Monday, April 25, 2016

Random health assessment: Resting heart rate

Just for shits and giggles, I decided to check my resting heart rate. I had been riding my bike as a daily commute, averaging 25kph to work and 22kph from work, and I wanted to see if there was a benefit to all this bike commuting.

According to topendsports, an average resting heart rate of someone 35-40 years old is 71-75 bpm.

My resting heart rate prior to re-starting my bike commute was about 70bpm (and I was 37 at the
time), which put me right around average, maybe slightly on the border with "above average." As a point of reference, my resting heart rate when I was a vasity swimmer in high school - at 16 years of age - was 47 bpm, which put me well within the athlete level.

Now, it's not surprising that resting heart rate will increase with age, but moving from an athlete level to average means that I knew what it was like, and 70 bpm seemed really fast. But now, my resting heart rate is roughly 55 bpm, which works out to being on the upper end of "athlete" for a man in my age category.

And that feels nice.

Maybe it is also time to check my BMI (with recognition of problems of height and muscle density) and my blood pressure?

Friday, April 22, 2016

No, socialism almost certainly isn't what that anecdote on Facebook wants to scare you to think it is

Recently, a friend of mine posted a story about an economics professor failed his class, because the students gave a misguided understanding of a socialist nation that Obama would bring, and because - as you follow the story - of the professor's own complete lack of understanding of what socialism is (beyond an equivalency between socialism in general and a hyperbolic representation of Stalinism and Maoism). When someone pointed out to him that - as a person so serves in the US military - wasn't he a member of a socialist organization, my friend denied it, pointing out how he is graded and promoted based on his merits, and that isn't how socialism works.

But my friend is wrong; his idea of socialism (and that of the anecdotal - and most likely fictional - professor) is not how socialism works. The US military is a socialist organization, because socialism is a political (and economic) system that says that the society owns and regulates production, distribution, and exchange. And, in the case of the military, this is exactly what the US government does. Specifically, the US military:

1. regulated by the government (socialist!)
2. is operated (ostensibly) for the benefit of the society (socialist!)
3. is paid by taxes drawn from society (socialist!)
4. is not permitted to make decisions based on profit motivation (socialist!)

One could also point out that the Commander in Chief is not a part of the military, but a civilian (who could be a veteran) that is voted by popular vote (well, kind of) of all citizens (and - since there are no slaves and very few nationals that aren't citizens - this is also socialist control, albeit a step removed).

In contrast, a private military of mercenaries might be regulated by government (but historically they haven't had such strong regulations, and often the companies that paid for them insisted upon the right to use their militaries as they saw fit, even in the name of the nation the company represented), is often operated for the benefit of those who pay for it (which is not a society at large), the monies may be drawn from private coffers (or - historically - was given as a cut of booty), and they are allowed to make decisions based on profit motive (although this could be curtailed to an extent by contracts of guaranteed monopolies, such as were given to the British East India Company and the Dutch East Indies Company).

If one understands that "socialism" means many more things than "Marxism" (let alone "Stalinism" and "Maoism"), one can actually start to understand that Lincoln's "government of the people, for the people, by the people" is actually socialism. You will note that the VA - and all the veteran care programs that preceded it - were socialism. You will note that public roads, bridges, and highways are socialism. Police and fire services are socialism. Sewage treatment and drinking water provision are socialism. Even tax breaks based on having a mortgage is socialism.

It is, therefore, possible to have a highly socialist system that isn't based around the presuppositions of what socialism is that the story above describes. Never mind that such anecdotes completely fail to understand what socialism - let alone Marxist socialism - actually is, how modern democratic socialism actually operates (and how communist socialism along the lines of Stalinism and Maoism preferred political propaganda and party-line politics to the ideals of even Marxist socialism), and how much of the modern United States is built heavily upon socialism. (Indeed, the only thing that such stories tend to highlight is the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action.)

IOW, meritocracy and socialism need not be at odds, despite all the anecdotes and stories like the one above paint socialism as being.

Conversely, one can look at militaries that were not socialist organizations, and if one looks at many militaries across time, one will note that militaries rarely operated on meritocracy, were rarely operated for the benefit of a nation of citizens, and often were associated with private interests that purchased the use of that military to further its own (non civic) ends. Thus were the British East India Company and the Dutch East Indies Company operated, not to mention all the funding of mercenary armies that Venice did from medieval times through to the 18th Century.

