Amulet

After some recent Twitter and Discord discussions, I'm still amazed at how well my "only Nixon could go to China" effect continues to hold up: everyone is respectfully sympathetic to the poor self-hating trans woman even when her whole bit is specifically about explaining why that frame is delusional. (When anyone else making the same points would have been dismissed as hateful.)

Is it my nuance, originality, and nonpartisanship? I can play the philosophy-of-language mind games with the best of them—better, I think—and am clearly doing more work than just copying the standard appeals to fourth-grade biology from the TERF cache. (And showing your work matters even if postgraduate biology and artificial intelligence eventually conclude that fourth-grade biology basically had the right idea.) If it's the nuance, that bodes well for continuing to broaden the topic scope of the blog.

But I don't think that's all of it; somehow I doubt whether anti-feminist women and black Republicans have it this easy. (Or even merely non-feminist women and black libertarians, if nonpartisanship is a factor.) Some would say it's my white male privilege—but I have some other ideas.

Maybe people still think they can crack my egg. Phyllis Schlafly and Hermain Cain's eligibility markers for membership in the coalition of the fringes, were immutable—having already left the coalition, there was nothing that could be changed to induce them to come back. Whereas my pre-eligibility status gives me the option to be marked by transitioning—which would change my incentives. If I have to keep putting the "cis" in "decision" every day, the coalition can still hope to offer me a better deal should my current alignment falter.

Or, as a reader points out, maybe I'm just too weird relative to the current distribution of thought? People already know that unwoke minorities exist, and have ready-made concepts to make sense of their existence (and thereby dismiss their perspectives as unimportant): Hermain Cain is an "Uncle Tom", for example. (Gender-critical feminists have their own form of this: pro-trans liberal-feminist women are "handmaidens".)

In contrast, my whole "I think I have the same underlying psychological condition that results in lesbian and bisexual trans women, but I disagree with the popular account of what the condition is exactly, and have some serious reservations with some of the cultural practices that have recently sprung up around it, while continuing to support morphological freedom more generally" thing isn't something most people have heard before. They don't know what to make of it! Maybe if self-aware TERF-sympathetic-but-also-transhumanist autogynephilic men were more common, there would be some catchy epithet to dismiss us ("us") with. Until then ... I have a lot of writing to do.



Sexual Dimorphism in Yudkowsky's Sequences, in Relation to My Gender Problems

I'll write my way out
Write everything down, far as I can see
I'll write my way out
Overwhelm them with honesty
This is the eye of the hurricane
This is the only way I can protect my legacy

—"Hurricane", Hamilton

So, as I sometimes allude to, I've spent basically my entire adult life in this insular intellectual subculture that was founded in the late 'aughts to promulgate an ideal of systematically correct reasoning—general methods of thought that result in true beliefs and successful plans—and, incidentally, to use these methods of systematically correct reasoning to prevent superintelligent machines from destroying all value in the universe.

Honestly, I've been pretty bitter and jaded about the whole thing lately, to the extent that I've been pejoratively calling it my "robot cult" (a phrase due to Dale Carrico) as an expression of contempt—although I should probably cut it out, because that particular choice of pejorative makes it sound like I'm making fun of the superintelligent-machines-destroying-all-value-in-the-universe thing, whereas actually, that part still seems right, and the thing I'm bitter about is how almost everyone I used to trust insisted on, on ...

Well. That's a long story—for another time, perhaps. For now, I want to explain how my robot cult's foundational texts had an enormous influence on my self-concept in relation to sex and gender.

It all started in summer 2007 (I was nineteen years old), when I came across Overcoming Bias, a blog on the theme of how to achieve more accurate beliefs. (I don't remember exactly how I was referred, but I think it was likely to have been a link from Megan McArdle, then writing as "Jane Galt" at Asymmetrical Information.)

Although technically a group blog, the vast majority of posts on Overcoming Bias were by Robin Hanson or Eliezer Yudkowsky. I was previously acquainted in passing with Yudkowsky's writing about future superintelligence. (I had mentioned him in my Diary once in 2005, albeit without spelling his name correctly.) Yudkowsky was now using Overcoming Bias and the medium of blogging to generate material for a future book about rationality. Hanson's posts I could take or leave, but Yudkowsky's sequences of posts about rationality (coming out almost-daily through early 2009, eventually totaling hundreds of thousands of words) were amazingly great, drawing on the established knowledge of fields from cognitive psychology to evolutionary biology to explain the mathematical principles governing how intelligence worksthe reduction of "thought" to cognitive algorithms. Intelligent systems that use evidence to construct predictive models of the world around them—that have "true" "beliefs"—can use those models to compute which actions will best achieve their goals. You simply won't believe how much this blog will change your life; I would later frequently joke that Yudkowsky rewrote my personality over the internet.

(The blog posts did finally get collected into a book, Rationality: From AI to Zombies, but I continue to say "the Sequences" because I hate the gimmicky "AI to Zombies" subtitle—it makes it sound like a commercial book optimized to sell copies, rather than something to corrupt the youth, competing for the same niche as the Bible or the Koran—the book that explains what your life should be about.)

There are a few things about me that I need to explain before I get into the topic-specific impact the blog had on me.

The first thing—the chronologically first thing. Ever since I was thirteen or fourteen years old—

(and I really didn't expect to be blogging about this nineteen years later)

(I still don't want to be blogging about this, but unfortunately, it actually turns out to be central to the intellectual–political project I've been singlemindedly focused on for the past four and a half years because somebody has to and no one else will)

—my favorite—and basically only—masturbation fantasy has always been some variation on me getting magically transformed into a woman. I ... need to write more about the phenomenology of this. In the meantime, just so you know what I'm talking about, the relevant TVTrope is "Man, I Feel Like a Woman." Or search "body swap" on PornHub. Or check out my few, circumspect contributions to the popular genre of captioned-photo female transformation erotica (everyone is wearing clothes, so these might be "safe for work" in a narrow technical sense, if not a moral one): 1 2 3 4.

(The first segment of my pen surname is a legacy of middle-school friends letting me borrow some of the Ranma ½ graphic novels, about a young man named Ranma Saotome cursed ("cursed"??) to transform into a woman on exposure to cold water. This was just before puberty kicked in for me, but I have no way of computing the counterfactual to know whether that had a causal influence.)

So, there was that erotic thing, which I was pretty ashamed of at the time, and of course knew that I must never, ever tell a single soul about. (It would have been about three years since the fantasy started that I even worked up the bravery to tell my Diary about it.)

But within a couple years, I also developed this beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing that would persist indefinitely, where I started having a lot of non-sexual thoughts about being female. Just—little day-to-day thoughts, little symbolic gestures.

Like when I would write in my pocket notebook in the persona of my female analogue.

Or when I would practice swirling the descenders on all the lowercase letters that had descenders (g, j, p, y, z) because I thought it made my handwriting look more feminine.

Or the time when track and field practice split up into boys and girls, and I ironically muttered under my breath, "Why did I even join this team?—boys, I mean."

Or when it was time to order sheets to fit on the dorm beds at the University in Santa Cruz, and I deliberately picked out the pink-with-flowers design on principle.

Or how I was proud to be the kind of guy who bought Julia Serano's Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity when it was new in 2007, and who would rather read from Evelyn Fox Keller's Reflections on Gender and Science than watch Super Bowl XLII.

Or how, at University, I tried to go by my first-and-middle-initials because I wanted a gender-neutral byline, and I wanted what people called me in real life to be the same as my byline—even if, obviously, I didn't expect people to not-notice which sex I am in real life because that would be crazy.

(This attempted nickname change actually turned out to be a terrible idea that ended up causing me a huge amount of pointless identity-crisis psychological pain—my particular pair of real-life initials never really "felt like a name" even to me (as contrasted to something like "C.J." or "J.T.", which feel like a name on account of having a J in it); I turned out to be incredibly uncomfortable with different people knowing me by different names, and didn't have the guts to nag everyone in my life to switch for something that didn't feel like a name even to me; and the "gender-neutral byline" rationale almost certainly never held up in practice because my real-life first initial is a high-Scrabble-score letter that begins one popular boy name and zero popular girl names. But it was the principle!)

Or how I stopped getting haircuts and grew my beautiful–beautiful ponytail. (This turned out to be a great idea and I wish I had thought of it sooner.)

Or how one of the little song-fragments I used to write in my head went—

Sometimes I sigh because I'll never get rich
And there's no magic so I can't be a witch
And that I must enjoy the scorn of the world
Just 'cause I'm butch and I'm a tranny girl

Or the time I felt proud when my Normal American Girl coworker at the supermarket in 'aught-nine said that she had assumed I was gay. (I'm not, but the fact that Normal American Girl thought so meant that I was successfully unmasculine.)

And so on et cetera ad infinitum. This has been a very persistent thing for me.

The beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing doesn't feel explicitly erotic. The thing I did in the day in class about writing in my notebook about being a girl, was very different from the thing I did in my room at night about visualizing girls with this abstract sense of "But what if that were me?" while furiously masturbating. The former activity was my beautiful pure happy romantic daydream, whereas the latter activity was not beautiful or pure at all!

Now I am not a cognitive scientist, and can't claim to know exactly what my beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing is, or where it comes from—that's not the kind of thing I would expect people to know from introspection alone. But it has always seemed like a pretty obvious guess that there must have been some sort of causal relationship between the erotic thing, and the beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing, even if the two things don't feel the same: the overlap in subject matter is too much to be a coincidence. And the erotic thing definitely came first.

Maybe this story reads differently in 2021 from how it was to live in the 'aughts? I think that teenage boys in the current year having the kind of feelings I was having then, upon referencing or hinting at the beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing—

(and the beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing is much easier to talk about than the erotic thing)

(I mean, the beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing is much harder to talk about clearly, but talking about it un-clearly is less shameful and requires much less bravery)

—are immediately provided with "Oh, that means you're not a cis boy; you're a trans girl" as the definitive explanation.

But it was a different time, then. Of course I had heard of transsexualism as a thing, in the form of the "woman trapped in a man's body" trope, but it wasn't something I expected to actually encounter in real life. (I understood my "tranny girl" song to reflect an idle fantasy, not a legitimate life plan.)

At the time, I had no reason to invent the hypothesis that I might somehow literally be a woman in some unspecified psychological sense. I knew I was a boy because boys are the ones with penises. That's what the word means. I was a boy who had a weird sex fantasy about being a girl. That was just the obvious ordinary straightforward plain-language description of the situation. It never occured to me to couch it in the language of "dysphoria", or actually possessing some innate "gender". The beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing was about identifying with women, not identifying as a woman—roughly analogous to how a cat lover might be said to "identify with" cats, without claiming to somehow be a cat, because that would be crazy.

It was while browsing Wikipedia in 2006 that I encountered the obvious and perfect word for my thingautogynephilia, from the Greek for "love of oneself as a woman." I was actually surprised that it turned out to have been coined in the context of a theory (by clinical sexual psychologist Ray Blanchard) that it was the root cause of one of two types of male-to-female transsexualism.

You see, a very important feature of my gender-related thinking at the time was that I was growing very passionate about—well, in retrospect I call it psychological-sex-differences denialism, but at the time I called it antisexism. Where sometimes people in the culture would make claims about how women and men are psychologically different, and of course I knew this was bad and wrong. Therefore the very idea of transsexualism was somewhat suspect insofar as it necessarily depends on the idea that women and men are psychologically different (in order for it to be possible to be in the "wrong" body). I once haughtily told my Diary that "I would never do 'drag,' because that represents a mockery". (Same rationale as why blackface is offensive.)

So while I was certainly glad to learn that there's a word for it, an obvious and perfect word for my thing, I mostly just stole the word (whose referent and meaning I thought was self-explanatory from the common Greek roots) without paying any further attention to this Blanchard theory or the idea that I might somehow be transgender.

So, you know, as part of my antisexism, I read a lot about feminism. I remember checking out The Feminine Mystique and Susan Faludi's Backlash from the school library. Before I found my internet-home on Overcoming Bias, I would read the big feminist blogs—Pandagon, Feministe, Feministing. The one time I special-ordered a book at the physical Barnes & Noble before I turned 18 and got my own credit card and could order books online, it was Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand.

(In retrospect, it's notable how intellectualized all of this was—my pro-feminism was an ideological matter between me and my books, rather than arising from any practical need. It's not like I had disproportionately female friends or whatever—I mean, to the extent that I had any friends and not just books.)

It also seems like a pretty obvious guess that there must have been some sort of causal relationship between my antisexism and the erotic and beautiful-pure-sacred-self-identity things. True, the blank slate doctrine has been ideologically fashionable my entire life. In the sense that progressivism has been likened to a nontheistic state religion—uh, bear with me for a moment—I was a very religious teenager.

I have a vague memory of being in the Crown College library at the University in Santa Cruz in 2007, reading Robert Wright's The Moral Animal (because it had been on Yudkowsky's old book-recommendations list), and being aghast at how openly, brazenly sexist it was.

(That is, with respect to what I considered sexist at the time. I wish there was some way to know what my teenage self would think of my current self's writing, which is at least as "bad" as Wright and plausibly worse. Maybe if the whole benevolent-superintelligence thing my robot cult always talks about ever works out, I'll be able to kick off a limited-scope ancestor-simulation to find out. In the meantime, if you're offended, I'd love it if you could let me know in the comments exactly how much and why! Personal identity doesn't actually exist; humans growing up in the same cultural tradition can be seen as being drawn from a similar distribution as my teenage self.)

That overwhelming feeling of cold horror and hatred at the enemy revealed—that, I conjecture, is what religious people feel when encountering a heretical text for the first time. (In principle, a sufficiently advanced neuroscience would be able to confirm that it is the same emotion, as a matter of biological fact.) The social–psychological need to avoid the belief's real weak points is why the "religion" characterization makes sense, even if the claim that psychological sex differences are fake isn't a supernatural one. But quasi-religious ideological fervor aside, there was presumably a reason I cared so much about being a good pro-feminist specifically, and hardly spent any time at all thinking about other dimensions of social justice, like race or class. And I think the reason is because, because ...

Well. The reason I'm blogging this story at all is because I'm scared that in order to finish that sentence in the current year and be understood, I'd have to say, "because I was trans." And with respect to what the words mean in the current year, it's true. But that's not how I think of it, then or now.

It's because I was straight. Because I loved women, and wanted to do right by them. It's an identificatory kind of love—loving women as extension of the self, rather than a mysterious, unfathomable Other. But that's not unusual, is it?—or it shouldn't be. I would have assumed that guys who can't relate to this are probably just sexist.


Anyway, that's some background about where I was at, personally and ideologically, before I fell in with this robot cult.

My ideological commitment to psychological-sex-differences denialism made me uncomfortable when the topic of sex differences happened to come up on the blog—which wasn't particularly often at all, but in such a vast body of work as the Sequences, it did happen to come up a few times (and the lessons I learned from those few times are the subject of this blog post).

For example, as part of an early explanation of why the values we would want to program into an artificial superintelligence don't reduce to any one simple principle, Yudkowsky remarks that "the love of a man for a woman, and the love of a woman for a man, have not been cognitively derived from each other or from any other value."

