Getting Over the Cure

You love people for who they are, not for who you want them to be.

Stick that in the back of your mind for a minute. Let’s move sideways to look at some other quotes. These are from Paula Kamen’s lovely book, All in my head: an epic quest to cure an unrelenting, totally unreasonable, and only slightly enlightening HEADACHE. One important thought is:

“There is a difference between getting cured and getting healed.”

Another is:

“Acceptance is not the same thing as resignation.”

These are very potent concepts, the sort that are easily-understood on the surface verbal level, but take longer to fully integrate through all the layers of one’s consciousness.

“Getting cured” means being rid of a medical or psychological problem to become healthy. In contrast, “getting healed” does not mean that one needs to be rid of the medical or psychological problem in order to move from merely surviving to living life fairly happily.

One can accept disability without being resigned to the concept that life is ruined because it will never be the way that was anticipated. Instead, one accepts that life will be different, and that this is okay.

When parents learn that their child has some kind of disability, they go through a sort of grieving process. They mourn the child they didn’t get or will no longer have. (In response, Jim Sinclair’s essay, “Don’t Mourn For Us” is a thought-provoking and reassuring essay for parents of autistic children.) Not everyone grieves in the same way, and not every parent experiences a lot of grief — sometimes there is more relief for having “figured things out” and being able to name, understand, and thus work with the difficulties or differences.

Sometimes parents get “stuck” in the blame and bargaining stages of grieving. They have not accepted the disability, and their child is not okay as a disabled person. In the denial is the core myth that somehow out there is a cure, and once they can fix the problem, then everything in their lives will be okay. The parents dwell upon the past and perceived injustices, and nothing less than total “cure” is acceptable. Sadly, this means that until the parent can announce the child is cured, then the child is not fully acceptable and loved as a full human being. This is devastating to the social, spiritual, and even physical development of the child.

In families that already dysfunctional from other issues, the disabled or different child can serve as a distracter from the real personal and interpersonal issues, and may get stuck in the rôle of the scapegoat: “things would be okay if it weren’t for this tragedy”.

When I say that, “You love people for who they are, not for who you want them to be,” that does not mean that one allows bad behaviour, or does not try to help a person with therapeutic or educational approaches that enable a person to achieve as much as possible. Rather, it means that you love the person for who and what they are, and that love is not conditional upon the person pretending to be something they are not.

No Congratulations Needed

When I was assaulted, robbed, grossly insulted,
Framed for infractions I didn’t do,
And then went to the authorities
They called me a liar.

When I ignored pretentious fashions
Avoided parties of catty gossip
And shunned drinking and drugs
I was denounced as rebelling the wrong way.

When decided that I needed job skills
Concensus dictated I should take courses
That took advantage of my weakest abilities
Thus guaranteeing my employers’ disdain.

When I had the temerity
To suggest following a dream
That used my natural aptitudes
It was dismissed as pie in the sky.

When I was ill, and put off surgery
To struggle through the semester
They said I wasn’t a good student
And that I didn’t belong in school.

When my spirit broke down
And I could barely teach on weekends
Or write my monthly column
I was deemed not a contributing member of society.

Disability doesn’t mean much
When I’m off in my own little world
I function quite well
Working in my own way.

I work around my weaknesses
And do what I do best
Just as everyone else does
Even if not the same way everyone else does.

I become handicapped
When shoved into situations
That exploit what I cannot do well
And don’t acknowledge my skills.

There’s no need to congratulate me
For having “bravely overcome”
The insults and artificial obstacles
That people put in my way.

Special Tips for Life Sciences Students

Well, another semester is revving up, and I’m collecting tutees again. I tutor a variety of subjects, generally getting students taking introductory writing and biology classes. The number of tutees always increases right after they have sat their first exams, and discover that taking college classes is not just a shorter-school day version of taking high school classes. So for all you students out there who are facing your introductory Biology and so on, here are some friendly warnings.

