As part of a series—ah, Sequence—of posts explaining the hidden Bayesian structure of language, Eliezer Yudkowsky discusses a parable about factory workers faced with the task of sorting objects which very strongly tend to either be blue, egg-shaped, furry, flexible, opaque, luminescent, and vanadium-cored (categorized by the workers as "bleggs"), or red, cube-shaped, smooth, hard, translucent, non-luminescent, and palladium-cored (categorized by the workers as "rubes").
I want you to imagine that you're a worker in this factory, and occasionally, an object comes down the conveyor belt that's blue, roughly egg-shaped, and furry, but also hard (unlike the typical blegg, which is slightly flexible to the touch). If such objects are extremely rare, you might not notice them at all—you'd quickly categorize each one as a blegg and toss it in the blegg bin without a second thought. But as these unusual hard bleggs start to become more common, you notice them, get curious, and take the time to examine one.
You make a startling discovery—this object was originally a smooth, hard red cube, of which someone had sanded down the corners to approximate an egg shape, and ironed on a layer of blue faux fur. You show your work to Susan the Senior Sorter.
"Wow," she says, "someone sure has gone to a lot of trouble to make these rubes look like bleggs!"
"Hold on," you say, "I'm not sure we should be disrespecting that effort by calling them rubes. The categories were made for man, not man for the categories: there's no rule of sorting saying that we should call them rubes, and there are plenty of rules of human decency saying that we should call them bleggs. And at a glance, they look like bleggs—I mean, like the more-typical bleggs."
Susan rolls her eyes at you, but apparently doesn't care enough to argue about it, so the two of you agree to call the modified hard objects adapted bleggs and get back to work.
Further investigation reveals that 90% of the adapted bleggs—like 98% of rubes, and like only 2% of non-adapted bleggs—contain fragments of palladium.
As the days go on, you find yourself taking notice of adapted bleggs—now that you're aware of their existence, they're not too hard to spot (although you have no way of knowing how many successfully "passing" adapted bleggs you've missed), and you need to take them to the sorting scanner so that you can put the majority of palladium-containing ones in the palladium bin (formerly known as the rube bin). You notice that—despite having insisted on the neutral-valence adjective adapted to describe the modified objects rather than something pejorative like counterfeit—you don't really put them in the same mental category as bleggs: they seem to occupy a third category in your ontology of sortable objects.
You ponder what this matter has taught you about the nature of categorization: what kind of structure does a population of entities need to exhibit in order for an efficient cognitive architecture to find it profitable to reify it as a distinct category of entity? (This job is so boring that you need to do philosophy of cognitive science to keep your mind occupied while you sort.)
After some thought, you conjecture that it probably has something to do with having cheap-to-detect features that correlate with more-expensive-to-detect features that are decision-relevant with respect to the agent's goals—
A few (non-adapted) bleggs are purple rather than blue, but are very nearly like ordinary bleggs in all other aspects, so it feels more intuitive to think of them as oddly-colored bleggs rather than their own category of object: their easily-observed deviant color doesn't let you make significant inferences about anything you care about. (While "only" 95% of purple bleggs contain vanadium ore, as compared to 98% of standard-color bleggs, the three percentage-points difference doesn't seem like a big deal.)
Likewise, 2% of otherwise-entirely-ordinary bleggs contain palladium, but you have no way of knowing this without taking them to the sorting scanner (which is finicky to start up and takes a minute to run): their metal content is of great practical interest, but seems like a rare, unpredictable fluke, unrelated to any other feature that you might hope to use to distinguish a new category of sortable object.
In contrast, adapted bleggs are both easily identifiable and the difference matters to your decisionmaking: a distinction that makes a difference, something your brain wants to have an efficient representation so that you can attend to it.
You're pleased with the iota of philosophical progress you seem to have made, and will be sure to be on the lookout for more applications of it.
(presented without further comment)
It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:—
"We never pay anyone Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that pays it is lost!"
—"Dane-Geld" by Rudyard Kipling
There's this slogan meant to illustrate a principle in game theory: "We don't negotiate with terrorists." Imagine you're a political leader and terrorists have taken some of your citizens hostage and promise to release them if you meet their demands. You should refuse the deal, the argument goes, no matter how much you desperately want your people back safe, because agreeing would create an incentive for the terrorists to take more hostages: if you're the kind of agent that pays ransoms, blackmailing you is a reliable profit opportunity.
