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June 2005

From the Annals of Post-Modern Parenting

A few years ago, I observed a preschool teacher instructing a room full of four-year-olds that if a stranger tries to talk to you, yell "GO AWAY!" in your loudest voice." I was very uncomfortable with this, and that scene has remained with me as an icon for well-meant advice gone terribly wrong.

And that was what I immediately thought of when I read this passage from the tale of the Utah boy's survival in the wilderness:

Brennan's mother, Jody Hawkins, suggested her son may have been avoiding searchers by following his father's advice.

"He had two thoughts going through his head all the time," she said. "Toby's always told him that 'if you get lost, stay on the trail.' So he stayed on the trail.

"We've also told him don't talk to strangers. ... When an ATV or horse came by, he got off the trail. ... When they left, he got back on the trail."

"His biggest fear, he told me, was someone would steal him," she said.

Brennan's uncle, Bob Hawkins, said his nephew may have been afraid to contact the strangers because they weren't using the password his family had adopted.

I hope these people understand that this stupid password system nearly cost their son his life.

What Kind of Insects Are Those Buffalo?

Quote of the day from a page entitled "Perceptual Fallacies":

There is a tribe called the Ba Mbuti that provide evidence that size constancy is learned. This tribe lives in a thick jungle where they never are able to see more than a few yards away. When taken into a field and shown Buffalo in the distance, they asked what kind of insects they were. When told that the animals were buffalo, the tribespeople thought it was witchcraft.

The Guy You Really Wanted to Grow up to Be When You Were Three

When Peter was about 3, he often wanted to take pictures with our camera, and mostly what he wanted to take pictures of bugs. So when we developed the roll, there would be 14 pictures of our front walk. So any time he got near a camera, I was always saying, "Remember, don't take pictures of bugs."

Times have changed, and now we have a digital camera that will focus in close, and now we do take pictures of bugs.

Well, that Rick Lieder guy, not only does he have a digital camera, but he's got a better one than ours. And not only that, he's an artist. So he takes really good pictures of bugs, and has given their own website: Given that he's got a copyright notice superimposed on each one, I don't think he wants me to post a sample over here. So you should go look at them yourself. When you do, you will realize that he's the guy you really wanted to grow up to be when you were three.

(One of the best compliments I ever received was from one of my son's playmates at around that age. I was the mom who was willing to turn over rocks to find ants, and pick up worms, and stuff, so I was very popular. What he said to me was, "When I grow up, I want to be just like you: really good at finding bugs!)

Ken MacLeod on Mundane SF

Ken MacLeod is amusing on the subject of Mundane SF in his post entitled To Boldly Stay. He begins:

Like a flu pandemic, a new movement in SF has been overdue and anxiously awaited for some time. It's not yet clear whether Mundane SF is the Big One that's destined to devastate the globe, but already the scientifictional experts are on the case, shaking their heads over the chicken-coops where the virus spreads.

Well Barbara, if you could be any kind of tree, what kind of tree would you be?

Year ago, I happened across Barbara Walters' book How to Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything. While reading that book was when I first understood that a book could be sold on proposal. As I recall (and this was decades ago), it did actually suggest using the question "If you could be any kind of tree, what kind of tree would you be?" as a conversational opener. The book was almost content-free.

So a few minutes ago when David called to tell me about Barbara's big gaffe, those were the first words out of my mouth. Having spent years of my life nursing while talking with practically anyone about practically anything, I am shocked, shocked that Walters thinks women ought not nurse in public.  I'm nursing right now while talking to you!

NursingGo lactivists! The nurse-in outside ABC is a great thing.

This having been said, I should also say that I have only had one complaint EVER about my public breastfeeding, and that was when feeding Elizabeth in the infant room at her preschool when she was about 11 months old.

(To spell it out for those of you who don't know me in person: I have breastfed while signing copies of my books; I have breastfed on panels; I have breastfed while teaching a writers workshop; I have breastfed in literally hundreds of restaurants; on most major airlines and in more public places than I can even think of. It is like breathing. How many places have you breathed?)

