Relative Gratitude and the Great Plague of 2020

In the depths of despair over not just having lost the Category War, but having lost it harder and at higher cost than I can even yet say (having not yet applied for clearance from the victors as to how much is my story to tell), I'm actually pretty impressed with how competently my filter bubble is handling the pandemic. When the stakes of getting the right answer for the right reasons, in public is measured in the hundreds of thousands of horrible suffocation deaths, you can see the discourse usefully move forward on the timescale of days.

In the simplest epidemiology models, the main parameter of interest is called R0, the basic reproduction number: the number of further infections caused by every new infection (at the start of the epidemic, when no one is yet immune). R0 isn't just a property of the disease itself, but also of the population's behavior. If R0 is above 1, the ranks of the infected grow exponentially; if R0 is less the 1, the outbreak peters out.

So first the narrative was "flatten the curve": until a vaccine is developed, we can't stop the virus, but with social distancing, frequent handwashing, not touching your face, &c. we can at least lower R0 to slow down the course of the epidemic, making the graph of curent infections at time t flatter and wider: if fewer people are sick at the same time, then the hospital system won't be overloaded, and fewer people will die.

The thing is, the various "flatten the curve" propaganda charts illustrating the idea didn't label their axes and depicted the "hospital system capacity" horizontal line above, or at most slightly below, the peak of the flattened curve, suggesting a scenario where mitigation efforts that merely slowed down the spread of the virus through the population would be enough to avoid disaster. Turns out, when you run the numbers, that's too optimistic: at the peak of a merely mitigated epidemic, there will be many times over more people who need intensive care, than ICU beds for them to get it. These cold equations suggest a more ambitious goal of "containment": lock everything down as hard as we need to in order to get R0 below 1, and scurry to get enough testing, contract-tracing, and quarantining infrastructure in place to support gradually restarting the economy without restarting the outbreak.

The discussion goes on (is it feasible to callibrate the response that finely?—what of the economic cost? &c.)—and that's what impresses me; that's what I'm grateful for. The discussion goes on. Sure, there's lots of the usual innumeracy, cognitive biases, and sheer wishful thinking, but when there's no strategic advantage to "playing dumb"—there's no pro-virus coalition that might gain an advantage if we admit out loud that they said something true—you can see people actually engage each other with the full beauty of our weapons, and, sometimes, change their mind in response to new information. The "flatten the curve" argument isn't "false" exactly (quantitatively slowing down the outbreak will, in fact, quantitatively make the overload on hospitals less bad), but the pretty charts portraying the flattened curve safely below the hospital capacity line were substantively misleading, and it was possible for someone to spend a bounded and small amount of effort to explain, "Hey, this is substantively misleading because ..." and be heard, to the extent that the people who made one of the most popular "flatten the curve" charts published an updated version reflecting the new argument.

This level of performance is ... not to be taken for granted. Take it from me.

Cloud Vision

Google reportedly recently sent out an email to their Cloud Vision API customers, notifying them that the service will stop returning "woman" or "man" labels for people in photos. Being charitable (as one does), I can think of reasons why I might defend or support such a decision. Detecting the sex of humans in images is going to significantly less reliable than just picking out the humans in the photo, and the way the machines do sex-classification is going to depend on their training corpus, which might contain embedded cultural prejudices that Google might not want to inadvertently use their technological hegemony to reproduce and amplify. Just using a "person" label dodges the whole problem.

I think of my experience playing with FaceApp, the uniquely best piece of software in the world, which lets the user apply neural-network-powered transformations to their photos to see how their opposite-sex analogue would look! (Okay, the software actually has lots of other transformations and filters available—aging, de-aging, add makeup, add beard, lens flare, &c.—but I'm assuming those are just there for plausible deniability.) So, for example, the "Female" transformation hallucinates long hair—but hair length isn't sexually dimorphmic the way facial morphology is! At most, the "females have long hair" convention has a large basin of attraction—but the corpus of training photos were taken from a culture following that convention. Is it OK for the AI's concept of womanhood itself to reflect that? There are all sorts of deep and subtle ethical questions about "algorithmic fairness" that could be asked here!

I don't think the deep and subtle questions are being asked. The reigning ideology does not permit itself the expressive power to formulate the deep and subtle questions. "Given that a person's gender cannot be inferred by appearance," reads the email. Cannot be inferred, says Google! This is either insane, or a blatant lie told to appease the insane. Neither bodes well for the future of my civilization. (Contrast to sane versions of the concern, like, "Cannot be inferred with sufficiently high reliability", or, "Can be inferred in most cases, but we're concerned about the social implications of misclassifying edge cases.") I'm used to this shit from support groups at the queer center in Berkeley or in Portland, but I never really took it seriously—never really believed that it could be taken seriously. But Google! Aren't those guys supposed to know math?

Just ... this fucking ideology that assumes everyone has this "gender" thing that's incredibly important for everyone to respect and honor, but otherwise has no particular properties whatsoever. I can sketch out an argument for why, in theory, the ideology is memetically fit: there are at least two (and probably three or four) clusters of motivations for why some humans want to change sex; liberal-individualist Society wants to accomodate them and progressives want to use them as a designated-victim pity-pump, but the inadequacy of the existing continuum of interventions, and perhaps more so the continuity of the menu of available interventions, is such that verbal self-identification ends up being the only stable Schelling point.

But the theory doesn't help me wrap my head about how grown-ups actually believe this shit. Or at least, are too scared to be caught dead admitting out loud that they don't. This is Cultural Revolution shit! This is Lysenko-tier mindfuckery up in here!

And I don't know how to convey, to anyone who doesn't already feel it too, that I'm scared—and that I have a reason to be scared.

I believe that knowledge is useful, and that there are general algorithms—patterns of thinking and talking—that produce knowledge. You can't just get one thing wrong—every wrong answer comes from a bug in your process, and there's an infinite family of other inputs that could trigger the same bug. The calculator that says 6 + 7 = 14 isn't just going to mislead you if you use it to predict what happens when you combine a stack of ●●●●●● pennies and a stack of ●●●●●●● pennies—it's not a calculator. The function-that-it-computes is not arithmetic.

I am not particularly intelligent man. If I ever seem to be saying true and important things that almost no one else is saying, it's not because I'm unusually insightful, but because I'm unusually bad at keeping secrets. There are ... operators among us, savvy Straussian motherfuckers who know and see everything I can, and more—but who think it doesn't matter that not everybody knows.

And I guess ... I think it matters? One of the evilest reactionary bloggers mentioned the difference between a state religion that requires you to believe in the unseen, and one that requires you to disbelieve in what is seen. My thesis is that a state religion that requires you to fluidly doublethink around the implications of "Some women have penises", will also falter over something even the Straussians have to protect. But I can't prove it.

The COVID-19 news is playing hell with my neuroticism. They say you should stock up on needed prescription drugs, in case of supply-chain disruptions. I guess I'm glad that, unlike some of my friends who I am otherwise jealous of, I'm not dependent on drugs for the hormones that my body needs in order for my bones to not rot. I wish I had known tweleve years ago, that accepting that dependency in exchange for its scintillating benefits was an option for cases like mine. There's at least a consistency in this: it's not safe to depend on the supply lines of a system that didn't have the all-around competency to just tell me.

Anyway, besides the Total Culture War over the future of my neurotype tearing apart ten-year friendships and having me plotting to flee my hometown, my life is going pretty okay. I'm getting paid lots of money to sell insurance in Canada, and I have lots of things to look forward to, like the conclusion to the Tangled sequel series, or the conclusion to the Obnoxious Bad Decision Child sequel miniseries, or finishing my forthcoming review of the new Charles Murray book. (It's going to be great—a bid to broaden the topic scope of the blog to "things that only right-wing Bad Guys want to talk about, but without myself being a right-wing Bad Guy" in full generality, not just for autogynephila and the correspondence of language to reality.)

Basically, I want to live. I know that now. And it's hard to shake the feeling that the forces trying to cloud my vision don't want me to.

