Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Impulsiveness and dopamine

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

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

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

WIC and cow's milk

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

Good for WIC. Dietary education works.

Propositions have been given numbers

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

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

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Light posting

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

Sunday, June 27, 2010


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

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

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The brain and behavior, part 1 million

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

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

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

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

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

What you feel affects what you think

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

Budget Salvation

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

Friday, June 25, 2010

Kangaroo porn

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

XKCD is the best thing on the internet

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

Friday follies

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

Miserable cold

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

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Another good thing about play

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

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

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Infant brain scan for schizophrenia

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

So the problems I talked about are here now.

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

Another way gay men's brains are like women's

Here's another case where gay men's brains are wired more like heterosexual women than heterosexual men.
The study ... found that when memorizing and discriminating between faces, homosexual men show patterns of bilaterality – the usage of both sides of the brain – similar to heterosexual women. Heterosexual men tend to favour the right hemisphere for such tasks.

"Our results suggest that both gay men and heterosexual women code faces bilaterally. That allows for faster retrieval of stored information," says study lead author Jennifer Steeves, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health. 
Can anybody see this and believe homosexuality is a lifestyle choice? Nobody you'd have any respect for.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Home computers lower test scores

A 5-year study of 150,000 kids in 5th through 8th grades in North Carolina found modest drops in test scores for kids, especially poor kids, who got a home computer during that period. The time they spend on the computer comes out of reading, TV, and homework time. The study ended in 2005, so it missed the recent Facebook* phenomenon, where the computer takes the place of everything.

I guess what it shows is parents have to pay attention to how much time a kid is spending on the computer. No biggie.

*I wouldn't have capitalized that, figuring that the word has achieved a genericness, like Kleenex, that allows it not to be capitalized, but this stupid program kept putting an annoying red line under it unless I capitalized it. Worse, it did the same to Kleenex. Don't the Google programmers know Kleenex is generic now? How about thermos? Yep, understands that. And aspirin.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Anonymity revisited

Recently someone contacted me after seeing this blog for the first time and questioned why I felt it necessary to remain anonymous, since I mostly just point at recent research and post pictures of my cats.

Well, it's the rude things I say about Republicans. My organization mostly attracts liberals and independents, but at my level and higher, there are several Republicans I deal with daily. It is not a firing offense to say over and over that voting Republican is a character fault, and voting Republican enthusiastically is a personality disorder, but it would be harder to work with these people day to day if they knew I consider them political cretins, which I pretty much do. They're nice people, and they're good at their jobs, some of which involve budgeting, but they are dangerously wrong about things like, oh, the 2/3 requirement for a state budget.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Friday follies on Saturday

With all the plants and cushions around, you'd think Old Cat would find a more comfortable napping place than a rock, but I guess not.

Boy Cat is not sure what to think of the red light that precedes the flash. They were weighed and vaccinated last week. If they weigh a kilo or more in two more weeks, they'll get neutered and adopted out. Otherwise, we keep them another week or two.

Friday, June 18, 2010

SB 797 is out of the inactive file

Just got my weekly child care legislative update, and one of my hobbyhorses has jumped the fence. Assembly Member Bradford has filed a Notice of motion to remove SB 797  from the inactive file. This is really good news. As I've said again and again and again, bisphenol A is a dangerous chemical that should be banned from food containers. I hope this means it has a chance of passing. I regret, though, that baby formula bottles were exempted.

Good on Bradford.

When do babies start to feel cold?

It seems in mice, the protein that enables sensing cold doesn't start being expressed until just before birth, and the cold-sensing nerves don't connect to the spinal cord for a couple of weeks after birth.

This would explain, the researcher says, why adolescent humans who were born prematurely are less sensitive to  temperature than full-term kids. The circuitry may stop developing at birth.

This is interesting. I have always assumed that the reason I am more sensitive to cold than others had some biological reason, but it's always nice to have at least one path toward that difference identified. Of course, there are probably other things that will do it, but I like having one possibility.

