Archive for August, 2010

That’s not a joke: I really am going to discuss my very own penis–so don’t say you weren’t warned!

Last week, the New York Times reported some very good news indeed: although 80% of all American men are still circumcised, the rate of neonatal circumcision plummeted from 56% in 2006 (which was already down about ten points from the rate in the ’80s and ’90s) to just 32.5% in 2009.  This qualifies as a big time trend (hopefully not just a “fad”).

Those in the pro-circumcision camp, including many male doctors who are no doubt themselves circumcised, have understandably gone into a tizzy upon learning this news.  They know that a 33% rate is not stable in American society.  Either they have to arrest the trend ASAP and get circumcising back into the majority position, or it will continue to drop precipitously until it’s in single digits.  Because let’s face it: most Americans are not very invested in either side of this issue.  They just want to stay with the herd, and do what is “normal” (that is, what the majority does, even if the minority has good arguments for why it is not normal at all, biologically speaking).  This was the strongest weapon in the pro-circ camp for many years, until just this moment in modern history.  Now that the majority has flipped decisively to the other side, and this has been made public via the NY Times and other media outlets (although in the case of NPR, in a despicably unbalanced way), there is likely to be a stampede away from the knife, unless the pro-circ side in their desperation can come up with some way to stem the tide.

One of the tactics they have been trying is to insist that there are myriad health benefits to circumcision.  Hannah Rosin, a vocal proponent of circumcision (she had her son circumcised, which is where her emotional investment comes in), has even warned of a “potential public health crisis” if the circumcision rates continue to drop.  As I told her at her blog, the only problem with that is that the  four healthiest countries in the world are Iceland, Sweden, Finland, and Germany, all nations in which almost no one is circumcised.  So much for that theory! 

One argument I’ve seen bouncing around the blogosphere is a protest from Jewish men that the anti-circumcision campaign is “anti-Semitic”, or that at the very least, preserving circumcision has a “social benefit” by–get this–preventing Jewish (and Muslim) boys from being ostracised in the locker room!  Wow.  That’s just…no.  I’m sorry, but that doesn’t cut it (no pun intended).  I should be clear: I’m against circumcision no matter what your religion is.   I’ve seen some fellow “intactivists” make an exception for religion, but I utterly reject that.  A boy can grow up and decide to do that for his religion when he is 18; at age zero he has no ability to consent and may not even ultimately join the religion of his birth–which should be his right.

But wait, you ask: wasn’t this supposed to be about my penis?  Okay, yes: I am an American man with a rare attribute at my age (41): I did not get any part of my genitals cut off when I was a baby (or at any time since, for that matter). Let me tell you that while I don’t want to get graphic, I know how my body works, and I can see how the equipment of guys in pornos works, and let’s just say they are not just missing some irrelevant bit of skin. The whole natural way it’s supposed to function is not possible with them (as graphic as I’ll get is to suggest Googling “gliding action” and say that given this latest news, a good financial tip would be to short the stock for companies that make “personal lubricants” in about fifteen or twenty years). So I am ecstatic about this trend, and like to feel that I had a small but significant part in it by giving testimonials like this one online over the past decade.

I have often wondered how insane circumcision must look to men in non-circumcising countries. Now, as long as the momentum continues, we’ll get to see how insane a younger generation thinks it was that people did this “in the olden days”.  Arthur C. Clarke has a nice bit about this in his novel 3001, in fact.

For me as an intact American man in 2010, to listen to those who still desperately insist that circumcision is a good idea strikes me as what it would be like to live in a country where most people have traditionally had one eyeball removed at birth, but a growing number of people start questioning the wisdom of this tradition.  The defenders of routine neonatal eyeball removal would make defensive comments that “you don’t need that ‘extra’ eyeball; I can see just fine–and my risk of eye cancer is cut in half”. Well, sure, you can get by pretty well without it, certainly much better than with zero eyeballs!  But to get the full range of stereoscopic vision, you need both eyes.  And it’s really the same with the foreskin. We are naturally formed the way we are for a reason, and to routinely remove a part of a boy’s healthy genitals (the most sensitive part, by the way) is a holdover of a barbaric religious rite being awkwardly shoehorned into modern times by desperate defensive medical rationalisations.


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The voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) are a strange, unpredictable group, not least when selecting the winner for their premiere award, Best Picture.  In some extent, the unpredictability of their choices can be an asset.  Unlike the Grammys, they usually do not reward the biggest moneymakers (although they won’t reflexively avoid crowning blockbusters either: in the last dozen years, Titanic, Gladiator, and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King have nabbed the prize).  Heavy, serious dramas predominate, as one might expect; but lighter fare like Shakespeare in Love wins now and then, as do actioners like the aforementioned Gladiator and LOTR.  2003’s award to Chicago reassured musical fans that their genre was still in the running, even in the 21st century.  (Only comedies have so rarely won, that one wonders if it might not be fair to give them their own category.)

