Friday, July 30, 2010

Sesame Street - out of character

This Ricky Gervais interview had some outtakes that were suprisingly adult. Grab a glass of wine and enjoy; your toddler will see something completely different when the episode is out on tv. :)

Relax like your life depends on it

 Jonah Lehrer has a great article over at Wired on stress and its effects.  It's quite a sobering read.

Elizabeth Gould, a neuroscientist at Princeton, is best known for demonstrating that the birth of new neurons — a process known as neurogenesis — takes place in the adult brain. For the past several years, Gould has been studying the relationship between neurogenesis and stress in primates. She has found that when stress becomes chronic, neurons stop investing in themselves. Neurogenesis slows. Dendrites shrink. Neuronal arbors retreat. (In fact, the very act of keeping primates in standard lab enclosures — often just bare wire cages — is so stressful that for years scientists had a warped understanding of the primate brain. Gould has become an ardent advocate of “enriched enclosures,” which provide the animals with things to play with and social interaction.) These cellular alterations help explain why, as researchers noted in a recent review article, a “large part of the changes in brain structure and function [induced by chronic stress] have similar characteristics to those observed in neurodegenerative diseases, most notably Alzheimer’s.” And the higher the level of stress hormone, the greater the level of cognitive decline.
See the article for more on methods to deal with stress (like alcohol! and partying with your friends! um, in moderation of course).  And for more from Robert Sapolsky, who is absolutely brilliant, check out this video:

Candyland in your Backyard


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Color Career Test

If you are in a Thursday Thlump at the moment, try this 5-minute quiz for fun. :)  It's just like the description says: "The Dewey Color System® is now the world's most accurate career testing instrument!"  Obviously, it must be true. :P

Well, at the very least I can use these results to explain why I am looking for something else to do on a Thursday afternoon. :)  Happy almost-weekend everyone.

"Witness Relocation Program" for cells doesn't quite work.

Wow. This is just so wicked cool.  Cells have memories, and they are pretty hard to wipe out. Check out the whole thing at Not Exactly Rocket Science.  Very well written, and very easy to understand.  And to think, until somewhat recently methyl groups were thought to be just a waste of space.

The history of iPSCs is written in molecular marks that annotate its DNA. These ‘epigenetic’ changes can alter the way a gene behaves even though its DNA sequence is still the same. It’s the equivalent of sticking Post-It notes in a book to tell a reader which parts to read or ignore, without actually editing the underlying text. Epigenetic marks separate different types of cells from one another, influencing which genes are switched on and which are inactivated. And according to Kim, they’re not easy to remove, even when the cell has apparently been reprogrammed into a stem-like state.

Go read the whole thing.

Medicine and "Death Panels"

Atul Gawande has a typically great article in the New Yorker on how our medical system deals with the end.  It appears that hospice care can be the most meaningful option for patients who are known to be terminally ill, yet few choose it.  To choose hospice care, most insurance plans force you to sign a statement that you consent to stopping treatment, which many people view as admitting defeat.  When they do wish to choose it, their families talk them out of it, not wanting to admit the advent of what's coming.  

 It has also been shown that when patients do choose hospice care, their life duration stays about the same as it does with intensive treatment.  In some cases, it is extended.  In all cases, the quality of life is much improved, reducing suffering for the patient, the patient's family and incidence of depression in loved ones.  But for a patient to choose hospice, the physician has to have a very delicate, deliberate, and extraordinarily difficult series of conversations with the patient and the family.  

Given how prolonged some of these conversations have to be, many people argue that the key problem has been the financial incentives: we pay doctors to give chemotherapy and to do surgery, but not to take the time required to sort out when doing so is unwise. This certainly is a factor. (The new health-reform act was to have added Medicare coverage for these conversations, until it was deemed funding for “death panels” and stripped out of the legislation.) But the issue isn’t merely a matter of financing. It arises from a still unresolved argument about what the function of medicine really is—what, in other words, we should and should not be paying for doctors to do.

The simple view is that medicine exists to fight death and disease, and that is, of course, its most basic task. Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And, in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knew how to fight for territory when he could and how to surrender when he couldn’t, someone who understood that the damage is greatest if all you do is fight to the bitter end.