A “survey” course means broad and shallow waters, so start paddling now or you will be left behind! Survey classes (100- level Biology, Botany, Microbiology etc.) cover a wide variety of material, but do not go in depth on anything in particular. The in-depth part comes in the next levels of courses about specific subjects. Because there is such a large quantity of material to cover in a limited number of weeks, the class will be going through roughly a chapter per class, depending upon how many chapters the text book is divided into, and the number of meeting days per week. This is not high school where you took a week or two (meeting four or five days a week) to go through a chapter. It’s not so much a question of “don’t get behind” but rather of “stay on top of things and look ahead”!

Vocabulary is going to be an integral part of studying, so find a way of memorization that works well for you. Although every field of study has its own terminology, the life sciences are positively riddled with new words to learn. Most of these words have Greek or Latin roots, so learning what those prefixes and suffixes mean is important, because then you can decode other new words.

Cramming doesn’t work well as a study method when taking identification classes. Students who try to cram do not do well on tests. There are certain subjects that have mostly vocabulary and identification, such as Anatomy (human or veterinary), Taxonomy (plant or animal), and courses like Woody Plant Materials. Don’t mistakenly think that these are “easy” just because “all you have to do is memorise stuff”. Learning hundreds of names, exact spellings, and how to identify hundreds of different birds, flowers, or micro-organisms takes repetition. Learning takes lots of repetition. Plan on studying daily. Be there during all the open-lab time going over models and specimens. Learn to recognise your organisms (or parts thereof) by generalising from several examples, otherwise you will only have learned to identify your particular Acer saccharum leaf, rather than any sugar maple tree anywhere.

When an instructor puts up a graph or diagram, don’t just sit there watching, but make notes about what is significant about the graph, and how that is determined. You will either have a copy of this illustration in your handouts, or else the instructor will refer to a graph on a particular page in your text. If the latter, be sure to write down both the page number and the name or number of the graph. Remember, you can re-draw the graph in your notes after class, but you should do so as soon as possible, while the details are still fresh in your mind.

Your job is to take notes on both aspects that being explained about the graph: firstly, what the significance of the graph is, and secondly, how we know that. For example, in ecology, the k-values of lines in a graph describe the mortality rates over time – that’s the “what” significance of the graph. But the “how we know that” part is related to the idea that the closer the slope of an individual line is to a value of 1 (a 45° angle), the more important is the particular mortality factor. When you get to the test, you will need to know not just that the graph describes mortality due to various factors, but also know the latter part and be able to tell which factor was the most important!

Science courses are about understanding the principles and concepts particular to the specific discipline. “Understanding” is not the same thing as memorizing. The details of human understanding of events and processes change over time, so there’s no point in memorizing everything in the text book. Instead, you need to learn what the concepts mean, and how things interact with each other, and then be able to apply your understanding to problems and to new situations.

One of my math teachers said that, “Life does not hand us a page of math problems to be solved. Real life more like word problems, where you have to create the equation and there are no answers in the back of the book.” We have to do the same thing with science in real life.

You may be shocked to discover that in college, multiple-choice (MC) exams are not automatically easy exams. You cannot rely on simply recognising the correct answer. Instead, you will have to take those new concepts you have learned, and apply them to new situations.

The reason that some people find science classes to be difficult is that not only does a person have to memorise material, but also to apply and analyse and evaluate the concepts, especially in lab experiments.

Speaking of taxonomy, the field of education has a system of classification as well: Bloom’s Taxonomy. This is a hierarchy of cognitive processes, often diagrammed as a pyramid. There are six categories with number 1 being the simplest level at the base of the pyramid, and number six being the highest. Each step builds upon the previous.

