Language policy for this blog

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See also: content policy for this blog.

I have a habit of using ableist slurs. I used to think those words weren’t ableist at all, or maybe that ableism in that sense wasn’t bad. I have learned to think otherwise, mainly from this series of blog posts. Those posts highlight one important reason for avoiding certain words: it’s lazy language.

 “stupid” isn’t constructive. You’re not criticizing… you’re just denigrating. The other person can’t learn anything from being told that their idea is “stupid”. Like I said before… it’s lazy. It elucidates absolutely nothing.

Instead, you could be constructive. You could say “that’s a bad idea, and here’s why” or “I think you made a big mistake there. You should have done this, instead” or “I don’t know if I like that choice. Here’s a better one.” Explain why you don’t like whatever it is, instead of just calling it “stupid”.

Don’t have the time to go into specifics? It’s still better to just say something like “nah, that’s a bad idea” or “you know what? No. I’m against that” and move on than to say “that’s stupid”. Even when you’re using it against ideas or actions or such, there’s still splash damage.

Avoiding certain words forces you to be more articulate. To be more constructive in your criticism. To apply a growth mindset towards the outgroup.

(I am NOT saying that intelligence is a completely non-existent property. Some people are mentally impaired in ways that chronically prevent them from functioning normally, and it is harmful to think that this is not the case. I am saying that for most people, most of their usage of those words is inappropriate and harms their communication.)

Not only is there a practical advantage; using inherent properties of people as slurs is not so nice. I don’t feel welcome if I hear people use “gay” as a slur, so I should probably not use ableist language either.

Want to try this as well? Do read a list of alternative words like this one.  My favourite default replacements are:

  • Stupid -> willfully ignorant/frustrating/obnoxious/unfathomable
  • Crazy -> fascinating/amazing/extreme
  • Lame -> bad/awful/inadequate

On gatekeepers, hormones and unethical research practices?

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Background

Many, though not all, trans people who transition get hormone replacement therapy (HRT).  For transmasculine people, testosterone. For transfeminine people, estrogen and (before surgery) testosterone blockers. HRT can affect most secondary sex characteristics in a way that makes a person more comfortable with their body and helps them in being seen as their preferred gender.

For trans youth, puberty suppressing medication exists. These medications pause puberty for as long as you use it without other consequences. It is completely reversible: stop taking the medication, and your puberty will resume as if nothing happened. (All medications have side effects, but this stuff is super mild.) Puberty suppression is fantastic because it can prevent breast growth, voice deepening, beard growth and male pattern baldness, which are all expensive and time-consuming to undo after they happened. Puberty blockers are for young people who want to go on hormones but are considered too young for that, or for people that are undecided about starting HRT.

Puberty suppression medication and testosterone blockers are only legally available with a prescription in every (?) country in the world. If you want it, you have to get a medical professional to prescribe them.

Doctors have specialisations and avoid treating patients for things outside their area of expertise. That is why historically and presently you probably have to go to a specialised transgender endocrinologist to get a prescription for hormone suppression meds.

The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) publishes a document called the Standards of Care (SoC), in which they give widely followed guidelines for medical professionals on how to best treat trans people. They say that, before medically treating an individual,  they need a diagnosis (3-12 months of counselling) and go through the hazing ritual known as the real-life experience (3+ months, no longer recommended since 2011). And not just for HRT, but also to get these puberty suppression medications. This practice is often called the gatekeeper model, in contrast to the informed consent model in which the doctor is only there to inform you of what the medications do and then gives them to you without requiring you to jump through any hoops.

Many places that treat trans people have waiting lists measured in years.

Imagine you are 14. The first symptoms of puberty start to happen, and you find out you don’t want those. Even if your parents are supportive and you can immediately get a referral from your GP, it might take two or more years before you get puberty blockers. Entirely unnecessarily, you have two years of unwanted puberty happening to you. Everyone involved knows this is unnecessary. Too bad, you’ll have to do voice therapy and laser hair removal to fix it later.

(DIY medication exists, but it is technically illegal, 95% of trans people recommends against it for reasons unknown to me, and treatment providers threaten that they will no longer help you with anything when they find out you self-medicated.)

Section of Doubt

To my best understanding, the above is a more or less accurate description of the state of affairs for many people. I consider it grossly negligent of medical professionals and policymakers to force trans people through unnecessary additional puberty, and of trans advocates that they are not making more of an issue out of this.

I do believe that people, in general, have reasons for doing what they do and believing what they believe. Considering that my view of the situation is very different from most people, I am probably missing something important. I have no idea what it might be or who is right.