More often, these days, medicine seems to supply neither Custers nor Lees. We are increasingly the generals who march the soldiers onward, saying all the while, “You let me know when you want to stop.” All-out treatment, we tell the terminally ill, is a train you can get off at any time—just say when. But for most patients and their families this is asking too much. They remain riven by doubt and fear and desperation; some are deluded by a fantasy of what medical science can achieve. But our responsibility, in medicine, is to deal with human beings as they are. People die only once. They have no experience to draw upon. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come—and to escape a warehoused oblivion that few really want.
 Read the full article here.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Public Service Announcement

Please pay close attention, this is a public service announcement pertaining to your safety at this very moment.

A monster is on the loose.

Very little is known about the monster:
1. His (her?) name is WuggaWugga.
2. Monster lurks mostly under beds and couches. However, has also been seen on top of staircases that someone wants you to climb, or around corners when you are about to turn.
3. Monster appears to be invisible, at least to some.

At this point, we do not know of the monster's color, likes or dislikes, birthday gift preferences or any possible relations to The Muppet Show. However, we urge you to stay alert and send us any information you may have on monsters and how to deal with them.

The joy of reading

Reading Nook from Olya on Vimeo.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Coolest toddler video ever

Wanna thrill your toddler boy today?  Show them this climbing excavator video and revel in your parental coolness.  Fast forward to 2:45 for the real action to begin.  (via @kottke)

Cuteness Overload

In case you haven't seen it yet today, Mila's Daydreams acts out her baby's sleepy time - so. darn. cute.

See way more on her blog. I think the Elephant Rider is my favorite, although Rock Star is pretty close. I must say, her baby sleeps like a rock! There is no way Elijah would have let me slide a plate under his head during his nap. Or would lay down and sleep on the floor. Or, sleep in any way at all. Sigh... must be a girl thing. :P

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Build yourself a great story

"We are What We Choose"
Remarks by Jeff Bezos, as delivered to the Class of 2010
May 30, 2010

As a kid, I spent my summers with my grandparents on their ranch in Texas. I helped fix windmills, vaccinate cattle, and do other chores. We also watched soap operas every afternoon, especially "Days of our Lives." My grandparents belonged to a Caravan Club, a group of Airstream trailer owners who travel together around the U.S. and Canada. And every few summers, we'd join the caravan. We'd hitch up the Airstream trailer to my grandfather's car, and off we'd go, in a line with 300 other Airstream adventurers. I loved and worshipped my grandparents and I really looked forward to these trips. On one particular trip, I was about 10 years old. I was rolling around in the big bench seat in the back of the car. My grandfather was driving. And my grandmother had the passenger seat. She smoked throughout these trips, and I hated the smell.

At that age, I'd take any excuse to make estimates and do minor arithmetic. I'd calculate our gas mileage -- figure out useless statistics on things like grocery spending. I'd been hearing an ad campaign about smoking. I can't remember the details, but basically the ad said, every puff of a cigarette takes some number of minutes off of your life: I think it might have been two minutes per puff. At any rate, I decided to do the math for my grandmother. I estimated the number of cigarettes per days, estimated the number of puffs per cigarette and so on. When I was satisfied that I'd come up with a reasonable number, I poked my head into the front of the car, tapped my grandmother on the shoulder, and proudly proclaimed, "At two minutes per puff, you've taken nine years off your life!"

I have a vivid memory of what happened, and it was not what I expected. I expected to be applauded for my cleverness and arithmetic skills. "Jeff, you're so smart. You had to have made some tricky estimates, figure out the number of minutes in a year and do some division." That's not what happened. Instead, my grandmother burst into tears. I sat in the backseat and did not know what to do. While my grandmother sat crying, my grandfather, who had been driving in silence, pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway. He got out of the car and came around and opened my door and waited for me to follow. Was I in trouble? My grandfather was a highly intelligent, quiet man. He had never said a harsh word to me, and maybe this was to be the first time? Or maybe he would ask that I get back in the car and apologize to my grandmother. I had no experience in this realm with my grandparents and no way to gauge what the consequences might be. We stopped beside the trailer. My grandfather looked at me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, "Jeff, one day you'll understand that it's harder to be kind than clever."

What I want to talk to you about today is the difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy -- they're given after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you're not careful, and if you do, it'll probably be to the detriment of your choices.
This is a group with many gifts. I'm sure one of your gifts is the gift of a smart and capable brain. I'm confident that's the case because admission is competitive and if there weren't some signs that you're clever, the dean of admission wouldn't have let you in.

