What I didn’t know about menstruation

Considering that I wouldn’t be here without menstruation, I know so little about it. Not surprising, I guess, with the taboos and mystery that cloud menstrual blood.

image: Sandehakari – WordPress.com

Human females are among a few mammals that display menstrual blood -others are chimpanzees, bats and some shrews. Most mammals reabsorb their endometrial linings at the end of the cycle.

Not only is menstrual blood rare in mammals but so is “hidden estrus,” or concealed ovulation. That’s the narrow window in which women are fertile. Most female mammals make it clear when they are fertile. Science writer Virginia Sole-Smith explains:

“The vast majority of mammals signal fertility through estrus, the period when females are ovulating and display their sexual receptivity via genital swelling, behavioural changes or pronounced alterations in body odour. The female human body, however, conceals this critical window. Instead our most visible sign of potential fertility is menstrual blood, which, ironically, appears after the fertile period has closed (Scientific American, May, 2019).”

It’s puzzling why humans would have evolved to hide the most fertile time of a woman’s menstrual cycle. You would think that it would be to our advantage to advertise when fertility is greatest. But no, men are left clueless as to when a woman is most fertile.

One theory of why concealed ovulation might be an evolutionary advantage is that men are kept guessing. In their befuddlement, they keep trying to hit the window. This encourages pair-bonding. The success of raising children is increased when there are two parents. What the man gets out of it is greater confidence that the kid is his since he’s been hanging around for so long.

The taboos around menstrual blood have existed from the dawn of history to recent times. In 1920 a paediatrician working in Vienna published a collection of anecdotal observations: When he asked a menstruating woman to handle flowers, they wilted within minutes. When he compared the bread dough made by several women, the loaf made by the one having her period rose 22 percent less. The paediatrician concluded that menstrual blood contained a kind of poison.

And no wonder monthly periods have been called “the curse.” Estimates indicate that up to 80 percent of women experience cramps, bloating, fatigue, anger or other symptoms just before the onset of menstruation. Whose grand plan is that?

One controversial theory of premenstrual symptoms (PMS) has been put forward by Michael Gillings, a professor of molecular evolution at Macquarie University in Australia. He got some things right.

First, to the applause of some feminists, he questioned whether premenstrual symptoms (PMS) should be even classified as a disorder. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) had been added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013.

“Up to 80 percent of women report these symptoms; that makes PMS normal, not a psychological disorder,” Gillings said. “So we have to ask, ‘Was there, at some point in history, an advantage to having these symptoms?’”

Then Professor Gillings, to the chagrin of some feminists, suggested there was an evolutionary selective advantage to PMS because it caused tension between pair-bonds and therefore might help women dissolve relationships with infertile men.

Gillings was subsequently characterized as insensitive to the suffering of women. “I was burned in effigy on five continents,” he said.

 

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Persuade, don’t malign anti-vaxxers

 

If we really want to convince parents to vaccinate their children, name-calling and vilification is not the way to go.

image: Wired

Yet, that seems to be a common tactic. You don’t have to go far on social media to find out. Here’s an example from Twitter:

Craig Levine @AstronomerXI “Let’s call #antivaxxers what they are: pro-disease, pro-death, pro child-suffering, ignorant, arrogant, stupid, fanatical, brain-washed, pathetic, selfish.”

Having lived through polio epidemics as kid, I don’t have to be convinced of the benefits of vaccination. Polio vaccines not only saved lives, it removed my fear of going to movies and school, and of going out to play.

The danger is real. A measles outbreak in the U.S. is at a 25-yar high. Three-quarters of those who caught the extremely contagious disease are children or teenagers.

Canada has large pockets of unvaccinated children. In Ontario, they have things in common:

“Those students tended to have things in common. For instance, unvaccinated children with non-medical exemptions were more likely to go to private or religious school, or be home-schooled, live in a rural area or a community with a small- to medium-sized population and be located in the southwest and central west regions (Globe and Mail, April 30, 2019).”

The Vancouver area is also experiencing a measles outbreak this year. And in neighbouring Washington a state of emergency was declared due to a measles outbreak -although no cases have been linked to B.C.

As is typical of character assignation, reluctant parents have been unfairly grouped together. But they are not monolithic say professors Julie Bettinger and Devon Greyson of UBC and the University of Massachusetts, respectively:

“While dismissing non-vaccinating parents as anti-science, uneducated, conspiracy theorists might be tempting, we find these stereotypes represent only a small minority of this population (Globe and Mail, April 22, 2019).”

Professors Bettinger and Greyson found that these stereotypes represented a minority of non-vaccinating parents. They surveyed, interviewed, and observed more than 2,000 parents to understand what causes vaccine hesitancy and how to address it.

