Friday, April 24, 2015

Why the Free Market Economy Does Not Serve the Consumers - One Example

I've heard a lot of people talk about how, if we leave the market free and let companies compete for profits without any regulations, consumer choice will lead to the best products succeeding over their competitors. This idea has always seemed incredibly naive to me, given how many real-life examples there are of the free market economy screwing over the consumers in so many different ways.

Take one hypothetical example. Imagine there are two appliances arriving on the market at the same time, made by two different companies. These two appliances do exactly the same thing, they do it equally well, and they both sell for $25. However, Appliance A is less durable, lasting about 2 years. Appliance B, on the other hand, is made to last 10 years. Clearly, Appliance B is better for the consumer, since buying one Appliance B gives you the same results as buying five Appliance As. But will Appliance B win out?

Let's say that the first year, both appliances sell equally well - 1,000 copies of each appliance is sold, meaning both companies receive an income of $25,000. Let's also say, to make this simpler, that these 2,000 consumers are the only people who will ever want either appliance. So the second year, no one buys any more of either appliance.

On the third year, however, the 1,000 people who bought Appliance A need to get a replacement, because their appliance broke down. Some of them may be dissatisfied with how long it lasts, or have friends who got Appliance B and say it's still going strong. But others may not know that Appliance B lasts longer, and would rather go with what they know than take a chance on an unknown product. So let's say that half of the people buy another Appliance A, and half buy an Appliance B instead. That's 500 sales for each company, for an income of $12,500 and a cumulative income of $37,500.

On the fifth year, the consumers who bought a second Appliance A once again need it replaced. Once again, half of them buy another Appliance A, and half buy Appliance B. That's 250 sales for each, $6,250 income and a cumulative income of $43,750.

Seventh year, same thing. Each company sells 125 appliances, earning $3,125 for a cumulative income of $46,875.

Ninth year, we have an odd number of people buying, so let's say 1 person buys neither Appliance B or Appliance A. That gives both companies 62 sales for $1,550 and a cumulative income of $48,425.

At this point, 1,938 people own an Appliance B, and only 62 own Appliance A. Despite this, both companies are raking in equal profit, having both sold 1,937 appliances. However, it's unlikely that their production costs are the same, since more durable machines are usually more expensive to make. So, if Appliance A costs $10 per unit, and Appliance B costs $15 per unit, then it cost Company A only $19,370 to make all their appliances, leaving $29,055 as pure profit. In contrast, Company B has spent $29,055 on their appliances, and their profit margin is only $19,370 - a lot less profit.

Appliance A - lasts 2 years - $25 price - costs $10 to make
1st year - 1,000 sold - $25,000 price
3rd year - 500 replaced with same - $12,500 - cumulative $37,500
5th year - 250 replaced with same - $6,250 - cumulative $43,750
7th year - 125 replaced with same - $3,125 - cumulative $46,875
9th year - 62 replaced with same - $1,550 - cumulative $48,425
sold 1,937 copies - cost $19,370 - $29,055 profit

Appliance B - lasts 10 years - $25 price - costs $15 to make
1st year - 1,000 sold - $25,000
3rd year - 500 switched from A - $12,500 - cumulative $37,500
5th year - 250 switched from A - $6,250 - cumulative $43,750
7th year - 125 switched from A - $3,125 - cumulative $46,8759th year - 63 switched from A - $1,575 - cumulative $48,425
sold 1,937 copies - cost $29,055 - $19,370 profit

Of course, this is an oversimplified example. Some people may argue that word-of-mouth will increase Appliance B's sales after the 3rd year, as people hear that Appliance A only last 2 years and Appliance B lasts longer. But by the 3rd year, Company A has spent $15,000 and Company B has spent $22,500 on production costs, resulting in a big difference in profits already. So this effect would have to be pretty dramatic to turn around the trend.

In addition, because they have more money, Company A could start competing more aggressively than Company B. Probably the easiest way for them to compete would be to drop the price of Appliance A. If they sold it for $15, they'd still earn $5 per unit, and at the same time increase their sales - most people's buying decisions are affected more by price than by durability. Company B would not be able to fight back, because if they sold Appliance B for $15, they wouldn't make any money.