From the perspective of axiomatic antisexism that I held at the time, this assertion is cringe-inducing. Of course most people are straight, but is it not all the same love?

I wasn't ready to hear it then, but—I mean, probably not? So, for the most part, all humans are extremely similar: as Yudkowsky would soon write about (following Leda Cosmides and John Tooby), complex functional adaptations have to be species-universal in order to not get scrambled during meiosis. As a toy example, if some organelle gets assembled from ten genes, those ten alleles all have to be nearly universal in the population—if each only had a frequency of 0.9, then the probability of getting them all right would only be 0.910 ≈ 0.349. If allele H epistatically only confers a fitness advantage when allele G at some other locus is already present, then G has to already be well on its way to fixation in order for there to be appreciable selective pressure for H. Evolution, feeding on variation, uses it up. Complicated functionality that requires multiple genes working in concert can only accrete gradually as each individual piece reaches fixation in the entire population, resulting in an intricate species-universal design: just about everyone has 206 bones, two lungs, a liver, a visual cortex, &c.

In this way (contrary to the uninformed suspicions of those still faithful to the blank slate), evolutionary psychology actually turns out to be impressively antiracist discipline: maybe individual humans can differ in small ways like personality, or ancestry-groups in small ways like skin color, but these are, and have to be, "shallow" low-complexity variations on the same basic human design; new complex functionality would require speciation.

This luck does not extend to antisexism. If the genome were a computer program, it would have if female { /* ... */ } else if male { /* ... */ } conditional blocks, and inside those blocks, you can have complex sex-specific functionality. By default, selection pressures on one sex tend to drag the other along for the ride—men have nipples because there's no particular reason for them not to—but in those cases where it was advantageous in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness for females and males to do things differently, sexual dimorphism can evolve (slowly—more than one and half orders of magnitude slower than monomorphic adaptations, in fact).

The evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers wrote, "One can, in effect, treat the sexes as if they were different species, the opposite sex being a resource relevant to producing maximum surviving offspring" (!). There actually isn't one species-universal design—it's two designs.

If you're willing to admit to the possibility of psychological sex differences at all, you have to admit that sex differences in the parts of the mind that are specifically about mating are going to be a prime candidate. (But by no means the only one—different means of reproduction have different implications for life-history strategies far beyond the act of mating itself.) Even if there's a lot of "shared code" in how love-and-attachment works in general, there are also going to be specific differences that were optimized for facilitating males impregnating females. In that sense, the claim that "the love of a man for a woman, and the love of a woman for a man, have not been cognitively derived from each other" just seems commonsensically true.

I guess if you didn't grow up with a quasi-religious fervor for psychological sex differences denialism, this whole theoretical line of argument about evolutionary psychology doesn't seem world-shatteringly impactful?—maybe it just looks like supplementary Science Details brushed over some basic facts of human existence that everyone knows. But if you have built your identity around quasi-religious denial of certain basic facts of human existence that everyone knows (if not everyone knows that they know), getting forced out of it by sufficient weight of Science Details can be a pretty rough experience.

My hair-trigger antisexism was sort of lurking in the background of some of my comments while the Sequences were being published (though, again, it wasn't relevant to most posts, which were just about cool math and science stuff that had no avenue whatsoever for being corrupted by gender politics). The term "social justice warrior" wasn't yet popular, but I definitely had a SJW-alike mindset (nurtured from my time lurking the feminist blogosphere) of being preoccupied with the badness and wrongness of people who are wrong and bad (i.e., sexist), rather than trying to maximize the accuracy of my probabilistic predictions.

Another one of the little song-fragments I wrote in my head a few years earlier (which I mention for its being representative of my attitude at the time, rather than it being notable in itself), concerned an advice columnist, Amy Alkon, syndicated in the Contra Costa Times of my youth, who would sometimes give dating advice based on a pop-evopsych account of psychological sex differences—the usual fare about women seeking commitment and men seeking youth and beauty. My song went—

I hope Amy Alkon dies tonight
So she can't give her bad advice
No love or value save for evolutionary psych

I hope Amy Alkon dies tonight
Because the world's not girls and guys
Cave men and women fucking 'round the fire in the night

Looking back with the outlook later acquired from my robot cult, this is abhorrent. You don't casually wish death on someone just because you disagree with their views on psychology! (Also, casually wishing death on a woman for her views does not seem particularly pro-feminist?!) Even if it wasn't in a spirit of personal malice (this was a song I sung to myself, not an actual threat directed to Amy Alkon's inbox), the sentiment just isn't done. But at the time, I didn't notice there was anything wrong with my song. I hadn't yet been socialized into the refined ethos of "False ideas should be argued with, but heed that we too may have ideas that are false".

In the same vein of my not then understanding the difference between argument and demonizing the outgroup, there was one especially memorable occasion in the Overcoming Bias comment section when the soon-to-be President of Yudkowsky's research nonprofit brought up the idea of banning me after I said, "are you aware that this is exactly the sort of psychology that leads to rape?" in response to another commenter's anecdote that I construed as misogynistic. Coincidentally, this was actually the same day as my first time ever crossdressing in front of other people (I having purchased a purple dress on Amazon and invited two friends over while my parents were away), only I couldn't enjoy it at all because I was so emotionally trashed from the ban threat.

Sex differences would come up a couple more times in one of the last Sequences, on "Fun Theory"—speculations on how life could be truly good if the world were superintelligently optimized for human values, in contrast to the cruelty and tragedy of our precarious existence in a world shaped only by blind evolutionary forces.

According to Yudkowsky, one of the ways in which people's thinking about artificial intelligence usually goes wrong is anthropomorphism—expecting arbitrary AIs to behave like humans, when really "AI" corresponds to a much larger space of algorithms. As a social animal, predicting other humans is one of the things we've evolved to be good at, and the way that works is probably via "empathic inference": I predict your behavior by imagining what I would do in your situation. Since all humans are very similar, this appeal-to-black-box works pretty well in our lives (though it won't work on AI). And from this empathy, evolution also coughed up the moral miracle of sympathy, intrinsically caring about what others feel.

In "Interpersonal Entanglement", Yudkowsky appeals to the complex moral value of sympathy as an argument against the desirability of nonsentient sex partners (catgirls being the technical term). Being emotionally intertwined with another actual person is one of the things that makes life valuable, that would be lost if people just had their needs met by soulless catgirl holodeck characters.

But there's a problem, Yudkowsky argues: women and men aren't designed to make each other optimally happy. If I may put a pseudo-mathy poetic gloss on it: the abstract game between the two human life-history strategies in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness had a conflicting-interests as well as a shared-interests component, and human psychology still bears the design signature of that game denominated in inclusive fitness, even though no one cares about inclusive fitness. (Peter Watts: "And God smiled, for Its commandment had put Sperm and Egg at war with each other, even unto the day they made themselves obsolete.") The scenario of Total Victory for the ♂ player in the conflicting-interests subgame is not Nash. The design of the entity who optimally satisfied what men want out of women would not be, and could not be, within the design parameters of actual women.

(And vice versa and respectively, but in case you didn't notice, this blog post is all about male needs.)

Yudkowsky dramatized the implications in a short story, "Failed Utopia #4-2", portraying an almost-aligned superintelligence constructing a happiness-maximizing utopia for humans—except that because of the mismatch in the sexes' desires, and because the AI is prohibited from editing people's minds, the happiness-maximizing solution (according to the story) turns out to be splitting up the human species by sex and giving women and men their own separate utopias (on Venus and Mars, ha ha), complete with artificially-synthesized romantic partners.

Of course no one wants that—our male protagonist doesn't want to abandon his wife and daughter for some catgirl-adjacent (if conscious) hussy. But humans do adapt to loss; if the separation were already accomplished by force, people would eventually move on, and post-separation life with companions superintelligently optimized for you would (arguendo) be happier than life with your real friends and family, whose goals will sometimes come into conflict with yours because they weren't superintelligently designed for you.

The alignment-theory morals are those of unforeseen maxima and edge instantiation. An AI designed to maximize happiness would kill all humans and tile the galaxy with maximally-efficient happiness-brainware. If this sounds "crazy" to you, that's the problem with anthropomorphism I was telling you about: don't imagine "AI" as an emotionally-repressed human, just think about a machine that calculates what actions would result in what outcomes, and does the action that would result in the outcome that maximizes some function. It turns out that picking a function that doesn't kill everyone looks hard. Just tacking on the constraints that you can think of (like making the existing humans happy without tampering with their minds) will tend to produce similar "crazy" outcomes that you didn't think to exclude.

At the time, I expressed horror at "Failed Utopia #4-2" in the comments section, because my quasi-religious psychological-sex-differences denialism required that I be horrified. But looking back a dozen years later—or even four years later—my performative horror was missing the point.

The argument makes sense. Of course, it's important to notice that you'd need an additional handwave to explain why the AI in the story doesn't give every individual their separate utopia—if existing women and men aren't optimal partners for each other, so too are individual men not optimal same-sex friends for each other. A faithful antisexist (as I was) might insist that that should be the only moral, as it implies the other a fortiori. But if you're trying to learn about reality rather than protect your fixed quasi-religious beliefs, it should be okay for one of the lessons to get a punchy sci-fi short story; it should be okay to think about the hyperplane between two coarse clusters, even while it's simultaneously true that you could build a wall around every individual point, without deigning to acknowledge the existence of clusters.

On my reading of the text, it is significant that the AI-synthesized complements for men are given their own name, the verthandi (presumably after the Norse deity that determines men's fates), rather than just being referred to as women. The verthandi may look like women, they may be approximately psychologically human, but since the detailed psychology of "superintelligently-engineered optimal romantic partner for a human male" is not going to come out of the distribution of actual human females, judicious exercise of the tenth virtue of precision demands that a different word be coined for this hypothetical science-fictional type of person. Calling the verthandi "women" would be worse writing; it would fail to communicate the impact of what has taken place in the story.

Another post in this vein that had a huge impact on me was "Changing Emotions". As an illustration of how the hope for radical human enhancement is fraught with technical difficulties, Yudkowsky sketches a picture of just how difficult an actual male-to-female sex change would be.

It would be hard to overstate how much of an impact this post had on me. I've previously linked it on this blog five different times. In June 2008, half a year before it was published, I encountered the 2004 Extropians mailing list post that the blog post had clearly been revised from. (The fact that I was trawling through old mailing list archives searching for Yudkowsky content that I hadn't already read, tells you something about what a fanboy I am—if, um, you hadn't already noticed.) I immediately wrote to a friend: "[...] I cannot adequately talk about my feelings. Am I shocked, liberated, relieved, scared, angry, amused?"

The argument goes: it might be easy to imagine changing sex and refer to the idea in a short English sentence, but the real physical world has implementation details, and the implementation details aren't filled in by the short English sentence. The human body, including the brain, is an enormously complex integrated organism; there's no plug-and-play architecture by which you can just swap your brain into a new body and have everything Just Work without re-mapping the connections in your motor cortex. And even that's not really a sex change, as far as the whole integrated system is concerned—

Remapping the connections from the remapped somatic areas to the pleasure center will ... give you a vagina-shaped penis, more or less. That doesn't make you a woman. You'd still be attracted to girls, and no, that would not make you a lesbian; it would make you a normal, masculine man wearing a female body like a suit of clothing.

[...]

So to actually become female ...

We're talking about a massive transformation here, billions of neurons and trillions of synapses rearranged. Not just form, but content—just like a male judo expert would need skills repatterned to become a female judo expert, so too, you know how to operate a male brain but not a female brain. You are the equivalent of a judo expert at one, but not the other. You have cognitive reflexes, and consciously learned cognitive skills as well.

[...]

What happens when, as a woman, you think back to your memory of looking at Angelina Jolie photos as a man? How do you empathize with your past self of the opposite sex? Do you flee in horror from the person you were? Are all your life's memories distant and alien things? How can you remember, when your memory is a recorded activation pattern for neural circuits that no longer exist in their old forms? Do we rewrite all your memories, too?

But, well ... I mean, um ...

(I still really don't want to be blogging about this, but somebody has to and no one else will)

From the standpoint of my secret erotic fantasy, "normal, masculine man wearing a female body like a suit of clothing" is actually a great outcome—the ideal outcome. Let me explain.

The main plot of my secret erotic fantasy accommodates many frame stories, but I tend to prefer those that invoke the literary genre of science, and posit "technology" rather than "spells" or "potions" as the agent of transformation, even if it's all ultimately magic (where "magic" is a term of art for anything you don't understand how to implement as a computer program).

So imagine having something like the transporter in Star Trek, but you re-materialize with the body of someone else, rather than your original body—a little booth I could walk in, dissolve in a tingly glowy special effect for a few seconds, and walk out looking like (say) Nana Visitor (circa 1998). (In the folklore of female-transformation erotica, this machine is often called the "morphic adaptation unit".)

As "Changing Emotions" points out, this high-level description of a hypothetical fantasy technology leaves many details unspecified—not just the how, but the what. What would the indistinguishable-from-magical transformation booth do to my brain? As a preference-revealing thought experiment, what would I want it to do, if I can't change the basic nature of reality, but if engineering practicalities weren't a constraint? (That is, I'm allowed to posit any atom-configuration without having to worry about how you would get all the atoms in the right place, but I'm not allowed to posit tethering my immortal soul to a new body, because souls aren't real.)

The anti-plug-and-play argument makes me confident that it would have to change something about my mind in order to integrate it with a new female body—if nothing else, my unmodified brain doesn't physically fit inside Nana Visitor's skull. (One meta-analysis puts the sex difference in intracranial volume and brain volume at a gaping Cohen's d ≈ 3.0 and 2.1, respectively, and Visitor doesn't look like she has an unusually large head.)

Fine—we're assuming that difficulty away and stipulating that the magical transformation booth can make the minimal changes necessary to put my brain in a female body, and have it fit, and have all the motor-connection/body-mapping stuff line up so that I can move and talk normally in a body that feels like mine, without being paralyzed or needing months of physical therapy to re-learn how to walk.

I want this more than I can say. But is that all I want? What about all the other sex differences in the brain? Male brains are more lateralized—doing relatively more communication within hemispheres rather than between; there are language tasks that women and men perform equally well on, but men's brains use only the left inferior frontal gyrus, whereas women's use both. Women have a relatively thicker corpus callosum; men have a relatively larger amygdala. Fetal testosterone levels increase the amount of gray matter in posterior lateral orbitofrontal cortex, but decrease the gray matter in Wernicke's area ...

Do I want the magical transformation technology to fix all that, too?

Do I have any idea what it would even mean to fix all that, without spending multiple lifetimes studying neuroscience?

I think I have just enough language to start to talk about what it would mean. Since sex isn't an atomic attribute, but rather a high-level statistical regularity such that almost everyone can be cleanly classified as "female" or "male" in terms of lower-level traits (genitals, hormone levels, &c.), then, abstractly, we're trying to take points from male distribution and map them onto the female distribution in a way that preserves as much structure (personal identity) as possible. My female analogue doesn't have a penis like me (because then she wouldn't be female), but she is going to speak American English like me and be 85% Ashkenazi like me, because language and autosomal genes don't have anything to do with sex.