But there’s another way in which it is hard to predict the winner of the award, one that is not so welcome: quality.  Now, of course the quality of a film is inherently a subjective issue, I understand that.  But frankly, my wife and I have good enough cinematic tastes that even if we might quibble over whether another film might have been slightly more deserving, we can at least understand how the film in question was at least in the conversation over “best of the year”.  Or, even more minimally, we ought to find the movie watchable enough that we aren’t fidgeting and checking our watches all the way through, hoping the agony will soon end.

It was just recently that she and I worked our way around on Netflix to catching up on the last two Best Picture winners.  Neither seemed appealing enough to be something we would have made a point to see absent that imprimatur of awesomeness from AMPAS, but we felt we ought to see what the fuss was all about.  We went in reverse order, watching Hurt Locker a few weeks back.  We were just so phenomenally bored by that film that I must confess that we did not in fact finish it–I think we only got about thirty or forty minutes into it and pulled the eject button.  Then last night it was Slumdog Millionaire’s turn.  The same fate almost befell it; but I convinced Brittany to watch it all the way through as I did want to see how it tied up, as well as the dance number I knew was coming at the end.  Still got a definite thumbs-down from both of us.

The film that preceded those two, No Country for Old Men, is in my opinion one of the greatest works of art in cinematic history.  So it’s only a two year dry run, but it is worrisome nevertheless.  And though some of the winners in the past have been sketchy (I’m thinking of Forrest Gump here), none were both dull and offensive as Slumdog was (Hurt Locker was just dull).

So I’ll be very interested in seeing what wins next time!  Anyone want to nominate anything that’s been out so far this year?

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In my very first post on this blog, I said about parents who use “cry it out” (CIO) sleep training methods, that we who oppose it “need to turn up the heat, tighten the screws” because “I want parents to feel that if they CIO, it’s going to be something they have to feel nervous and at least a bit guilty about.”

Now today’s Globe and Mail features an article which first of all is helpful (despite the lame headline calling the alternative to CIO “coddling”, ugh) because it notes that “new research on infant sleep appears to deal a blow to those in the cry-it-out camp” and quotes a Penn State researcher as saying “Quite frankly, not too many researchers advocate that any more”.

But what really caught my attention was the closing paragraphs of the piece:

Although the method worked for them and their daughter, now eight months old, Mr. Reynolds is reluctant to discuss it with all the parents he knows.

“With some friends, we don’t really bring it up, as there is a lot of criticism out there.”

Toronto mom Carolyn Weaver [says:] “It’s gotten so controversial…People who are opposed truly believe that you are torturing and tormenting your child.”

Yes!  Just exactly what I was talking about.  This is a great sign of progress.  Most parents, I think, are reluctant to do something they have to hide like a dirty secret from the rest of the world.  Another couple decades, and new parents will wonder how this could ever have even been a debate.

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Until recently, I confess that I had a fairly simplistic view of those who formula feed their infants: basically, they were either uneducated/ignorant/brainwashed, or they just couldn’t be bothered to do what is best for their babies.  And there are certainly many formula feeders who do fit one of these descriptions to a T.  My experience with breastfeeding, furthermore, has been with the mothers of my three children (my ex-wife and my currently breastfeeding wife), both of whom found breastfeeding easy; and the women I’ve met through AP groups who also seem to have no problems.

But more and more, I’ve had my eyes opened to the fact that there is a sizable chunk of the maternal population that really sincerely intended to breastfeed, who tried to do it, and who just didn’t manage to succeed.  As a result, they feel frustrated, bitter, guilt-ridden, and angry at those who dismiss or minimise their efforts.  And I’m increasingly concerned that lactivists do not shine enough of a light on this part of the story. 

There are, as with most things, blurry lines, shades of grey, involved.  How much of a factor are violations of WHO codes?  Non-baby friendly hospitals with their formula samples and spotty or nonexistent lactation assistance?  Lack of support and guidance from extended family, the broader kinship group, society generally?  Normative cultural and media portrayals of bottlefeeding?  Pathetically inadequate maternity (and paternity) leave?  I could go on, but a group called Best for Babes has compiled a great list of “Breastfeeding Booby Traps” and I’ll invite my readers to take a look at that. 

Still, I’m increasingly seeing signs that a not-insignificant number of women evade these “traps” pretty successfully, have the knowledge and motivation, seek professional lactation help when needed, but their breasts just don’t produce the milk.  Even famous lactivists, it turns out, are not immune.

