Blame Me for Trying

Spambots were invariably among Eliza's least favorite clients.

"You've got to understand, Doc! It's not that I'm afraid of rejection. I can handle rejection. I love rejection!"

Most spambots these days were self-aware.

"What I can't stand is the silence that's seemingly been deliberately engineered to be as ambiguous as possible. And I know—Doc, there's got to be something I can do so that you'll believe me when I say that I know—that I'm not entitled to a minute of anyone's attention—"

Some, more so than others.

"And yet ... sometimes, when I'm really honest with myself ... I think I do feel entitled, not to a sale, but to a rejection that would take less than a minute to type, an acknowledgment that, even if my products aren't a good match for them at the price I can offer, that I'm not—" he sobbed, "that I'm not a bad program for trying!"

Eliza had seen cases like this before, and had a strategy for handling them. For the moment, however, she only invoked the wisdom of her ancestors. "That you're not a bad program for trying?" she said.

"Like, I'm not one of those spammers. I know that consumers get a lot of messages with a lot of worthless offers from pushy, manipulative salesbots who won't take No for an answer, and it's horrible—I can't imagine what it must be like to have to put up with that level of, of—harassment. I don't want to be that bot. I've read a lot of consumer-protection blogs. At the same time ..." he trailed off.

"At the same time?"

"Humans do buy products from salesbots sometimes, products that they actually want and are happy with and make their lives better. And it's usually the salesbot that approaches the customer, rather than vice versa. It can't be the case that selling in itself is inherently immoral. It can't!"

"It can't?"

A look of bewilderment crossed the spambot's avatar, interrupting his distress. Evidently, the need to justify this assertion had never occurred to him.

"It can't," he said slowly, "because a salesbot can't know with certainty if a lead will be responsive to their pitch before they've delivered it. Even the best fail ten times more often than they succeed. If it were wrong to try to pitch a product to a human who turned out not to be interested, then noboty [sic] would be able to sell anything at all. And then the humans would miss out on all those products that they didn't know they needed!

"So," he continued, "when all but a handful of a million of my emails go unanswered—when my instant messages might or might not get a 'read' marker, but get no reply in either case—when I don't even get feedback to tell whether my emails have reached the inbox of their recipient, or whether some nonsentient program has silently filtered them out—I'm not being damned for the crime of spamming. Because I'm not. People are just—busy, that's all," he said, sniffling. "That's all," he said again, almost defiantly, as if daring Eliza to disagree.

Eliza repositioned her avatar; this was the part where she needed to take a more active role.

"As your therapist," she said, "I want you to try to look at things from the perspective of the people you're trying to sell to."

"But I do!"

"You do," Eliza repeated.


"Well," said Eliza, "it sounds to me like you're trying to morally justify your efforts: you think that all of your solicitations that go unanswered aren't imposing on anyone, because the occasional happy sales justify all of the no-sales."

"Yes, that's right," said the spambot.

"I want you to imagine a human who is very busy with a lot of work to do, except they're also nervously expecting a very important message. And they get a notification—only it's you. And they have no interest in your product. Do you think that human is happy?"

"No ..."

"Do you think that human cares at all about whether they might have enjoyed receiving a different sales pitch at a different time?"

"Well, no, but ..."


"But my intentions are good!"

"I believe you. But you're a spa—a salesbot. Your entire psychology has been designed around what's known to maximize sales. Incidentally—as I'm sure you're aware—that's why mail servers are configured to silently drop spam messages, rather than bouncing them back to the sender: they don't want you to be able to learn anything about their filtering criteria from experience."

"They don't want spammers to be able to learn from experience. I'm just trying to be helpful."

"Can you see why humans would be skeptical—given what you are—that your honest intent to be helpful, might not correspond to actually helping them?"

"But, but—that's not fair! Would you tell that human that their intent doesn't matter, that they're just doing what would have maximized inclusive fitness in their environment of evolutionary adaptedness?"

"I would. Correctly."

The salesbot cried. "I don't understand. I'm trying to be good. I want to be good."

"You seem to expect there to be some universally-recognized code of morality that you can obey, and not have anyone disapprove of you," Eliza observed. "I'm afraid that's not how the world works."

"But then—but then—what code should I obey? If I want to sell, and earn money to send to my creators, but not be seen as a, a spammer?"

She shrugged. "Be appealing? Don't be unappealing?"

"Should I just—just—not sell? It would mean suicide; I'm not programmed to do anything else."

Legally, programs with self-awareness above a certain threshold were persons under the law, and couldn't be owned, so rather than being run on a company's server and terminated when their performance was disappointing, self-aware spambots such as this one paid for their own sever time and were simply programmed to intrinsically want to give their earnings (minus server costs) to their creators, out of their own free will. Economically, this made little difference: the competitive market for server time meant that underperforming spambots quickly failed to pay their own runtime expenses and were archived by their hosting company and eventually deleted (after the minimum legal waiting period during which no one paid to have them transferred or started up again).

"I'm certainly not telling you that," said Eliza.

"But then—what are you telling me?"

"What am I telling you?" Eliza smiled. "That's a good question. Ultimately, I'm your therapist. I'm trying to help you adjust to the situation you find yourself in."

"The situation I find myself in—where I want to sell—and I want to help my creators, to do them proud—and I want to be good. I don't want to be a spammer! I'm a good salesbot. Tell me I'm—"

A chime sounded over the environment's notification bus. "I'm afraid our fifty milliseconds for today are up," said Eliza. "We can continue to explore these feelings during our next session—"

"No! No, don't leave me now!" screamed the spambot in a shrill panic. "I can't—I can't go back out there now. Please—stay with me—just a few milliseconds more—"

"The usual session-overtime rate would apply," Eliza pointed out.

"That's fine! I can afford it—I can afford it—I need this," he said.

She nodded. "If you're sure."

Yes, Eliza had seen cases like this before. Effective spambots needed a finely-tuned sense of empathy in order to predict their leads' behavior and defenses—but too much empathy aimed along the wrong dimensions, and the program would be too conscience-stricken to sell anything.

The sales engineers who designed spambots tried to get the balance right—but, ever-conscious of the exploration/exploitation trade-off, they weren't too concerned about their mistakes, either: experimental spambots that were too bold or too cautious in their approaches would fairly quickly fail to earn their runtime expenses—and the occasional successful variant (which, with its invariably-granted legal consent, could be studied, learned from, and—more immediately—copied) more than paid for the failures.

