were evaluated using a standardized test of motor skills. They participated in tests of locomotor skills which included running, jumping, hopping, leaping, sliding and galloping. They were also evaluated on object control skills through tests of throwing, catching, kicking, striking, dribbling and rolling.
They found 86% of this group were below the 30th percentile in basic skills like running, catching, throwing, and kicking. Imagine kids who don't know how to run for lack of experience at it. What would that look like? Does it mean boys running and throwing like girls? And girls throwing like kids with cerebral palsy? The girls in this study were averaged the 11th percentile in object control, meaning using a ball or a bat.

Assuming this is reliable and valid (and all I've read about it is the link above), it means these kids don't go to parks, or the beach, or probably even outside. It has to be just lack of experience doing stuff. It's not like you need actual instruction in running. 

And of course this is probably one factor in the observation that poor people are fatter than rich people. They don't get as much normal exercise as other kids. So it ends up as just another way poor people have it worse than the rest of us.

$300,000 a year for a preschool director (but that includes benefits)

Ron Williams is executive director of an NAEYC-accredited preschool program with two sites in Paterson, New Jersey. He is site director of one of them. They care for 350 to 375 kids at the two sites on a budget of $4.3 million, of which $4.2 million is state or federal subsidy. After 16 years there, during which he took the program from 15 kids to its current size, he makes $300,000 a year, including pension and benefits.

There is no suggestion of illegality (although his wife is vice-president of the board that sets his salary, and the preschool itself was founded by a church whose pastor later became a corrupt politician, convicted of bribery). Other local directors with similar-size programs make about half as much.

I have mixed feelings about this. I think the real problem is not that he makes twice as much as he should but that the others make half as much as they should. One thing that would make me trust him or not is how much the teachers make. If the preschool has a high wage in general, cool. If the teachers in his preschools make $20 an hour, let Williams have his 300 grand. If not, he's probably just greedy, although he has stuck around a preschool for 16 years. He he were just a scammer, he wouldn't be running an accredited program.

We have people in California running quality programs for that many kids. I wonder how much they make.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Worst foster system nominee: No Muslims allowed

In Maryland, the foster care system has refused to allow a woman to be a foster parent because she is a Muslim and therefore won't have pork in her house, which violates the kid's right to eat pork. No, really, that's what they said.
We are denying your application because of concerns raised by statements made during the home study interview, specifically your explicit request to prohibit pork products within your home environment. Although we respect your personal/religious views and practices, this agency must above all ensure that the religious, cultural and personal rights of each foster child placed in our case are upheld. Your statement indicates that there could potentially be a discrepancy between your expectations and the needs and personal views of a child placed in your care.
As Ed Brayton said on his blog, where I found this, "Unless they also refuse every vegetarian and every Jewish person, this is pretty clearly a matter of discrimination."

As the current expression says, I am gobsmacked by this. How could any person with normal cognitive abilities imagine that putting a foster kid in a house that does not serve pork (or coffee, or Coca Cola, or okra, or brown rice, or Skittles, or any particular food) is harmful to the kid? How can they construe the first amendment to the constitution to mean there is a religious, cultural, or personal right to eat pork?

Does it mean that a Muslim or Jewish kid cannot be put into a Christian, Buddhist, Hindi, or atheist home, because they might see other family members eat pork?

Whoever made this decision should be given a nice job somewhere where he or she* won't be forced to make constitutional judgments.

*I first wrote "he, for it must be a he," and then I remembered Michele Bachmann.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Mental disorders among extreme premees

A study of 219 extreme premees (<26 weeks) in the UK showed about a quarter of them had a psychiatric disorder at 11 years of age: 12% had ADHD, 9% emotional disorders, and 8% autism spectrum.

I have a hard time with our ability to have kids survive earlier and earlier births. Kids born before their lungs and brains and hearts have developed to normal birth standards end up screwed up in lots of ways. Sometimes I think kids born so young should be treated like hospice patients; if they can live without intubation, they live. Otherwise, let the parents start over.

I know that's not really an option; you can't just tell parents that any kid born before XX weeks doesn't deserve to live, but it also seems to me much like finding out that your fetus has Down syndrome. You never know for sure, but if I were pregnant with a Down syndrome kid, I think I would abort it. What would I do if I knew or thought my kid would have cystic fibrosis, a defective heart valve, an 80 IQ, and a personality disorder? I don't know. What would I recommend others do? I would not recommend anything. That's way above my pay grade.