PS: The person I'd most like to hear from is the one who made Walters uncomfortable. Surely one does not fail to notice that BW is in the next seat in the cramped space of an airplane? Should she have felt tongue-tied, I have a surefire line to get the conversation going.

Quiz question: Which was more likely to cause a problem with longterm consequences? A woman nursing her baby in full view of the Interview Queen? Or the Interview Queen breathing her germs on the baby in the close confines of an airplane?

A Few Shiny Pebbles on the Infobeach

I wrote to Alice Flaherty, expert on the neurology of writing, for help with references on the neurology of math. She suggested some places to look and some search terms, so I've been playing with PubMed and discovering interesting things such as that a lot more seems to be known about the neurology of metaphor than about the neurology of math. I came across a couple of articles with interesting descriptions which I though I'd share:

Research into the origins and characteristics of unicorns: mental illness as the unicorn. Abstract:

Ethical Hum Sci Serv. 2000 Fall-Winter;2(3):181-92.
Research into the origins and characteristics of unicorns: mental illness as the unicorn.
Simon L.
Kingsborough Community College, City University of New York, USA.

    Basic research, particularly into the psychological and neurological underpinnings of schizophrenia and other "mental illnesses," is flawed because of its adherence to the ideology that unwanted, hard-to-understand behavior constitutes true medical illness. It is argued here that psychiatric diagnostic terms represent moral judgments rather than medical entities. By reducing experimental subjects to a moral label, and assuming that neurological differences associated with unwanted behavior are brain diseases, researchers fail to take into account the conscious experience, organization of self and self-image, patterns of motivation, history and social contexts of their patients. The failure to consider the psychology of their subjects renders the results of these studies ambiguous and irrelevant for any uses except bolstering the biomedical model of psychiatry.

    PMID: 15278984 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

(I had recently noticed that the literature associated with various conditions affecting the social skills is often contaminated by the researchers' dislike of the research subjects.)

And Neural activity associated with metaphor comprehension: spatial analysis.

Neurosci Lett. 2005 Jan 3;373(1):5-9.
Neural activity associated with metaphor comprehension: spatial analysis.
Sotillo M, Carretie L, Hinojosa JA, Tapia M, Mercado F, Lopez-Martin S, Albert J.
Departamento de Psicologia Basica, Facultad de Psicologia, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, 28049 Madrid, Spain.

    Though neuropsychological data indicate that the right hemisphere (RH) plays a major role in metaphor processing, other studies suggest that, at least during some phases of this processing, a RH advantage may not exist. The present study explores, through a temporally agile neural signal--the event-related potentials (ERPs)--, and through source-localization algorithms applied to ERP recordings, whether the crucial phase of metaphor comprehension presents or not a RH advantage. Participants (n=24) were submitted to a S1-S2 experimental paradigm. S1 consisted of visually presented metaphoric sentences (e.g., "Green lung of the city"), followed by S2, which consisted of words that could (i.e., "Park") or could not (i.e., "Semaphore") be defined by S1. ERPs elicited by S2 were analyzed using temporal principal component analysis (tPCA) and source-localization algorithms. These analyses revealed that metaphorically related S2 words showed significantly higher N400 amplitudes than non-related S2 words. Source-localization algorithms showed differential activity between the two S2 conditions in the right middle/superior temporal areas. These results support the existence of an important RH contribution to (at least) one phase of metaphor processing and, furthermore, implicate the temporal cortex with respect to that contribution.

    PMID: 15555767 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

and Neural correlates of metaphor processing.

Brain Res Cogn Brain Res. 2004 Aug;20(3):395-402.
Neural correlates of metaphor processing.
Rapp AM, Leube DT, Erb M, Grodd W, Kircher TT.
Department of Psychiatry, University of Tuebingen, Osianderstrasse 24, D-72076 Tuebingen, Germany.