1. Knowledge – the ability to define, recall, identify, recognize, knowledge of methodology, principles, generalizations, trends, facts, terminology, theories, and structures.
2. Comprehension – translate, rephrase or restate, interpret, extrapolate
3. Application – apply, generalize, choose, organize, develop, use, classify
4. Analysis – analyse relationships; to deduce, compare, discriminate, categorize
5. Synthesis – derive or create a set of abstract relationships
6. Evaluation – to judge, assess, argue

What this means to you as a student is that basic survey courses (such as 100-level Biology) will be mostly at level 1 and 2, but the more specific junior and senior courses will be integrating the content from several basic courses and requiring you to operate at levels 4-6. This means that cramming and memorizing material won’t work. (Do you detect a trend here?)

Losing Something in the Dreaded Safe Place

I’ve done it plenty often. Likely you have too. You have a Very Important Object, be it a button to a blazer, a spare key, a refund to deposit, a passport, et cetera. (Heavy on the et cetera.) Einstein mislaid a paycheck as a bookmark, if I recall correctly. So why don’t we feel as brill as Al?

Of course, the problem with the Dreaded Safe Place (DSP) is that for all it seems terribly obvious at the time, it’s not. Later on we can’t remember where we put the Very Important Object (VIO). Hell, after a while, we can’t even remember what the VIO was, just that we had put a VIO in a DSP, and there we are standing there quite vexed because it needed attending to. Or will need attending to shortly. Quite likely something financially, socially, or professionally terrible will happen if we don’t remember the VIO and DSP soon. ::sigh::

There are Safe Places (such as safe deposit boxes at the bank, which are quite safe, especially when we put our key in a DSP), and there are Safe Places that are so safe we can’t find stuff ourselves. This latter kind of situation is what my Home Economics teacher used to call a “False Economy”: something that only seems like a good deal, but really costs you more in the end.

Meanwhile, Yours Truly (who seems to be afflicted with a major case of Title Case) has succumbed to pacing recursively about the house in a perseverative frenzy because searching for the VIO has become a Quest, and she can’t rest until she has found it. Doubtless you know how that goes, too.

Once the object is found (either from brute-force tenacity and thoroughness, or from some sideways manner of recollection), there is the “Ah-HA!” followed by the “DUH!” followed by the usual lines of self-recrimination about “Not-doing-THAT-again” yadda-yadda-yadda.

The reason that DSPs are such is because there are too many possibilities, and not enough parameters. Where does one keep a blazer button? On the hall mirror shelf? In a dish on the dresser? On the kitchen window sill? In a drawer so a cat doesn’t play with it? In the sewing box? In the desk drawer at work? At the bottom of the briefcase? Any of these are DSPs, but none of them have the two necessary qualities of being rational and inescapable. Meaning, you can figure them out again later, and your search actions should naturally default to them.

Rational and inescapable is tied in with the behavioural concept known as “incompatible behaviours”; meaning, if you are doing A, then you can’t be doing B. It’s one of those brilliant, obvious-in-retrospect things. The best kind of SP involves putting the object in such a location that completing the necessary action will require you to encounter the object. Bonus points if you can figure out how you can make yourself remember to do the activity!

When I go on a trip, I will definitely want my bathing suit in case I stay in a hotel with a whirlpool tub. Therefore, I keep all of my trip things in the best Safe Place of all, my suitcase! (I also have a note to myself reminding myself of those things I keep forgetting to pack, namely my kimono and woolen slippers, emergency flashlight and a belt for my slacks.) This way I can’t pack my suitcase without the necessary items.

A good rational & inescapable Safe Place for the button would be a blazer pocket. Of course, when Our Hero has ADHD, remembering to sew on the button at some other time than getting-dressed-running-late is another issue. This is why a dry-erase marker lives next to the toothbrushes, so I can make myself a note “blazer button” on the bathroom mirror for when I return home.

Just don’t ask me where to put books. There are so many of them around here that they become naturally camouflaged! I’m just glad they don’t require feeding.

Gone to Pot

And now, a topic near-and-dear to everyone’s heart: using the toilet.

Ask six different adults their opinions on toilet-training, and you’ll get six different opinions. You’ll even more than six opinions if any of them are parents, because a person’s expertise changes with each child, as each child seems to go through the whole process differently.