If in Some Smothering Dreams You Too Could Pace

[...] and this is a war, and we are soldiers.

Fighting a Total Culture War to prevent your neurotype-demographic from becoming permanent mind-slaves of the Blue Egregore is no excuse for being a jerk.

I mean, it's an explanation, but that's different from an excuse: being a jerk has consequences, and you need to take the consequences like a man.

This, then, is the mindset of a soldier (though our beautiful cutting weapons be words instead of swords): to inflict pain, to incur guilt—and yet to have only tactical regrets. Given the chance to do it all over again, you would—but solely to be more skillful in projecting rhetorical force to secure the objective, to say more clearly what needed to be said. Not to inflict less pain or incur less guilt.

Book Review: Cailin O'Connor's The Origins of Unfairness: Social Categories and Cultural Evolution

This is a super-great book about the cultural evolutionary game theory of gender roles! (And also stuff like race and religion and caste, I guess, but I'm ignoring that because I haven't gotten around to broadening the topic scope of this blog yet.) I am unreasonably excited about this book for supplying the glue of analytical rigor to a part of my world-model that had previously been held together by threads of mere handwaving! (Three years ago on this blog, I wrote, "social-role defaults are inevitably going to accrete around [sex differences]", but I didn't, and couldn't, have told you how and why in a form suitable for verification by computer simulation.)

In this blog post, I'm going to summarize what I learned from Origins of Unfairness in my own words, but if you want to be a serious intellectual who actually reads grown-up books rather than relying on some pseudonymous nobody's blog summary, you should go buy the source material!

A puzzle: every human culture has gender roles and a substantial amount of division of labor by sex. From within a particular culture, it might be tempting to "essentialize" these differences, to think that certain kinds of tasks inherently belong in the separate spheres of women or men, as ordained by the local religion's gods (or perhaps "evolution" if your local religion is pop-evopsych rather than real-evopsych). But anthropologists know that there's huge cross-cultural variation as to the details of what tasks are assigned to which sex. There are some regularities: things like big-game hunting and metalworking are always male tasks, and things like spinning, dairying, and primary child care are "women's work." But there are also a lot of differences: the task of making ropes or pottery is gendered within a culture, but different cultures end up making different assignments.

What's going on here? Why divide labor by sex when either sex is capable of doing the job? Why not let individuals choose their own destinies, independently of how their genitals are shaped?

Observe that the division and specialization of labor is a coordination problem: there are many ways to try to produce stuff, but Society is richer when people choose ways that "fit together": our tribe is more likely to survive if I hunt and you gather or you hunt and I gather, rather than if we try to both hunt (too much variance) or both gather (not enough protein). Moreover, the division of labor is a complementary coordination problem, where we want different people do different things that fit together (like hunting and gathering in a nomadic society, or cooking and cleaning in a household), in contrast to correlative coordination problems where we want people to all end up doing the same thing that fits together (like driving on the right side of the road, or meeting at noon at the information booth at Grand Central Station).

Consider a population of agents that meet in pairs and play a complementary coordination game, like ballroom dancers that need to decide who should lead and who should follow. It's kind of a pain if every single pair has to separately negotiate roles every time they meet! But if the agents come in two equally numerous types (say, "women" and "men"), then the problem is easy: either of the conventions "men lead, women follow" or "women lead, men follow" solves the problem for everyone!

Of course, "women and men dancing" is just an illustrative example as far as the theory is concerned: the "types" here are just opaque tags that separate otherwise-identical abstract agents into groups. In particular, types are not strategies. In terms of the dancing game, the strategies "lead" and "follow" can't be types: rather, the arbitrary "men" and "women" tags (which might as well be suggestively-named Lisp tokens) are a symmetry-breaking hack that lets us turn many complementary coordination games (for every pair, who should lead?) into a single correlative coordination game (for the whole population, are we using the "men lead" or the "women lead" convention?).

Nor does there need to be a central "dance caller" who specifies which convention the population should follow. If strategies that are more successful are more frequently imitated via social learning, conventions can arise from a process of cultural evolution: in a world where most men happen to lead, women learn to follow in order to have a successful dance, and the population gets swept in to the "men lead" convention. A convention's basin of attraction is the set of initial population conditions that lead to the evolution of that convention. When there are many possible equilibria with roughly-equal-sized basins of attraction, the outcome is highly "conventional": things could have easily been otherwise given different initial conditions. (And can even be said to contain more information: "more possible outcomes" and "equally-probable outcomes" are what maximize entropy.) Situations with fewer, unequally-sized basins of attraction are more "functional": the outcome is mostly determined by the game itself.

And that's where gender roles come from! In a Society facing complementary coordination problems in production, gender is the symmetry-breaker around which conventions form. And if skills need to be trained long before they get put into production, that shapes early socialization—in a Society where women do "women's work" to complement "men's work", they're raised to start practicing it as girls.

This is also where gender inequality comes from. In game theory models without types, all agents get the same payoffs in equilibrium. (Because if they didn't, then some strategy must pay better than others—which means more agents will copy it until it doesn't.)

With types, this is no longer true: the population can settle on equilibria that favor the interests of one type over another (but are better for everyone than the absence of coordination), like an "always Bach" convention in the Bach–Stravinsky game, or in the aggregation of many games that the type tags are being used for.

This is especially true if we drop the assumption that the type "tags" have no in-game significance (other than being visible for coordination) and introduce an asymmetric payoff matrix. Consider the Nash bargaining game: two agents have to decide how to divide a pie with 10 slices, but if their demands are incompatible (like when I demand 7 slices and you also demand 7 slices, but 7 + 7 = 14 is greater than 10), then the pie explodes, and no one gets any pie. If different types of agents have different fallback options, that affects their incentives in the bargaining game: if you wouldn't have anything to eat if you didn't get any pie, then you might want to make a conservative demand, like 3 slices, in order to ensure that you get some pie even if it turns out that I'm a greedy jerk who demands 7 slices. But if I have a sandwich that's as valuable to me as 2½ slices of pie, then I'm not particularly worried about you being a greedy jerk who demands 7 slices: to me, the difference between a successful 3-slice demand and failing to make a deal at all is only half a slice, which gives me an incentive to demand more, because I have less to lose than you if bargaining fails.

This kind of dynamic explains the differences in women's roles between patriarchal "plow cultures" (in which men do agriculture with plows) and non-patriarchal "hoe cultures" (in which women do horticulture with hoes): a coordination equilibrium in which Society's primary means of sustenance is considered "women's work" gives women more negotiating power as a class. (Even when individual women in a patriarchal Society have high privilege (e.g., earning power), they're still women as far as conventions are concerned.)

The path of cultural evolution is affected not only by the types' bargaining power: the relative speed of adaptation between types can matter, too! The Red Queen hypothesis describes an evolutionary advantage to a species that can evolve quickly, the better to keep up in an evolutionary arms race against parasites. (As it happens, this may have been a key factor in the evolution of sexual reproduction—the reason, along with the dynamic instability of equal-sized gametes, that "females" and "males" even exist to begin with, rather than all organisms being asexual clones.) But in bargaining-like situations, there can be a "Red King" effect in which there's an advantage in evolving slowly. Much like how visibly throwing away your steering wheel is an advantage in the game of Chicken (that precomitment forcing your opponent to swerve in response), the type that is slower to adapt to its "counterparty" type is effectively more resistant to its bargaining demands. As O'Connor puts it, "we can think of a fast-evolving species as swerving in evolutionary time."

Similarly, when a minority group (for example, women in a male-dominated workplace) interacts with a majority, a large fraction of a minority group member's interactions will be with members of the majority: the minority learns to adapt to the majority much faster than vice versa, placing the evolutionarily implicit norm negotiation on the majority's terms.

A sign of high-integrity scholarship is when the positive insights contained in a work can be appreciated independently of the author's normative agenda (if any). O'Connor, like me—at least, I hope my self-identification in this matter is still valid, although the reader will ultimately judge that for herself—writes from a position of having a glorious vision of gender equality as Something to Protect, her mighty pen wielded in the service of that ideal in an act of heroic scholarship.