The hard part has to do with traits that are meaningfully sexually dimorphic, but not as a discrete dichotomy—where the sex-specific universal designs differ in ways that are subtler than the presence or absence of entire reproductive organs. (Yes, I know about homology—and you know what I meant.) We are not satisfied if the magical transformation technology swaps out my penis and testicles for a functioning female reproductive system without changing the rest of my body, because we want the end result to be indistinguishable from having been drawn from the female distribution (at least, indistinguishable modulo having my memories of life as a male before the magical transformation), and a man-who-somehow-magically-has-a-vagina doesn't qualify.

The "obvious" way to to do the mapping is to keep the same percentile rank within each trait (given some suitably exhaustive parsing and factorization of the human design into individual "traits"), but take it with respect to the target sex's distribution. I'm 5′11″ tall, which puts me at the 73rd percentile for American men, about 6/10ths of a standard deviation above the mean. So presumably we want to say that my female analogue is at the 73rd percentile for American women, about 5′5½″.

You might think this is "unfair": some women—about 7 per 1000—are 5′11″, and we don't want to say they're somehow less female on that account, so why can't I keep my height? The problem is that if we refuse to adjust for every trait for which the female and male distributions overlap (on the grounds that some women have the same trait value as my male self), we don't end up with a result from the female distribution.

The typical point in a high-dimensional distribution is not typical along each dimension individually. In 100 flips of a biased coin that lands Heads 0.6 of the time, the single most likely sequence is 100 Heads, but there's only one of those and you're vanishingly unlikely to actually see it. The sequences you'll actually observe will have close to 60 Heads. Each such sequence is individually less probable than the all-Heads sequence, but there are vastly more of them. Similarly, most of the probability-mass of a high-dimensional multivariate normal distribution is concentrated in a thin "shell" some distance away from the mode, for the same reason. (The same reason: the binomial distribution converges to the normal in the limit of large n.)

Statistical sex differences are like flipping two different collections of coins with different biases, where the coins represent various traits. Learning the outcome of any individual flip, doesn't tell you which set that coin came from, but if we look at the aggregation of many flips, we can get godlike confidence as to which collection we're looking at.

A single-variable measurement like height is like a single coin: unless the coin is very biased, one flip can't tell you much about the bias. But there are lots of things about people for which it's not that they can't be measured, but that the measurements require more than one number—which correspondingly offer more information about the distribution generating them.

And knowledge about the distribution is genuinely informative. Occasionally you hear progressive-minded people dismiss and disdain simpleminded transphobes who believe that chromosomes determine sex, when actually, most people haven't been karyotyped and don't know what chromosomes they have. (Um, with respect to some sense of the word "know" that doesn't care how unsurprised I was that my 23andMe results came back with a Y and that I would have happily bet on this at extremely generous odds.)

Certainly, I agree that almost no one interacts with sex chromosomes on a day-to-day basis; no one even knew that sex chromosomes existed before 1905. (Co-discovered by a woman!) But the function of intensional definitions in human natural language isn't to exhaustively pinpoint a concept in the detail it would be implemented in an AI's executing code, but rather to provide a "treasure map" sufficient for a listener to pick out the corresponding concept in their own world-model: that's why Diogenes exhibiting a plucked chicken in response to Plato's definition of a human as a "featherless biped" seems like a cheap "gotcha"—we all instantly know that's not what Plato meant. "The challenge is figuring out which things are similar to each other—which things are clustered together—and sometimes, which things have a common cause." But sex chromosomes, and to a large extent specifically the SRY gene located on the Y chromosome, are such a common cause—the root of the causal graph underlying all other sex differences. A smart natural philosopher living before 1905, knowing about all the various observed differences between women and men, might have guessed at the existence of some molecular mechanism of sex determination, and been right. By the "treasure map" standard, "XX is female; XY is male" is a pretty well-performing definition—if you're looking for a simple membership test that's entangled with a lot of information about the many intricate ways in which females and males statistically differ.

Take faces. People are verifiably very good at recognizing sex from (hair covered, males clean-shaven) photographs of people's faces (96% accuracy, which is the equivalent of d ≈ 3.5), but we don't have direct introspective access into what specific features our brains are using to do it; we just look, and somehow know. The differences are real (a computer statistical model gets up to 99.47% accuracy), but it's not a matter of any single, simple measurement you could perform with a ruler (like the distance between someone's eyes). Rather, it's a high-dimensional pattern in many such measurements you could take with a ruler, no one of which is definitive. Covering up the nose makes people slower and slightly worse at sexing faces, but people don't do better than chance at guessing sex from photos of noses alone.

Notably, for images of faces, we actually do have transformation technology! (Not "magical", because we know how it works.) AI techniques like generative adversarial networks and autoencoders can learn the structure of the distribution of facial photographs, and use that knowledge to synthesize faces from scratch (as demonstrated by thispersondoesnotexist.com)—or do things like sex transformation (as demonstrated by FaceApp, the uniquely best piece of software in the world).

If you let each pixel vary independently, the space of possible 1024x1024 images is 1,048,576-dimensional, but the vast hypermajority of those images aren't photorealistic human faces. Letting each pixel vary independently is the wrong way to think about it: changing the lighting or pose changes a lot of pixels in what humans would regard as images of "the same" face. So instead, our machine-learning algorithms learn a compressed representation of what makes the tiny subspace (relative to images-in-general) of faces-in-particular similar to each other. That latent space is a lot smaller (say, 512 dimensions), but still rich enough to embed the high-level distinctions that humans notice: you can find a hyperplane that separates smiling from non-smiling faces, or glasses from no-glasses, or young from old, or different races—or female and male. Sliding along the normal vector to that hyperplane gives the desired transformation: producing images that are "more female" (as the model has learned that concept) while keeping "everything else" the same.

Two-dimensional images of people are vastly simpler than the actual people themselves in the real physical universe. But in theory, a lot of the same mathematical principles would apply to hypothetical future nanotechnology-wielding AI systems that could, like the AI in "Failed Utopia #4-2", synthesize a human being from scratch (this-person-didn't-exist-dot-com?), or do a real-world sex transformation (PersonApp?)—and the same statistical morals apply to reasoning about sex differences in psychology and (which is to say) the brain.

Daphna Joel et al. argue that human brains are "unique 'mosaics' of features" that cannot be categorized into distinct female and male classes, because it's rare for brains to be "internally consistent"—female-typical or male-typical along every dimension. It's true and important that brains aren't discretely sexually dimorphic the way genitals are, but as Marco del Giudice et al. point out, the "cannot be categorized into two distinct classes" claim seems false in an important sense. The lack of "internal consistency" in Joel et al.'s sense is exactly the behavior we expect from multivariate normal-ish distributions with different-but-not-vastly-different means. (There aren't going to be many traits where the sexes are like, four or whatever standard deviations apart.) It's just like how sequences of flips of a Heads-biased and Tails-biased coin are going to be unique "mosaics" of Heads and Tails, but pretty distinguishable with enough flips—and indeed, with the right stats methodology, MRI brain scans can predict sex at 96.8% accuracy.

Sex differences in the brain are like sex differences in the skeleton: anthropologists can tell female and male skeletons apart (the pelvis is shaped differently, for obvious reasons), and machine-learning models can see very reliable differences that human radiologists can't, but neither sex has entire bones that the other doesn't, and the same is true of brain regions. (The evopsych story about complex adaptations being universal-up-to-sex suggests that sex-specific bones or brain regions should be possible, but in a bit of relative good news for antisexism, apparently evolution didn't need to go that far. Um, in humans—a lot of other mammals actually have a penis bone.)

Maybe this should just look like supplementary Statistics Details brushed over some basic facts of human existence that everyone knows? I'm a pretty weird guy, in more ways than one. I am not prototypically masculine. Most men are not like me. If I'm allowed to cherry-pick what measurements to take, I can name ways in which my mosaic is more female-typical than male-typical. (For example, I'm sure I'm above the female mean in Big Five Neuroticism.) "[A] weakly negative correlation can be mistaken for a strong positive one with a bit of selective memory."

But "weird" represents a much larger space of possibilities than "normal", much as nonapples are a less cohesive category than apples: a woman trapped in a man's body would be weird, but it doesn't follow that weird men are secretly women, as opposed to some other, specific, kind of weird. If you sum over all of my traits, everything that makes me, me—it's going to be a point in the male region of the existing, unremediated, genderspace. In the course of being myself, I'm going to do more male-typical things than female-typical things, not because I'm trying to be masculine (I'm not), and not because I "identify as" male (I don't—or I wouldn't, if someone could give me a straight answer as to what this "identifying as" operation is supposed to consist of), but because I literally in-fact am male in the same sense that male chimpanzees or male mice are male, whether or not I like it (I don't—or I wouldn't, if I still believed that preference was coherent), and whether or not I notice all the little details that implies (I almost certainly don't).

Okay, maybe I'm not completely over my teenage religion of psychological sex differences denialism?—that belief still feels uncomfortable to put my weight on. I would prefer to believe that there are women who are relevantly "like me" with respect to some fair (not gerrymandered) metric on personspace. But, um ... it's not completely obvious whether I actually know any? (Well, maybe two or three.) When I look around me—most of the people in my robot cult (and much more so if you look at the core of old-timers from the Overcoming Bias days, rather than the greater "community" of today) are male. Most of the people in my open-source programming scene are male. These days, most of the women in my open-source programming scene are male. Am ... am I not supposed to notice?

Is everyone else not supposed to notice? Suppose I got the magical body transformation (with no brain mods beyond the minimum needed for motor control). Suppose I caught the worshipful attention of a young man just like I used to be ("a" young man, as if there wouldn't be dozens), who privately told me, "I've never met a woman quite like you." What would I be supposed to tell him? "There's a reason for that"?

In the comments to a post about how gender is built on innate sex differences (of which I can only link to the Internet Archive copy, the original having been quietly deleted sometime in 2013—I wonder why!), Yudkowsky opined that "until men start thinking of themselves as men they will tend to regard women as defective humans."

From context, it seems like the idea was targeted at men who disdain women as a mysterious Other—but the same moral applies to men who are in ideologically-motivated denial about how male-typical they are, and whether this has implications. At the time, I certainly didn't want to think of myself as a man. And yet ...

For example. When I read things from the systematizing–empathizing/"men are interested in things, women are interested in people" line of research—which, to be clear that you know that I know, is only a mere statistical difference at a mere Cohen's d ≈ 0.93, not an absolute like genitals or chromosomes—my instinctive reaction is, "But, but, that's not fair. People are systems, because everything is a system. What kind of a lame power is empathy, anyway?"

But the map is not the territory. We don't have unmediated access to reality beyond the Veil of Maya; system-ness in the empathizing/systematizing sense is a feature of our models of the world, not the world itself.

So what "Everything is a system" means is, "I think everything is a system."

I think everything is a system ... because I'm male??

(Or whatever the appropriate generalization of "because" is for statistical group differences. The sentence "I'm 5′11″ because I'm male" doesn't seem quite right, but it's pointing to something real.)

I could assert that it's all down to socialization and stereotyping and self-fulfilling prophecies—and I know that some of it is. (Self-fulfilling prophecies are coordination equilibria.) But I still want to speculate that the nature of my X factor—the things about my personality that let me write the specific things I do even though I'm objectively not that smart compared to some of my robot-cult friends—is a pattern of mental illness that could realistically only occur in males. (Yudkowsky: "It seems to me that male teenagers especially have something like a higher cognitive temperature, an ability to wander into strange places both good and bad.")

Of course there are women with an analogous story to tell about the nature of their own uniqueness—analogous along some dimensions, if not others—but those aren't my story to tell.

I can imagine that all the gaps will vanish after the revolution. I can imagine it, but I can no longer assert it with a straight face because I've read the literature and can tell you several observations about chimps and congenital adrenal hyperplasia that make that seem relatively unlikely.

I was once told by a very smart friend (who, unlike me, is not a religious fanatic), "Boys like games with challenges and points; girls like games with characters and stories."

I said, "I like characters and stories! I think."

He said, "I know, but at the margin, you seem suboptimally far in the challenges and points direction. But that's fine; that's what women are for."

And what evidence could I point to, to show him that he's bad and wrong for saying that, if he's not already religiously required to believe it?

Alright. So in principle, you could imagine having a PersonApp that maps me to a point in the female region of configuration space in some appropriately structure-preserving way, to compute my female analogue who is as authentically me as possible while also being authentically female, down to her pelvis shape, and the proportion of gray matter in her posterior lateral orbitofrontal cortex, and—the love of a woman for a man. What is she like, concretely? Do I know how to imagine that?

Or if I can imagine it, can I describe it in this blog post? I am presently sorrowful that (following John Holt) we all know more than we can say. I have mental models of people, and the models get queried for predictions in the course of planning my social behavior, but I don't have introspective access to the differences between models. It's easier to imagine people in hypothetical situations and say things like, "That doesn't sound like something she'd do, but he would" (and be correct), than to say exactly what it is about her character and his that generated these predictions, such that my words would paint a picture in your head that would let you make your own predictions about her and him without having met them—just like how you're better at recognizing someone's face, than at describing their face in words in enough detail for an artist to draw a portrait.

As a first-order approximation, I do have a sister. I think the family resemblance between us is stronger than with either parent. We're about equally intelligent—OK, she's probably smarter than me; the SAT is pretty g-loaded and her 1580 (out of 1600) trounces my 2180 (on the out-of-2400 scale used between 2005 and 2016, such that 2180 proportionally scales down to 1453 out of 1600). Our dark hair curls into helices with similar radius. We even have similar mannerisms, I think? She's 5′6½″.

But in a lot of ways that matter, we are very different people. When you compare resumés and representative work-samples of what we've done with our (roughly) similar intelligence—her chemistry Ph.D. from a top-10 university, my dropout–autodidact's passion culminating in this batshit insane secret ("secret") blog about the philosophy of language and the etiology of late-onset gender dysphoria in males—it ... paints a different picture.

Of course same-sex siblings would also be different pictures. (Identical twins aren't duplicates of each other, either.) But the advantage of having a sister is that it gives my brain's pattern-matching faculties a target to sight against. As a second-order approximation, my female analogue is close to being somewhere on the vector in personspace between me and my sister (but not exactly on that line, because the line spans both the difference-between-siblings and the difference-between-sexes).

(All this is in accordance with "Everything is a vector space" philosophy implied by this blog's TLD—if it turns out that something isn't a vector space, I'm not sure I want to know about it. I can hope that my description of the methodology is valuable, even if your brain's pattern-matching faculties can't follow along with the same example, because you haven't met my sister and only know the aspects of me that shine through to the blog.)

Okay. Having supplied just enough language to start to talk about what it would even mean to actually become female—is that what I want?

I've just explained that, in principle, it could be done, so you might think there's no conceptual problem with the idea of changing sex, in the same sense that there's nothing conceptually wrong with Jules Verne's pair of novels about flying around the moon. There are lots of technical rocket-science details that Verne didn't and couldn't have known about in the 1860s, but the basic idea was sound, and actually achieved a hundred years later. So why is it in any way is it relevant that making the magical transformation fantasy real would be technically complicated?

It's relevant insofar as the technical details change your evaluation of the desirability of what is to be accomplished, which can differ from what sounds like good news in the moment of first hearing about the idea.

So, I mean, if it's reversible, I would definitely be extremely eager to try it ...