As this blogger notes in a well-researched post, the problem seems to be on the rise; yet very few researchers are trying to develop treatments to help women overcome insufficient supply.  And as another blogger at the same site points out, the options for “crunchy”, whole foods eating, Michael Pollan reading types are not good: nearly every brand of formula contains corn syrup solids as its primary ingredient (eccchhh).  Blame for this I lay directly at the result of our megacapitalistic, factory farmed, monoculture processed food system.  We as a society should insist on higher standards for formula.  Maybe the government should step in, and subsidise the cost for those with lactation failure while working hard to make sure that those who can lactate, do.

So what do I feel we as lactivists have to do differently?  First and foremost, the mantra that every woman’s body is perfectly designed (by evolution, or by God, if you believe in her/him/it) to feed her baby is clearly not always accurate, and thus is unfair to those with lactation failure.  A variation on this theme is the arched eyebrow and the question: “how did babies survive before formula?” (well, they didn’t, always; and closer kinship groups provided aunts to be wet nurses if needed).  So instead of just insisting that women need to “trust their bodies”, lactivists should be beating the drum for more research on lactation failure, and improving formula for those who can’t breastfeed. 

At the same time, though, some women who have gone through lactation failure don’t always make it easy for lactivists to be their allies.  There is an understandable but troublesome tendency of human nature to gravitate toward “sour grapes” rationalisations as a coping mechanism to reduce the mental anguish that comes from being bitterly disappointed at not being able to achieve something, only to see others around you able to do it with no problems.  Specifically, I’m talking about comments minimising the considerable scientific evidence for the nutritional superiority of breastmilk, like “my child THRIVES on formula” or “no one can tell the difference ten years later between kids who were FF and those who were BF”. 

To a lactivist, these statements are always going to be like fingernails on a chalkboard.  We know the importance of breastfeeding, and to hear it minimised like that feels deeply wrong.  Furthermore, when it’s on a public forum, we feel we have to object and correct misinformation, in case any fence-sitters are reading.

But it’s my hope that lactivists (including me) can try to better focus our efforts on educating the ignorant, removing “booby traps”, taking on unethical formula marketers, pushing for research into lactation failure, and reaching out to those women who wanted as much as anyone to breastfeed but were unable to, and maybe even enlisting them as allies.

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Yes, this is your first hint that my blog will be all over the place thematically, LOL.  Future posts may be about poker, tennis, politics, music, random things that annoy me, or even esoteric intellectual/philosophical questions of epistemology or the like.  This one is about a cheesy game show, though it does involve some discrete mathematics (probability calculations) and psychological “risk of ruin” issues that economists like to study.


[UPDATE: Those unfamiliar with the game should read the explanation here.]

A recent contestant (with the ironic surname Einstein, I kid you not) accepted an offer for $23,000 with six cases left (five on the stage and one she is holding), including the $500,000 (top amount), plus one containing $25,000, and four small amounts of $1,000 or less.  If she passed up the offer, she would have had to open two more cases before getting another offer.  This is right at the point just before when the offers usually improve markedly, in terms of what percentage of the average expected value (EV) is offered.  (To get the EV, you just add up all the amounts left and divide by the number of cases left.)

In this situation, her EV was about $88,000; so the offer was barely over 25% of her EV.  And for some context if you don’t watch the show, $23,000 is a generic offer you might get really early in the game (she had passed up $24,000 a couple offers earlier).  If you go one more round, your offer’s going to be more like 70% of your EV; the round after that (when there are two cases on the stage and one with the contestant), over 80%; and then the final offer (which you have to either take, or take what’s in your own case) is for some reason always just a titch over EV, like 101%.

And the show makes you go through the whole “what if” scenario, opening the cases in the order you think you would have opened them if you kept playing.  It turned out this contestant actually had the half million in her case, so as she went along, her next (hypothetical) offer was $84,000, the one after that $139,000, and the final offer was $251,000. 

Now of course she couldn’t know she actually had the big money in her case.  But in this scenario she definitely should have gone one more round.  She only would have really badly screwed herself if she had eliminated precisely the top two amounts.  I’m not sure exactly how the math is affected by the fact that she couldn’t choose to eliminate her own case, but I’m thinking it doesn’t matter, based on poker (you don’t know what the other players have, but you compute your odds of hitting your flush as if the deck the dealer draws from includes the cards that have been dealt out to players).  And if indeed it doesn’t matter, then as long as her own case is a mystery to her, here are the odds of various scenarios (not bothering with the specifics of the four negligible amounts) after playing one more round:

(1) Worst case.  The chance of eliminating the $500,000 and the $25,000 with two picks is 2/6 * 1/5, which is 1/15, or less than 7%.

(2) Best case, keeping both the $500,000 and $25,000 in play is 4/6 * 3/5, or 40%. 