Furthermore, simply being a republic or a democratic republic does not mean that meritocracy is the general condition. Look at the history of pretty much every European power prior to 1917: they were (for the most part) democratic (or moving in that direction), but still *heavily* class-based and not-at-all meritocratic. As was much of the United States at the same time (although less so than in Europe, and less so in the military).

In sum, if one thinks that socialism is and can only be *Marxist* socialism, then this would be like saying that "the right to bear arms" is and can only be referring to Revolutionary War-era weaponry. It is, in other words, a comparison that is only seen to be not-at-all ridiculous by people who ony have enough knowledge about the subject to make them sound silly when they make such claims.

When do you translate a name?

This morning, I was listening to the morning 24horas broadcast, and listened to the story about the 90th birthday of Reina Isabel (Queen Elisabeth). The next story was about a book fair where people could buy books from great authors, including William Shakespeare.

Waitasec... Why translate "Elizabeth" into "Isabel" but not "William" into "Guillermo"?

I already knew that European explorers during the "Age of Discovery" were all given transliterations into various languages, with "Christopher Columbus" being known as "Cristóbal Colón" in Spanish and "Christoph Kolumbus" in German; "Amerigo Vespucci" is known as "Américo Vespúcio" in Portuguese and Spanish; and "Ferdinand Magellan" is known as "Fernando de Magallanes" in Spanish and "Ferdinando Magellano" in Italian. True, the differences were not often great, but many of the "great European explorers" of that era are known by their transliterated names (so if a German typed "Christoph Kolumbus" into the Spanish-language Wikipedia, they don't get to the "Crist{obal Colón" page).

But what about authors and monarchs?

I went to look at the Spanish-language Wikipedia page for William Shakespeare, and it is: William Shakespeare. There is no other moniker by which he is referenced on the Wikipedia page (which I use as my easy-access translator). And so I went a little further, and checked other Latin-script alphabets, and they all called him "William Shakespeare." Even in Gaelic and Hungarian, the spelling remained the same, despite their highly distinct orthography. But the entry on Queen Elizabeth II all had the name and title always translated into the linguistic equivalents.

Okay, so what about other famous English-named authors?
  • James Joyce is always spelled JAMES JOYCE in all Latin-script Wikipedia pages.
  • Mark Twain is always spelled MARK TWAIN (and his real name is always spelled SAMUEL LONGHORN CLEMENS) in all Lantin-script Wikipedia pages.
  • Jane Austen is always spelled JANE AUSTEN
What about Classical-era authors and philosophers?
  • Homer is transliterated into different versions (e.g., Homero, Gomer)
  • Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus) is translated into different versions (e.g., Plinio el Viejo, Idősebb Plinius)
  • Aristotle (which is transliterated from the Greek Ἀριστοτέλης) is transliterated into different versions (e.g., Arastotail, Arystoteles)

So it seems that famous English authors retain their names (at least since Shakespeare forward), but names from the Roman Empire and before got transliterated (and translated when there were descriptors associated with that name). What about monarchs?
  • William I (aka William the Conqueror) has his name translated into the native version in all cases.
  • Charles I of Sweden is translated from the Swedish Karl I, and it is subsequently translated into the local variants of Charles/Karl.
  • Stephen I of Hungary is translated from the Hungarian Istvan I, and it, too, is translated into the local variants of Stephen/Istvan.
  • Al-Mansur of the Persian Abbasid Caliphate is known as homonymous versions of either "Al-Mansur" or "Abu Ja'far" in all Latin-script Wikipedia pages.
  • Ibrahim I of the Ottoman Empire is known by homonymous verions of "Ibrahim" (not "Abraham") in all Latin-script Wikipedia pages.
So European monarchs have their names translated, while non-European monarchs apparently don't, even when the name exists within a European context, such as with Ibrahim I. But then what about non-monarchical heads of state?
  • Thomas Jefferson remains spelled THOMAS JEFFERSON, despite there being transliterations of Thomas in other European languages.
  • George Washington remains spelled GEORGE WASHINGTON, despite there being transliterations of George in other European languages.
  • Oliver Cromwell remains spelled OLIVER CROMWELL, even though there are many different versions of Oliver across Europe.
So, monarchs have their names translated. Non-monarchical heads of state don't have their names translated. Interestingly, when I looked up non-monarchical heads of state on the Russian pages, their names were transliterated from the pronunciation in the original language, so "Charles de Gaulle" was transliterated to "Sharl de Goll," which is far closer to the French pronunciation than if they had used the same transliteration that they did with Charles Darwin ("Charlz Darvin").