Company A can also afford a bigger advertising budget - and advertising works. If you give people a choice between a product they've never heard of and one they saw an advertisement about, people are significantly more likely to pick the advertised product. This is true even if they don't consciously remember the advertisement. So the fact that Company A can spend more money on advertising will almost certainly lead to more sales.

Sadly, there are many real-life examples of this, all around you. Buildings built in the Middle Ages, before the rise of free market economy, are often in better condition now than buildings only a couple hundred years old. My father's handmade desk and stool have lasted 20 years, while store-bought furniture last only around 5 years at most. Pretty much every non-consumable product you buy could have been made much more durable, but instead it falls apart after only a short amount of time. It's not that companies can't build things to last - they simply have no incentive to do so.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Before & After

I have now met two MtF transgender kids, not just one. But this second kid is hitting me emotionally in a way I was not expecting.

You see, I knew this kid before he came out. And she* struck me as being a lot like me. She was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome and ADHD, and I realized quickly that we shared a lot of quirks. We spent ages just talking, sharing experiences. And the two of us hanging out made me feel less alone. She even had a much-younger brother, and the way the two of them interacted (both the good and the bad parts) reminded me strongly of me and my brother when we were younger.

And I'd sort of built up this image in my head of her as a 'mini-me'. I've done this with a couple of kids already before me. I've noticed similarities between them and me, and started thinking of us as pretty much the same in all important aspects, except for that kid being younger. It's a strange and powerful connection, and it makes me feel a lot less alone in the world.

But now, I'm hit head-on with some very important differences between this kid and me. I have never felt like I want to be male. I've felt like I wouldn't care if I became a guy, but I have never even consider going by a male name or trying to get hormone treatments. And what really hits me is that, for me, this comes completely out of the blue. I haven't seen this kid in a couple years, and now, suddenly, 'she' is 'he'. He's even going by a short, gender neutral version of his (obviously female) name, so I have to learn to call him by a different name.

And yet I know that from this kid's perspective, he hasn't changed, just become more honest about who he is. And I know this is important to this kid. Back when I knew him before, I'd been told (can't remember if by him or his mother) that he had self-injured in the past, and gotten counselling for depression and anxiety. At the time, I assumed it was autism issues, like bullying or being misunderstood. But now, I'm thinking it was probably gender issues, and only he knew why he was really upset. (Come to think of it, given that he was 13 when I last met him, and it sounded like the self-injury was a couple years earlier, it probably started right at puberty.)

It makes me feel sad, that he was dealing with this all along and I didn't know. But at the same time, I have this selfish feeling of 'no! go back to the kid I thought you were! I don't want you to be a guy!'. Which I know is totally unfair.

I guess this gives me more sympathy for parents and others who have trouble accepting when someone they know comes out as trans.

* Yes, I know 'she' isn't accurate, but when I'm talking about this kid pre-coming out, I'll use she because that's how I saw him, and this post is more about my projection than the reality.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Not Just Horror Anymore

The Twilight Saga is not a good series. It has showing & telling that flat-out disagree, it sends a bad message to teenage girls about what kind of guy they should want, and its' characters just generally seem flat and poorly written. But for all those flaws, what is the biggest criticism I've seen levelled at Twilight?

That it has vampires that aren't scary. (Or not supposed to be scary, at least - I find Edward pretty scary, personally.)

This criticism comes out of a fairly superficial idea of horror - that horror is a show with a certain type of monstrous character, rather than a show intended to scare you. This mindset leads to the idea that any show that includes a monstrous character traditionally associated with horror has to be horror. And if it's not scary, that's not because it isn't actually a horror story - it's because it's a bad horror story.

But the truth is, most of the modern portrayals of vampires are not in horror settings, and that's not a fundamentally bad thing. It takes some creativity to look at a horror creature and go 'what if we saw it from a different perspective'? If done well, it can be pretty cool.

