Saturday, February 28, 2009

Teaching Problem Solving To Kids

If I had to pick one skill that I found sorely lacking in today's mathematics students, it would be problem solving skills. And it's not hard to figure out why. To demonstrate, let me tell a story.

I used to have a pretty busy tutoring practice, and once I was hired to teach geometry to two girls who were part homeschooled, part enrolled at their local junior high. The school had provided a copy of their chosen textbook, so I went through it to make lesson plans, and I discovered something extremely odd. Right smack in the middle of each chapter was a section covering some topic in number theory, such as modular arithmetic or Mersenne primes. Those topics are cool, and the material presented was accessible and age-appropriate, but I couldn't figure out what the heck they were doing in the middle of a geometry textbook, especially since no effort was made at all to tie them into the subject matter in the rest of the chapter. Finally it dawned on me what was happening. I punched up the NCTM Standards and sure enough, the book's entire structure had been shamelessly cribbed from the Standards. And what standard corresponded to the number theory sections?

"Problem Solving In A Geometry Context."

Evidently the usual definitions of these words had been stretched to mean "problems to solve, surrounded on left and right by geometry." I just about laughed out loud.

Real problem solving is learned the exact same way as any other skill, like playing a piano or tying a Windsor knot. You watch it, you try it, you screw it up, you try it again and do better; lather, rinse, repeat. It is NOT learned by having unusual problems foisted upon you in a confusing manner and being taught specific "problem solving strategies" bald of any context in which they might be applied.

So here is Wacky Hermit's Patented Problem-Solving Teaching Method (OK, OK, it's just a list of tips.)
  1. Give the child a problem that you believe he can solve with the knowledge he's got. Affirm that it might be hard for him, but you know he can do it.
  2. When the child solves the problem, allow him to claim credit for his success.
  3. When the child asks for help, DO NOT GIVE HIM THE ANSWERS. Give him guidance and engage him in what will later become his "internal dialogue," giving him credit at the end. Example: "Mom, how do you solve this word problem?" "Mmmm, that's a tough one, son. Did you have any ideas?" "No, I don't know where to start." "OK, well there's some numbers here... what do you think we might do with these numbers?" "Add them?" "Why?" "Because it says 'find the total'?" "Very good, son! See, you figured it out!"
  4. Let the child catch you solving problems. If you solve a problem in front of the child, do it out loud. Example: "I wonder which ketchup is actually cheaper, the small bottles on sale or the large bottles that are regular price."
  5. Keep giving the child problems of gradually increasing difficulty, always validating him if he says the problems are difficult, but affirming your confidence in him that he can solve the problems even though they're hard. IMPORTANT: do not wimp out and continue giving the child easy problems. Children are smart and will eventually see that the problems do not get any harder and will figure out if you're lying about the difficulty level.
  6. Tell your child about famous problems, like the Traveling Salesman Problem, that do not have known solutions. Impress upon your child that solving one of these problems would make him rich and famous. (It's actually true-- if you came up with a solution to any of the NP-complete problems, Bill Gates would likely give you his billions for it, if the government didn't get to you first.)
  7. Allow your child to fail at problem solving and to come back later and try again to solve a difficult problem after engaging in an unrelated activity. If the child then solves the problem, see #2.
That's it! It really is that simple to teach a child true problem solving skills. You don't have to have a fancy degree in education to do it (ask me how I know!) and you don't need an NCTM Standards-aligned textbook either. Too bad people with both of those don't seem to be able to do it...

Just Eat Nothing, Nothing At All

As a parent of children allergic to milk and eggs, I am grateful for the existence and vocality of vegans. I own vegan cookbooks and shop for ingredients at stores that cater to vegans. Without vegans, these things would not exist, so I am grateful. I do the best I can to be respectful of the food choices of others, and I'm known around our neighborhood for my ability and willingness to accommodate special dietary needs of all kinds. When I prepared a medieval feast at Solstice Court, I had an allergen and kosher statement for the food all printed out.

However, this goes too far: there is now a push to reduce soy consumption.
Greenpeace took the lead in pushing for a soy moratorium in Brazil that disallowed the planting of soy on deforested land and it seems to be working. In 2008, CNN reported no deforested land was used to grow soy. This year’s reports are due in a few weeks, but even if the moratorium proves successful, it doesn’t let us off the hook from being conscientious about our soy consumption, and even reducing it.
Read the whole thing. Greenpeace hasn't yet moved to ban soy, but knowing what you know about their modus operandi, how much do you want to bet that's next? Do you honestly think Greenpeace has an opinion on what people should eat, or do you think they just take pride in telling people what they shouldn't eat?

Look, I've got no problem with an individual deciding they don't want to eat soy, for any reason. Maybe they're allergic to soy. Maybe they believe soy will shrink their testicles. Maybe they think soybeans block the reception of signals from alien life forms. I really don't care why. But for an organization with power to actively push against soy is a nightmare. Soy is a highly nutritious food, a dietary staple in parts of the world, and soybeans have properties that other beans don't. You can't, for example, make a tofu-like curd out of non-soybeans.

As we discovered when we had to take Knuckles off 8 different allergens, eliminating meat, dairy and soy makes it extremely difficult to get proper nutrition, and is second only in difficulty to the wheat/corn elimination combo. Without soy, a vegan diet is extraordinarily difficult; a vegan parent would have a good deal of trouble getting proper nutrition into her children. That is NOT something I think we should encourage. I would never want to see a parent with a principled diet have her children undernourished so that Greenpeace can feel successful for having ginned up the Next Big Controversy.