With any child, toilet training is an incremental process that has less to do with the willingness of the adult, and is dependent upon more than just the willingness of the child. Toilet-training children with developmental disabilities can certainly take much longer than with typical children, due to the number of factors affecting the whole learning process.

Toilet training is actually a very complex combination of factors. The child has to be able to do several things in sequence. A lot of children (of all sorts!) will get “hung up” on one or more points, thus delaying or even permanently hampering their ability to be come fully toilet-trained.

Consider the following:

1. The child must be able to be aware of having a full bladder or rectum (these are often acquired separately, with the child mastering one before the other);

2. The child must be able to be aware of the full sensation with enough time to get to the toilet and do everything else necessary before toileting;

3. The child must be able to consciously control both functions (start & stop);

4. The child must be able to undress independently;

5. The child must be able to manœuver themselves correctly onto the toilet seat and back off again;

6. The child must be able to wipe themselves adequately (and remember, it’s hard to dismount the toilet without getting the seat messy — this is tricky!);

7. The child must be able to re-dress independently;

8. The child must be able to wash their hands adequately.

It’s really helpful if the child doesn’t become distracted by some other event or random thought in the middle of the process (especially with boys who pee standing up, and can turn to look at something else…)

It’s also really helpful if the child can remember to flush the toilet, and do so without either freaking out at the noise, or becoming fascinated at watching any number of household objects go swirling into oblivion … ::sigh::

Some kids will take much longer to get all these things down. Every parent in the universe can tell stories of how their child[ren] got hung up at some part of that or another.

Not being toilet-trained isn’t the end of the world. There are, after all, diapers sold for adults for the simple reason that not everyone is fully able to have full control. These are no more “shameful” than are tampons and pads.

And then there’s the whole universe of situations outside of the home that can make toileting a far-from-consistent skill …

Something parents find is that their child is happily toilet-trained at home, but not elsewhere. This is very distressing for some parents, because (subconsciously) they feel that it is their reputations (ego) on the line – they’ve told everyone that their child is toilet-trained, and here is the child failing to do so. It seems to reflect badly on their truthfulness or their parenting skills, or damages their social standing among their peers.

It’s rarely about the parent, though.

When children can’t or don’t want to use other’s toilets, it may be a cognitive maturity thing (being able to generalise what is done at home with doing it elsewhere), it may be a “bashful bladder” issue, and/or it may be a sensory issue.

A lot of people don’t “get” these sensory issues. Allow a bit of autobiographical information here, if you will (don’t worry; nothing gross).

Different kinds of toilet seats may feel “wrong” — the U-shaped seats are uncomfortable for a small child because of their narrow hips. Or for example, I am cued to toilet on the convex ring seat, but when I encountered a totally flat seat, it felt a lot like a school chair seat!

Even worse is the cheap, industrial toilet paper used in schools and public restrooms. Or the strange toilet paper dispensers that issue small folded sheets or that won’t fully rotate. Or the soap dispensers that issue gritty powder or strange-smelling goo. (It’s interesting that if you talk to world travelers you’ll hear lots of stories about difficult toileting situations, and yet somehow many of those same adults would be annoyed if a child had similar difficulties when encountering a strange toilet.)

With acute olfactory senses, others’ bathrooms will also smell wrong (it is almost at the level of an animal instinct — you do not use someone else’s territory).

Public bathrooms are noisy and full of commotion, and again from the biological perspective, toileting is done in privacy because the animal is defenseless during the process.

Some of the hot-air hand dryers work at an amazing noise frequency that hurts the ears, especially when you are standing or seated nearby with your head at the same height. And who hangs all these sinks so high that small people and wheelchair users find them difficult to reach?

Other people’s home bathrooms may simply be full of distractions — they are full of interesting objects not contained at home that look different, smell different and work differently.