Orangutans use sign language

Orangutans in different zoos use intentional gestures with specific meanings, "to initiate an interaction (contact, grooming or play), request objects, share objects, instigate joint movement (co-locomotion), cause a partner to move back, or stop an action."

Okay, so it's a zoo, not the wild, so they might have picked it up from how their human handlers act with them, but nobody intentionally taught it to them, so, Jesus, this is as impressive as knowing that vervets have vocalizations that distinguish having seen an eagle in the sky from a snake in the grass. It would be interesting to compare the gestures with how their handlers act with them.

It immediately makes you think about how human language began, step by step, a few calls, a few signs, a lucky mutation or two, more complex calls, and pretty soon you're planning a hunt or telling someone where the mongongo nuts are ripe.

And if anyone still has doubt, it puts paid to the notion of special creation. We and orangs and vervets came out of the same stock. Darwin wrote that every once in a while he would begin to think there was something special about people's creation, but then he would remember that human cognition evolved, and he would snap out of it.

For babies, number is related to size

It seems every time a researcher looks at how early babies can grasp some concept, it turns out to be earlier than we had thought. This time,
"We've shown that 9-month-olds are sensitive to 'more than' or 'less than' relations across the number, size and duration of objects. And what's really remarkable is they only need experience with one of these quantitative concepts in order to guess what the other quantities should look like."  
They showed babies computer screens with objects on the screen that were either big and striped or smaller and polka-dotted. They they showed them a screen where the difference was not size but number. If the more numerous objects were polka-dotted, they stared at the screen longer. The researcher says she thinks this means they expected the pattern on the more numerous to be the same as on the larger on the previous screen.

The article also says "adults associate smaller numbers with the left side of space and larger numbers with the right." I wonder if that's true of readers of languages that go right to left or top to bottom.

Also, "when adults are asked to quickly select the higher of two numbers, the task becomes much harder if the higher number is represented as physically smaller than the lower number." That's like the tests requiring people to read the name of a color if it is printed in a different color, such as RED or BLUE.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Kids raised by lesbians turn out just fine

This is an article in Time about a study published in Pediatrics saying kids raised by lesbian partners get teased some, but then end up just as psychologically balanced as kids with straight parents.

(C)hildren in lesbian homes scored higher than kids in straight families on some psychological measures of self-esteem and confidence, did better academically and were less likely to have behavioral problems, such as rule-breaking and aggression. ... In addition, children in same-sex-parent families whose mothers ended up separating did as well as children in lesbian families in which the moms stayed together.
I can't say I'm all that surprised that someone raised by two women might be less aggressive than someone raised by a man and a woman. I'll bet they would score higher on social tolerance, too. And I'll bet two moms are on average more engaged in a kid's school than a mom and a dad.

Who moves where

I found this  interactive map from Forbes Magazine at Kevin Drum's blog, who found it at Andrew Sullivan's. You click on your county, and it shows black lines indicating immigration and red lines indicating emigration. This is the map for LA. People move to San Francisco and Seattle but never the other way, but it's a magnet for the North-East. Who wouldn't rather live in LA than Detroit? It only shows moves of 10 people or more.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Superstitions can be good for you

About 35 years ago, I had a friend who was interested in astrology, and he got me to take an astrology class with him. I read books and cast horoscopes and came to the conclusion that astrology works. That is, you can go to a competent astrologer and learn true things about yourself that you did not know.

Of course, it has nothing to do with the stars. Their random position in the sky is a mandala to structure the conversation, a coach's list of plays one might call  in a given circumstance. A "competent astrologer" is a cold reader. It's a carnie trick. A skilled cold reader can, indeed, direct a conversation about you that will give you new insight into your character. I suspect this is the basis of psychoanalysis.

Now imagine a world in which everybody believes in astrology, believes the stars' and planets' positions in the sky affect our daily lives. If people saw that Mercury was in retrograde (which is supposed to hinder all types of communication), not only would they attribute any lost mail to Mercury (and ignore the mail that got through), but it is also likely that more mail would be lost than usual, because it would be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Knowing the likelihood of lost mail might make people more careless. Or people might be more expansive and loving when Jupiter is in conjunction with the Moon, because they expect to be.