First, despite the characterization of non-vaccinating parents as “pro-death” and “pro child-suffering,” they have the best interests of their children at heart. Additionally, they care about other children who can’t be vaccinated and who are at risk.

Yes, they may fear the safety of vaccines as a result of what they have heard from people they trust. Some lack of knowledge of the extensive testing and safety monitoring that ensures our safe vaccine supply. Sometimes their reluctance is born from a lack of trust and a perceived betrayal by the health care system -they don’t believe anything medical researchers tell them.

Some indigenous people don’t trust the colonial system that decimated their communities by purposely introducing disease.

They may live in remote areas and face barriers of getting to clinics. Access can be a problem for urban dwellers, too, for those who can’t get time off work to take in their children.

Some fear talking to health-care providers about their concerns because they’ll be labelled as “one of those parents.”

The remedy to vaccination-resistance is not easy. Trustworthy relationships must be developed. Mobile clinics with extended hours will help. Name-calling and the failure to address the genuine concerns of parents will only deepen the divide.

 

 

Recycling is broken

It seemed like a good idea at the time -throw away stuff guilt-free because others can use it. Now it looks more like wishful thinking.

image: Laura Lezza/Getty Images

Manufacturers encouraged the scheme because they wouldn’t have to deal with the mess caused by excess packaging. We, the conscientious consumers would be left to handle the flood of plastic, glass, tins and cardboard.

We rose to the challenge, earnestly sorting our trash. If each of us would just recycle, we could lick this problem. In doing so, we let manufacturers off the hook. It’s a familiar shift of responsibility to consumers. If each of us drive smaller cars and turn off the lights we can reduce global warming.

The failure of the recycling program is becoming painfully evident. Canada is faced with lecturing from thuggish Philippines President, Rodrigo Duterte, who is threatening war on Canada if we don’t take back tonnes of Canadian trash that have been rotting in a port near Manila.

It’s a national embarrassment. More than 100 shipping containers were sent from Canada to Manila six years ago. They were labelled plastics but they turned out to be garden-variety, stinking Canadian garbage including soiled adult diapers. Canada is in violation of international treaties that prohibit exportation of mislabelled containers.

More and more majority world countries are turning their noses up at our trash. China doesn’t want it either. In 2017, China announced that didn’t want any “foreign garbage.” Without China as a dumping ground, stuff is piling up around the world with nowhere to go except monstrous ocean gyres, landfills, and incinerators.

China correctly notes that there is no “globally recognized standard for scrap materials and recyclable materials.” It turns out that what’s one person’s trash is another person’s trash.

But we do a better job in British Columbia, right? The director of Recycle B.C., Alan Langdon, thinks so. He says that China’s prohibition will have little impact on B.C.’s operations. “We’ve actually been processing all our plastics here in B.C. for the last three-and-a-half years, therefore no real impact,” said Langdon, “The paper and cardboard that we are sending over, we right now have the cleanest material in North America, so we’re still able to meet standards and have it accepted by China.”

It sounds encouraging until you realize that for ten years Vancouver sent as much as 500,000 tonnes of garbage a year to Cache Creek. For the last two years, Vancouver sent 150,000 tonnes of municipal garbage to landfills in Washington and Oregon. In addition, 260,000 tonnes of garbage were burned annually.

We can’t claim to be trash virtuous in Kamloops. We risked being kicked out of the Recycle BC program last year because of the contaminates we put into our recycling containers. Last year, city inspectors found banned items in our bins at twice the provincial rate. Banned products included glass, soft plastics and food. The provincial rate is 10.8 per cent.

There is a way of reducing the amount of materials ending up in our trash. It’s called “polluter pays.” It works like this: tax manufacturers who insist on making unnecessary packaging, and use the money to help deal with the mess.

 

Traditional masculinity hinders productivity

The qualities that men need in the workplace have changed. A study of 16 professional Canadian men found that traditional male behaviour no longer serves them well.

image: Pinterest

Traditional male values such as infallibility, individualism, posturing, dominance and working long hours may have served men well in industrial settings but they are counterproductive in knowledge-based businesses. Automation has eliminated a lot of industrial jobs and the participation by women in the workplace has changed the culture of work.

Behaviour that was once a virtue is now a liability.

Even behaviour-changes in industrial settings can improve productivity. One study done on an oil drilling platform where macho values prevailed showed that these values could be “undone” once status was linked to learning, admitting mistakes, and collectivism over individualism:

“As a result, the company’s accident rate dropped by 84 percent, and productivity, efficiency, and reliability of production all came to surpass industry benchmarks.

Studies have repeatedly shown that working more hours leads to poorer outcomes in everything from communication and judgment calls to increased insurance costs and employee turnover (The design of everyday men -A new lens for gender equality progress by Deloitte Doblin).”