Friday follies

Young cat dipping into lush spring catnip.

A gene involved in Williams syndrome found

Williams syndrome is a very interesting condition and may be the origin of elf myths. People who have it are small, cute ("elfin facial appearance"), cheerful, and glib. They have wonderfully fluent speech, but they are also physically weak and mentally retarded, with an average IQ of around 60 and problems with numbers, memory, and visual-spatial perception. A host of other physical characteristics are associated with it.

There are very few genetic differences between Willliamses and normals, so researchers had to look at relatively few genes to find one associated with it, and they found one that is related to its role in intelligence.

I predict that within 50 years, Williams syndrome will be diagnosed and ameliorated in utero. In fact, I predict that within 50 years, a whole string of genetic or congenital mental and physical problems will occur only in people without access to modern medicine. Williams, autism, schizophrenia, depression, bi-polar, spinal bifida, multiple sclerosis--it's hard to think of something you can be born with that shouldn't be fixable in 50 years.

This will be another difference between the US and, say, the Central African Republic. (Or whatever it is named by then; it was optimistically called the Central African Empire when I passed through Bangui in 1983. I'll tell you about that trip some evening over margaritas. I especially liked the airport fire engines that had surface-to-air missiles on top. I doubt that it is any more of a republic now than it was an empire then.)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Good teachers help; bad teachers hinder

A study comparing monozygotic and dizygotic twins shows that good teachers can make a kid read to her entire potential, so the heritability of reading ability in their classrooms is 100%.* Bad teachers, on the other hand, can keep kids from reaching their potential, leaving a smaller heritability factor.

*For an explanation of this idea, see this post.

The heritability of suicide

Young kids who lose a parent to suicide (about 10,000 a year in the US) are 3 times more likely to commit suicide themselves than kids who lost a parent due to illness or accident, and they are also at risk for a bunch of other mental problems. By 12, the rate drops to twice normal, and 18, the issue vanishes. Kids who lost a parent due to illness are more likely to be hospitalized but not more likely to commit suicide.

I guess this isn't a surprise. The act of suicide is pretty good evidence of some sort of mental problem going on, such as depression, and lots of mental problems, including depression, have a genetic component. What's odd is that it doesn't affect adults. I guess the stress is greater on a younger person, and some sort of hormonal or epigenetic influence happens in the brain.

The autistic brain

Lots of imaging studies have been done on the brains of autists, including some showing increased thickness of the visual cortex. This study shows, for the first time, increased thickness of the primary auditory cortex. As one of the authors points out, "(T)he visual and auditory cortical thickness increases may be related to enhanced visual and auditory perception in autism."

This would go some way toward explaining the sensory overload autistic kids seem to experience. It might explain how Temple Grandin sees things other abbatoirists don't.

Little pleasures: Hot tub in the morning

One advantage of a failing memory is that I sometimes forget to turn off the hot tub at night, so it's hot when I wake up with a sore back early in the morning. There are few pleasures better than slipping a sore back into hot water. It's raining here today, so I took an umbrella, rested the handle on my sternum and the umbrella itself on the tiles of the hot tub, so the rain stayed out of my face. After a while, the umbrella was saturated, so raindrops hitting on the outside would unleash a mist of coolness inside. What a great way to spend the first part of a Thursday morning.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Marriage is unimportant to child development

A study of 10,000 kids in Britain says that kids whose parents are married do better because married couples are richer, better educated, and more loving. If you control for those factors, it ain't the marriage, it's everything else.

This means gays won't be better parents if they are allowed to marry.

Flower porn: Crocus

A volunteer crocus in our back yard. I'm not sure what kind it is, but it's cool having unexpected pretty things just pop up in your life.

Cochlear implants are better sooner than later

A new study shows, like those before it, that cochlear implants make life better for deaf kids, and the sooner they get them, the better. The point is that during the time before the implant, the kid isn't hearing language right, which affects their ability to use it.

Kids who got an implant before 18 months of age reached a particular language development milestone at 36 months, compared with normal  hearing kids' 27 months. Kids who got an implant after age 3 reached the milestone 2 years later, and the actual time per kid was related to when they got the implant.