Your smarts will come in handy because you will travel in a land of marvels. We humans -- plodding as we are -- will astonish ourselves. We'll invent ways to generate clean energy and a lot of it. Atom by atom, we'll assemble tiny machines that will enter cell walls and make repairs. This month comes the extraordinary but also inevitable news that we've synthesized life. In the coming years, we'll not only synthesize it, but we'll engineer it to specifications. I believe you'll even see us understand the human brain. Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Galileo, Newton -- all the curious from the ages would have wanted to be alive most of all right now. As a civilization, we will have so many gifts, just as you as individuals have so many individual gifts as you sit before me.

How will you use these gifts? And will you take pride in your gifts or pride in your choices?

I got the idea to start Amazon 16 years ago. I came across the fact that Web usage was growing at 2,300 percent per year. I'd never seen or heard of anything that grew that fast, and the idea of building an online bookstore with millions of titles -- something that simply couldn't exist in the physical world -- was very exciting to me. I had just turned 30 years old, and I'd been married for a year. I told my wife MacKenzie that I wanted to quit my job and go do this crazy thing that probably wouldn't work since most startups don't, and I wasn't sure what would happen after that. MacKenzie (also a Princeton grad and sitting here in the second row) told me I should go for it. As a young boy, I'd been a garage inventor. I'd invented an automatic gate closer out of cement-filled tires, a solar cooker that didn't work very well out of an umbrella and tinfoil, baking-pan alarms to entrap my siblings. I'd always wanted to be an inventor, and she wanted me to follow my passion.

I was working at a financial firm in New York City with a bunch of very smart people, and I had a brilliant boss that I much admired. I went to my boss and told him I wanted to start a company selling books on the Internet. He took me on a long walk in Central Park, listened carefully to me, and finally said, "That sounds like a really good idea, but it would be an even better idea for someone who didn't already have a good job." That logic made some sense to me, and he convinced me to think about it for 48 hours before making a final decision. Seen in that light, it really was a difficult choice, but ultimately, I decided I had to give it a shot. I didn't think I'd regret trying and failing. And I suspected I would always be haunted by a decision to not try at all. After much consideration, I took the less safe path to follow my passion, and I'm proud of that choice.

Tomorrow, in a very real sense, your life -- the life you author from scratch on your own -- begins.

How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?

Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?

Will you follow dogma, or will you be original?

Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?

Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?

Will you bluff it out when you're wrong, or will you apologize?

Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love?

Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?

When it's tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless?

Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder?

Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?

I will hazard a prediction. When you are 80 years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices. Build yourself a great story. Thank you and good luck!

Reposted from Princeton University

The last doll

In Russian, there is a saying "First child is the mother's last doll".  I never really got what that meant until now.

My husband and I fawn over Wombat, we revel in everything he does, find all things adorable and delight in all of him.  He got things just because we thought it would be fun to buy them for him and see what he does with them.  He only has to look at something to get it, pretty much.  We are lucky enough to be able to provide him with what he needs and what he wants, and I love that.

I worry a little that it won't be the same for Wallaby.  Everyone says it won't.  The novelty of the baby wears off, and the second one just doesn't get all the ooohs and aaaahs that the first one got just for squirming.  I'll have to try and make sure that Wallaby never feels second; Wallaby will be different and special and, may be, he can be treated like a doll too as we continue to play house. :)

I found this post yesterday on Karen Cheng's blog; I thought it was really funny so I'm re-posting the joke here.  What's kind of cool is that Elijah was never treated as "the first baby" in the joke below - he was treated like the second! I wore my regular clothes for most of the pregnancy, I wasn't too fast about washing things before they ended up in his mouth, and I did sort of skip out on most of "labor breathing" training.  So, I guess, if I just treat Wallaby same as Wombat, I'm on track!