Friday, February 27, 2009

It Took 15 Minutes

This morning I took Deputy Headmistress' suggestion and made 25 phone calls. It took me 15 minutes (and during that time I served two bowls of cereal and broke up three fights as well).

Most of the calls took less than a minute (some of the Senators' offices had to put me on hold). Most took around 30 seconds. So this is an excellent task for someone like me who lives her life in 30 second increments between "putting out fires" in the house. I called all the Senators in alphabetical order so I wouldn't see their party affiliations and get unduly pissed off.

On each call I said some version of this:
"Hi, my name is Wacky Hermit and I'm a business owner from Utah. I'm calling to let Senator X know that I'm in support of Senate Bill 374. It's currently sitting in the Senate Committee for Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and I would appreciate his help in getting this bill brought to the Senate for debate and a vote."

Short, pleasant. I even put a fake smile on my face while I did it to keep me more pleasant on the phone. You can do it too-- 15 minutes! in 30-60 second increments!

Here are the numbers:
John D. Rockefeller 202-224-6472
Kay Hutchinson 202-224-5922
Mark Begich 202-224-3004
Barbara Boxer 202-224-3553
Samuel Brownback 202-224-6521
Maria Cantwell 202-224-3441
Jim DeMint 202-224-6121
Bryon Dorgan 202-224-2551
John Ensign 202-224-6244
Daniel Inouye 202-224-3934
John Jackson 202-224-3643
Mike Johanns 202-224-4224
John Kerry 202-224-2742
Amy Klobuchar 202-224-3244
Frank Lautenberg 202-224-3224
Mel Martinez 202-224-3041
Claire McCaskill 202-224-6154
Bill Nelson 202-224-5274
Mark Pryor 202-224-2353
Olympia Snowe 202-224-5344
John Thune 202-224-2321
Tom Udall 202-224-5941
David Vitter 202-224-4623
Mark Warner 202-224-2023
Roger Wicker 202-224-6253

And here's a helpful pronunciation guide for some of the more difficult names:

Begich = BEG itch
Inouye = IN oo ay
Johanns = JOE han(d)s
Klobuchar = KLOW boo char
Lautenberg = LOUT 'n' burg
Thune rhymes with soon

I didn't know how to pronounce some of these, having only ever read the names, so I had to listen carefully as the staffer answered the phone. I find that difficult to do sometimes, so if you do too, I thought I'd spare you the difficulty.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Get outraged at THIS, Rep. Schakowsky

On National Bankruptcy Day (February 10), our beloved Kathleen Fasanella put up a tombstone picture memorializing the murder of our children's industry. (You can make your own tombstone here-- do it in the name of free speech!) Some misinformed twit that managed to get herself elected wrote her a letter in outrage at this, ordering her to take it down (as if!) and citing the deaths of kids who were killed years ago by strangulation in cribs as reasons that we needed a law against lead and phthalates. I was really angry, but Kathleen urged us to be mature and not post back. She wrote Rep. Schakowsky a very well-reasoned letter, which Rep. Schakowsky will probably not read intelligently and realize the error of her ways, even if she were capable of such a thing.

Well, I'm just not as old as Kathleen, am I? So I'm going to tell you what I really think.

Representative Schakowsky can take her letter and shove it in whichever bodily orifice will give her the most pleasure.

Yeah, kids sometimes die by accident, and sometimes by poor design. It's a tragedy. But CPSIA is killing the country I love, the country my great-grandparents saved up all their pennies and got on boats to come to so that ALL their children could have the chance to make it in the world. When you have to consult a lawyer before you hold a church benefit sale, YOU ARE NOT IN AMERICA. When you live in fear that some rogue group of logically-impaired self-appointed safety nannies who have the ear of the powerful are going to take you down for selling pewter crosses, YOU ARE NOT IN AMERICA. When your customer wants you to add non-slip fabric to the soles of their custom toddler booties and you have to advise her to do it herself because you haven't had such fabric tested, YOU ARE NOT IN AMERICA. The Founding Fathers would be turning over in their graves if they saw how their carefully crafted republic had been perverted into a country where the people don't have a say, unless they're the right kind of people, in which case their word literally becomes law.

The America I knew and loved died the day I discovered that nobody in Congress was ever going to listen to us because we aren't with a prominent organization.

The America I knew and loved died the day I realized that our representatives don't give a flying fig newton what the American public thinks, as long as they keep getting invited to all the best Washington parties.

Benjamin Franklin famously said "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." The America I knew and loved just gave up a hell of a lot of liberty for no marginal increase in safety. What does that tell you about Rep. Schakowsky and all her Washington buddies? If she doesn't deserve either liberty or safety, why the hell would anyone think she deserves my respect?

Stuff THAT in your pipe and smoke it, Rep. Schakowsky.

OK, OK. My mom reads my blog and I'm sure I'm soon going to get an email telling me to be nice.

PLEASE stuff THAT in your pipe and smoke it, Rep. Schakowsky.

There, Mom, I was nicer!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Happy Birthday Knuckles

Knuckles is now 3 years old!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

In My Happy Place: Making A Corset

READERS NOTE: This post is about things that some people might find to be TMI. If you are one such, please skip this post.

I am in my happy place now. I am making a Renaissance corset. There's nothing more "uplifting" than looking down and seeing the two "girls" smiling at you in true 15th century fashion.