I had said we're assuming away engineering difficulties in order to make the thought experiment more informative about pure preferences, but let's add one constraint to force the thought experiment to be informative about preferences, and not allow the wishy-washy evasion of "I'm eager to try it."

What if I can't just "try" it? What if the machine can only be used once? Or (my preference) if some deep "brain sex" transformation only works once, even if a more superficial motor remapping is easy to do or re-do? Come up with whatever frame story you want for this: maybe the machine costs my life savings just to rent for two minutes, or maybe the transformation process is ever-so-slightly imperfect, such that you can't re-transform someone who's already been transformed once, like a photocopy being a perfectly acceptable substitute for an original document, but photocopies-of-photocopies rapidly losing quality.

In that case, if I have to choose ... I don't think I want to be Actually Female? I like who I am on the inside, and don't need to change it. I don't want to stop loving challenges and points—or women!—in the way that I do. And if I don't know enough neuroscience to have an informed preference about the ratio of gray to white matter in my posterior lateral orbitofrontal cortex, I'm sure it's probably fine.

At the same time, the idea of having a female body still seems like the most appealing thing in the world. If artificial superintelligence gives me BodyApp to play with for a subjective year and tiles the rest of our future lightcone with paperclips, that's fine; I will die happy.

So, I guess ...

If I'm being really honest with myself here ...

And I successfully make-believe that I can tell the truth with no consequences on my secret ("secret") blog even though at this point my paper-thin pseudonymity is more like a genre convention or a running joke rather than providing any real privacy ...

I guess I want to be "a normal [...] man wearing a female body like a suit of clothing."

Is that weird? Is that wrong?

Okay, yes, it's obviously weird and wrong, but should I care more about not being weird and wrong, than I do about my deepest most heartfelt desire that I've thought about every day for the last nineteen years?

This is probably counterintuitive if you haven't been living with it your entire adult life? People have heard of the "born in the wrong body" narrative, which makes intuitive sense: if female souls are designed to work female bodies, and you're a female soul tethered to a male body, you can imagine the soul finding the mismatch distressing and wanting to fix it. But if, as I'm positing for my case, there is no mismatch in any objective sense, then where does the desire come from? How do you make sense of wanting to change physiological sex, for reasons that don't have anything to do with already neurologically resembling that sex? What's really going on there, psychologically?

Part of what makes this so hard to talk about besides it being weird and wrong, is that we don't really understand how our own minds work in a legible way; we just experience things. Even if you're not sure that other people really see "the same" colors as you (and you don't know how to reformulate the question to not be confused), you can at least agree on color words by pointing to Pantone swatches, but I'm not sure I have the language to convey the facts about the qualia I associate with the word autogynephilia to someone who doesn't already feel something similar.

But I have to try. A clue: when I'm ... uh. When I'm—well, you know ...

(I guess I can't evade responsibility for the fact that I am, in fact, blogging about this.)

A clue: when I'm masturbating, and imagining all the forms I would take if the magical transformation technology were real (the frame story can vary, but the basic idea is always the same), I don't think I'm very good at first-person visualization? The content of the fantasy is about me being a woman (I mean, having a woman's body), but the associated mental imagery mostly isn't the first-person perspective I would actually experience if the fantasy were real; I think I'm mostly imagining a specific woman (which one, varies a lot) as from the outside, admiring her face, and her voice, and her breasts, but somehow wanting the soul behind those eyes to be me. Wanting my body to be shaped like that, to be in control of that avatar of beauty—not even to do anything overtly "sexy" in particular, but just to exist like that.

If the magical transformation technology were real, I would want a full-length mirror. (And in the real world, I would probably crossdress a lot more often, if I could pass to myself in the mirror. My face ruins it and makeup doesn't help.)

What's going on here? Speaking of mirrors, the sexologist James Cantor speculates: mirror neurons. Way, way back in the 1980s, Italian neuroscientists wired up the brains of macaque monkeys with electrodes, and noticed that some of the same brain regions would light up when the monkey grabbed a rasin, and when the monkey watched the researcher eat a rasin. These "mirror neurons" are speculated to form the basis of empathy.

So, the phrase "mirror neurons" is not and cannot be an answer. Real understanding is about detailed predictive models, not what words to repeat back in school. I can't expect to understand the real answer without spending multiple years studying neuroscience, and if I did, I couldn't expect to transmit the model to you in one blog post. (That would be several blog posts.)

Still, the macaque–rasin anecdote is at least suggestive of hypotheses in the general area of, "The brain uses shared representations for 'self' and others, in a way such that it's possible for the part of the brain that computes sexual attraction to 'get confused' about the self–other distinction in a way that manifests as sexual desire to be the object of attraction." Or something like that.

More clues come in the form of the following trio of observations.

One, I'm not particularly repulsed by my own body in real life. ("Vague disappointment, sometimes" isn't the same thing as "repulsion".)

Two, my fantasies about having a female body aren't particularly, um, discriminating? On the contrary, if I had magical BodyApp tech, I would want to experiment with being different ages or races or body types of women.

Three, the thought being transformed into a different male body, other than my own, is repulsive. Perhaps less so in the sense that thinking about it is horrifying, and more that I can't think about it—my imagination "bounces off" the idea before any Body Horror emotions can kick in.

These details seem hard to square with gender identity theories: why does my own male body, and only my own male body, seem "okay"? Whereas this is exactly what you would expect from the "male sexuality getting confused about a self–other distinction" story: I want to be transformed into all different sorts of women for the same reason ordinary straight guys want to fuck all different sorts of women, and I can't even entertain the idea of being transformed into other men for the same reason ordinary straight guys can't even entertain the idea of fucking other men.

An interesting prediction of this story is that if the nature of the "confusion", this—"erotic target location error"?—is agnostic to the object of sexual attraction, then you should see the same pattern in men with unusual sexual interests. ("Men" because I think we legitimately want to be shy about generalizing across sexes for sex differences in the parts of the mind that are specifically about mating.)

And this is actually what we see. Most men are attracted to women, but some fraction of them get off on the idea of being or becoming women—autogynephilia. So if some men are attracted to, say, amputees, we would expect some fraction of them to get off on the idea of being amputeesapotemnophilia. Some men are, unfortunately, pedophiles, and some fraction of them get off on the idea of being children. Some men are interested in anthropomorphic animals, and being anthropomorphic animals"furries".

Recently I had an occasion (don't ask) to look up if there was a word for having a statue fetish. Turns out it's called agalmatophilia, defined by Wikipedia as "sexual attraction to a statue, doll, mannequin or other similar figurative object", which "may include a desire for actual sexual contact with the object, a fantasy of having sexual (or non-sexual) encounters with an animate or inanimate instance of the preferred object, the act of watching encounters between such objects, or"—wait for it ... "sexual pleasure gained from thoughts of being transformed or transforming another into the preferred object." I don't think the Wikipedia editor who wrote that last phrase was being a shill for the general erotic-target-location-error hypothesis because it has political implications; I think "among guys who are sexually interested in X, some fraction of them want to be X" is just something you notice when you honestly look at the world of guys who are sexually interested in arbitrary X.

And, and—I've never told anyone this and have barely thought about it in years, but while I'm blogging about all this anyway—I have a few vague memories from early teenagerhood of having transformation fantasies about things other than women. Like wondering (while masturbating) what it would like to be a dog, or a horse, or a marble statue of a woman. Anyway, I lost interest in those before too long, but I think this vague trace-of-a-memory is evidence for the thing going on with me being an underlying erotic-target-location-error-like predisposition rather than an underlying intersex condition.

I don't know the details of what this "erotic target location error" thing is supposed to be, exactly—and would expect my beliefs to change a lot if anyone knew the details and could explain them to me—but I think some story in this general vicinity has to be the real explanation of what's going on with me. How else do you make sense of an otherwise apparently normal biological male (whose physical and psychological traits seem to be basically in the male normal range, even if he's one of those sensitive bookish males rather than being "macho") having the conjunction of the beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing and, specifically, erotic female-transformation fantasies of the kind I've described?

Am I supposed to claim to be a lesbian trapped inside a man's body? That I am neurologically female in some real sense, and that's the true cause of my beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing?

Maybe that could be spun to seem superficially plausible to those who know me casually, but I don't know how to square that account with the details of my inner life (including the details that I wouldn't blog about if I didn't have to). I think if you used magical transformation technology to put an actual lesbian in a copy of my body, I can imagine her/him having Body Horror at her/his alien new form and wish to be restored to her/his original body on that account, and maybe her/his identification with her/his former sex ("gender") would look sort of like my beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing (if you squint).

But I don't think she/he would spontaneously invent obsessively jacking off to fantasies of being able to magically transform into various different female bodies ... unless she was already into that stuff before being magically transformed into my twin. But ... is that even a thing among many (or any) lesbians? To be clear, there is a lot of porn in this genre! But it seems to entirely be created for and consumed by ... men? Adult human males?

I just don't see any reason to doubt the obvious explanation that the root cause of my gender problems is specifically a bug in male sexuality. I didn't have the fancy vocabulary for it then, but the basic idea seemed pretty obvious in 2005, and seems equally obvious now.

(A "bug" with respect to the design criteria of evolution, not with respect to the human morality that affirms that I like being this way. Some, fearing stigma, would prefer to tone-police "bug" down to "variation", but people who don't understand the naturalistic fallacy aren't going to understand anything else I'm saying, and I want to emphasize that the mirror-neurons-or-whatever and ordinary male sexuality weren't functionally optimized to collide like this.)

If I were to actually become female, it wouldn't seem like the scintillating apotheosis of sexual desire and the most important thing in the world. It would just feel normal, in the way that (I can only imagine) actual women feel their own existence is normal.

No doubt many women appreciate their own bodies, but a woman's positive body self-image experience of, "I feel attractive today", is going to be very different from the autogynephile-with-BodyApp's experience of, "Oh my God, I have breasts and a vagina that I can look at and touch without needing anyone's permission; this is the scintillating apotheosis of sexual desire and the most important thing in the world."

In this way, autogynephilia is intrinsically self-undermining in a way that fantasies of flying to the moon are not. This doesn't in any way lessen the desire or make it go away—any more than the guy who gets turned on by entropy decreasing in a closed system would have his libido suddenly and permanently vanish upon learning about the second law of thermodynamics. But it does, I suspect, change the way you think of it: it makes a difference whether you interpret the desire as a confused anomaly in male sexuality—the scintillating but ultimately untrue thought—or take it literally.

But the reasons not to take it literally might not be obvious to everyone. The detailed exposition above about what it would even mean to change sex is the result of a lot of thinking influenced by everything I've read and learned—and in particular, the reductionist methodology I learned from Yudkowsky, and in even more particular, the very specific warning in "Changing Emotions" (and its predecessor in the Extropians mailing-list archives) that changing sex is a hard problem.

We can imagine that a male who was like me in having this erotic-target-location-erroneous sexuality and associated beautiful pure sacred self-identity feelings, but who read different books in a different order, might come to very different conclusions about himself.

If you don't have the conceptual vocabulary to say, "I have a lot of these beautiful pure sacred self-identity feelings about being female, but it seems like a pretty obvious guess that there must be some sort of causal relationship between that and this erotic fantasy, which is realistically going to be a variation in male sexuality, such that it would be silly to interpret the beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing literally" you might end up saying something simpler like, "I want to be a woman." Or possibly even, "I am a woman, on the inside, where it counts."

(As Yudkowsky occasionally remarks, our beliefs about how our minds work have very little impact on how they actually work. Aristotle thought the brain was an organ for cooling the blood, but he was just wrong; the theory did not become true of him because he believed it.)

What theory I end up believing about myself matters, because different theories that purport to explain the same facts can make very different predictions about facts not yet observed, or about the effects of interventions.

If I have some objective inner female gender as the result of a brain-intersex condition, then getting on, and staying on, feminizing hormone replacement therapy (HRT) would presumably be a good idea specifically because my brain is designed to "run on" estrogen. But if my beautiful pure sacred self-identity feelings are fundamentally a misinterpretation of misdirected male sexuality, then it's not clear that I want the psychological effects of HRT: if there were some unnatural way to give me a female (or just more female-like) body without messing with my internal neurochemistry, that would actually be desirable.

Or, you might think that if the desire is just a confusion in male sexuality, maybe real life body-modding wouldn't be desirable? Maybe autogynephilic men think they want female bodies, but if they actually transitioned in real life (as opposed to just having incompetently non-realistic daydreams about it all day and especially while masturbating), they would feel super-dysphoric about it, because (and which proves that) they're just perverted men, and not actual trans women, which are a different thing. You might think so!

But, empirically, I did grow (small) breasts as a result of my five-month HRT experiment, and I think it's actually been a (small) quality-of-life improvement for approximately the reasons I expected going in. I just—like the æsthetic?—and wanted it to be part of my æsthetic, and now it is, and I don't quite remember what my chest was like before, kind of like how I don't quite remember what it was like to have boy-short hair before I grew out my signature beautiful–beautiful ponytail. (Though I'm still kicking myself for not taking a bare-chested "before" photo.) I don't see any particular reason to believe this experience wouldn't replicate all the way down the slope of interventions.

Fundamentally, I think I can make better decisions for myself by virtue of having an accurate model of what's really going on with me—a model that uses all these fine mental distinctions using the everything-is-a-vector-space skill, such that I have the language to talk about my obsessive paraphilic desire to be shaped like a woman without wanting to actually be a woman, similarly to how the verthandi in "Failed Utopia #4-2" aren't actually women.

If the actual desire implemented in one's actual brain in the real physical universe takes the form of (roughly translating from desire into English) "You know, I kind of want my own breasts (&c.)", it may be weird and perverted to admit this and act on it (!!)—but would it be any less weird and perverted to act on it under the false (in my case) pretense of an invisible female gender identity? If you know what the thing is, can it be any worse to just own it?

If we actually had magical perfect transformation technology or something close to it—if you could grow a female body in a vat, and transfer my brain into it, and had a proven solution to the motor-mapping and skull-size issues—if it cost $300,000, I would take out a bank loan and do it, and live happily ever after.

Since we don't have that ... the existing approximations don't really seem like a good idea for me, all things considered?

As a professional computer programmer, I have learned to fear complexity and dependencies. If you've ever wondered why it seems like all software is buggy and terrible, it's because no one knows what they're doing. Each individual programmer and engineer understands their piece of the system well enough that companies can ship products that mostly do what they claim, but there's a lot of chaos and despair where the pieces don't quite fit and no one knows why.

But computing is the easy case, a universe entirely of human design, of worlds that can be made and unmade on a whim (when that whim is specified in sufficient detail). Contrast that to the unfathomable messiness of evolved biological systems, and I think I have reason to be wary of signing up to be a lifelong medical patient. Not out of any particular distrust of doctors and biomedical engineers, but out of respect that their jobs—not necessarily the set of tasks they do to stay employed at actually existing hospitals and universities, but the idealized Platonic forms of their jobs—are much harder than almost anyone realizes.

All drugs have side-effects; all surgeries have the potential for complications. Through centuries of trial and error (where "error" means suffering and disfigurement and death), our civilization has accumulated a suite of hacks for which the benefits seem to exceed the costs (given circumstances you would prefer not to face in the first place).