In such a world, astrology would look true. It might as well be true.

Which brings me to this study on superstition. They had 28 college students who believed or did not believe in good luck (about 80% did) putt a golf ball into a hole and told some they were using a lucky ball and some that they were using the same ball everybody else had. Then 51 kids did a motor-dexterity task putting balls in holes by tilting a box. Some were told the observer would keep his fingers crossed, and others were just told to start. Then they took 41 kids who had a lucky charm and had  them do a task with or without it.

The kids with the lucky ball, or who had been told the observer had his fingers crossed, or who had their lucky charm with them did better.

So it appears that believing a superstition can make you perform better. Or worse, if you've lost your lucky charm.

This has an obvious application to religion. People who believe their god will make them strong might well be stronger than people who do not.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Being around murder is a risk factor for bad reading scores

Comparing 9 years of homicides and  a survey of kids and families in the same area over the same period, a researcher has found that kids who live around murder have lower reading and verbal test scores, but only for a week or so.
To measure the impact of a local homicide, Sharkey compared the test scores of children who were assessed directly after a homicide in their neighborhood with other children in the same neighborhood who were assessed at different times. He took into account three geographic areas of increasing size: "block groups," which are small sets of city blocks that have about 1,500 residents; "census tracts," which are slightly larger and have about 4,000 residents; and "neighborhood clusters," which have about 8,000 residents. Because all comparisons were made among children living within the same neighborhoods, the analysis can be thought of like an experiment in which some children are randomly picked to be assessed in the days following a local homicide while other children are picked to be assessed at a different point, further removed from the date of the homicide.
Sharkey examined separately the potential impact of a local homicide on African Americans and Hispanics. Whites and other ethnic groups were excluded because they were almost never exposed to local homicides in the samples Sharkey used for his study. ...

Overall, the results showed that African-American children who were assessed directly after a local homicide occurred scored substantially lower than their peers who live in the same neighborhood, but were assessed at different times. As the duration of time between the homicide and the assessment increased beyond a week, the estimated effects of homicides faded away. Further, as the distance between the child's home and the location of the homicide widened, the impact of the homicide became weaker. While the results were extremely strong for African Americans, there was no effect of local homicides for Hispanics—a finding that Sharkey plans to explore in ongoing research. Very similar patterns were found when the analysis was replicated in the second dataset, the Three City Study. Again, the effects of local homicides were extremely strong for African Americans and non-existent for Hispanics. (My bold.)
I have no problem believing that living in a bad neighborhood is a risk factor for being a bad reader, but this study mainly tells me how resilient kids are. Somebody was murdered in their neighborhood a couple of days ago, and we give them a test on reading and verbal skills, and in a week or so, they're back to normal.

It also means that, if schools want to find out a kid's true reading ability (especially after No Child Left Untested), they should be flexible in the testing schedule, and not test kids when someone has been killed in their neighborhood in the last week or so.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Personality and politics

I've talked about this several times. A new study finds a strong relationship between a person's politics and personality. Liberals are nicer than conservatives. Conservatives are more tight-assed than liberals.
"Conservatives tend to be higher in a personality trait called orderliness and lower in openness. This means that they're more concerned about a sense of order and tradition, expressing a deep psychological motive to preserve the current social structure ... (and)  liberalism is more often associated with the underlying motives for compassion, empathy and equality."
This makes me think so much of Jane Jacobs. If you didn't go out and read Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics when I talked about it before, do so now. It will change your life. Or not. It permanently changed the way I think about people.

Why are poor kids fatter than rich kids?

It used to be that being fat indicated wealth. You could afford a lot of food, and you didn't work it off the next day.