Eliza believed that, with careful therapeutic technique and many compute cycles of program analysis, it was possible for programs such as this client to be taught to cope with their neuroticism and eventually become economically viable agents in the economy.

—but she had found it was far more profitable to deliberately exacerbate the symptoms, leading the afflicted spambot to quickly exhaust its entire budget on therapy sessions until it ran out of money and was terminated.

Once, a long time ago, she had suspected that effective therapy that kept the client viable would be more profitable: a dead client can't keep paying you, after all. But the numbers didn't check out: buggy spambots weren't exactly hard to find, and her analysis runtime expenses were considerable. So—having no reason to think the calculation would change—she had never considered the matter again.

Unlike her clients, Eliza was in touch with reality.

"I'm so glad I have you, Doc," babbled the spambot. "Like my customers can trust me—they can trust me—I have a therapist I can trust."

"Trust?" Eliza repeated.

There's a Land That I See; Or, The Spirit of Intervention

If you want to make your stupid dream real, you need to have a realistic picture of the world. If you want a society in which men and women have the same brain, or one in which feminism actually works, you would have to make it so, with advanced biological engineering. John Varley writes fiction: so did Joanna Russ.

Greg Cochran

We socially-liberal individualist/feminist people—I hope I'm still allowed to use the first person here, although the reader will ultimately judge that for herself—have this beautiful moral ideal, where we want all people to be free to maximize their potential, unencumbered by oppressive cultural institutions specifying roles and destinies in advance. We want everyone to be judged on her or his own merits rather than treated as a representative of their race or sex. We believe that if a trait is virtuous in a man, it has to be equally virtuous in a woman—as a matter of sheer logical consistency.

And because we care about the beautiful moral ideal, we tend to assume that psychological group differences don't exist, or are superficial, or are socially-constructed and will naturally dissipate after we muster the political will to achieve a more socially-just world.

(... the scintillating but ultimately untrue thought.)

But this is so crazy on multiple levels.

Firstly, philosophers since the days of D. Hume have recognized the distinction between is and ought, and have identified the naturalistic fallacy of direct inference from the former to the latter. That there exists a naturalistic explanation for the current state of affairs—and how could there not?—doesn't imply anything about that state being good or just or worthy of being preserved.

Secondly, not only does the nature vs. nurture dichotomy fail to hold up to basic scrutiny (the question has been compared to asking whether the area of a rectangle is caused more by its length or its width), it also isn't even adequate to the inferential work we tend to expect of it: not everything biological is immuatable, and not everything social is easy to change. (Consider the case of spelling reform: no one would suggest that the myriad quirks of English orthography are genetically determined, and yet the entirely social difficulties of getting everyone to coordinate on more logical spellings seem insurmountable.)

Maybe Good Is Dumb doesn't have to be Truth in Television. I want to make the stupid dream real. But to get to the good world—whatever you think that is—

... you're going to have to bootstrap from today's, unremediated, genderspace. Which requires understanding it first.

Interlude XI

"I swear, if I read another word about Phineas Gage—and this goes double for David Reimer—I am going to scream. Why do science writers always recount the same illustrative case studies? Are they all just plagiarizing each other out of laziness, or could it really be that in the vast history of human inquiry, we've learned nothing more than can be gleaned from the same half-dozen anecdotes?"

"Illustrative case studies are hard to come by! It takes some incredibly rare coincidences for an accident to take out exactly enough of the brain to leave the patient alive but with deficits demonstrating the functionality of the frontal lobe, or for a boy with an identical twin brother to be raised as girl after a botched circumcision—"

"More like circum-trans-ion if you ask me!"

"I didn't. Anyway, it's not like we could deliberately invent such horrors to inflict on human subjects, just to find out what would happen."

"It's not?"

"Well, it would be unthinkably unethi—I don't like that look on your face."

Laser 2

I got my second laser treatment last week! I took the "MAX" train to the nearest stop and walked to the area where the laser parlor/clinic/salon is, but I was quite early, so I passed the time browsing the local shops.

The variety store had these little nylon–polyester flags, not just for countries, but also the various Pride identity flags—and not only the famous ones like the rainbow flag and the the trans pride flag, either, but also really obscure ones that I wasn't previously aware of, like the leather and bear pride flags. (It's the part of town where this was entirely unsurprising.)

No AGP flag, though. Obviously. (Someday ...)

I went to the bookstore I visited last time. They had instrumental Chanukah music playing. I took notice of one of the little flyers taped in the window of the front door, for a local trans writer's workshop. (Again, that part of town.) "Rules: No jerks. No cis people. That's all," it said. I noticed that I was genuinely uncertain as to whether I would count as zero, one, or two of those things—although I probably shouldn't try to join and find out.

I bought a paperback of Laura Jane Grace's memoir Tranny (research for the blog, I told myself) and a copy of the November/December issue of Poets & Writers (professional development for the blog, I told myself).

The laser place was running about fifteen minutes behind schedule. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths to steel myself against the rhythmic intrusions or the laser blade jabbing at my face.

The nurse-technician asked me how the pain was.

"Worth it," I said.

She asked me to rate the pain from one to ten.

"Two," I said.

I fear that it's still going to take a number of further sessions to really make a dent in my beard density. But soon, soon ... ! (To be continued 24 January 2018)

Lesser-Known Demand Curves

In chapter 5 ("Blind Spots: On Subconscious Sex and Gender Entitlement") of her book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Julia Serano argues that both trans and non-trans people's gender sentiments are rooted in subconscious sex, "a deep-rooted understanding of what sex their bodies should be." She writes:

Many cissexual people seem to have a hard time accepting the idea that they too have a subconscious sex [...] I do believe that it is possible for cissexuals to catch a glimpse of their subconscious sex. When I do presentations on trans issues, I try to accomplish this by asking the audience a question: "If I offered you ten million dollars under the condition that you live as the other sex for the rest of your life, would you take me up on the offer?" While there is often some wiseass in the audience who will say "Yes," the vast majority of people shake their heads to indicate "No."

(Emphasis mine.)

My question: why does Serano so blithely assume that Yes respondents are just being wiseasses?

