Book review: The Hunger Games

My favourite book I’ve ever read is by far The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I first read it as a kid back in 2009, but I still love it. The book reframes some big societal issues in a way that makes the reader take a good look at themselves from an outside view. The fact that the setting is fictional and the social commentary is left implicit makes it all the more disarming and convincing.

The book follows Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl from Panem, a country consisting of 12 poor districts that are ruled by the rich Capitol. Katniss lives in the very poorest district 12, in which most people are employed to mine coal for the rest of Panem. The protagonist herself provides for her family by illegal poaching and selling the spoils on the black market.

The plot of the first book revolves around the eponymous Hunger Games, a yearly televised bloodsport involving one teenage boy and one teenage girl from every district, chosen by an ingenious classicist lottery. Katniss and OneDimensionalBoyCharacter1 (ODBC1) are participating in this year’s game.

Katniss and ODBC1 are taken to the Capitol to prepare for the game. The citizens of the Capitol are decadently rich. After finishing dinner they will vomit so that they can get another extravagantly delicious serving, all while they are aware that the people in the poorest districts are literally starving to death.

The Hunger Games themselves take up most of the book. Everyone faces physical hardship, kids get killed. Katniss is doing pretty good, killing a couple of kids herself. Eventually she and ODBC1 team up, and eventually they start acting romantically affectionate towards each other. ODBC1 is sincere, while Katniss is just acting to get the viewers to like her, playing up a “star-crossed lovers” angle that was set up earlier.

Katniss and ODBC1 end up as the last living players and decide to eat deadly poisonous berries together because they don’t want to kill the other to win. The game makers quickly stop the game because they fear that it would ruin the public perception of the Hunger Games as a fun and non-cruel game. Katniss and ODBC1 get to share the win and go home traumatized. The establishment is not pleased about their ploy though, and the visible opposition to the rule of the Capitol is the first spark towards a revolution later in the book series.

What always hit me about the story is how it portrays the Hunger Games as a popular event among the citizens of the Capitol, and how shamelessly the Capitol enriches itself over the backs of the districts. The book implicitly asks “What should a morally conscious Capitol citizen do if they disagreed with the state of the world?” The story is so far removed from the real world that it allows you to ponder this question without immediately grasping the similarity with the countless real-world analogues.

I’ve found the Capitol/district relation very insightful and it got me to critically consider the state of the world. I estimate a decent probability that this book counterfactually made me an EA.

Evaluating the AI Safety cause area: a two-year plan

My pretending to have readers makes this blog a self-commitment scheme: if I write that I will do something, the imagined possibility of social shaming will make me more committed to actually doing the thing. That is why I’ll line out my plans for evaluating whether I believe the AI Safety cause area as perceived by EA’s is any good.

I used to think the arguments were pretty convincing, and I liked how it made my skills in math and CS super relevant for a morally important thing. But then I listened to Bostrom’s Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies and found the book’s arguments thoroughly lacking. There is an asymmetry of passion in the AI risk circles where the believers are hyping the cause area while the non-believers don’t interact with the ideas at all.

The following step plan is based on the assumption that the LW-aligned view of most EA’s is misguided, but that there is important work to be done to make sure that what we are currently calling AI is used properly. Every step in the plan is meant to defend part of my beliefs, and I trust myself to notice when my argumentation is shaky. If my view changes, I should feel free to change the plan to look into my new views instead.

After completing a step, I will write a blog post describing the outcome and related thoughts. I will try to complete at least one step every two months so that the plan is done before you re-enter the job market after the end of your PhD. I don’t have to do the steps in the listed order.