Storytime

I was almost 18. I was in the process of convincing my gatekeeper/psychologist to write me a prescription for testosterone blockers. It was not going super well. I am not traditionally feminine. I didn’t desire to wear female clothing. I don’t “feel like a woman.” I wasn’t sure whether surgery would be right for me, nor whether I wanted voice therapy to sound more feminine. I just knew that I did not want any of testosterone’s further effects. I wanted HRT. I needed HRT. Only after that, I would have the time and peace of mind to think about additional steps.

I was unable to articulate the required narrative and too honest to tell the proper lie on 100% of the hundreds of arbitrary, unrelated or stereotyping questions that were supposed to measure transness. What should have been six months of counselling for getting my diagnosis, had already lasted eight months. The end was not in sight. My therapist was not planning to help me soon, not even with puberty blockers.

But then it happened. The clinic was running a scientific study on differences in brain structure between cis and trans people, and whether taking hormones affected that. They needed trans participants aged 14-19, who just started puberty blockers, to do some mental tasks in an MRI scanner, with a follow up a year or so after going on hormones. I was asked to participate in the study. If I said yes, I would get the puberty blockers and my continued masculinization would stop. If I said no, I would not start medication for months. I would probably have started growing facial hair before I would get medical help.

I felt so lucky; I immediately said yes. My body would be mine, without nature forcibly intruding on my happiness. For the first time in years, I did not want to die. I was so grateful to the researchers for letting me participate in the study. They allowed me to get my hormones.

Epilogue

This event happened over five years ago. The details might be off, but I am confident about the general outline. I am still very pleased with having HRT. I changed my name at that time as well. My old name was ugly; my new name is the best name. These days I am consistently gendered female. I’m happy about being gendered female; it saves me from a lot of transphobia and toxic masculinity.

Today, I first thought back to what happened all those years ago. Only now I realise that this story can be accurately reframed as “my doctor withheld me my treatment to force me to participate in a study”, and that ethics boards probably don’t appreciate extortion of patients. On the other hand, ethics boards do approve of the gatekeeper treatment model, so their opinion might not be the best guideline for what is good or bad. I don’t know what to think of this.

Search the literature!

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Every once in a while, I neglect to remember my favourite quote:

Six months of research can save you an afternoon in the library.

This is from a plaque in the library at work. The original quote is by American chemist Frank Westheimer. The longer I have been doing research, the more I am seeing just how true this statement is.

How to use this insight in day-to-day life:

  1. Realise that an afternoon is both really short compared to six months, and really long compared to how long you typically browse the web looking for an answer.
  2. Be aware that, in an everyday question, you don’t know the right words to query the search engine. After your first couple tries in web search and scholarly search (the results of Google and of Google Scholar seem almost disjoint so do try both), try to acquire the right keywords through figuring out what field your question is in, or to generalize your question.
  3. Google Scholar has interesting results even on page 10. Results are not ordered in relevance as well as web search does.

Rules for writing this blog

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Dear future me,

In this post, I will state some ground rules that you have to follow for blogging. Your sense of self-commitment should be enough to stick to those rules, but in case it is not, I will try to give reasons that should convince you.

Purpose

The primary purpose of this blog is to get better at writing. You have to write things that are challenging to write. Here are some different suggestions:

  1. Commentary: write an opinion piece, review a book or movie, criticise a policy or organisation. The challenge in these is to achieve multiple ends simultaneously: get your opinion across, be fair and intellectually honest, and be nice.
  2. Things you don’t understand: try to see how smart you can sound while talking about things you have little clue about. Be willing to put your understanding of a topic in words, even if you feel like you don’t understand it very well.
  3. Different writing formats: look around for fun writing formats and try to emulate them. In particular, you should try Buzzfeed, Vice, Math with Bad Drawings and Slate Star Codex.
  4. Bridge a gap in knowledge and caring: communicating is hard when people don’t know of each other how much they know of a topic, and when you know a lot about something, it is easy to overestimate how anyone else knows. Find topics where you can practice this.

I know you like writing about your favourite science experiments and you want to share your favourite tofu recipe, but you should wait a bit for that, gain some more writing experience. Critically review your earlier writing on that [not on this blog], then you can write it anew. No sharing of content for the sake of sharing content, only write the stuff you feel you would learn a lot from. This blog is for you to write, not for visitors to read.

A secondary purpose of this blog is to get more insight into the things you read. How much does someone need to know to seem knowledgeable? Are articles typically too long or too short to really make their point? Does having to produce a lot of content negatively impact how interesting it is?

The Rules

    • Every post should satisfy at least one of the following:
      • have a topic different from all previous things you have read in your life
      • be about your personal feelings,
      • have content that people can disagree with. Be provocative. Does your desired topic not satisfy this rule? Push it further and further until it does. This criterium should overrule your desire for global consistency, though local consistency within a single post should still be aimed for.
  • At least one blog post should go up every weekend. Try to write it in that same weekend, though allowance is made for when you are abroad for work.
  • Every once in a while, take a critical look at some earlier posts and see where you can improve. There are probably online communities of people who do this for each other. Consider joining one of those.