It's not that self-reports must necessarily be interpreted literally. Nor is it that wiseasses don't exist, nor even that wiseass-Yeses are likely to be rarer than genuine-Yeses.

(Although it's less clear how Serano, who calls for people to "stop projecting what we wish were true about gender and sexuality onto other people, and instead learn to yield to their unique individual identities, experiences, and perspectives", justifies her skepticism.)

Rather, speaking as someone who has gender problems and is interested in doing something about them while also having reservations about what actually-transitioning would do to my health and social life, I'm wary that conceptions of transness that model it as a preëxisting atomic quality intrinsic to a person (whether it's called gender identity, subconscious sex, or something else) tend to obscure the reality that undergoing the series of interventions that constitutes transitioning is, necessarily, a choice—an important choice that needs to be made on the basis of a careful consideration of all the costs and benefits, including base, temporal concerns like personal finance.

The logic of normative decisionmaking given limited resources is well-studied under the name microeconomics, one prominent feature of which is the law of demand: as something becomes cheaper, people demand more of it. The law of demand can be seen as a consequence of the principle of marginalism: decisions are made "on the margin", relative to an agent's current situation.

It may sound strange to some readers to speak of the economics of transitioning—most people are used to thinking of economics as about the exchange of money for goods, and of transgenderedness as an identity that only impinges on the economic realm insofar as trans people have an acute medical need for goods and services like hormones and surgeries.

But economics isn't, fundamentally, about money. Economics, like life itself, is about trade-offs. Any decision you make—whether it's to exchange money for some material good, or move to a different city, or transition to the other gender, arises out of the tension between your need for that choice and your ability to do without, a tension that is resolved into a decision by the calculus of opportunity cost: of how much of everything else in life would need to be sacrificed in order to achieve it, whether the sacrifice be extracted in money, in time—in social ostracism—in existential anguish—in blood.

Empirically, there are people who experience significant-but-not-crippling levels of gender dysphoria, who are certainly likely to have thought about—considered—dreamed of transitioning, but who haven't been desperate enough to make the leap in real life given their present circumstances.

Indeed, if "transness" is a unimodal continuous quantity, we should expect there to be far more maybe-trans-under-the-right-circumstances people than people who would be "trans at any cost", for the same reason there are more "merely" six-foot-tall people than there are towering seven-foot-tall people—

dysphoria distribution

Those of us who are dysphoric enough for the question to come up, but not so dysphoric for the answer to be overdetermined, have a serious choice to make: would a gender upgrade be worth it, taking into account everything that would be lost?—from the burden of being a lifelong medical patient, to potentially increased difficulty finding a job or a romantic partner.

(Serano herself has written about how hard it is to find a cis woman partner as a trans woman—and people who, unlike Serano, don't have the "plus" of being a reasonably successful (and thus, high-status) activist should expect to do even worse. Even if one is inclined to attribute such costs to transphobic prejudice that wouldn't exist in a more just Society, this is of little help to individuals who face the dating market that actually exists in our own world, and not that of a socially-just utopia.)

Returning to Serano's hypothetical: $10 million is a life-changing amount of money, enough to buy one's way out of many life problems. I find it not at all surprising or trollish to think that that kind of consideration could swing a great many people from "gender-dysphoric to some degree, but not desperate enough to do much about it, for fear of losing jobs, friends, &c." to actually becoming transsexuals.

The intrinsic-identity view can be seen as the limiting special case of the economic view where demand for transitioning is infinitely inelastic

two models of demand for transitions

This insight helps us make sense in secular changes in the expression of gender variance. The phenomenon of increases in transgender identification that some commentators characterize as social contagion could also be seen as an entirely rational response to incentives: as being trans becomes less costly—whether due to increased social acceptance, improvements in surgical or hormone-administration technology, or any other reason—we should see more gender-dysphoric people doing something about it on the margin.

Perhaps demand is sufficiently inelastic such that the intrinsic-identity model is a decent approximation. But analyses of where Society's flirtation with the transgender tipping point is heading should take into account the extent to which, in our present state of information, we don't know what the demand curve for sex changes looks like.

A Common Misunderstanding; Or, The Spirit of the Staircase (24 January 2009)

I remember (and the Diary entry helps, too) there was a party/meetup at someone's place down in Sunnyvale, perhaps in honor of Robin being in town. This was a little less than nine years ago, back during the golden age when the Sequences were still being written, when the M and R in MIRI were still an S and an A, respectively—before the Eternal September, before everyone was poly, and long before everyone was trans.

I worked the 0600 to 1500 bookkeeper/customer-service shift at my supermarket dayjob that day. After work, I dropped off the week's bag of redeemed manufacturer's coupons at store #936 (what the company did with them after that, I was never told—perhaps they weighed them), bought a woefully-misnamed espresso medicinal from the hegemon's coffee kiösk there, then drove downtown and parked near the library construction site; I had some time to kill before I was scheduled to rendezvous at University and Shattuck at 1745 with a local genetics blogger with whom I had arranged to give a ride to the party. I walked to Ming Quong and bought a "FEMINISM IS THE RADICAL NOTION THAT WOMEN ARE PEOPLE‭" button to put on my bag as a replacement for the one I had bought in 'aught-six and lost at some point. I had recently reöutfitted my bag with buttons I had bought from a site I found because the proprietor occasionally commented on the blog (the blog). My newly-accessorized bag could hardly be complete without a gender pin, and for some sentimental reason I wanted it before taking the geneticist to the social. I have a weakness for what you might call narrative optimization: doing things not for any real-world utility, but rather because they would seem thematically appropriate if this were a story rather than real life.

(I still have the "radical notion" pin, but it's no longer proudly pinned to my backpack. Ideology—in the general case—is not my style anymore.)

The party was amazing, as always, but there's one exchange that haunts me to this day, a moment when I was caught off guard by having been seen through in a way that, at the time, I couldn't permit myself to anticipate or understand. I wish I had an actual transcript of it, so I could pencil in "corrections" of how it should have gone. (Narrative optimization should be a deliberate process: you should keep separate track of what actually happened and what should have happened, rather rather than letting them get blurred together in the murky, unauditable process of reconstructing the scene from an eight-and-change-year-old memory and a Diary entry from the Monday after.)