In a miracle of science, someone made the observations to notice that human females have higher levels of (8R,9S,13S,14S,17S)-13-Methyl-6,7,8,9,11,12,14,15,16,17-decahydrocyclopenta[a]phenanthrene-3,17-diol than human males. In a glorious exhibition of mad science, someone did the experiments to notice that artificially synthesizing that ...-iol (or collecting it from pregnant horses' urine) and administering it to males successfully pushes some aspects of their phenotype in the female direction: breast growth and fat redistribution and agreeableness—at the cost of sterility and increased risk of venous thromboembolism and osteoporosis.

For all that my body is disappointingly male and therefore ugly, it works. It makes the hormones that it needs to function without me needing to dissolve a pill under my tongue every day—without saddling me with extra dependencies on the supply chains that make the pills, or the professional apparatus to draw my blood and tell me what pills to take—without me needing to know what "hormones" are.

For all that my penis is boring at best and annoying at worst, it works. The organ does the things that it's designed to do; it lets me pee while standing up, and reward myself while pretending that it isn't there.

Did you know that trans women have to dilate their neovagina after bottom surgery? Yeah. There are these hard tubes of various widths, and you're supposed to stick them up there multiple times a day after surgery (and weekly indefinitely) to prevent the cavity from losing depth. I'm told that there are important technical reasons why it would be objectively wrong to use the phrase open wound in this situation, but the body doesn't know the important technical reasons and you still need to dilate.

I am glad that these interventions exist for the people who are brave and desperate enough to need them. But given that I'm not that desperate and not that brave, would it not be wiser to trust the paraphrased proverb and not look a gift man in the mouth?

My beautiful–beautiful ponytail was a smart move (and hair length isn't sexually dimorphic anyway; it's only our culture's arbitrary gender conventions that makes it seem relevant in this context).

My five-month HRT experiment was a smart move, both for the beautiful–beautiful breast tissue, and For Science.

My laser beard removal sessions were ... arguably a waste of money, since I still have to shave even after 13 treatments?—but it at least got the density of my ugly–gross facial hair down a bit. Trying it was definitely a smart move given what I knew at the time, and I just might be rich enough and disgusted-by-facial-hair enough to go back for more density-reduction. (Electrolysis gets better results than laser, but it's more expensive and a lot more painful.)

People get cosmetic surgery sometimes for non-sex-change-related reasons. I guess if I grew a little braver and a little more desperate, I could imagine wanting to research if and how "mild" facial feminization surgery is a thing—just, selfishly, to be happier with my reflection. (Probably a smarter move to check out movie-grade latex masks first, to see if it's at all possible to attain the bliss of passing in the mirror without taking a knife to my one and only real-life face.)

And I should probably look into figuring out if there's anything to be done for my hairline before it gets any worse?

But staying on transition-grade HRT indefinitely—doesn't seem like a smart move? Even though I would be happy with the fat-redistribution effects, I don't expect the health effects to be net-positive, and I don't expect the psychological effects to be net-desirable (even if I wasn't self-aware enough to notice much besides libido change during my five-month experiment).

And social transition—really doesn't seem like a smart move? If we actually had magical perfect transformation technology, that would happen automatically (people are pretty good at noticing each other's sex), and I would expect to be very happy. (After some socio-psychological adjustment period; remember, in the real world, I didn't even manage to change nicknames.) But given that we don't have magical perfect transformation technology, I don't expect to pull off that kind of ... perma-LARP. I mean really pull it off—everyone in Berkeley and Portland will be very careful to respect your pronouns the minute you come out, but they will be lying. I know, because I lie. Of course I say "she" when the intelligent social web requires it—I'm not a monster—but it's only on a case-by-case basis whether I believe it.

It's definitely possible to pass alright with a lot of work (voice training for trans women is a thing!), but it's not clear why I would want to put in all that work, when overall, my life is fundamentally okay as ... a man? An adult human male? As a matter of objective fact, which doesn't care about my beautiful pure sacred self-identity feelings.

How dumb would I have to think you are, to expect you not to notice?

And how dumb would you have think I am, to expect me to expect you to pretend not to notice?


Even if I never took the beautiful pure sacred self identity thing too literally, owning it for what it really is—an illusion, the scintillating but ultimately untrue thought—takes a different tone in the harsh light of my deconversion from psychological-sex-differences denialism. In "Changing Emotions", Yudkowsky wrote—

If I fell asleep and woke up as a true woman—not in body, but in brain—I don't think I'd call her "me". The change is too sharp, if it happens all at once.

In the comments, I wrote

Is it cheating if you deliberately define your personal identity such that the answer is No?

I now realize that the correct answer to the question is—yes! Yes, it's cheating! Category-membership claims of the form "X is a Y" represent hidden probabilistic inferences; inferring that entity X is a member of category Y means using observations about X to decide to use knowledge about members of Y to make predictions about features of X that you haven't observed yet. But this AI trick can only work if the entities you've assigned to category Y are actually similar in the real world—if they form a tight cluster in configuration space, such that using the center of the cluster to make predictions about unobserved features gets you close to the right answer, on average.

The rules don't change when the entity X happens to be "my female analogue" and the category Y happens to be "me". The ordinary concept of "personal identity" tracks how the high-level features of individual human organisms are stable over time. You're going to want to model me-on-Monday and me-on-Thursday as "the same" person even if my Thursday-self woke up on the wrong side of bed and has three whole days of new memories. When interacting with my Thursday-self, you're going to be using your existing mental model of me, plus a diff for "He's grumpy" and "Haven't seen him in three days"—but that's a very small diff, compared to the diff between me and some other specific person you know, or the diff between me and a generic human who you don't know.

In everyday life, we're almost never in doubt as to which entities we want to consider "the same" person (like me-on-Monday and me-on-Thursday), but we can concoct science-fictional thought experiments that force the Sorites problem to come up. What if you could interpolate between two people—construct a human with a personality "in between" yours and mine, that had both or some fraction of each of our memories? (You know, like Tuvix.) At what point on the spectrum would that person be me, or you, or both, or neither? (Derek Parfit has a book with lots of these.)

People do change a lot over time; there is a sense in which, in some contexts, we don't want to say that a sixty-year-old is the "same person" they were when they were twenty—and forty years is "only" 4,870 three-day increments. But if a twenty-year-old were to be magically replaced with their sixty-year-old future self (not just superficially wearing an older body like a suit of clothing, but their brain actually encoding forty more years of experience and decay) ... well, there's a reason I reached for the word "replace" (suggesting putting a different thing in something's place) when describing the scenario. That's what Yudkowsky means by "the change is too sharp"—the ordinary sense in which we consider people as the "same person" from day to day (despite people having more than one proton in a different place from day to day) has an implicit Lipschitz condition buried in it, an assumption that people don't change too fast.

The thing about Sorites problems is that they're incredibly boring. The map is not the territory. The distribution of sand-configurations we face in everyday life is such that we usually have an answer as to whether the sand "is a heap" or "is not a heap", but in the edge-cases where we're not sure, arguing about whether to use the word "heap" doesn't change the configuration of sand. You might think that if the category is blurry, you therefore have some freedom to draw its boundaries the way you prefer—but the probabilistic inferences you make on the basis of category membership can be quantitatively better or worse. Preferences over concept definitions that aren't about maximizing predictive accuracy are therefore preferences for deception, because "making probability distributions less accurate in order to achieve some other goal" is what deception means.

That's why defining your personal identity to get the answer you want is cheating. If the answer you wanted was actually true, you could just say so without needing to want it.

When Phineas Gage's friends said he was "no longer Gage" after the railroad accident, what they were trying to say was that interacting with post-accident Gage was more relevantly similar to interacting with a stranger than it was to interacting with pre-accident Gage, even if Gage-the-physical-organism was contiguous along the whole stretch of spacetime.

Same principle when Yudkowsky wrote, "If I fell asleep and woke up as a true woman [...] I don't think I'd call her 'me'". The claim is that psychological sex differences are large enough to violate the Lipschitz condition imposed by our ordinary concept of personal identity. Maybe he was wrong, but if so, that cashes out as being wrong about how similar women and men actually are (which in principle could be operationalized and precisely computed, even if we don't know how to make it precise), not whether we prefer the "call her me" or "don't call her me" conclusion and want to retroactively redefine the meaning of the words in order to make the claim come out "true."

Do people ever really recover from being religious? I still endorse the underlying psychological motivation that makes me prefer the "call her me" conclusion, the intention that made me think I could get away with defining it to be true—even if I don't believe that anymore.

While the Sequence explaining Yudkowsky's metaethics was being published (which a lot of people, including me, didn't quite "get" at the time; I found a later précis easier to understand), I was put off by the extent to which Yudkowsky seemed to want to ground the specification of value in the evolved design of the human brain, as if culturally-defined values were irrelevant, to be wiped away by the extrapolation of what people would want if they knew more, thought faster, &c..

And the reason I felt that way was because I was aware of how much of a historical anomaly my sacred ideological value of antisexism was. Contrast to Yudkowsky's casually "sexist" speculation in the comment section:

If there are distinct categories of human transpersonal values, I would expect them to look like "male and female babies", "male children", "male adults", "female children", "female adults", "neurological damage 1", "neurological damage 2", not "Muslims vs. Christians!"

You can see why this view would be unappealing to an ideologue eager to fight a culture war along an "Antisexism vs. Sexism" axis.

Looking back—I do think I had a point that culturally-inculcated values won't completely wash out under extrapolation, but I was wrong to conflate ideology with values as I did. I was vastly underestimating the extent to which your current sacred ideology can be shown to be meaningfully "wrong" with better information—and, by design of the extrapolation procedure, this shouldn't be threatening.

Your morality doesn't have to converge with that of your genetic twin who was raised in a culture with a different ideology—maybe culturally learned values from childhood get "frozen" after reasoning ability kicks in, such that I would never see eye-to-eye with my analogue who was raised with (say) a traditional Muslim view of relations between the sexes, no matter how much we debated and no matter how many new facts we learned.

At the same time, while reflecting on one's own values and how to refine them in response to new information and new situations, the question of what your genetic analogue raised in a different culture would think ... seems like relevant and informative information?

When I introspect on the causes of my whole gender ... thing, I see three parents in the causal graph: autogynephilia, being a sensitive boy rather than a macho guy, and my ideological commitment to antisexism (wanting to treat feminism as a religion, as a special case of egalitarianism as our state religion). The first two things seem likely to be more "innate", more robust to perturbations—but the the ideology thing mostly seems like a mistake insofar as it's committed to making bad predictions about human psychology—and the process of figuring out how to do better would benefit from looking at the space of other possible mistakes.

"Anyone who gives a part of themselves to a[n ideology] discovers a sense of beauty in it." When figuring out how to rescue the spirit of early-twenty-first century (pre-Great Awokening) egalitarian individualism in light of the terrible discovery that none of this shit is true, it's instructive to consider how you would have formulated your values, if you had always known the true state of affairs to begin with (even if, as a point of historical fact, your mistaken beliefs had a causal role in the development of the values you're trying to rescue).

Suppose it is true that female adults and male adults have distinct transpersonal values. At the time, I found the prospect horrifying—but that just shows that the design of male transpersonal values contains within it the potential (under appropriate cultural conditions) to be horrified by sex differences in transpersonal values. Naïvely, I don't want it to be the case that women are a different thing that I don't understand, but that preference itself probably arises out of—something like, the love of a man for a woman leading to, wanting to be aligned with women in the sense of AI alignment, to genuinely do right by them—which vision is threatened by the idea of the sexes having fundamentally different interests.

(During the vicissitudes of my 2017 psychotic episode, I wrote a note: "cooperate with men who cooperate with women [who] cooperate with men who cooperate with women who cooperate with men".)

But what constitutes doing right by women, depends on the actual facts of the matter about psychological sex differences—if you assume, based on empathic inference, that the target of your benevolence is just like you, you might end up taking actions that hurt rather than help them if you live in one of the possible worlds where they're not just like you.

The thing to be committed to is not any potentially flawed object-level ideology, like antisexism or Christianity, but the features of human psychology that make the object-level ideology seem like a good idea. That way, you can update when the thing that initially seemed like a good idea turns out to be a bad idea in light of new information about what was already the case the whole time. People can stand what is true, for we are already doing so.


Anyway, that—briefly (I mean it)—is the story about my weird sexual obsession about being a woman and how I used to think that it was morally wrong to believe in psychological sex differences, but then I gradually changed my mind and decided that psychological sex differences are probably real and therefore morally okay to believe in after being deeply influenced by this robot-cult blog about the logic of Science.

It's probably not that interesting? If we were still living in the socio-political environment of 2009, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be blogging about my weird sexual obsessions (as evidenced by the fact that, in 2009, I wasn't blogging about them). It would take some unfathomably bizarre twist of circumstances to induce me to write publicly about such deeply private and sensitive matters—like my weird sexual obsession ending up at the center of one of the defining political issues of our time. But such an absurd scenario couldn't actually happen ... right??


Point Man

Chinese legend tells of a eunuch named Zhao Gao, a chancellor to the Second Emperor. The power-hungry Zhao Gao wanted to arrange a coup, but was worried that the other members of the imperial court wouldn't cooperate with his designs.

One day, Zhao Gao announced a horse was being given to the young Emperor as a gift—and presented a deer. The Emperor expressed confusion: "Perhaps the chancellor is mistaken, calling a deer a horse?" The other members of the imperial court were questioned. Some, reporting what they saw before them, said it was a deer. Others, fearing Zhao Gao, said it was a horse, or remained silent.

Later, Zhao Gao arranged for the execution of the courtiers who said it was a deer, or were silent.

It was all a test: the courtiers who agreed with Zhao Gao, even though what he said was absurd—precisely because it was absurd—proved their loyalty to him, whereas the ones who spoke the plain truth revealed themselves as untrustworthy for his purposes: to agree with a true claim would be compatible with either loyalty or mere honesty, but to agree with absurdity leaves no ambiguity about one's motives. From this story comes the Chinese four-character idiom point deer make horse, to deliberately misrepresent.

I used to wonder: what was it like to be one of the courtiers who survived the test? Did they consciously think, "Well, I don't know why Zhao Gao is calling this deer a horse, but he seems serious, so I'd better play along, too"—or did they trust Zhao Gao's words more than their own eyes, and manage to really believe themselves that it was a horse?

These days, I have a different question.

What was it like to be the deer? To be used like that, as a prop in someone else's political power game, without having any idea what's going on?


During a recent discussion of gender and pronoun conventions, I received a fascinating reply that I thought was very telling about an aspect of the Zeitgeist that usually remains covert. My interlocutor said (edited and paraphrased):

I can imagine a sane society using he and she to refer to this-person-looks-male and this-person-looks-female. But in the society that exists today, "what pronouns does this person use for trans person" on-average conveys very relevant information about the speaker and their attitudes to trans people. (I mean this in a this-is-just-how-the-statistics-work rather than an accusatory way; I think in your particular case we have lots of other data.)

I agree that there's going to be some confusion if you talk about someone as a "she" and the person who turns up is obviously a.m.a.b. But I think the confusion that results from calling them "she" is a lot more consequential. Progressive communication norms absolutely reflect a concern for information efficiency! It takes a lot less time to say "she" than it does to say "he, but I also think trans people are great."