I guess the rules for translating names of people (between European languages) are:

  1. If it is a European monarch, you translate the name to the local language equivalent.
  2. If it is a Classical anyone famous, you transliterate and/or translate the name to the local language equivalent.
  3. If it is an explorer from the Age of Discovery, you translate the name to the local language equivalent.
  4. If it is anyone else, you leave the spelling as-is.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Another example of a parent showing how little they understand basic arithmetic concepts (aka: this isn't an example of Common Core being wrong)

I saw another example of complaining about the mathematics Common Core by a parent whose grasp on mathematics wasn't as strong as they thought it was:

The "brilliant" commentary from the page is: "Imagine how confused this kid is now when teachers are telling him "Yes, you can get 10 when you add 8+5." It's almost like we are intentionally and structurally trying to make kids less intelligent, or something ..."


This person apparently doesn't even know how much they are demonstrating their lack of understanding about the mathematics they are complaining about. Indeed, they fail to even note that the point they think the teacher is making ("Yes, you can get 10 when you add 8+5") is not what the teacher is actually saying. Indeed, if the parent actually read the entirety of the explanation written in blue marker, they would have seen, "Yes you can. Take 2 from 5 and add it to 8 (8+2=1). Then add 3." (Emphasis mine.) The whole bloody point is that you can get 10 from 8+5, so long as you also understand that you will have an additional 3, because:

8+5 = 10+3


I will admit that it's a really poorly worded question. However, the official answer is actually correct, and - more importantly - it shows the application of the distributive property in arithmetic, which is a principle so foundational in mathematics that - without it - mathematics wouldn't function.

To describe why 8+5 = 10+3 you have to recognize that:

8 = 1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1 and 5 = 1+1+1+1+1


8+5 = 1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1

And this can be re-grouped in any way you want (and those ways go on into infinity if you consider configurations that include negative and non-integer numbers), because of the distributive property. One of those infinite number of ways is 10+3.

A more "algebra" way of thinking about this is to write:

8+5 = x+3

... and then ask "solve for x.

And this sort of thinking is a really important skill when you start to do anything that uses any sort of algebraic thinking (which - in modern terms - means doing almost any sort of function in a spreadsheet).

But let's look at the larger question about the validity of the mathematics in the Common Core. A lot of the Common Core math curriculum is written by mathematicians. Therefore, to challenge the mathematics of the Common Core is almost always going to be baseless and only show that you don't know much about mathematics. In other words, as long the problem isn't about a problem or explanation getting printed incorrectly, the mathematics in the Common Core are almost surely going to be correct.

However, being correct is not the same thing as being worded clearly. Indeed, to challenge the clarity of the teaching materials of the Common Core as being poorly presented or poorly worded can be spot-on, since it is rarely the case that the people who learn how to teach mathematics are actually professional mathematicians (and vice-versa). Therefore, it isn't surprising that the mathematical concepts are not always presented in the manner that makes sense to the non-mathematicians who are teaching the kids (let alone the majority of parents, who haven't sat down with mathematics for decades).

So yeah, the statement "Tell how to make 10 when adding 8+5" may not have been the best way to get people who learned the "old math" (i.e., rote learning that forced people to do pigeon-hole math) to understand or help their children how to actually grasp the powerful, fundamental number theory underlying this simple problem.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Michigan Senate passed an anti sodomy law. WTF?

So apparently the Michigan Senate just passed an animal rights bill. This would prevent people who have being convicted of animal cruelty from owning pets for handling animals for several years as punishment of their animal cruelty and to potentially save the lives and dignity of animals from these people. However, one state senator decided that it would be a great idea to also include in this bill language that would make sodomy act between two humans also illegal. In an animal rights bill. 


So what does animal welfare have to do with anti sodomy? Well either everything or nothing. On the side of everything, we have to go back to the etymology of the word sodomy. Now the word sodomy comes from the name of the mythical town called Sodom, which the Bible said was full of wickedness and licentiousness. One story that supposedly exemplifies the ways in which Sodom was the story of Lot. in the story a pair of Angels show up at lots doorstep and they are pursued by a crowd that wants to rape them Andrew Luck takes the Angels into his house and says no don't drink these angels here, take my to virginal daughters instead. Because for some reason giving your two virginal daughters to be raped by a crowd is better and more moral then just not letting the crowd attack anyone but I digress. Somehow this story is to show that this licentiate wicked behavior was against God I suppose because they wanted to fuck angels in the butt or that was the implied reason. And so we have the word sodomy which encompasses any sexual act that goes against God.
Now for many very conservative Christians this appears to also mean that beastiality and sodomy are the same thing or at least belong in the same category of being against God. We see this in cases like with former senator Rick Santorum who famously compared homosexual marriage to man on dog. When people started to say WTF, he backtracked and made it a general slippery slope argument, but the whole connection between same sex marriage and man on dog sex is a common trope in and amongst conservative Christians. Apparently this is why an amendment that makes consensual sex between two human beings in a non procreative manner is part of an animal rights and welfare bill. Because bestiality and oral and anal sex are all against the conservative Christian God.
On the other side, beastiality and sodomy have nothing to do with each other, and the term sodomy is not used because it carries with it a lot of unclarified and embedded meaning that is just plainly illegal by statute law by constitutional law in Michigan, and constitutional  interpretation at the federal level.

