Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Teachers: Get Better Grades? Make Them Compete

Does your daughter expect a D on the algebra test?  No matter the amount of studying, she will probably get it.

Not because she's dumb.  Because somehow kids' expectations of how they will do in a class actually affect the outcome, according to a new study.

Research has shown that what a student expects to learn and how they expect to do in a class actually has an impact on their learning, professor Angela King has found.

For example, she says at, a student might take a divisional class and assume they will get an A because it’s viewed as their “easy” class. “They are already calculating their GPA based on that A and will do whatever it takes to get that A, while a student who takes a class perceived as more difficult, like an organic chemistry course, just wants to pass the class.”

And sometimes that means they settle for a C, she added, when a little more effort or an alternative study method could help them improve their learning, and their grade.

 It's a little like positive thinking, I guess, though I always got Ds in math and a mountain of positive thinking couldn't have changed that!

But apparently, after working with students to prove her thesis, King found that dividing them up into teams who competed by building up points based on the grades they received (F's deleted points while A's earned extra points) actually started to do better. The big prize? Fifteen-point bonuses on their final exams.

Since most were premed, this was very enticing.

Ironically, the team which won was so far out in front that the other students stopped adding up points (and I guess, let their grades slip).  So much for motivation!

It's True. Lattes Spill Less Than Coffee

Who knew?  Latte lovers rejoice.  You're far less likely to spill this sweet sip of this beverage than a coffee.


It's the foam.

According to a new study, scientists have found that just a few layers of bubbles can significantly dampen the sloshing motion of liquid. They actually stumbled upon this when looking into safer transport of liquefied gas in trucks and propellants in rocket engines.

Researchers studying the problem accidentally solved it with beer, initially.  "While I was studying for my Ph.D. in the south of France, we were in a pub, and we noticed that when we were carrying a pint of Guinness, which is a very foamy beer, the sloshing almost didn't happen at all," says Alban Sauret, who is currently a researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) at

The scientists took their observations from the coffeehouse and the pub to the laboratory, where they built an apparatus to test the damping power of foam more systematically. They constructed a narrow rectangular container made of glass, which they filled with a solution of water, glycerol (a common substance that increases the fluid viscosity) and the commercial dishwashing detergent Dawn.

By injecting air at a constant flow rate through a needle located at the bottom of the rectangular cell, the team created uniform layers of 3-millimeter-diameter bubbles. "The dishwashing foam is very stable, which allowed us to conduct the experiments without the bubbles disappearing," says Fran├žois Boulogne, another member of the team. 

The researchers experimented with two types of movements, either jolting the apparatus with a quick, side-to-side motion or rocking it steadily back and forth. They recorded the resulting waves with a high-speed camera. They found that just five layers of foam were enough to decrease the height of the waves by a factor of ten.

The team believes that the foam dissipates the energy of the sloshing liquid through friction with the sides of the container. More than five layers of bubbles did not add much additional damping, because the top layers of foam didn't really move, they said. The team also found that bubbles that do not make contact with the walls of the container do not contribute much added damping.

So take that, coffee drinkers!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Getting the Job: Is It All in the Voice?

Who knew?  Your voice may be the key to getting a new job.  Or, more specifically, its pitch.

It turns out that the way your voice sounds to potential recruiters and employers can have a positive -- or negative -- effect.  It seems a person’s speech may convey their fundamental ability to think — the capacity for reasoning, thoughtfulness and intellect.  Simply put, a job seeker's voice may reveal his intelligence. At least, that's the finding of a new study.

Of course, that's also taking into consideration the contents of one's mind, and communicating them clearly, like specific thoughts and beliefs (though if you use your voice to talk about how much you hate math and the job's about accounting, maybe not so much).

When hypothetical employers and professional recruiters listened to or read candidates' job qualifications, they rated the candidates as more competent, thoughtful and intelligent when they heard the pitch of their voices than when they just read the resumes — even when the words used were exactly the same. As a result, they liked the candidate more and were more interested in hiring him, if they liked his voice.  Rather, the pitch of it.. 

According to a new study, the way your voice sounds wins out over stellar resumes and portfolios. 

In an initial experiment, a separate group of evaluators judged spoken pitches either by watching and listening to a video recording, listening to the audio only, or reading a transcript of the pitch.

The evaluators who heard the pitch -- and liked it -- subsequently rated the candidate as more intelligent, thoughtful and competent than the evaluators who only read a transcript of the pitch.  Those who watched the video weren't moved either way.  But evaluators who heard the pitch reported liking the candidate more and reported being significantly more likely to hire that person.


That part the study left blank.

But think about it.  Wouldn't you much rather be around someone who speaks in a soothing, calm way than someone whose voice is raspy and grating?  Pitch itself is the vibration of the folds of the vocal cords, according to  The sound of the voice changes as the rate of vibrations varies. As the number of vibrations per second increases, so does the pitch, meaning the voice sounds higher. Presumably, potential employers wouldn't enjoy listening to someone whose pitch could shatter a tea cup.

So listen up.   If people wince when you start speaking, you're probably not getting the job.

Preteens Who Take Risks Are Better?