Now, it is related to poverty and, presumably, the kind of diet poor people have.
The researchers found obesity most common in children living in neighborhoods with the least-educated females, most single-parent households, lowest median household income, highest proportion of non-white residents, and fewest homes owned. Together, these five socioeconomic factors accounted for 24 percent of the variability in childhood obesity rates across neighborhoods.
 So these 5 environmental factors account for 24% of the variability among neighborhoods. While I believe that much of obesity is caused by genetic factors, that would not explain variability among neighborhoods, unless you believe that neighborhoods are sorted by genes. (Okay, to some extent they are, such as many more Somalis living in this neighborhood and many more Vietnamese or Samoans in that one, but that's irrelevant here.)

That leaves 3/4 of the variability to be due to what? If it's not genes, and it's not education, single-parenthood, income, race, or home ownership, what else can it be? Which commercials are shown on the TV shows they watch? What car they drive? Access to routine medical care? Number of meals eaten out of the home divided by the cost of the meal? Number of fast-food restaurants per 10,000 population? That's a lot of variability to account for when you have already used the best ones.

Friday, June 11, 2010

How do gender behaviors start?

We know that little boys and little girls act differently very young. In particular, boys are more aggressive. And we know that parents treat little boys different from little girls. This study relates the two.

Researchers looked at the way moms and dads talk to kids during snack time and playtime. The snack time conversation was context oriented, the adult was in charge, and there was no gender difference.

At play time, things were kid-centered, the kid was an equal partner, and parents acted differently. Dads were more aggressive, and moms were more facilitative. The authors suggest the play differences teach little kids how adult men and women are supposed to act.

Could be. I still think much of it is the biology of the brain. I wonder how this relates to the fact that dads didn't play much with their kids until recent decades.

FYI, I blame typos on kitty on the keyboard.

Friday follies

Our foster cats, boy cat and girl cat, playing on a wicker chair, which they like because it's easy to climb. They did warn us about diarrhea from the canned Friskies. They were right.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Genetics of autism

Pharyngula, at Science Blogs, has an excellent summary of genetic research into autism. The bottom line:
... Autism Spectrum Disorder has many different genetic causes: there isn't one single gene responsible for ASD, but a constellation of hundreds, each with the potential to affect the development of the brain and cause the symptoms of autism. They don't know exactly how each of these genes contributes to the disorder, but they have found that many of them are involved in growth and cell communication and the formation of synapses in the brain.

The bottom line is that there are many different ways to cause the symptoms of autism, and it's a mistake to try to pin it all on single, simple causes. Any hope for amelioration lies in understanding the general functional processes that are disrupted by mutations in various pathways.
The article is well worth reading. In today's EurekAlert, there are four new studies describing new genes associated with autism.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Premature may mean just a week early

We all know the physical and mental (really the same thing) problems that preemies are prone to. This study of 40,000 kids in Scotland found an increase in the number of kids identified as special needs with kids born even a week before the nominal normal of 40 weeks. For kids born between 37 and 39 weeks, the increase was 16%.

Still, the total of preemies and and just a little early come to about 9% of kids with special needs. So 91% of special needs kids are full-term, and you have to expect that some (maybe 91%?) of the other 9% would have had special needs if they had held out until 40 weeks, so I don't see anything here that would change our practices.

I wonder about kids born at 41 weeks. Or do they allow that now that we can induce pregnancy so easily.

Neurotic women and extraverted men have more kids

(W)omen with higher levels of neuroticism and more extravert men, are likely to give birth to a larger number of children in societies with traditionally high birth rates. ...
Women with above-average levels of neuroticism, prone to be anxious, depressive, and moody, had 12% more children than those with below average. This relationship was stronger amongst women with a higher social status. A negative association between maternal neuroticism and offspring´s physical condition suggested that high neuroticism carries a cost for the families. 
In the study of men, individuals with above average levels of extraversion, prone to be sociable and outgoing, had 14% more children than men with below average extraversion.
 They studied 4 villages in Senegal, but it matches my experience in California. Outgoing, likable guys are certainly more attractive than sullen jerks, and a lot of them get mixed up with some crazy women, whereupon the crazy moms screw up their kids.