I drafted the pattern and I have all the materials except the boning. I decided to bone it with basket reed, because I just didn't think dress boning, hemp cord, or heavy duty tie wraps were up to the job. Anyone who's ever seen me from the waist up knows that this corset is going to have to be a major feat of engineering, on a par with a suspension bridge. Whatever I bone it with has got to be able to take the weight and remain stiff enough to keep the bust suspended in mid-air.

I made a 19th century corset before, and it was great, but I made a few mistakes. First, I was extremely poor and so I boned it with scraps of plexiglass that I got for free at Home Depot. Plexiglass is too brittle to use as corset boning, and the first time I bent over to pat a kid on the head it snapped at the waist. Second, I was in a hurry and I didn't fit it very well to my short waist, so it dug in whenever I sat down. But other than that, it was great! I got uplift and separation superior to any modern bra. Separation is kind of important to me because most bras nowadays for my size achieve a "uniboob" effect-- one large mass with two little bulges in front.

Renaissance corsets don't do separation, they do extreme uplift. Any separation you get comes well above the top of the corset, where everyone can see it. I know, I know, I shouldn't go pointing those things at people. It makes women jealous of me and men jealous of FH. It spreads marital discord by reminding everyone that they are NOT married to me and thus this tempting glimpse is all they're ever going to see. But I justify it all by saying that it is for the sake of Historical Accuracy. I do it purely as an academic exercise. Yeah, that's it. It's for Science. And The Children.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

50% Off Sale

I don't usually mix business with pleasure on my blog, but I'm making an exception today because I've gotta pay some bills. I've got all my booties half off in my Etsy shop and my online shop. So if you're looking for some really cute, CPSIA compliant (till August) baby gifts, mosy on over there and get yourself some while the gettin's good! I'm also offering a wholesale deal: any 10 pairs of booties for $70 (additional pairs also get the discount price). I have my GCCs in downloadable PDF format for my customers' convenience.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sister Hears Back From Rep. Bishop

My sister got this letter back from Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT). Add this one to the boilerplate "concern" letters, but at least Rep. Bishop said he'd support changes to CPSIA.


Dear [Wacky Hermit's Sister]:

Thanks for your letter. I've heard from several people in Utah who are
similarly concerned about the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, and
the impact it might have on small businesses, thrift stores, and
individuals who make toys and sell them to their friends or other

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was intended to tighten the
safety standards on some children's products--specifically those being
imported from China that contained dangerous amounts of lead. I didn't
intend it to place a burden on small businesses, but this is what happens
when the government acts hastily based on the emotion of several tragic

Fortunately, thousands of people like you have contacted the Consumer
Product Safety Commission with these concerns. The Commission has felt
that pressure and has begun a rulemaking process to decide how to
implement the law. Also acting under public pressure, several members of
the Energy and Commerce Committee--the committee with jurisdiction in this
area--have sent a letter to the Consumer Product Safety Commission urging
them to exempt certain products from the testing and certification
requirements of the law. Specifically they've asked that children's books
and children's apparel be exempted since neither books nor clothing would
ever have any reason to contain excess amounts of lead or other dangerous

I'm hopeful the Commission will follow this guidance and that the major
concerns with the law will be resolved before February 10th. I'll
continue to monitor the CPSC and hope they will protect small businesses.

I am also willing to vote for a repeal of this law so that Congress can
re-work the issue and this time get it right. You should know, though,
the sponsor of this bill doesn't think his bill is hurtful or wrong, so
our best hope is with CPSC rules.

Thanks again for your letter.


Rob Bishop
Member of Congress

Monday, February 16, 2009

Dream Gardens

This year our family goal is to plant a garden. I used to plant a garden, but when I got pregnant with Bagel it was too difficult to plant that spring, so I didn't plant anything. The following year we moved so I didn't plant a garden-- I knew I wouldn't be there to harvest it. And since then I've either been too pregnant, too tired, or working too hard to prepare a spot in our yard for gardening. I've had a couple of herb plants and some sunflowers, but nothing really worked out. (We harvested the sunflower seeds and I roasted them, but then the kids spilled them all on the dirty floor and that was the end of it.) But FH decided he wanted in on the garden this year, so since he's willing to help, garden it is!

I know what I want to plant, but I wanted to plant something the kids would want too, in order to interest them in tending the garden. So we sat down with the Gurney's seed catalog and several sheets of cardstock, and I had them look through the catalog and make collages of all the plants they wanted. Knuckles likes corn, corn, and corn. Bagel picked cilantro and blueberries. Sonshine likes potatoes and daylilies. And Princess likes roses, passion flowers, and pomegranates.

Now that I have the information, I'm not sure what to do with it. Daylilies, corn, and cilantro we can handle, but passion flower is tropical, and I don't know if I can tend roses. Still, it's fascinating to see what the kids pick for their dream gardens.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Another letter to Congress

Here is my latest letter to Congress. I intend to send it to several Congress members, but I'm sending it first to Rep. Waxman.

This morning Sonshine was outraged about CPSIA, so I encouraged him to write a letter to lawmakers about it.


The Hon. Rep. Henry Waxman
2204 Rayburn H.O.B.
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Rep. Waxman,

You are breaking the heart of an 8 year old boy.