Currently, most vampire stories fall into two or three genres now. There's the supernatural teen dramas, the supernatural detective stories, and then there's a more general category termed 'urban fantasy', which tends to focus mainly on the internal politics and everyday lives of supernaturals hiding among humans. None of these types need to have vampires, of course, but vampires are probably the most common creatures in these stories.

The thing is that the vampires in these stories are intended to tap into other basic elements of human zeitgeist, rather than the elements we fear. Take supernatural detective stories. These stories are essentially serving the same purpose as superhero stories, but without some of the usual conventions of superhero stories (such as costumes and alter ego names). They're about someone fighting for good, and doing so using some supernatural tools not available to most people. This is an idea that appeals to many people, and if done well, these stories can be pretty amazing.

Supernatural teen dramas are another example. It's a stereotype, but one based in truth - many teenagers want to fit in, but at the same time want to be special. (I'd argue many adults feel that way, too.) Most supernatural teen dramas play into that, by presenting a character that seems normal and manages to fit in (possibly with some struggle), but is nonetheless far from normal in truth. How this character deals with their hidden identity, and how they manage to connect with others, either other supernaturals or normal teens, can be good fodder for some excellent character development. There's also the normal protagonist so often seen in supernatural teen dramas, who longs for something to make them special, and has their longing met in a way they never expected. Even so, these characters are often on the edge of this supernatural world, and there's the constant tension of whether or not they truly belong among these weird and wonderful people they've found.

Personally, I love these kinds of stories. They've always resonated with me, ever since I first picked up Animorphs (a story where a bunch of teenagers and an alien turn into animals to fight an alien invasion). Long before I was diagnosed with high-functioning autism, I instinctively knew I was different, and at the same time, I knew my differences were not obvious to or well-understood by most of the people I met. I didn't know there was anyone else in the world like me, and that made me extremely lonely. So, naturally, when I found stories about people that were different but looked normal, I was immediately a fan.

I think whenever we pigeonhole a certain topic to be limited to a certain genre, we lose something. I mean, look at aliens. Aliens are a common horror movie monster, but they can also be a lovable creature that some kid finds and helps to 'phone home', or a superhero who saves the world and does exciting things most humans will never get the chance to do, or a lost teenager growing up hidden among people who are fundamentally different from him. Why can't the same be true for vampires?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Not Understanding vs Not Wanting to Understand - There is a Difference

This is my first time trying to submit to the asexuality blog carnival, and it looks like the topic is nonbinary gender identities. OK. Well, just because I'm a cis asexual shouldn't stop me from writing something about nonbinary people, right?

Problem is: I don't understand nonbinary gender identities.

Admitting that is kind of scary. I bet a lot of people are thinking right now that I'm denying that nonbinary identities exist, or that I'm saying they're wrong, or that nonbinary people should just pick a gender and deal with it. But I'm not saying anything of the sort.

All I'm saying is that I don't understand. I'm willing to try. I can't guarantee that I'll understand if you explain it to me, but I'll try. And even if I don't understand it, I'll take your word for it if you say you're nonbinary.

I remember, up until recently, I didn't understand binary transgender people, either. I have always felt that I'm female because I have female bits, not because of anything in my mind, so it didn't make sense to me that a person with male bits could call themselves female. I thought MtFs and FtMs were just effeminate boys and tomboyish girls who held such rigid gender stereotypes that they assumed having cross-gender interests meant they must be the opposite gender. Like an autistic woman believing so wholeheartedly in the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism, she decides she must be a man. I felt sorry for trans people, and I wouldn't have dreamed of treating them badly, but I didn't understand them one bit, because in my world view, there was physical sex and there were gender norms, but gender identity did not exist.

And then I met an FtM kid at a camp for disabled kids. And the biggest thing that struck me about him was that he wasn't some stereotypically male character. He came across as a boy (in fact, he successfully passed as male to me until a camp counselor outed him), but as a boy with a mix of typically male traits, typically female traits and traits that I didn't associate with gender stereotypes at all. In other words, just like most boys (and girls) I've met. I'd thought of trans people as MtF prom queens and so forth, presenting themselves as stereotypically as possible as their desired gender. Now I realized that real trans people weren't like that. With my theory blown out of the water, and with a kid I wanted to do my best by, I went out researching.

