Child Abuse and The Brain: Anatomical Manifestations of Psychosocial Trauma

I adapted the following from a talk I gave during my rotation with the Center for Child Protection at Penn State Hershey. Most of the information was derived from a recent review by Teicher and colleagues in Nature. It’s got great pictures but I don’t think I can legally reuse them so I’m gonna try to go without.

Basically, maltreatment and neglect during childhood turn out to be tremendously important in affecting the brain’s wiring and can lead to the development of psychiatric illness later in life. The surprising part, to me, was that the brain is changed so dramatically that MRI scans of the anatomy are affected. This is impressive because MRI can only detect fairly large changes (i.e. not microscopic rearrangements of neuronal appendages). In addition, there are clear changes in the functional response and the regional connectivity of the brain.

The most important message I took away from my readings on the subject was that abuse and neglect lead to specific “Ecophenotype” changes. That is, withstanding abuse leads to specific brain changes that depend on the type of abuse and the severity/duration of that abuse, and that these changes are unique to that experience. Basically, if you get depression and you were abused as a child, your brain doesn’t look the same as someone who got depression without a history of abuse. There’s also evidence that people with a history of abuse will respond to therapy differently than people who weren’t abused. This could lead to important changes in the way psychiatrists and the various clinical therapists deal with mental health diagnoses in this population.

From a research standpoint, it’s fascinating to look at the work that’s been done because it still doesn’t seem to be clear whether abuse leads to “toxic” changes – the brain changing because of an overwhelming stress – or adaptive changes – the brain changing because it’s protecting the user from a hostile environment. It’s very possible that the changes are part toxic and part adaptation, and that factors like type and severity of abuse affect the relative balance of these.

In brief, the literature shows that the changes in the brain depend on path through which the abuse happens. If you’re abused verbally, the auditory cortex changes, and the white matter connections in certain language areas of the brain (the arcuate fasciculus, for example, which connects areas associated with speech production and recognition) show signs of breakdown. If you see domestic abuse, the visual association cortex shows decreases in grey matter volume, and white matter tracts that connect visual and emotional processing areas show signs of breakdown. If you’re a victim of childhood sexual abuse, the grey matter volume in visual cortices and sensory cortices show decreases in volume, and the amount of cortical real estate available for genital sensations is decreased. In short, it seems that the brain tries to dampen down pathways that led to traumatic information getting around.

Without getting too deep into detail here, there were a few other interesting points. First, female brains seem to be more resistant to these changes compared to male brains. Whether this is some kind of hormonally mediated effect and whether it’s due to selective pressure (females are more often targeted by abuse and it’s likely that this has been the case well into evolutionary history) remain unknown. Also, one of the major findings that had been associated with depression, the decrease in hippocampal volume, seems to be specific to maltreatment and not specific to depression itself. This leads me to wonder how much of our psychiatric neuroimaging is drawing incomplete conclusions by not controlling for maltreatment.

There’s also a lot of interesting connection in the neurobiology between maltreatment and psychiatric illness later in life. For instance, areas like the anterior cingulate cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and orbitofrontal cortex that are affected by maltreatment and neglect have been associated with addiction, emotional regulation, and decision-making. This provides some concrete reasoning for focusing on abuse prevention and treatment as a way of preventing substance use disorders. It also provides some mechanisms for psychiatric disorders that are strongly correlated with an abuse history, like borderline personality disorder.

I’ve only picked out a few of the major points, and I strongly recommend reading the review linked above, but hopefully I’ve been able to raise a little awareness about the importance of childhood trauma in mental health. It’s still not clear how much these findings will respond to treatment, but they will give us research tools to gauge the effectiveness of our therapies and medications, and they may give forensic psychiatrists more tools to support claims of emotional or sexual abuse, which classically don’t leave the same amount of physical evidence that juries get with physical abuse or prolonged neglect.










On Stripping: My experience salvaging old miniatures

So my parents got me a Warhammer Dark Vengeance set for Christmas, and unfortunately it didn’t take long for me to get hooked. A few weeks after getting started with it, I decided to expand my collection and found out that these little plastic people are really expensive. I looked around for alternatives to buying new, and it turns out there are tons of used minis on ebay and elsewhere. The downside is that these are already assembled and painted in many cases, so you don’t get to customize them to your liking and you may not care for the paint jobs of others.


It turns out you can reliably strip the paint off with various solvents, going back to square one. I thought this was really cool, since it feels like upcycling and it gives you easier access to some of the older pewter figures. Be forewarned that newer sculpts tend to look a little more detailed and have some more customization, but I like the variety of blending older and newer minis and knowing that my army probably looks more unique as a result.

Now, the trouble with stripping is choosing the right solvent. You want the paint gone, you may want the glue and green stuff gone, but you don’t want the plastic or pewter to melt away or become pitted. With credit where credit is due, I found this link via some quick googling that gave me a great place to start. Trouble is, most of those products weren’t in many of the places I looked. I encourage you to check there, especially if you’re in the UK, since they have access to some other stuff (like Fairy Power Spray) that supposedly works really well. In my case, I did some of my own research with a few solvents that this guy didn’t cover, and I thought the info might benefit someone else, so I’m throwing it up here.

Without further ado, this is what I found out:

The test samples:

The Grey Hunters in their original state, painted sometime in the past.

The Grey Hunters in their original state, painted sometime in the past.

First up, what didn’t work.