I've always wished that my son would be more daring.  When he was a little boy, his best friend climbed trees (to the top), snowboarded only on slopes marked with black diamonds, and wasn't afraid to trade barbs with kids who were 20 pounds heavier and meaner.

Instead, Phillip would stand anxiously by, ready to call 911.

I've always loved that about him, that he's a caretaker, but I also, at times when he was smaller, found myself hoping that he'd be just a tad more open to risk.  I'm not talking skydiving or swimming in a thunderstorm, but  riding a bike with the training wheels off?

But that's just who he is.  A teacher recently described him as "very cerebral," and maybe people who think a lot about what can go wrong don't do things that may be dangerous

This winter he's been scared when I go running.  Last year I fell on the ice and broke my wrist.  "You're actually going running?" he says nervously to me as the snow falls and I tie up my laces.  I'm probably not the right mom for him.  I've always been the type to just do it.  And I've taken lots of risks in my life.  Some have paid off, some not.

Thought crazy for staying 10 years with a confirmed bachelor (we've been married 21 years this March).

Going over a boss's head about late payment, and being fired (okay, so maybe I shouldn't have accused him of giving me "the runaround," too).

And there was the time 

 Sometimes I think my son can't quite believe what I do. (Though secretly I love that he's a little bit proud of me.)

But Phillip is just not built that way. He doesn't believe in taking chances and for a kid who gets good grades (okay, so  he enjoys playing Call of Duty a little too much) and will be presenting a paper at a conference for electrical engineers next month maybe that's the way to go.

It's just never worked for me.

But now experts are saying that experimenting preteens may have different brain processes.  Preteens who experiment or explore new things may have ones that work differently than those of preteens who do not, according to a new study.  The long and the short of it?  Seems preteens who do this are better at decision-making, but, and here's the big catch, may be more at risk of dangerous behaviors.  Duh.

So I think I'll keep my son.  He's pretty much given us nothing but pleasure (well, at least until he turned 13) and I know if I leave him home alone, I probably, most likely, won't come back to smashed beer bottles on the lawn.  

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Future of the World May Be in Our Hands - Or, at Least, in a Good Man!

I've always loved my husband's hands.  Thin and long-fingered, they're delicate, like a sculptor's or a pianist's, and yet strong, too.  (He's yanked many a tooth in his career.)

Now experts are saying that you can tell a lot about a man by looking at his hands. Not to be confused with other parts of his body!

But men with short index fingers and long ring fingers are on average nicer towards women, and this stems -- believe it or not -- from the hormones these men have been exposed to in their mother’s womb, according to a new study by researchers at McGill University.  Something new to blame mothers for!

Men with these kinds of hands also tend to have more children. That's not entirely clear but there's a definite link between fetal life and adult behavior.

 “It is fascinating to see that moderate variations of hormones before birth can actually influence adult behaviour in a selective way,” says Simon Young, a McGill Emeritus Professor in Psychiatry and coauthor of the study, at

 Several studies have been conducted previously to try to assess the impact of digit ratio on adult behavior. This one is the first, however, to highlight how finger lengths affect behavior differently depending on the sex of the person you are interacting with.

“When with women, men with smaller ratios were more likely to listen attentively, smile and laugh, compromise or compliment the other person,” says Debbie Moskowitz, lead author and Professor of Psychology at McGill. They acted that way in sexual relationships, but also with female friends or colleagues. These men were also less quarrelsome with women than with men, whereas the men with larger ratios were equally quarrelsome with both. For women though, digit ratio variation did not seem to predict how they behaved, the researchers report.

Who knew our fingers could tell so much?

And why more children, with certain kinds? Common sense. "Our research suggests they have more harmonious relationships with women. These behaviors support the formation and maintenance of relationships with women,” Moskowitz says. “This might explain why they have more children, on average.”

 Here's where the study falls down for us.  We only have one!

I don't really know how much stock you can put in this (there must be at least a few serial killers with short index fingers and long ring fingers).  But researchers are finding out more and more that the time fetuses spend in the womb determines much of their health, and future.  It's where it's decided which genes are expressed, where babies learn words and nursery rhymes spoken by their mothers, even where autism may start.   It has a name,

So, moms take care when you're pregnant.  The future of the world -- or at least the sexes -- are in your hands.


Friday, February 20, 2015

Unemployed Long-Term? Your Personality May Change

Big news. Unemployment can change a person.  But maybe not in the ways you might think.

I was unemployed twice and it wasn't pretty.  It was actually quite depressing.  Both times happened in my 20s, and I wound up with better jobs eventually.  But only after a very long, dark period in my life.

The first time, I was let go from a large company that manufactured chemicals -- pesticides, household cleaners, that kind of thing.  I actually flew around the country to interview farmers on their use of agricultural chemicals.  No surprise it didn't work out.  Of course it didn't help that the owner of the company tried to sexually harass me and I had nowhere to turn.  Come to think of it, that's why I lost the first job, too.  In those days you got away with it.

Then I got one of my favorite jobs, working as an editor for Good Housekeeping magazine.  It was a temporary position and they let me go after six months, due to office politics (the top editor wasn't consulted about my hiring and she was determined to put an end to it).

