Friday, April 25, 2014

Why you should stop watching porn. Right now.
Since I am assuming the reader is male, I want you to imagine your girlfriend (or potential girlfriend) is in another room with a friend. Despite their quiet tone, and your lack of intent to eavesdrop, you happen to distinctly hear your girlfriend tell her friend that she thinks about other men while she masturbates... which she does, all the time, while you're away. Particularly one affluent, young, six-foot-three, former football captain-turned-hotshot lawyer with a nine-inch dick. He's so unbelievably irresistible...

If you are thinking to yourself "that wouldn't bother me at all, that's fine," I would suggest that you are almost certainly lying to yourself. It hurts when your partner even thinks about having sex with other people, and this is amplified by conscious repetition of the habit. Am I inadequate socially? Sexually? Am I not manly enough? Almost certainly not, but it damn sure feels that way. From this understanding, we're only one empathetic leap away from understanding the emotional reason why porn is toxic to relationships. This, if you are in a committed, monogomous relationship that you care about, is sufficient reason to stop watching porn, all by itself.

But it's nothing compared to the reasons Gary Wilson articulates in his TEDx talk from several years ago, which extend far beyond relationships to your individual mental health and capabilities. I'll leave the explaining to the speaker and his 16-minute talk, but if 16 minutes feels a bit too long, and you're tempted to pass it up, I'll try to keep your interest by mentioning that your sexual capabilities, physiologically, may be at stake. Yes, erectile dysfunction from too much internet porn. "How!" you may ask? Here's the video:

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Gun Debate

The raging gun-debate will no doubt escalate once more, now that the shock of the Fort Hood shooting has ebbed a little bit. This time, the conversation is reaching its point of reductio ad absurdum termination: should we disarm soldiers on military bases? If ever there was a place full of qualified individuals to safely and effectively use weapons to protect themselves, rather than wait for armed help to arrive in a not-so-timely fashion, surely a military base would at least make the list?

A good place to begin in exploring the subject of gun-control is Sam Harris' blog post on the subject. Harris himself is quite liberal on the matter of firearms, in modern political terms, and has stated that he believes people should need permits to own guns, permits that would be equivalent in difficulty to acquiring a pilot's license. But he isn't against gun-ownership at all. Au contraire, he points out that "a world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want. It is a world in which a man with a knife can rape and murder a woman in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and none will find the courage to intervene." Harris himself is a gun-owner, as is Gabrielle Giffords, who survived the attack of a man who only managed to kill six people before being stopped by a motley crew of crowd members. One of those crowd members was Joseph Zamudio, who was carrying a weapon with him at the time, but had arrived at the scene after the initial (and only) burst of shooting had ceased. It is truly a pity he had not been there from the beginning, or that someone else in the crowd had not been armed.

It is natural for people to say "I'd rather no one had been armed in Arizona that day," but this is wishful thinking, not useful policy discussion. The guns are not the cause of the violence, but merely a means. People often talk about living in a "gun culture," but consider what the alternative might be if we address the means but not the cause. I would rather live in a gun culture than, for instance, a "bomb-culture," or a "biochemical-poisoning" culture. The worst mass-killing in an American school was not done with a gun, after all, but a bomb. Taking away guns won't merely disarm good people and, by extension, empower bad people, but could even encourage violent killers to find more creative and effective means, like poison or bombs.

What are the root causes? Some people adamantly believe that violent video games are the culprit. There's a lot to be said about video games, positive and negative, but the link between video games like Grand Theft Auto and violent action in children is somewhere between tenuous and purely speculative. Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman has contributed a lot of tremendous work on the subject of psychology and killing, and like Harris, is worth reading if you want to really educate yourself on the subject, but his assertion that video games are the only thing that's changed in tandem with the rise in mass-shootings is simply incorrect.

A much more believable and demonstrable root cause is the over-medication of children, particularly from selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors, or SSRI's, anti-depressants like Prozac. "It's been well known that adolescents and young people have an increased risk of suicide when they begin to take SSRI's," writes Lennard Davis in Psychology Today. "[S]uicide is an impulsive behavior turned against oneself. But impulses particularly violent ones, can be turned against others." As it happens, almost all of the perpetrators of recent mass shootings were either taking SSRIs or were experiencing withdrawal symptoms from them.