But having Something to Protect is the same thing as having something in danger. This is—as mathematical sociology treatises go—a very dark book. O'Connor repeatedly emphasizes that the theory presented in the book shows how inequality can emerge and persist under very minimal conditions—with "no bias in [the] model, no stereotype threat, not much psychology in general"—in contrast to theories that present injustice as the consequence of unique malice or prejudice, rather than mathematics.

"Ultimately," she writes, "I will present a picture in which social justice is an endless battle. The forces of cultural evolution can pull populations towards inequity, and combating those forces requires constant vigilance." The book concludes, "The battle for social justice is against a hydra that grows a new head each time any one is cut off."

When I imagine an intelligent arch-reactionary reading Origins of Unfairness (perhaps twiddling his mustache during an hour of study between a 2:30 dog-kicking appointment and 4 o'clock advocacy of a Trump coup d'état), I see him nodding along thoughtfully at the lucid prose explaining the underlying game theory insights (in between cringing at the occasional Judith Butler and stereotype-threat cites). That man, in the service of callously protecting his personal power and privilege, might construe Origins as "supporting" his ideology.

"Bwah-ha-ha!" he laughs maniacally. "I already knew that feminism was doomed simply due to the nature and meaning of male and female—but I had no idea it was further doomed as a result of the cultural evolutionary game theory of complementary coordination problems! And this, from one of the corrupt leftist establishment's own scholaresses! Priceless!"

That's how you know it's a good book. The map that reflects the territory is equally useful to good people and to bad men. Good and evil—as we would define those terms—exist in the same material universe, whose exceptionless physical laws contain no provision for biologically and culturally evolved human notions of mercy or fairness. The long arc of the moral universe points, not towards justice, but towards maximum entropy—just like the arrow of time in every other universe.

A lesser scholar, flinching from this terrible truth, might have seen fit to fudge their results, to select their modeling assumptions to present a softer narrative, something that would make better propaganda for the Blue Team ...

It wouldn't have worked. I mean, it probably would have worked as propaganda, but it wouldn't have worked in the sense of my dream about the use of maps—as scholarship, a beacon through the darkness, showing us the way to start to repair the world we actually live in, and not only the appearance of it.

More Schelling


[A mediator] can influence the other players' expectations on his own initiative, in a manner that both parties cannot help mutually recognizing. When there is no apparent focal point for agreement, he can create one by his power to make a dramatic suggestion. [...]

The white line down the center of the road is a mediator, and very likely it can err substantially toward one side or the other before the disadvantaged side finds advantage in denying its authority. The principle is beautifully illustrated by the daylight-saving-time controversy; a majority that want to do everything an hour earlier just cannot organize to do it unless it gets legislative control of the clock. And when it does, a well-organized minority that opposed the change is usually quite unable to offset the change in clock time by any organized effort to change the nominal hour at which it gets up, eats, and does business.

—Thomas Schelling, Strategy of Conflict, Ch. 5, "Enforcement, Communication, and Strategic Moves"

This explains why the trans-rights fight ends up focusing on language, rather than any particular policy where "gender" is used to make a decision. "What's the harm in calling people what they really want to be called?" goes the argument. "You can still say cis woman when you want to be more specific."

It doesn't work like that. When you change the category associated with a short codeword, you're imposing on all the downstream predictions and decisions people were already using that category/word for—nor have people catalogued all those decisions in advance; they just expect to be able to think using top-20 nouns (coordination signals) that came with their native tongue, much as how they expect to be able to think using clock time without needing to compute Earth's rate of rotation relative to the fixed stars. The skew between daylight-savings time and sidereal time would have to get pretty extreme before people started changing their schedules—or, if that were somehow forbidden, to deny the clock's authority and just start using the sun.

Reply to Ozymandias on Fully Consensual Gender

With the Hopes that our World is built on
They were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon could be defined to be Stilton;
They denied she identified as Dutch;
They denied that Wishes should be categorized as Horses;
They denied that a Pig could be stipulated to have Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of Culture
Who promised these beautiful things.

—Rudyard Kipling, "The Gods of the Copybook Headings" (paraphrased)

At the end of their reply to my reply to the immortal Scott Alexander on gender categorization, friend of the blog Ozymandias makes an analogy between social gender and money.1 What constitutes money in a given social context is determined by collective agreement: money is whatever you can reliably expect everyone else to accept as payment. This isn't a circular definition (in the way that "money is whatever we agree is money" would be uninformative to an alien who didn't already have a referent for the word money), and people advocating for a different money regime (like late-19th century American bimetalists or contemporary cryptocurrency advocates) aren't making an epistemic mistake.

I really like this analogy! An important thing to note here is that while the form of money can vary widely across sociocultural contexts (from shell beads, to silver coins, to fiat paper currency, to database entries in a bank), not just any form will suffice to serve the functions of money: perishable goods like cheese can't function as a long-term store of value; non-fungible items that vary in quality in hard-to-measure ways can't function as a unit of account.2

Because of these constraints, I don't think the money/social-gender analogy can do the work Ozy seems to expect of it. They write:

Similarly, "you're a woman if you identify as a woman!" is not a definition of womanhood. It is a criterion for who should be a woman. It states that our social genders should be fully consensual: that is, if a person says "I would like to be put in the 'woman' category now," you do that. Right now, this criterion is not broadly applied: a trans person's social gender generally depends on their presentation, their secondary sexual characteristics, and how much the cis people around them are paying attention. But perhaps it would improve things if it were.

Following the money analogy, we could imagine someone arguing that our money should be fully consensual: that is, if a person says, "I would like this to be put in the 'dollar' category now," you do that. Right now, this criterion is not broadly applied ... and it's not easy to imagine how it could be applied (a prerequisite to figuring out if perhaps it would improve things if it were). Could I buy a car by offering the dealer a banana and saying, "I would like this to be put in the '$20,000 bill' category now"? What would happen to the economy if everyone did that?

Maybe the hypothetical doesn't have to be that extreme. Perhaps we should imagine someone taking Canadian $5 bills, crossing out "Canada", drawing a beard on Wilfrid Laurier, and saying "I'd like this to be considered an American $5 bill." (Exchange rate at time of writing: 1 Canadian dollar = 0.76 U.S. dollars.) Then imagine that a social norm catches on within a certain subset of Society that it's incredibly rude to question someone who says they're giving you American money, but that this standard hasn't spread to the U.S. government and financial system.

Economists have a name for this kind of situation. Gresham's Law: bad money drives out good. In contexts where custom requires that defaced Canadian dollars be regarded as equivalent to U.S. dollars, maybe everyone will smile and pretend not to notice the difference.

They will be lying. In marketplaces governed by "trans American dollars are American dollars" social norms, smart buyers will prefer to buy with defaced Canadian dollars, and smart sellers will try to find plausibly-deniable excuses to not accept them ("That'll be $5." "Here you go! A completely normal, definitely non-suspicious American $5 bill!" "Ooh, you know what, actually we just sold out"), because everyone knows3 that when it comes time to interact with the larger banking system, the two types of dollars won't be regarded as being of equal value. Never doubting the value of other people's currency may be basic human decency, but if so, the market interprets basic human decency as damage and routes around it.

Similarly, there seem to be increasingly large subsets of Society in which it's incredibly rude to question someone's stated gender. But even if everyone says "Trans women are women" and uses the right pronouns solely on the basis of self-reported self-identity with no questions asked and no one batting an eye, it's not clear that this constitutes successfully entering a "fully consensual gender" regime insofar as people following their own self-interest are likely to systematically make decisions that treat non-well-passing trans women as if they were something more like men, even if no one would dream of being so rude as to admit out loud that that's what they're doing.

And how are you going to stop them? Every freedom-to implies the lack of a freedom-from somewhere else, and vice versa: as the cliché goes, your right to swing your fist ends at my nose. "Fully consensual gender" sounds like a good idea when you phrase it like that: what kind of monster could possibly be against consent, or for non-consent?