Simple Green 


This stuff might be a perfectly good cleaner, but it didn’t do much for these purposes. With heavy toothbrushing I could get some paint off the pewter, but it did almost nothing to plastic.

Krud Kutter



Despite being too xtrem3 for the letter c, I wasn’t able to get much to happen to the paint with Krud Kutter either. Some of the glue seals broke down in this, but I do not know what the original owner used for glue, so I can’t make much of that.

Mean Green




Getting closer now, this stuff was decent. It takes an overnight soak to do much damage but I did get paint off of some plastic and pewter models using this stuff. You’ll have to give things a lot of elbow grease and it may take days to get the stubborn pieces clean. On the plus side, this seems to be fairly easy to find at super markets. I picked this up at a K-mart and later saw it at most of the other places I looked.

Graffiti Remover

Still too cool for the letter C.

The clear winner: Krud Kutter Graffiti Remover
I found this stuff at Home Depot, they probably carry it at comparable stores. It bills itself as being specifically able to remove acrylic paint from all sorts of surfaces, and when I dipped my figs in the stuff, the paint softened and came off of both plastic and pewter in under a half hour. This is definitely my new go-to.




Grey Hunters Stripped

The “after” shot. These have been stripped and reassembled with superglue and green stuff.



General Tips:

  • Use a toothbrush as your primary weapon, and have some toothpicks and/or pins around for the detail work.
  • Wear gloves of some sort, most of these are pretty hard on hands.
  • The solvents I used were all fine in cheap plastic sandwich containers, but certain solvents require glass (e.g. Acetone, though I haven’t tried it.). Be sure you have an appropriate container.
  • When you’re done, give everything a good wash in soapy water and a thorough rinse. Residues of the solvents can cause your primer to flake off. I learned this the hard way on some old Reaper minis I was experimenting with.

Hopefully this is of some use to you wargaming and modeling enthusiasts out there. Are there any other solvents or tips we should know about? Feel free to comment.



R-Uni (A List of 100 Free R Tutorials and Resources in University webpages)

Pairach Piboonrungroj, PhD

Free 100 Online tutorials for R programming, Statistics and Graphics

Here is a list of FREE R tutorials hosted in official website of universities around the world. The tutorials are listed  in no particular order, actually based on when I have discovered it. They will be categorised soon. Please kindly suggest me other university-hosted online R tutorials by email to

A list of R tutorials, which are not hosted in the webpages of academic institutes can be foundhere.

  1. University of Oxford
     Modern Applied Statistics with S, 4edn (On-line material)[url]
    by  W. N. Venables and B. D. Ripley
  2. University of California at Davis
    Getting Started with the R Data Analysis Package [url]
    by Norm Matloff
  3. Clarkson University
    R Tutorial [url]
    by Kelly Black
  4. York University
    Getting started with R [url]
  5. University of Waterloo
    R Tutorial For  Windows and  Unix

View original post 1,743 more words

Build a Robot: From n00b to slightly less n00b with Arduino

The freshly assembled BoEBot with my Arduino Uno R3 nestled inside.

The freshly assembled BoEBot with my Arduino Uno R3 nestled inside.


So I’ve gone through most of my life pretty ignorant of electronics. I built a computer in high school with some help, but beyond plugging together big pieces of “FM” (f***ing magic), I didn’t really get what was going on. However, in the last few years there’s been an explosion in products and resources related to prototyping and small scale computers, and I thought it was time to see what all the fuss was about. In the interest of balance, I should mention that the three most prominent platforms right now are the Arduino, the Raspberry Pi, and the BeagleBone. The latter two may well be incredible, but I haven’t had the time or money to look into them yet, so I’ll leave it to others to describe their merits. As for the Arduino, it looked like a good starting point for a few reasons.

Firstly, the open source nature of the hardware appealed to me. First party Arduinos have a nice build quality and are available in a number of variants. What’s more, tons of other manufacturers are making slight variants for more specialized ends, and you’re theoretically at liberty to try to build one yourself if you think you can do it more cheaply or more effectively. Second, the Arduino platform is geared more toward electronics projects with a relatively simple codebase. I’ve already spent some time in programming world and I was more interested in soldering and making circuits, so this suited my curiosity well. In contrast, the Raspberry Pi is known for being a full-fledged computer, albeit a rather basic one. That seemed like overkill for me. The affordability of the Arduino was another plus. I picked up the official starter kit (got it for Christmas, actually), which came with a book and a good set of starter components. This runs between $100 and $150 at the moment, and there are tons of kits from other vendors with slight variations on the same starter pack theme that will probably get you up and running just as nicely. To supplement the kit, extra Arduino Uno R3’s (the main entry-level board) are available for around $35 online and at local retailers, and expansion shields and parts are generally affordable. Lastly, there’s tons of support for Arduino, with a wealth of tutorials online and books on every theme you can imagine. The expansion “shields” are a great feature, too. You basically snap them on top of your board and add some functionality (GPS, extra motor controllers, cellular functionality, bluetooth, etc.) with little to no hardware experience required. This can get you up and running a lot faster if there’s something specific you want to do. On the other hand, you can generally accomplish the same thing manually if you want to customize it or learn more about the inner workings of the technology.