Clearly, any conversation about violence has to tackle the over-diagnosing and medicating of children and teenagers. Most of the time, the depression experienced by boys has nothing to do with some chemical imbalance in the brain, and everything to do with our decrepit and soul-crushing government schools. Still, living in the present demands policy founded in the conditions we have, not the one's we'd like to have. What's the most effective way to curb, counter, and preempt these mass-shootings, or even smaller shootings and incidents of violence involving guns?

In addition to the observed link between SSRIs and violence, another trend is worth mentioning: every single mass shooting in the last few years except one (the Arizona shooting, among the least lethal) occurred in a "gun free zone." It's an unfortunate tendency that people who are willing to break the law by killing large numbers of people seem, for whatever reason, disinclined to obey the signs saying "no weapons beyond this point." If we lived in a world where such logic was effective, there would be no need for razor-wire fences and guard towers in prisons: a simple "no escape" sign every few yards or so would suffice. There are actually good reasons to believe that gun free zones attract violence, rather than deter it, the Aurora shooting being the best example.

All of these are pragmatic arguments defending two points: first, that guns are a good and equalizing means of self-protection, and two, that the existence of guns has very little to do with the violence and, more importantly, the fear of gun related violence over the last few decades. I've scrupulously kept the second amendment out of the discussion so far because the second amendment has nothing to do with self-defense. As many have pointed out, the bill of rights doesn't give citizens a blank-check gun-ownership right for the sake of self-protection, hunting, etc, and restrictions on gun ownership to low-caliber pistols and Joe Biden's choice of shotguns would be reasonable and legal if the second amendment had anything to do with self-defense.

Many people feel that the second amendment is out of date. As Harris argues in his piece, "the Constitution was written by men who could not possibly have foreseen every change that would occur in American society in the ensuing centuries[...]We have since invented weapons that no civilian should be allowed to own [...] the idea that a few pistols and an AR 15 in every home constitutes a necessary bulwark against totalitarianism is fairly ridiculous."

If you look closely, you'll notice the semi-circular reasoning here: it would be silly to try to fight off a totalitarian state with a few small arms, and also, people shouldn't be allowed to carry anything other than small arms. The necessary premise that must be granted is that it would be inconceivable for the United States to gradually transform into a tyrannical state. I'll grant that it's unlikely, but given recent events--the IRS's political bullying, the ever-expanding NSA dragnet, the increasing power of police forces, schools, and government generally--is it really impossible? It would take nearly religious faith to accept that. Technology changes, it's true, but human nature doesn't, and we are, in many ways, fighting the same political battles today as we were 300 years ago in Europe, and 2,000 years ago in Rome. "It could never happen here," are the words of the unimaginative and those unversed in history.

You can think of the second amendment in the same way that anarchists often think of taxes. When you fill out your 1099 and mail it off, there is no force used, but you know that if you fail, forget, or refuse to pay your taxes, eventually you'll get notices. If you ignore the notices, you'll be visited by nice people to remind you. Eventually, they will attempt to repossess your property. If you try to kick them off your land for trespass or attempted theft, you will be arrested ("kidnapped") by men with guns. If you attempt to resist, the government has deadly force at its disposal as a last resort. For anarchists, it is from this threat of deadly force latent in that 1099 that we pay our taxes. So too is the second amendment a deeply buried but always lurking last resort that can keep a government from becoming tyrannical without requiring any exercise of force on the part of citizens. Is it really so certain that we can get rid of this right to own weapons, for the purpose of inhibiting government metastasis, with no negative consequences? Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes proclaimed that the life of the law is not logic, but experience, and experience has shown that the logical first step for a tyrannical government is to disarm its subjects. The recent Cliven Bundy standoff is not a complete vindication of this necessity, but a useful illustration of its concept. As a friend of mine recently put it:

"The only reason the federal government backed down and gave in to the protesters was the fact that they had firearms. That they formed an armed guard. that they made clear demands, that they wanted a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The feds saw reason, and backed down. What would happen if those protesters were not armed? I'm pretty convinced that they would have lost. They may even have been arrested. Let's be clear, this isn't some kind of crazy call to violence. This is an observation on the true reason why Americans own firearms."

Indeed, though I'd argue it wasn't reason that the feds saw before they backed down. Like signs telling people not to carry guns or telling prisoners to stay in place, reason only works on people who listen to reason.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Crimea Revisited: "We've Made it Clear"

ABC News
President Obama and his Secretary of State Kerry seem convinced of the efficacy of making grandiose pronouncements about consequences in the realm of international politics. They first made this policy clear in Syria, and are now reiterating their "speak loudly and carry a small stick" stance in the Russian annexation of Crimea.