Attached is a letter my son Sonshine wrote you. This morning he discovered two things that upset him. The first is that I just can’t afford to take on the liability of helping him sell his collection of Nerf guns, because of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. He’s painstakingly searched shelves of thrift stores accumulating this collection, and now he wants to sell it to raise money to buy new toys. But because I don’t know what the lead levels are in the guns, I don’t feel comfortable selling them on eBay, where they might sell to someone in a state where the Attorney General is looking for an easy CPSIA technical violation case to prosecute to prove their “for the children” bona fides. I told him he could sell them locally because I know our state Attorney General has better things to do than prosecuting people who sell untested toys, but I just cannot take the chance that I might sell the toy to a state like Illinois or California where the laws are even stricter than CPSIA, or a state like Connecticut where the Attorney General has publicly stated that he’s interested in fully enforcing CPSIA despite the CPSC’s one year stay of enforcement.

The other thing my son discovered that broke his heart is that one of his favorite books is now contraband. He has a well-beloved copy of The Merry Adventures Of Robin Hood that belonged to his great-grandfather. It was published in 1952, well before the CPSC’s 1985 cutoff date for saleable books. Before 1985, lead might have been used in the inks, so no one can buy, sell, or give away books published before 1985. Evidently when you passed this law, you were afraid he would eat or lick the book. My son is almost 9; the only things he eats and licks are food. It’s ironic, that I’m now in possession of an outlawed book about a famous outlaw.

Rep. Bartlett has proposed legislation, H.R. 968, which has been passed to your committee. I urge you to do right by my son and by me, and pardon Robin Hood by allowing this legislation to come to a vote. Don’t forget: the Sheriff of Nottingham—the one who strictly enforced unreasonable law-- was the villain, not the hero, of the story.

Wacky B. Hermit


Here's what Sonshine wrote (first draft; I may have him write a 2nd draft):

dear Lawmakers

my mom says that It is to dangeus. to sell my old toys on ebay. becose your law. I am 8 years old. and I do not like your law. I liked to read robenhood. and it is illgeal. so please stop the law It is my grate grampas book.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Safe Homes for Infants & Toddlers Act

You heard it here first: there is a sequel to CPSIA in the works. I'm calling it the Safe Homes for Infants & Toddlers act, and I endorse it wholeheartedly.

Retroactivity under CPSIA doesn't go far enough. Sometimes parents don't sell or give away their child's used toys, clothing, books, and care items; they save them for their future children and sometimes their grandchildren. It's not unheard of for so-called "heirlooms" and "hand-me-downs" to be in families for 20 years or more. Safe Homes for Infants & Toddlers would ban this practice so that not only will lead-ridden toys, clothing, and books be removed from retail and thrift stores, they will also be removed from homes!

But how, you ask, will we enforce a law that requires parents to buy all new stuff for their kids? Easy-- we will send CPSC inspectors into people's houses! How will we know parents are using stuff that's too old? Neighbors! Neighbors know everything. If they see you come home with a baby and not a crib, they'll know to turn you in. But, you object, how will we overcome the simple fact that there are millions of homes with children in them and only a hundred CPSC inspectors? That's a piece of cake-- we'll use mathematics! Applying the highly technical concept of a p-adic metric, we can definitively state that this will be a sufficient number of inspectors. The use of p-adic metrics in politics is not new; a similar metric is being used right now to prove that the new stimulus plan will not lead to massive inflation.

Another drawback of CPSIA is that it only bans lead and phthalates. Safe Homes for Infants & Toddlers goes even farther-- it bans boron, germanium, and elements 57 through 71 (also known as the lanthanoids). The first two are to be banned because nobody ever needs them anyway*; the lanthanoids have been proven to react violently with most nonmetals, and who thinks violent reactions are something we should model for our kids? These elements are required to be expunged from all extant copies of the Periodic Table of the Elements as well, for safety purposes.

Ultimately, I hope the Safe Homes for Infants & Toddlers act will make things safer for all our children. If you don't believe more regulation can make our kids safer, then you don't know S.H.I.T.!

* I fully expect to receive objections from uninformed "mommy bloggers" telling me that boron is found in Borax, which is used as a cleansing and deodorizing agent for homes and cloth diapers. To which I respond, "Who wants to wash cloth diapers anyway, you granola-crunching freaks?" Besides, Borax is not the same thing as boron. Boron is an element, while Borax comes from grocery stores; everybody knows that.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Too Funny

Iowahawk has some really nice math humor today:
PALO ALTO, CA - An international mathematics research team announced today that they had discovered a new integer that surpasses any previously known value "by a totally mindblowning [censored]load." Project director Yujin Xiao of Stanford University said the theoretical number, dubbed a "stimulus," could lead to breakthroughs in fields as diverse as astrophysics, quantum mechanics, and Chicago asphalt contracting.

"Unlike previous large numbers like the Googleplex or the Bazillionty, the Stimulus has no static numerical definition," said Xiao. "It keeps growing and growing, compounding factorially, eating up all zeros in its path. It moves freely across Cartesian dimensions and has the power to make any other number irrational."
Read the whole thing, it's freakin' hilarious! And don't forget to go all the way to the end, where "According to the exit polls, President Obama carried the Imaginary vote 346% to √-12%."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

CPSIA By The Numbers: Libraries

Esther over at Design Loft has crunched the CPSIA numbers for libraries:

Total library inventory: 34,668
Total est. juvenile inventory: 10, 601
Percentage of juvenile inventory: 31%

Estimate of inventory pre-1985: 75% or 7951 units

Now if we have to test pre-1985 inventory at $500/book: $3,975,375

Now, I am assuming we will have to do the certified laboratory testing for several reasons. The testing costs were not included in the yearly budget, so we would have to reopen it and appropriate funds to pay for it. It is a lengthy, messy process to add to the budget, so money realistically won't be available until Oct 1st, long after the certified lab testing goes into effect. Next, we would need to pay staff to go through all of the shelves and box up the books. Oh yeah, and pay for the boxes and ship them to a certified lab clear across the country. Did I mention this library is in rural Idaho? Shipping costs alone will kill us. The testing costs exceed the entire city budget, btw.