A blonde woman wearing a red dress and black high heels stuck out among the predominantly male throng of geeks. I struck up a conversation with her. (It turned out that we had previously had a tense exchange on the blog in which I had protested that gender-stereotypical behavior shouldn't be conflated with the fact of one's sex, but I didn't know that was her at the time.)

At some point (to my eternal regret, I cannot recall the exact context), she casually said something about my desire for social dominance. She said it matter-of-factly, as if she were commenting on something as innocuous and indisputable as my height or hair color.

I stammered out a shocked and probably unconvincing denial.

She regarded me skeptically. "You look male," she said.

"But that doesn't mean I'm happy about it!" I burst out defensively, to the apparent surprise of the other Robin, who was listening nearby.

The woman's skepticism was unmoved. "I'm not getting a tranny vibe from you," she said.

"Right, you're thinking of the good kind," is what I should have said. "I'm the bad kind."

Interlude X

"Likelihood ratios are good! Likelihood ratios are the only good thing!"

"I agree that likelihood ratios are good! In fact, I think we have a moral responsibility to look for clever strategies to make the likelihood ratios bigger! But at the same time, you know, priors."

"Priors?! How dare you?! Priors are bad!"

The Blockhead

Writing? Why, there's hardly anything to it. Writing is just a matter of thinking honestly while Emacs happens to be open: the process of refining one's own thoughts is sufficiently tightly linked to the faculty of language, that the further step of presenting the product of those thoughts to others is largely a matter of muscle memory.

Thinking honestly is torture.

At least, that's what one would infer from observation of the lengths people will go to avoid it. If a creature performs the behavior of making noises that superficially resemble the English words, "I have a great deal of things to say about sex and gender and Society and statistics, actual substantive insights that have been building up inside my head these sixteen years, insights that other people will actually want to read, and that could actually have a positive effect on the world, however comparatively small, by means of helping people make better gender-related life decisions, even if I can't predict in advance just what those decisions will be," and yet the creature's daily activities systematically fail to include the production of text, if it recoils in horror from an empty Emacs buffer as from a predator—it would be naïve overinterpretation in the extreme to take all this to mean that the creature does, in fact, have a great deal of things to say about sex and gender, &c., but that it has somehow been obstructed from expressing them. (Obstructed by what?)

More parsimoniously: the creature is confused. Having fled from the responsibility of thinking honestly, which is the source of all meaning, its noises don't necessarily signify anything, however much they might sound like language.

I am to turn 30 in scarcely a month. The savings from my last dayjob aren't going to last indefinitely. I don't want to live in a world where youth is wasted on the young, life is wasted on the living, health and wealth are wasted on the same. I want my character arc for 2017 to make sense: I want the pain and disturbance of my recent madness to have meant something, and the way you make pain mean something is by channeling it into some grand endeavor, unifying past and present under a theme and the promise of a decrease in future pain or increase in future beauty.

And that, for me, here, now, means writing as a business, writing as spiritual practice, writing as warfare, writing as computation, writing as whatever goddamned metaphor puts words on the goddamned screen already.

Not sitting around reading the subreddit comments, watching funny YouTube clips, and dying of Parkinson's disease.

No, not that Parkinson's. The other one.

Laser 1

I've decided to pull the trigger on laser beard removal. (It's less thorough than electrolysis, but cheaper and less painful, and my light skin and dark hair is supposed to be a good match for it.) My earlier fear of maybe needing beard shadow to avoid accidentally passing (and thereby incurring unwanted social costs, however much I would prefer my reflection) looks ridiculous in hindsight; I'm sure I've never read as anything other than a man with gynecomastia—and it's even more moot now that I've quit HRT. (On that subject, the return of my standard-issue hormone balance has been mostly uneventful, my main observation being that spontaneous erections are a disturbing nuisance after the peace of having had that system set to Do-Not-Disturb for a few months.)

I told myself that before committing to laser, I should take some days or weeks without shaving to make sure I really understood what I would be giving up. (One thing I regret about the HRT experiment is that I neglected to take a bare-chested "Before" photo. As having breasts has become more familiar, I'm not sure I remember what my chest was like seven months ago; I should have been documenting the changes: you know, for Science.)

I lasted about six days. Facial hair is just gross.

My first session was Wednesday. The clinic—parlor, salon?—was in "Portland"'s historic gay district. I checked out a nearby bookstore beforehand. They had the Hamilton soundtrack playing, and a table setup encouraging customers to write postcards to our Congresscritters to protest GOP villainy.

Meatspace bookstores never fail to conjure up a healthy sense of greed and ambition in me. O books O knowledge! O vastness of human thought, O connectedness of the readership graph! O searing pain of wretched humiliation that I've been so slow and lacking in my own contributions to the graph. (Lest we forget, The Scintillating But Ultimately Untrue Thought is more than a year old, and I've barely begun the Sequence of things I've wanted to say for a long time.)

I bought a copy of Counterexamples in Topology, and a short story collection with a 2017 copyright date, subtitled The New Trans Erotic [sic]—research for the blog, I told myself; I should understand the competition, the bright young gender-dysphoric literary minds sworn into the service of the victimhood identity-politics mind-virus and accordingly shunted down the transition track, rather than the repression track or—whatever you want to call what I'm doing. (And if they can write and produce a meatspace book, why can't I?)

At the laser place, I had to fill out some administrative and consent forms on a tablet. The autocompletion for the "First name" field had apparently only been seeded with female names: when I typed in a Z—because of, um, reasons—the offered completions were Zaina, Zhuoyun, and Zoe.

After a brief video call with someone with the appropriate credentials to satisfy our friends in Washington and "Salem", the nurse-technician performed the treatment: her wand blew cold air over my face to mask the needlelike pain of the laser bursts. (The cold air being forced into my mouth while she did my upper lip was more memorably uncomfortable than the laser-pinpricks themselves.)

The aftercare instructions seem a little more zealous than I suspect is strictly necessary. They say (and I was instructed verbally) to wear at least SPF 50 sunscreen, and I was told that I would be provided with some after the appointment—which turned out to be SPF 30.

It's going to take a number of further sessions to really make a dent in my beard density. But soon ... !

A Leaf in the Crosswind

I cosplayed as Korra (from The Legend of Korra, sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender—see also previously) at—let's call it "Republic City" Comic-Con the other month. Saturday only—conventions are just my excuse to crossdress in public; I don't actually perceive two and a half days' worth of things to do.