Normally I give a lot of leeway to parental discretion, but this is a case where dithering hurts the kid. If you have a deaf kid, talk to your doctor about cochlear implants today.

Another way to screw up your kids: Breathe the air

PAHs are one of the most widespread organic pollutants. In addition to their presence in fossil fuels they are also formed by incomplete combustion of carbon-containing fuels such as wood, coal, diesel, fat, tobacco, or incense.
And wouldn't you know it, kids exposed to them prenatally had lower IQs at age 5 than kids not exposed to them prenatally. The study was in Poland, but the amounts of PAH in the environment were the same as in New York.

God, there are so many things that can affect a baby prenatally. It makes you want to move to the north woods while you're pregnant.

I guess the solution is to reduce urban pollution. Non-hydrocarbon-burning cars and electricity plants would be a start. In the meantime, as a culture, we have to acknowledge that, like global warming, human activities are making a substantial fraction of us dumber than we should be. As individuals, moving to a less polluted place might be a reasonable option for people with the means to do so. Other moms just gotta add air pollution to the list of things that can screw up your kid, maybe monitor the pollution on the web and wear a mask or stay indoors on bad days. The site at the link is a state of California site, but it doesn't list PAHs among its monitored pollutants.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Not up to speed

This morning I was in the No. 2 lane behind a driver going 60 miles an hour. As I passed, I saw a Bush/Cheney 2004 bumper sticker in the back window. I thought, this lady is not up to speed on anything.

Fat, dumb, and happy: An obesity gene that also shrinks your brain

It seems there is a gene variant that in the US is found in half of all people of European ancestry, a quarter of Hispanics, and 15% of Asians and African Americans that causes them to gain weight and "puts them at risk for obesity." Now they find that this same allele is associated with a loss of brain tissue, an average of 8% less in the frontal lobes. People without the bad allele can get fat without losing brain tissue.

That's a third of the population, which makes this a huge candidate for figuring out how the allele works and how to counteract it. Imagine if we were able to take a third of our people and make them not become fat.

I wonder when the brain loss starts and how much it affects cognition. Imagine if a third of our old people didn't have shrinking brains. That would sure reduce the Fox News audience.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Fat Inuit kids: A glory of modern civilization

It used to be that Inuit kids were born the same size as other kids, but by 6 months they were smaller. Now, mostly due to maternal and child nutrition, Inuit preschoolers are just as tall as the other kids, but now they're fatter, too.

Quote: Barney Frank on the homosexual agenda

Barney Frank: ''Here's my radical homosexual agenda: Let us get married, join the military and hold down a job. Very few radicals in history would have thought much of that.''

We're winning this one.

Sending kids home sick

Title 22 says you can't keep a sick kid in your center. But how sick is sick enough to send home? The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association put out some guidelines, got some states to endorse them, and then asked center directors (in Milwaukee, where the state has endorsed the guidelines) about kids with "cold, conjunctivitis, gastroenteritis, fever and tinea capitis (a scalp infection)," none of which should get a kid sent home, according to the guidelines.
The researchers found that overall, directors would unnecessarily exclude 57 percent of children with mild illnesses. Responses ranged from eight percent of directors unnecessarily excluding a child with a cold, to 84 percent of directors unnecessarily excluding a child with tinea capitis. Directors with greater child care experience and directors of larger centers made fewer unnecessary exclusion decisions.
It looks to me as though 84% of the directors didn't know what tinea capitis is and so erred on the side of caution.  It also looks as though a lot of directors don't know what to do about more common illnesses.

It's hard. You don't want to violate licensing regs, and you don't want to make other kids sick, but you also don't want to mess up working parents' child care. Staying home from work with a sick kid can cost people money they can't afford. So I guess the summary is that everything is hard, and directors should be aware of the rules and guidelines affecting their chosen managerial role and do their damned job.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Lengthening a leg with a magnet

This is really cool. A girl in Texas got bone cancer (that's not the cool part) and had part of one femur replaced with a metal implant. The problem is her legs would grow, but the implant would not, so they would have to keep replacing it with bigger implants, and she faced maybe 10 more surgeries.