In light of the best intelligence of the most sophisticated nation in the world, at least in regards to gathering intelligence, the separatist movement in Crimea (which is appearing to have likenesses in nearby regions) are the result of the rather obvious involvement of Russian special forces in those regions. Such actions violate the sovereignty of the state of Ukraine in the most blatant challenge to international borders since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

As laws only exist to the extent that they are enforceable, clearly something must be done. What bold and clear defense of international law will the United States take? After all, Barack Obama and Secretary Kerry "made it very clear" that there would be consequences, that there would be a very high price for Russia to pay. But what exactly does that mean? Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin (what other state could he serve with a name like that) pressed Kerry on the subject of clarity in action. What are we going to do?

Secretary Kerry's definitive answer was that we would use "tools of the 21st century" to combat "behavior from the 19th century." He didn't elaborate on what those tools were, but I'm going to assume he wasn't going to use social pressure from Facebook and Twitter, unless of course, that's now national defense policy. It wouldn't be particularly surprising. Senator Johnson's admonition that Putin "only responds to action, and not to word" is only countered by Kerry's assertion that it has been made eminently clear that the United States will act. Just like Syria, it seems.

But this in itself would hardly constitute a crime, were it not for our president's tragic misreading of Russia's character. Both Hitler and Churchill were the successful statesmen they were (Churchill more so, thank goodness) for their ability to accurately read the will and sentiments of nations; it is what allowed Hitler to predict that France would succumb to a Nazi invasion, despite every single one of his general's protestations to the contrary. France--Hitler realized--was sick of war, and lacked to will to fight, even for its own preservation. Churchill, similarly understanding Germany and it's citizens' history, culture, and predicament in the 1920's, knew that Hitler was no laughable side-show, and posed a serious threat to Western civilization. This, before accurately predicting a similar threat from Soviet Russia on its heels. Obama seems to believe that Russia doesn't plan on continuing this expansion, first in Georgia in 2008, now into Crimea. Did he not hear Putin espouse the "Russian-ness" of Crimea, and Kiev (the capital of Ukraine, not in Crimea), and of Belaruss? Did he not hear the shock and hurt in Putin's description of the collapse of the Soviet Union, that "no one could have forseen"? If he did hear these implicit and insidious foreshadowing of Putin's plans for Russian dominance of Eastern Europe, he doesn't seem to think the problem is serious enough to warrant immediate and visible action. But the odds are high that he doesn't grasp this at all, given his public incredulity about Russia's desire for these expansions, as they are clearly "not in Russia's best interest." Unfortunately Mr. President, it isn't our job or area of expertise to dictate what is or isn't in Russia's best interest. We can only attempt to anticipate, form theories, and react accordingly.

The problem is with Obama's foreign-policy ideology and its evaluation of the character of nations and its leaders. Sometimes, people don't reciprocate kindness. Sometimes, generosity and giving the benefit of the doubt is--rightfully--thought by other heads of state as signs of weakness and permissiveness in matters of international law. Our current administration has tried its best to champion diplomacy as its primary tool, rather than violence, and it has already strained this in Iraq and Afghanistan. But here, words are empty. As Senator Johnson said, Putin doesn't respond to words, just as Bashar al Assad learned he need not worry about the big words of what was once the world's greatest superpower, since we don't have the will to follow up on our promises when they become politically inconvenient. We need action if we wish to avert a second Soviet empire with theocratic tendencies, casting a pallid shadow over Europe and Asia, but words are not real action, and "making it clear" that we're going to do "something" is not actually doing anything at all.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Against Circumcision

Edit: Based on recent revelations that the Norwegian study observed men who were circumcised in adulthood, rather than as children, and on a number of referred articles (1, 2, 3, 4), I've changed my stance to neutral on the subject of infant circumcision since originally writing this post.

Why is crystal meth so bad?

It isn't as though Walter White's product is the equivalent of pot or alcohol with more legal restrictions. Alcohol ups your brain's levels of the neurotransmitter and "pleasure chemical" dopamine by about 2.5 times (above normal), while THC, the active chemical of cannabis, increases it by around 3 times. This is less than sex, as a point of reference. But methamphetamine floods your brain with up to 20,000 times your baseline levels of dopamine. The saturation and marination of a thirty-something-year-old's brain in dopamine that high resets your body's dopamine baseline, and a healthy, sober level is suddenly far below the new norm. The result is a condition called anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure, even from highly pleasurable past-times like eating, sex, and old hobbies. Crystal meth semi-permanently rewires the brain for the worse.