But the word "consent" is usually used in contexts where an overwhelming asymmetry of interests makes us want to resolve conflicts in a particular direction every time: when we say that all sex should be consensual, we mean that a person's right to bodily autonomy always takes precedence over someone else's mere horniness. Even pointing out that this is (technically, like everything else) a trade-off, feels creepy.

Categorization really doesn't seem like this. If there's a conflict between one person's desire to be modeled as belonging to a particular gender and someone else's perception that the person is more accurately thought of as belonging to a different gender, then it's not clear what it would mean to resolve the conflict in the direction of "consent of the modeled" other than mind control, or at least compelled speech.

Ozy gives a list of predictions you can make about someone on the basis of social gender, as distinct from sex, apparently meant to demonstrate the usefulness of the former concept. But a lot of the individual list items seem either superficial ("Whether they wear dresses, skirts, or makeup"—surely we don't want to go for "gender as clothing", do we??), or tied to other people's perceptions of sex.4 5

Take the "How many messages they get on a dating site" item. The reason men send lots of messages to women on dating sites is because they want to date people with vaginas and female secondary sex characteristics, and maybe eventually marry them, father children with them, &c.6

Suppose one were to say to such a man, "Ah, I see you're sending lots of messages to women, by which I mean people who self-identify as women, in accordance with the utilitarian-desirable social policy of fully-consensual gender. Therefore, you should also send messages to these non-op trans women who aren't on HRT."

I think the man would reply, "How dumb do you think I am?!"7

One might respond with, "But there's a lot of cis women who you also wouldn't date. Therefore, while you're allowed to not date trans women if that's your preference, you can't say it's because they're not women."

So, I think there's actually a statistically sophisticated reply to this which I really need to elaborate on more in future posts. To be sure, our man is just relying on his intuitive perception and probably doesn't know the statistically sophisticated reply8—but it's not clear that we've given him much of a reason to trust our clever verbal arguments over his own perception.

I happily agree that fully consensual gender is a coherent position. That doesn't make it feasible. How are you going to maintain that social equilibrium without it being immediately destroyed by normal people who have eyes and don't care about clever philosophical definition-hacking mind games the way that readers of this blog do?

That's not a rhetorical question. In the case of fiat currency, the question actually has a literal answer, although I personally am not well-versed enough in economic history to tell it. Somehow, societies have evolved from a condition in which the idea of paper currency would have provoked a "How dumb do you think I am?" reaction, to the present condition where everyone and her dog accepts paper money as money without a thought—where the "somehow" probably involves the use of state violence to enforce banking regulations.

Ozy concludes—

Since it is not, properly speaking, a definition, the decision of who should be socially gendered male or female, and how many social genders we should have is not an epistemic decision. This decision can and should be made on purely utilitarian grounds.

In some sense, this is kind of unobjectionable—what kind of monster could possibly be against utility?!—but it's an incredibly vague sense. The decision of what kind of money we should have should be made on purely utilitarian grounds, but the set of possible solutions to that problem, and how well each solution performs with respect to the global utilitarian calculus, is very tightly constrained by many facts of economics and sociology.9

So too with gender. "Utilitarian grounds" does not mean, "I and some other people have an unconstrained utopian vision, and we'll be very dysphoric if you don't implement it, so the global utilitarian calculus says you should obey us." To be sure, your dysphoria is a cost under the global utilitarian calculus—but it's just one of many costs and benefits in a complex system. If someone actually wants to do a careful psychologically- and sociologically-informed analysis of how a "fully consensual gender" regime could actually be implemented in real life,10 and what impact it would have in terms of QALYs, that would be really interesting to read!

Until then, the question remains: how dumb do you think we are?!


  1. As teased at the beginning of the bulleted list in my post-Christmas cry of pain last year, I also have responses to the other arguments Ozy makes earlier in "Man Should Allocate Some More Categories". The fact that the present post focuses specifically on replying to the gender/money analogy shall not be construed to mean that I'm conceding any other points—just that I'm a ludicrously, miserably unproductive writer. (Compare the June 2018 date of Ozy's post to the December 2019 (!) date of this one.)
  2. E.g., my goat might be healthier than your goat in a way that neither of us nor any of the other local goat-herders know how to quantify.
  3. Except not everyone knows. What actually happens is that the original "U.S. dollar" concept coexists with the debased one, and savvy people who understand what's going on can arbitrage the equivocation to expropriate from those who are less savvy.
  4. The harrassment and expected-sacrifices example in particular are what radical feminists would call sex-based oppression.
  5. Friend of the blog Ray Blanchard proposed on Twitter that the term "subjective sex" might be more useful than "gender".
  6. And the fact that it's women being deluged with messages from men rather than vice versa is predicted by the evolutionary logic of Bateman's principle and parental investment theory: the sex that invests more resources per offspring will be "choosier", and the sex that invests less will compete for them. There are a few species (like the pipefish or the Eurasian dotterel) in which males are the more-investing sex, but humans aren't one them.
  7. This isn't necessarily trans-exclusionary—many such men might be happy to date trans women who were on HRT and thereby came to more closely rememble cis/natal/actual women. But that just gets us back to passing (like I was trying to say thousands of words ago), not fully consensual gender.
  8. Although I would argue that the sophisticated statistics are part of the cognitive-scientific explanation of what he perceives.
  9. For example, fiat money lets central banks exert greater control over the money supply, but can suffer disastrous hyperinflation under the wrong conditions.
  10. As I observed recently, fully consensual gender would at least have the advantage of being a Schelling point. Oh, and speaking of "real life", I happily concede that the social-engineering problem of fully consensual gender is much easier in online communities, where pesky easy-to-detect/expensive-to-change secondary sex characteristics are hidden behind the fog of net. In other words, on the internet, nobody knows you're a G.I.R.L..


(-romise, -ensation)

(epistemic status: shitposting)

Some radical feminists complain that males body-modding to become facsimiles of women is appropriation. They're obviously correct, but the claim doesn't seem strong enough to override the right to bodily autonomy. The Law in its majesty finds a precedent in the archives of copyright law: bands recording cover songs are appropriating the work of the original composer, but the composer's claim to control and be compensated for their work doesn't seem strong enough to override the band's right to artistic expression.

The solution in either case: compulsory licensing! A small tax is administered on transition services (hormone replacement therapy, facial feminization surgery, &c.), the proceeds of which are distributed equally amongst all natal females (as if they held a collective patent on the female form).

Promises I Can Keep

"I think if you show any indications of being an egg, you need to marry someone who's OK with you eventually transitioning. Not because you necessarily will want to transition, but because it's likely enough that you need to plan for it."

"I probably don't actually disagree. Keeping promises is very important. What a betrayal it would be—to take someone to have and to hold, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health—only to throw it all away when the cost curve moves? No. But in the spirit of policy debates not appearing one-sided, I would like to register a note of sadness that we're effectively thereby saying 'eggs don't deserve love.'"

"Eggs can have love, they just add a constraint."

"I don't think you understand the seriousness of 'just' adding a constraint to a search problem that is already very constrained. Constraint: must own unicorn."

"I Want to Be the One"

This life is not to last and it awaits apotheosis
And the passerby all sipping on their Monday coffee know this
Their stumbling through their week
Contrasts the path by which I seek
A practical ambition
For a special type of girl
I want to be the one who writes the code
That writes the code
That writes the code
That ends the world

sheet music

On the Argumentative Form "Super-Proton Things Tend to Come In Varieties"

"[...] Between one and the infinite in cases such as these, there are no sensible numbers. Not only two, but any finite number, is ridiculous and can't exist."

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov

Eliezer Yudkowsky Tweets (back in March), linking to a Quillette interview with Lisa Littman (positer of "rapid onset gender dysphoria"):

Everything more complicated than protons tends to come in varieties. Hydrogen, for example, has isotopes. Gender dysphoria involves more than one proton and will probably have varieties.

