Monday, 20 December 2010

Chart of activities saves the day! (Part one)

Bambam has ADHD and takes Concerta to help him control his symptoms. Because of our family situation, we don't spend a lot of holidays together and that might be why I had gotten a bit out of practice in spending days with him. Due to the recent snow, we've been cooped up together on what should have been school days, and now the holiday has started, we're still stuck at home most of the time.

Kirk has all those pituitary issues, including Addison's disease as well now, so he hasn't been the most energetic of parents, and has spent perhaps a little too much time lately sitting around playing online games. I myself have not been terribly engaged with the older children while struggling with the fatigue of pregnancy and looking after a small baby. Little wonder then, that our Bambam has become increasingly focused on his favourite activities: watching telly and playing video games. 

It's typical for many (but not all!) ADHD children to prefer these activities. They are clearly boundaried by the frame of the screen and the rules are clear, consistent and patient, while the visual stimulus is fast-paced and interesting. For parents, it's always tempting to allow hours of screen-based activities because it is easier. Kirk and I are also firm believers that there is nothing inherently bad about playing video games, so we don't even feel guilty about it. What drove us to action was the increasingly negative attitude we were seeing from Bambam whenever he was asked to do anything else. One might expect a sullen "I don't want to" when asked to do chores, but we were getting mightily tired of getting a long face and some serious backtalking when ofering food, toys or outings. We ended up with a lot of angry yelling from both sides, which is never good.

We'd tried before, on several occasions to explain to Bambam that we didn't want to stop or limit his screentime so much as make sure he balanced out his day with other activities as well. This turned out to be too vague and left him feeling insecure and acting even more defiant. So last night I made a chart: 

Each column contains a type of daily activity: housework, personal hygiene, tidying, playing with others, playing outside, creative activities, playing with toys, and screentime. I laminated it so I can write on it with a whiteboard pen. At the top of each of the first seven colums I write a number to indicate how many activities out of that column he needs to do. Each completed activity gets crossed out. If, at the end of the day, he's done the required amount of 'other' things that means he's had a balanced day with a variety of activities. If we can't cross out the required number, I get to put as many crosses as are missing in the screentime column for the next day, which means he doesn't get to do that particular screen activity the next day. I also get to cross out screentime for bad behaviour.

My goal with this chart was to leave as much as possible control with Bambam. He has to do a certain number of activities from each column, but he always has a free choice which ones to do and when to do them, and can make up more if he wants to. It's not a fixed schedule. On the other hand, it gives him a list of suggestions, so he's not left at a loss as to what exactly we mean when we say: 'don't play on the computer, do something else'.
I've also tried to emphasise that the chart is a template for a varied, fun-filled day, rather than a reward system. He doesn't get rewarded with screentime for doing other activities. The screentime is there as part of a normal day, alongside the other activities.

This morning I came downstairs to find him beating his sister with a pillow. I crossed out 'World of Warcraft' from the screentime column. I then explained to him what the new chart was for. His whole demeanour changed and he's been great all day. Jumping at the chance to clear and set the table in order to cross out another chore. Playing imaginatively all over the house and outside, with or without siblings. They dressed up, played hide-and-seek, built a fort out of cardboard boxes... He's been polite and nice and not the slightest bit defiant or aggressive.He spent barely any time at all watching screens because he's been so proudly doing other things and enjoying praise and attention because of it. I'm so glad I seem to have struck just the right chord for him and our family to have a good time together again.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Haven - the plot thickens...

Being a sci-fi fan, I watch Haven.
I'm watching it pretty much as it airs on Syfy, although it tends to get recorded on the Sky+ box and we watch it if and when the kids have gone to sleep.

I enjoy Haven as a monster-of-the-week series but I really expect more of good tv. We've all gotten used to larger casts and convoluted plots, even involving travel through dimensions of time and space. We can follow long plot arcs with mysterious hints scattered throughout every episode.

Haven just didn't deliver that. Audrey fairly easily drops into her role of local cop / x-files investigator. She's an FBI agent, isn't she? She could find out about the mysterious photo in the 27 year old paper without quitting her day job. She could at the very least use her powers as a federal agent to find out who her birth mother is, and track her down. Instead she chooses to stay in a rural backwater solving local mysteries in the hopes it will shed some light on her own past. Why? I don't quite believe in her motivations. Be that as it may, I'm willing to go along with it. She stays in Haven so we can witness some nice mysterious little horror stories. Fair enough. But why is she so ready to believe in supernatural explanations for the things that happen around her? Even the locals, most notably Nathan, aren't as easily convinced the 'troubles' are real, and they've witnessed them for years.