  1. Make a plan listing the steps to think through the AIS cause. Completed.
  2. Uneducated guessing: directly oppose the astronomical waste argument. See if you can collect the necessary entropy to argue that, even if astronomical waste would be astronomically bad, supporting the AI Safety cause is still bad in expectation. Read at least what Bostrom, Beckstead and FRI have written on the topic, maybe more.
  3. Reread Superintelligence. Try to list the major points in the arguments and list objections. Does it actually argue for a Yudkowsian view, or is everyone misinterpreting it and does it secretly argue for a more mainstream view?
  4. Read various online sources to get more of an idea of what the mainstream view is among AIS EA’s. See if you can list research agendas on AIS different from MIRI’s.
  5. Argue that MIRI is not an effective charity regardless of the status of AIS as a field. I am not sure I truly believe this, but they seem so deeply incongruent with the standard academic practice that I should spend some time thinking about them. I kind of expect that this post will feel like punching down.
  6. I think Paul Christiano is a smart and serious person. He co-authored one of the best papers in your field of the past decade so he is not a crank. Read some of his writing on AIS to see if it holds up to scrutiny.
  7. Argue that average utilitarianism is superior to total utilitarianism, and astronomical waste cannot exist.
  8. Argue in more familiar terms why a paperclip maximizer wouldn’t act as some people fear they would.
  9. Argue that the capitalist’s alignment problem, insofar as it is meaningful and solvable, will be solved by the market.
  10. The social democrat’s alignment problem is a meaningful concept.
  11. Educated guessing: redo the entropy gathering from earlier, but now while having more knowledge.
  12. Cast mainstream “AI” related research in TCS in terms of the social democrat’s alignment problem. See what is out there at conferences like STOC/FOCS, COLT and NIPS. Check O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction, Dwork et al’s line of work on algorithmic fairness, the work on learning non-discriminatory predictors, etc.

On gatekeepers, hormones and unethical research practices?

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!

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

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

Is TERF ideology taking over EA?

TERF stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism. TERFS are a hate group that views trans rights as a threat to women’s rights.

“Trans women are pervert men that prey on women in women’s bathrooms and trans men are confused lesbians. Medical transition is a patriarchal notion to keep gender roles intact and is antithetical to any body-positivity movement. Bleh bleh bleh.” – TERFs

So, suppose you are a transphobe and want an air of scientific legitimacy for your views. Enter the two-type taxonomy of Blanchard. It proposes trans women come in two separate varieties: effeminate homosexual men who think they would have an easier time by pretending to be a woman and straight men with the paraphilia of being sexually attracted to the idea of themselves having female bodies. The latter are called autogynephilic transsexuals.

Where does this divide come from? Julia Serano summarizes that, after noting that not all trans woman seemed to fit the picture that gatekeeping therapist had of trans women (outwardly feminine from early childhood, transition early in life, attracted to men),

Blanchard subdivided MtF transsexuals by sexual orientation into four groups—androphilic, gynephilic, bisexual, and asexual. He found that a majority of the gynephilic (87.5%, n = 16), asexual (75%, n = 12) and bisexual (65.7%, n = 35) groups reported having experienced cross-gender arousal in response to wearing women’s clothing on at least one occasion in their lives, while only 15% (n = 100) of the androphilic group responded similarly (Blanchard, 1985). He also found that the gynephilic, bisexual, and asexual groups, on average, reported less recalled childhood feminine gender expression and presented for sex reassignment later in life than the androphilic group (Blanchard, 1988). Based on these results, Blanchard argued that there are two fundamentally different types of MtF transsexuals—androphilic and nonandrophilic (where nonandrophilic includes the gynephilic, bisexual, and asexual groups).

Furthermore, statistically, it seems that trans women from the second group are more likely to have STEM jobs, pass less well and share some other traits. So I mean, sure, there might really be an axis of correlated traits, though the theory does not manage to pass some basic sanity checks.

  • Can we trust numbers consisting of self-reports to gatekeepers?
  • Axis of correlated traits, sure, but are these really two clusters?
  • How is this narrative possibly the best explanation of the observations?
  • Why do >99% of trans women say this does not describe their experience, instead describing the feeling of gender dysphoria?
  • How does this theory relate to the observations surrounding phantom limbs in transgender people?
  • Why are both groups of trans women at such risk for suicide, in contrast to other paraphilic populations?
  • What about trans men? Non-binary peoples?
  • Are cis women autogynephiles?
  • Sex and sexuality are disgusting and nobody would let those guide their actions. [Never mind, we will fix that later.]