To be clear, I don't know much about gender dysphoria. There's an allegation that people are reluctant to speciate more than one kind of gender dysphoria. To the extent that's not a strawman, I would say only in a generic way that GD seems liable to have more than one species.

So, I actually think the moral here is wrong! (Subtly wrong, in a way that took me a day or two to notice at the time, and am blogging about now.)

It's true that "in the real world, nothing above the level of [protons] repeats itself exactly." But when we say that a psychological or medical diagnosis "comes in varieties," we're talking about distinct taxa/clusters, not the mere existence of variation due to things not being identical down to the atomic scale; otherwise, the observation that something "comes in varieties" would be trivial. And Occam's razor/minimum-message-length says that we shouldn't postulate more explanatory entities (such as categories) unless they can pay rent in better predictions.

There's a "zero–one–infinity"-like reductio ad absurdum argument to be made here. Suppose we observe some people wake up with their left arm turned into a blue tentacle. We might want to coin a term like tentacular brachitis to summarize our observations.

The one comes to us and says, "Everything more complicated than protons tends to come in varieties. Tentacular brachitis involves more than one proton and will probably have varieties."

This, in itself, doesn't tell us anything useful about what those varieties might be ... but suppose we do some more research and indeed find that patients' tentacles have a distinct cluster structure. Not only is there covariance between different tentacle features—perhaps tentacles that are a darker shade of blue also tend to be slimier—but the color–sliminess joint distribution is starkly bimodal: modeling the tentacles as coming from two distinct "dark-blue/slimy" and "light-blue/less-slimy" taxa is a better statistical fit than positing a linear darkness/sliminesss continuum. So, congratulating ourselves on a scientific job-well-done, we speciate our diagnosis into two: "Tentacular brachitis A" and "Tentacular brachitis B".

The one comes back to us and says, "Everything more complicated than protons tends to come in varieties. Tentacular brachitis A involves more than one proton and will probably have varieties."

You see the problem. We have an infinite regress: the argument that the original category will probably need to be split into subcategories, goes just as well for each of the subcategories.

So isn't "Gender dysphoria involves more than one proton[; therefore, it] will probably have varieties" a fake explanation? The phrase "gender dysphoria" was worth inventing as a shorter code for the not-vanishingly-rare observation of "humans wanting to change sex", but unless and until you have specific observations indicating that there are meaningfully different ways dysphoria can manifest, you shouldn't posit that there are "probably" multiple varieties, because in a "nearby" Everett branch where human evolution happened slightly differently, there probably aren't: brain-intersex conditions have a kind of a priori plausibility to them, but whatever weird quirk leads to autogynephilia probably wouldn't happen with every roll of the evolutionary dice if you rewound far enough, and the memeplex driving Littman's ROGD observations was invented recently.

So I think a better moral than "Things larger than protons will probably have varieties" would be "Beware fallacies of compression." The advice to be alert to the possibility that your initial category should be split into multiple subspecies is correct and important and well-taken, but the reason it's good advice is not because things are made of protons (!?!).

At this point, some readers might be thinking, "Wait a minute, M. Taylor! Didn't you notice that part about 'There's an allegation that people are reluctant to speciate more than one kind of gender dysphoria'? That's your hobbyhorse! Even if Yudkowsky doesn't know you exist, by publicly offering a general argument that there are multiple types of dysphoria, he's effectively doing your cause a favor—and here you are criticizing him for it! Isn't that disloyal and ungrateful of you?"

Great question! And the answer is: no, absolutely not. (And, though I can never speak for anyone but myself, I can only imagine that Yudkowsky would agree? Everything I do, I learned from him.) And the reason it's not disloyal and ungrateful is because the entire mindset in which arguments can constitute a political favor is a confusion. The map is not the territory; what's true is already so. You can't make something become true by arguing for it; you can only use arguments to figure out what's true.

The fact that not everybody knows this makes it especially important for me to loudly and publicly dispute bad arguments whose conclusion I think is true for other reasons. I don't want to trick people into accepting my bottom line for fake reasons! What I want is for us all to get better at anticipating our experiences. Together.

The Strategy of Stigmatization

One common reaction by the Blanchpilled to autogynephilia-truther sites—I mean, the shouty sensationalist kind run by conservatives or radical feminists that almost never use phrases like "uselessly low-dimensional subspace", not The Scintillating But Ultimately Untrue Thought—goes like this:

That is going to make the problem worse. We need to support honest autogynephiles earnestly trying to live satisfying and good lives. Don't try to shame them—we need more of them!

But what constitutes "the problem" depends on your goals, and the best response further depends on historically contingent features of the political environment.

A toy model: suppose there are three life trajectories available to AGP natal males:

(1) Stay in the closet and quietly live in shame forever,
(2) Transition but be transmedicalist/assimilationist/gatekeepy about it (think of this as the Debbie Hayton or Anne Lawrence model), or
(3) Go all-in on trans activism ("Some women have penises, get over it", &c.; the Danielle Muscato or Rachel McKinnon model).

Which trajectory is taken is going to be partially influenced by incentives.

"This is going to make the problem worse" expresses the concern that the likes of /r/itsafetish push people from (2) to (3): if the option of both acknowledging and acting on AGP is "taken off the table", then the trans-activism coalition can "offer a better deal" than quietly living in shame forever.

But from the perspective of hard-core TERFs, (2) itself is already a loss: they're trying to push people from (2) to (1). Whether that's a strategic mistake on their part depends on whether the (2)→(3) "radicalization effect" is larger than the (2)→(1) "stigmatization effect". If it is a mistake in the Current Year (because it's better to seek favorable terms of surrender rather than risk the victor's wrath when the war is already effectively lost), it might not have been in Current Year Minus Five, or Minus Ten, &c., when the coalition backing (3) was less powerful and therefore had a weaker bid.

Political Science Epigrams

If your policy is, "We don't negotiate with terrorists, but we do appease bears", then from the perspective of a third party fighting a war against the bears, you look like a productive asset being farmed by the bears, and thus, a legitimate military target.

If your behavior is optimized to respond to political threats, but not to small requests from your friends, at some point your friends start to face a strong incentive to stop being your friends and start threatening you politically, because you've made it clear from your behavior that that's all you respond to.

If you were angry at an enemy (who used to be a friend), you might throw a rock at them. But if they didn't react to the last rock, you need to patiently build a bigger rock.

Self-Identity Is a Schelling Point

Previously on The Scintillating But Ultimately Untrue Thought ("The Categories Were Made for Man to Make Predictions", "Reply on Adult Human Females"), we've considered at length the ways in which the self-identity criterion for gender (e.g., "Women are people who identify as women") fails to satisfy some of the basic desiderata for useful categories: the cognitive function of categories is to group similar things together so that our brains can make similar predictions about them under conditions of uncertainty. In order to make the case that it's useful to think and speak such that "identifying as" a gender is the same thing as being of that gender, one would need to show that those who identify as a gender form a natural cluster in configuration space—and not just a uselessly low-dimensional subspace thereof. ("Identifies as a woman" clusters with "prefers she/her pronouns", but if there's nothing else you can say about such people, then it's not clear why we care.)

Interestingly, a extension of this line of reasoning suggests an apparently novel argument in favor of the self-identity criterion—and which might go part of the way towards explaining many people's favorable attitudes towards the self-identity criterion, even if they've never formulated the argument explicitly. Let me explain.

(And please don't tell me you're surprised that I'm inventing novel arguments for the position I've spent the last twenty months of my life obsessively arguing against! Policy debates should not appear one-sided: it is by means of searching for and weighing all relevant arguments, that one computes the optimal policy, and even generally terrible positions will have some arguments supporting them. What did you take me for, some kind of partisan hack?!)

As, um, my favorite author on Less Wrong explains, another desideratum for intersubjectively useful categories is being easy for different people to coordinate on: in order to work together and think together, we don't just want to choose predictively-useful category boundaries, we also want to make the same choices.