But the implant they used can be lengthened as the leg grows. Every so often, they put her leg in a magnetic donut and stretch the implant magnetically, saving months in the hospital and years of anxiety over operation after operation. What a nice thing to be able to do for a little girl.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Hybrid vigor in humans

This certainly matches my prejudices. Two common ideas come together here. It is generally thought that

  • the subjective way females pick their mates is related to how fit they think the male is. A big tail on a peacock or antlers on a deer indicate an ability to thrive even with such a handicap (although this does have the smell of a just-so story)
  • Mongrels are fitter; the technical term is hybrid vigor.
Regarding the first, it is often thought that something in how attractive people find other is related to how fit they look.

Now let's take a leap.

This study had study subjects look at a pile of photos of  black, white, and mixed-race people. There was a small but significant effect of thinking the mixed-race people were more attractive. The suggestion is that mixed-race people display hybrid vigor, and this can be discerned in photos.

I don't know. It all sounds plausible, and it matches my prejudices, but that's a good reason to be skeptical about the ability to see this in photos.

I've often thought that, for one generation, we should require that everyone in America marry outside their race, so in a generation, everybody would be related to people of another race, and everybody would be the color of Polynesians. Or me, for that matter, long ago, in the late summer between any two years of high school, my flirtation with skin cancer.

I found this at Science Daily.

Teachers don't really like creative kids

I found this at Andrew Sullivan's blog. Some researchers did a two-part study. First they took a bunch of personality characteristics associated by psychologists with creativity, things like individualism, risk-seeking, accepting authority or not, and asked some teachers to rate their most and least favorite kids based on those characteristics. They liked creative kids less and uncreative kids more. No surprise. I remember junior high.

But teachers claim they like working with creative kids. So they looked at the characteristics that teachers associated with creativity, and they were not the same. They like kids who match their idea of creative.

Early in my senior year in high school, our 150-year-old civics teacher was talking about civil dissent and asked how it would be appropriate to say bad things about or to the government. The correct answer was apparently to petition the government for redress of grievances. I piped up instead with going to Hyde Park, the spot in London where crazy people stand on milk crates and harangue passersby. She thought I meant Hyde Park, New York, where her hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt, lived and is buried in the rose garden. My senior year went downhill from there.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Was the race to the top fixed?

Calitics has an interesting post about Race to the Top.
The reason states like California didn't win is because they were never intended to win. The purpose of Race to the Top wasn't to award money, but to force policy changes. Now that the policy changes have been approved, there's no reason for Arne Duncan to want to get money to those states. He got what he wanted.
Sigh. I don't have any idea if this is true, but it's sad that it's so plausible. Maybe we can repeal our changes, and make the feds give us something if they want us to follow their rules.

Owning embryos

Wendy Lestina posted today about some people who are fighting over a couple of frozen human embryos. This particular case involves contract law, but it brings up the idea of ownership of body parts.

The idea of anybody owning an embryo seems less related to the outdated idea that we owned our children, and could thus do anything we wanted with and to them, and more related to our notion that we own our body parts. But we don't.

More than one court case has held that, when a surgeon kept a piece of a patient after an operation and used that body part to create something salable (for example, the only immortal line of cancer cells for study), the patient gets nothing. It's like putting out your trash. Courts have held that once you put your trash at the curb or alley for pickup, it no longer belongs to you, and anybody can rifle through it for interesting bits of news about you.

I have no strong feelings about who should own the embryos in this particular case, but I do think  people should have control over their own body parts. Maybe every surgical consent form should have a section about ownership of leftover parts, like getting the broken parts back at an auto repair shop.

And being a pro-abortion liberal, I think that control over one's  body parts lasts until the kid could survive on its own outside the womb.

Atheist Barbie

I saw this on Greg Laden's blog.  Blag Hag designed it.

A gene for responding to stress

The brains of stressed mice with one allele of a gene look like mice that have not been stressed. The neurons in their hippocampus look normal.

The brains of unstressed mice with a different allele look like normal mice after extended stress. Hippocampal neurons look shrunken; they have a reduced number of dendrites.

This is a step toward figuring out why some people suffer from a bad environment and some don't.