For more about the theory and why it is unscientific bullshit, see Contrapoints for hilarious jokes, woke feminist theory and personal experience or Julia Serano for a more scientific treatment. Mind that the prevailing gender identity theory has its own problems, but probably the least of any theory that treats gender in essentialist terms.

But this post is not about the theory, but about the fact that people in my favourite community are taking it seriously. Among those are major EA feminist blog Thing of Things, aspiring Less Wrong Gender Czar and self-identified autogynephilic The Scintillating But Ultimately Untrue Thought and even the otherwise amazing Putanumonit. Putanumonit seems to forget his usual sceptic view of things presented as evidence, Scintillating claims without further exposition that Blanchard’s theory has more explanatory power and that introspection never gives scientifically valid information, and Thing of Things expresses disagreement with Blanchard’s theory but does treat it as a valid theory and gives it a podium.

Belief in Blanchard’s theory is leaking into the EA community, against the mainstream scientific view. I find this scary and I don’t know what to do about it. But at the very least, I think we should make it clear that Blanchard’s model is an unnecessarily stigmatizing fringe theory on shaky evidential ground. It is more like hate group ideology than good science.

Uncommon(?) reasons for veganism

Most people’s reasons for veganism fall into three categories: animal ethics, environmentalism and personal health. I will consider the basics known, and look at some more exciting ideas. They’re all minor reasons, but each of these has been my proclaimed reason for veganism at some point in time.

To annoy other people

There, I said it. I became vegan to annoy people. Some of my friends thought veganism was ridiculous, so this was the perfect reason to become vegan. 10/10 would recommend.

Not being able to argue why we eat animals but not people

Once I was eating vegan, I felt like I should only go back to eating animal product if I could convincingly argue why it is morally permissible to eat animals but not humans from the out-group. Moreover, the argument should not sound like it was made up after the fact. A reason that would convince somebody who had only 5 minutes earlier learned about the existence of the practice of eating animals.

[edit: I am aware of issues surrounding comparisons of human versus non-human slavery and oppression. Check back later for a post in which I attempt to responsibly summarize and review Aph and Syl Ko’s book Aphro-ism. Though if you are actually interested in this discourse, don’t take my white opinion on the book and read it yourself instead. The book is not very long and filled to the brim with perspectives you have never heard before.]

Moral gift economy

This is so much better than moral trade. You know that some people consider eating meat to be morally wrong, even if you don’t know anyone personally. As a gift to them, be vegan. Hopefully, this is a first step in establishing a moral gift economy, and people will at some point reciprocate by doing something you think is morally good but that they see no reason for.

Glowing brain meme. 'Doing good', 'Doing non-good in exchange for others doing good', 'Doing non-good hoping to establish a moral gift economy', 'the same but calling it "acausal moral trade"'

 

Clean meat is coming soon

Veganism is low-hanging fruit for moral superiority, but clean meat will make this choice obsolete. For <10 years of effort, you can forever identify as morally superior. Take this last chance to score easy Virtue Points!

Modelling future you

In 30 years everybody has stopped eating slaughtered meat, and the first adults have grown up without ever eating a dead animal. Will people then consider eating meat to be as ghastly as we now think of slavery? I think they might. But then, will I be one of those people? In that case, it is smart to start being vegan right now.  If you already know what you will think in the future, better start acting on it right now.

Choice under uncertainty

I am 98% sure that farm animals can’t suffer. But, supposing that they can, their lives would inevitably contain much more than 50 times as much suffering per pound of meat than how much enjoyment I get from eating meat per pound. In expectation, I consider eating animals to be a shitty thing to do.

Veganism as a computationally viable Schelling point

Is eating meat wrong even if the animals lived happy lives? Is it wrong to eat dairy and eggs? Even in small amounts? What about honey? What about animal byproducts?

You can put thought into each of these questions, and separately consider every bit of animal-derived food you might eat. But is that worth your precious thoughts, of which you have only 80 years of thinking to spend? I don’t think so. Veganism is easy to implement and communicate.