The men in the study worked for large businesses of more than 5,000 employees. They represented a range of family and marital statuses, sexual orientations, and ethnic backgrounds.

Four attitudes stood out.

  • “It’s on me.” Men place enormous pressure on themselves to handle responsibilities on their own. Corporate cultures that prioritize individualism over collectivism risk burning out their people and devaluing collaboration, where responsibilities and trust should be more equally shared.

 

  • “I’m terrified.” Men are afraid of failure, which leads them to overcompensate with hypercompetitive behaviour to mask their insecurity. The most ambitious people may also be the most insecure which puts their long-term performance at risk; they also set an unrealistic expectations for the dedication required to be successful in the organization.

 

  • “I can’t turn to anyone.” Personal relationships and vulnerable interactions help to alleviate pressure and fear, but men have difficulty building these connections.

 

  • “Show me it’s okay.” Men look to leaders and peers in their organizations to understand what behaviours are acceptable. Policies and programs for change are not enough; senior leaders need to role-model and reward the behaviours they want to see in order to establish new norms for people to follow.

 

Without a change in corporate culture, old values persist. One of the men studied, Lyron, says, “I will never ask for help. I will stay up as long as it takes for me to figure out how to do something before I ask somebody senior how to get it done.”

Anand says he talks about superficial things with co-workers like what they did on the weekend but never about deeply personal things: “The fact that we have had a miscarriage, I wouldn’t even have occasion to talk about. Nobody at work knew, except for my boss because I had to ask for time off.”

Businesses have been slow to integrate changes in male behaviour. Men can become stronger and more productive by shaking off the mantles of the past but it’s going to take a change in corporate values starting at the top.

 

Netflix confuses entertainment with culture

The video-streaming giant Netflix recently told a panel reviewing Canada’s Broadcast Act that “market forces” should determine the programs that Canadians watch, not pooled resources like the Canadian Media Fund.

image: Lifewire

In making this claim, Netflix is essentially saying that they will determine how to spend our money –the fees they collect from Canadians- and not be dictated by what Canadians want to see.

Netflix’s arrogance is offensive, not just because it’s paternalistic, not just because it treats programs as entertainment, but because it pretends that it’s not a Canadian broadcaster.

Netflix claim that it’s not a broadcaster is suspect. It’s a disingenuous argument considering that millions of Canadians now watch shows and movies through video-streaming. Surely, that makes them a broadcaster.

OK, maybe Netflix is not a broadcaster in the traditional sense that their broadcasts are not over-the-air. That’s a technicality. But TV stations don’t stop being broadcasters because they transmit over cable. Our Broadcasting Act and Telecommunications Act, currently under review, should be updated to include video-streaming as broadcasting.

The reason Netflix doesn’t want to be defined as a broadcaster is because they would have to pay into the Canadian Media Fund like every other broadcaster. The Canadian Media Fund produces programming that reflects who we are. It’s a modest fund run by a not-for-profit corporation to deliver funding for Canadian TV and digital media.

If your eyes glaze over at the talk of culture, digital media and regulations, it’s because there are so many distractions in the Netflix debate that it’s hard to keep track of them. Last year it was the so-called “Netflix tax” which has nothing to do with Netflix specifically. Rather, it’s a proposed tax on the entire internet. That’s obviously a bad idea because the internet has become essential in accessing education and government, not just video-streaming. The internet has insinuated itself into our lives that’s necessary for a functioning democracy.

Then there is the sales tax that Quebec and Saskatchewan have imposed on subscriptions to Netflix. While Netflix is not technically obliged to collect the tax and pass it on to provinces (they are not a Canadian corporation), they have agreed to do so.

Why is Netflix so agreeable in the matter of collecting sales tax and so disagreeable when it comes to contributing to the Canadian Media Fund?

It’s because they persist in claiming that what they sell is a product. But what they see as entertainment, the rest of the world sees as culture.

It’s a blind spot that all big American media giants have. They see the exportation of American culture as subject to the forces of the marketplace. They studiously ignore the fact that exported American culture is intended to swamp local, more poorly funded, productions.

Don’t get me wrong. Netflix produces some very good programs and is rivaling Hollywood in quality. It also produces some mundane and derivative schlop.

As much as Netflix wishes, programs don’t compete in a marketplace where the most popular ones win. The stories we tell ourselves capture our identity. While those markets are as small, they are as important as a tile in our cultural mosaic.

The rise of populism in the attention economy

We only have so much attention to give and as such, it’s a valuable resource. Everyone wants our attention: social media, advertisers, politicians, family and friends. Attention is a limited resource and technology gobbles up at lot of it; just look at the number of people glued to their screens on any street or in any cafe.