There is another natural body chemical called cortisol that has a tremendous impact on our brains. Released in response to stress, cortisol changes the body's natural metabolism and suppresses the immune system, an ordinary and healthy response for an adult in a fight-or-flight situation, but otherwise detrimental to our overall health.

Our crystal meth example of the chemical rewiring of the brain is true even of people who are cognitively fully-developed. Imagine the effects of chemical saturation--even comparatively milder saturation--on the mind of an infant within the first days or even hours outside the womb. At some level, everybody understands this concept: we encourage pregnant mothers-to-be not to drink or smoke for precisely this reason. But cortisol is a powerful chemical as well. A family-member of mine severely broke their elbow in their early teens, and subsequently had seven surgeries and an extensive physical therapy program in order to regain some degree of movement. But more interestingly, and importantly for this discussion, their pain-tolerance shrank to near-oblivion. The sensation of touch on any part of their arm was excruciating, as were minor pains on other parts of the body; stubbed toes and the like.

Is it possible that subjecting newborn boys to lacerating the most sensitive part of their body and dousing their sponge-like, developing brains with a hefty dose of cortisol may produce permanent, adverse effects? The jury is still out, as the subject has (strangely) not been very well studied. But circumcision is excrutiating without proper anesthetic, which is usually not used, and the data that has come out [example 1, example 2], does strongly support this hypothesis. The more we learn about the brain, the more obviously important those developing years appear to be. From sociopathy in Romanian orphans from childhood neglect to language development, the early years, and especially the early months, of a child's mental development are crucial to their character later in life. Whether or not circumcision makes people more or less sensitive to pain than they should be--or otherwise affects their brain more generally--will have to be a subject for further investigation, as we simply don't have enough data to make conclusive pronouncements.

Whether or not circumcision negatively effects sensation in the penis, however, is already an academically agreed-upon fact. [Second study].

"But wait!" says the post-hoc apologist, "doesn't decreased sensitivity mean guys will last longer in bed? See, it was a good idea after all!"

Not only is this unwitting defense of barbaric religious prudery completely dismissive of men's pleasure and focusing oddly on women's, when the subject is the removal of half the nerves on the penis (a male organ, in case that wasn't clear before), but happens to be false as well. Actually, it isn't just false: it's backwards. A 2011 study found that circumcision was associated with premature ejaculation.

And speaking of sexual dysfunction, another 2011 study from Denmark found that "Circumcision was associated with frequent orgasm difficulties in Danish men and with a range of frequent sexual difficulties in women, notably orgasm difficulties, dyspareunia and a sense of incomplete sexual needs fulfilment[sic]." The following chart was created from their compiled results.

Hardly a ringing endorsement for the benefits of destroying part of the penis, unless you happen to be a believer in the ancient and original purpose of the practice: to curb sexual desires and habits. In that regard, it is indeed a modestly but reliably effective operation.

In the face of all of these downsides, any petty health benefit like a slightly decreased chance of male UTIs--easily treated with antibiotics, which I would like to point out are slightly less invasive than partial removal of a body-part--shouldn't even be discussed, but nevertheless, circumcision still has its defenders. "It helps prevent AIDS," they say. Penile cancer too.

While the dangers of AIDS and penile cancer can be preemptively tackled without resorting to a knife, that misses the deeper psychological problem here. Do you think these people would suggest or support the idea that women, after having their last child, should have their breasts surgically removed? Breast cancer is FAR more common than penile cancer (the AIDS-deterring effect of circumcision is marginal), and yet no such suggestion has been seriously brought to the table. The difference in attitudes over the health question--regarding the efficacy of removing body-parts willie-nilly, so to speak--suggests that these justifications have less to do with the actual medical benefits, and more to do with how people want to think about themselves. This is especially true of two groups of people in particular: parents who have circumcised their children, and men who have themselves been circumcised, because it is painful and difficult to imagine yourself as a cause or a victim of senseless mutilation. The implications are uncomfortable to contemplate for both group. But comfort is a poor guide to truth (to put it mildly), and the validity of that discomfort that should be a stronger reason for solidarity in being done with this atavistic and barbaric carry-over from the bloody superstitions of the pre-scientific ages, rather than a tranquilizing excuse for the continuation of this ritual cut.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

How the Crucifixion of Brendan Eich killed my support for the LGBTQ movement

In the last two years I've been writing, and in all of my life prior to that, I've been a staunch supporter of equality for gay couples. Not just for gay people, as some more religiously-inclined conservatives cleverly argue, as though one's sexual preference were merely a lifestyle choice, but for the affirmation that, as Hitchens so eloquently put it in his defense of homosexual relations before a jeering Catholic crowd, "it isn't just a form of sex, but a form of love." Not merely in culture, but in law.