It is unlikely that the city will appropriate funds for testing. That leaves us with throwing out 75% of our juvenile section and replacing those books. We would still need to estimate close to $4 million dollars for replacement costs, if replacements can be found on all the titles. Plus we would need to pay staff to sort, box up/throw out books, buy replacements, and process them. And did I mention books are heavy. I would love to see a garbage truck pick up our trash can loaded up with books! Of course, if they are banned hazardous substances, we can't just throw them in the dumpster. We would need a hazardous materials removal specialist to do that....

And really, this starts to become silly. We don't regulate what books or audio visual materials a child can checkout. This brings our entire collection of 35,000 items under suspicion. What will the kids read while we are in the process of removing, testing, replacing thousands of books?

So our realistic choices are:
1. Shut down our children's section, or
2. Ban kids 12 and younger from the library.

Not so realistic considering how popular our library is with kids.

BTW, the hottest new read is 1984 by George Orwell. I think it would be good to send our Congressional Representatives a copy, just make sure it is printed pre-1985.
Read the whole thing here. Cross-posted at Endangered Whimsy.

National Bankruptcy Day: Five Things I'll Miss

Dana of Whimsical Walney requested that in commemoration of today, National Bankruptcy Day, all bloggers list five things they'll miss now that CPSIA has put them in jeopardy. Here's my list.

  1. Thrift Store Pants. Sonshine has a reputation for rapidly tearing out the knees of his pants. It is such a formidable reputation that new pants still in the bag, on finding out that they are destined for Sonshine's drawer, will rip out their own knees in despair. We haven't had to buy him a pair of shorts in years; we just finish the job he started and add a hem. New pants seem to last no longer than used pants, so there was never much point in buying him new ones. I guess now that thrift stores won't be carrying anything with metal parts like rivets and snaps, we'll have to buy him new ones.
  2. Adorable Cloth Diapers. I have to admit I've always leaned toward the sterile, bleachable, venerable white cloth diaper. But my kids prefer the cute ones with duckies and dogs and such. Knuckles is always asking for his "animals" diaper covers. If I had the money right now, I'd be demoting his worn-out, fraying hand-me-down "butt rags" and getting him some nicer WAHM-made diapers-- before they become completely unavailable.
  3. Trading For Stuff. I'm known on Etsy as a "trading slut"-- I'll trade with anyone. When I get something I think Princess would like, I give it to her. When we do craft shows or farmer's markets, I let her negotiate a trade of her own, usually for a cute little toy or some children's jewelry. Too bad those things will be too much of a liability to even bring to craft shows.
  4. Cottage Industry. Harnessing the part-time power of people who can't hold down traditional jobs improves our nation's productivity-- and as we know, increasing productivity means increasing wealth. Complicated, expensive regulations like CPSIA drive out cottage industry. I don't know about you, but I rather liked that my great-grandparents had chosen the wealthiest nation in the world in which to raise their progeny. With wealth come luxuries like medical care for non-life-threatening conditions like autism, and food buying options for conditions like food allergies.
  5. Government I Could Believe In. I used to think that while government would bumble around, it would eventually come to something approximating a good solution. I used to think that while Democrats and Republicans disagreed on how to make our country a land of liberty, they both shared the same goal. I no longer believe that. Oh, I still believe they share the same goal-- I just think the goal is to preen themselves and get invitations to all the best Washington parties. They talk a good game at re-election time, but between elections they don't give a flying fig newton about peons like you and me.

Monday, February 09, 2009

CPSIA By The Numbers, Part 3: Scary Sounding Chemicals

This is part 3 in a n-part series called "CPSIA By The Numbers". Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. This series is also being cross-posted to Endangered Whimsy. Today's installment is more of a science post than a math post, I'm afraid; the next one will have more numbers, I promise. I went off on a bit of a tangent and it seemed better as its own post than when I tried to integrate it into the next batch of numbers.


Boy, it sure seems like it's a dangerous world out there for our kids. Why, any number of dangers lurk all over the house, just waiting for the chance to grab our innocent children by the ankles and make them DIE. Right? Right???

And yet, we find that unprecedented proportions of children somehow make it to adulthood unscathed. How is that possible when we hear on the news about the incontrovertible scientific proof of the latest boogeyman coming after our kids?

One thing that I've noticed about human beings is our tendency to completely misjudge risk when we aren't actively thinking about it. We'll strap our child onto a wheeled hulk of metal and machinery and hurtle 80 miles an hour down the road to go buy organic produce for her to eat. We'll drink diet soda with our super-sized double-bacon-and-heart-attack cheeseburger. We'll use the potty, reach for the sink knob, turn on the sink and wash our hands with the latest antibacterial soap, and then with our newly clean hands touch the exact same knob to turn the sink off. People have a natural affinity for straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel whole. It's part of being human, and it's why turning to numbers to quantify risk is always a fascinating exercise.