I made it through the starter kit guidebook from beginning to end in about two months of occasional spare time tinkering. The instructions were easy to follow and the finished code made it exceptionally simple to test the hardware without having to worry if you messed up the software side. My only issues were that the components didn’t often sit in the breadboard (that is, the board full of holes that you use to mock up your circuit) very securely, and that one of the leads fell off my motor. It’d be nice if they addressed the fit issue, but I’m sure it comes up eventually in post-kit electronics world. If you want to be safe, make sure you have a soldering kit and a few different kinds of connector wires (male-male, male-female, female-female) to solve any of these minor issues.

After I made it through the original kit, I moved on to some robotics. While Arduino sells an official robotics platform that looks pretty solid, it was a little more than I wanted to pay at this level. Instead, I found a kit by Parallax that allowed the mounting of the Uno R3 that I already had to a “Board of Education” shield and a basic two-wheeled robot chassis. I guess this “BoE-Bot” is a pretty widely-used form factor that’s been around since before the Arduino, and it was more affordable than the standalone Arduino robot by a wide margin. I took the plunge on the kit, and found that it only took about an hour to have the thing in working shape. I did lack a book, but there was an online tutorial set that proved just as helpful, including up-to-date code snippets that could be used with the example hardware setups. As of now, I’ve worked my way through all of their example projects and have begun expanding the bot with my own ideas. In contrast to the Arduino kit, the robot kit fit together nicely at all steps. The BoE shield is a nice feature thanks to the attached breadboard and the formal servo connectors, saving breadboard space for custom work. The example programs are enough to whet your appetite, showing you how to get your robot to respond to light and obstacles using both physical whiskers and an IR system. It’ll leave you wanting to do more, but that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? So far this kit seems to have been a good choice, and I’ll post an update down the road to fill you in on customization options and maybe offer up some project ideas if I do anything worth sharing.

In conclusion, it seems to me that Arduino’s a legit way to learn a few things about electronics and robotics and has enough flexibility to allow you to make something new and cool with a little work. If there’s a better gateway board, I haven’t yet found it, but I’m open to suggestions.

The BoE bot with IR sensors and some K'nex on board to add stuff to.

The BoE bot with IR sensors and some K’nex on board – The posts are conveniently the perfect size to attach K’nex pieces. 

For your convenience, here are some places to look for this stuff. Near as I can tell they’re all pretty comparable in price, but there are some differences in stock and tutorial availability so it’s kind of worth a browse through them. (I’m not an affiliate at any of them, feel free to type in the site manually if you’re skeptical.)

Amazon – they have a pretty good selection but there are some problems with vendors substituting knockoffs without warning, so you may have to go through a return or two to get what you’re looking for. – the official Arduino site for both tutorials and the original boards and shields.








HabitRPG Revisited: 6 months of Gamified Living



So I’ve been using HabitRPG pretty much religiously for about a half year now, and it’s changed enough that I thought it warranted a new post to complement my older reflections. The pace of development is brisk, and the amount of content has grown exponentially since its early days, offering a number of new ways to play. It’s worth noting that the team is really receptive to community input, as well. In fact, one of the features implemented in the new subscription plan – the ability to purchase the rarer gem currency using the gold that can be earned in-game – arose in part because of my criticism and discussions with the team. It’s clear that Renelle and his team are committed to folding improvements into the game over time, which makes it considerably more usable, and gives me greater confidence that I won’t likely hit another wall where there’s really nothing more to do.

To those of you who haven’t read my original post, I encourage you to check that out first here.

To bring you up to speed, many of my criticisms from that period are no longer relevant. At the time, the supply of content for ordinary users was easily exhaustible – one could expect to have every piece of equipment in the game in a few months – and there was not very much in-game motivation to play after that point. A common counter-argument to my complaints has been that I wasn’t making use of custom rewards – things like paying in-game gold to watch a movie or go out with friends. While this is definitely a valid way to add life to the game, it’s not very satisfying when I don’t necessarily have the time or money to indulge in a real reward, but do enjoy seeing my pixel dude wearing a fancier hat. Fortunately, as you’ll see below, my play style is now much more feasible and should stay that way for some time to come.

So without further ado, and doing my best not to simply echo their update list, here are my feelings about the game as it stands today.

– The addition of classes is a fantastic way to add personality to your character. It adds some depth of gamification, allows you to think a bit about the kind of person you want to be, and gives you more ways to interact with your party. Furthermore, by virtue of quadrupling the amount of obtainable equipment, it extends the life of the game considerably. I’m still in the midst of picking up gear for my third class, and plan to have it all one day.

– On a related note, the addition of quests gives not only an added sense of cohesion with your party, but also additional incentives to work hard on any given day. Trying to take down a boss character over a period of weeks gives you a sense of more urgent purpose, and gives you something to talk about with your party members. It looks like they’re still massaging out the details of this, but there’s a lot of potential in that concept.

– The development team’s embrace of seasonal content is a neat feature. Limited-time items give you special incentive to complete your tasks by certain deadlines so you can have the special 2013 winter outfit on your pixel dude.

– The addition of mounts adds a whole new layer to pet collection, since you can now feed your pets until they grow big enough to ride on. The only shame part is that neither pets nor mounts affect your stats in any way, but they’re still a nice diversion, and I suppose the stat effects might be added someday if people ask for it.