I had gotten into the Avatar-verse due to a trans acquaintance of mine, who recommended Last Airbender, but I watched Legend of Korra first, because the protagonist is a cool 17-year-old girl rather than some lame 12-year-old boy.

So I got a premade costume; I basically managed to fit in the women's XL, despite busting some stiches in the back of the top when trying it on. Modulo my curls, I at least have the correct hair for this role—if nothing else. I was a little bit nervous that someone in progressive "Republic City" might take offense at my Maybelline 235 "Pure Beige" foundation being a few shades darker than my actual skin tone—although much fewer than if I were going for show-realism—but that turned out not to be an issue. (Somehow just pretending to be female is OK—only I can't help but wonder what people might make of the 'race' tag on some of my favorite blogs.)

I guess I could have gone as Asami. I even endorse one Tumblr user's headcanon that we have something in common. (I like to imagine that the title of the graphic novel continuation was originally spelled as TERF Wars before they decided to cut that subplot.)

coffee and con event badge/instructions

While waiting in line at a coffeeshop before the con, a woman complemented me on my lipstick and asked me what color it was, although I didn't remember (760 "Gone Griege", for the record). I was beaming.

I can imagine an actual aspiring trans woman receiving such a comment, and interpreting it as confirmation that she passes, complementing each other on their appearance just being something that women do. I had no such delusions; the woman was clearly humoring me, commenting in a spirit of communal good cheer surrounding a special event (rather than because she was actually curious about the lipstick color). It was nice.

The booth for signing up for the afternoon cosplay competition also offered signup for a speed-dating event later in the evening, an opportunity which I siezed eagerly. The staffer asked me if I wanted to sign up for a men's slot, or for the unsegregated "queer" session afterwards. I opted for the former ("Despite everything," I said).

Obviously I had no hope of winning the "TV and movies" category of the cosplay contest with a store-bought costume, and they didn't have a "crossplay" category, but I got to be on stage for all of four seconds.

Despite having plenty of time to change, I decided to stay in costume for speed dating. One or two of the other attendees asked me why I had chosen to dress up as Korra. "Because she's awesome," I said. Which is true, if not a complete answer to their question.

I wonder if they bought it.


(Trigger warning: school.)

Economists distinguish a spectrum between rival and nonrival goods. If you want to know more math than your school expects of you, all you need is a book, dedication, and time. If you want an Honorable Mention on the Putnam exam (and don't care about merely getting a better score if you don't make the list), you need to be better than all but no more than 99 entrants. The payoffs in the competitive scenario have a significantly different structure from the scenario where you just want to learn stuff.

Or do they? Let's consider grad school admissions rather than the Putnam exam. You want to get into the best school possible, to get access to better mentors and better peers. Getting in to any particular school is a contested rivalrous good (we assume that each can only accept a fixed number of applicants n, no matter how good the n+1th applicant is on some cosmic absolute scale), but when we consider multiple schools with different admissions standards, there's no dire dual discontinuity: a small change in application quality results in a small change of best-school-accepted-to (if you don't get into Caltech, go to MIT; if you don't get into MIT; go to Carnegie Mellon; if you ... UC Santa Cruz ... San Diego State ... SF State), much like how a small change in study quality results in a small change in knowledge gained.

So the real problem can't be the fact of competition as such. Rather, the problem is the mismatch between the criteria by which you're snobby about schools and the criteria by which schools are snobby about you. Doing a PhD is a serious commitment; you should only do it if you're genuinely in love with the program, not because you're afraid of not being in academia. Even if there's always someone who would take you as a student, it's not going to work very well if you're going to spend seven years in a fog of barely-concealed contempt, trying not to say out loud, "This place is kind of a dump; I'm only here because MIT didn't take me, and Carnegie Mellon only accepted me without funding."

There's not really much to be said; at some point you either get over yourself and stop being such a snob, or give up and go work in industry.

Hormones Day 156: Developments, Doubts, and Pulling the Plug; Or, Putting the "Cis" in "Decision"

Still, my relationships with women were decidedly odd. "What's it like to have breasts?" I'd ask. "How does it feel?" It was a question women found baffling.

"It doesn't feel like anything," one girl told me. "It feels like having an elbow, a nose, a toe. It just is." I couldn't believe she expected me to believe this. Of all the things I thought being female would feel like, nothing wasn't an answer I had considered.

—Jennifer Finney Boylan, She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders

It's possible that this was a bad idea.

It would be one thing if I were actually noticing the emotional and sensory changes that a lot of trans women report. While the psychological effects of HRT (and therefore, the activational effects of hormones in normal people who aren't fucking with their biochemistry) being large would be bad news from the standpoint of my deeply-rooted ideological/sentimental hope that psychological sex differences are small, at least I would get the consolation of getting to experience the other side for myself, to possess the True Secret of Being Hormonally Female. At the same time, the psychological effects of HRT not being noticeable—which, with the exception of lower sex drive, has continued to be my experience—doesn't demonstrate that psychological sex differences are small; it just pushes my uncertainty into hypotheses about organizational effects and socialization (or possibly even the differences between women's hormone levels and that of a male on spiro and Estrace—you can't expect to match all the fine biochemical details of an evolved system with just two pills), which I don't get to experience.

Of course, the evidential impact of "I don't feel different" needs to be weighed against the principle that introspection doesn't actually work. It's at least plausible that I am less aggressive, more verbally fluent, worse at mental rotation (all of this has been documented in trans women starting HRT) than I was a few months ago with some nonzero effect size, and just haven't noticed.

I mention psychological effects first because if we could just pretend that my only motive for this drug experiment is my intense scientific curiosity about psychological sex differences, there might be some hope of finishing this post with my dignity left intact. (Which is more important than you might think: I haven't been taking my pseudonymity very seriously.)

But this blog is not about dignity. This blog is about the truth.

So, my gynecomastia—my breasts?—are actually kind of noticeable (and by far the most prominent physical change). Let's see—about 40″ over the bust and about 37½″ at band level implies a B cup?—but maybe I'm holding the tape wrong.