If we are meant to simply accept that Audrey just easily believes in the supernatural, and stays in Haven (and is she still on FBI payroll or what?) to find out about her past, then I'm still often left wondering why she doesn't get on with it. Every episode contains a tiny little - and badly embedded in the story at that - hint about the elusive 'Lucy' from the photograph, but how many times has Audrey let the subject drop in a conversation, and even allowed the person with the information to just walk away? Not really dogged pursuit of her stated goal, is it? If I was her, I'd be seriously interrogating some people, not least Duke, and the two newspaper men. And apparently, there are extensive police and forensic files on the Colorado Kid after all. Did she not even think to check the archives?

For a town full of people, the main cast is actually pretty small, and very few of those are presented with any depth. Compared to other recent tv-series, it seems to underestimate the capability of the audience to keep track of multiple deeply complex characters and their individual story lines and development. Give us more. We can handle it. There is some attempt to present the characters' emotional and social development in the form of several stilted romances and Audrey's attempts at making friends, but these are very episodical as well. Duke nearly died of supernatural old age, but this has brought about no lasting change to his outlook on life. Nathan can feel Audrey's touch, but it doesn't make him much more or less broody than he was before. Generally, the most shocking things happen to a lot of people, and they barely flinch. If they do, they're certainly completely over it by next week. After the doctor's death, her daughter just slots into her job as if she is an understudy in a play. I find I start to care less about the characters because they're just not real.

The monster-of-the-week format also contributes to this feeling of shallowness. Audrey and Nathan have locked up several monsters, killed some, driven some off... but they never mention them again, or visit them. It would be nice to see all the monsters continue to be part of Audrey's daily life. They could be present in the background as a duty, for example to check on whether they're still safely locked up. Or they could come back as the solution to a new problem. Instead, they're like the monsters in a children's cartoon where nothing that happens really matters and everything is reset to default by the start of the next episode. There are so few consequences for most of what anyone does in this series.

However, we have just reached an episode where Audrey finally does undertake some investigation of the elusive Lucy. She tries to get more information out of Duke and his former babysitter, to no avail. Conveniently, all involved in that incident seem to have either no memory of it, or have gone mad to the point of dancing about in their underpants. Still no resolution, but at least she tries harder than usual. There are some interesting arc-shaped hints like the tattooed arm. Currently, my theory involves time travel. The girl in the picture is in fact Audrey herself, but she has instructed everyone no to tell her future/past self about her, or possibly even done something to wipe their memories. Both the Colorado kid and Duke get killed by a tattooed arm, the one known owner of which is dead in this timeline, but possibly was alive to kill 27 years ago. Or are Duke and the Colorado Kid one and the same somehow?

I can but hope that the real resolution of the series will be at least that interesting or even better. Surprise me, Haven!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Child-proof Christmas Tree

No time for blogging today, I've spent the evening building the tree. It's an artificial one so it requires assembly. I've put it up inside the baby playpen to keep it, the nativity scene, and the gifts safe from grabby little baby and toddler hands. Thought it might be a good tip to share!

Monday, 6 December 2010

Elitist education

Another rant on the subject of education.

It never ceases to amaze me that providing excellent education opportunities to those most academically talented  - as in 'streaming by ability' - is so often described as elitist. And the term 'elitist' implies that somehow, certain others will be excluded and denied an equal opportunity.

In any other field, for example sports or arts, it goes without saying that people are streamed by ability. If those sectors were run along the same idealistic vein as education currently seems to be, the England football team would play roughly like the philosophers in the Monty Python sketch, and museums would be filled with random scribblings, while the Royal Ballet might resemble the X-factor auditions. Giving everybody 'equal access' to training and support in these disciplines would be ludicrous. Participants consider it normal and right that they should compete, train, and consistently be the best in order to get the top position. They learn to win and they learn to lose. They learn to have an accurate estimation of their own skills and abilities. Regardless of sometimes having to admit defeat, they learn real self-confidence and real self-worth, based on real achievements.

Consumers also expect the best. Nobody thinks it's elitist or exclusive to expect the England football players to be the best ones in the country. Most people would be insulted if they came to see a theatre performance, an exhibition, or a professional sports event, and were confronted with a mediocre effort by a bunch of self-confident amateurs who were never challenged and never faced rejection.

However, when it comes to education, the received wisdom is that challenging children is wrong. When faced with a difficult task, they might experience disappointment or even failure. It is seen to be of paramount importance that all levels of achievement are valued equally, so that all can have a pleasant experience and grow self-confidence. Without any challenges they are left with a hollow and meaningless sense of self-worth, based on no real effort or achievements, and they have a completely false view of their own abilities. That bubble will eventually burst and I doubt anyone will feel grateful for it. "I was not taught any skills while I had the chance, but at least I was a happy child living in cloud cuckoo land"? Not likely. The teachers we appreciate the most are the ones who made us sweat.