But who cares about that? Apparently for some conservatively Christian minded people, man's laws are subservient to God's laws, even when God's laws are not actually enumerated on points such as these, and even when God's laws specifically go against actual legislation. (Strangely enough, though, human laws in human traditions trump God's laws when the traditions and laws in question are those that conservatively minded Christians believe are good for them.)
So yes, the Michigan Senate passed a bill that in an amendment makes sexual activities that both heterosexual and homosexual people may engage in equivalent to beastiality and place it in a bill that was intended to protect animals against animal cruelty. Because one senator could not understand the difference between man on dog and human on human. Apparently the bill now will go to the Michigan House where they will decide whether they want to strip out this amendment. Hopefully, this amendment will get stripped out without much fuss and the bill that gets passed out of conference committee will also have this amendment stripped out.


UPDATE: Thanks to a friend of a friend for the specific language of "the abominable and detestable crime against nature with mankind or with any animal" from the bill. Apart from the legal position that the ACLU is arguing against (which is that this bill should have any language that links it to the actions between people struck due to such language being unconstitional), as a biologist, I have to bring up some points of contention against the other parts of the framing of this part of the bill, specifically the blatant deeply embedded conservative Christian moralizing.

What is really difficult is determining how to define what is and isn't "abominable," "detestable," and a "crime against nature," since these terms are highly subjective. Fifty years ago, a black man having sex with a white woman (even if they were married) would have been both abominable and detestable and likely justified as being a crime against nature. Hell, this is still seen as detestable by many people in the country (just ask Gov. LePaige of Maine about what he thinks about black men having sex with white Maine women). Without any legally defensible definition of "abominable" and "detestable," the perception is left to the witness, many of whom might disagree with what is and isn't "abominable" and "detestable" sexual acts with a consensual sexual partner.

And as to the "crime against nature" part, as the natural sciences have shown time and again, non-procreative sexual activity is practiced throughout nature, often quite vividly in the animal kingdom. So, even the phrase "crime against nature" cannot - by the standard of nature - apply to anal, oral, manual, or tool-assisted sexual activities. Heck, even the use of live animals as a masturbatory aide (bestiality among non-human animals) has been witnessed by scientists as has the use of dead animals, plants, and other inanimate objects (necrophelia among non-human animals).

Does all this evidence from nature about how animals engage in what is characterized as "crimes against nature" that are "abominable" and "detestable" mean that nature is commiting a crime against itself? Obviously not. What it does show is how firmly up his own arse this particular senator was when he was crafting this moralizing legislation based on his own (presumably religiosly based) perception about what kinds of sexual activities consenting human adults do with each other.

Now, none of the above is to say that one cannot legislate against the animal abuse that is bestiality. However, IMO such a law would not be based around a framing of the issue that is "the abominable and detestable crime against nature with mankind or with any animal." (As the ACLU pointed out, the "with mankind" part of the bill is unconstitutional anyway.) Cut out all of the social norms and religiously motivated language and just write something like, "The use of animals for sexual gratification by any person shall be illegal." There. Done.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Arguing with someone who sees the world fundamentally differently than you do

A friend of mine recently posted a link to a great article, "The 'Other Side' Is Not Dumb", which makes a very valid point:
What is emerging is the worst kind of echo chamber, one where those inside are increasingly convinced that everyone shares their world view, that their ranks are growing when they aren’t. It’s like clockwork: an event happens and then your social media circle is shocked when a non-social media peer group public reacts to news in an unexpected way. They then mock the Other Side for being “out of touch” or “dumb.”
My response to my friend was that there are times when the other side is actually, factually wrong, and for those cases, seeking to understand the echo chamber of factual incorrectness is - itself - problematic (unless you are conducting a psychology or anthropology experiment).