And I came across a theory that made a lot more sense. Phantom limb syndrome, in amputees, is well documented. Weirdly enough, though, even people with congenital limb abnormalities can have phantom limb sensations. It's less common than phantom limb in amputees, but it does happen. Conversely, there are people who have limbs that they feel don't belong to them. And I also noticed that many trans people described feeling sensations that sounded suspiciously similar to phantom limb syndrome or body integrity identity disorder - except the phantom sensations or feeling of not belonging were focused on gender-specific body parts, such as a penis.

Now, as a psych major, I know there's a mental map of our bodies, located along the sensory and motor strips on the border between the frontal lobes and the parietal lobes. And I know that phantom limb sensations come from having part of the sensory strip assigned to a limb that doesn't exist. Now, genitalia are represented on the sensory strip, just like any other body part. (In fact, since we need such acute sensation there, the sensory strip representation is disproportionately large.) So, just as embryos start out physically female and then undergo physical sex differentiation, chances are that the sensory strip of the brain starts out representing a female body, and then differentiates between male and female. And just like physical sex differentiation can go wrong, so can the differentiation of the sensory strip. It would explain why MtFs outnumber FtMs, because female is the default. (Among intersex people, XY girls outnumber XX guys.) It would also explain some nonbinary individuals - if the sensory strip started to differentiate but then didn't go all the way, you could end up in between, like the person I met on a forum who desperately wanted to be castrated but still have a penis. I also found a case report of some people who have alternating phantom genitalia - sometimes they feel physically female, other times they feel physically male - and while I have no clue how the sensory strip can suddenly alter its functioning so dramatically, it's no weirder than many other things the brain does, and I can readily imagine how that would feel.

But I know there's still a piece of the picture I'm missing. There are trans people, and especially nonbinary people, who don't report any issues with their sense of their body. Even the alternating-gender case study I linked to reported a few individuals feeling incongruity between their gender identity and their phantom genitalia at times (eg having a phantom penis while feeling female). So although phantom genitalia are part of the picture, they aren't the same as gender identity. And that leaves me, once again, not knowing what gender identity actually is.

So please, bear with me, people. I'm trying to understand, I really am.

And I think there's a lesson here beyond my specific failure to understand gender identity. Many people really struggle to accept the idea of someone not understanding a person's identity - either as the person who doesn't understand, or the person not being understood. A lot of people act like 'if I don't understand it, it doesn't exist'. And in response, a lot of people take not being understood as an act of hostility, claiming they don't exist.

But there's a difference between not understanding something and not believing it exists. If you're willing to let go of your confidence in knowing everything, you can approach something with an attitude of 'what is that? tell me more'. And that's where learning comes from.

Now, I just wish more people would take that attitude to me, when I tell them I'm asexual.

Monday, January 19, 2015

When an Ideal Upbringing Isn't in the Cards

As a society, we generally agree that children need to have the best possible upbringing. And it's possible to look through the scientific literature to get a pretty good idea of what an ideal upbringing is like. A consistent caregiver present throughout the child's life, who has enough support to effectively manage the stress of child-rearing, is sensitive and responsive to their child's emotional needs and comforts them when they need comforting, and disciplines by rewarding good behaviour, explaining rules clearly and having consistent, logical consequences, which they administer while remaining calm.

But what if that's not an option?

Research has found a critical period for attachment, that seems to start between 9-12 months of age, and ends somewhere around 3-5 years. Experiences during this age range have a critical, lasting effect on the child's attachment, emotional regulation, and the neural architecture of their brain. Both inadequate caregiving (eg abuse or neglect) and separation from caregivers have the potential to cause lasting harm, especially in this age range. On the other hand, children in this age range are better able to respond to a change for the better than an older child would be.