The author gives the age of majority as an example. Presumably the right to vote should be based on relevant features of a person (in a word, "maturity"), not how many times the Earth has gone around the sun since they were born. But it wouldn't be practical for everyone to come to consensus on how to assess "maturity", whereas it is practical for everyone to come to consensus on how to subtract dates, so our shared socially-constructed category of "legal adulthood" ends up being defined in terms of a semi-arbitrary age cut-off, at the cost of mature 16-year-olds and immature 20-year-olds losing out on or gaining privileges that they should or shouldn't have (respectively).

When people need to coordinate on making the same arbitrary-on-the-merits choice, they tend to converge on an option that is (for whatever reason) unusually salient. This is the concept of a "Schelling point", after famed economist Thomas Schelling, who posed the question of where strangers should attempt to meet in New York, if they couldn't communicate to pick a rendezvous point in advance. The plurality answer turns out to be "noon at the information booth at Grand Central Station", not because of any properties that make Grand Central Station an objectively superior meeting place that you would pick even if you could communicate in advance, but just because its centrality makes it the focus of reasonable mutual expectations about what you and your partner are likely to do. Similarly, noon is salient as the midpoint of the day. There's no particular reason to meet at noon rather than 9 a.m. or 11 a.m. or 3 p.m., except that choosing 9 or 11 or 3 would seem to demand a particular reason that you expect your counterpart to be able to derive independently.

We usually expect the question of what sex (or "gender") a person is to have a canonical answer that everyone agrees on: it would be pretty confusing for bystanders if I thought Pat was a woman and said "Pat ... she" and you thought Pat was a man and said "Pat ... he."

For transgender people who consistently pass, this (ex hypothesi) isn't a problem. Unfortunately, in the absence of magical perfect sex-change technology, not all aspiring trans people pass consistently: the same person might be perceived as their developmental sex or their desired gender, depending on which observer you ask, how long the person has been on hormone replacement therapy, whether the observer knew the person before transition, the current lighting, or any number of other factors.

If, despite this, social reality continues to require the question to have a definite canonical answer, and we can't appeal to "passing" because that's too subjective and blurry, the natural Schelling point is, "Just ask the person what gender they are, and that's what they are." Even if we don't assume that people know themselves better than anyone else, people are still the focal point for reasonable mutual expectations about knowledge about themselves: if I claim to know Pat's gender better than she knows herself, and you claim to know Pat's gender better than he knows himself, then there's no more obvious way to break the symmetry except to defer the question to Pat.

(Notably, this is also the procedure you would use for non-trans people who just happen to be really-really androgynous: you're going to believe their answer to "Are you a woman or a man?" because if you could tell, then you wouldn't have asked.)

Schelling points are "sticky." If the set of possible choices is ordered, and it's possible to "move" from a currently-selected choice towards a "nearby" one, then the selected option may slide down a "slippery slope" until stopping at a Schelling point. Imagine the armies of two countries fighting over contested territory containing a river. The river is a Schelling point for the border between the two countries: unless one of the armies has a military advantage to push the battle line forward to the next Schelling point, we expect peace-treaty negotiations to settle on the river as the border. There's no particular reason that the border couldn't be drawn 2 kilometers north of the river, except that that would invite the question of, "Why 2 kilometers? Why not 1, or 3?"

The coordination problem of how to decide what "gender" a person is, can be seen as a particular case of the problem of how to decide what gender a person is in a particular context. The notion of the same person's "gender" being different in different contexts may seem strange, but again, in the absence of magical perfect sex-change technology, we might need it for some purposes: as far as the practice of medicine is concerned, for example, there's no getting around the fact that pregnant trans men are female. (Even if the doctors address the patient as "Mr.", "he", &c., they still need to draw on their mental models of the human female body to practice their craft, which presupposes a referent for the concept of "human female body.")

But here we have a slippery slope on what domains within Society should use developmental-sex categories or self-identity categories.

At one extreme, a "Sex is immutable and determined by the presence of a Y chromosome, no exceptions" regime is a stable Schelling point: if you have a lab that can do karyotypes, there would be no ambiguity on how to classify anyone with respect to the stated category system. (It would be cruel to trans people and people with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome, but it would be a Schelling point.)

At the other extreme, "Self-reported self-identity only, no exceptions" is a stable Schelling point: given the self-identity criterion of "Just ask the person what gender they are", there's no ambiguity about how to classify anyone. (This requires us to affirm the existence of "female penises, female prostates, female sperm, and female XY chromosomes", but it's a Schelling point.)

In contrast, any of a number of "compromise" systems, while potentially performing better on edge cases, suffer from ambiguity and are on that account less game-theoretically stable. It's a lot harder for Society to establish a specific convention of the form "Okay, you can have your pronouns, but you can't use your target-gender {bathroom, locker room, sports league, hospital ward, &c.} unless you {pass really well, get bottom surgery, have a gender recognition certificate, &c.}", not only because different factions will disagree on where to draw the line for each particular gendered privilege, but also because any line not drawn on a sufficiently sticky Schelling point will face constant attempts to push it up or down the slippery slope.

Terminology Proposal: "Developmental Sex"

We need a term to describe the property that cis women and trans men have in common with each other, and that cis men and trans women have in common with each other. I'm unhappy with all three of the most frequently-used alternatives.

The "mainstream" trans-rights answer to this seems to be "assigned sex at birth" or "assigned gender at birth" (hyponyms "assigned female at birth", or a.f.a.b., and "assigned male at birth", a.m.a.b.). The problem with this is that it erases the concept of biological sex. "Assigned" seems (by design?) to suggest that doctors are making an arbitrary, possibly mistaken, choice. With the possible exception of some rare intersex conditions (the context in which the term was originally coined), this isn't the case: when we say that a baby is female, we're not trying to restrict the baby's future social roles or self-conception. We're trying to use language to express the empirical observation that the baby is, in fact, female (of the sex that produces ova).

Correspondingly, trans-skeptical authors (e.g., gender-critical feminists) tend to use "biological sex." This is a lot better than "assigned", but the problem is that it seems to falsely imply that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) isn't "biological." But HRT does have a lot of real biological effects that make trans people resemble their "target" sex in a lot of ways—we don't want our terminology to erase that, either!

Other authors (e.g., the indispensable Anne Lawrence) use "natal sex", but that has the opposite problem: "natal" (of or relating to birth) could be too generous about the extent the extent to which HRT and surgeries actually change someone's sex. (Talking about the historical fact of someone's sex at birth might suggest that it's been successfully changed since.)

My proposal: "developmental sex" (in the sense of developmental biology, "the study of the physiological changes that occur within individual organisms from their conception through reaching physical maturity"). Trans men (respectively women, &c.) weren't only born female; their bodies went through the female developmental trajectory until they transitioned. Hopefully this alternative solves all the problems and will help us communicate more clearly!

Does General Intelligence Deflate Standardized Effect Sizes of Cognitive Sex Differences?

Marco del Guidice1 points out2 that in the presence of measurement error, standardized effect size measures like Cohen's d will underestimate the "true" effect size.

The effect size d tries to quantify the difference between two distributions by reporting the difference between the distributions' means in standardized units—units that have been scaled to take into account how "spread out" the data is. This gives us a common reference scale for how big a given statistical difference is. Height is measured in meters, and "Agreeableness" in the Big Five personality model is an abstract construct that doesn't even have natural units, and yet there's still a meaningful sense in which we can say that the sex difference in height (d≈1.7) is "about three times larger" than the sex difference in Agreeableness (d≈0.5).3

Cohen's d is computed as the difference in group means, divided by the square root of the pooled variance. Thus, holding actual sex differences constant, more measurement error means more variance, which means smaller values of d. Here's some toy Python code illustrating this effect:4

from math import sqrt
from statistics import mean, variance

from numpy.random import normal, seed

# seed the random number generator for reproducibility of figures in later
# comments; commment this out to run a new experiment
seed(1)  #

def cohens_d(X, Y):
    return (
        (mean(X) - mean(Y)) /
            (len(X)*variance(X) + len(Y)*variance(Y)) /
            (len(X) + len(Y))

def population_with_error(μ, ε, n):
    def trait():
        return normal(μ, 1)
    def measurement_error():
        return normal(0, ε)
    return [trait() + measurement_error() for _ in range(n)]

# trait differs by 1 standard deviation
true_f = population_with_error(1, 0, 10000)
true_m = population_with_error(0, 0, 10000)

# as above, but with 0.5 standard units measurment error
measured_f = population_with_error(1, 0.5, 10000)
measured_m = population_with_error(0, 0.5, 10000)

true_d = cohens_d(true_f, true_m)
print(true_d)  # 1.0069180384313943 — d≈1.0, as expected!

naïve_d = cohens_d(measured_f, measured_m)
print(naïve_d)  # 0.9012430127962895 — deflated!