– The subscription plan for monetization just launched this morning, and I think it’s a vastly superior alternative to buying gems outright. For a fairly manageable $5 a month, you get a few nice perks including the ability to buy gems with gold, which addresses the biggest problem I had with the game a few months ago. Now it’s possible to actually earn, through your habits, basically all of the content in the game. I’m still jealous of the folks out there who have special kickstarter and contributer gear, I’ll admit, but there is a vast wealth of material available for the rest of us, making it considerably easier to forget that we’ll never have a cerberus pet or a steaming demon sword. With the continuous addition of content for quests, however, there’s no telling what the future holds – we may someday hope to have at least watered down versions of those sorts of things depending on the direction the developers go.

– Another simple change: It’s now possible to purchase a “rebirth.” I’m not sure what carries over when you reset your character that way, but in theory it allows you to start from scratch and experience the thrills of improving from a simple person in a t-shirt to a badass wizard, warrior, etc. all over again. For people like me who are primarily motivated by in-game growth, this effectively fixes the problem of maxing out our characters and having nothing else to do.

– In the interest of balanced review, I should say that the game mechanics still aren’t perfect, and I imagine some of the character skills will be getting adjusted in the future to improve playability (for example, one of the rogue skills yields entirely too much gold for its own good), but it’s easy enough to avoid problems with these. In my opinion, you’re only ever cheating yourself if you cheese the system. After all, there’s really nothing stopping you from giving yourself points for playing candy crush and eating potato chips, so there are some ways in which the game is only useful if you’re committed to the spirit in which it was developed.

In short, I’m satisfied with the game and impressed with the direction it’s going. I was also duly impressed with the team’s attitude and their openness to input, as evidenced by my being invited to discuss their subscription plan strategy after they read some of my thoughts on the previous blog entry. I know this will probably become more difficult as the size of the user base increases, but for the time being it seems that the core developers are very interested in adapting to what the players want, which gives me confidence that the platform will continue to improve and is well worth throwing a few dollars a month at.




On Last Times

This is going to be a little more of a plain and somber post compared to what I usually put here, just to offer you fair warning. 

Last weekend, my aunt Sara passed away after a sudden bout of liver failure. She went from being around – with a fair bit of pain from some chronic conditions – to being gone forever in the span of two days. What’s most surreal to me is that I never had the chance to properly say goodbye, and I don’t even really remember which occasion was the last time I saw her. Certainly, it was one of the days surrounding my brother’s wedding last September, but it wasn’t the sort of heavy, emotional I’ll-never-see-you-again sort of goodbye that I would’ve given if I had known what was going to happen a few months later. 

My aunt lived a hard life, and suffered the consequences of her decisions and circumstances for many years. In the years I knew her best, she was making a great effort to turn her life around. She’d found love and support, she’d gotten some education, and she had done her best to stay on a path that would lead her away from a troubled past. I hope she understood that others noticed. I hope she knew that, even though she didn’t always succeed, it meant a lot that she was trying. While she never got the chance to enjoy a full life, I hope it’s some consolation that she will continue to inspire others even now that she’s gone. For my part, she will always remind me of the idea that it’s never too late to fight your past, and that no fall is so great that you cannot stand again. 

I know that many of you reading this won’t have known Sara, and for you I have a message that hopefully you can all relate to. While the beginnings of new things are usually obvious, and we can see a new “first time” coming a long way off, it’s taken me these twenty seven years of my life to grasp fully the fact that many endings come and go without our realizing. Whether it’s something as mundane as the last time you visit a restaurant before it closes or something as monumental as the last time you see a loved one before they pass away, you may go through that finale without realizing that it’s the end of something. Years may pass before you understand that it should’ve meant something, that you would’ve liked to soak in that experience and put a proper seal on a piece of life. Bearing that in mind, I’m not suggesting we should make every goodbye tearful and dramatic. However, I think it’s worth carrying that thought with you, somewhere under the surface, that we ought to cherish each experience with as much mindfulness and gratitude as we can muster, because sooner or later it will be the last time, and we’ll wish we had known. 

HabitRPG: Because doing the dishes sucks less when there’s treasure involved



The basic interface is clean, and serves as a nice compromise between traditional to-do lists and an RPG-style status screen.

In keeping with my general interest in gamification, I was floored when I found out about a web app called HabitRPG that promises to gamify your daily habits and reward you with various gimmicks (avatar upgrades, pets, etc). I’ve given it a try for a little over a week now and I think I’ve got enough insight to discuss some of my impressions.

In general, I think they’re onto something in a big way, and I believe that stroking the human reward circuitry with small but frequent rewards is the key to becoming the best people we can be. Several times in my wade through the site, I found myself wishing I had come up with the idea first. (On a side note, their project is open source, so the good news is that someone else could pick up the ball in the event that they gave up on it somewhere down the line).

For those of you who want an idea what the site’s all about, it’s based around the idea of listing out the habits you want to track – one-time to-dos, daily routines, and intermittent habits that you’d like to do more or less often, and then providing you with a system to reward and punish yourself. As the name implies, it’s inspired by role-playing game mechanics including health, (which depletes if you do a bad habit or miss a daily task) experience (which accumulates as you do good things and yields level increases that unlock site features), and gold (which you can use to unlock rewards like avatar equipment). It’s fairly intuitive once you understand the central mechanics, and the rewards make for a more interesting experience than you’d find in plainer to-do organizer.


If my program gave out pixel dudes, I’d have three PhDs by now.

