At 42 months, 25 children confused "anger" with a "sad cry" etc. (Widen, 2013).

Facial Expressions

I was having a bite to eat with a young mother and her child the other day, and I watched in silence as the women tried signaling her disapproval of her child’s misbehavior with facial signals. She had an impressive repertoire of signals. She grimaced and frowned and sneered and even bared her teeth once or twice. I picked up her signals and modified my own behavior several times, but her little boy wasn’t influenced at all and just went on annoying her and everyone else in the vicinity.

I try not giving advice to parents because they tend to be sensitive about their parenting skills, but I was tempted to share with her a little neuroscience, which is that Researcher Paul Ekman has found that children are lousy interpreters of adults’ facial expressions. He found, for example, that children can’t label an expression as “disgust” with even 50% accuracy until they are nine years old. They don’t get really good at reading people’s expressions until they are much older. If you want your kids to know you’re disgusted, tell them. It works better.

Health officials are warning people to stay indoors and avoid mosquitoes because Eastern Equine Encephalitis is here and it’s killing people. And yes, there is a Western Equine Encephalitis, too.

Eastern Equine Encephalitis is a fairly rare, viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes. It is caused by a virus that belongs to a family of viruses called the togaviridae. It’s a fairly large family. Its members can be found all over North and South America.

Here in America, most members of the family have homes on the east coast or along the Gulf of Mexico, but a few have chosen to live along the Great Lakes, and a few brave pioneers have settled in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

The disease they cause is usually asymptomatic. People don’t even know they have it. But in a very small number of cases, the virus gets past the host’s immune system and attacks their brain. Roughly one third of these unfortunate people die. Many of the rest suffer severe brain damage.

No one knows why the virus ignores most people and attacks only an unfortunate few, but researchers suspect that their immune systems may be the reason. The virus prefers victims with compromised immune systems.

If you live on the east coast and got bitten by a mosquito recently and now you’re experiencing intractable vomiting, pounding headaches, double vision, slurred speech, and prolonged fever, go to an emergency room immediately, and by immediately, I mean no later than yesterday. Really, intractable vomiting, slurred speech, and double vision? What were you waiting for? A  sign from God?


Jargon is a wonderful word. It’s one of those very rare words that mean two completely different things. It can mean either specialized, technical language or it can mean nonsense. A person speaking jargon can be saying something brilliant or saying something completely insane.

I don’t know why the inventors of English felt it was a good idea to use the same word for highly technical language and nonsense, but I think it was because they realized the two meanings weren’t complete opposites. Jargon is any stream of words that an ordinary person is unable to understand. Most of us can’t make any sense out of it. To understand jargon, you have to be either highly trained or completely nuts.

I read a lot of baffling prose these days. I suspect that many authors deliberately speak in jargon because they’re confused about what they’re saying or because they want to confuse the rest of us. Or perhaps they think great ideas are beyond most people’s ability to understand and that if most people can understand what they’re saying, their ideas are not particularly profound or ground-breaking, so they deliberately state their ideas in the most incomprehensible language possible.

Incomprehensible gibberish has always been with us, but there seems to be more of it now. I find that a great deal of academic writing is almost incomprehensible. I can’t always tell if the stuff I’m reading is brilliant or just plain nuts. The one thing I can be sure of is that it’s jargon. In this age of uncertainty, it’s nice to be certain of something.

What I learned from Steinbeck’s first divorce…

I was thinking about why marriages fail the other day, because of something I read about John Steinbeck. Steinbeck was the author of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, among other things. I always loved the title The Grapes of Wrath. I thought it was brilliant and only something a genius like Steinbeck could invent for the title of this book. But I was wrong. He didn’t invent it. His first wife, Carol, did. A few years later, he divorced her.

Success destroyed their marriage. They had been dirt poor before the publication of Of Mice and Men, but they were happy. They had nothing. They lived in a miserable little cabin owned by Steinbeck’s father, drank cheap wine with their friends, and stole food when the little money they earned or borrowed ran out, but they both remembered those times as the happiest of their lives. They only had each other, but having each other was enough.

But then, Of Mice and Men became a big success and The Grapes of Wrath an even bigger one, and suddenly, money poured in and the Steinbecks had more than just each other to make them happy. Now, they had countless other possibilities pulling at them, until the bond that connected them stretched and weakened and finally snapped.

When they were poor, they valued what they had, and what they had was each other. With success, they valued each other less and less until there was nothing holding them together.

I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere.     


Parenting can be a delicate subject. Mothers, especially, don’t take criticism lightly.

I felt compelled to write this post because my friend has been complaining about friends and family members chastising her for allowing her son to play with objects he finds on the lawn, like pebbles, branches, and flowers. He’ll occasionally put one of these things in his mouth just to see what it tastes like. To me, this is perfectly normal. Children naturally want to explore their environment. Their surroundings are exciting and amazing. My friend thinks so too, and she encourages her child to explore. But whenever she does, there’s always someone around who thinks she’s endangering her child.

I think that mothers stifle their children’s curiosity and growth by being too overprotective. I’m not against being cautious, but I worry about teaching children to see dangers where none exists. It represses the natural sense of wonder in children. When parents do this, they inhibit their children’s development by stripping them of their natural delight in exploration and risk taking. They teach children that life is something to be avoided instead of something to be lived and enjoyed.  