But for all of that to matter, the law has to be respected, and culture, if it is to be changed, rather than simply destroyed, must be respected as well. While it began as a movement for that kind of humble, rational change, the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and queer) bloc has found itself in a position of political power and influence, and has turned into the very oppressive bully it once fought so rightfully against.

The boycott of Mozilla Firefox led by OKCupid and subsequent firing of its new CEO, Brendan Eich--the inventor of JavaScript--for the crime of donating a measly $1,000 to the California campaign for proposition 8 is only the latest of these exertions of new-found might. The campaigns against Chic-Fil-A, Hobby-Lobby, and various other groups with different political opinions about the definition of marriage were prominent forerunners, but I myself had an experience with the intolerance of the community that expects it the most.

While at Bellevue College, I wrote a number of articles praising the college's rendition of the anti-Proposition 8 play "8," supporting Referendum 74, and was a participating though inactive member of our campus's LGBTQ resource-center. But when someone snuck in to the resource-center and wrote "fags and homos" across the calendar, I proposed that the incident, while reprehensible, was largely overblown, and certainty not a felony, as the school was purporting it to be. Little did I know that I was defending the bisexual head of the resource center, who school officials later revealed was the only person to have used the door-code to enter the offices between the last administrator checked and left the room (with a slur-free calendar), and its opening the next day, when the anti-gay epithets were found. It was a cut-and-dry case of false-flag offensiveness, and the school found itself in an awkward position.

When I questioned the director herself and the director (who had repeatedly requested I be fired from the Watchdog for my absolutist position on free expression) sent an email to the faculty adviser over the conversation. For that investigation of the subject, along with the editor-in-chief's attempt to interview the head of security, the paper was accused by security of interfering with an investigation-in-progress. Within the fray, I received an email informing me I was being formally reviewed for having possibly "detrimentally affected the Watchdog staff," thus "undermining the educational experience." When the meeting eventually did come around, none of the original charges were actually used, but a new set, in response to a written preview of what my defense to the original allegations was to be, resulted in my termination.

It was a long case, and many parties were at fault for the confusion and hard feelings (my own probably not being the least of them), but the censorial nature of leading members of the LGBTQ movement shine bright through the smog.

These are not one-off cases, nor are they small details curling the edges of a larger, more important, and still morally righteous issue. Suppressing and harassing dissidents is the issue being decided, and the LGBTQ movement has transformed itself from the victim to the victimizer. By destroying people's lives through bully-tactics and demonizing whole businesses over the politics of its executives, they are cutting down the scaffolding that supports not only their ideological opponents, but themselves as well. Needless to say, this by no means implies that all individual members of the LGBTQ community are little inquisitors looking to squelch opposition, but the effect of the movement as a whole is moving that way, as Jonathan Rauch predicted and alluded to in his appropriately titled 1993 book, "Kindly Inquisitors." Indeed, Rauch himself is gay--a gay Jew, no less--and more recently, the gay Andrew Sullivan has been the most prominent critic of the Eich affair.

The gay movement is perfectly within its legal rights to do what it is doing; no one, to my knowledge, is suggesting anything contrary. But for a movement based on broad public support, the threat that at any moment the gang may descend upon you with verbal acid over twitter, facebook,, or the Huffington Post if one does not walk with sufficient caution upon the field of eggshells cast out before you, exerting its power like this has costs, and the lost support of people who don't like your bullying tactics is as perfectly legal--and probably more justified--than the illiberal hounding of the religious conservatives that have now found themselves in the minority. I will continue to vote for bills that give equal marriage rights to gay and trans citizens, but the LGBTQ movement has lost my vocal support. I won't show my solidarity with you on social media, and I will go out of my way to buy products from the companies you try to destroy for failing to conform to your ideology. Such a populist method of asserting your group's power is precisely the criticism of raw democracy and its' demagogic tendencies argued since ancient Greece and Rome, and it's nasty side is no less apparent now than it was then.