    Metaphoric language is used to express meaning that is otherwise difficult to conceptualize elegantly. Beyond semantic analysis, understanding the figurative meaning of a metaphor requires mental linkage of different category domains normally not related to each other. We investigated processing of metaphoric sentences using event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Stimuli consisted of 60 novel short German sentence pairs with either metaphoric or literal meaning. The pairs differed only in their last one to three words and were matched for syntax structure, word frequency, connotation and tense. Fifteen healthy subjects (six female, nine male, 19-51 years) read these sentences silently and judged by pressing one of two buttons whether they had a positive or negative connotation. Reading metaphors in contrast to literal sentences revealed signal changes in the left lateral inferior frontal (BA 45/47), inferior temporal (BA 20) and posterior middle/inferior temporal (BA 37) gyri. The activation in the left inferior frontal gyrus may reflect semantic inferencing processes during the understanding of a metaphor. This is in line with the results from other functional imaging studies showing an involvement of the left inferior frontal gyrus in integrating word and sentence meanings. Previous results of a right hemispheric involvement in metaphor processing might reflect understanding of complex sentences.

    PMID: 15268917 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

Pokémon Cards & Folk-Mathematics

Through most of my career as a mother, I have made it a point of aligning my interests with my children's interests. This has taken me to many interesting places, taught me many interesting things, and even gotten me published in the science magazine Nature (reprint on Fantastic Metropolis).

I have made an exception for annoying fads, especially the Pokémon thing. (See my May 18th, 2003 post, "Pokémon Infestations and Other Matters.")

I realized in the middle of the night, night before last, that there was something big I had been missing about the whole phenomenon. Here is an out-take from what I wrote about it:

One puzzling phenomenon I've observed watching 2nd graders is how kids, who are only just getting basic addition and subtraction of multidigit numbers by the tail, can spend literally hours trading Pokemon cards (by which I mean 2 or 3 hours at a time). The decisions of whether or not to trade are based on multiple factors, some of which are linear functions like how many hit points does a given card have (or is the sum of the hit points of the two cards you are offering me equal to or greater than the hit points of the card of mine you want), and some of which are binary (is it a "shiny", i.e. a holographic card).
. . .
I spot-checked Peter's sense of the relative value of cards back in February. I had him show me what he thought of as his three best cards. I priced them on The cheapest of them came in at $47.00. I then had him show me three of his cards that he thought of as "not-so-good." priced those between 75 cents and $3.00.

Given what I know of the scholastically measurable of the math skills of the kids in question, there has to be some kind of pre-verbal calculation going on. They seem to me to be carrying out complex calculations involving multiple variables of different types, and arriving at basically correct conclusions via some kind of folk-math.
. . .
One other implication of this phenomenon, it seems to me, is that the equals sign, as a piece of mathematical notation, is highly socially embedded. I remember something about a second grade playground bead market at Ravenna during recess that spontaneously emerged and then spread until teachers banned it after a few weeks. It may be that there is a developmental phase around 7 or 8 in which the social embedding of trade is explored.

I would be interested in your anecdotes about young kids and card trading. I've decided to investigate further.

I should also say that this realization was inspired partly by Munir Fasheh's essay "Can We Eradicate Illiteracy Without Eradicating Illiterates?", an expansion on a paper given at a UNESCO meeting in Paris, on 9-10 September, 2002, to celebrate the International Literacy Day. The meeting was entitled "Literacy as Freedom."

In it, he dscribes his realization of his illiterate mother's mathematical sophistication:

My 'discovery' of my illiterate mother's mathematics, and how my mathematics and knowledge could neither detect nor comprehend her mathematics and knowledge, mark the biggest turning point in my life, and have had the greatest impact on my perception of knowledge, language, and their relationship to reality. Later, I realized that the invisibility of my mother's mathematics was not an isolated matter but a reflection of a wide phenomenon related to the dominant Western worldview. In this sense, the challenge facing communities everywhere, is to reclaim and revalue the diverse ways of learning, teaching, knowing, relating, doing, and expressing. This reclaiming has been the pivotal theme of my thinking and work for the last two decades.