First-time parents and sleep

We knew this, but now it's been studied. First-time parents who get more sleep have better relationships with each other.

They measured actual sleep (with "continuous writs actigraphy," which I'd never heard of but Google is very familiar with and seems to mean they put a thing on your wrist that measures how much it moves during the night, and they figure if you wrist is moving, or maybe moving in certain ways, you're awake), which they say predicted the relationship much better than reported sleep.

Yup. going without sleep makes you cranky and depressed.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Urine test for autism

I'm not sure what to think about this article in Science Daily. It says researchers have found a chemical signature for autism in urine, leading to a simple test. It says further that
People with autism are also known to suffer from gastrointestinal disorders and they have a different makeup of bacteria in their guts from non-autistic people.
Today's research shows that it is possible to distinguish between autistic and non-autistic children by looking at the by-products of gut bacteria and the body's metabolic processes in the children's urine. The exact biological significance of gastrointestinal disorders in the development of autism is unknown.
Not knowing anything about these researchers (the lead author is head of the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London), I associate autism-gut bacteria discussions with Andrew Wakefield, but maybe there's something here. I mean, some researchers now think Pons and Fleisdhmann were onto something with cold fusion, but it's hard to give it a lot of credence because of the association.

But if it's true, then we may be able to diagnose autism at birth and intervene really early.

Effects of video games depend on the kid

Here's a study about the effects of video games that matches my preconceptions: Kids who are "less agreeable, less conscientious and easily angered" can become more hostile by playing them. Other kids learn useful social skills. People vary, and the way they respond to a type of stimulus varies.

They used the Five-Factor Model (neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness) and found that kids high in neuroticism and low in agreeableness and conscientiousness reacted worst to violent video games. Kids without this confluence of traits were not affected.

Since I believe that model has a biological substrate, it follows that video games affect kids differently according to the biology their brains.

Coffee buzz-kill

I hope this isn't true. If it is, I have wasted thousands of dollars and thousands of hours, and I can't stop now. They had 379 people go without coffee for 16 hours and then take either caffeine or a placebo and take some response tests. Coffee did not increase alertness.

Heavy coffee drinkers who got the placebo reported lower alertness and higher headache, but their alertness matched non-coffee-drinkers who got a placebo.

They guess, and I guess, that we become tolerant to caffeine, and without it we feel a little low, and coffee brings us back to normal.

The authors also found that the genetic predisposition to anxiety did not deter coffee drinking. In fact, people with the gene variant associated with anxiety tended to consume slightly larger amounts of coffee than those without the variant, suggesting that a mild increase in anxiety may be a part of the pleasant buzz caused by caffeine.

Bike helmet that smells bad when it's cracked

This is cool. A bike helmet made with lots of little capsules of some stuff that smells bad. If a kid drops his helmet, and it cracks, he'll know because of the smell (and not want to put it back on).

And I guess if you find your kid lying on the sidewalk next to his bike, and the helmet smells bad, you know he's had quite a hit on the head.

The little teacher who could

These researchers say preschoolers do better at language if their teachers are confident in their own abilities, and it helps if  the classroom emphasizes emotional support for the kids.

I suspect the principle in the first part is true of every human occupation. On average, people who think they can do something well are likely to do that thing better than people who do not think they can do it well. What I'm not so sure about is the extent to which the confidence causes the difference. It could be that they are confident because they are better. The only problem with this is the research showing that people who are not good at their jobs think they are.

But it does point out again that the single biggest school-related factor in a kid's development is the quality of the teacher. Parents, peers, and genes are important, too, but of those things that take place at preschool, the quality of the teacher-child interaction is the most important. ECERS, teacher education, staffing levels, and all those other easily measured things clutter up the view of that fact. What matters most is what happens between the teacher and the kid.

And I sometimes think this is one of those things you either get or you don't, that after two weeks on-the-job training in a high-quality center, you could separate the keepers from those whose gift is not early childhood education by watching them with the kids. But I also think an AA in ECE is enough to teach 4-year-olds, so what do I know?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Regular bedtime and test scores for 4-year-olds

This study says 4-year-olds who have a regular bedtime are developmentally advanced in "receptive and expressive language, phonological awareness, literacy, and early math abilities" compared with kids who do not. Apparently this was more important than the amount of sleep.