There are sometimes other factors at work that are not apparent; one year in primary school I kept getting re-occuring bladder infections. The pædiatrician said for me to quit taking bubble baths. Well, that helped a little, but the problem remained. My mother told me that I simply needed to go more often. “Simply” was difficult, because on weekends I would get so wrapped up in (hyperfocused upon) whatever fascinating thing I was working on that I couldn’t “hear” my physiological signals that I needed to go until I really, really needed to go.

“Simply” was even more difficult on weekdays, because my fourth-grade teacher was a new graduate who felt a strong need to be in control of her classroom, and letting the students get up at all times to go to the bathroom upset her routine and that control.

The bathrooms also smelled. I know, everyone says that school bathrooms smell. But my personal definition of “smelly” turns out to be quantitatively different than others’ “smelly”: stale sour body odors compounded with the intrusive artificiality of perfumes, aftershave, scented deodorant, cloying fabric softener, and hairspray; chewing gum and mints and candies; nauseating sting of cigarettes; abrasively floral room “deodorizer”; caustic bathroom sanitizers; various toileting odors including the muddy smell of used tampons and pads, the sharp sour odor of someone with intestinal upset, or ketosis odor of someone on a high-protein diet; institutional handwashing soap and brown paper towels; and general trenchant skunkiness of locker rooms. If it is a unisex primary school bathroom in the classroom or nurse’s office, then there is the sweet odor of small-boy urine as well. I found these odors to be so over-powering that I avoided the bathroom unless direly necessary.

It took months for my mother to understand the problem, because she had to ask me about school, actually take my answers seriously, and then take the enquiry further. This was because at the time, I totally lacked the understanding that she didn’t know what my class was like, and how the teacher was running the class. She simply assumed that if I was having a problem that I would be able to identify it, and know how to resolve it, including knowing what I needed to tell whom! (Sorry, that was too much social awareness for this nine-year old aspie kid.) Finally we got things sorted out, and my pædiatrician wrote my mother a note to pass on to my teacher explaining that I was prone to bladder infections and needed to go to the bathroom frequently, and was not merely trying to avoid schoolwork or whatever.

Other problems I later had with bathrooms in secondary high was the fact that the bathrooms were where the bullies hung out, who gave me no end of grief. I have some face-blindness issues (which I was unaware of then) so could not identify who those people were.

In truth, the whole toilet-training process is more about ability than willingness. The child has to be ready — and once they are physiologically ready, they are usually willing as well, provided they understand a benefit to moving from diapers to the toilet. Avoiding parental upset at still being in diapers is not necessarily a major driving force for some children, especially if parental annoyance has been an everyday part of the home landscape for a long time.

The end message here is that what a person is observing (as so many people do with autistics) is the end behaviour. What cannot readily be discerned, but is more important, is what causes the behaviours. If you are dealing with toilet issues, then remember that trying to modify the effect (that is the resulting behaviour) is less effective than to modify the cause of what is creating the behaviour! Figure out why the child is having difficulty and address that.

And yes, I’ve dealt with toileting issues from the parental end. Encopresis is not fun, but children do mature! I don’t know what my mother did to resolve the fecal-smearing problem (she’s no longer around to ask), but I grew out of that.

I even learned to tie my shoes, although that’s another story.

Devils and Angels

Reading the morning news is dreadful for the happy digestion of my breakfast. Everywhere I look there are devils and angels, pantheons and freak shows, all in the name of disability.

It’s hardly not a new trend. But this millennia-old attitude does a terrible disservice to disabled people everywhere to be cast as either devils or angels. It is dehumanizing, and removes us from our humanity, and thus our basic human rights.

Being disabled is seen as a condition so horrid that no one could imagine living a happy, (otherwise) healthy, productive life. Not despite the disability, and not especially with the disability or even because of the disability. Being disabled is a fate worse than death. It turns a person into a “toxic train wreck” or it’s “worse than cancer” (because a person with autism, unlike a person with cancer, has a normal lifespan). So horribly unimaginable is being disabled that euthanasia is often deemed acceptable and even an appropriate “solution” to disability.