In  the first case I got unemployment, but in the second, I didn't.  I had to move back home with my parents (I wasn't a Boomerang; though my parents might not have agreed).   I couldn't get a job for almost a year, and life was pretty bittersweet.  I was happy to have a place to call home, but I so wanted to be working, and on my own.

I'm one of those people who can't be happy if she isn't working.  Work is my identity, right or wrong.   When I wasn't working, I felt like I was nothing -- and this even held true when my son was born and I stayed home with him for a while.  About12 years.

Finally, a job came through, after those dreadful months when I was younger, and I've been employed ever since.  But that time of unemployment still leaves a dark hole in my spirit and so I'm not at all surprised that studies are finding that your personality changes when you don't have work.

Unemployment can change peoples' core personalities, making some less conscientious, agreeable and open, which may make it difficult for them to find new jobs, according to research published by the American Psychological Association, as reported by

"The results challenge the idea that our personalities are 'fixed' and show that the effects of external factors such as unemployment can have large impacts on our basic personality," says Christopher J. Boyce, PhD, of the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom. "This indicates that unemployment has wider psychological implications than previously thought."
The researchers looked at the so-called "Big Five" personality traits - conscientiousness, neuroticism, agreeableness, extraversion and openness. They found that men experienced increased agreeableness during the first two years of unemployment, compared to men who never lost their jobs. But after two years, the agreeableness levels of the unemployed men began to diminish and, in the long run, were lower than those of the men with jobs. For women, agreeableness declined with each year of unemployment.

"In early unemployment stages, there may be incentives for individuals to behave agreeably in an effort to secure another job or placate those around them," the researchers wrote, "but in later years when the situation becomes endemic, such incentives may weaken."

I know I gave up for a while, quite sure I would never find a job again.  It works on your psyche, your disposition, how you feel about yourself.  The world becomes a dismal place where you just don't fit in.    I remember being jealous of a telephone repair man up high in a tree (never mind I'm afraid of heights).  At least he had a job.

The study suggests that the effect of unemployment across society is more than just an economic concern -- the unemployed may be unfairly stigmatized as a result of unavoidable personality change, potentially creating a downward cycle of difficulty in the labor market, Boyce said.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Sex Saves Lives. Really.

Who knew?  Sex can save your life.

 It's really quite simple, but in its own way, beautiful.  Mixing our genes helps weed out gene mutations that cause disease.

You've probably been hearing about all these amazing discoveries scientists have been making about how mutations in our genes can lead to cancer and other diseases.  Mutations are the things that make our cells not do what they're supposed to.  Researchers have found mutations that lead to breast cancer, and though only about 10% of cancers are inherited, and there are hundreds of thousands of mutations that can lead to it, it's at least a start at identifying where cancer comes from, and how it starts. And, best of all, what to do if you have one, before it develops into cancer, like the test for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutation that tells a woman she is at high risk of breast cancer. 

Our predispositions to disease gradually decrease the more we mix our genetic material together, according to a new study, reports. This discovery was finally made possible by the availability in recent years of repositories of biological samples and genetic data from different populations around the globe.

As we reproduce, generation after generation, the exchange of genetic material between man and woman causes our species to evolve little by little. Chromosomes from the mother and the father recombine to create the chromosomes of their child (chromosomes are the larger building blocks of genomes). Scientists have known for some time, however, that the parents’ genomes don’t mix together in a uniform way. Chromosomes recombine frequently in some segments of the genome, while recombination is less frequent in others.

 Here's what the study found: the segments of the human genome that don’t recombine as often as others tend to carry a significantly greater proportion of the more disease-enabling genetic mutations. 

So, the more sex, the less chance of disease?  Not quite. 

Disease-enabling mutations are eventually ripped from our genetic code through sexual reproduction. But the process can potentially take many hundreds of generations, researchers say.

This discovery is noteworthy, scientists involved in the study say, because it gives us a better understanding of how we become more or less at risk of developing or contracting diseases.  From there to treatments or cures, or prevention, isn't that big a step.

I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer almost 10 years ago.  Since that time, treatments have changed significantly.  My cancer had a 99% chance of not recurring, but unfortunately, I was in that 1%.  Because doctors at that time had no way of knowing which cancers were life-threatening, mine included, and which were not -- something they have a better idea about today -- they were often forced to take drastic steps.

Today, with a better knowledge of what certain mutations can or cannot lead to, treatments can be  modified.  Mine might even have been a "wait and see"situation because, while my first cancer was high grade (about to become invasive), my second was not.  I probably could have lived a normal life with the second cancer, without doing anything about it.  But back then, mutations -- and their meanings -- weren't quite as clear and doctors had no choice -- with a recurrence -- but to be very aggressive. 

The results of this study should speed up the discovery and identification of mutations associated with specific diseases, and researchers and health authorities will in turn be able to apply this new information to develop more effective treatments and prevention programs, according to those who worked on the study.

Am I angry this didn't come sooner, for me?  Not really.  Doctors did what they knew would make me live.  And I'm still here.  What's to be angry about that?  

 Deborah DiSesa Hirsch