In the time since I’ve started using it, I’ve already noticed more motivation to stay on top of my daily habits (I recently had an evening meeting that tempted me to skip a workout, a meditation session, and some guitar practice, but I forced myself to stick to all three when I got back lest I lose my streak.) What’s more, it’s given me motivation to take on tasks that I had largely ignored before. For example, I’m not the best at keeping on top of chores, but I find myself making a priority to hit a few simple ones as often as possible thanks to the looming promise of seeing a little pixelated version of myself in chain mail. Therefore, I can see how this could definitely help me use my time wisely and keep moving forward.

Here’s the breakdown of the pros and cons as I see them.

The Good:
– The interface is appealing, and the 8-bit style pixel art gives it a fun look and feel
– The existence of three types of tasks (Habits, Dailies, and To-dos) makes the game extremely versatile. Furthermore, the ability to switch off dailies on certain days makes good sense for recurring habits that shouldn’t happen 7 days a week. (Most sensible fitness enthusiasts give themselves some rest days, for instance)
– While it’s still under development, there has been some care taken to allow you to restore your character if the game crashes and robs you of a streak or an achievement. This is vital, since I’ve already needed to do that once and I can imagine the epic ragequit that would ensue if I’d already invested a lot of time and energy.
– The dual accountability systems of parties and guilds allows for some great opportunities to get support from friends and like-minded people. Granted it’s not much help if none of your friends are productivity geeks, but it’s nice to know that others will get to see your avatar dude clad in the coolest gear.
– Although I have not yet delved into it deeply, the creators are pursing integration with other programs pretty aggressively. This is wonderful for people who use a lot of gamified apps, organizers, and productivity tools. Ideally, it would be nice to go about my day as normal and have HabitRPG credit me for my web behavior (via the chrome extension), my to-dos (via Trello or similar), etc. This functionality seems to be in the works, but all the bugs aren’t yet worked out.
– The price is right. Without paying a dime, you get essentially full functionality with a couple of ads that don’t distract too much. I worry a bit that this could lead to some unsavory monetization tactics down the road, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they could monetize it without breaking the app for free members.
– The development pace appears brisk. The mobile app coming out soon has the potential to make it much easier to keep up on, and it seems like the authors have their ducks in a row, organizing their emerging features and bug fixes via a group Trello account that anyone can see.

The upcoming mobile app release will make it a lot easier to maintain your account.

The upcoming mobile app release will make it a lot easier to maintain your account.

The Bad:
– It’s slow and buggy in its current incarnation. If you’re expecting a fully polished product, it’s not quite there yet. (It is under active development, however, so I expect this complaint to be time-limited)
– The user-generated tasks and difficulties create somewhat of an apples to oranges environment. Obviously cheating will always be possible with apps like these, but here it’s totally possible for two honest players to have completely different levels and scores for doing the same things, all depending on how they’ve set up their lists and what they give themselves credit for. I think that it would be beneficial for there to be a library of democratically decided tasks to choose from, so you stand a better chance of being on the same page with your friends.
– The gem system worries me a little bit. It smacks of the special currencies in so many of the gimmicky facebook games, where there’s no access to certain perks without spending real money.

In closing, I think this is worth checking out, and is a viable alternative to other habit tracking sites like, lift, and so forth. It’s not yet my sole to-do manager, but I could definitely see it being a major hub to keep myself organized in the future. There’s a lot of potential in this concept, so I hope to see it turn into something even more addictive in a couple of years.

(In lieu of collecting links in the post, I’ve begun curating productivity sites in the sidebar, and I plan on continuing to add to it as I find more. I’m always open to suggestions if there’s something out there that you’d like me to check out or review.)

Minor update 12/10/13:

I’ve been using HabitRPG for months now, and the angularJS rewrite did in fact make it run considerably faster and crash a bit less. I will say that the game doesn’t seem to be designed very well for people who actually keep on top of their habits, as it’s quite easy to obtain the maximum armor in just a few months’ time, and there’s not really anything else to spend gold on. With this much usage, a few of their minor issues have begun to grate on me:

  • Development is ongoing, and features are being added with some regularity. However, the developers have a clear priority for making exclusive content for backers and contributors, and much of the other optional content is only available for purchase using gems. I understand that the developers need to make money to keep the site going, but I’d rather have them break down and charge money or use more obtrusive advertising instead of dividing the game into “haves” and “have nots” and spoiling their inner circle with perks. It doesn’t make sense to me that I should have to learn how to program and contribute to their project if I want to get all the achievements and upgrades.
  • Related to the above issue, my earlier fears about this gem system have been confirmed. Much like the free-to-play facebook games that award one currency freely but keep an unrelated currency in extremely short supply, I find myself drowning in gold while I have no way of getting gems without buying them outright with real money. This has seriously diminished my motivation to continue using the platform, and in fact I’m debating forking the code to see if I can work from a local install where I can buy gems and drops with gold so that I have some way to progress.
  • The fact that the game is constantly under development sort of ruins the current gold mechanic. There is talk of adding character classes at some point, so I’d rather hoard my gold and buy equipment for the other character types when it arrives rather than creating my own (out-of-game) rewards and losing the gold when I need it to improve the game.
  • The item drop system is arbitrarily capped at 2 per day (at least it was when I looked into it). Because I have several dailies with long streaks, this cap was usually maxed out fairly early in the day, meaning I didn’t get any particularly interesting rewards for everything else I was hoping to do that day. I’m not really sure why there needs to be a cap at all, but I found it ruined my motivation when I was checking boxes for nothing but a little bit of (currently useless) gold.
  • The item drop system really should consider what’s in your reserves before dropping an item, especially in light of the extremely limited cap. I’m sitting on over a dozen animal eggs at the moment and have never had a surplus of either food or hatching potions. I understand that this would take a little bit of extra programming, but the developers have to consider that most regular users are going to hit an “endgame” state pretty fast given the relative ease of maxing out the weapons and armor, and it’s lame to keep getting wolf eggs when I already have enough to hatch every wolf cub in the game.
  • Yet another complaint about the item drop system: It’s possible to sell eggs back to the stable, but only for gold. This is better than nothing, but it again does nothing for players who have bought all that there is to buy.
  • The challenges system has been implemented, and promises an in-game way to obtain gems, but so far I haven’t found any use for it. Usually, by the time I find a challenge that’s relevant to me, it’s already been going for a few days and it’s impossible for me to win. I don’t really have time to check every day to see if there are official challenges being launched for the stuff I’m already doing, but if I wanted to win gems in game I would have to do that and move from the daily version I’m already using to the one supplied in the challenge. In short, it’s a nice idea but it’s not really geared toward people who are already on top of things.