The Evolution of Parenthood
Your Clothes -
1st baby: You begin wearing maternity clothes as soon as your OB/GYN confirms your pregnancy.
2nd baby: You wear your regular clothes for as long as possible.
3rd baby: Your maternity clothes are your regular clothes.
The Baby’s Name -
1st baby: You pore over baby-name books and practice pronouncing and writing combinations of all your favourites.
2nd baby: Someone has to name their kid after your great-aunt Mavis, right? It might as well be you.
3rd baby: You open a name book, close your eyes, and see where your finger falls. Bimaldo? Perfect!
Preparing for the Birth -
1st baby: You practice your breathing religiously.
2nd baby: You don’t bother practicing because you remember that last time, breathing didn’t do a thing.
3rd baby: You ask for an epidural in your 8th month.
The Layette -
1st baby: You pre-wash your newborn’s clothes, color-coordinate them, and fold them neatly in the baby’s little bureau.
2nd baby: You check to make sure that the clothes are clean and discard only the ones with the darkest stains.
3rd baby: Boys can wear pink, can’t they?
Pacifier -
1st baby: If the pacifier falls on the floor, you put it away until you can go home and wash and boil it.
2nd baby: When the pacifier falls on the floor, you squirt it off with some juice from the baby’s bottle.
3rd baby: You wipe it off on your shirt and pop it back in.
Diapering -
1st baby: You change your baby’s diapers every hour, whether they need it or not.
2nd baby: You change their diaper every 2 to 3 hours, if needed.
3rd baby: You try to change their diaper before others start to complain about the smell or you see it sagging to their knees.
Worries -
1st baby: At the first sign of distress – a whimper, a frown – you pick up the baby.
2nd baby: You pick the baby up when her wails threaten to wake your firstborn.
3rd baby: You teach your 3-year-old how to rewind the mechanical swing.
Activities -
1st baby: You take your infant to Baby Gymnastics, Baby Swing, and Baby Story Hour.
2nd baby: You take your infant to Baby Gymnastics.
3rd baby: You take your infant to the supermarket and the dry cleaner.
Going Out -
1st baby: The first time you leave your baby with a sitter, you call home 5 times.
2nd baby: Just before you walk out the door, you remember to leave a number where you can be reached.
3rd baby: You leave instructions for the sitter to call only if she sees blood.
At Home -
1st baby: You spend a good bit of every day just gazing at the baby.
2nd baby: You spend a bit of every day watching to be sure your older child isn’t squeezing, poking, or hitting the baby.
3rd baby: You spend a little bit of every day hiding from the children.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What's a good name for a Wallaby?

 Now that we know Wallaby is a boy (and we are pretty sure. Just like Wombat, Wallaby left little doubt as to what he is during the sonogram. He might as well have been surrounded with frogs, snails and puppy dog tails).

It took us a while to come up with Elijah's name; we absolutely love it and think it's a perfect name for him, but boy, it was not easy to get. In fact, I think if he had been born a girl we may have still named her Elijah just to not let all that effort go to waste. But I digress.

The point is, we don't have a good, ready-to-go name. So we need to do all that work all over again. We have managed to narrow the name list down to what we think could work. We prefer names that have an equivalent nickname in Russian or at least can be pronounced by Russian speakers. Below is our exclusive name list.

Help us name our Wallaby! Which name do you like best? Or, suggest your own in the comments!

Roman   ("Roman" in Russian)
Gabriel   ("Gavril" in Russian)
Anton     ("Anton" in Russian)
Ivan        ("Ivan" in Russian)
Timothy ("Timophey" or "Timoshka" in Russian)
George   ("Georgiy" in Russian)
Luca       ("Luca" in Russian)
Finn           (Russian has no such thing :( )
Ryan      (Russian has no such thing :( )
Jacob     ("Yakov" in Russian)
Dante       (Russian has no such thing, although Dante Alighieri is quite well-known. :) )
Dominic ("Dimitriy" in Russian would be the closest)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Who needs facts, anyway

The Boston Globe has a great article on how our democracy is screwed, all because humans tend to put their feelings above any contradicting facts that may come along.

The participants who self-identified as conservative believed the misinformation on WMD and taxes even more strongly after being given the correction. With those two issues, the more strongly the participant cared about the topic — a factor known as salience — the stronger the backfire. The effect was slightly different on self-identified liberals: When they read corrected stories about stem cells, the corrections didn’t backfire, but the readers did still ignore the inconvenient fact that the Bush administration’s restrictions weren’t total.

It’s unclear what is driving the behavior — it could range from simple defensiveness, to people working harder to defend their initial beliefs — but as Nyhan dryly put it, “It’s hard to be optimistic about the effectiveness of fact-checking.”

It would be reassuring to think that political scientists and psychologists have come up with a way to counter this problem, but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. The persistence of political misperceptions remains a young field of inquiry. “It’s very much up in the air,” says Nyhan.