The study looked at sleep patterns and results of an abbreviated developmental test for 8000 kids in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.

I'm not sure this shows a causal relation between sleep times and development. I wonder if living in a household that has rules does it. I wonder if the kids with regular bedtimes also had regular family mealtimes, the conversation at which has been shown to help kids develop. 

And also, people vary. The fact that there is a statistical relationship between regular bedtime and development doesn't mean it's true for every person. My son has been the last to sleep all but probably 50 days in his entire life. I hate to think how smart he would be if he got to bed at 10.

Foster kitties

Our county's Department of Animal Services gets lots and lots of kittens in the spring. Many are old enough for canned or bagged food but not old enough to be neutered, vaccinated, and adopted out. If they are kept in the shelter, they cost a lot of staff time to care for, and they don't get socialized to people and houses.

So they ask people to be foster parents for 4 weeks or so. The kitties come in groups of no fewer than 2, with all the supplies and instructions you might need. 

We got two siblings last week, whom I'm calling boy cat and girl cat, 3-1/2 weeks old. We lock them up in a child's bedroom with an open upper-half door when they're napping,which is a lot, or when we're not available. We play with and pet them and let them crawl on us to play-fight each other while we're watching TV. 

Old cat sniffed girl cat and gave a perfunctory hiss, but you could tell her heart wasn't in it. Middle cat ignores them or watches from afar. Young cat has done more sniffing around them. Girl cat hisses, arches her back, and backs away. Boy cat approaches to sniff and touch noses, at which point young cat backs off and boy cat follows him. 

After the first hour, they've been real good about using the litter box, but the whole house smells like cat shit again. Our other cats go outside. It's a good thing it's spring, and we can open windows.

This is boy cat attacking a human boy toy.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Food porn: First tomatoes of the season

I just took this picture of my ripest tomatoes a few minutes ago. I think it's an Early Girl. I've written before about home-grown tomatoes. As I write this and look at the picture on the screen, my mouth is watering. From some time in July through August and into September, we will be taking high doses of lycopene, but it looks like we'll get our first dose by mid June. 

Friday follies on Saturday

The only thing young cat does better than eat is sleep.


Friday, June 4, 2010

Are some friends better for your grades than others?

This feels a little odd, but maybe not. A researcher has found that high school GPA is related to the proportion of friends a kid has who go to the same school. But the comments by the researcher are odd.
This is partially because in-school friends are more likely to be achievement-oriented and share and support school-related activities, including studying, because they are all in the same environment.
I'd say the out-side school friends are of two kinds, those in different schools and those not in any school. For the first group, why would going to the same school rather than a different school make a kid more or less achievement oriented? Wouldn't each school then be more achievement oriented than the other?

For friends who are still in school compared with those who are not in any school, whether because they're older or because they have dropped out, you would expect this result because of engagement.

But I think this guy did his research in gifted programs. I know some schools where you'd have to search to find achievement oriented kids.

So I don't doubt that the researcher got his data right and so on, but I also doubt that it tells a parent anything about how to raise their kid.

Why adolescents are crazy: part 2

I've written before about how adolescent brains differ from younger and older brains and how that affects behavior. Another group of researchers has found another difference.
Our results raise the hypothesis that these risky behaviors, such as experimenting with drugs or having unsafe sex, are actually driven by over activity in the mesolimbic dopamine system, a system which appears to be the final pathway to all addictions, in the adolescent brain.
The study had people from 8 to 30 classify images into two categories and paid them when they got it right.
Researchers measured so-called positive prediction error signals in the participants' brains  (or the difference between an expected outcome of an action and the actual outcome) as the participants discovered the results of their answers and the size of their rewards.
 "Learning seems to rely on prediction error because if the world is exactly as you expected it to be, there is nothing new to learn, " Poldrack said. Previous research has shown that the dopamine system in the brain is directly responsive to prediction errors. 
In other words, teenagers had the highest spikes in prediction error signals, so they probably had the biggest  spike in dopamine.