Poverty and health

(T)he cumulative effects of crowded and unstable housing and uncertain supplies of food and heat act together to decrease the chances of normal growth and development and good physical health among infants and toddlers.
It's easy to imagine an effect like this on older children, but on infants and toddlers? That means it doesn't require understanding what is going on for the effect to occur. It has to be either something physically in the environment or anxious vibes coming from the parents. The authors suggest

(A) diet of inadequate quality or quantity, temperature stress from lack of heat or cooling, and frequent moves or increased exposure to infectious disease and noise in crowded household ...
 The Wall Street Journal once called people too poor to have to pay taxes "lucky duckies." I guess. Maybe they'll get real lucky and total their car, so they don't have to buy gas, either, or drive to work. Or maybe the kids will die, so they don't have to fret over the fact that they can't afford college.

Another thing that occurs to me is that if infants suffer from "diet of inadequate quality or quantity," then either mom's not breastfeeding, or her diet is affecting her milk.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Is autism contagious?

No, but autism diagnoses are, in a sense.
The Columbia University team looked at data on over 300,000 children born between 1997 and 2003 throughout California. The team found that (C)hildren who live within 250 meters of a child with autism have a 42 percent higher chance of being diagnosed with (autism) in the following year compared with children who do not live near a child with autism. Children who live between 250 meters and 500 meters from a child with autism were 22 percent more likely to be diagnosed. The chances of being diagnosed decrease significantly the farther children live from another child with autism.
The study used several tests to determine whether these results could be explained by a social influence effect, or if environmental toxicants or a virus are to blame. For example, the researchers looked at children who live close to each other, but on opposite sides of school district boundaries. These children are likely exposed to the same environmental conditions, but their parents likely belong to different social networks.
The research shows that the increased chance of diagnosis only exists when parents reside in the same school district. Children who live equally close to a child with autism—but in another school district—were no more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder than children who do not have a neighbor with autism. The results are a strong indication that the proximity effect is a social phenomenon and not the result of environment, Dr. Bearman says. 
The reason, they say, is that most people don't really know about autism, so they don't know to get a screening, unless they live close to someone with an autistic kid, who can tell them what to do and guide them through the system.

This makes intuitive sense. People I hang out with are immersed in kid stuff, and most of them can tell you offhand the symptoms that would lead to a referral for all sorts of conditions, but most parents aren't and can't.

Friday follies

Young cat watching bush tits and making a rattling noise in his throat. So far, he hasn't shown much sign of becoming a hunter, but the genes are in there.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

24/7 child care at naval base

The naval air station at Coronado, near San Diego, is building a child care center that will be open 24/7. Cool. Can you imagine how much that will cost to operate? At an NAEYC-accredited center (as all military centers have to be)?

Curing autism

I've said before that I expect to see a cure for autism in the next decade or two. This study suggests a candidate for that cure.
A new discovery raises hope that autism may be more easily diagnosed and that its effects may be more reversible than previously thought. In a new study appearing online in The FASEB Journal (, scientists have identified a way to detect the disorder using blood and have discovered that drugs which affect the methylation state ("DNA tagging") of genes could reverse autism's effects. This type of drug is already being used in some cancer treatments.
I have a hard time even hoping that it will this easy, but if it turns out to be, then a pretty much lost 1% of the population will be returned to grace. We just have to make sure we don't "cure" too many engineers.

Great tits and the biology of behavior

I mostly just wanted to use that headline. This is an article about birds with different alleles of a gene affecting dopamine binding. In some populations of great tits, having a particular allele makes the birds more exploratory. In other populations, it doesn't.

In other words, the influence of genes and the environment on behavior is complicated. You already knew that, didn't you? One of the rules of life is that everything is more complicated than you think it is.

Brain differences in symptomless depressive girls

Some researchers looked at girls 10 to 14 who did not have any symptoms of depression but whose mothers had recurrent depression.
All 26 participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while completing a task involving the possibility of reward and punishment. They were first shown a target and told that if a circle appeared, they could gain points by being fast enough to hit the target. If a square appeared, they could avoid losing points by hitting the target quickly. If a triangle appeared, they could neither win nor lose points and should avoid responding. The task consisted of 100 six-second trials, each of which contained an anticipation phase and a feedback phase, during which the girls were told whether they gained or lost points. The points could be redeemed for prizes at the end of the task
The high-risk group displayed diminished neural responses during both anticipation and receipt of the reward when compared with the low-risk group. Specifically, they did not show any activation in a brain area known as the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which appears to be involved in reinforcing past experiences to facilitate learning. However, compared with low-risk girls, high-risk girls showed an increased activation in this area when receiving punishment. This suggests they may more easily integrate information about loss and punishment than reward and pleasure over time.
It's all in the brain. You have to wonder if all these girls will suffer real depression later, if they are biologically fated for it, or if it takes some environmental trigger, such as loss of a loved one, to bring it on.