So, imagine an 15 month old child, already well within this critical period. His mother has a serious drug addiction, which is making it very difficult for her to provide sensitive and responsive care to her child. In reaction, her child has developed a disorganized attachment style, which puts him at higher risk for both internalizing and externalizing psychological problems.

But he is attached to his mom. And his attachment is better than it could be - he shows no sign of reactive attachment disorder (RAD), the most severe end of attachment disturbance. He still gets some comfort from his mother's presence, still prefers her to a stranger, and feels safe enough with her watching over him that he's willing to play and explore. His attachment style is not optimal - he often seems to be in a double bind, wanting mom's comfort but also being afraid of her - but there's still room for it to get worse.

And this puts us in a tough situation. If we remove this child, we could put him into a foster home, with a foster parent who will probably provide him with sensitive and responsive care. However, since this child is attached to his mom, losing her will be traumatic for him. He might recover from his trauma and attach to his foster carer, potentially forming a better attachment style in the process, or he might not, and start sliding towards RAD. And if he does attach to his foster carer, how long will that relationship last? Foster homes aren't intended as permanent homes. Although some children stay in one foster home for years, and some are even adopted by foster parents, many foster children end up being moved from home to home. And if this little boy, who's already showing a disorganized attachment, gets moved several times during the critical period for attachment, then we can virtually guarantee that he will develop RAD.

Alternatively, we could try to get his mom to stop using. If she does go clean, her parenting will improve, and her baby is still young enough to respond to that - especially if we give her attachment-focused parent training as well. But what if she relapses? Or even gets worse? Her child may need to be removed anyway, months later, having missed out on several more months of good care in the critical period for attachment. We could end up back at square one, except with a 28 month old instead of a 15 month old. And now that he's two, it's that much harder for him to transfer his attachment from mom to a foster carer, and that much harder for the foster carer's parenting to sink in and change his view of relationships.

There is no one option that will put this child on the best road to life. All we have are different bad options, each of which could be putting the child at further risk, but if not, we might be able to make things a bit better. And the best outcome will still fall short of where this kid could have been, if he'd gotten sensitive and responsive care from birth.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Thoughts on Bestiality

OK, first of all, I'd like to make it clear that the thought of bestiality grosses me out, and I have absolutely no desire to do it myself. However, I've learnt from the example of homophobia, that just because something grosses you out is not a sufficient justification for banning it. So, I've been taking a look at bestiality lately, to see if I think it can ever be morally justified.

The most common argument against bestiality, that I see, is the idea that animals, like children, can't consent to sex. It does have a certain amount of appeal, I admit. In some ways, animals are like children. For example, my cat Lilly understands physics about as well as 8-12 month old human baby.

But there's an important difference between a cat and a human baby. If we hadn't spayed Lilly, by now, she'd almost certainly have lost her virginity and raised at least one litter of kittens. And this would have been healthy and normal for her species. Not only that, but if she'd grown up without contact with humans, she'd be living independently by now, as well as raising her kittens all by herself. She may understand physics like a human baby, but a 1 year old cat is an adult, just like a 21-year-old human. Meanwhile, her house mate Katrina is very much an elderly lady, and makes this very clear. I often feel as if she's older than me, even though I remember getting her as a kitten, simply because she's so much more mature.

Not only are adult animals adults, rather than children, but they clearly can consent to sex. Many animals will actively seek out sexual partners, and chose which ones they want, communicating their choice with various species specific signals. (For example, many female animals request sex by waving their genital region in the male's face.) Some animals are even sexual predators, who will force themselves on unwilling partners. They may not see the world the way humans do, but they certainly have their own sexuality.

Of course, under normal circumstances, animals only have sex with members of the same species. But this isn't always the case. Mules, jennies, and other interspecies hybrids are testament to the fact that some animals will happily mate with members of closely related species. More distant interspecies sexual behaviour occurs at times, though it doesn't produce offspring. Unneutered male dogs, for example, are notorious for trying to mate with human legs while the humans are sitting. Peter, a dolphin involved in an experiment to teach him how to speak, was sexually interested in the human researcher working with him, and made frequent advances towards her. I've heard a few different versions of Peter's story, arguing different levels of cooperation from the human involved, but in all of them, it's clear that Peter gave clear indications of his desire.