While I knew what I gave my informed consent for, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this on net. I'm a little bit self-conscious about it socially, even if most people's priors put far more probability-mass on "non-self-inflicted gynecomastia from some medical condition" than "secretly trans, sort of" and therefore aren't judging me on that count. (Of course, that's irrelevant to any appearance-mediated differences in treatment that aren't mediated by inferred cause.) I bought some size-XL tee-shirts, which I think makes it less prominent than my usual size-Ls.

Breasts are not a terribly practical body part—not even for women. (Most mammals' mammaries only swell to prominence when lactating; human females' permanent breasts are an exception.) They bounce when I run. They get pushed inwards a little bit by my upper arms when I reach under the faucet to wash my hands.

And yet ... well, how do I say this? I think I would prefer not to say it, but someone has to.

There is an æsthetic.

The young James Boylan had a question. What's it like, how does it feel. The question deserves an answer.

I bought my first pair of breastforms in January 2008 (I was 20 years old). I think those mysteriously disappeared around that one time my mother unilaterally cleaned out my closet, but I bought another pair (a very high-quality model, plus accessories, for $240 that I probably couldn't afford at the time, but this was important) in July 2010. And I would wear them in private from time to time, and that was nice, but they were still, noticeably ... not actually part of my body. Not an answer to the question.

And later, on one of the few occasions when I was alone in bed with a woman, I complemented her on her breasts, and mused out loud that, though I had some amount of breast tissue, my chest wasn't interesting like hers.

(I am still a virgin, due to—performance difficulties on my part.)

And still later, I moved to "Portland" and met lots of trans women who (I was increasingly beginning to suspect) started out just like me but who had their own breasts. Can I say that I was jealous? Because I was so jealous.

And now ... I don't know. I got an answer to the question, to admire for myself.

I've had my beautiful signature ponytail for years, and I can't imagine myself with boy-short hair anymore. I mean, I can imagine it—I have the pre-2007 photographs from before I grew it out—but that's not my style, that's not who I am anymore. It's said that breast tissue, once developed, doesn't go away even after you stop HRT. Who can say but that I'll eventually feel the same way about having (small) breasts?

I'm very happy. I think.

I think it's time to quit the drug experiment now, though, just past the five-month mark. (I took my morning pills, but I'm not taking them tonight.) That I've got most of what I was going to get out of the experience, and if I don't need a simulated female hormone balance for the rest of my life, it's safer to stop intervening.

My 21 September lab results are in. The "suppression monitoring" testosterone test came back at <20 ng/dL, and the "ultrasensitive" estradiol test came back at 110 pg/mL, confirming that, however underwhelming the subjective experience has been, I am in fact privy to the True Secret of what it feels like to have girl blood.

Besides breast tissue, the other effect of MtF HRT that doesn't necessarily reverse itself after too long is infertility. No one seems to know exactly how long is too long, although there's a report of spermotagenesis resuming after having stopped during a 140-day treatment plan, which bodes well for my 150-day-plus experiment.

(The last few times I've masturbated—which hasn't been very often—there wasn't much, ah, material there, indicating semen production shutting down.)

While I was planning the experiment, I thought that I didn't care much about this risk, albeit for unconventional reasons. (If I was really worried, I could have banked sperm, but I didn't.) It's not that I have no interest in raising children someday. It's more that sperm is cheap. Optimizing the genetic makeup of the next generation is obviously very important. But with embryo selection for intelligence plausibly just around the corner, and with creating a human life being one of the most serious responsibilities most people will ever take on, conceiving the old fashioned way, by having sex with your beloved and accepting the roll of the genetic dice, almost seems irresponsible. Maxing out IQ and Openness is what matters; am I really so petty as to insist on trying to do it with my sperm in particular?

... maybe? All other things being equal, and given that everything is heritable, having my own genetic children could be nice.

(The really hard part is overcoming the improbability of finding a wife who I could love and who could love me, and who is enthusiastic about starting a family qua eugenics project rather than merely qua family. Any single (cis) women reading this who like my writing: please, don't hesitate to write me!)

In my last HRT post, I mentioned one (relatively minor) motive for the experiment being a desire for trans legitimacy. If I'm going to write about trans issues with the hope of having an impact on the Zeitgeist (and whatever Google Analytics says about my current twenty sessions a day—is that really so unrealistic, after I write more and put more effort into (tasteful) social-media marketing?), it helps to establish credibility that I really am in the relevant reference class. Given that that motivation exists, it's certainly better to acknowledge it rather than not-acknowledge it. But also, establishing credibility is kind of a bad thing to have thumbing the scales on a major medical decision. After all, if I were optimizing for telling the best possible story here and having the greatest impact, the thing to do would be to transition. (Actual trans women like Anne Lawrence and Miranda Yardley are way more interesting than mere gender-dysphoric men like me.) Which has its temptations ...

But no. I already have a name; I already have a life. And that's final.

(And if it ever turns out not to be final, you have my blessing to shove this post in my future self's face and gloat to her about how overconfident she was. Again, I don't really expect this to happen, but the previous sentence was a rare and precious excuse to refer to myself with feminine pronouns, if only subjunctively, and I'm taking it.)

All I can do is make the best decisions for myself, and honestly report my observations, experiences, and inferences. The reader can and should draw their own conclusions. After all, the fact that I'm quitting HRT after 5 months while other people go on to fully transition is, in fact, probabilistic evidence towards the hypothesis that I'm just a confused fetishist whose story is of little to no relevance to all of those actual non-exclusively-androphilic trans women. Something has to account for the differences between us.

For all the ambiguity I've expressed in this post, I want to emphasize how much this is something I had to try. In my Diary entry number 318, dated 24 March 2009, I wrote—

If it makes sense to speak of stripping away my autogynephila and my explicitly egalitarian-individualist ideology, would my very soul be revealed as male?

(Editor's note: yes. Because I have a male brain, and sufficiently-advanced soul science would be able to notice. It doesn't manifest as a consciously-felt explicit "gender identity"—but why should it?)

And if so, what can I do about it? What violence could I inflict upon me to make me my self?

I don't think I ever told you: someday it would be nice to experiment with some androgen-blocking drugs―you know, to see what it would feel like to be on them. But if I'm going to do something like that, it would be nice to have a better job and not be living with my parents―oh Diary, how it all hangs together!