I wholeheartedly support the idea that all genuine effort should be valued equally, regardless of the resulting achievement. But this is in a moral and a social sense. Two children who both try their very best to complete a reading assignment, one with better results than the other, both deserve praise and recognition for their effort and hard work. In an academic sense, their achievement is different, and this too needs to be recognized.

A football match in a school P.E. class serves to allow all children to participate and will result in varying levels of achievement, but ideally equal levels of enjoyment and recognition. A professional team however will be comprised only of those who consistently achieve well. These talented players are picked up young and trained harder and longer than any other, by the best available coaches. They are selected and streamed by ability, and this is described as a noble thing, as realizing their potential, as an opportunity for children from all backgrounds, etc. It is rarely seen as unfair to those who are less good at football. It simply makes sense.

Ironically enough, all sense is abandoned when it comes to education. Should not academic achievement be handled in the same way? After several years of learning the basics, those that excel academically could be selected and streamed to be trained and challenged by the best teachers in the most difficult disciplines. Should not their potential be realized, should not this amazing opportunity be open to those with the talent for it? This does not imply that those whose talents lie elsewhere are not equally valued and recognized, any more that it is unfair that Wayne Rooney plays for England and I don't.

Universities are to academics like symphony orchestras are to musicians or national teams are to sports-people. Why can't we treat them that way?

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Star Trek would have it sorted by now

It's pretty official now... Kirk's developed a condition with a name! Addison's disease.
Besides obviously already having a tumour and having lost all the hormones his pituitary makes, he's also lost cortisol, which is produced by the adrenal gland. Well, at least it has a name, some notoriety, and they make you carry a blue card for emergencies. Kind of cool.

Even cooler would be if the 21st century ever delivered what I've come to expect from the future as presented in the past. Star Trek is just one example. How light they make of those perfectly treatable diseases that were still killing people left and right back in the 20th century. No such luck. No quick diagnosis by tricorder, no immediate treatment with a one-size-fits all hypospray and a short spell in sickbay. Your choice of doctor: grumpy drinker, career mum, genetically engineered genius, or hologram.

Science fiction isn't always far from the truth though. Why recently, for the remake of Tron, they scanned the actors into the computer exactly like they imagined in the original. Back then, they made it up. And within their lifetime, it came true!

Anyway, I've invented the world's first artificial pituitary.

On the one hand, the pituitary gland is a kind of thermostat. It measures the values of certain elements in the blood and reacts accordingly to adjust those levels. It also reacts to certain other bodily states in order to, for example, stimulate more cortisol production in times of stress. As I understand it, fairly simple computers can perform similar tasks, like an electronic blood pressure meter or a fingertip pulse oximeter. Given recent experimental developments like IBM's chip on a molecule (, it should be possible to create a measuring device and processor small enough to be portable or even, ideally, implantable.

Of course, implanting foreign objects in the body can cause rejection, so I would look for a solution by building the processor out of biological materials. There's already been successful experiments of this as well ( You could use cells taken from the patient's own body. Perhaps even cells from their own pituitary gland, which, helpfully, actually contains adult stem cells so they would be ideally suited to engineer into a new form.

The other role the pituitary fulfils is that, after having monitored the body's needs, it also produces the necessary hormones or stimulating substances for other glands to produce other hormones. Now, making new cells out of scratch can be a tricky proposition. At the moment, replacement hormones are synthesized in big laboratories and then injected or taken as tablets etc. An intermediate solution could be to do much as the continuous glucose monitoring system for diabetics does. A small device is put just under the skin to measure glucose levels and it then radios to another small device to inject synthetic insulin as required. The artificial insulin comes out of vials and needs to be kept topped up.

However, I'm being ambitious here. I'm designing a completely artificial pituitary, to effectively replace a broken one. It needs to be small, implantable, and virtually maintenance free. I'm willing to put up with it needing replacement every 10 years or so (like an artificial heart valve) and I can allow it to be bigger than the actual pituitary gland, as we'd probably not want to implant it in the brain anyway. I was thinking upper arm, and roughly the size of a contraceptive implant.

The replacement pituitary would, similarly to the original one, have to use building blocks that are present in the body to construct the hormones it needs. As we can synthesize hormones in the lab, I assume we have their 'recipe'. Then, it is merely a question of building a finger-sized lab/hormone factory. This would take some serious nanotechnology, but I'm sure both the molecule microchip and biological processors can provide a solution here.

Come on people! This is the 21st century. Let's stop injecting ourselves with needles and taking tablets. None of those methods even come close to mimicking the intricate machinery of the human body. I want my flying car, my robot housemaid, and some miracle medical breakthroughs.