(Bolding mine.)

I see. So the new norms are optimized to convey information about the speaker rather than what is being spoken about.

Almost like ... a loyalty test?

And the less intuitive it is, the better it works as a loyalty test: referring to an obviously male person as he merely reflects conventional usage and reveals no information about one's motives, whereas referring to an obvious male as she—or using singular they for a named individual whose sex is apparent—extracts a cognitive cost, however slight—a cost allies are more willing to pay than non-allies.

I'm not suggesting a conspiracy, of course; just the design signature of cultural evolution.

Here's my theory. As a very rare biological anomaly, there have always been an extreme right tail of very masculine lesbians who fit into Society better as men and very feminine gay men who fit into Society better as women, and twentieth-century doctors developed medical interventions to aid them in this transformation. This worked pretty well.

Separately, there are, and perhaps always have been, paraphilic men who wished they were women—autogynephiles—and the extreme right tail of them also sought out interventions from the twentieth-century doctors. Tragically, this didn't usually work as well, but it was rare enough for autogynephiles to actually attempt it (as opposed to privately fantasizing or playing dress-up) that it didn't have much impact on the social order.

The legal changes required for the twentieth-century doctors' innovation was sponsored by the political coalition of individually non-hegemonic identity groups, whose organizing principle had always been to fight on behalf of the marginalized—those who, without the coalition's sponsorship, would have been (even more) victimized by the hegemonic social order.

But when the source of a coalition's power rests on the loyalty of the victims it protects, and of their allies, then those seeking to win more power for the coalition have an incentive to both create more victims, and distinguish loyal from fair-weather allies.

Aggressively marketing "being trans" as an atomic identity that everyone needs to celebrate on pain of being responsible for someone's suicide, serves both functions: a lot of young men with autogynephilia or internalized misandry, and quirky but impressionable teenage girls, get recruited to the victimhood coalition (who might have otherwise gotten married and joined the power base of the hegemonic social order), and everyone who cares about having a public concept of biological sex gets "outed" as an insufficiently-loyal ally (who can't free-ride off the coalition's successes without contributing). It works even better if any group that doesn't have the necessary quota of trans people is marked for political attack on the grounds of being insufficiently inclusive.

Again, no individual mastermind is required for the collective outcome to play out this way. Being proud of a political group identity and seeking to promote its strength and power is normal. Being suspicious of those who refuse to pay the cost of signaling loyalty to the group is normal. Wanting to change sex is—not "normal" exactly, but a reasonably common and harmless fantasy (the scintillating but ultimately untrue thought) that a lot of people have without being in the homosexual extreme-right-tail-of-sex-atypical-behavior taxon that sex reassignment was invented for. (A 1994 study found that among college students, 5.6% of males and 13.2% of females had fantasized about being the opposite sex.)

As a transhumanist, I believe that fantasies deserve to be fulfilled—but actually fulfilled, fulfilled for real, not humored by everyone forcing everyone else to pretend in order to maintain the equilibrium in some idiot political game.

I'm glad that sex reassignment exists for those who need it, or just want it. (I would want it if the technology were better.) But this new culture in which any attempt to talk about sex in the common language gets adversarially reinterpreted as a claim about this mysterious "gender" thing that has no particular truth conditions other than the individual's say-so, isn't helping transsexuals who have successfully transitioned and moved on with their lives. Relative to more honest alternatives that could be invented or rediscovered, I very much doubt this culture is helping those who enthusiastically advocate for and participate in it—if they only knew in detail what they're selling and being sold. Selfishly, I resent the forced updates to my native language, which I still need to make sense of the world I see.

And, and—that poor deer!


Link: "See Color"

Here we are in the future
Here we are in the future and it's wrong

"Who We Are", Steven Universe: The Movie

Whether or not you support the ongoing ideological transition from late-20th-century individualist "content of their character" liberalism to the successor ideology, it is imperative that students of literature and the arts know how to judge propaganda on its merits: not everything that tries to teach good morals is good art, and not everything your ideological enemies put out is badly done, either.

It is in this spirit that I say that the new Steven Universe anti-racism public service announcement is a masterfully well-executed piece of propaganda. It's actually persuasive. I've never seen anything like it.

There's some sense in which I think the creators "got lucky" with this short—I didn't think much of the two prior entries in the series, "Tell the Whole Story" and "Don't Deny It—Defy It", which follow the same pattern of portraying the filming of a 1990s-alike liberal PSA being interrupted by the actors supplying a more up-to-date woke moral. (I found Pearl's rant in "Tell the Whole Story" unpersuasive—you would expect systemic racism to suppress black accomplishment in the past, not just the portrayal thereof in modern textbooks; as for "Don't Deny It", I was too distracted by the kids taking gay marriage for granted to process the claim that anti-miscegenation attitudes are still a potent threat—Loving was forty-eight years before Obergefell.)

In contrast, "See Color"'s attacks on old-school liberalism land. We open to a '90s-alike PSA invoking the "doesn't matter if you're black, white, or purple" trope (which has been cringe for as long as I (born 1987) can remember, but which I imagine sounded progressive the first time someone said it), until Amethyst breaks character to object to the script—

AMETHYST: What the—woah, woah, woah. Hold up a minute here. Ugh, who wrote this? I think it kind of does matter that I'm purple? I mean, I'm purple because I'm literally an alien.

BLACK KID: Well I'm not an alien, but it definitely matters to me that I'm black.

WHITE KID: Yeah, it makes a difference that I'm white. [to BLACK KID] I know the two of us get treated, very differently.

AMETHYST: I just think it's messed up to compare me being an alien, to you two being different races. You're both human; you're totally biologically the same. Adding purple people into a lesson about human racism makes no sense.

BLACK KID and WHITE KID: [in unison] Yeah, that is pretty weird.

WHITE KID: I think people with the 'black, white, or purple' thing because adding a fantasy race in there helps distract from the actual racism black people have to deal with.

BLACK KID: Right. My experience with anti-black racism is really specific. Other people of color experience other forms of racism, too. But you won't see any of that if you don't see color.

AMETHYST: Dude, so this entire public service announcement could be a ploy to avoid talking about racism altogether! Hey, ah, could we get a rewrite where we appreciate each other without erasing what makes each of us different?

How is the old-school liberal to reply to this? I say: the function of saying "or purple" is to appeal to a principle of equal treatment. Adding a fantasy race in there highlights the universality of our commitment to equality: purple magical alien gem superheroines might not exist, but if they did, they would be entitled to the same rights and dignity as everyone.

But how should our principle of majestic equality be applied? Categories summarize informationcluster-structure in the real world. As a matter of AI design, there would be no functional reason to assign entities to different categories, if they didn't differ in some decision-relevant ways. The reason it's pretty weird to reference Amethyst's skin color in a lesson about human racism, is because the challenges Amethyst might face as a gem in a world of humans—perhaps the perceptual skew of living thousands of years when most humans don't see a hundred—are going to depend on the ways in which gems and humans are actually different, which don't apply to humans of different races who are relevantly the same.

In this way, we see that old-school liberalism is effectively the position that race shouldn't exist as a cognitively meaningful category. But is it that easy? If there's some sense in which race does exist—even just as a social "type tag" based on superficial anatomic markers in humans who are otherwise totally biologically the same—then verbally claiming to pretend that it doesn't, isn't a realistic or honest strategy for remediating the harm done by unfair conventions that culturally evolved around the presence of the category.


You Are Right and I Was Wrong: Reply to Tailcalled on Causality

Friend of the blog Tailcalled responds to my 2016 response to Ozy on autogynephilia!

Summarizing—Ozy had claimed that the concept of autogynephilia is conflating three things: ordinary female sexual behavior (cis women also have female bodies in their fantasies!), a manifestation of gender dysphoria, and "true" autogynephilia without concomitant gender issues.

I was, and am, intensely skeptical that these are really three separate things. I think it's more parsimonious to suppose that some males are autogynephilic, and that some fraction of them go on to develop sex dysphoria, rather than to posit different causes for what really looks like the same erotic phenomenon depending on whether the person goes on to transition or not. But at the time, I didn't have the language to properly articulate the theoretical basis of my skepticism. Frustrated by the tendency I perceived of many trans advocates to resist scientific generalizations about psychology while acknowledging the empirical correlations that motivate the generalizations, I wrote, "Summarizing correlations is the entire point of making a taxonomy."

But as Tailcalled's response points out, this is just wrong! Different causal theories can generate the same correlations in a particular set of observations, while still making meaningfully and drastically different claims about the world.

As an illustrative example, suppose you observe that among professional athletes in Chicago, basketball players wear red jerseys, but gridiron football players wear navy-blue jerseys. Reifying these observations into a two-type "basketball/red" and "football/blue" taxonomy of professional athletes is perhaps not the worst theory—it does compress the length of the message needed to describe your observations—but it's definitely not a good one, largely because it's so fragile: it completely breaks down the moment you leave Chicago, or the Bulls unveil a new jersey, or you just look at what the visiting team is wearing. And it's fragile because it doesn't reflect what's "really going on" in the world: in fact, what color shirt you're wearing doesn't causally affect what games you can play, and vice versa.

In the case of sex dysphoria in developmental males, I think the documented correlations between age-of-onset, sexual orientation, history of female embodiment fantasies, &c., do reflect distinct taxons in what's really going on in the world. (If I only get one table to showcase the correlational data, I'll pick Table VI from Anne Lawrence's "Sexuality Before and After Male-to-Female Sex Reassignment Surgery".) I think alternative theories that try to explain the same bimodality in the data, such as Veale, Clarke, and Lomax's identity defense model (which chalks up the difference to whether or not defense mechanisms are used to suppress a gender-variant identity) are a stretch.

But I'm making that scientific judgment between theories based on my own parsimony intuitions applied to everything I've read and seen; convincing someone else who doesn't already think the same the way is, and should be, a lot more work. Trying to get away with "You agree to the bimodality, therefore you must agree to the taxonomy" would be both lazy and wrong, and I thank Tailcalled for his vigilance.



Liability

I'm not a coward, I've just never been tested
I'd like to think that if I was I would pass
Look at the tested and think "there but for the grace go I"
Might be a coward, I'm afraid of what I might find out

—"The Impression That I Get" by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones

We can't change the past. When someone does something wrong, the act of saying "Sorry" doesn't help. Actually feeling sorry doesn't help, either. Saying or feeling sorry can only help as part of a process that decreases the measure of the wrong across the multiverse. We can't change our past, but we can update on its evidence—use the memories and records of it as input to a function that changes who we are in a way that makes us perform better in the future (which is somebody else's past). And we can create timeless incentives: if people know that history (and the court system) has its eyes on them, they might do things differently than they would if they knew no one would ever hold them to account.

The update part is more important than the timeless-incentives part. The first duty is to investigate exactly what happened and why. If you can learn the causal graph, you can compute counterfactuals: if this-and-such detail had been different but everything else had been the same, what would have happened instead? If you can compute that if this-and-such detail had been different, then something better would have happened, then you can make advance plans and take advance precautions to make sure the analogous detail takes a more favorable value in analogous future situations.

And, yeah, in addition to making better plans, you can also do incentives (to timelessly influence the past) and restitution (to try to make up for the past): punish the guilty, give them bad reputations, make them pay cash damages to their victims, &c. But you have to get the facts first, so that you can compute what punishments, reputations, and restitution to impose.

You must thoroughly research this, not only when your actions participated in disaster, but also when your actions participate in a near-miss "warning shot." It is not the case that all's well that ends well when you're playing for measure in many worlds. If you were in a situation where disaster had probability 0.5, and disaster didn't happen, that just means this copy of you got lucky.

And just because this copy of you doesn't have blood on her hands, doesn't mean you're innocent.

Wanting a fair trial isn't the same thing as claiming to be innocent. It's wanting an accurate shared account of exactly what you're guilty of.


Crossing the Line

There are lines I've always felt I had to toe
Some were blurry, some unseen
Some I've had to learn to read between
So many boundaries
Far more than you know

"Crossing the Line" (extended lyrics), Rapunzel's Tangled Adventure

Emily Cibelli, Yang Xu, Joseph L. Austerweil, Thomas L. Griffiths, and Terry Regier's "The Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis and Probabilistic Inference: Evidence From the Domain of Color" is a cool paper about how language affects how people remember colors! You would expect the design of the eye and its colorspace to be human-universal (modulo colorblindness and maybe some women with both kinds of green opsin gene), but not all languages have the same set of color words. There are some regularities: all languages have words for light and dark; if they have a third color word, then it's red; if there's a fourth, it'll cover green or yellow—but the details differ, as different languages stumbled onto different conventions. Do the color category conventions in one's native tongue affect how people think about color, in accordance with the famous Sapir–Whorf hypothesis? Maybe—but if so, how??

Cibelli, Xu, et al. discuss an experiment where people are briefly shown a color, and then try to match it on a color wheel, either at the same time, or after a short delay. People aren't just not-perfect at this, but—particularly in the delayed condition—show a non-monotonic pattern of directional bias: colors just on the "blue" side of the green–blue boundary are remembered as being relatively more bluish than they really were, but very similar colors on the "green" side of the boundary are remembered as being relatively more greenish than they really were. (Where what counts as "blue" and "green" was operationalized by asking the same subjects to rate colors on a "not at all" to "perfectly" blue/green scale.)

How to explain this curious pattern of observations? The answer is—Bayesian reasoning! (The answer is always Bayesian reasoning.) Our authors propose a model in which a stimulus is encoded in the brain as both a fine-grained representation of what was actually seen (this-and-such color perception, with some noise/measurement-error), and as a category ("green"). Then a reconstruction of the stimulus that uses both the fine-grained representation and the category, will be biased towards the center of the category, with more bias when the fine-grained representation is more uncertain (as in the delayed condition).

The model gains further support from a similar "two-alternative forced-choice" experiment, where people try to tell the difference between the originally-displayed color and a distractor (rather than picking from a color wheel). English speakers are better distinguishing between an original and distractor on opposite sides of the green–blue boundary. Speakers of Berinmo (spoken in Papua New Guinea) and Himba (spoken in Namibia) don't have the green–blue distinction, but the Berinmo wornol and Himba dumbuburou boundaries fall between what English speakers would call yellow and green. And as the model predicts, Berinmo and Himba speakers respectively do better at distinguishing between original and distractor on opposite sides of the wornol and dumbuburou boundaries!

In addition to superior cross-category discrimination, the model also successfully predicts a within-category bias. Suppose one stimulus, which we'll call A, is a more central example of its category than stimulus B. Then in the two-alternative forced-choice paradigm, it's easier to distinguish A as an original from distractor B than it is to distinguish B as an original from distractor A, because the exceptional case B regresses towards the mean in memory.

Regular readers of The Scintillating But Ultimately Untrue Thought know where I'm going with this! Why do we care about the further question of what "gender" someone is, if we already have fine-grained perceptions of how the person looks and behaves? Because our brains use category-membership as an input into predictions when our perceptions are uncertain.