In conclusion, HabitRPG is still a great premise, but its gamification features start to fall apart after a few months of successful “gameplay.” Mostly, I feel like it’s badly in need of additional content to keep the core gameplay going. If they had hundreds of armor pieces to purchase, even if they were purely cosmetic, it would at least give players something to work for. I feel like there’s a wall in place, and the only people who are getting the full experience are those who have been friends of the project from the beginning. If you already contribute to the project regularly, backed the kickstarter, and feel comfortable paying money for gems, then you get to be a special class of player with diamond armor, unique pets, and achievements specific to contributors. For the rest of us, we’re relegated to a sort of proletarian status where we’ll have to be content with an arbitrary blockade in our progress because we serve our own goals rather than those of the habitRPG team. If I were in charge, I would do away with most of the special privileges and allow anyone to buy “habitRPG premium” for some annual fee, which would enable all of the in-game content to be buyable with gold.

The Things That Set Us Apart: 3 Things The Writing Community Can Learn From The Music Scene

Homelife - Regional Band from Lansing, MI

Homelife – Regional Band from Lansing, MI

My brother has been a musician in some local and regional bands for probably a decade now, and I’ve met a lot of people in the punk scene from going to shows with him. Somewhere along the line, I realized that these were a rare breed of people: They were going after something they loved, knowing full well that they probably wouldn’t make a living that way. Perhaps more importantly, they seemed, as a whole, to have a humility and openness about them that seems to be lacking in my usual circles. (Disclaimer: I spend most of my time around aspiring scientists and doctors. I’ll reserve another post someday for talking about why they have reason to be less than super friendly to the competition in their fields.) Nestled in with the fist-flinging dance moves and the yelling vocal delivery, I decided that these people had a certain wisdom that I wanted to take away to my own creative endeavors.

    1. Other Writers Are Not Your Enemy

      Maybe I’m projecting a little bit, but it seems to me that writers are often insulated and have a tendency to scoff, at least internally, when they hear that other people are writing something as well. While I admit that there are far more aspiring authors out there than there are real authors, I think that this attitude is counterproductive to the sense of community that creators of any sort ought to be fostering.
      In particular, there are a few collaborative strategies that we could benefit from trying out. I know that coauthoring is definitely a thing from time to time, but there are other ways we can help each other and build a community of creators that I haven’t really seen in use.


      For those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s pretty common for two bands to get together and press a record that has one or two songs from each of them. In this way, they can get out a new song or two while giving the buyer a taste of another artist’s work as well. This means that fans of either band will be interested in the record, and may therefore give a new band a listen. This has the additional benefits of allowing both bands to split the cost of the pressing and share the task of promoting the album at concerts and over social media. So what does this mean for writers? I submit that there would be some merit in taking two smaller novellas or short novels and binding them together in a “split” in much the same fashion, achieving most of the same benefits. In this way, authors can also form useful bonds with similar authors, laying the foundation for future collaborations and cross-promotion opportunities.


      Record labels often release sampler albums featuring a single track from various artists. In the same way, it seems feasible for various writers to get together and submit compiled works of shorter stories, poetry, essays, and novellas in one volume under some theme. This does happen in some genres, but I wanted to point out that it could be a useful tool for emerging writers to be seen and to work with other authors. Ideally, this would be arranged in a grassroots way rather than relying on a publisher or editor to handle all the compiling – that way the writers actually have to talk to each other.


      Like-minded bands tend to stick together – they tour together, promote each other’s news on social media, and build a scene around them. While this process emerges pretty naturally from the more public nature of consuming music, but I think the same principle could apply. Word of mouth and social media are the best ways of getting people to try out new artists, and writers ought to consider the same sorts of alliances.