But, more broadly, I know that this sort of thing is a problem; I know that it is a fundamentally human problem in how the brain organizes and understands information. As such, I know that I am prone to this sort of echo chamber logic and being on Facebook makes me even more prone to it (especially in terms of US politics and social topics, since I am living outside the US and Facebook is one of my major sources of information about US politics and social topics). For this, I am actually grateful that I have friends (only a few, admittedly) that regularly post topics on which I differ with them. It makes me think honestly, since I know (as well as I can know) that they are not dumb, that they didn't drink the Kool-Aid, and that they aren't just being reactionary.

...but then there are their friends or their family members. You know: people that I don't know, which means that these are people whose intelligence I know next to nothing about, and who I tend to judge quite harshly based on the words they write, the reactions they have, and my interpretations of their meanings.

...and it is (perhaps) worse with those friends of friends or family of friends on Facebook who I do know somewhat through past interpersonal interaction. And I do form a sort of idea of their intelligence, and (often) recognize that they might be very good people, but that (sometimes) they don't actually take time to think beyond the rhetoric they speak in person or online. To them, perhaps strangely, I am the least sympathetic.

One example came with a family member of a friend of mine, who seemingly can never find a good thing to say about the current US president and the former Democratic Speaker of the House. (Well, perhaps they might think that something they posted was flattering, but only in the sense that it was incrementally less anti-administration than normal.) Whenever I point out their inconsistencies in argumentation or factual holes in their argument, it is never met with approval or recognition that their facts were wrong. Indeed, when I point out problems with their logic about their arguments against the government, it often comes to a point in the back-and-forth where they state the following:

"I want to return my country to what made it great. Why do you have so much disdain for this country?"

Hmm.... That always struck me as odd. I mean, who is being more disdainful of the country: the person writing anti-establishment things about the sitting president and (from 2006 to 2010) the sitting Speaker of the House or the person explaining how their arguments just don't hold water?

And I never get a good answer as to when it was in the US's history that they want the country to return. At what point was the US great in a way that is now lost (and presumably was lost ever since that black, Kenyan, nazi, marxist, socialist, muslim, ineffectual dictator was voted into office by an overwhelming majority of fellow citizens back in November 2008)? When I get things like they want to "return the country to what the founders envisioned," I ask them if this means that they want a return to slavery? Well, no, they don't. Maybe just segregation? Well, no; not that, either. What about when women didn't have a vote, couldn't get employment in almost any profession, and when husbands could legally rape their wives? Well, no, they don't want to return to that USA, either. Maybe when we had a nation-wide military draft and we were stuck in a quagmire of a war in Vietnam (which was starting to spiral radically out of control)? *Cough, cough.* No. Maybe they want to return to the Reagan years, when the government illegally sold weapons to a nation that had held several US diplomatic staff hostage, when the government sold weapons to Afghanis who would later become the Taliban, and when the government gave amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants (all things that these commenters tend to hate about current US policy)? Oh, not that, either? Seems that the whole "return my country to what made it great," is merely a nostalgic longing for a yesterday that never existed. Which is rich when you think about it, since their desire for a "return" is actually a desire to change the country into something that it never was before: it isn't conservatism at all, but merely luxuriating in nostalgia.

However, when people ask why I seem to "hate my country" because I criticize it so much, I ask them why not criticizing the faults of a nation is actually a show of love. To me, a lack of criticism indicates that you don't care about how something could be. After all, I don't criticize the efforts of those I care little about. I criticize specifically because I care. Criticism is praise. Criticism means that I expect that you have the capacity to do better. Criticism means that the potential has not been reached. On the other hand, the US doesn't need another flag-waver. Waving flags says nothing about how to make a country great again. Waving flags does nothing but serve to distract from pointing out the problems inherent in the system. Dictatorships have their whole populace out waving flags; it is not a sign of a great country.

My love for the US is embodied in my criticism of it.
My concern for the US is embodied in my criticism of it.

In contrast, I do not criticize North Korea: I condemn it, because I do not expect it do be capable of better. I do not criticize ISIS: I mock it, because I know it is doing what it wants to do.

I also do not criticize Luxembourg: I have little care for it, either way, despite the few people I know who live there and love it.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Facts about the human body. Did you find them as (un)fascinating and (un)weird as me?

A friend posted a link on his FB wall whose click-bait title blares, "23 Fascinating and Weird Facts About The Human Body. Wow."