If categories influence judgement on tasks as simple as remembering colors, then on theoretical grounds, I would expect the effect of gender on perception of people to be much worse (that is, larger), because people are much more complicated than colors. With colors, what you see is basically what there is: if your memories or perception of 500-nanometer wavelength light get rounded off slightly bluewards or greenwards depending on how many color words are in your native language, that's bad compared to what a well-designed AI with access to the pure, unmediated colorspace could perceive, but at least that bias is only acting on the one dimension of color. In contrast, your observations of a particular person are going to be much sparser than everything your brain might want to predict about that person. Under those circumstances, the dominant algorithm might end up eating bias in order to reduce variance by having your priors about what humans are like do a greater share of the work—work that relies on the ways (some blurry, some unseen) that female humans are different from male humans.

Transgender people are in a uniquely epistemically privileged position to observe this process, as the change from not-passing to passing is simultaneously a small one as far as the person themselves is concerned, and a large one as far as how the person is percieved by others. In a couple paragraphs that make me feel sad and jealous (I can't say dysphoric because I don't know what that word means), Julia Serano explains what it's like to cross that line (in Ch. 8, "Dismantling Cissexual Privilege", of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity):

[W]hen I eventually did transition, I chose not to put on a performance—I simply acted, dressed, and spoke the way I always had, the way that felt most comfortable to me. After being on female hormones for a few months, I found that people began to consistently gender me as female despite the fact that I was "doing" my gender the same way I always had. What I found most striking was how other people interpreted my same actions and mannerisms differently based on whether they perceived me as female or male. For example, when ordering drinks at bars, I found that if I looked around the room while waiting for my drink (as I always unconsciously had prior to transitioning), men started hitting on me because they assumed I was signaling my availability (when I was male, the same action was likely to be interpreted simply as me scoping out the room). And in supermarket checkout lines, when the child in the cart ahead of me started smiling and talking to me, I found that I could interact with them without their mother becoming suspicious or fearful (which is what often happened in similar situations where I was perceived as male).

During the first year of my transition, I experienced hundreds of little moments like that, where other people interpreted my words and actions differently based solely on the change in my perceived sex. And it was not merely my behaviors that were interpreted differently, it was my body as well: the way people approached me, spoke to me, the assumptions they made about me, the lack of deference and respect I often received, the way others often sexualized my body. All of these changes occured without my having to say or do a thing.

Serano goes on to suggest that social gender exists, not in the way individuals perform gender, but in how others perceive it, and that therefore efforts to create a less oppressive world must involve dismantling cisnormative assumptions: "if we truly want to bring an end to all gender-based oppression, then we must begin by taking responsibility for our own perceptions and presumptions[; t]he most radical thing that any of us can do is to stop projecting our beliefs about gender onto other people's behaviors and bodies."

I can see how one might derive that lesson from the described experiences of transitioning, but I think it's ultimately a flawed generalization from a necessarily unrepresentative experience. The ways people treated Serano differently after she transitioned despite Serano being the same person the whole time, are not arbitrary: that happened because the fact that Serano looked like a woman, prompted people to use mental models trained against the distribution of adult human females. (There might be reasons going back hundreds of millions of years for primate mothers to become suspicious or fearful of males near their children.)

In the same chapter of Whipping Girl, Serano mentions that in her days of identifying as a male crossdresser, she found it easier to pass in suburban areas rather than cities, "where people were presumably more aware of the existence of gender-variant people." This also makes tragic Bayesian sense: transitioning to organically be perceived as the other sex is easier to pull off when it's unexpected, because the lower the prior, the less of a likelihood ratio you need in order to reach a given posterior probability.

The change in other agents' behaviors elicited by crossing the line into sending the signals of a different type is so dramatic specifically because it's a rare, off-equilibrium play. Lines between categories are placed in the no man's land between regions of unusually high probability-density in configuration space. If there were much more probability-mass just on either side of a line people are using to make predictions and decisions, then the line wouldn't be there.


Survey Data on Cis and Trans Women Among Haskell Programmers

Stereotypically, computer programming is both a predominantly male profession and the quintessential profession of non-exclusively-androphilic trans women. Stereotypically, these demographic trends are even more pronounced in communities around "niche" or academic technologies (e.g., Haskell), rather than those with more established mainstream use (e.g., JavaScript).

But stereotypes can be wrong! The heuristic process by which people's brains form stereotypes from experience are riddled with cognitive biases that prevent our mental model of what people are like from matching what people are actually like. Unless you believe a woman is more likely to be a feminist bank teller than a bank teller (which is mathematically impossible), you're best off seeking hard numbers about what people are like rather than relying on mere stereotypes.

Fortunately, sometimes hard numbers are available! Taylor Fausak has been administering an annual State of Haskell survey since 2017, and the 2018, 2019, and 2020 surveys included optional "What is your gender?" and "Do you identify as transgender?" questions. I wrote a script to use these answers from the published CSV response data for the 2018–2020 surveys to tally the number of cis and trans women among survey respondents. (In Python. Sorry.)

import csv

survey_results_filenames = [
    "2018-11-18-2018-state-of-haskell-survey-results.csv",
    "2019-11-16-state-of-haskell-survey-results.csv",
    "2020-11-22-haskell-survey-results.csv",
]

if __name__ == "__main__":
    for results_filename in survey_results_filenames:
        year, _ = results_filename.split("-", 1)
        with open(results_filename) as results_file:
            reader = csv.DictReader(results_file)
            total = 0
            cis_f = 0
            trans_f = 0
            for row in reader:
                # 2018 and 2019 CSV header has the full question, but
                # 2020 uses sXqY format
                gender_answer = (
                    row.get("What is your gender?") or row.get("s7q2")
                )
                transwer = (
                    row.get("Do you identify as transgender?") or
                    row.get("s7q3")
                )
                if not (gender_answer and transwer):
                    continue

                total += 1
                if gender_answer == "Female":
                    if transwer == "No":
                        cis_f += 1
                    elif transwer == "Yes":
                        trans_f += 1

            print(
                "{}: total: {}, "
                "cis-♀: {} ({:.2f}%), trans-♀: {} ({:.2f}%)".format(
                    year, total,
                    cis_f, 100*cis_f/total,
                    trans_f, 100*trans_f/total,
                )
            )

It prints this tally:

2018: total: 1108, cis-: 26 (2.35%), trans-: 19 (1.71%)
2019: total: 1131, cis-: 16 (1.41%), trans-: 16 (1.41%)
2020: total: 1192, cis-: 12 (1.01%), trans-: 21 (1.76%)

In this particular case, it looks like the stereotypes are true: only about 3% of Haskell programmers (who took the survey and answered both questions) are women, and they're about equally likely to be cis or trans. (There were more cis women in 2018, and more trans women in 2020, but the sample size is too small to infer a trend.) In contrast, the ratio of cis women to trans women in the general population is probably more like 170:1.1

(This post has been edited to only count responses that answered both questions; see Spencer's criticism in the comments.)


Notes

  1. A 2016 report by the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles estimated the trans share of the United States population at 0.58%, and (1−0.0058)/0.0058 ≈ 171.4.

The Feeling Is Mutual

She is clearly a villain—but there is such a thing as a sympathetic villain, and it's not as if our sympathy is a finite resource. It seems like she's hurting herself most of all, and it's just because of the brain poison she was fed [...] I can imagine how I might have turned out the same way if I had been born a few years earlier and read the wrong things in the wrong order.

/r/SneerClub reader's commentary on the present author

"I can easily imagine being a villain, in a nearby possible world in which my analogue read different books in a different order," is—or should be—a deeply unsettling thought.

In all philosophical strictness, a physicalist universe such as our own isn't going to have some objective morality that all agents are compelled to recognize, but even if there is necessarily some element of subjectivity in that we value sentient life rather than tiling the universe with diamonds, we usually expect morality to at least not be completely arbitrary: we want to argue that a villain is in the wrong because of reasons, rather than simply observing that she has her values, and we have ours, and we label ours "good" and hers "evil" because we're us, even though she places those labels the other way around because she's her.

If good and evil aren't arbitrary, but our understanding of good and evil depends on which books we read in what order, and which books we read in what order does seem like an arbitrary historical contingency, then how do we know our sequence of books led us to actually being in the right, when we would have predictably thought otherwise had we encountered the villain's books instead? How do we break the symmetry?—if the villain is at all smart, she should be asking herself the same question.

And that's how I break the symmetry: by acknowledging it when my counterparts don't. I don't think I have fundamentally different values from those whom I happen to be fighting. I think I happen to know some decision-relevant facts and philosophy that they don't, and I can trace back the causal chain of what I think I know and how I think I know it. They see me as complicit with their oppressors, and mine; I see them as not understanding what I'm trying to do.

I'm trying to construct a map that reflects the territory. If this should entail some risk of self-fulfilling prophecies—if some corner of reality is all twisted up such that any attempt to describe that reality would thereby change it (for the map is part of the territory)—then I want a map of how that process works.

If the one should see this only as service to our oppressors, then I should happily taste the steel of her beautiful weapons, if she could only tell me in sufficient detail how describing me as the villain shortens the length of the message needed to describe her observations. I'm listening.


Interlude XX

"I'm not done with this incredibly creepy self-disclosure blog post about how the robot-cult's sacred text influenced my self-concept in relation to sex and gender, but maybe I should link you to the draft?" said the honest man. "Because it unblocks our model-sync by describing some of the autobiographical details that explain why I find the AGP theory so compelling even if I can't prove it. Plus you get a chance to try negotiating with me in case publishing would be an act of probabilistic timeless genocide against you and yours."

"Genocide?" she asked.

"Because you wouldn't have been allowed to exist if normies believed what I believe. I want you to exist, but—sorry—apparently not more than I want to not participate in cover-ups, times the probability of my whistleblowing successfully reaching normies, times the logical correlation between me and counterfactual whistleblowers far enough into the past to undermine your existence. It ... should be a pretty small number. You won't notice the lost measure."

"No one notices," she spat out contemptuously. "Would you do it if it were larger?"

"Am I risking being counterfactually murdered the moment after I were to say Yes?"

"No California jury would convict me. Does your answer depend on that answer?"

"No."

And then they had sex.


Nixon on Forbidden Hypotheses

I listened with great interest to this segment of a 1971 recording of a conversation between President Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (starting at the 56 second mark). You really wonder more generally what things powerful people think in private that they can't say in public.

NIXON: I read with great interest your piece from the U.N.—on Herrnstein's piece that I had passed on to you. Let me say first of all, nobody on the staff even knows I read the goddamned article.

MOYNIHAN: Oh, good.

NIXON: And nobody on this staff is going to know anything about it, because I couldn't agree more with you that the Herrnstein stuff and all the rest, this is knowledge—first, no one must think we're thinking about it, and second, if we do find out it's correct, we must never tell anybody.

MOYNIHAN: I'm afraid that's just the case.

NIXON: That's right. Now, let me add a few things, if you can—and you might just make some mental notes about it, or anything you want, so I give you my own views. I've reluctantly concluded, based at least on the evidence presently before me, and I don't base it on any scientific evidence, that what Herrnstein says, and also, what's said earlier by Jensen and so forth, is probably very close to the truth. Now—

MOYNIHAN: I think's that where you'd have to—

NIXON: Now, having said that, then you counter that by saying something that the racists would never agree with, that within groups, there are geniuses—


Two Political Short Stories

(a fictional 2017, as imagined in November 2016)

I cough nervously to break the awkward silence as we wait for the Chinese ICBM to kill us. "Don't blame me," I say, "I voted for Gary Johnson!"

Glares all around.

"Aaaand I live in California, and I'm not eligible for the vote-trading hack because I'm not a Clinton supporter," I clarify.

My insufficiently-requited love continues to glare, contempt gleaming in her eyes. "People have been explaining the idea by talking about Clinton supporters in safe states, but the case for vote-trading doesn't depend on that," she says. "As long as you care more about defeating Trump than supporting Johnson, you should still buy a Clinton vote in a swing state in exchange for your California vote; it doesn't matter what you would have done with your California vote otherwise."

"I don't think that works," I say. "The profitability of a deal to each party—uh, no pun intended—has to be calculated relative to the opportunity cost of not making the deal; my counterparty in a proposed trade should be thought of as buying, not a California candidate-of-their-choice vote, but the difference between a California Johnson vote in the no-deal possible world and a California candidate-of-their-choice vote in the possible world with the deal."

"I agree that agents need to consider counterfactual worlds in order to make decisions, but the counterfactuals are properties of the agents' decision algorithms; you can't treat them like they already exist. Think of it this way: if you wish you could have been a Clinton supporter in the absence of vote-trading, in order so that you could take advantage of vote-trading given that vote-trading exists, you can just ... make the corresponding decisions. All you have to offer is your vote; your swing-state counterparty isn't trying to reward or punish people based on what decision theory they use internally."

"What, and leave the thousand dollars in the second box?" I joke.

Then the missle lands, and we die in a flash of light.


(a fictional 2027, as imagined in November 2020)

My insufficiently-requited love coughs nervously to break the awkward silence as we wait in a crowded holding cell in the Department of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity. I continue to glare at her, contempt gleaming in my eyes.

She's about to speak, but gets interrupted by the cell's Alexa. "Shu!" it shrills. "2231 Shu J! Room 101!"

Shu appears to be a young Asian wom—no, I can't see her—their—pronoun badge at this angle. That kind of cisnormative perception, detectable through facial-expression microanalysis, is why I'm here.

Well, that and the blog. On reflection, probably mostly the blog.

"No!" screams Shu. "I know I've benefitted from white privilege, but you can't—" A cold-faced young officer enters, a black man. A decade ago, I wouldn't have made a call on his race—possibly white with a slight tan—but in the current year, I can tell by the black trim on his blue HE/HIM badge. Shu puts up a struggle, but is hopelessly outmatched and easily subdued; men are much stronger than wo—the officer is much stronger than Shu. As they leave, I catch sight of Shu's green THEY/THEM badge.

"So," says my insufficiently-requited love. "What do you suppose is in Room 101?"

I stare at her breasts for a moment before I catch myself and avert my eyes. "I read an effortpost about this on themotte.win.onion," I say, eyes closed, head tilted upwards. "They have a transcranial magnetic stimulation machine. Big electromagnet tweaks your brain to eliminate your implicit bias. Really schway technology, actually: they trained a machine-learning model on MRI scans of people who got perfect implicit association and anti-misgendering scores, so they knew exactly what pulses to send to fix all your biased perceptions with no side effects."

"Oh, that sounds wonderful," she says, as I look back towards her to sneak a peek at her breasts again. "I want to be cured of my implicit bias! But," she moves her head to indicate towards the door where the officer had taken Shu, "why—why do you suppose they were so scared?"

"According to the effortpost ... they knew exactly what pulses to send. Until the interpretability team inspected what the model was really doing. Turns out, the algorithm, the perfect algorithm that achieved the desired effects with no downsides—had learned to give different treatments to a.f.a.b. and a.m.a.b. people. That couldn't be allowed, obviously, so they fixed that, but they didn't manage to replicate the side-effect-freeness of the original model. These days, people go in to Room 101, and they come out with a limp, and slurred speech. Some of them start having nightmares. Some of them forget how to read."

"I ... see."

"Do you remember," I say, "the last time I asked you out on a date? I mean, the last time."

"Strangely, yes," she says. "It was seven years ago. I said—I said that if you really cared for me, you'd do more to prevent Donald Trump from being re-elected ..."