Herbert Simon image: Wikipedia

Noble Prize winning political scientist Herbert A. Simon described the concept of the attention economy in 1971. The growth of information dilutes our attention. Simon says:

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

More recently, James Williams has researched how technology absorbs our attention. Williams is a doctoral researcher at Oxford University but before that he also spent 10 years working for Google. He believes that the liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time.

Williams spoke to CBC’s Spark about the misalignment between the goals that we have for ourselves and the goals that our technologies would impose on us. Technology attracts attention that we would really like to apply elsewhere. He told host Nora Young:

“The things that we want to do with our lives, the things that we’ll regret not having done, the things that I think technology exists to help us do aren’t really represented in the system and aren’t really the sort of incentives that are driving the design of most of these technologies of our attention today (June 1, 2018).”

Seen from the goal of attention-getting, U.S. President Trump makes a lot of sense. He does whatever it takes to get our attention because he understands the impact that it has on his ratings. The content of his Tweets may be sheer fabrication but that’s not the point. His years as a TV showman taught him the effect that outrage has on tribalism. What is factually true is irrelevant.

“This is what people didn’t realize about him [Trump] during the election, just the degree to which he just understood the way the media works and orchestrated it,” says Simon. “But I don’t think there is going back, as long as these media dynamics remain as they are. In a way, I think we have to be more concerned about what comes after Trump than what we have with him.”

Trump is not interested in unifying the country –he wants to divide it so the largest tribe is his.

Research published in the February issue of American Sociological Review reveals the way Trump supporters view his acknowledged dishonesty. Participants in a study were told that one of Trump’s tweets about global warming being a hoax had been definitely debunked –that global warming is real. Trump supporters saw the tweet, not as literal, but as a challenge to the elite (Scientific American, September, 2018).

Canadian philosopher and public intellectual, Marshall McLuhan, foresaw the impact of technology:

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,” and “The new electronic independence re-creates the world in the image of a global village.”

Four decades later, McLuhan might have added: “Populism is the politics of the global village.”

Normalizing the voices in our heads

Hearing voices is often regarded as a sign of mental illness. But maybe voices are just part of a spectrum.

image: The Atlantic

Professor T. M. Luhrmann says the idea of a continuum of voices is gaining recognition:

“This is the new axiom of the psychotic continuum theory: that voices are not the problem. The problem is the way people react to their voices.” says the professor of Anthropology at Stanford University (Harper’s magazine, June, 2018).

Luhrmann has been studying voices for decades and found people with intense experiences who aren’t psychotic.

One of them is Sarah, who was only four when a “spirit guide” appeared to her. When she told her mother of what she was seeing and hearing, her mother warned: “Cut it out. This is what they put people in psychiatric hospitals for.”

Sarah grew up otherwise normal, went to college and became a nurse. She began to see souls as they left the bodies of dying patients. They often gave her messages to give to people they’d left behind. While she could hear them, she realized that no one else did.

At sixty-two, Sarah is married and still working. One of her voices, “Tom,” is friendly. Other voices, “the council,” not so much but Tom helps mediate between the two.

“But Sarah is not psychotic,” says Luhrmann, “To use the language of psychiatric nosology [classification of diseases], she has no ‘functional impairment.’ She can work and care for herself and others; her marriage is good and stable. She has never been hospitalized.”

Sarah describes the council’s voices as if they are coming from a radio which would tune in and out.

My mother used to describe something like that: voices that that seemed to be coming from a radio; indistinct and sometimes with music. She would try turning off the radio only to find it was already off.

As an electronics teacher, people sometimes approach me with what I call the “radio phenomena.” They would wonder what the electronics were behind the indistinct voices they heard, seeming to come from a radio. While people can pick up strong radio signals as a result of metal oxides in tooth fillings, it’s rare and only works with strong AM signals. I was generally at a loss to explain the phenomena but it’s starting to make sense now.

Sarah has learned to live with her voices but others struggle. Schizophrenics have traditionally been prescribed antipsychotic medications with limited results.

One grassroots movement called Hearing Voices is offering an alternative approach to medication. They encourage those who are tormented with voices to address them. It’s difficult because the voices are frightening.

Luhrmann met one man at a Hearing Voices workshop. “His voices would yell at him for hours, cursing him, screaming that they should drag him out to the forest and leave him to die in the leaves.” He was encouraged to placate them. One of his voices was obsessed with Buddhism, so he agreed to read Buddhist texts and offer prayers during an allotted hour. Within a year, he had almost completely transitioned off medication.

Rather than treating voices as a disease, a better plan might be to treat them as part of rainbow of voices -some relatively benign, some requiring therapy.

“The central insight of these methods is that the way people respond to their voices can change the course of their lives,” says Luhrmann.