I would even argue that it's possible for an animal to rape a human. In this Youtube video, an amorous donkey pursues a man, who I gather was trying to poop in the field. The guy is clearly unwilling, but the donkey persistently tries to mount him. I would argue that this is a case of attempted (or maybe successful, hard to tell) interspecies rape with a human victim.

But what if the man had been willing? There is a segment of the human population who are sexually attracted to animals. If one of these people found an animal who was sexually interested in them, and both clearly indicated consent in a way that the other could accurately interpret, then what?

Personally, my litmus test for whether a sexual act is wrong is whether it causes harm. A human forcing themselves on an animal probably harms the animal, and an animal forcing themselves on a human could very well harm the human. But if we've established that both parties are able to consent, and they both do, then it seems unlikely that either is harmed by the experience.

It's also interesting to point out, from a sociological perspective, that our society thinks humans having sex with animals is disgusting, but thinks it's just fine for a human to sexually stimulate a male animal in order to collect semen, and then implant that semen in a female of the same species, which sometimes involves sexually stimulating the female as well. It seems like kind of a strange distinction to me.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

'But It's Not Healthy!' Why Fat-Shaming Cannot Be Excused Based on the Health Effects of Fat

A few years ago, my brother was a regular soccer player, liked to go swimming, and was starting to get interested in karate. He's always been a big boy, tall for his age, with broad shoulders and lots of muscle, but back then, his weight was fine. He liked to eat, but he didn't eat more than he needed. Although he wasn't super-athletic, he was healthy.

Since then, he's had a couple moves and some bullying, with kids calling him 'fat' - a label that was initially inaccurate. He's had a gym teacher shame him for not being able to run as many laps as other kids, and his high school forced him to do a calorie-counting assignment.

And now, he's noticeably overweight. He's quit soccer, rarely goes swimming, and never goes to karate. He spends most of his time inside, playing video games, and tells me he often feels like he can't go outside because he doesn't want people seeing him. He eats not only out of actual hunger, but also to comfort himself when he's feeling down - and he's been feeling down a lot.

I would like him to lose weight - not because I think he looks bad, but because his doctor says he has high cholesterol and may be at risk for heart disease. But whenever I make the slightest reference to his weight, his diet, or his level of exercise, he gets depressed. I can look at the cholesterol levels of my own snacks and substitute a high-cholesterol snack for a low-cholesterol one without getting upset. He can't. Merely thinking about cholesterol sends him in a downward spiral.

So, when I hear people say that fat acceptance is bad because fat is unhealthy, I get really upset. If being 'fat' wasn't worthy of insults and humiliation, then, ironically, my brother may never have become fat. And even if he did, I could get him to make changes to help him lose weight, just like I've done with myself.

Depression is not conducive to eating healthy or getting plenty of exercise. Depression saps your energy, makes you want to hide inside. Depression messes up your ability to regulate eating, making you eat more or less than you should. Depression makes you want to go for comfort foods, foods that taste good and make you feel a bit better, instead of the food you know is healthy.

If you hate your body, any reminder of how you look will trigger depression - an emotional state associated with lack of motivation and energy, comfort eating, and poor regulation of eating. This makes it harder, not easier, to make a positive change in your eating and exercise habits. Sure, some people do it anyway, but those people are exceptions, just like the former alcoholics who can sit in a bar with friends and not drink. It's not a tactic that will work for most people.

So if you think making fun of someone for being fat, or rejecting them because of their weight is in any way justified, think again. You're not helping them, you're hurting them. You're making it harder for them to lose weight, and you're making their life miserable.

So stop being an asshole, and try being nice instead. Leave comments about weight to doctors, who (hopefully) actually know what they're talking about, and give them a compliment instead. If you want to help them lose weight, invite them to go swimming with you or something else fun and active. Tell them not to worry about how they look or how well they can do the activity - the point is to just move around and enjoy doing it.