When friends post these sort of fact lists, I often like to go through them to challenge their initial premise (usually that I will be shocked, amazed, fascinated, tickled, or some other sharp reaction). I have yet to find a list that actually I actually found lived up to its premise, and I have also yet to find a list of facts that is 100% factual.

So here's the list of the 23 "Fascinating and Weird Facts" and my responses to them:

1.The brain doesn’t feel pain: Even though the brain processes pain signals, the brain itself does not actually feel pain.

Not fascinating; the brain was not evolved to be in direct contact with the environment. If the brain actually could feel any pain, *that* would be fascinating.

2. Women have a better sense of smell better than men: Women are better than men at identifying smells.

Women - on average - have a better sense of smell than men - on average. Again - on average - women are better than men - on average - at identifying smells. Many specific cases will differ.

3. Babies are stronger than oxen: On a pound for pound basis, that is. For their size, babies are quite powerful and strong.

This is not only limited to babies and oxen. This is a general characteristic among any group of animals of a type. Pound-for-pound, a mouse is stronger than an elephant; an ant is stronger than a samurai beetle; and a house cat is stronger than a great dane. But so what? This is due to issues of scaling and inherent limitations of physics and biology that come with larger body size.

4. A higher I.Q. equals more dreams: The smarter you are, the more you dream. A high I.Q. can also fight mental illness. Some people even believe they are smarter in their dreams than when they are awake.

I am skeptical. I haven't heard of the study that came up with this result, and given the problems of whether IQ tests actually measure intelligence and the many flaws with dream recollection studies, I'm wondering how much validity this statement carries.

5. Your smell is unique: Your body odor is unique to you — unless you have an identical twin. Even babies recognize the individual scents of their mothers.

No duh. Just like finger prints and DNA. Even between identical siblings; if one sibling eats only Indian food and the other eats only Japanese food, they will have different body odors. If they grow up in different places, they will also have different body odors.

6. A sneeze can exceed 100 mph: When a sneeze leaves your body, it does so at high speeds — so you should avoid suppressing it and causing damage to your body.

Yes, this is true. But learned once, its repetition hardly fascinates any more.

7. Your nose remembers 50,000 scents: It is possible for your nose to identify and remember more than 50,000 smells.

Yes, this is true. But learned once, its repetition hardly fascinates any more.

8. Your hearing decreases when you overeat: When you eat too much food, it actually reduces your ability to hear. So consider eating healthy — and only until you are full.

Ah. This is something new. And now that I have read the blurb, it is no longer fascinating.

9. Babies always have blue eyes when they are born: Melanin and exposure to ultraviolet light are needed to bring out the true color of babies’ eyes. Until then they all have blue eyes.

This is blatantly false. Go to East Asia. Go to the maternity wards. Look at the eyes of the East Asian babies. You can go through ward after ward without coming across a blue-eyed newborn. (Although blue-eyed East Asian babies do exist; they are really friggin' rare.) I was not born with blue eyes. My wife was not born with blue eyes. Our daughter was not born with blue eyes. The only fascinating thing about this "fact" is that it blatantly isn't.

10. Most men have regular erections while asleep: Every hour to hour and a half, sleeping men have erections — though they may not be aware of it.

Not really fascinating; if you are male then you have personally experienced this, and (unless you are a solipsist or an egomaniac) you likely have come to realize that you are not a special case. If you are female, you likely don't really think about this.

11. Sex can be a pain reliever: Even though the “headache” excuse is often used to avoid sex, the truth is that intercourse can provide pain relief. Sex can also help you reduce stress.

If you've had sex in the past, you might well have encountered the many psychological and physiological benefits that sexual intercourse *can* bring about. If this is a fascinating fact, you either haven't had sex, or you haven't had sex that moved you in this manner.

12. Your brain operates on 10 watts of power: It’s true: The amazing computational power of your brain only requires about 10 watts of power to operate.

Key word here is *about* 10 watts. The other thing though, is to recognize that your brain is an energy *hog* - and that energy conversion from food is not terribly efficient. A significant portion (if not the majority) of your caloric use during the day actually goes to feeding your brain.

13. Chocolate is better than sex: In some studies, women claim they would rather have chocolate than sex. But does it really cause orgasm? Probably not on its own.

Chocolate is better than sex for some women and almost no men.

14. Your feet can produce a pint of sweat a day: There are 500,000 (250,000 for each) sweat glands in your feet, and that can mean a great deal of stinky sweat.

See comment on #8.

15. Throughout your life, the amount of saliva you have could fill two swimming pools: Since saliva is a vital part of digestion, it is little surprise that your mouth makes so much of it.