It has been not very long since people with various disabilities (and other differences) were routinely institutionalized (unfit for being in human society), and often sterilized. A person could be subjected to forcible surgery for such eugenic reasons as being blind, deaf, epileptic, poor, of a native (aboriginal) race, of mixed races, alcoholic, having a physical deformity, cognitive disability or perceived mental illness. Had I been institutionalized as a teenager, my children might not exist.

Being disabled is also seen as a condition where a family is divinely blessed to have been given such a special child who is looked after by angels. I’m not slamming those parents who feel that their children are blessings, but rather saying that all children are such – having a disabled child in the family does not earn a person extra cosmic “brownie points”.

The angelic disabled person is not-quite-human, a tragic but romanticized virgin on a pedestal of virtue. Certainly not an everyday sexual adult; a female person should never do anything as inconvenient as menstruate. Like 19th-century women, the disabled are sometimes cast as cherubic, above the base animal instincts of men, and held in divine favor. In medieval times, the town’s fools were excepted from normal citizenship, either as unclean or sometimes soothsayers, if given to (epileptic or other) fits.

In current news there is the case of the “Ashley Treatment” where a young disabled girl’s parents have elected to have her undergo several surgical treatments plus œstrogen therapy to keep their “pillow angel” a small, manageable size and to remove her breast buds and uterus to prevent her natural sexual development. Removing breast-buds to prevent cancer is a specious argument. I don’t know if the history of cancer is from the maternal and/or paternal side(s) of the family, but it’s pretty telling that we don’t hear of mom and/or dad also having mastectomies to prevent cancer. After all, cancer is more commonly found in older people. Likewise it’s another specious argument that making her infertile will prevent the potential for sexual abuse from caregivers – children are just as easily targets of molestation (it simply makes any abuse more difficult to discover because she won’t unexpectedly come up pregnant). Were she male, would the child have similar surgeries?

At that rate, one could simply hobble a child so they never ran away. Or one could mute a child so they wouldn’t scream loudly when upset. Or one could remove all of a child’s teeth so they couldn’t bite anyone when scared – oh wait, people have already done that …

I have to sympathiese with her parents; caring for someone on a daily basis is difficult. But trying to prevent sexual abuse or care difficulties by surgically removing body parts is working at the wrong end of a major social problem. It’s completely backwards! The problem is not that disabled people exist, but rather that there are not suitable social support networks for disabled people and their family members.

Many handicaps are socially created — it’s not the person who has the problem, it’s the way society is set up.

No longer is the disabled person a sick lurid spectacle to be hidden away. They are once again on parade, the freak show turned into infobites. An insidious side effect of freakifying the disabled as devils and angels is that it not only creates the disabled as Other, but it also does a great disservice to those who view themselves as nondisabled: it makes a person glad to be normal, and content to be average. It perpetuates the divisions and reinforces the dualities. With such positions, we can never create inclusivity.

What could be worse than being cast as devil or angel? Being totally discounted as a non-person. Being neglected and dying a slow, painful death like Sarah Crider or Tiffany Pinckney.

The human race has a lot to answer for.

My Off-and-on-and-off-and-on Love Affair With Computers

At work there’s a computer room that I take great pains to avoid spending much time in (to erm, avoid great pains). Don’t get me wrong – I love computers, in general. It’s not so much the noisy CPUs (which in this case are tolerable) but rather the old monitors which flicker, every last one of them. If I have to spend more than 20-30 minutes staring at one, I am setting myself up for risk of a migraine. What’s curious (if not outright frustrating) is that not everyone understands what I’m talking about when I mention that I can’t really spend much time working with some computers because of the screen flicker. Either people can see it, or they can’t.

The whole issue of monitor flicker is due to the Refresh Rate setting, which I used to know how to change in old Windows OS, but not in the current one. Whether or not you can see the flickering depends upon the way your brain is wired. But regardless of your ability to vouch for this phenomenon, there is some basic science that is commonly accepted in the computer industry (and elsewhere), so you don’t have to take my word for it!