    2. The “Real” Publishing vs. Self Publishing debate is missing the point if your goal is to create and share art

      There seems to be a lot of digital ink spent on the relative merits of self-publishing vs. seeking publication through a professional publishing house. While being published by a major company carries a number of advantages (including quality control, promotion, etc.), I feel that both routes ought to be considered parallel means to the same end. If your goal as a writer is to create art and share it with people, the route of publication is pretty much inconsequential. In other words, I think we ought to refocus on the goal of producing products that are well written, well edited and properly promoted.
      There will always be advantages to getting picked up by a reputable publishing house, but it’s pretty widely recognized that this is easier said than done. Publishing houses prefer to do the lowest risk publishing they can, so they may not be willing to take a chance on an unknown author’s fiction when they have a sure bet in picking up the latest topical nonfiction or adapting a well-established blogger’s compiled work. Therefore, I propose that we adapt the music industry’s strategy of relying on more accessible means to get exposure at the earlier stages of one’s career. In the case of musicians, smaller, regional record labels are becoming increasingly common, and the ease of digital publishing has been embraced to get work to fans.
      In the case of books, there are plenty of on-demand services by which we can get our works out in digital and paperback formats without major barriers to entry. I submit that we can reduce the stigma of self-publication by combining these convenient publishing means with smaller scale operations to provide the kinds of quality assurance that a publishing house normally takes care of: Namely, promotion and proofreading. To practice what I preach, I am going to undertake to set up such an operation myself. However, I don’t want this entry to come off as shameless self promotion, so I’ll urge my readers to consider forming their own, and I’ll leave the details of mine to come at a later date.

    3. Fans are Everything

      Transit at the 9:30 Club – We writers may not see our fans en masse, but we should appreciate them just the same.

      The performance of live music is a powerful thing. Watching the crowds erupt when their favorite songs play really drives home the idea that the musician’s art affects people in a deep way. As writers, we aren’t generally privy to the effects we have on our fans, but it’s important to remember that they are the ones who make or break us. I see a lot of hand-wringing in forums about the ideal way to write this or that, but I believe there’s a fundamental mistake in directing this question only to fellow authors. Like it or not, you’re not writing for writers, you’re writing for readers. Works like 50 Shades of Grey and the Twilight series go to show that sheer literary quality does not always correlate to success. I’m not saying we should market to the lowest common denominator, but I think that it’s a perfectly noble goal to write work that resonates with people. Because of the introverted nature of writing and reading, we are at great risk of getting caught up in naval-gazing and idealism when the real goal should be to offer art to the masses that will inspire and affect them.

I don’t mean to criticize writers, many of whom may already be trying to collaborate and form these sorts of alliances. Musicians may have stumbled upon these techniques sooner because their art form requires them to work with others (for example, one artist usually needs a whole band, and a small band can’t play without joining a lineup, etc.), but I believe it’s time for our art form to pay attention to the lessons of theirs in order to adapt to the modes of consumption of the 21st century.

Do you agree? Disagree? Want to help with my “label” or want to give me some choice words? Message me or give me a comment below and let’s talk

Bilingualish? My climb through the Duolingo Spanish Skill Tree

ImageLike pretty much everybody else on the planet, I’ve wanted to eventually learn another language. It got to the point that I was on the verge of finding a way to pirate pricing out Rosetta Stone to try my hand at seriously doing some Spanish. (I picked Spanish because it shows up a lot in the clinic – I figure it’ll give me the edge later on in my medical career.) Fortunately, before I took the dive, I found out about Duolingo, which promised to provide language learning for free. I figured I’d give it a shot. Without trying to sound like too much of a shill, I’ll give you a rundown of my experiences and the pros and cons as I see them. First, for all of you skeptics wondering if they’re going to go for-pay when you’re in the middle of learning to conjugate the future sub-perfect-junctive tense, let me assure you that this is highly unlikely. I’ll quote a saying that’s been floating around the internet (I’ve traced it to the user blue_beetle on metafilter, let me know if that’s not the original usage: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” Because Duolingo offers the “opportunity” to translate sites on the web, you’re essentially giving them your labor in exchange for your training. Because there’s no requirement to participate in the translating – you can just do the lessons if you prefer – I’m willing to buy into their cunning plan if it means yo puedo hablar espanol. 

With that in mind, I fired up their service back in March and set off down their skill tree, finally finishing it earlier today. Here are my impressions:


  • The game-like elements are extremely addictive. I found myself swallowed up by the program and kept coming back to get a few more points whenever I had some free time. 
  • The word knowledge mechanic features a spaced-forgetting algorithm. This concept, developed by neuroscientists, causes your “word strength” to deteriorate over time. This means that the skill ratings more accurately reflect reality – you can’t master a concept once and then come back two years later expecting it to be rock solid. 
  • The skill tree offers at least the illusion of a self-contained teaching path. It shares this feature with Khan Academy and Codecademy, both of which are similarly great examples of gamified learning that I’ll cover at some point if there’s interest. 
  • The visual interface is really appealing. The owl mascot, colorful visuals, and cheerful sound effects do a pretty good job of making it feel like fun, even if it is just a dressed up language quiz at its core.
  • Through its use of hover-hints, you can get right into the meat of most lessons without having to do a lot of preliminary reading. This makes the process rewarding and hands-on, but it has its pitfalls (see below). 