See comment on #8.

16. You probably pass gas 14 times a day: On average, you will expel flatulence several times as part of digestion.

See comment on #8.

17. 80% of the brain is water: Instead of being relatively solid, your brain 80% water. This means that it is important that you remain properly hydrated for the sake of your mind.

See comment on #8.

18. Bones can self-destruct: It is possible for your bones to destruct without enough calcium intake.

Yeah. It's called osteoporosis.

19. You are taller in the morning: Throughout the day, the cartilage between your bones is compressed, making you about 1 cm shorter by day’s end.

See comment on #6.

20. Your tongue is the strongest muscle in your body: Compared to its size, the tongue is the strongest muscle. But I doubt you’ll be lifting weights with it.

See comment on #3.

21. Being right-handed can prolong your life: If you’re right-handed, you could live up to nine years longer than a lefty.

As a lefty, I learned about this study a long time ago. It's based on correlation, not causation. Also, see comment on #6.

22. It takes more muscles to frown than to smile: Scientists can’t agree on the exact number, but more muscles are required to frown than to smile.

See comment on #6.

23. Pinkie toe: There is speculation that since we no longer have to run for our dinner, and we wear sneakers, the pinkie toe‘s evolutionary purpose is disappearing — and maybe the pinkie itself will go the way of the dodo.

Or it could go the way of the appendix. This is not so much fact as wild conjecture. True, there is no apparent value to the presence of a pinky toe, but there also isn't any natural selection pressure to get rid of the pinky toe.

So, yeah, a bunch of *yawn*, with one blatant falsehood (#9) and one general arm waving (#23). I remain unfascinated.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

How I think about the question of bathrooms, changing rooms, and transgender students in school

Looks like I am again on a different side of another social issue from a friend of mine. And potentially many of their friends and family. This time, it's about whether transgender kids can use the bathroom of the sex they identify as (as opposed to the one they were assigned at birth.) As a preface, I don't know how my perspective stacks up with that of the "social justice warrior" types which tend to flog these issues with authoritarian zeal we so often see associated with authoritarian mindsets, but I think that I can say that my perspective is likely (hopefully) somewhat different. But I want to first start with the position that one's conclusions may likely differ greatly depending on whether you believe sex and gender to be the same or different.

This is what my friend's comment was on the topic:
While I sympathesize with transgender individuals, I will not let [my daughter] share a locker room with a male. ... The school already made reasonable accommodations. If this is how public schools will work, [my daughter] will not be attending.

As a biologist, I read my friend's comment and thought, "How are you defining 'male' here, since we both know the dominant role that hormones play in determining primary sex characteristics during development and secondary sex characteristics during puberty?" From this perspective, we can see how biological sex and socially defined gender don't always match up. Given the various ways that biological outcomes don't align with strict US gender norms of recent history, there are a number of cases where a child can be sex-ambiguous, but have their gender assigned to them by a doctor at birth, only to have that designation change later in life, as in the case of intersex and hormone-deficient individuals. Neither of these cases are necessarily "transsexual" (let alone transgender), but given how little people understand about physiology and gender identity, they will likely get folded in with transgenderism.
  • Therefore, would you have a problem with your daughter sharing a locker room with a school mate who is intersex, was assigned the male sex at birth, but then developed as a female during puberty?
  • Also, would you have a problem with your daughter sharing a locker room with a school mate who, due to a hormone deficiency condition, has been taking hormone therapy since before they started puberty?
  • Furthermore, in both of the above cases, even if these classmates developed as female throughout puberty, what would your position be if they publicly identified (or privately confided to your daughter) that they were male?

These issues of how biological sex doesn't align with socially defined gender create some problems with consistency, since saying that an intersex child who was designated male at birth but then naturally develops as female *should* be allowed to use the girls locker room, despite believing themselves to be male can easily appear to be creating a double standard on sex and gender identity. True, you could make the big lift of attempting to educate the entire populace about the biological definition of intersex and how it's different from questions of transgender, but I doubt that it will be very successful. But beyond the problems that biology throws in the path of sex and gender, there are alternate scenarios that are actually about transgenderism and identity:

  • Imagine a scenario in which one of your daughter's classmates (or friends) underwent sex transition and became male (i.e., took their transgenderism into transsexualism, which is currently quite rare, but could become more common in the next 17 years). Would you insist that this classmate (or friend) now use the male changing room (since they are now male) or continue to use the female changing room (since they were born female)? (Would that answer be different prior to starting the sex change? And, if so, at what point during that transition would you insist that this classmate use the other locker room?)
  • Given the size of public schools, it is quite possible that one of your daughter's schoolmates will be transgender. Would you have a problem with your daughter sharing a locker room with a school mate who doesn't publicly identify as transgender during their school years, but in adulthood comes out as transgender? Yes, this means that there could be a student who is born female, secretly (or publicly) identifies as male, and is in the locker rooms having fantasies about their classmates, and might even imagine what it could be like to marry one of their classmates after they change their sex or marry their classmate despite choosing not to change their sex or any number of adolescent fantasies about their crushes (who they happen to be sharing the locker room with, since locker room assignment is based solely on sex).