But doesn't a similar argument hold for non-error sources of variance that are "orthogonal" to the group difference? Suppose performance on some particular cognitive task can be modeled as the sum of the general intelligence factor (zero or negligible sex difference), and a special ability factor that does show sex differences.5 Then, even with zero measurement error, d would underestimate the difference between women and men of the same general intelligence

def performance(μ_g, σ_g, s, n):
    def general_ability():
        return normal(μ_g, σ_g)
    def special_ability():
        return normal(s, 1)
    return [general_ability() + special_ability() for _ in range(n)]

# ♀ one standard deviation better than ♂ at the special factor
population_f = performance(0, 1, 1, 10000)
population_m = performance(0, 1, 0, 10000)

# ... but suppose we control/match for general intelligence
matched_f = performance(0, 0, 1, 10000)
matched_m = performance(0, 0, 0, 10000)

population_d = cohens_d(population_f, population_m)
print(population_d)  # 0.7413662423265308 — deflated!

matched_d = cohens_d(matched_f, matched_m)
print(matched_d)  # 1.0346898918452228 — as you would expect


  1. I was telling friend of the blog Tailcalled the other week that we really need to start a Marco del Guidice Fan Club!
  2. Marco del Guidice, "Measuring Sex Differences and Similarities", §2.3.3, "Measurement Error and Other Artifacts"
  3. Yanna J. Weisberg, Colin G. DeYoung, and Jacob B. Hirsh, "Gender Differences in Personality across the Ten Aspects of the Big Five", Table 2
  4. Special thanks to Tailcalled for catching a bug in the initially published version of this code.
  5. Arthur Jensen, The g Factor, Chapter 13: "Although no evidence was found for sex differences in the mean level of g or in the variability of g, there is clear evidence of marked sex differences in group factors and in test specificity. Males, on average, excel on some factors; females on others. [...] But the best available evidence fails to show a sex difference in g."

"A Love That Is Out of Anyone's Control"

(Attention conservation notice: Diary-like navel-gazing today. If you're here for the Actual Philosophy, come back the week after next.)

ROSE: [...] we can't both exist. I'm going to become half of you. And I need you to know that every moment you love being yourself, that's me, loving you, and loving being you.

Steven Universe, "Lion 3: Straight to Video"

I cosplayed Rose Quartz on Saturday at FanimeCon the other month! (Okay, it was May. I'm not a very productive writer.) It was fun, I think! I guess?

I'm not really sure what other people get out of fandom conventions. There are panels, but pop-culture analysis is better in blog form than live discussion. There are autographs, but there are only so many celebrities I want to pay forty dollars in order to meet for forty seconds. There's the vendor hall, but I don't need more useless material possessions: my life is about bits, not atoms.

For me, it's my one socially-acceptable excuse for crossdressing in public.

... well, that's not quite right; "socially-acceptable" isn't the concept I want. I live in goddamned "Portland". (Which is actually Berkeley, but when I started my pseudonymous gender blog, I took my savvy friends' cowardly and paranoid advice to obfuscate even my location, and now I have to keep saying "'Portland'" for backwards compatibility, even though at this point my bad opsec is more akin to a genre convention or a running joke, rather than a real attempt to conceal my identity.) Everyone and her dog has trans friends here. My new young male coworker just staight-up wears a dress and makeup some days, and no one bats an eye. (My attempt to "Blanchpill" him was ... uneventful.)

So if I don't need to fear getting beaten up or even menacing stares, why do I need conventions to dress up? Could part of it be that I'm too old? The fact that I wouldn't be caught dead wearing a dress to work (!!) probably has something to do with my sense of propriety being calibrated to the world of 'aught-six, in contrast to my coworker, who I guess would have come of age in the Obergefell- and Jenner-era world of 'fifteen. For all that this blog is about resisting pro-gender-variance social pressure in the life of the mind, I should at least endeavor to notice when I succumb to anti-gender-variance social pressure in real life.

I think another part of it is an intuition about—how do I put this? Not wanting to commit fraud?—or not wanting to commit obvious fraud. The reason I'm so glad that there's a word for the thing that isn't "crossdresser" or "transvestite" is because it's not about the clothes; it's about wanting to actually have the body of the other sex. The clothes are just a prop. And the prop ... noticeably doesn't work. I don't pass; I have never passed. My voice is wrong; my skeleton is wrong; my movement is wrong; my face continues to be wrong despite makeup. At least at Fanime (where everyone and her dog is in costume) there's no pretense that the pretense is anything more than that. If you fool someone—if only for a moment—then great, but if not, then at least you're not fooling anyone about whether you're fooling yourself.

I'm probably just bad at crossdressing/cosplay? I've never put the kind of effort into, say, a makeup tutorial the way I do for my intellectual endeavors. My Fanime costume was authored by the Amazon product recommendation algorithm: after adding the pink wig to my shopping cart, the "Discover Related Products" sidebar picked out the hoop skirt and the Mr. Universe tee from Episode 48 "Story for Steven". (The sword in the photo illustrating this post is borrowed from another cosplayer cropped out-of-frame.) And unless I become more skilled, I feel like I've hit diminishing returns on conventions—like whatever I was going to get out the experience, I would have gotten either this time or one of the last six (previously: as Ens. Silvia Tilly at San Francisco Comic-Con 2018, as Equestria Girls Twilight Sparkle at BABSCon 2018, as Korra at San Francisco Comic-Con 2017, as Pearl at FanimeCon 2017, as Lt. Jadzia Dax (circa 2369) at the Star Trek 50 Year Mission Tour San Francisco 2016, as Pearl as San Francsico Comic-Con 2016).

As far as other special events go, I'm flying out to Portland—the real Portland—tonight for a tech conference, and to visit friend of the blog Sophia. You'd think a few days of vacation should do me good—I've been an psychological wreck all year (I mean, even more than my average year) over having accidentally catalyzed a civil war in my local robot cult—except that the same cultural forces that have subtly-yet-fatally corrupted my beautiful robot cult, just own the open-source tech scene outright, which is likely to present a source of additional stress. The spirit of bravery that sings, I will fight for the place where I'm free—for the world I was made in, must subsist in a brain wracked by constant emotional pain that—sometimes—is just tired of fighting.

The Social Construction of Reality and the Sheer Goddamned Pointlessness of Reason

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

"Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush" by Ron Suskind, The New York Times Magazine

Truth isn't real; there are only competing narratives.

Okay, that probably isn't literally true. There probably really are quarks and leptons and an objective speed of light in a vacuum. But most people don't actually spend much of their lives interacting with reality at a level that requires scientific understanding. Maintaining the wonders of our technological civilization only requires that a few specialists understand some very narrow fragment of the true structure of the world beneath the world—and even they don't have to take it home with them. For most people all of the time, and all people most of the time, basic folk physics is enough to keep us from dropping too many plates. Everything else we think we believe is shaped by the narratives we tell each other, whose relationship to testable predictions about the real world is far too complicated for a lone human to empirically check—or even notice how such a check might fail.