But researchers are working on it. One avenue may involve self-esteem. Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.

The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are. Please remember that, my friends, the next time some politician tries to paint the other side as the bogey man.

Interesting and unrelated things

Thing 1
Scientific American mind has an article on how super-focus (inability to take attention off of something) helps babies learn. Which is sort of weird, because it has also been shown that young kids tend to not be able to ultra-focus at all: their attention is more like an all-illuminating light rather than a beam, and so they are easily distracted and sort of take in everything at once:

Unlike the adult mind, which restricts itself to a narrow slice of reality, babies can take in a much wider spectrum of sensation - they are, in an important sense, more aware of the world than we are.

Thing 2
This is the best prank I've heard of this year.

Thing 3
All Tarkovsky films are now free online. Tarkovsky is the Fellini of Russian cinema; start with Solaris if you haven't seen any of his films.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Raising Creative Kids

Newsweek has a cool article this week on the "American Creativity Crisis" and how to help it.

Highly creative adults tended to grow up in families embodying opposites. Parents encouraged uniqueness, yet provided stability. They were highly responsive to kids’ needs, yet challenged kids to develop skills. This resulted in a sort of adaptability: in times of anxiousness, clear rules could reduce chaos—yet when kids were bored, they could seek change, too. In the space between anxiety and boredom was where creativity flourished.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Pictures from Seattle (February)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Pictures to prove it

We had our 20-week ultrasound, and all appears to be ok.  This time the baby is actually dated correctly, or at least the ultrasound date matches the due date so good news there.  So.... who wants to guess the sex of the baby?  Here are some more ultrasound pictures below, with one of them a clear illustration of the evidence.  Did I just give it away?

Friday, July 9, 2010

I don't hate it.

The New York Magazine this week made a lot of noise with its "All Joy and No Fun" article (conveniently subtitled "Why Parents Hate Parenting", just in case the hint in the title was lost on anyone).  The author, Jennifer Senior, did a very good job of presenting a anecdotal-yet-thoughtful account of modern American parenting and a review of all the happiness studies that seem to show parenting is a lousy job.

She comes to the same conclusion that I wrote about a few months ago in this post, which makes me feel that I'm not crazy: it's not about happiness, it's about fulfillment.  Happiness studies ask questions like "at any moment during any given day, how happy and content do you feel?"  I think that the way to get a max score on this question is to sit on your couch, eating chips and watching re-runs of Project Runway.  It would make every moment pretty enjoyable, but also pretty pointless.

Also (and un-surprisingly), the article also shows that parents in countries with more socialized services (longer parental leave, subsidized preschool and so on) are much happier.  May be, in addition to chilling out about daily annoyances, it would help us to put our money where our mouth is as we say "it takes a village to raise a child".  In America, it's definitely more like "everyone for themselves as you try to pay someone else to raise your child".  If it changed, we may find more happiness and more meaning in the not-so-happy moments of parenthood.

It made me sad that in the article, many parents would recount the things they find tough about raising kids (the chores, the activities, the irrational behavior, the whining, whatever) and then say that those annoyances had more impact on them than the great stuff about having kids.  Like hearing questions that you forgot you used to want to know answers to.  Like having permission to be silly.  Like (sort of) becoming a kid again yourself. 

The cost of having kids is so minor compared to the joy they bring, yet it seems many choose to focus on the cost much more.  I wonder why? We don't do it too many other places, if you think about it.  If someone went to see a movie, and when asked "how did you like it", the person said "oh my Gosh, the ticket was so expensive, 10 dollars, can you believe it, i hated the whole thing", you'd find that strange, right?  I mean, the ticket is just a price to pay to see a show - and a small price at that.  The ticket is not the point.

When we complain about these mundane annoyances of kids, I think it's kind of like complaining about the movie ticket cost above - and we should find it just as weird.  It's not about that little cost - it's about what you got to be part of.  It's not about what got broken while playing ball in the house, or how many times you had to say "now, please" to get your kid to clean something up.  It's a really small, not-worth-mentioning-it, movie-ticket kind of cost.  That's just the price of getting the awesome privilege of watching these people grow up and help them be the best of what they are.  

Friday, July 2, 2010

It's Friday. Do you know where the phtalates in your moisturizer are?

Please check your cosmetics out at

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