Just in case you do get readers at some point, it might be good to preface some posts with a short note about the intended audience? Think about this for a bit.

Silent edits are allowed up to 7 days after posting, as is adding links to the new article in old articles. After these 7 days, edits are only allowed to be of the following form. Inconsiderate viewpoint. [edit: past me held problematic opinions, sorry for that.]

Closing

You should stick to these rules for at least one year. After that, I invite you to evaluate the results, change some of the rules where necessary, and keep to them for another year. Good luck.

Forever yours,

Past me

Archiving the Trans Girl Diaries

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Between standing on the shoulders of giants and picking through my own old files, I compiled the most complete archive of the Trans Girl Diaries gag comics so far. Check it out, this stuff is amazing.

Where do these things come from?

Turns out I used wget’s mirror function on the website once. The most bulletproof setting for this command is

wget -mkE http://example.com

This stuff is so great. It makes a copy of an entire website, including all pages, images, CSS and Javascript. Use it to grab a blog for reading on the plane, to make a static WordPress site if you are worried about security exploits but dislike updating, or to save your favourite webcomic for posterity.

Trigger warnings

Suicide, gender dysphoria, violence, external transphobia, internalized transphobia, Bailey-Blanchard-Lawrence two-type transwomen classification, transphobia, really intense descriptions of gender dysphoria, TERFism, sexism, homophobia, womyn-born-womyn-ism, Harry Benjamin syndrome and an altogether too realistic view of transgenderism.

If you like r/tgcj you’ll probably like the Trans Girl Diaries.

Review

I love this stuff. The comics meant a lot to me when I was younger. They are relatable and funny and give insight into all the disturbing thoughts that are part of the Trans Woman Experience. Whether you are trans or not, it is worth checking out.

Links #1: Modern computers are complicated

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David Chisnall: C is not a low-level language

A modern Intel processor has up to 180 instructions in flight at a time (in stark contrast to a sequential C abstract machine, which expects each operation to complete before the next one begins). A typical heuristic for C code is that there is a branch, on average, every seven instructions. If you wish to keep such a pipeline full from a single thread, then you must guess the targets of the next 25 branches. This, again, adds complexity; it also means that an incorrect guess results in work being done and then discarded, which is not ideal for power consumption. This discarded work has visible side effects, which the Spectre and Meltdown attacks could exploit.

Matt Klein: Meltdown and Spectre, explained

Each cache miss adds a substantial amount of delay time to program execution. In order to mitigate this, processors are capable of executing ahead and out of order while waiting for memory loads. This is known as speculative execution. The following code snippet demonstrates this.

if (x < array1_size) {
  y = array2[array1[x] * 256];
}

In the previous snippet, imagine that array1_size is not available in cache, but the address of array1 is. The CPU might guess (speculate) that x is less than array1_size and go ahead and perform the calculations inside the if statement. Once array1_size is read from memory, the CPU can determine if it guessed correctly. If it did, it can continue having saved a bunch of time. If it didn’t, it can throw away the speculative calculations and start over. This is no worse than if it had waited in the first place.

 

Bayes’ theorem and transgender lesbians

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Some time ago I read a cool post on Tumblr, but I can’t find it anymore. It was about calculating P(trans|WLW), the fraction of women who love women that is transgender, from P(trans), the fraction of the general population that is transgender, P(WLW), the fraction of the population that is a woman-loving woman, and P(WLW|trans), the fraction of gynephillic trans women among trans people. Bayes’ theorem says

P(trans|WLW) = P(WLW|trans)P(trans)/P(WLW).

I remember that the resulting number was significant. As I could not find it again, here is a quick and dirty reconstruction. For every statistic, I picked the first one I found that did not seem completely unrealistic.

So Bayes’ theorem gives us P(trans|WLW) = 0.15.

Bonus: suicide attempts

While preparing this post, I stumbled upon this report. Page 8 lists:

  • P(attempted suicide) = 0.016.
  • P(attempted suicice|trans) = 0.41.

Bayes now says P(trans|attempted suicide) = 0.26. Big if true.*

Section of Doubt

Applying Bayes’ theorem like this seems to give unreasonably good mileage. That suggests that social scientists aren’t allowed to use numbers from different studies and get conclusions from them, or asymmetric misreporting makes these calculations error-prone.

The last number above is big. Makes one wonder why so little effort is spent explicitly targetting at-risk trans people.

* Added July 16th: I just met a subject expert, she said this figure sounded about right.