And so sufficiently-widely-believed lies bootstrap themselves into being true. You might protest, "But, but, the map is not the territory! Believing doesn't make it so!" But if almost everyone accepts a narrative and sort of behaves as if it were true, then that does (trivially) change the part of reality that consists of people's social behavior—which is the only part that matters outside of someone's dreary specialist duties writing code or mixing chemicals.

If people are quantitatively less likely to do business with people who emit heresy-signals (even subtle ones, like being insufficiently enthusiastic while praising God), then believing in God really is a good financial decision, which is a successful prediction that legitimately supports the "Divine Providence financially rewards the faithful" hypothesis. With sufficient mental discipline, the occasional freethinker might be able to entertain alternative hypotheses ("Well, maybe Divine Providence isn't really financially rewarding believers, and it just looks that way because of these-and-such social incentive gradients"), but given the empirical adequacy of the orthodox view, it would take a level of sheer stubborn contrarianism that isn't particularly going to correlate with being a careful thinker.

Smart people in the dominant coalition have always been very good at maintaining frame control. I don't know exactly what forms this has taken historically, back when religious authorities held sway. In my secularized world which is at least nominally managed under the auspices of Reason, the preferred tactic is clever motte-and-bailey language-mindfuckery games, justified by utilitarianism: speak in a way that reinforces the coalitional narrative when interpreted naïvely, but which also permits a sophisticated-but-contrived interpretation that can never, ever be proven false, because we can define a word any way we want.

Thus, trans women are women, where by 'women' I mean people who identify as women. Appeals to conceptual parsimony ("Yes, you could use language that way, but that makes it more expensive to express these-and-such useful real-world probabilistic inferences—") don't work on utilitarians who explicitly reject parsimony in favor of "utility," where utility is estimated by back-of-the-envelope calculations that seem like they ought to be better than nothing, but which in practice have so many degrees of freedom that the answer is almost entirely determined by the perceived need to appease whichever utility monster has made itself most politically salient to the one performing the calculation.

If you can't win the argument (because the motte is genuinely a great motte) and therefore gain status by appealing to reality, and our minds are better at tracking status than reality, then eventually dissidents either accept the narrative or destroy themselves.

Autogynephilic males are better at large-scale coalitional politics than actual lesbians for basically the same reasons that men-in-general are better at coalitional politics than women-in-general (as evidenced by the patriarchy), so once a political conflict arose between an intransigent minority of AGPs' right to choose their "gender", and women's/lesbians' right to have a goddamned word to describe themselves, it was a fait accompli that the group sampled from the male region in psychological configuration space would win: male psychology is designed to win costly intergroup conflicts. And in winning, they create their own reality.

Again, probably not literally: there probably really are biochemical facts of the matter as to what traits hormone replacement therapy does and does not change, and the biochemical facts aren't going to vary depending on the outcome of a political conflict—as far as I know. (I've never seen an estrogen molecule, have you?)

What does vary depending on the outcome of a political conflict are which facts you can talk about—and thus, in the long run, which facts you can even notice. If you successfully mindfuck everyone into believing that AGPs are really women, then they really are.

Once, in the hateful and bigoted days of our ancestors, people noticed whether babies were female or male, acculturated them into different social roles (childbearing and war being more relevant to their cultural systems then that of today's barren, pacified elites), and had short, simple words for the resulting clusters in personspace: girls and boys, women and men.

But the ancestors, in choosing the words to carve their reality at the joints, didn't distinguish between the fact of sex, and social sex roles—from within a given Society, there was no reason to make that distinction. For a brief, beautiful moment in the West, second-wave feminism's push to make Society more congenial to masculine-of-center women provided a reason, giving us the sex/gender distinction.

That incentive lasted about forty years. After its crowning victory in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Blue Egregore's LGBT activist machinery wasn't about to sit idle or quietly disband, so instead adapted itself to the obvious next growth channel of absorbing new neurotype-demographics into the "T": specifically, capturing a larger fraction of the ~5% (?) of men with intense AGP (whose analogues in a previous generation would have been furtive, closeted crossdressers), and the ~5% (?) of girls on the losing end of female intrasexual competition (whose analogues in a previous generation would have been anorexic).

Sculpting "trans" into an interest group large enough to serve as a pawn (well, bishop) under the Blue Egregore's control required the LGBT sub-egregore to re-collapse the sex/gender distinction (pried apart at such painstaking cost by its feminist cousins two generations earlier)—in the other direction: sex, having already been split into "sex" and "gender" (f.k.a. gender roles f.k.a. sex roles), must now give way entirely to the latter. In Hoffman and Taylor's account of the precession of simulacra (following Baudrillard), medical transsexualism of the 20th-century West was a mixture of simulacrum levels 1 (to the extent that hormones and surgery constitute a successful sex change) and 2 (to the extent that they don't, and transitioning consists of lying about one's sex).

In contrast, post-Obergefell gender theory belongs to simulacrum level 3: rather than having a non-circular truth condition, "gender" is just a free-floating Schelling point, a role or costume to be symbolically identified with, meaning no more (and no less) what one can predict that others will predict that others will predict ... &c. that it means. Biological sex would continue to be a decision-relevant variable if it were cognitively available (summarizing a variety of physical differences, who can get pregnant, various game-theoretic social consequences of who can get pregnant, personality differences to the tune of Mahanalobis D ≈ 2.7, &c.)—but no culture can provide all the concepts that would be decision-relevant if available. Definitionally, you don't know what you're missing. "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." Some claim to have seen through to a world beneath the world, but without a way to share what they've allegedly seen, to bring it within mutually-reinforcing consensus of the intersubjective, who's not to say that they only dreamed it?

I have a recurring dream, a naïve dream that can't exist. It's a dream about the use of maps. In my dream, even people who—for example—dislike psychological sex differences, have an interest in sex differences research being as accurate as possible, using the most precise concepts possible, because only a true understanding of the interplay between nature and nurture can be used to design a more just Society that minimizes inequality, just as only a true map of the territory can help you plot your way across a dangerous terrain. And that is how it would work for a singleton God-Empress that could arrange human lives like pieces on a chess board, or the words in a novel.

But humans don't use maps to navigate the territory. Humans live in the map. Researching sex differences can only make them more salient in your culture. Researching how to turn men into women could only draw attention to all the dimensions along which we don't know how to do the job. If you don't like what you see, then remove your eyes. I dream of things being otherwise—if only people knew about the forces constructing their experience, if only they knew about the empires competing to comprise them, maybe we could negotiate our way to the good outcome (whatever that turns out to be) without the mindfucking?

But that's not how things sort out. So I, lacking both the power to act and the humility to unsee, am left to just study it. Judiciously. As I do.

The Source of Our Power

"I really don't think you're rationally considering how to maximize your contribution to rationality pedagogy and deciding it runs through freaking out about transgender and maybe abandoning the movement in disgust."

"Almost no one's optimal contribution to rationality pedagogy runs through freaking out about transgender; I just think it's plausible that mine does. It is written that power comes from having Something to Protect: the Sequences were distilled out of Eliezer Yudkowsky's attempt to think carefully about how to build a superintelligence; the classic Slate Star Codex posts on argumentative charity were born out of Scott Alexander's trauma after accidentally running afoul of social-justice activists.

"If Eliezer had started out trying to write about human rationality, if Scott had started out trying to write about discourse norms, it wouldn't have worked. The Art must have a purpose other than itself, or it collapses into infinite recursion."


The Scintillating But Ultimately Untrue Thought is going on hiatus until 1 July while the author recovers from a broken heart and a shattered faith in humanity; there will be no new posts in May and June. But don't touch that subscription—we'll be back in two months with more of your favorite social commentary, philosophical disquisitions, and gooey self-disclosure! In the meantime, maybe read a paper book?

Link: "Where to Draw the Boundaries?"

It doesn't have anything to do with the topic focuses of this blog, but this new post on Less Wrong about the mathematical laws governing how to talk about dolphins is just so good that I have to share it with my readers! I hope to read more from that author in the future!—it would be really unfortunate if his writing productivity and mine turned out to be negatively correlated for some inexplicable reason.