John Bradshaw, the author of Homecoming, says that wonder and curiosity are crucial for normal growth and adaptation. Curiosity leads infants to discover their noses, hands, and toes, the first step in acquiring knowledge of the world and the nuts and bolts of survival.

I think that one of the most destructive things parents can do is to rob their children of their natural sense of wonder and teach them to see danger everywhere. The happiest people I know still possess the same sense of wonder they had as children. Wonder and curiosity are the energies that move us forward. Both Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein had a childlike wonder of the world. Everything in it excited their curiosity and interest and lead Darwin to postulate the theory of natural selection and Einstein to develop the general theory of relativity. 


I try to avoid discussions about climate change. It’s one of several topics I try not to discuss. I’m compiling a list.

I don’t discuss climate change because people are very touchy on the subject and I find some of their claims to be a little puzzling. Let me give you an example. According to climatologists, CO2 levels haven’t been this high in over 400,000 years. That certainly sounds scary. But 400,000 years ago, we were in the middle of an ice age. Despite record levels of CO2, the planet was buried under ice. What happened to all that global warming CO2 is supposed to cause?

And where did those record levels of CO2 come from, 400,000 years ago? Did the Mammoths and Mastodons drive SUVs? Did they heat their apartments with coal? I’m not a paleontologist, but I suspect they didn’t.

My guess is that the sun caused ocean temperatures to rise and the oceans released huge amounts of dissolved CO2 into the atmosphere. But if this is correct, it means that global warming came first. The rise in CO2 didn’t cause global warming; it resulted from it. This also explains how we could have record levels of atmospheric CO2 in the middle of an ice age.

So now whenever I hear someone say that CO2 levels haven’t been this high in 400,000 years and CO2 is going to melt the polar ice caps and drown us all, I think of those Mastodons, freezing in the snow, waiting hundreds of thousands of years for greenhouse gases to melt the ice so that they can finally take a bath.   


I read a study the other day that I thought was interesting. Researchers in India studied some academically successful college students to see if they could identify the factors that made them academically successful. They especially wanted to know if income and parenting style made a difference. They found that income did not, but parenting did. They found that academically successful students can come from any socio-economic background, but they all tend to have one thing in common; they have parents who are determined to see their children succeed in school.

It is only one study and a single study proves nothing, but it does suggest that one of the reasons why American students do so poorly academically, despite the vast amounts of money this country spends on their education, is that you can’t make children academically successful if their parents don’t value education.

Instead of wasting money trying to fix the public schools, maybe we should spend money trying to fix the parents. Spending money on schools isn’t going to work if we don’t find a way to make parents better.  

Every child needs someone to instill in them a love of learning and a belief that they can be successful in school. Parents are the natural choice for the job, because of the child’s attachment to them and the great amount of time they spend with their child, but other people can do it too. My parents didn’t do this for me, but I succeeded anyway, because I found someone who did.  Now I think that the best thing a child can have is not wealthy parents, but someone who believes in them, because knowing that someone you trust and respect believes you have what it takes to be a success is all the push you need to succeed.


If you’re ever tempted to order puffer fish in a restaurant, here’s something to chew on instead:

The puffer fish-belongs to a family of marine fish called the Tetraodontidae, which translates as the fish with four teeth, referring to the four teeth fused into their upper and lower jaws. If I had been responsible for classifying fish I might have called them “the fish that puff themselves up” or “the fish which shouldn’t be eaten because they will poison you,” but I suppose “the fish with four teeth” is good too.

The puffer fish’ poison is found in parts most people discard: the skin, liver, ovaries, and testicles. You’ve probably never seen fish ovaries or testicles on a menu, but if you do, you’ll know now to avoid them.

The poison, because it’s found in tetradonts, is called tetrodotoxin. It kills by blocking the sodium channel in cells. It binds to sites on the outside of the channels and blocks them. If you get the poison on your hands or lips, you’ll experience mild numbness. If you swallow the poison, you’ll experience mild death.

Only chefs with years of training are supposed to serve puffer fish, but a few diners are killed each year anyways, despite their preparer’s training.

Just something to think about the next time you’re ordering sushi.

William Osler

All morning long I’ve been thinking about William Osler. Technically speaking, it’s Sir William, because he was knighted by the Queen.

Osler was one of the most productive men in human history. Among other things, he invented the American medical system. His biographer needed 1400 pages to record all his accomplishments and contributions.

Osler’s home was stocked with books. Visitors marveled at the number of books he had read and wondered how he found the time to read even one book, let alone the thousands in his home. And when they asked him, Osler told them all the same thing. He read them all by reading for fifteen minutes every night before going to sleep. By relentlessly devoting a little time each day to this one task, he accomplished something extraordinary.

Osler credited the enormity of his success to a single, tiny principle. He believed that it is not our job to worry about the future. Our job is to focus on the task at hand. He woke up every morning and got to work on the jobs that had to be done right now. He set his mind on the task at hand and got it done.

I know so many people who go through life never getting to work on the task at hand. They plan to do this and plan to do that and wind up accomplishing nothing. I’m no better. I could fill 1400 pages with all the things I planned to accomplish. I know people who could fill entire libraries with their plans.   

I thought about Osler all morning. In the past, I would have thought about writing something and never pick up a pen. Writing this short piece was one of the first parts of my resolution to be like Osler and focus on the tasks at hand.