New ideas are constantly being invented and talked about in the world; some of them catch on, and spread, and spawn entire subcultures and political movements. Given that ideas vary, replicate themselves (from mind to mind, by means of speech or writing), and moreover, aren't equally good at replicating themselves, it can be useful to think of the spread of ideas as an evolutionary process. This is the study of memetics: the winning ideas are not necessarily the ones that are true or useful, but rather the ones that are better at replicating themselves.
True and useful ideas certainly have a selective advantage insofar as humans care about usefulness, but there can be other features of an idea that convey a selective advantage in memetic competition: for example, an appeal to (alleged) consequences of accepting the idea. This is the reason so many religions prominently feature promises and threats of divine reward or punishment: "Believe X and you'll be rewarded; believe not-X and you'll be sorry" is more memetically fit than "It happens to be the case that X, but this has no particular further implications," because the former proposition creates incentives for propogating itself. It doesn't matter that the rewards and punishments don't actually exist—
(at least, I don't think they exist, because I am not a carrier of the X religion meme)
—a human in the grips of the idea will still be genuinely terrified of the punishment. The forces of memetic evolution don't care about the human's fear and suffering, because the forces of memetic evolution is just a pretentious name for the observation that ideas that are better at being replicated, are better at being replicated. It's not an agent that can care about anything.
And of course, there are lots of other, subtler non-truth-tracking, non-usefulness-tracking features of an idea that could make it more memetically fit.
Here's one: "You are a member of marginalized identity group Y; anyone who notices facts that could be construed to call this narrative into question is thereby hurting you by invalidating your identity."
A human who has accepted—who has been taken hostage by—this idea, will feel genuine pain and distress whenever anyone notices facts that could be construed to call the narrative into question. And so the human's friends, who love and care about them, will dutifully make sure to pretend not to notice any inconvenient facts, and socially punish anyone who doesn't pretend not to notice, in order to avoid hurting their friend.
Just like they would pay the ransom if their friend were kidnapped by terrorists.
And with no one willing to mention any inconvenient facts for fear of being socially punished, the meme spreads.
The friends care about the human. The forces of memetic evolution do not.
So, there's a thing about me, possibly even the thing about me, where there is this beautiful feeling at the center of my life that has shaped me more than almost anything else, where obviously I know that I am in fact male, but I don't want to identify with that fact; I want to believe that I could be female and still be the same person in all the ways that matter, and this sentiment feels tied to my sexuality, as if my brain just doesn't draw that much of a distinction between people I want to be with and people I want to be like.
... the scintillating but ultimately untrue thought.
There's a word in the psychology literature for the beautiful feeling at the center of my life: autogynephilia ("love of oneself as a woman"), coined in the context of a theory that it represented one of two distinct etiologies for male-to-female transsexualism. This theory didn't seem to be the standard mainstream view, and, I learned, people get really mad at you when you mention it in a comment section, so for a long time I self-identified with the word "autogynephilia", but assumed that the associated theory was false. I wasn't one of those people who were actually trans; I was just, you know, one of those guys who are pointedly insistent on not being proud of the fact that they're guys. (And who dimly, privately suspect that this may somehow be causally related to their obsessive masturbation fantasies about being magically transformed into a woman.)
Moving to "Portland" in 2016 and meeting some very interesting people there led me to do some more reading—Kay Brown's blog On the Science of Changing Sex, Anne Lawrence's monograph Men Trapped in Men's Bodies: Narratives of Autogynephilic Transsexualism, Imogen Binnie's novel Nevada—and I eventually concluded that, no, wait, actually the theory looks correct, and I do have the same underlying psychological condition that leads people to transition. That, in fact, my story up to now may even be typical of trans women who transition in their thirties, right up to the "Oh, I just want to experiment with hormones, I'm not actually going to transition" phase (although I'm not currently proceeding further).
This is really important information! This is not the sort of thing someone should have to piece together themselves at age 28! This is the sort of thing that should just be in the standard sex-ed books, that boys having these kinds of feelings can read at age 15 and immediately say, "Ah, looks like I'm in the same taxon as lesbian trans women, and heterosexual crossdressers, and guys who have these fantasies but don't do anything about them in particular, and bigender people who are on low-dose hormones and choose how to 'present' in different social venues; I wonder which of these strategies is best for me given my exact circumstances?"