And then there is the personal scenario:
  • Would you have a problem if your daughter told you that she actually identified as male, and was being being barred from using a toilet and changing room by other parents' unfounded preconceptions about the motivations of your child?

In addition to the above biological and conditional questions, there is the humanitarian question of what to do with someone who, by announcing that they are a gender non-conformist, automatically out themselves as a major potential social pariah. From this perspective, what is the potential benefit that an individual would have in outing themselves as a "boy who says he's a girl"? Unlike what some people might fantasize, I would posit that this an announcement that is unlikely to win you any brownie points. Even if you can win the public fight to use toilets and changing rooms that better align with your identified gender, once you go into that room, you are only going to be met with suspicion, scorn and ostracism by the vast majority of fellow students in there. Your motivations will continue to be questioned at every turn, as will your worth as a person. For the imagined boy who is going to try this in order to take a peek at girls or somehow bully and abuse their female classmates, this is a markedly stupid and shortsighted plan; he will be ostracized from many male groups and he will be ostracized from many female groups; his potential options for "sneaking a peek" at his classmates will almost assuredly be thwarted, and any opportunity he does have will likely be punished by his new gender peers. And for the girl who identifies as male? It will likely be just as bad, but in different ways. So I doubt that the majority of students who are saying they identify as transsexual are doing it for the jollies.

In sum, with the ability that we have in changing biological sex - a technical capability that is continually advancing - we are moving into a world in which biological sex can be as arbitrary as cultural definitions of gender. I think that it is because of sex transition that I think is one of the major reasons why transgender has become increasingly visible. However, in the case of children and adolescents, there continues to be a general hesitancy in going through with sex reassignment (although there are some cases where it is happening, and it could well become more common as our children grow into adults), which reduces the question to one in which individuals with one set of sex organs can only say they don't identify as being part of the larger group of people who have those same sex organs, but remain unable to do much about it until they become adults. (With a proportion of those then choosing to undergo the sex transition they were unable to do as minors.)

At the end of the day, the genie is out of the bottle, Pandora's box has been opened, etc. The question (at least in my mind) is not how to continue to enforce what is becoming a set of social norms that are incongruous with physical, technical, and (increasingly) social reality, but rather how to seek ways in which we can reassess social norms (which are - in the end - highly arbitrary) to better match the world that we are becoming, while trying simultaneously to cleave to core tenets of what it means to be who we are. And no, I don't consider toilet and locker room sex assignments to be a core tenet, just like I don't consider slavery or women not being able to vote core tenets, despite them both playing central roles in shaping the US during its history.

On the question of toilet and locker room access, my position is actually to have gender neutral locker rooms as an option for students who don't identify with the sex they were assigned at birth or by society. If you do identify with the sex you were assigned at birth, then you use the sex-defined bathroom and changing room. Boom. This option can also include people who are non-sexual, many of whom have similar levels of angst and paranoia when it comes to the question of sex segregation and toilets. Yeah, some might call this special pleading based on gender, but I agree with that argument as much as I agree with the historical argument that allowing women to attend university is special pleading based on gender.

There are plenty of other points that could be raised (including a comparison of gender norms across societies and through US history, how toilets became sex segregated in the US, or how demanding sex segregation based on birth sex actually creates very troubling outcome scenarios, especially when it comes to people who have undergone a sex change transition), but one of the main problems that I see is that of imposing social gender norms on a perceived binary in which sex=gender, despite it being more complicated than that. And as the fluidity in sex moves toward the fluidity of gender, the strict sex=gender binary of bathrooms and locker rooms (as with anything where there is a strict sex=gender binary) will come increasingly under question, uncovering the real interesting complexity of humanity that the binary merely obscured, but actually existed there the whole time. The knee-jerk response of, "not for my society!" only serves to create second-class citizens within a democratic system that is meant to protect the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority. And those are my two cents.