Here's how the exercise typically goes: scientists will do a study, only to have a science reporter (usually defined as a person who got better grades in English classes than in Science classes) misreport their results. Science asks good questions, but a lot of the time, scientific research results in the answer, "We just don't know." "Scientists Did Study, Still Don't Know Squat" is not a very sensational headline, though, so it usually gets jazzed up a bit, into something like "Scientists Study Potentially Deadly Toxin," with the story going on to suggest that they just haven't found anything bad about it... yet. Misunderstandings like these are why so many people believe in "toxins"-- while "toxin" is a broad term for anything that can be poisonous, it is more often used as a sort of modern-day version of "demon". Toxins: they're in everything around you-- and only righteous actions can fend them off!


So how can we know if something is actually bad for us?

First, we can start by ignoring rhetoric. Take it from someone who teaches people how to do it: you can "spin" the facts to make the most innocuous things sound bad. Watch as Penn and Teller get people to sign a petition against water, merely by calling it by the scarier-sounding name "dihydrogen monoxide" and giving some highly spun facts about it, such as that it's in every river, stream, lake, and ocean, and that hundreds of people a year die from accidental inhalation of it. You can read more horrible-sounding dihydrogen monoxide facts here. You may notice how similar they are to the scary rhetoric about phthalates.

Second, we can start by understanding the limitations of science. An experiment is set up with two hypotheses, or possible explanations. The "default" explanation, that random chance caused the thing you're investigating (English translation: "stuff happens") is called the null hypothesis and the thing you're trying to prove is called the alternative hypothesis. You either prove or fail to prove your alternative hypothesis with statistical certainty; you can't disprove it. Failure to prove is different from disproof in that failure to prove tells us nothing, while disproof tells is the hypothesis is false. So suppose we set up an experiment where the null hypothesis is that random chance is responsible for a reproductive defect (such as the epidemic of missing testicles among male members of Congress) and the alternative hypothesis is that phthalates are responsible for this defect. This experiment will either prove phthalates are responsible, or will tell us nothing. It cannot exonerate phthalates. That is why you will not find a single study showing that phthalates do not cause harm. However, if you see several studies with similar hypotheses, and none of them shows phthalates causing harm, it's pretty safe to conclude that phthalates don't.

One other limitation of scientific studies has to do with the sample that is studied. I could study a sample of children, for example, and conclude that 50% of all children in the U.S. have Asperger's Syndrome and the other half have food allergies, but I'd be soooo wrong because (a) my "sample" consisted entirely of my own kids and (b) there were only four of them. As a general rule, samples are more effective the larger they are and the more randomly selected they are. So when you see a study, look carefully at the sample size and the way it was selected. True random sampling isn't done due to consent issues, but think about who would volunteer for a study, and draw your own conclusions. When I was in college they used to advertise in the student paper for volunteers for various studies; they'd pay us $10 to push buttons with wires stuck to our heads for an hour. What college student would turn down an easy $10... and what professional wouldn't? If you didn't suspect you had a problem, or you didn't need the money, would you volunteer for a study?

Third, we can weigh scientific evidence and news rhetoric along with what we see with our own eyes. Headlines are constantly trumpeting new dangers to kids, but look around you. Are kids safer and healthier than they used to be? If 90% of carseats are indeed improperly installed, as is so often cited, how come kids seem to be safer in car accidents than they were back when carseats were easier to install? If phthalates cause reproductive harm to boys, and they've been around since the 1930's, and they're in everyone's bodies and all our rivers, how come the vast majority of men seem to have, ahem, no problem using their reproductive systems? Don't be afraid to ask those kinds of questions; give in to your inner scientist!

Observe your own world. When you hear that babies who get all lotioned up have elevated levels of phthalates, don't jump to "OhMyDeityOfChoice, GET THE LOTION OFF MY CHILD!!!!" And definitely don't jump to "I'll just switch to Super Eco-Organic Lotion because it's made with all natural ingredients, and it says 'Toxin Free' on the label!" Think instead, "Gee, all my brothers and sisters got lotioned up as babies, and judging by their own kids, looks like their reproductive systems did just fine. How bad are these phthalate things anyway?"

Finally, we must weigh the costs against the benefits. Phthalate exposure in utero has been shown to reduce anogenital distance in males (that's how far of a hike it is between the "waste disposal plant" and the "recreation area"), but phthalates are found in medical devices that save the lives of expectant mothers and their babies. Think it'd be worth losing those lives to try to make the average boy's perineum longer? Lead in bicycle tire valve stems makes them easier to machine. If a child's bike is taken away from him, he loses an opportunity for fun, safe exercise and for learning responsibility. Is losing the minuscule chance that your child might get lead poisoning on the off-chance he decides to eat his bike tire worth the consequent obesity and dependency that will be fostered in your child? Are you willing to pick weevils out of your flour bin and tend your friend who's ill with malaria in order to eliminate pesticides and preserve wetlands?

Imagine what a wonderful world it would be if all the evil "toxins" were exorcised... but afterward ask yourself, "And then what?" What would we be forced to sacrifice to achieve such millennial perfection? Anyone who answers that nothing would have to be sacrificed is selling something. It is an unbending law of the universe that there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Brag Time

FH just accomplished something they said was impossible: He and his team simulcast Stake Conference at two different buildings. (Translation for the non-LDS: a stake is a group of "wards" or congregations.)