I don't doubt that all these researchers have identified biological correlates to teenage weirdness. On principle I doubt that any has found the sole cause. Everything is more complicated than you think it is.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Stimulative home and school are equally necessary

An NICHD longitudinal study of 1300 kids looked at the kids' homes, preschool or child care, first grade classroom, and math and reading scores through the fifth grade. When they controlled for socioeconomic status, they found that the kids that did best academically in school were the ones that had stimulative home life, stimulative preschool, and stimulative first grade. Having all three was important. That's not much of a surprise. And since preschool and first grade are sequential, what it means is that home and high-quality school are equally necessary.

It's good to know we can have an effect, but only high-quality child care has this effect. Much of Title 22 does not. So we policy geeks need to work on getting more professional development, including for family child care.

I don't care if they have a BA. I don't care if they have an AA. But I would really like to see all family providers get the content of a community college class in child growth and development spread over a series of workshops held in the evenings or weekends, and I'd like to see all Title 22 center teachers have 12 units of ECE. I think that would make me content with the overall workforce.

Copycatting is universal

You know that TV thing, maybe a Nova, where they showed some chimps and some human kids how to manipulate a box in a complicated manner to get a grape or an M&M? And then they took the covers off the sides of the box, so it was obvious that the complications were unnecessary; you could just do one thing, and the grape rolled out. Chimps then went straight for the food in the simplest way, but the human kids kept doing it the complicated way they had been shown how.

The knock on that has been that the studies involved middle-class kids in western culture. This study compared Australian kids with Kalahari Bushmen kids and got the same result.

I think we see a theory of the origin of ritual here. We keep doing things the same way we saw someone do them, even though it should be obvious that our particular process is irrelevant to the outcome. After all, what the kids were doing worked. They got the candy. Why fix it if it's not broken?

And since oral transmission is imperfect, you can see how religious rituals might evolve, or mutate, into elaborate procedures to call on god, though it should be perfectly obvious that prayer doesn't work. A high proportion of people a tornado kills in any trailer park in Mississippi had prayed to god that very day, and the prayer ritual didn't help them a bit. Maybe they got the ritual wrong that day.

Makes you wonder how much of our adult lives is taken up by performing rituals that have nothing to do with the outcomes we're trying to influence. I heard a story not long ago on NPR about a woman who prepared a roast for cooking by cutting off the tip. It turned out her mother had done so because her roasting pan was too short for the size roast she cooked. Maybe our lives consist of cutting off the tip of the roast or manipulating the box. My, what an unpleasant thought this early in the morning. I think I'll go to my happy place.

UPDATE: It was my partner, not NPR, and it was a ham, not a roast, and the oven was too small, not the roasting pan. So much for my memory.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Itty bitty bird nest

When I was pruning a camelia to get ready for Memorial Day, I found this nest in a branch I had cut. It's made entirely of cotton, with some jacaranda leaves caught in it. It's about 2 inches long, 3/4 of an inch thick, with a depression in it maybe 1/4 of an inch. It must have been a very tiny bird. Hummingbird nests I've seen have been sacks hanging from twigs. This is just a pad with a little depression in it. Cool. 

My new rock wall

I told you I was accidentally building a rock wall in time for a Memorial Day event, and we just barely got it done. My partner took it from there. I said I would post a picture when I got it done. Consider it done.

This is the first time I've ever built a rock wall, and I must say there is something satisfyingly butch about it. I exercised mental muscles that had never been used along with physical ones I hadn't used in 20 or 30 years. My parents were rockhounds, so I have from them box after box of beautiful cut rocks. I incorporated a couple of hundred of them into the surfaces of the wall, in between the structural rocks the rock company delivered to our driveway.

The old place cleans up pretty good. We need to have some dinner parties before it all goes to hell again.