  • Perhaps in part because of the need to train you as a translator, there is more emphasis on being able to recognize and interpret the language compared to being able to speak it. At the end of the lessons I feel capable of extracting a meaning from a large fraction of spanish texts, but I’d be pretty hopeless to carry out a conversation or convey an original thought. 
  • It’s quite possible and tempting to lean heavily on the hover hints. I think it’ll be really important to review periodically using the timed practice to improve retrieval skills and get things into long term storage. 
  • The emphasis on diving into exercises means that precious little time is spent on concepts. I don’t claim to have any real expertise in identifying one tense over the other, and I’m far from capable of being able to discuss the language with any scholarly authority. I’m not so bothered by this because I only really care about using the language in real world situations, but it’s probably worth considering. 
  • I was not as impressed with the later sections as I was with the earlier ones. It seems like the programmers are adapting the lessons based on feedback, and I’m guessing that there’s just not as much feedback toward the end due to user dropout. There were a few lessons there where it would reject answers that were virtually identical to the correct ones, and I had to redo the lesson a half dozen times until I was passing most of the phrases by rote memorization rather than any kind of understanding. 


Where am I after taking all the lessons? I’m definitely going to need more practice on Duolingo and using some other resources before I would dare call myself fluent, but I would be much more comfortable surviving if I was airdropped into Latin America or Spain. I’ve taken 4 years of French in high school and I would bet my Spanish skills rival my French ones, especially accounting for all the atrophy to the latter skill set. All in all, I think it’s a great resource, and it’s really fed my interest in gamified learning methods. I don’t think it should be used in isolation, but it has the potential to be a central pillar in a self-taught language learning system.

If you’ve tried Duolingo or have other language learning tools that you’ve found useful, drop me a comment and let’s talk!

Some related links:

Study Spanish – one of the better “online textbook” sorts of pages

Forvo – users can upload the correct pronunciation of words in their native language

A Research Study Evaluating Duolingo – might admittedly be biased since it’s now hosted at the Duolingo site, but it claims that Duolingo is comparable to college coursework and in some cases more effective than a lot of the tools out there. 

Babbel  – an alternative language learning software (not free)

Mango Languages – another alternative language learning software. I haven’t used it in a long time but their mandarin lessons were pretty solid on the trial version. This is also not free but they appear to be trying to bill libraries to foster free access for patrons. 

Rosetta Stone – the 800 lb gorilla of language learning. If you have the money, or someone else is paying for it, this might be worth looking into. I’ve not tried it myself but it seems to be the gold standard in the field. 

Biomedical Research: Going MD/PhD vs. Going 100% PhD

This was adapted from advice I gave to a student with a strong interest in a research career in neuroscience, so it is written for someone who is more interested in research than clinical care.

I will begin by saying that a research career is absolutely possible with an MD alone, but I think it’s not a very advisable route considering the out-of-pocket expenses and lack of formal training in forming and answering scientific queries.

As you may know, the stated goal of most MD/PhD programs is to create physician scientists who aim to do 80% research and 20% clinical time. Therefore, they are well suited for people with a strong research interest rather than a primary interest in care. What’s more, clinical time can be defined in a number of ways. With an interest in neuroscience, for example, you could use your MD to become a neuropathologist and help the clinical side by analyzing patient samples without having to directly interact with patient populations if you prefer. If you’re deciding between an MD/PhD approach and a PhD approach, the MD/PhD programs may be somewhat more competitive, but they are not significantly more difficult than MD programs if you have a strong research background.

Below, I’ve outlined some of what I think are the key considerations in deciding whether to go dual degree or single degree.

– Career security – clinicians will always be in demand regardless of research funding climate.
– Grant demand – MD lends a clinical credibility to research proposals that often makes grants more attractive to funding institutions.
– Institutional demand for Physician Scientists – At the faculty and postdoctoral phase, you would be a more desirable candidate in many cases if you possess the versatile education of a physician scientist.
– Flexibility – This applies to both during and after the program. Most MD/PhD programs do not require you to pick your program right away. This means that you could enter wanting to be a neuroscientist and change course to become a biochemist or pharmacologist if your interests change. After the completion of your program, you could continue into residency with or without a research emphasis, you could proceed directly into a postdoc and become a pure scientist that just happens to possess a background in clinical medicine, or you could take a still different course in industry, government, or consulting. Related to this, it’s worth noting that you avoid some of the turf battles between MD clinical scientists and PhD translational researchers if you decide to work with patients or patient samples, because your education would give you substantial authority in both realms. 
– Better understanding of clinical problems – There are an infinite number of research questions to be asked. There is a finite amount of time in a career. With a medical education and regular access to patient population, you’re more likely to understand the questions relevant to improving the health and happiness of the population. This point is less relevant if your passion is for pure scientific understanding, but it was a factor that drove me toward this career path.

– Length – An MD/PhD program will take 8 years on average, compared to a PhD program which ought to be done in 5-6 years.
– Purity of Purpose – There’s only so much time in the day, it’s impossible to be all things to all people and choosing a single doctoral degree gives you license to focus on your research with fewer outside concerns.
– Program availability and Admissions – It’s still competitive to get into natural science PhD programs, but there will be more slots available for PhD programs than for dual degree programs, so you stand a better chance of attending a more elite institution, or one that’s better suited to your needs. 
– Opportunity costs – It’s worth considering that the extra time and mental energy spent in developing a clinical foundation could alternatively be poured directly into developing your research career. It is possible that choosing a PhD program rather than a dual degree program could lead you to become more well versed in your area of study sooner, giving you an edge over a less focused person. 

An important consideration is that your decision isn’t set in stone, either. Some MD/PhD students began as PhD grad students and transitioned into the program. Other people attend medical school or graduate school after completing the other program if their interests have changed. Still others begin as MD/PhD students and drop half to become a medical or graduate student during the process when they discovered that the rest didn’t appeal to them as much as they thought.