Our stake is getting too large (and will probably be split into two stakes), so the decision was made to have our semiannual Stake Conference in two sessions. But rather than record it at one session and play it back at the other, the decision was made, with just three weeks to go, to attempt simulcasting it live at two locations. FH and his team of dedicated volunteers, including a friend with broadcast TV experience, spent hours jury-rigging a system of computers they borrowed and FH's video equipment, and they simulcast the entire two-hour conference via the internet.

I just wanted to take this moment to assure that everyone knew I was married to the world's greatest computer networking genius, even though it's so not fair to the rest of you women (and gay men) who don't get to sleep next to such a handsome and studly person and will now be totally jealous of me.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Photographic Memory

FH's mom is the most devoted shutterbug I've ever known. She insisted on photographing and videotaping my father-in-law's funeral, and the rosary held the day before. FH loves to take pictures too.

Years ago, FH couldn't make it to Princess' preschool graduation, so he asked me to take pictures of it for him. As we neared the end of the presentation, it occurred to me that I'd spent the entire event watching my daughter through the viewfinder, waiting for the perfect shot, wishing she'd move a little to the left or that the kid behind her would quit picking his nose or that Sonshine would stop pulling on my arm. And I realized how pathetic it was. My daughter was important; a picture was just nice to have. And yet I was valuing taking a picture of my daughter above being there to enjoy my daughter, to have her see me looking at her and smiling with pride instead of frowning with frustration with my eye behind a camera. From that day on I vowed that I'd put living my life before recording it for posterity. What good was it to record me posing for the camera, over and over and over? That's not what my life is about.

There is a time and a place for pictures. But sometimes I wonder if we spend so much time trying to record our lives that we forget to actually live them.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Hit NRDC Where It Hurts

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) won their lawsuit yesterday to make the phthalates ban in CPSIA retroactive. With less than a week to go until Feb. 10, this "win" will cause major disruptions in supply for all kinds of baby feeding and care items.

Would you like to help get the NRDC back for what they've done?

NRDC is giving away onesies in exchange for donations to their lovely cause. If you donate $1, this will cost them money. Plus, you will get a onesie that you can submit for lead testing. If it fails, we can report them to their state's Attorney General for being in violation of CPSIA. Also, I and several others have requested that they provide a copy of their General Conformity Certificate (GCC). Their organization has claimed all along that the testing required to produce a GCC is neither onerous nor expensive, so surely they've had it done already... especially since they were the ones suing to make all the bans retroactive.

Cross-posted to Endangered Whimsy.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

CPSIA And The Stochastic Approach

This is Part 2 of my series, CPSIA By The Numbers. Part 1 is here. This series is also being cross-posted to Endangered Whimsy.

Searching for certainty is an entirely noble human endeavor. We long for the days when we were younger, when Mom or Dad could hold us in their arms and we would know we were safe. As we become adults, we venture out into the cold, uncertain world, and eventually we learn to live there by sticking to the course we feel most likely to bring a good outcome.

Groups like Consumer's Union seem to me to be taking an immature approach to the problem of lead in children's products. They wanted CPSIA because they believed it would make us safe from all lead, forever. Like little children, they wanted Mommy and Daddy Congress to make it all go away, and they are mad at that bad bad lady Nancy Nord for not doing what Mommy and Daddy said. If only Congress had that power. Congress has the power to make laws, but they do not have the power to make people 100% safe. Even if CPSIA is fully implemented, we will not be 100% safe from lead. Setting aside the fact that most lead exposure comes from lead in house paint, let's take a look at why this is.

We are going to use what nerds like me call a "stochastic," or probability-based, approach. Probability is the most counter-intuitive branch of mathematics, so I'll do my best to explain this approach in layman's terms.

Suppose a clothing manufacturer, let's call him Ben, buys 10,000 metal snaps from a snap manufacturer, Jessica. Ben wants assurances that Jessica's snaps are CPSIA compliant to the 100ppm standard. So Jessica pulls out her XRF gun and tests 100 snaps (that's 1% of the snaps), and they all test around 60ppm, near but under the lead content limit.

Ben and Jessica now both believe all 10,000 snaps are compliant, but there's something they don't know. Due to random fluctuations in the lead content of the snaps, 200 of the 10,000 snaps exceed 100ppm. Neither Ben nor Jessica can know this, because they have no way to know without testing all the snaps. Now, if Jessica wants absolute certainty, she can test each and every one of the 10,000 snaps. But Jessica does not have time for this, and neither does Ben. Also, if Jessica were to task one of her employees to do this, it would raise the cost of the snaps so much that Ben could not afford them. So Ben and Jessica feel this is good enough.

Now Ben has used the snaps in his clothing line. He sends 25 garments that have 4 snaps each (total of 100 snaps) off to Jennifer Taggart of The Smart Mama for testing in compliance with CPSIA. When he gets the results back, he finds that two of the snaps have failed.

Now Ben is in a deep fix. The failed snaps were on a size 4 green shirt and a size 10 blue shirt, but it would make no sense to pull all the size 4 green shirts and size 10 blue shirts, because the 200 defective snaps are now randomly distributed throughout his entire clothing line. Ben can have every one of the snaps tested and pull the garments that have failed snaps. Or he can pull the entire line, losing all the money he'd hoped to make from it. Or he can sell the clothing anyway and hope nobody notices a few defective snaps.