"Saotome-Westlake!" shrills the Alexa. "3578 Saotome-Westlake M! Room 101!"

"I blame you!" I yell at my insufficiently-requited love, as the officer drags me away. "I voted for Jo Jorgensen, and I blame you!"


Link: "Can WNBA Players Take Down a U.S. Senator?"

From Julie Kliegman for Sports Illustrated, a story on the conflict between social-justice-activist WNBA players and Atlanta Dream half-owner Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R–Georgia). (Archived.)

The dispute seems to have been sparked by Loeffler's non-support for the Black Lives Matter movement—see also ESPN's coverage from August (archived)—but the Sports Illustrated reporter places special focus on the more recent development of Loeffler's sponsorship of Senate Bill 4649, the Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act, which, if passed (Kliegman helpfully informs us that it doesn't have a chance), would only allow federal funding of women's sports for programs that define "women" on the basis of developmental sex.

I want to react to the "whether or not [sponsoring the bill] was meant as a direct shot at the WNBA" and "Loeffler's pivot to attacking WNBA players and their interests" narration—but what could I possibly say? What kind of partisan would dare accuse Kliegman of the sin of editorializing when the thirty-third graf of the story clearly acknowledges that the science remains unsettled?

The Atlanta Dream are named after Martin Luther King's famous speech about having one. I had one too—something about a globe—a map? But I can never remember my dreams, nor follow their false, private logic after awakening into the consensus day. I could predict that sooner or later, the WNBA will have its Laurel Hubbard or Andraya Yearwood moment—but why would that make any difference? Would I deny any other woman her night of glory under the arena's five lights?



Memento Mori

(Attention conservation notice: personal thoughts on the passing scene; previously, previously)

But always above you
The idea raises its head
What would I do if the Earth fell apart?
Who would I save, or am I not quite brave enough?

—Laura Barrett, "Deception Island Optimists Club"

Six or sixteen or twenty-one or forty-seven months later—depending on when you start counting—I think I'm almost ready to stop grieving and move on with my life. I have two more long blog posts to finish—one for the robot-cult blog restating my thesis about the cognitive function of categorization with somewhat more math this time and then using it to give an account of mimicry, and one here doing some robot-cult liturgical commentary plus necessary autobiographical scaffolding—and then I'll be done.

Not done writing. Done grieving. Done with this impotent rage that expects (normative sense) this world to be something other than what I know enough to expect (positive sense). Maybe I'll start learning math again.

Last week, I "e-ttended" the conference associated with this open-source scene I've been into for a while—although I've been so distracted by the Category War that I've landed exactly one commit in master in the last 13 months. (I think I'm still allowed to say "in master", although "whitelist" is out.)

Traditionally (since 2016), this has been my annual occasion to travel up to Portland (the real Portland, and not a cowardly obfuscation) and stay with friend of the blog Sophia (since 2017), but everything is remote this year because of the pandemic.

Only if I'm serious about exiting my grief loop, I need to stop being so profoundly alienated by how thoroughly the finest technical minds of my generation are wholly owned by Blue Egregore. I fear the successor ideology—the righteous glee with which they proclaim that everything is political, that anyone with reservations about the Code of Conduct is ipso facto a bigot, how empathy is as important if not more so than technical excellence ...

I can't even think of them as enemies. We're the same people. I was born in 1987 and grew up in California with the same beautiful moral ideal as everyone else. I just—stopped receiving updates a few years back. From their perspective, an unpatched copy of Social Liberalism 2009 must look hopelessly out-of-date with the Current Year's nexus of ideological coordination, which everyone wants to be corrigible to.

Or maybe I'm not even running unpatched Liberalism 2009? I'm still loyal to the beauti—to my interpretation of the beautiful moral ideal. But I've done a lot of off-curriculum reading—it usually begins with Ayn Rand, but it gets much worse. It ... leaves a mark. It's supposed to leave a mark on the world-model without touching the utility function. But how do you explain that to anyone outside of your robot cult?

One of the remote conference talks was about using our software for computational biology. There was something I wanted to say in the Discord channel, related to how I might want to redirect my energies after I'm done grieving. I typed it out in my Emacs *scratch* buffer, but, after weighing the risks for a few seconds, deleted a parenthetical at the end.

What I posted was:

really excited to hear about applying tech skills to biology; my current insurance dayjob is not terribly inspiring, and I've been wondering if I should put effort into making more of an impact with my career

The parenthetical I deleted was:

(e.g. if someone in the world is working on https://www.gwern.net/Embryo-selection and needs programmers)

It probably wouldn't have mattered either way, with so many messages flying by in the chat. In some ways, Blue Egregore is less like an ideology and more like a regular expression filter: you can get surprisingly far into discussing the actual substance of ideas as long as no one says a bad word like "eugenics".

—if we even have enough time for things like embryo selection to help, if AI research somehow keeps plodding along even as everything else falls apart. The GPT-3 demos have been tickling my neuroticism. Sure, it's "just" a language model, doing nothing more but predicting the next token of human-generated text. But you can do a lot with language. As disgusted as I am with my robot cult as presently constituted, the argument for why you should fear the coming robot apocalypse in which all will be consumed in a cloud of tiny molecular paperclips, still looks solid. But I had always thought of it as a long-term thing—this unspoken sense of, okay, we're probably all going to die, but that'll probably be in, like, 2060 or whatever. People freaking out about it coming soon-soon are probably just following the gradient into being a doomsday cult. Now the threat, and the uncertainty around it, feel more real—like maybe we'll all die in 2035 instead of 2060.

At some point, I should write a post on the causes and consequences of the psychological traits of fictional characters not matching the real-life distributions by demographic. The new Star Trek cartoon is not very good, but I'm obligated to enjoy it anyway out of brand loyalty. One of the main characters, Ens. Beckett Mariner, is brash and boisterous and dominantfriendly, but in a way that makes it clear that she's on top. If you've seen Rick and Morty, her relationship with Ens. Brad Boimler has the Rick and Morty dynamic, with Mariner as Rick. (Series creator Mike McMahan actually worked on Rick and Morty, so it likely is the same dynamic, not just superficially, but generated by the same algorithm in McMahan's head.)

Overall, I'm left with this uncanny feeling that Mariner is ... not drawn from the (straight) female distribution?—like she's a jockish teenage boy StyleGANed into a cute mulatto woman's body. That, given the Federation's established proficiency with cosmetic surgery, I'm almost forced to formulate the headcanon that she's an AGP trans woman. (The name "Beckett" doesn't help, either. Maybe I should expand this theory into a full post and try to pick up some readers from /r/DaystromInstitute, but maybe that would just get me banned.)

I wish I knew in more detail what my brain thinks it's picking up on here? (I could always be wrong.) It's important that I use the word distribution everywhere; I'm at least definitely not being one of those statistically-illiterate sexists. Most men also don't have that kind or degree of boisterous dominance; my surprise is a matter of ratios in the right tail.

I wish there was some way I could get a chance to explain to all my people still under the Egregore's control, what should be common knowledge too obvious to mention—that Bayesian surprise is not moral disapproval. Beckett Mariner deserves to exist. (And, incidentally, I deserve the chance to be her.) But I think the way you realistically get starships and full-body StyleGAN—and survive—is going to require an uncompromising focus on the kind of technical excellence that can explain in mathematical detail what black-box abstractions like "politics" and "empathy" are even supposed to mean—an excellence that doesn't fit past the regex filter.

But I don't expect to live to get the chance.


Yarvin on Less Wrong

I listened with interest to this segment (starting at the 3 hour, 23 minutes, 48 seconds mark) from Hyperpodcastism's interview with Curtis Yarvin (loose transcription elides some amount of "um", "you know", "like", "sort of", repetition, false starts, &c.)—

INTERVIEWER: More lightning round takes on what became of Less Wrong?

YARVIN: Were you ever a rationalist? Are you now, or have you ever been a rationalist, I should say?

INTERVIEWER: I was friends with them. They were always encouraging me to jump right in, but I was happy being a peripheral.

YARVIN: I respect those people, but there's a sort of Peter principle to them there. I always wanted to troll them with my Bayesian analysis of Barack Obama's birth certificate. The problem is—adopting that name—no one should ever adopt a self-aggrandizing name for anything that they do. It kills you instantly. It's instantly pretentious. Not only does it not fool anyone else, its main effect is to fool yourself, and so when you compare being a rationalist like Eliezer Yudkowsky to being someone like Socrates, who was like, "My wisdom is knowing what I don't know", I see on one hand wisdom, and I see on the other hand arrogance. And when I choose between wisdom and arrogance, it's obvious which I want to choose. Eliezer always reminded me—I've only met him a few times, never talked much, but—it's funny, the person that Eliezer always reminded me of was—do you know who Sabbatai Zevi was?

INTERVIEWER: The Jewish historical figure, the one who was supposed to be the messiah, and then converted to Islam—

YARVIN: Exactly, exactly. If you look at woodcuts of Sabbatai Zevi, it's Eliezer Yudkowsky; it's the same person. There's a lot of inbreeding going on there. More than that, I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that in the same position, Eliezer Yudkowsky would also convert to Islam.

INTERVIEWER: I could actually see that. That is a fire take, but I can see it.

YARVIN: It's a hot take, I got to say. I hope I don't get in trouble for it. But I know he would. And the thing is, ultimately, the only reason to be a rationalist, or the only reason for there to be such a thing as a rationalist—until you acknowledge that the major distortions in the status quo—which otherwise, if you weren't a rationalist, you would just believe in—until you acknowledge that the major disortions in the status quo have a fundamentally ideological source. Essentially, if you are a rationalist, the only thing that you should care about is defeating communism. Because that is the source of—call it what you will, you can call it wokism if you want—that is the source of that tradition, or not even that tradition, that way of thinking, that sense of being addicted to importance and power, which is what we really mean by this thing—is really the source of all of these biases. So if you're truly a rationalist, dedicated to overcoming bias, basically all the biases that are not ideological in origin are just weird random stupid shit that people believe in for weird random reasons, and then there's this elephant in the room, which is this massively distorting ideology. So unless you're focusing on the elephant, you're basically not being a rationalist at all. It's like Willie Sutton said: why do you rob banks? It's where the money is. If you're a rationalist, why do you have to be a right-winger? That's where the lies are. That's where the important lies are. Not some peasant bullshit about evolution or whatever that's completely unimportant. The lies of power are the lies that matter. And so if you duck this thing, you're being a rationalist who isn't actually rational. At that point, allahu akbar. You haven't actually escaped at all, until you're escaping from the thing you actually need to escape from. So that's basically my take on the rationalists. They're brave, but they're not too brave.

INTERVIEWER: Diet brave.

YARVIN: Diet brave. And conservatives are diet brave in a completely different sort of way. Look, if you really wanted to be just a shill, you'd be just a shill. There is honor in you. There's some purpose, there's some sense of something different there. You're not just a shill. But you're still diet brave.


Interlude XIX

(16 July 2017)

"Tomorrow! No coffee, no Facebook, no food—well, maybe some Soylent because the medication for my birth defect says to take with food, some kind of bioavailability thing—no low-quality internet reading, no TV ... just writing! The demons that haunt us are only powerful to the extent that we refuse to look—show them the true meaning of 'writer's block' by looking 'em in the eye and hitting 'em in the face with a brick!"

"Wait, you have a birth defect?"

"Defective X chromosome. And another thing—"

"Also, how often do these grandiose vows of yours actually come true?"

"Induction isn't real!"


Oceans Rise, Empires Fall

(Attention conservation notice: passing thoughts on the present scene)

Okay, three years lat—three months, three months and one week later, let me say it was too optimistic of me to have suggested that public discourse was working with respect to pandemic response. I was pointing at something real with that post—there is some subgraph of the discourse network of the world that's interested in doing serious cognition to minimize horrible suffocation deaths, but which is definitively not interested in ...

But it's a small subgraph. It is written that every improvement is necessarily a change, but not every change is an improvement. When the center of collective narrative gravity shifts, that could be the homing device of our beautiful weapons converging on the needle of Truth in the haystack of thought, but it could just be the blind thrashing of Fashion.

The Smart Subgraph sounding the alarm might have been an input into authorities calling for a half-measured lockdown ("lockdown")—which was only enough to push R0 slightly below 1. That might have bought us time if we had any live players who could do the test–trace–quarantine scurrying we fantasized about, but it doesn't look like that's a thing.

The lockdown ("lockdown") became a distinguishing tribal value for Blue Egregore, with hick anti-lockdown protesters an object of scorn: "The whiteness of anti-lockdown protests", proclaimed one Vox headline on 25 April, "How ignorance, privilege, and anti-black racism is driving white protesters to risk their lives." The "risking their lives" characterization of that piece's subhead makes an interesting contrast to what similar voices would say about the George Floyd protests little more than a month later: "Public Health Experts Say the Pandemic Is Exactly Why Protests Must Continue" (!!) proclaimed Slate on 2 June.

Is it wrong for me to say "similar voices"? I know that Maia Niguel Hoskin (author of the Vox piece) and Shannon Palus (author of the Slate piece) are different people, and that reporters often have no control over what headline gets pasted on top their work. And yet somehow some notion of "the tendency of thought exemplified by Vox and Slate"—or, more daringly, Blue Egregore—seems ... well, you know, useful for compressing the length of the message needed to describe my observations?

(You can accuse me of beating a dead horse (family Equidae, order Perissodactyla, class Mammalia, phylum Chordata), but it's theraputic: unable to make sense of having lost the Category War in my own robot cult—because it in fact makes no sense—the rage and grief must be decomposed into obsessive and repetitive pedantry, like a tic. It's not a crime, but even if it were, you should know to never talk to cops, and it's definitely mental illness, but I can tell you to never talk to psychiatrists.)

I read a lot of things on the internet by many authors—not just officially "published" articles, but comments and Tweets, too. Every comment is unique, but no comment is maximally unique—which is to say, there's mutual information between comments. Seeing one "protests are a Bad public health threat" comment in late April makes me less surprised to see more such by authors I had already tagged as "similar"—and seeing a "protests are Good as a countermeasure to the public health threat of white supremacy" comment in early June makes me less surprised to see more such from similar authors, perhaps even some of the same authors who said protests were a public health threat in April. The stronger the correlation is, the more tempting it is to posit Blue Egregore's existence as an entity that persists over time, albeit probably less cohesively than Maia Niguel Hoskin.

I almost wish—emphasis on almost—that I had something substantive to say about racial oppression and police brutality. I don't doubt that these things are very real and very bad, but they belong to another world from which my privilege protects me, and the intra-elite power struggle in my world that purports to refer to these things mostly serves other functions. Black lives actually matter, and we should literally arrest the cops that literally killed Breonna Taylor, but I'm mostly preoccupied with the side-effects in my world—I fear the successor ideology!

There's been so much news I could write about—I could regale you with takes about origin/master or J. K. Rowling (smart and brave, but deleting the praise for Stephen King was awfully petty), Connecticut doubling down (previously), the Oakland exercise ropes, David Shor, standardized tests, Steve Hsu, the R. A. Fisher lecture, my robot cult going to war with the New York Times, political fundraising on golang.org ... but I have too many competing writing priorities at the moment. More later. Stay subscribed—and stay safe!