15 September 2014

Against Permission Slips

The fact that institutions like public schools in the United States feel a need to go to extraordinary lengths to manage how ordinary, harmless, over the counter drugs are administered to minors in middle school and high school, with designated nurses following forms signed by doctors and parents, as if Tylenol were heroin, strikes me as a sign of the failure of the leaders of our institutions to command any kind of moral leadership.

The felt need for children on a school trip to have not just one, but dozens of forms signed, in another empty gesture in which form and bureaucracy triumph over substance.  How sick is our legal system that we must work around it with countless waivers in which we thoughtlessly surrender our legal rights, rather than develop standards are that workable and make them the norm?

Not all forms and paperwork of our institutions is so infantile and vacuous.  Schools have a practical need, for example, for contract information of parents and guardians.  But, so much of it is overkill driven by unreasonable fear that lets to many important outcomes hinge on who signed what for which occasion and precisely how a particular lawyer drafted a particular form.

Are we a nation of such frail and weak willed individuals that we make it a crime for even college students to drink alcohol, unlike almost all of the rest of the world, and then enforce those rules in a discriminatory and arbitrary fashion?

Are we a nation so sheltered that we can't trust professionally licensed teachers and our peer parent chaperons to take our children to a zoo or museum outside the school grounds without obtaining special signed permission in advance from a parent or guardian to do so for each trip?

Far too often, we turn to rigid protocols and zero tolerance policies, when a dialectic of trust and responsibility on the part of people in positions of leadership, would serve us better.  Is it possible to rebuild our culture on those kinds of foundations?  Or, is that too foreign to our bureaucratic and legalistic sensibilities?

Eight Schizophrenia Variants Subtyped

A new study has identified 42 clusters of genetic mutations that taken together predict one of eight sub-types of schizophrenia with distinct symptoms.  While individual genetic mutations (SNPs) are not very predictive of schizophrenia, genome wide associations with large sample sizes (4,200 people with schizophrenia and 3,800 controls) have demonstrated that clusters of multiple genetic mutations when found together are highly predictive schizophrenia genotypes.

The subtyping of symptoms, it turns out, was critical to finding the genetic clusters at all.  Even if a genotype is a match to one of the eight schizophrenia syndromes, it will show no significant correlation with the other seven and the signal that does exist may be diluted to the point where it cannot be seen.  In the same way, it is much easier to look for "tall statute genes" and "short stature genes" separately, than to look for "extreme stature" genes in a single statistical analysis.

Schizophrenia, in general, is about 80% heritable, but some genetic clusters predict that someone has a 95%-100% chance of having the associated particular subtype of schizophrenia, while other clusters predict that there is as little as a 70% chance of having schizophrenia and generally clarifies what type of schizophrenia that person who develop if they develop it at all.
In some patients with hallucinations or delusions, for example, the researchers matched distinct genetic features to patients' symptoms, demonstrating that specific genetic variations interacted to create a 95 percent certainty of schizophrenia. In another group, they found that disorganized speech and behavior were specifically associated with a set of DNA variations that carried a 100 percent risk of schizophrenia. . . it was only when the research team was able to organize the genetic variations and the patients' symptoms into groups that they could see that particular clusters of DNA variations acted together to cause specific types of symptoms.

Then they divided patients according to the type and severity of their symptoms, such as different types of hallucinations or delusions, and other symptoms, such as lack of initiative, problems organizing thoughts or a lack of connection between emotions and thoughts. The results indicated that those symptom profiles describe eight qualitatively distinct disorders based on underlying genetic conditions.

The investigators also replicated their findings in two additional DNA databases of people with schizophrenia, an indicator that identifying the gene variations that are working together is a valid avenue to explore for improving diagnosis and treatment. . . .

Eight classes of schizophrenia were identified by independently characterizing each phenotypic feature included in a genotypic-phenotypic relationship; classifying each item based on the symptoms as purely positive, purely negative, primarily positive, or primarily negative symptoms; and clustering these relationships based on their recoded phenotypic domain using non-negative matrix factorization. SNP sets harboring only positive symptoms are indicated in red, whereas those displaying negative symptoms are in green. Intermediate combinations including severe and/or moderate processes combined with positive and/or negative and/or disorganized symptoms were also color-coded.
Of course, while this allows for powerful diagnostic tools that could, for example, definitively confirm a claim of insanity by a criminal defendant who was not privileged enough to receive a clear diagnosis from professional mental health professionals before being arrested, this understanding does little directly to help someone who is diagnosed with a particular schizophrenia subtype cope with that condition.  But, someday, knowing a person's schizphrenia genotype might help someone know, for example, which type of anti-psychotic drugs, if any, are likely to be helpful for them.

Foster Care System Still Broken

Kids in foster care in Colorado are about half as likely to graduate from high school as homeless kids and kids in poverty. 

Kids in foster care routinely get bounced from home to home, mistreatment and abuse of children in foster care (often at the hands of fellow foster children) is so common place that it is a cliché.  Ongoing support for foster children once they turn age eighteen in negligible. 

Social services also has a poor record of removing children from horribly abusive and neglectful environments despite clear warning flags.  Older children who are being abused or neglected, and people who might help them, are discouraged from taking action to invoke social services involvement, in part, because the conditions faced by foster children if they are removed from their parents are so bad.

A state audit has determined that child welfare departments in Colorado are greatly understaffed, and there are also not enough foster families.

When the outcomes for homeless kids, kids in poverty, and probably even kids in the juvenile justice system often looks better than those for foster kids, it is hard to argue that the state has met its obligations to children who have already been victims of criminally bad parenting.  These kids deserve better breaks than kids who have been fortunate enough to have at least mediocre parents, not state inflicted mistreatment that follows the abuse and neglect that they have already suffered.

The fact of that matter is that foster children are very frequently poor and are very frequently impaired as a result of the abuse and neglect that they have suffered.  They aren't going to graduate from high school as often as middle class kids from families that have nurtured them their entire lives.  But, it is abundantly clear that the absolutely abysmal academic performance of foster children compared to other populations facing seriously hardships has a lot to do with aspects of the foster care system that are broken and that our lawmakers (in Colorado and in most other states) are too cheap to fund in a way that can give these kids what they deserve.

When parental rights are terminated, children lose stability and their main source of economic support.  Since this condition is due in significant part to state intervention, it is appropriate for the state to spend what it takes to provide for these children properly.  If we can afford to spend $30,000-$50,000 to adequately care for adults who have committed felonies, we can afford to spend much more than we do on children who are innocent victims than we do.

08 September 2014

Computer Autoimmune Disease

It stands to reason that computers, as complex systems, can suffer diseases similar to those suffered by animals.  My computer certainly seems to think so.

Over the past few days, it decided to contract an autoimmune disease, like M.S. in humans.

The immune system of a computer is, naturally enough, its virus protection software.  And, when a computer's virus protection software gets overactive, it blinds a computer by treating all data coming to it over computer networks, wireless or otherwise, as viruses, much like M.S. can cause a body's immune system to attack its own nervous system.  If the virus protection software shuts down all network connections, no viruses can get it and it perfectly fulfills its virus protection mission.  Unfortunately, this also makes your computer, in a world where most of the data is in the cloud, useless.

Of course, discovering the nature of the problem and fixing it was a many hour matter that I entrusted to someone more qualified than me to solve.

Still, needless to say, this little bout of computer autoimmune disease was highly inconvenient, productivity reducing and illustrated once again that complex systems have a tendency to take on a biological nature, even when they are completely inanimate, in principle.