My concern is not about statistical measures - for example, how many learn the alphabet - but about our perception of the learner and what happens to her/him in the process of learning the alphabet. My concern is to make sure that the learner does not lose what s/he already has; that literacy does not replace other forms of learning, knowing, and expressing; that literacy is not considered superior to other forms; and that the learner uses the alphabet rather than be used by it. My concern is to make sure that in the process of eradicating illiteracy, we do not crush illiterates.

In the 1970s, while I was working in schools and universities in the West Bank region in Palestine and trying to make sense out of mathematics, science and knowledge, I discovered that what I was looking for has been next to me, in my own home: my mother's mathematics and knowledge. She was a seamstress. Women would bring to her rectangular pieces of cloth in the morning; she would take few measures with colored chalk; by noon each rectangular piece is cut into 30 small pieces; and by the evening these scattered pieces are connected to form a new and beautiful whole. If this is not mathematics, I do not know what mathematics is. The fact that I could not see it for 35 years made me realize the power of language in what we see and what we do not see.

Her knowledge was embedded in life, like salt in food, in a way that made it invisible to me as an educated and literate person. I was trained to see things through official language and professional categories. In a very true sense, I discovered that my mother was illiterate in relation to my type of knowledge, but I was illiterate in terms of her type of understanding and knowledge. Thus, to describe her as illiterate and me as literate, in some absolute sense, reflects a narrow and distorted view of the real world and of reality. A division, which I find more significant than literate and illiterate, would be between people whose words are rooted in the cultural-social soil in which they live - like real flowers - and people who use words that may look bright and shiny but without roots - just like plastic flowers.

(It's a neat essay. Read the whole thing.)

What I really need is a second head

I was reading through the May 28th New Scientist article 11 steps to a better brain nodding along with stuff I mostly already knew, when I hit this passage:

The second step is to cut down on distractions. Workplace studies have found that it takes up to 15 minutes to regain a deep state of concentration after a distraction such as a phone call. Just a few such interruptions and half the day is wasted.

I looked at  that and wondered how I can think at all. How often do I get interrupted when trying to think during a normal day?  It is not possible to count. Night before last, I had a really good idea that was absorbing my RAM and managed to focus on it most of the day anyway. This resulted in things like me arriving at the grocery store only to realize that I had not delivered Elizabeth to nursery school and she was still with me. I knew she was there. We had been arguing for five minutes about whether I was going to pull over to the side of the road and retrieve the toy she'd hurled over the side of her car seat. I had just been driving on autopilot and had skipped a stop in our itinerary. And this followed in interesting conversation with Peter while I was in the bath; interesting enough that I discovered later that I had neglected to rinse the cream rinse from my hair. (These are mistakes I rarely, if ever make.)

Reading the New Scientist's accounts of medications that can increase focus is tempting, but for a mommy, focus is a double-edged sword.  What I really need is a  second head: one head could focus while the other maintained the diffuse awareness necessary for keeping everything on track.

Multi-tasking, so prized by industry, is a really poor substitute for a second head.

Lacking a second head, here is Kathryn's Big Tip: Address the cognitive impairments of motherhood by trying to work on things closely tied to what your biology will code as important, i. e. try to chose intellectual projects closely aligned to the interests and the best interests of your children. I find that I have much clearer recollections of what I was working on and what I was trying to do when I chose this strategy.

Kathryn's First TV Show

I've had my G5 less than two weeks, and already I have produced a one hour show for a local public access station, NCCTV. I turned it in this afternoon. It documents a visit by a Mr. Kennedy from the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk to my son's second grade class. I filmed it for a committee organized by the PTA.

When you have a powerful computer, you do different things. I knew that in principle, but I'm a little astonished that it happened that fast.