The annoying/tiring flicker of monitors and fluorescent lights is related to Flicker Fusion Frequency (FFF). You have seen and hopefully played with “flip-books”, little booklets of cartoons, when you flip the pages, at the right speed of flipping the pictures appear to get animated. This works just like a motion picture (movie) film is a long serious of still shots that are run quickly by, giving the illusion of motion. The “flicker-fusion frequency” is when the stills flicker by at a speed fast enough that your mind fuses them together.

This kind of action is measured in Hertz ( Hz ); 1 Hertz is one cycle per second. For example fluorescent light fixtures run at a rate of 50 Hertz in Europe and 60 Hertz in the US. Fluorescents, unlike incandescent lights (ordinary lamp bulbs) do not emit continuous light. Rather, they flicker


Each OFF-ON is one cycle. But because the off-on is a sine wave function, they go off and on 100-120 times per second.

Most average people cannot consciously discern that flickering, because the “average” human FFF is only 25 Hz. (I should note that although nearly all humans with adequate vision have the sensing ability, not all have the perceptual ability to discern the flickering — perception is how the brain interprets the sensory inputs.)

The flickering effect is most noticeable outside the corners of eyes, where the rods (light sensing) parts are most sensitive; the cones (color sensing) are most sensitive in the middle. That’s why you notice movement or faint stars outside the corners of your eyes. Theatre movies run at a slower rate of speed (24 Hz) because they are shown in dark surroundings. When something is brighter, it requires an even faster flicker rate to not be noticeable.

Old computer monitors and CRTs (Cathode Ray Tube — those old TV-like green print on black screen terminals) ran at 50 Hz, too. If you happen to recall getting CRT headaches that would be why. In contrast, LCD panel monitors have a refresh rate around 200 Hertz!

When a visual input goes higher than an organisms FFF rate, it has reached the Critical Fusion Frequency (CFF) and is no longer perceived as flickering, but as steady. The human CFF is about 50-100 Hz. Apparently some people (including many people with ADD and autistics) have a higher CFF threshold than the neurotypical human. So things like fluorescent lights are more bothersome. (Insects have an even higher FFF than humans; flies have a FFF of 300! You gotta wonder what it does to insect colonies kept in incubators under artificial illumination.)

A Swedish ergonomic study found that individuals with a higher critical fusion frequency experienced more stress and decreased accuracy under fluorescent light conditions. Their recommendation was better ballasts, rather than using incandescent or natural lighting. ::rolls eyes::

To prevent this problem on your computer, either get a plasma screen, or if not budgeted for such, then set your refresh rate to its maximum capacity — German researchers recommended 70 Hz for the general population (sorry, reference link now broken).

UPDATE:  The older fluorescent lamps had magnetic ballasts, and those seemed to be the problematic sort.  Newer fluorescent lamps have electronic ballasts, and fewer issues – they also seem quieter!

No Eye for Beauty

Let me set the stage with a visual here:

Flight attendant: “Would you like a copy of People magazine to read?”
Me: “Er, no thank you. Do you have Scientific American or Popular Mechanics?”

Why on earth would I want to read People magazine? I don’t know who most of those people are, even though they’re supposed to be famous actors or beautiful models or important politicians. My teenage daughter says that the same famous actor was in both the Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and I’ll have to take her word for it; I certainly can’t tell! Furthermore, I don’t care about fashion models or makeup. Although I understand why others do, from a strictly intellectual (anthropological) basis: celebrities are important figures in the greater tribe, therefore it behooves us to be able to recognise them.

Among the faceblind there is the concept of “Gorbachev effect” – even the faceblind person can recognize Mikhail Gorbachev because of the distinctive port-wine stain birthmark on his head. (Well, assuming that the guy isn’t wearing a hat …) It’s much easier to recognize someone who is highly divergent from the mean. The more striking people are often either “ugly” in some way, or very distinctive from the local group by virtue of ethnicity or body feature.