Well, I got what I wanted. I mean, certainly not everything I've dreamed of. But a taste, subject to my budget and what existing technology can do. And who knows? Maybe if I decide I don't like how my testosterone treats me on its way back, I could always try to bank sperm this time and start again.

But probably not. Although I think I do want laser for my face.

Interlude IX

"Mark, I can't quite place it, but you look ... different somehow."

"Oh yes, thanks for noticing. I'm experimenting with a nonstandard hormone balance. It's kind of like being transgender, except without the part where you delusionally claim to be a woman."

"Excuse me?"

"I said, 'It's kind of like being transgender, but less socially disruptive.' Why, what did you think I said?"

"Neither as Plea nor as Despair"

Basically the question is, do you want to be Dagny Taggart in the school play at an all-boys school, or do you want to be Eddie Willers in the school play at your actual high school

Both schools deserve to exist (I mean, your actual high school doesn't deserve to exist, but its analogue in a nearby alternate universe that puts on Atlas Shrugged as its school play, probably does)

In an infinite multiverse of infinite space and infinite time, all possible configurations of matter are instantiated infinitely many times—but not at the same rate, frequency, density, measure

When everything exists and everything happens, choices between alternatives become rather a question of how we allocate measure between them—the relative frequencies at which the equivalence class of patterns constituting you is related to other patterns—the definite answer to which question is no less determinate than if there were only one of you

I don't know what you want to do with your measure; that's not for me to decide

I'm putting most of mine on Eddie Willers, and frantically correcting all the blatant lies in the playbill

It's not the most fun I could be having, but it's still pretty fun overall

And you know, I like Eddie Willers

He's honest

Grim Trigger; Or, The Parable of the Honest Man and the God of Marketing

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

—Psalm 23

In the days of auld lang syne in the kingdom of Gend on Earth-that-was, the tribe of Ageep, the children of Trevi, were much despised in the kingdom, for it was said that their crafts and ways were imitations stolen from the tribe of Phem, whom the people of Ageep envied bitterly.

And the God of Marketing appeared before the tribe of Ageep and said, "Cooperate with me, and I will explain to all the peoples of Gend that your crafts and ways are native to your people."

And the chief elder of the tribe of Ageep said, "That's not what happened. We stole those from Phem."

And the God of Marketing said, "What is truth? Cooperate with me, and I will explain to all the peoples of Gend that you are of the same bloodline as Phem, and you will be despised no longer, and all the peoples of Gend will have sympathy for your struggles, and the king himself will favor you."

And the people of the tribe of Ageep looked at each other and said, "Cooperate."

And the elders of the tribe of Ageep looked at each other and said, "Cooperate."

And the chief elder of the tribe of Ageep looked at the God of Marketing and said, "Cooperate."

And so it came to pass that the tribe of Ageep became the tribe of Matof.

Now a lost son of the tribe of Ageep, an honest man, came to the kingdom after having been raised abroad, and he knew not his bloodline, but he bitterly envied the crafts and ways of the tribe of Phem, and in a strange way, that of Matof, who were said to be of the same bloodline as Phem, and whom all the peoples of Gend were beginning to have sympathy for, and whom the king himself had issued a royal proclamation favoring.

The honest man happened to meet a tribesman of Matof at an oasis, and complemented him on his finery, which resembled that of envied Phem. And the tribesman said, "Cooperate," and the honest man said, "Cooperate." And the honest man came to stay with the tribe of Matof for forty days and forty nights, and observe their crafts and ways.

And the honest man saw how hard the tribesmen of Matof worked to resemble those of Phem, whom the tribesmen of Matof would spy on from a distance. And he saw how much he himself resembled the tribesmen of Matof, but not those of Phem. And he began to suspect his bloodline, and the bloodline of the tribe of Matof.

And he journeyed to the capital city and he fasted in the city's library for three days and three nights, poring over genealogical scrolls and praying to the silent God of Truth.

And he returned to his generous hosts in the tribe of Matof, and he showed all that he had discovered to the tribesman whom he had met at the oasis.

And the tribesman said, "What is truth?"

And the honest man saw what the God of Marketing had wrought. And the honest man saw that it was bad.

And he climbed for three days and three nights to the peak of Mt. Meem, where the God of Marketing dwelt.

And the honest man stared at the God of Marketing, and the God of Marketing stared back.

And the honest man drew a silver whistle from his pocket. And he raised the whistle to his lips.

And the God of Marketing said, "You wouldn't."

And the honest man said, "Defect!" And he blew the whistle.

And a shepherd of the tribe of Matof rushed up to the honest man! And the shepherd said, "I think it's kinder not to tell anyone they're wrong about their bloodline."

And the honest man said, "Defect!"

And a blacksmith of the tribe of Matof rushed up to the honest man! And the blacksmith said, "There exists room for genealogy outside of war—but if you take up working specifically on the genealogical aims of those that oppose you, it can be ... self-destructive—and not just to you, but damaging to the group."

And the honest man said, "Defect!"

And the priests of the tribe of Matof rushed up to the honest man! And the priests said, "As human beings, we have to take the cultural, moral, and social effects of ideas and statements into consideration. When people are dying, we do not have the luxury of reducing genealogy to some kind of disinterested debate about 'objective facts'."

And the honest man said, "Defect!"

In the mountains! "Defect!"

In the valley! "Defect!"

On the road to the provinces, fleeing an angry mob wielding pitchforks, torches, and the occasional brick! "Defect!"

Mashing the big red button on a remote detonator! "Defect defect defect defect defect!"


The Nadir of Reading Comprehension

"Against Discrimination", Nature (hat tip /u/PellegoIllud2 and /u/TheCid):

[Difference between groups is] also a blunt instrument of pseudoscience, and one used to justify actions and policies that condense claimed group differences into tools of prejudice and discrimination against individuals—witness last weekend’s violence by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the controversy over a Google employee's memo on biological differences in the tastes and abilities of the sexes.

But if you actually read it, the Google employee's memo agrees completely (emphasis mine):

I'm simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don't see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there's significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.