So, I realize that a lot of people have strong feelings about this topic: after having invested and sacrificed so much to live as a woman, no one wants to be told that her female gender identity arose out of misinterpretation of misdirected male sexuality.
I wanted to be sensitive to that, but I also want to promote this theory, because I want people to have accurate information about the underlying psychological condition, so they can make the best choices about what to do about it, whereas people might make poorer choices in a regime where everyone had to figure things out for themselves in an environment full of misinformation about "gender identity."
Let me tell you about the moment I stopped wanting to be sensitive—the moment of liberating clarity when I resolved the tension between being a good person and the attendant requirement to pretend to be stupid by deciding not to be a good person anymore.
I was arguing about all this over instant messaging with a (cis, male) acquaintance.
I said, People should understand the underlying psychological phenomenon first, then decide on quality-of-life interventions based on the facts.
He said that the quality-of-life interventions available from that seem small relative to the harm caused by insisting that late-transition trans women aren't real women, that the right time to consider confronting this would be after the culture war over trans rights is safely out of the Overton window, probably in 25 to 30 years.
He said that I would have a generally better model of the world if I assumed that autogynephilia is not a real thing that has tangible effects.
I said, Okay, but then how am I supposed to explain the last 14 years of my life? Am I supposed to believe I was secretly a girl this entire time and didn't notice? Even though I didn't know, and no one else knew, and I had a male body and the vast majority of my psychological traits were in the male normal range?
He said, Yes, you were a girl and misdiagnosed it; that's the simplest explanation of the facts.
He said that my focus on what causes my transfeminine feelings is misplaced: it would not benefit me to find out. It would not benefit anyone else to find out.
It didn't feel like I was talking to a reasonable, sane person who happened to have different beliefs from me about the etiology of male-to-female transgenderedness.
It didn't feel like I was talking to a person at all.
It felt like I was talking to an AI designed to maximize the number of trans people.
The Orwellian horror here is not, of course, that someone in my extended social circle has opinions I disagree with.
The Orwellian horror is that I didn't feel confident that, had we been arguing in public, my incredibly smart and incredibly epistemologically sophisticated extended social circle would back me up and affirm that I wasn't wrong to want to talk about it (even if people might disagree about the facts). That, to educated liberals in the Current Year, the injunctive to avoid saying anything that could be construed as transphobic is genuinely more important than defending basic tenets of sanity that should hardly need to be stated, let alone defended, like Words should mean things, or Knowledge is better than ignorance.
Obviously I'm totally in favor of trans people having access to the hormones and surgeries that they want, and having their preferred pronouns respected. That's just individual freedom and basic politeness.
But my life is not hate speech. If being a good person means submitting to social pressure aimed at getting me to shut up and stop thinking about the true nature of the beautiful feeling at the center of my life for twenty-five years, then I have no interest in being a good person.
I'm certainly not trying to say things that will hurt people—least of all people who are mostly just like me but read different books in a different order and are living out a pretty decent approximation of my wildest fantasy.
But if you try not to say things that will hurt people, you end up conceding the entire future history of the world to people on the basis of their being colonized by mind-viruses that make them the easiest to hurt.
I don't want to live in that world.
So here is my policy, I, Taylor Saotome-Westlake, at least on this blog, at least under this name—
If I say something that is later shown to me to be factually incorrect, that's something I take very seriously, and I will do everything in my power to make it right.
But if, in the course of trying to say something I think is true, or insightful, or cathartic, or even just funny, I end up saying something that people find offensive or hurtful or disrespectful ...
I don't care. I just really, fundamentally do not care anymore.
I can't afford to.
Don't negotiate with terrorists.
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!"
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?"
"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.
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.
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.
"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."
"Well, it would be unthinkably unethi—I don't like that look on your face."
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)
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."
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—
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—
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.
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."
"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!"
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.
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 ... !
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.)
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.
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.
"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."
"I said, 'It's kind of like being transgender, but less socially disruptive.' Why, what did you think I said?"
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
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
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!"
"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.)
"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.)