(3) Knocking the $25,000 out but keeping the $500K in play has a 27% chance of occurring.

(4) Likewise, knocking out the half mil but keeping the $25K also has a 27% chance of happening.

Scenario (3) is what actually would have happened, which would have meant an offer of $84K which she probably would have been right to take since she had no “safety net” of more than one significant number left.  Had the best case scenario happened, the offer would have been slightly more, but it would have been a little more tempting to continue (but still a reasonable, safe move to stop).

Scenario (4) would have hurt, of course, but she would still get an offer of about $4,000 which she could take as a consolation prize, or she could gamble and continue with that $25K still up there.

Einstein carried “lucky dice” with her and handed them to Howie (his disgust was evident–he is a germaphobe like I am).  I wonder then if she would have made the same choice had it been a dice game, with the following proposition:

“You can keep $23,000 or make one roll with two dice.  If you get a three or less, you get five hundred bucks.  If you roll a six or an eight, you get $4,000.  If you roll a four, five, seven (most common roll), nine, ten, eleven, or twelve, you get $87,000.  Deal or No Deal?”

I couldn’t make the dice odds fit the game odds exactly, so I erred toward actually decreasing slightly (down to under 64%) the chance of hitting one of the two scenarios where the offer gets increased substantially.  I still suspect though that she would have passed up the offer had it been framed this way!

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Or at least, that the things they do to their kids are morally wrong. 

A lot of people don’t, as you might imagine, appreciate being told the way they parent their children is unethical.   They insist “you raise your kids your way, let us raise ours as we see fit”.  When it comes to a lot of parenting decisions, I think that’s valid as far as it goes.  I might not think letting kids drink soda is the best parenting practise, but I’m not going to campaign to make it illegal.

There are however lines many parents cross that are simply beyond the pale.  These are lines that are not (yet) recognised by the majority as abusive or neglectful parenting, but which I as an AP activist (and lactivist) believe are deserving of that kind of recognition.  Once societal consensus is strong enough, we might reach the point where a bright red legal line is drawn.  But on the way to that consensus, there are many milestones along the way, with their own lines (some things, for instance, are widely frowned upon even if not strictly illegal–but the social pressure is no less real for that technical legality).  Progress along these milestones always starts with a vocal minority loudly challenging the status quo, and refusing to bow to reactionary pressure to stop challenging the conscience of the majority, refusing to stop making them uncomfortable.

Specifically (and tip of the hat to Rachel at Free Childhood for inspiring me to see these in their own category), I think circumcision, spanking, and “cry it out” (CIO) sleep training are particularly heinous; there is no excuse (other than perhaps ignorance) for inflicting any of them on a child, and I will never acknowledge them as a valid choice for a parent to make.  For this post, I’ll focus mostly on CIO, but the point holds for the other two as well.

The process of social change, as pushed forward actively by activists (that’s after all why they are not called “passivists”, right?) can be best seen by using three examples that are at different stages of this process: child labour, corporal punishment, and CIO. 

A century or a little more ago, it was commonplace for children in low income families in urban areas to work long hours in dirty, dangerous factories.  A group of (mostly female) reformers started kicking up a lot of ruckus about this, and highlighting the plight of these poor kids, and social attitudes changed, followed by changes in the law.

Many people alive today can remember when it was generally understood that a parent had a right to beat their children with a belt or a stick–even if most people didn’t do it, they didn’t feel they had the right to tell other parents how to raise their children (sound familiar?).  In those days, schools commonly used wooden paddles to punish errant pupils.  Today, the process of reform is still ongoing, as spanking continues to be tolerated as more brutal beatings once were.  However: a parent who uses a belt or stick is likely to get into legal trouble; schools don’t dare strike children; and the last bastion left (open hand spanking by parents) is under increasing pressure of negative social opinion.

CIO is clearly at an earlier stage than either of these other examples.  But just a couple decades ago, parents could easily go about their lives without ever being confronted by those who consider CIO immoral.  These days, if they want to avoid being confronted with this kind of disapproval, they had better stay off the Internet and stick to a narrowly proscribed social circle.  This is a change for the better.  To those who insist that we should back off, let parents make their own decisions about CIO without being pressured or criticised, I defiantly declare just the opposite: these complaints show we are having an effect, and if anything, we need to turn up the heat, tighten the screws! 

I want parents to feel that if they CIO, it’s going to be something they have to feel nervous and at least a bit guilty about.  If that gets a bunch of mainstream parents pissed off at me, I can deal with it.  If you think I’m wrong, step up and say so.  I don’t want an echo chamber here.  I am confident enough of the rightness of my argument that I don’t shrink from debating it with any and all comers.

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