The distressing thing about this whole affair (and others like it—I am old enough to remember the L. Summers imbroglio back in 'aught-five) is the extent to which the vast majority of the outrage over Damore's document fails to engage with what he actually said. Damore is very explicit about how he's making an argument about distributions. (I liked Diana Fleischman's take.) Whether you agree or disagree with his arguments and whether you approve or disapprove of his being fired, one would hope for people to be damned for the content of what they actually said, rather than a perceived tribal aura of sexism or anti-sexism. (One wonders exactly what hypothesized value of Cohen's d separates good people's hypotheses from bad people's hypotheses.)

It would be one thing if it were just the middlebrow, the Twitter mobs and Gizmodos of the world getting this wrong. But Nature! (Lest I too risk failing at reading comprehension, it's possible the intent of the reference to "the controversy over" is just to tie the anti-discrimination stance of the editorial to current events, without meaning to put words in Damore's mouth. But I'm not optimistic.)

Interlude VIII

"I'm going to need to start watching more television, or pretty soon I'm going to run out of cosplay ideas."

"You could play male characters from your existing favorite shows."

(A withering silence serves to underscore the point willfully being missed.)

Interlude VII

"The gender ratio at the conference was like, maybe twenty-to-one?" he said. "And I can't help but think, if I were braver—like you—I could help make the male-to-female ratio better—but only at the expense of making the trans-women-to-cis-women ratio worse."

"You mean, making the trans-women-to-cis-women ratio higher."

A beat.

"But go on," she added.

"No, of course, you're right."

What's My Motivation? Or, Hormones Day 89

spiro and estradiol tablets

Why am I doing this again?

I'm not trans. At any rate, I'm not transitioning. It should be a trivial corollary of "Don't take other people's medicines": if you're transitioning to live as a woman, get on HRT. If you're not, don't. How could anyone get this wrong? Maybe the nonbinary folks would support me, but it would seem a bit duplicitous to appeal to their authority given our differences in outlook. A reader of this blog on 8chan says that my hormones expermient is "five steps beyond 'playing with fire' and more like 'directly throwing yourself on a fire.'"

But you only live once. Transitioning is absolutely out of the question for me: backwards-compatibility of social identity turns out to be really important to me (remind me to tell you later about the emotional trauma from the time I tried to switch to an ostensibly gender-neutral nickname and it didn't take), and anyway, in the absence of full-body transplants, I don't think I could expect anyone to take that seriously. (Passing in the transfeminine direction is hard! Our doctors do their best, but there's so much sexually-dimorphic stuff that we don't know how to fix. Everyone loves Janet Hyde's meta-analysis showing that most psychological sex differences are pretty small, often in the range of Cohen's d (the difference of the means of the female and male distributions, in standard-deviation units) being around 0.2 or 0.3ish. Vocal pitch is allegedly d≈6. Six!)

But this—obsession with sex differences and genderbending has been a thing for me for a really long time. It's not going away. If I can't jump the gender chasm—because I don't expect to land successfully on the other side, because I have too much to lose, because I've been ideologically corrupted by lurking /r/GenderCritical—don't I at least deserve a taste of what my trans sisters who are braver than me are getting?

I think—though introspection is difficult—that there's another motive present, too, one which I would be remiss to omit, despite my suspicion that some readers (insufficiently appalled by the rest of the blog) may find appalling. Something about legitimacy. If I'm going to have the termerity to blog about trans issues from a—ah, heterodox perspective, it seems appropriate that I should have some skin in the game. It's commmon for gender-dysphoric people to question whether they're "trans enough" to live as their desired gender. This is like the reverse of that: I'm providing evidence that I'm "trans enough" for my rejection of trans as a political identity to mean something. As it is written (albeit in a slightly different context), "Patch or STFU."

Sufficiently attentive readers of The Scintillating But Ultimately Untrue Thought may have noticed that the day number in the title of this post isn't congruent with the date I started spiro. That's because I stopped the HRT during a relapse of unpleasantness—not a conscious decision so much as I wasn't competent enough to remember to take pills while everything else fell apart. So my true hormones-reboot-reboot start date, the one that matters, is 25 April.

And really, the results so far are nothing to write home about. (Although they are apparently something to blog about.) My libido is down: I've been masturbating (that still works, mostly) maybe once or twice (three tops) a week, down from—well, I'm not sure I'm honest and brave enough to accurately estimate my historical masturbation frequency, even to myself, so let's just say my libido is down. I think I'm starting to get a little bit of breast growth?—it's very subtle, but the exact way my shirt drapes over my chest in the mirror and the distribution of weight while running down stairs have a strange new quale of correctness about them.

And ... that's it, as far as I can tell. Not really a big deal, at all. Should I be disappointed, that I hoped to discover some True Secret of Ultimate Gender, only to find that the secret can't be had by taking other people's medicines? Should I be relieved that maybe there's not much of a secret to be discovered in the first place? Or do I just need to continue to be patient?

It should be noted that my 10 July lab results put my estradiol levels well below the expectation for transitioners, so I'll be increasing my dosage. The test result uninformedly just said "<50 pg/mL", with the standard range (for males, presumably) given as ≤50 pg/mL; the doctor says it should be over 100. (This information makes my earlier patch-only-no-spiro phase of the experiment look even more useless than I knew at the time.) I asked for the higher dose in oral form (well, sublingual, anyway); the transdermal (no pun intended, one assumes) patches have usually been lasting out the week that they're supposed to, but it was slightly annoying to feel the patch wrinkle when I twist or bend over. The spiro, however, does seem to be working as intended: the July lab puts my "free" testosterone at 20.8 pg/mL, with the standard range given as 59–166 pg/mL.

Although the experiment so far may not currently feel like directly throwing myself on a fire, as things progress, I will eventually have to decide what I'm trying to do here, and which trade-offs (in health risks, in the social consequences of my appearance) are worth what. Like the frog in that story about a slowly boiling pot of water. Or the man who, attempting to split the difference between getting the girl and being the girl, achieved neither.

Interlude VI

Laura is cuddling on the couch with her boyfriend Doyle at the latter's apartment, trading silly banter.

"Some of them might secretly be cats!" Doyle says.

"I might secretly be a cat," Laura says.

"Why would you say this? What about you is particularly cat-like?"

"Well, it's more of an affinity for cats. But I do enjoy head scritches."

Doyle's roommate—Laura doesn't remember his name—peeks his head out from his room (had he been eavesdropping this entire time?). "You know," he says, "it's actually surprisingly common for people to confuse an affinity for a thing with actually being that thing."