This may be one reason why I gravitate towards environments such as graduate school with all the international students, or special education with all of the physical differences. Unfortunately, identification is by distinguishing characteristic — one Indian woman among fifty very “vanilla” North Americans stands out, as does one boy with Down’s Syndrome in a regular classroom. Put her in a family wedding party or him in a Special Olympics tournament, then to my horror I find that they have suddenly disappeared from my visual horizon and I can no longer find “my” person by facial exception. Then I must rely on the slower and less certain factors of gait, voice, mannerisms, or overall body form.

In studying animal behavior, Ron Prokopy came up with the idea of a “supernormal stimulus”, meaning a behavioral sign stimulus that is larger-than-life, something even better and more exciting. For an entomology example, when controlling apple flies we can hang a sticky-coated red ball in an apple tree that still has small, green fruits on it. The apple fly females see this ball that is larger and redder than all the other fruits, and are (fatally) attracted to it as an optimal resource for laying their eggs.

People who are considered to be exceptionally beautiful exhibit a kind of supernormal stimulus: their features are more optimal by being more regular and symmetric than the average person’s. Their features are not just normal exemplars (models) of what a desirable human should look like; they are supernormal, hence they are supermodels.

The ultimate causality for being attracted to “beautiful” people is that even, normal features suggest both good genes and good health. Even though there are various fads among cultures and time periods about what is considered to be “sexy” or “attractive”, there are still some basic qualities that are universally perceived as beautiful because they suggest a healthy, young adult that would be a good mate choice.

From a proximate standpoint, the faceblind person may prefer the faces of people who are distinctive, because they can be more easily recognized, and thus are associated with less stress of identification, and because they increase the likelihood of repeated identification. As you might expect, faceblindness plays hell with dating. (It also has more insidious effects, such as playing hell with one’s ability to network on the job scene — even the person that one can eventually learn to identify on the job won’t necessarily be identifiable in another time and place, plus the faceblind person simply doesn’t build up that large number of interpersonal connections that the neurotypical person does.)

My husband is not extremely different in appearance, albeit when dating he had a beard and wore his hair longer than most men at the time. Alas, he no longer does, and when he’s barbered in an everyday manner I have mananged to lose him in plain sight multitudinous times in our 25 years of marriage. When I misplace him yet again, I stop to try and remember what he was wearing, which is usually a blue shirt (he is very fond of such) but unfortunately so are hundreds of other people. While otherwise focused on taking photographs of plants at a botanic garden, I eventually realised that I’d been absentmindedly tracking the wrong “person in a blue shirt and khaki shorts” (a surprisingly common subspecies of Homo sapiens — even the male of the couple we were visiting was dressed identically, so the guys appeared twinned). Although I can spot a single Viola pedatifida in a prairie, I can’t find my husband in a crowd, so I had to call him on his mobile to arrange a meeting location, whereupon he naturally spotted me first and semaphored dramatically so I could notice him standing there 50 feet away. And so it goes!

In smaller environments, I listen for him, for his asthmatic breathing pattern and his distinctively heavy tread. It’s a good thing that he can recognise me, because he’s hard of hearing, and besides, I have what others have described as an alarmingly light tread (I “sneak up on” them) when I’m not clumsily crashing into objects.

Although there is an innate preference for certain kinds of symmetric beauty among all humans, it would be interesting to see if developmental prosopagnosics are able to distinguish among sets of faces those that are generally considered to be more attractive, and if they are personally more attracted to distinctive faces than those that are generally considered to be more attractive in the normal or supernormal sense. The further purpose to such a line of enquiry would be to explore how much of the concept of “beauty” is innately bound to the process of facial integration and recognition!

Personally I suspect that most faceblind people could identify someone as being classically pretty, but would have different qualifiers on whom they personally find attractive.