Here's what Ben and Jessica didn't know, but we can figure out:*
The original testing results were somewhat of a fluke. The chance that all 100 snaps in any given sample would pass, given the numbers we chose at the outset, was actually only about 13%. This means that in any other sample of 100 snaps, the chance is about 87% that at least one of them will fail. If Ben sells his clothing line and the CPSC comes by and randomly tests 100 of his snaps, he has an 87% chance of them finding a failed snap, forcing him to recall the entire line. If there were an 87% chance of rain today, you'd bring your umbrella. This makes selling the clothing line untenable, because CPSC audits are not random. Perhaps Jessica also supplies another clothing company that ended up doing a recall because of lead in the snaps, and that puts all the other companies Jessica supplies under the microscope.

So, having been burned, Ben and Jessica resolve to do something about the problem. Jessica can get more expensive, purer metal, so that there are only 10 defective snaps out of every 10,000. Jessica can also test more snaps. The more snaps Jessica tests, the greater the chances she'll find defective ones; but unless she tests them all, she has no way of knowing whether she's gotten them all-- and one might slip through and jeopardize Ben's clothing line again. In fact, even if Jessica is able to reduce the number of defective snaps to 10 out of 10,000 and tests 500 snaps from every 10,000, she still runs a 40% chance of finding a defective snap in her testing. Ben's safer now, but if he keeps his testing regimen unchanged, he still has a 10% chance of finding defective snaps in his clothing line. That's down from the 87% chance he had before, but it's not certainty. Ben's financial backers (maybe a bank, maybe his family) might not find palatable a 10% chance that the entire clothing line will be unsalable. That's like rolling a pair of dice and hoping it doesn't come up with a sum of 5.

It gets worse. Suppose Jessica gets really zealous and decides to not only improve the quality of her metal so that there are only 10 defectives in 10,000, but she also decides to test 1000 out of every 10,000 snaps. (Assume for the moment that the extra cost of all this doesn't bankrupt Jessica or turn off her customers.) Now it's Jessica that has the problem: every time she runs a test of 1000 snaps, she has a 63% chance of finding at least one defective snap. She can throw out the defective snaps as she finds them, and since we know there are only 10, eventually she'll get them all, though as a practical matter it'll be easier to just test every snap than to keep testing lots of 1000 snaps. But unless Jessica tests every snap, she will not know she has found them all. Remember, Jessica does not know exactly how many defective snaps there are in each batch of 10,000. We know because in this example we're the omnipotent observer, and we set the conditions of the problem. But as a practical matter, we don't know how many defectives are out there in any given batch of anything!

Jessica knows her snaps are (mostly) safe. She tests them over and over and gets pass, pass, pass, pass, pass. But Jessica still cannot guarantee Ben that his product line won't be jeopardized by using her snaps, no matter how much she tests and tests and tests, unless she tests all the snaps one by one. Ben is in the same fix if Jessica cannot test all the snaps: he cannot guarantee that even if his lot of samples passes testing, that there are no defective snaps in the entire batch. The only way to guarantee it is for somebody to test all 10,000 of the snaps.

Bottom line: it is mathematically impossible to find all defective objects without going to the expense of testing them ALL. And that's assuming testing is 100% accurate, which it's not. And to add insult to injury, the more zealously you test by sampling, the more confused you will be about the safety of your product. CPSIA was supposed to reduce confusion about product safety, but now you have mathematical proof that it does exactly the opposite.

Now we apply our findings to the issue of protecting children from lead exposure.

In practice, Jessica can only test samples of her snaps. And CPSIA only requires Ben to test samples of his shirts. There is a probability, however small, that a defective snap will slip past both Jessica's AND Ben's testing, and be discovered by, say, a consumer group doing in-store testing as a public service. This will put both Ben and Jessica in a real fix. They both did their due diligence under CPSIA. Ben did all the required testing, and he vetted his supplier properly. Since suppliers aren't liable under CPSIA, Jessica went above and beyond the call of duty. And still a defective snap got through. And think about the retailer of Ben's clothing line. Ben provided a 100% accurate General Conformity Certificate-- it was based on tests run by a third party, which turned up no lead in the snaps. The retailer had every reason to believe that Ben's clothing line was perfectly safe-- and is now in jeopardy along with Ben.

Let's put some numbers to this. Suppose Jessica decides that testing samples of 200 snaps is adequate, and Ben still tests 100 snaps on the garments in his line; and let's suppose that Jessica used the purer metal so there were only 10 defective snaps in the lot of 10,000. The chance that both their tests detect no defective snaps is 74%, meaning that they stand about a 1 in 4 chance of actually, unknowingly passing a defective snap on to the public. If you were a retailer, would you want to take that chance? And that's just one clothing line. If the retailer carries 20 children's clothing lines similar to Ben's and they all have the same chance of having undetected lead in the snaps, it is very nearly certain that something in the retailer's store is noncompliant. The retailer is going to be just fine-- unless, of course, somebody spreads rumors that their store is noncompliant. If the CPSC or the state Attorney General decides to check their store for noncompliant clothing instead of just checking their GCCs, they are so totally screwed.

Thus we see that CPSIA, strict and wasteful as it is, is still not capable of preventing lead exposure. And what's worse, it holds over each manufacturer's and retailer's head a significant chance that even if they do everything right, they can still be fined, or worse, jailed. People in business are used to taking risks, but that doesn't mean they're all willing to take the largest possible risks.

Sorry, Consumer's Union, your Mommy and Daddy are only human after all.

* Mathematics afficionados will recognize this as a binomial probability distribution with n=100 and p=.02, under the assumptions that defective snaps are indistinguishable from good snaps, and that XRF testing is perfect at detecting lead levels (it isn't; it does 95% confidence intervals, making these results even more uncertain).