Wednesday, July 14, 2010

On vacation

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

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 12, 2010

Distrusting research

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

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

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Many don't talk good

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

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

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

Liking one best hurts them all

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

Another benefit of bilingualism

Besides being able to ask where the bathroom is in more places. Last November I mentioned a study showing that knowing two languages gives you "an advantage in mastering other complex thought processes, including "learning in general, complex thinking and creativity, mental flexibility, interpersonal and communication skills, and even a possible delay in the onset of age-related mental diminishment later in life."

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

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

In particular, it supports routine teaching of languages in schools, as early as possible. If it is true that speaking two languages improves "learning in general, complex thinking and creativity, mental flexibility, interpersonal and communication skills, and even a possible delay in the onset of age-related mental diminishment later in life," then it is almost child abuse not to teach kids a second language. As a public policy issue, we certainly should be teaching foreign languages in elementary school. Why would we not want smarter kids?

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

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

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

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

Friday follies on Saturday

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

Friday, July 9, 2010

Mental disorders entering kindergarten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cause and effect in childhood obesity

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Bored morning

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

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Food ads aimed at kids

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

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

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

Self medicating with chocolate

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

Middle school start time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A quarter loaf of SB 797

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Friday follies on Saturday

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

Friday, July 2, 2010

Another way poverty hurts people

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

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

Thursday, July 1, 2010

More bad stuff about prenatal tobacco

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

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

The good and bad about home delivery

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