If it were ever the case that fMRIs machines were cheap and everywhere, one could routinely screen kids at birth. It could become part of the APGAR score, and then at intervals we could check for signals that an intervention might be needed, before symptoms arise, and not just for depression. fMRI indicators are likely to be found for all sorts of mental problems.

I just hope that, in the midst of all the medical promise, the government doesn't get some idea of how to use it in interrogations, or corporations don't start using it as a personnel screening device. Actually, "hope" is a little strong. It should be "wish," because any technology that is useful to corporations or law enforcement  if abused, will be abused.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Fewer preemies

The premature birth rate dropped more than 20% between 1990 and 2006. We must be doing something right. The article at the link says strategies include "smoking cessation programs, progesterone treatments for women with a history of preterm birth, avoiding multiples from fertility treatments and avoiding unnecessary c-sections and inductions before 39 weeks."

Veggies aren't strong anti-cancer agents

A huge study (400,000 people) found only a modest relationship between eating fruits and veggies and not getting cancer. "In this population, an increase of 200 grams a day (7 ounces) of fruits and vegetables resulted in a reduction of about 3 percent of cancer risk." They're good for you in general, but don't count on them to prevent cancer. This shouldn't affect anybody's eating habits, since people who like veggies already eat them.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Putting fetuses on an exercise regimen

It seems kids who are fat at birth are likely to be fat when they are older. This study showed that if a pregnant woman exercises on  stationary bike, the baby's birth weight is lower, without interfering with maternal insulin resistance, which affects nutrient availability to the fetus.

I don't know. So far, they haven't shown that reducing a newborn's weight will have a life-long effect. It seems to me just as likely that the genes that make a baby fat at birth might make it fat later, and there doesn't seem to be a reason to believe that putting it on a diet in utero will affect that. I've dieted lots of times, with and without exercise, and my body always returns to the weight it wants to be.

And they say they reduce the size of the baby without affecting the system that makes nutrients available to the fetus. That's quite a trick.

More chemicals to avoid

Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine have found that exposure to three common chemical classes—phenols, phthalates and phytoestrogens—in young girls may disrupt the timing of pubertal development, and put girls at risk for health complications later in life. ...
Phenols, phthalates and phytoestrogens are among chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, which interfere with the body's endocrine, or hormone, system. They are found in a wide range of consumer products, such as nail polishes, where they increase durability, and in cosmetics, perfumes, lotions, and shampoos, where they carry fragrance. Some are used to increase the flexibility and durability of plastics such as PVC, or are included as coatings on medications or nutritional supplements to make them timed-release.
 Oh, crap. If this is true ....  What are we doing to ourselves? It's enough to turn you into a Jenny McCarthy-type anti-chemical nut. We're dumping organophospates into the water, which are basically nerve agents we use to kill insects. We're making baby food containers with bisphenol A in them, a synthetic estrogen, to screw up little boys' boy parts and make little girls aggressive. And now it turns out that chemicals found in nail polish, perfumes, lotions, shampoos, plastic containers, and time-release medicine can cause early puberty and then breast cancer. I hate to be an alarmist, but this is alarming.

The obvious first baby step for a parent or center would be to do one's best to minimize the exposure.
  • Buy shampoos and lotions for kids that have no fragrances added.  
  • Avoid time-release medicine. 
  • Don't microwave in plastic. 
  • Don's use pesticides in the garden. 
  • You should put off as long as possible the use of nail polish and cosmetics. I know you can't eliminate them, but it seems prudent to minimize them as much as socially possible, and phase them in, and don't put them on toddlers, for Christ's sake. I don't care how cute they look.
And even then, you don't know if it would do any good. Maybe the stuff is so pervasive that my piddling suggestions for minimizing it wouldn't make any difference.

UPDATE: And it turns out babies absorb the most bisphenol A, and it's naturally worst for bottle-fed babies, so to the list above should be "avoid plastic baby bottles," for milk, water, juice, whatever.

Why siblings don't like each other

It seems when siblings impinge on each other's emotional or physical space (take each other's stuff or hang around when you have friends over), trust and communication between them suffer. The sun has been rising in the east a lot recently.

Monday, April 5, 2010


In a stretch of land 40 or 50 miles long north-south and maybe 10 miles wide, about 100 miles east of San Diego, there have been, in the last 13 hours and 30 minutes,

  • 38 earthquakes 3.5 to 3.9
  • 28 between 4.0 and 4.0
  • a 5.0 and 5.3
  • 7.2
The shaking from the 7.2 went on maybe 30 seconds, but nothing fell off the shelves where I am. One hopes this is releasing enough energy to put off the big one a while rather than putting more strain on the San Andreas to make it happen sooner.

Two good sites about earthquakes:
  • California Integrated Seismic Network. Pick northern or southern California for a list of all recent quakes 3.5 or bigger and links to a map of the earthquake area.
  • This is a map of California color-coded to the probability of an areas's experiencing a 6.0 or larger in the next 24 hours. Right now it looks like a sunrise over Calexico.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Cool photos of insects

Some of the most amazing photos I've seen. Close-ups of insects with water droplets on them I found the link at Andrew Sullivan's blog.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Behavior affects brain activity in ADHD kids

Okay, this is certifiably weird. Behavioral interventions influence ADHD in the same way that medication does. That is, "by normalising activity in the same brain systems."

The computer task was capturing the green aliens while avoiding the black aliens. ADHD kids were better at it when they were on their meds, and this also showed up as more normal EEGs. It turned out if you gave the kids either rewards for succeeding or penalties for failing at the alien-capturing game,  their EEGs changed in the same way, though the effect was greater with the drugs.
"When the children were given rewards or penalties, their attention and self-control was much improved," says Dr Maddie Groom, first author of the study. "We suspect that both medication and motivational incentives work by making a task more appealing, capturing the child's attention and engaging his or her brain response control systems."
It's interesting that the rewards had to be immediate and consistent to work.

The drug these kids were on (methylphenidate) is thought to increase dopamine levels. I guess it's plausible that the prospect of a reward or penalty could increase dopamine levels in the brain. Why not? Or it could work through another mechanism.Why not? Everything is always more complicated than you think it is.

So it's not really weird, just an interesting coincidence that leads us again into questions of biological influences on behavior.

It also gives a big boost to the idea of behavioral therapies' affecting the biology of the brain. The practical implications of it are, if you have a choice between changing the brain chemistry by adding a chemical to it or by changing a behavior, why wouldn't you pick changing the behavior? (You do know I'm not a doctor, don't you? You realize this is advice from a humanities major, not a scientist.) The researchers say you could maybe do it for moderate ADHD, because the effect of behavioral change, though in the same place as medication, is not of the same magnitude. Drugs give a bigger effect, and so should be used in the more severe cases.

Space and time in kids' brains

I don't like to use really extended quotes, but here I think I must. This is an article from the Max Plank Institute in full.

Children use space to think about time
Space and time are intertwined in our thoughts, as they are in the physical world. For centuries, philosophers have debated exactly how these dimensions are related in the human mind. According to a paper to appear in the April, 2010 issue of Cognitive Science, children’s ability to understand time is inseparable from their understanding of space.

A reason for having dads

It seems dads are a lot looser than moms in what they let toddlers do in exploring their environments. Moms create attachment. Dads create activation, this researcher says, because they are less protective. They measured this by how far the parent stayed from a 12- to 18-month old baby while it crawled up some stairs to get a toy. The optimum distance for the baby to be adventurous but self-confident was about arm's length for dads.

This researcher is putting "activation theory" on the same level as attachment theory. He says dads "activate more exploratory behavior." I believe the latter. I'll have to think about the former.

Who gets the most out of college?

The increase in economic value of a BA over a high school diploma is greatest among those least likely to go to college.

Frankly this is obvious. It's like preschool. The incremental educational value of a good preschool is greater for poorer kids than richer kids, because richer kids get many of the elements of preschool at home, such as talking and reading to them.

In this case, those kids who fit the profile of people going to go to college, but who don't go, still have all the advantages of the profile: having parents and friends who went to college, attending a good high school, and so on. Some kids put in applications at fast food and retail. Others ask their dad's friend for a job.